Sunday, October 24, 2010

sept 18 2010 - volontiers

We employ a variety of definitions of volunteer in the garden—often simultaneously.

One definition is horticultural: a volunteer plant is one that establishes itself in an area independent of human agency. Urban foresters, for example, may characterize trees such as alder, sumac, or ailanthus as volunteers that colonize vacant lots in advance of larger trees like oaks and maples. On a smaller scale, volunteer fruits and flowers pop up in unattended parts of yards or gardens. Seeded by wind and birds and sprouting in beneficial neglect, they grow until they attract the attention of a gardener, who will then decide their fate: to pull them up, to leave them alone, or to encourage them.

Whether a volunteer plant is an invasive (like many mustards), a weed like bindweed or pigweed, or a fortuitous crop is often a matter of opinion. For example, purslane is a weed to many, but a prized wild food to others. The pleasure that some take in morning glory is countered by the anxiety of other gardeners, who see it as a pest.

Our garden hosts a variety of volunteer plants. Some are harmful, such as the bindweed that can choke our bean plants in the early summer. Some volunteers, like purslane, are innocuous, but still unwelcome, plants that compete with vegetables for nutrients in our raised beds. Plants such as ornamental amaranth can be unlucky volunteers, migrating to the raised beds via seeds from our compost bin: in the right place, they would be allowed to thrive; in a tomato bed, however, they are destined for a return to the bin.

Other volunteers are encouraged, especially in certain parts of the garden.

Ground cherry and Walking Onion

The flowerbeds immediately inside the entrance to the garden, as well as around the base of our flowering cherry tree at the garden’s center, can be horticultural grab bags. From year to year, we are not certain what will appear, in addition to (or in spite of) what we plant with intent. Among our carefully nurtured seedlings of Nigella and Cosmos and sprigs of sedum, we will discover new arrivals of Wandering Buttercup or strange stalks of Walking Onion. This year, the flower beds produced growths of what we think is ground cherry, a relative of tomatillo, as well as a profusion of white, aster-like flowers.

Our most welcome volunteer plants, though, are the cherry tomato plants that spring up along the edges of the garden. These plants are hardy, starting in piles of soil from fallen fruit; working their way through holes in the weed barrier. Sometimes, these rogue plants bear fruit before their bedded companions; in at least one season, tomatoes from volunteers were the last that we harvested. These plants can cheer us when we encounter setbacks like crop failure: at least we grew something, even if all we did was stay out the way.

Another use of volunteer—for me, at least—is personal and tangential, because it is from another language, and not quite cognate: more of a bilingual pun. The French word volontiers, which shares Latin origins with the English volunteer, means “willingly or gladly”. It is used in French much in the way that people currently use “absolutely” in English (at least in Chicago): as an enthusiastically positive response to a request.

An appreciation of such enthusiasm leads to our third, and most common, definition of volunteer: a person who willingly contributes labor to an enterprise without expectation of material compensation. Like surprising blooms, people arrive at the garden each Saturday to help: willing to work for hours in all kinds of weather, tending a garden that is on public property instead of part of their private homes; planting and harvesting produce that they themselves will not consume. Some volunteers only work for a few weekends before moving on; others become perennial. For over sixteen years, there have always been a few people in the garden on Saturdays and Thursdays between Easter and Thanksgiving.

Saturday, September 18, 2010 was no exception. On this day, two groups of volunteers came to help: a group from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago joined our regular helpers from DePaul. The rain was steady that morning, and our paltry collection of ponchos did not provide sufficient protection; however, it was a warm day, and the volunteers did not seem to mind getting wet.

The peppers and tomatoes seemed to glow under the gray skies, and the rain meant that we did not need to worry about washing the collard leaves.

After we finished the harvest, I asked the volunteers to gather and pose for our regular parody of American Gothic—to which they complied volontiers.