There are two general lines of thought about how a garden should be kept. One way has everything planted in rows, neatly spaced so that no plant imposes itself on another, everything orderly and under control. This is the way most of us go about gardening.
Then there’s the way nature does it. I don’t want to suggest that the plants in the controlled gardens are unhappy, or that the gardeners are wrong, but I do want to say that when plants have free rein they are apparently ecstatic.
Self-seeded plants, as you may know, are called volunteers. A gardener friend says the volunteers aren’t volunteers at all but are being held in involuntary servitude. I believe he’s mistaken although this season there is a squash plant creeping away from the garden toward the neighbor’s property. My friend may have a point.
One volunteer squash came up in a dirt pile and is now diligently working its way along the nearby sidewalk. A volunteer cherry tomato emerged from under the straw in the potatoes and is now nearly three feet high and bearing fruit. A couple of marigolds spontaneously poked out through the rocks at the edge of the garden.
A volunteer squash made its way to the pea trellis and has climbed over, down the other side, over the Russian kale and is now crossing the path between the beds. I think its determined to climb the picket fence around the carrots before its day is done. Along the way it left a baby that dangled about a foot off the ground on the trellis. I gave it support with an inverted flower pot.
Last year’s brandywine tomatoes have left a legacy all over the garden, and there are eruptions of various lettuce plants here and there throughout the beds.
There is a bit of cooperation involved on my part with some of these volunteers because I often let plants go to seed, partly out of feeling that it’s only fair to let them complete their life cycle and partly because I may collect the seeds. A lot of seeds don’t get collected, either going into the compost or dropping right into the soil where they are. A whole season of volunteers from a single plant.
The apparent chaos of my garden comes from nature herself, but as is often the case with our limited human understanding, the order of nature is complex and not easily perceived. When plants grow in violation of our prescribed plan–tomatoes from the potato patch, marigolds in the rocks, squash on the pea trellis–we may be inclined to lop them off or pluck them out.
If we recognize our true duty as stewards of the earth, to assist in the serious and joyous business of growing a garden, then we’ll reject our urge to control everything and learn to graciously accept these generous gifts from mother nature.