Get Growing: Volunteer plants in the garden and elsewhere

  • A single volunteer tomato plant was spotted on the East River in New York City by kayaker Matthew Frey. COURTESY OF MATTHEW FREY

For the Gazette
Published: 9/20/2019 1:20:10 PM
Modified: 9/20/2019 1:19:56 PM

All sorts of people have Twitter accounts. And not just people. I know people whose pets like to tweet about their day-to-day lives. But how about a tomato plant? That’s a new one for me.

I read in the New York Times last week that a kayaker named Matthew Frey had spotted a tomato plant growing on top of a pier sticking out of the East River near the Brooklyn Bridge. It had one round, red tomato on a spindly stalk. Apparently, the story went viral. Is this perhaps because so many people who live in New York have never actually seen a tomato plant?

Using the handle “I, East River Tomato,” the tomato plant sent out a tweet.

Several days later, Frey saw a second tomato plant on a pier a bit farther from shore. This one bore clusters of small yellow and green cherry tomatoes. “Like the one I get at the food co-op,” he told the Times, adding “this is our garden, I guess.”

This intriguing bit of New York City lore prompted me to research the subject of volunteer tomatoes. It turns out that they’re everywhere. There are three ways for a plant to become a volunteer. One is by reseeding itself. Another is by getting tossed into a compost pile that later gets spread around a garden with the seed intact and ready to sprout. The third is by having its fruit eaten by a bird or other animal that passes the plant’s seeds in its excrement. Tomatoes, unlike many other volunteer plants, are spread prolifically by all three methods.

The East River tomato plants were no doubt propagated by the third method. Plenty of birds feed on tomatoes in and around New York. But what are the chances that they will poop out a seed that lands on a wooden pier with a hole just in the right place for a seed to grow? It’s one of Mother Nature’s delightfully serendipitous events.

My mother was a big fan of volunteers in the garden. When a beloved old apple tree died, a frail shoot appeared growing out of the stump. It looked so puny and hopeless for a few years, but in time it grew into a happy successor of the original tree. My mother proudly proclaimed it her “volunteer apple tree.”

Not surprisingly, the internet is abuzz with gardeners discussing the pros and cons of volunteer tomatoes and other plants. If the tomato plant sprouts in an area where tomatoes were planted the previous year, you might be able to guess what kind of tomato it is. Do you want more of those same tomatoes growing in that same spot this year? If it’s in an area where other vegetables are growing, it will be likely to crowd out other plants that you want to flourish. In that case, you should remove it.

Some gardeners don’t have the fortitude to tear out a volunteer seedling from a place it’s not wanted. I confess to being the type of gardener who will let volunteer plants dictate what happens in my garden — partly because I love the idea of free plants. But I also have the feeling that the plant was simply meant to be. If I am lucky enough to find a new delphinium or foxglove sprouting in my spring garden, I make sure there is space for it, even if I had had something else in mind to plant there.

My tolerance for volunteers has its downside. I tend to let my perennial beds grow in a Darwinian fashion. May the best plant win. Then suddenly I realize that some handsome thug such as gooseneck loosestrife or Japanese anemone has taken over a corner of the garden and needs to be stopped in its tracks. At that point, the over-zealous volunteers end in the compost pile, or, perhaps, if I have the energy, in a friend or neighbor’s garden, with the warning that they must be kept in check.

But back to New York City and the East River tomatoes. I love how the city manages to keep green things growing even when tall building cranes dominate the skyline. The High Line and other major public parks provide a welcome escape from all that concrete and asphalt. Those brave little tomato plants making a go of it in such unpromising conditions provide something more enduring, despite their transience. “I, East River Tomato” said it perfectly: “There is only one of me. I am ripe. I will be gone soon; eaten, perhaps, by an errant seagull, or an enterprising squirrel. I may decay on the vine. It’s okay. I am pleased to inspire the city dwellers who are so fearful and angry now. They need tiny bursts of hope and happiness.”

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.

Invasive plant ecology at Hitchcock Center

Martha Hoopes, a plant-ecologist from Mount Holyoke College will present an in-depth look at invasive plants and explain more of the why and the where behind the success of these plants on Oct. 6, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Hitchcock Center. Cost: $30. If you’re interested in participating in the three final sessions Nature-All-Year program, you may buy a prorated season pass. Go to for more information and to register.

Harvest Festival at Berkshire Botanical Garden

Berkshire Botanical Garden’s 85th annual Harvest Festival is set for Oct. 12 and 13. There will be activities including musical entertainment, children’s games, and pony and hayrides. The festival will host over 100 local vendors selling crafts, autumn fruits and vegetables and other food items. The festival will also have a tag sale and an “opportunity” clothing and accessory sale. Admission price is $7 for adults. Children under 12 are free.

BBG is accepting donations for these sales on or before Oct. 4. There are drop-off bins located behind the Education Center. Smaller items may be left at the office during business hours. These donations are tax-deductible. All proceeds go to benefit BBG’s education and horticulture programs.

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