When I was much younger, though not raised on a farm, I was raised by a momma who was. And that is the next best thing I suppose. It was from her that I learned to speak “country’ with the ease of a local using words and phrases like “on the halves,” “mess of beans,” and “good soakin’ rain.” While other kids were watching Saturday Morning Cartoons, I was up around daybreak and headed out to a local farmer’s field she had discovered that week to pick green beans, or whatever was in season “on the halves”…now for you city-folk that means that you pick the beans for the farmer for free, in return you get to keep half of what you pick. It is kind of a rural barter system that has worked for generations. Then throughout the week, while other kids got to just watch their TV shows in the evening, my mom believed that our TV was somehow mystically powered by the sound of snapping beans, shelling peas, shucking corn or whatever else was in season at the time. She would give us a bucket full of the crop d’jour and we could keep watching TV as long as we were working on those crops. If we stopped, the TV was turned off…and we had to finish working our vegetables anyway. I am sure that I complained about it, you’ll have to ask momma. But I also know that I did it and looking back on it, it was not a bad existence. The real pay off came not only from a good work ethic, but from the tastes and smells of our country kitchen right in the middle of a Dallas suburb.
In addition to pickin on the halves at area farms momma also always raised a small garden of her own. It was from there that I learned the joy of “volunteer” crops. Volunteer crops are plants that come up on their own. You didn’t plant them, didn’t plan on them, they were just God’s little extras.
As a general rule the science behind this phenomenon is this, you raise a crop in year one, say corn for example. At some point during the year one of the kernels fall off of the cob either through the action of animals or harvest and lays there on the ground all winter. In year two, as spring comes and you work the ground you accidentally cover up the seed with soil. That’s all it takes. Soon as the soil warms in the spring, the seed germinates and VIOLA! You now have a plant that you were not counting on…a volunteer plant. Mostly these volunteer plants came up roughly in the area where they were planted the previous year. But sometimes crops would come up in unexpected places or even from plants that you had never planted. Those were the mysteries, the ones that made you scratch your head and say, “Now where on earth did THAT come from?”
I didn’t understand it then, but momma was always so excited by these extra blessings. I saw them as a nuisance. It was the corn stalk that I had to work around when trying to cultivate the beans. And may the Lord have mercy on you if you uprooted one of momma’s volunteer plants cause it was “in the way.”
Flash forward 25+ years. Now I am the one with the garden out back, pickin on the halves, and teachin my kids the value of shuckin corn. And this year, I built a retaining wall to hold a new flower bed in the front of our house. I planted perennials, annuals, and some ground cover so that it could grow and develop into a great flower bed and add some color to the front of our house and our otherwise unremarkable landscape. The one thing I did not plant was a tomato.
Imagine my surprise, then, when in early June, a small plant began to emerge right next to one of my purple pansies. I was about to uproot it along with the other weeds when it occurred to me, “That looks like a tomato plant.” I honestly have no idea where it came from; apparently it was in the leavings as a bird flew overhead and left a deposit. I was about to uproot it, but then the guilt and shame and my momma’s voice rang in my head and I didn’t dare.
I thought, “Okay, we’ll see what this does. Who knows, we may get four or five tomatoes off of it. It will be a great conversation piece and I can teach my kids about volunteer crops.”
6 weeks later and a few applications of Monty’s as I was spraying my flowers and it now OWNS my flower bed! What I expected to be a small plant about two feet tall and spindly has far surpassed any of the cultivated and staked tomatoes out in my garden. This plant is at least 10 feet long, about 6 feet across, and 2.5 to three feet tall. It has grown from its place in the center of the flower bed to where it is over-spilling my retaining wall on three sides and hanging over my porch on the fourth. It, quite simply is massive, and full of fruit. (mostly cherry tomatoes).
I knew that Tennessee, my current home, is nicknamed the Volunteer State. I thought it had something to do with the historical nature of the residents to volunteer for battle when the country needed it. Now I am beginning to suspect it may be due to their vegetables.
Whatever the reason, the biggest, healthiest, and most productive tomato plant I have this season is a little plant that somehow mysteriously ended up in my flower bed. It is just a little something extra for a gardener who is just trying to learn and to put into practice all of those lessons I was taught following behind my mom with a bushel basket as we picked beans on the halves.
The lesson here for the rest of you. Listen to my mom. If it “comes up volunteer, leave it alone;” nature may be waiting to surprise you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going in to add a fresh sliced tomato to my sandwich and enjoy my lunch with a little extra blessing on the side.