Forget slow food, or local food, let's talk volunteer food.

I garden. Those who know me personally may have noticed that I have a tendency to fall behind when walking or occasionally drift off during conversations outside. When walking I get distracted by plants, wanting to know what they are. volunteer tomatoesWhen talking I get distracted by space, start fantasizing about how else it could be landscaped, or what little things could be done to improve the existing landscape features. You might think that these tendencies would mean that I’d have a nice pristine back yard with a productive vegetable garden. This impression couldn’t be further from the truth. My back yard is a disaster area. Everything is in flux and anything I’m not currently working on establishing has pretty much been left to its own devices. In Southern California this basically means lots of brown grass. I haven’t mowed the back area since May, but since we typically only get rain October through May this hasn’t resulted in the overgrown jungle that an ignored area can become in less arid climates. I have a couple of areas where I’m actively trying to get native and low-water plants established, which look a little better, but not much. Meanwhile my vegetable garden, which does get regular water, is a tangled patch of green. It is producing food, but not nearly as much as I might hope. In part this is due to neglect (it’s hot and I’m lazy). In part it’s because we had a hot spring and I did a bunch of traveling this summer and I just haven’t been able to catch up on fixing the problems that started early. And in part it’s because I didn’t realize that cutting back some of the branches on the neighboring tree in the spring wouldn’t prevent said tree from sending out more branches and leaves over the garden spot, causing many of my plants to end up in much deeper shade than I’d anticipated. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the garden I planted is a failure but it’s certainly a bit of a disappointment.

However, the garden I planted is not what I really want to talk about. What I want to talk about is the garden I didn’t plant, the things that came up on their own, what gardeners call “volunteers.” This year I succeeded in growing spaghetti squash and tomatoes without even really trying. They came up in non-ideal soil, received infrequent and irregular water and thrived. The bowl shown here is what I picked this morning, and there’s plenty more where those came from.

I have a bed along the east wall of the garage that is slated to be a rock garden showcasing California natives that essentially grow out of the sides of rocky hillsides. It is a long narrow bed that will eventually be filled with brick fragments reclaimed from the demolition of a badly placed and badly damaged fireplace previously in the back yard (trust me in Southern California the last place you want to build a fire is three feet from a wood fence and directly under the branches of a loquat tree). The demolition was one of last winter’s projects and between that, laying paths, and using the reclaimed whole bricks to build the bed that will eventually be the rock garden, I didn’t get very far in the project of sorting out the broken bricks and breaking some of the larger chunks down into smaller ones (breaking up bricks with a sledge hammer is good fun in the cool winter but not so much in the hot summer). So only a small corner of the bed by the garage has been filled with brick fragments and some fill dirt. Imagine my surprise this spring, then, when I noticed what appeared to be a squash plant growing out of that small pile of brick and dirt. I gave it some water in the early spring, while I was trying to keep ground cover along the newly laid pathway in front of that bed alive. But eventually it became clear that I was losing that battle and would need to wait until the winter rains to really establish path ground cover. But the squash survived. And thrived. Soon we were convinced that the squash was going to take over the entire yard. It didn’t, of course, but it did a lot of growing in all directions. Eventually we figured out that it was a spaghetti squash. And despite growing out of a pile of bricks and very infrequent watering (as in a good soaking every two or three weeks) we ended up with a number of tasty spaghetti squash. I’ve saved seeds and am excited to see what happens if I actually plant them in dirt and water them once a week or so.

The surprise squash, however, has not been my biggest triumph. My biggest triumph is the cherry tomato vine that came up under our kumquat tree. The kumquat tree is in a small square of dirt surrounded by a concrete patio. The soil is HARD and dry. This winter I put down a layer of cardboard to block weeds and then added some purchased compost and topsoil. I planted sweet peas but it got hot early and they didn’t do very well. volunteer tomato plant However, a tomato plant sprouted to take their place. As it started to get a bit bigger I added a couple of small stakes to try to keep it from vining its way across the patio. As with so much else in the garden this year, though, I eventually just gave up out of sheer laziness and let it do it’s own thing. The pictures show what it looked like this morning when I went out to pick some tomatoes. It’s definitely not glamorous or well-kept, but it is thriving and covered in fruit. I came in with a big bowl full of cherry tomatoes but there are still plenty more out there since I quit when I started getting bored and warm. I’ve been lax enough about picking that I’m pretty sure enough fruit has dropped to assure that it’ll come up again next year.

kumquat-tomato-2.jpg

I’ve been reading a lot lately about converting to an edible landscape. These projects sound intimidating, involving building raised beds, providing sufficient water, planning things out. I love the gardening process but I recognize that it is work and the perfect manicured garden isn’t possible if you’re prone to fits of utter laziness (as I am). But slowly I am coming to realize that even in as hostile an environment as inland Southern California is in the summer–remember there’s typically no rain for about six months and the summer is typically hot, dry, and sunny–food can thrive with very modest inputs of effort and water. I’ve watered these tomatoes no more than once every two weeks, generally much less. They’re growing in a patch about 9 square feet big with about three inches of decent soil covering seriously hard dry clay soil. Imagine how much work and water you’d have to put into growing grass in those conditions. Now imagine a world where instead of spending so much time, fertilizer and water on lawns people just let tomatoes and squash grow. I’m sure in areas with lots of rain you’d have to put a little bit of effort in in the spring to make sure plants were contained but I’m not entirely convinced that you couldn’t have a fruitful (if somewhat messy in appearance) garden with very little effort. I am inspired by this year’s accidents to convert more of the back yard area to food growth. Yes I’ll have to think a little bit about how to get water to all the relevant places but maybe not that much water, really. Of course I’ll also have to get into the habit of getting up and dressed early enough to pick the bounty before it gets hot.

One thought on “Forget slow food, or local food, let's talk volunteer food.”

  1. Man, it is good to know I am not the only one whose garden is messy right now! It is sometime around the middle of August when I slow down and the weeds speed up! Just part of the cycle (I tell myself 🙂 )

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