When volunteer tomatoes pop up in your spring garden, you may be wondering if it’s worth the effort to keep these unintended seedlings that got planted by other means.
Volunteer tomatoes can be the transplant work of birds, chipmunks or the wind. They might also make their way into your garden from the compost pile.
This story is the journey of volunteer tomatoes in my own home garden.
Survival of the fittest
In my garden, it’s pretty typical to see a variety of edibles growing, such as tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, lettuce, cucumber, zucchini, beans, pumpkins and an assortment of herbs from either seed or seedlings. Last year, due to a construction project, I got a delayed start and began my vegetable garden with one tomato plant (it was a gift) last May. Before I found time to plant anything else, I noticed two seedlings. Because of their leaf shape, I knew these were volunteer tomatoes.
I knew it was possible for fledgling tomato plants to survive in the garden. But there’s no guarantee that these plants will be healthy and produce an abundance of tasty fruit.
Initially, I left the volunteer tomato plants to fend for themselves. I viewed these plants as a test in my garden. I wanted to see what would happen if I left them to their own devices. No fertilizer and no compost.
Also, I didn’t know what type of tomatoes these were initially. After all, they were growing in a raised bed garden where I had previously planted a variety of tomatoes, including Big Boy, Husky Cherry Red and Yellow Pear tomatoes by Bonnie Plants.
The little seedlings that could
Within a few weeks, more seedlings sprouted, including one in a strawberry bed that I relocated to the tomato bed. It became clear that these hardy volunteers were cherry tomatoes. Test case or not, I started to take the plants seriously. No signs of disease. Some of the plants started to show flowers and fruit.
I made the decision. These were keepers. I staked the volunteer tomatoes, pruned off lower branches for better air flow, plucked the suckers and provided these survivors a feeding of organic tomato fertilizer.
Heat of summer
Georgia summers can be brutal on a vegetable garden. It’s typically a time of little rain. So we must rely on soaker hoses, drip irrigation, hose timers and the hope of late afternoon thunderstorms. When it seemed like the volunteers in the garden were limping along, my garden produced yet another surprise. Late last August, I noticed three additional volunteer tomato plants tucked in an azalea bush (clearly the work of the birds here because it sits near a bird sanctuary in my outdoor space). It was a shady retreat in the afternoons to be sure. In one of the several pollinator gardens in my outdoor space, two more volunteer tomato plants sprouted.
It was hard to imagine these volunteers survived with zero help. Yet, there they were. Several vines teemed with fruit flowers and green tomatoes. Within a few weeks, I began picking several pints of cherry tomatoes a week.
These late bloomers produced the most fruit in the end. Especially the plants by the azalea bushes.
Due to a warmer-than-usual fall last year, the volunteer vines produced tomatoes almost to the end of the October. Ordinarily, I don’t let fruit go, but I couldn’t keep up with the harvest at the end. The birds and chipmunks got to dine on the tomatoes (see the nibble in one of the cherry tomatoes pictured above) that didn’t make it in brushettas, salads, sandwiches, school lunches or as gifts to share with coworkers, friends and neighbors.
It’s quite possible next year’s garden will produce more volunteer tomatoes.
The OTher side of volunteers
While my experience was generally positive with volunteer tomatoes last season, there can be a downside.
If volunteer tomatoes sprout too early in the season, cool temperatures and dew can cause early blight, putting your garden at risk of disease. Early blight shows up as brownish/blackish spots and yellowing leaves. These spots can also happen on tomato stems.
If you spot early tomato blight on your volunteer plants, it’s a good idea to pull those up to prevent them from wreaking havoc on other plants in your garden.
On the plant (pictured above) that sprouted behind tall stalks of flowers in one of my pollinator gardens, I didn’t see the volunteers early enough. These tomatoes sprouted late in the season and seemed to suffer from a lack of nutrients. I never plucked the suckers.
If you’re uncertain about your volunteers or don’t want to take a chance, start fresh each year. Tomatoes are one of those fresh garden staples and they’re just too yummy to pass up.
See more stories on tomatoes and other edibles:
- Get the Best Tomatoes and Peppers from Your Garden
- Top Tips for Growing the Best Tomatoes Ever
- How to Grow 6 Easy Edibles in Your Patio Garden
- 6 Steps to Growing an Organic Snacking Garden