Tips for Using Volunteer Plants in the Garden


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Every year I look forward to volunteer plants in my garden. They give me a jump start on the growing season because they often pop up weeks before I’m ready to plant, and I like that volunteers are a free and relatively effortless source of plants for me. It’s always a mystery what types of plants I will find each year, but I’m always on the lookout for volunteers as I prepare my garden in the spring. Here are my tips, tricks, and experience for using volunteer plants in my garden.

Tips for using volunteer plants in the garden

Tips for Using Volunteer Plants in the Garden

1. Learn to identify seedlings –

My garden starts to turn into a weedy mess pretty early in spring, but I love strolling around looking at all of the plants that are growing. Most of them are weeds and need to go, but some of them are treasures I’m excited to find. Every year it’s something new in my garden – I’ve experienced volunteer tomatoes, sunflowers, lettuce, and this year I’m learning about volunteer radishes too! I love starting most of my plants myself from seeds because it helps me learn what to look out for in my garden. When I’m not sure about something, I post photos on Instagram and facebook and sometimes I turn to the Vegetable Plant Seedling Identification Guide.

Tips for using Volunteer Plants in the garden - transplant to new area

2. Transplant them to a better area –

Since crop rotation is a pretty important part of proper organic garden maintenance, chances are you won’t want to keep many of the volunteers where you find them. I’ve found transplanting them to be pretty easy as long as I dig a huge chunk of dirt out with the plants. I try to keep the root ball intact and covered by the dirt. After I move it to a new area, I give my transplanted seedlings a big drink of water to help get them off to a good start. You’ll also want to consider which plants grow well together and which do not as some plants just should not grow near each other. I love Mother Earth New’s Companion Planting Guide which shows which plants grow well together as were as which plants need to be kept separate (like sunflowers and potatoes).

3. Miscellaneous Tips & Tricks –

Sunflowers – I almost always find volunteer sunflowers in my garden, but they don’t grow well with with some plants – particularly potatoes. If I have sunflowers coming up in my potato patch, they have to go. I transplant some of them, but many of them are just weeded away.

Tomatoes – Like sunflowers, I almost always find volunteer tomatoes. Some people think volunteer tomatoes don’t do as well as new seedlings, but I have had good luck adding volunteer tomatoes to my garden. I almost always move them and I’m never sure what type of tomatoes they will grow into, but it’s fun to see what mystery tomatoes will develop from volunteers.

Lettuce – Last year I had a great crop of volunteer lettuce. It was my first stand of lettuce as it started growing in my garden long before I could work the dirt to plant new seeds. I was really excited last year to find all of the volunteer lettuce.

Squash – I haven’t grown volunteer squash in my garden, myself, but my parents had an interesting experience last year with a volunteer squash plant they called squashini – They thought it was similar to a cross between a zucchini and a yellow squash, looked like a yellow squash but was green like a zucchini. The point here is you never really know what you’re going to get when you deal with volunteer plants. If the unknown bothers you, you may just want to weed the volunteer squash on out of your garden, as the likelihood that it is different than the original plant is high! 😀

Radish – This year, I’ve found a lot of volunteer radish. I’m not a huge radish fan, but I used them all over my garden for companion planting last year – especially in my cucumber area as I read that they help repel cucumber beetles. I’m excited this year to find all of the volunteers! I moved some, some I left, some I plan to harvest for greens. Which brings me to my last point…

Tips for Using Volunteer Plants in the Garden - learn new ways to eat the plants

4. Learn what plants can be eaten in different ways than you might normally consider.

Did you know for instance, that you can eat sunflower shoots? No? I never knew until my mom picked some up in her winter bounty garden bag recently. We ate some on a salad and I thought they tasted sunflowery – sort of like a sunflower seed. It turns out, sunflower greens are very beneficial micro greens – chalk full of nutrients!

Radish greens are also edible! You can add them to about anything – stir fry, pesto, as a salad green. I haven’t eaten them before but plan to try this year with all of the volunteers I’ve got growing in my garden right now!

Tips for Using Volunteer Plants in the Garden  - queen anne's lace or carrots

5. Learn from the mystery –

This year I found what like volunteer carrots in my garden. I was excited to find them as I was actually out there to plant more carrots. I’m actually not 100% sure if they are carrots. They look and smell like carrots – but they could also be Queen Anne’s Lace. I move a few to my carrot area and weeded a few more in another area. I will keep an eye on these volunteers and decide if they are truly carrots or weeds. I planted seeds last year when it was quite hot that never germinated, so it could be them? Time will tell. In the meantime, I will enjoy figuring out the mystery and learning from it!

Want to read more? Here’s a great article at Mother Earth News and another one on volunteer tomatoes at

 What do you do with the volunteer plants in your garden? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

About Michelle Marine

Michelle Marine is the author of How to Raise Chickens for Meat, a long-time green-living enthusiast, and rural Iowa mom of four. She empowers families to grow and eat seasonal, local foods; to reduce their ecological footprint; and to come together through impactful travel.

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  1. Thanks, I love my volunteers! I don’t have as many this year though… I do not care for radish either but came into some seeds so I was thankful to read this, so I can plant them and get some use out of them anyway.
    Happy gardening!

  2. I usually just till all of my volunteers out. This inspires me to actually try using them this year. I guess I always figured they wouldn’t do as well as a new seedling so I never bothered with them. And one year I had so many volunteer radishes for some reason they acted almost like a cover crop.

  3. I don’t have a garden right now but these are some great ideas. I always think of my mom who ends up having a zillion tomato plants every year because she can’t bear to tear one of those volunteers out!