5 Tips For Dealing With Volunteer Plants

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5 Tips For Volunteer Plants

I didn’t pull my volunteer plants this year. Don’t be shocked. I admit I have a problem. Yes, I have a problem pulling any live plant. I know in my head it needs to be done for the overall health of the garden and especially when thinning a crop. I blame my grandfather. He had trouble pulling up live plants too. His reasons were related to what the plant might produce. He lived by the “get it while you can because you don’t know when a crop will fail” experience. To help me with this “problem”, my husband and I came up with 5 guidelines for determining if a plant should be pulled or allowed to live.

When a plant comes up where it wasn’t sown, it’s called a volunteer. There are so many ways it could get there, but the most obvious one is when over-ripe fruit drops it. In my garden, mice have been known to “move” seeds from fruit (Yikes!) Then of course there’s birds, rabbits…I’m sure you know where this goes. 

Last year, we started 25 okra plants from seed and transplanted them to the garden. In the area around them, peas, sweet potatoes, and zinnias were planted. Before I knew it, there were okra volunteers coming up everywhere! The only ones that got yanked were the ones in the sweet potatoes. When all was said and done, we had over 60 okra plants. These volunteers provided most of our harvest. We’re still eating dehydrated okra from them. 

Okra Volunteer Plants

To my merriment, I had several Ali Baba Watermelon volunteers this year. They had the opportunity to hide in some tall grass last year and missed being harvested. The sneaky devils spewed their seeds everywhere when the bush hog ran them over! Because we had serious illness in the family, we lost the battle with grass and weeds last year. (Read more about that here)

1) Strict Rotation of Crops

Strict crop rotation is used here on Fairhaven Farm. This is just one component in the maintenance and improvement of our soil’s health. Our garden is 100′ x 50′ and several raised beds and containers. For me, managing all of it requires keeping a garden journal. I have been impressed with the records I’ve been able to keep this year because of The Gardening Notebook from SchneiderPeeps. I recommend this notebook to all of my gardening friends and family.

The Gardening Notebook - The ultimate gardening tool

Keeping accurate records allows me to look at the previous two years’ garden layout without relying on my memory. Having these layouts allows me to see the movements of the crops across the garden. If the volunteer plant has not been in this area for more than two seasons, I leave it. The two year period is to allows for the risks of nutrient drainage or disease contamination to be minimal. Unless there is some extreme circumstance, there are usually only a few volunteers.

2) Overall health of the crop

If there were any health issue with the previous year’s crop, I yank the volunteer plants. Fungus spores, insect eggs and blights can all hide in the soil. The seeds of these volunteer plants have been exposed to any diseases in the soil. This makes them likely to develop them and susceptible to the insects that feed on it.

It’s vital to your present and future garden health to remove any diseased plant. Our farm is an organic, non-gmo  farm. This means we don’t use any chemicals. About half of our garden is covered in 3″- 6″ of deep mulch, hopefully we’ll have the whole thing done by next year. You know how the best laid plans go!

I’ve found that deep mulching helps to discourage disease. Isolating and eradicating any disease has proven to be more efficient and easier. We leave any healthy plants in the garden for the chickens to “till” under. We rotate them through the garden plot over winter. This creates compost, fertilizes, and aerates the garden soil. We don’t intentionally leave seeded fruit in the garden, but hey, accidents happen!

Volunteer Plants Upper Ground Sweet Potato 

3) Did we like the crop

We aren’t picky eaters, but every so often we run into something we don’t care for. At least one rare or unusual fruit or veggie is added to the garden every year. Sometimes it’s just an unusual variety of a garden favorite like tomatoes. This is a fun way to try new things and to help preserve plants that need a little help. If a plant’s going to grow in our garden, we have to able to justify its taking up the space. So these same decisions have to made about these plants.

4) Is there room

Some plants take up more space and require more of the soil than others. This has to be part of the decision making process. If a volunteer plant interferes with the growth of the crop I sowed or if it won’t have enough room itself, I pull it.

Most of the Ali Baba watermelon volunteers came up around the bell peppers. Since the two won’t interfere with one another in space or nutrition, I let them live. Hey, I hate to pull up a watermelon, don’t you?

