Remember that scene in “Animal House” in the college cafeteria when John Belushi gets a diabolical gleam in his eye? With a two-word utterance he incites a major riot: “Food fight!”
A two-word phrase is all it takes to set off gardeners, too. These normally docile individuals transform into quirky beasts with spades upon hearing this clarion call: “Free plants!”
What’s the source of free plants in this day and age when garden centers appear to be vying with luxury car dealers in affixing astronomical price tags to their goods?
Check out your own yard where wind-blown seeds may have landed, sprouted and taken root. Depending on outlook, a gardener may dub these arrivals as “volunteers” or “invading nuisances.”
Volunteers may be nurtured where they’ve appeared by happenstance or carefully transplanted to suit your needs or whims. Over the years on my rural Agoura growing grounds, the volunteers have included Mexican fan palm, self-seeded from a neighbor’s tree; rock rose, widely self-seeded from my original plantings; and toyon, a handsome native tree that showed up out of the blue amid my oleander hedge.
The toyon has creamy white flowers in summer and red berries in late fall, the latter a magnet for birds that then become feathered planters of the berries’ seeds.
There is one particular climbing rose—a humble old variety with long thorny canes and small ruffled dark burgundy flowers— that also has turned up in numerous rural Agoura yards. A particularly tenacious volunteer, it can be found growing through a crack in asphalt. Its origins are truly unknown, for not one of us ever had this mystery rose growing on our lots before.
Agave growers are familiar with the “pups” or offsets that appear at the base of the parent plant. But while working in my neighbor’s yard, I discovered her variegated and blue agaves were sending out long, ropy underground runners quite a considerable distance from the parent plant.
What a field day my gardening buddies and I had, digging out dozens of robust baby agaves without disturbing my neighbor’s primary plantings.
These far-flung freebies had proliferated due to their parents being water pirates, sucking up moisture from nearby irrigated shrubs.
All this rampant volunteerism came to mind when I witnessed the spectacle of a thunderstorm in my travels this summer in the desert. One night it poured for hours, and within days the rockscapes that are popular in desert gardens were brimming with—well, were those weeds or useful volunteers?
A local resident lent me a pair of gloves and a shovel.
“Whatever you determine them to be, know that just about everything out here—desirable or not—has sharp spines,” came the warning. I was liberally punctured during the task, but managed to bring home a wispy little mesquite tree—free, excluding Band-Aid cost.
Glasser is a freelance writer on the subject of the natural world. Email her at email@example.com.