5) Compatibility

Do you practice companion planting? My grandparents taught me to garden as their parents taught them, so I know they showed me companion planting. They planted corn, when the corn was knee high, they planted beans around the corn. They planted pumpkins in the middle of the rows once the beans were up high enough. These are known as “The Three Sisters.”

I’m sure they didn’t know peas and beans fix nitrogen in the soil and that corn is a heavy nitrogen feeder. They did know things grew better this way. For some reason, this is the only companion lesson I remember from them. So I’m learning from scratch.

If volunteer plants aren’t compatible with the crop it comes up in, I have to pull it. I learned this lesson the hard way when I left a volunteer next to an incompatible neighbor. Needless to say neither of them were productive. If you can’t be neighborly, you get evicted!

Tomato Volunteer Plants

Special Tomato from Volunteer Plants

 Decision Time

I chose to leave my volunteer plants where they were this year. They passed all the guidelines we’ve set. They don’t interfere with crop rotation. The crop was healthy last year. They’re delicious, they have room, and they aren’t incompatible with the neighbors.

I have two tomato volunteer plants, oddly enough in two of my containers. One’s in the lettuce and the other is in a container with a baby cedar tree. My husband rescued a cedar sapling from the bush hog and he put it in a container until it gets big enough to transplant.

He was checking on his little cedar and called to me, “Hey, this looks like a tomato plant.” Sure enough. it was. We’ve no idea how it got there! Maybe I dropped the seed in the soil when I was starting the seeds? A bird could’ve deposited the seed in there, who knows? But we’ve sure enjoyed those tomatoes!  

Do you pull your volunteer plants or do you leave them? What determines how you deal with them? I certainly hope I’ve helped you make a plan and be able to determine what to do with your volunteer plants. 

I wanted to share these two links with you on companion planting.



If you would like to read further, my dear friend Janet over at Timber Creek Farm has a fun filled article on volunteer plants and edible weeds. You can read it here.

If you like this article, please feel free to share it with your family and friends. Leave your own tips, questions, or comments below. You can always Contact Me personally. I’m here to help.

Safe and Happy Journey,

Rhonda and The Pack

The Farmer's Lamp Pack


  1. lINDA on August 20, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    Rhonda – THANK YOU for your articles / newsletters, links, etc. We have marveled at our pumpkin volunteer plants here in our garden, and we haven’t planted pumpkins in years. Yep. An abundance of rain evidently caused long-dormant seeds to germinate. A nice surprise and our grandsons are already displaying fall décor on their front porch because of it. Lovely! I call them ‘gifts from the garden gods’ and usually leave volunteers. We also have two Roma tomato volunteer plants and they’re going gangbusters. Keep up the good work, kid. Thanks again! Linda L., Oklahoma

    • Rhonda on August 21, 2015 at 12:04 pm

      Linda, You’ve know idea how much I appreciate your encouragement. You made my heart smile, thank you. You really had some volunteers! I’m glad they produced well for you. Pumpkins are one of my favorites to grow. I like to scratch names or messages in them while they are still green. They heal over and form scars in the shape of whatever you’ve scratched in them. I used to love to send the kids out into the patch to find the one with their name on it before we harvested. Fun!

  2. Jenny on January 6, 2018 at 5:25 am

    One year I wasn’t able to start my seeds ahead and when volunteer tomatoes started coming up, I moved them into the block I had planned for tomatoes. A couple of those turned out to be yellow cherry tomatoes that are delicious (I saved seed) and red grape tomatoes. I still save their seeds and plant them every year. That was such a blessing that year so I didn’t have to buy plants. Another year a volunteer came up from the compost one year, that at first I thought was watermelon. I left it where it was to climb on the fence and it turned out to be cantaloupe from grocery store! I may try inter planting some things this year. Melons, sweet potato or pumpkin (I’ve never grown pumpkin before) in with the okra to help mulch the soil and save space. The only watermelons I’ve grown successfully were volunteers from store bought melons previous summer and seeds from compost sprouted volunteer.

    • Amber on January 6, 2018 at 6:28 am

      Aren’t composting piles amazing? The best two gardens I’ve had in recent years were both from my compost pile. Makes me wonder if I should just toss seeds out and let them do their thing? lol

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