By Kathy Widenhouse, award-winning writer and owner of Tomato Dirt, a leading online source of for growing tomatoes in the home garden.
See those sets of leaves peeping out from your compost bed – the ones that look like tomatoes? They’re volunteer tomato plants. And the compost pile isn’t the only place they pop up. Volunteer tomatoes turn up in the most surprising places.
I’ve found volunteer tomato plants in flower beds that more than 100 yards from our vegetable garden. Others push through the ground cover aligning our front walkway … press up among the bushes surrounding our back stoop … scatter themselves in different corners of the vegetable patch.
If you grow tomatoes, there’s a good chance at some point you’ll discover a rogue plant fighting its way to flower and produce for you.
Is that plant a bonus or a nuisance? The answer is yes – it can be both. Here’s the dirt.
A volunteer tomato is a seedling that is not purposely planted. It grows spontaneously from seed accidentally dropped onto the soil.
Volunteers are also called self-sown or self-seeded tomato plants, accidental tomato plants, and rogue tomato plants (my favorite).
These resourceful seedlings arise from seeds that have been…
Regardless of how it gets to its new location, the tomato seed finds a home somewhere that you didn’t plant it. It germinates. And now, you have a surprise tomato plant.
It’s tempting to think that tomato seedlings pop up from the Vegetable Garden Fairy and land on the shelves of your local nursery, waiting to be set into the ground. But like any other plant, tomatoes must start somewhere. It’s a surprise when they appear unexpectedly. And wouldn’t they? Like any other seed, a tomato seed is simply looking for a good place to start its new life. You can recognize these enterprising volunteers by their …
There’s no guarantee your volunteers will produce fruit. Production depends on several factors, including when the plants sprout and on their growing conditions. However, if a seed germinates in spring or early in the season – or if you have a long growing season – then the plant has a good chance of producing blossoms and tomatoes.
We live in Zone 7b. One early June, a volunteer tomato plant sprouted in the middle of one of our shrubbery beds. It persisted. We did nothing to encourage or discourage the plant, but rather waited to see what would happen. In September, we began harvesting delicious cherry tomatoes from this healthy rogue and continued to do so until frost took it from us.
Unpredictability: it’s one reason volunteer tomato plants are such a lovely surprise.
Here's the story of our massive volunteer tomato plant ...
As long as you know it’s a tomato. Naturally, you may not know the variety because you don’t know how the seed got there. Your volunteer could be a hybrid of two different types of tomato plants you grew last year. Or it could be from a wayward seed delivered by a bird from your neighbor’s patch. Or it could be one of your prized heirlooms, whose seed attached itself to the bottom of your shoe and traveled up to the mulched area next to your driveway.
But if it looks like a tomato and smells like a tomato, chances are it’s a tomato. That makes it as safe to eat as any of the fruit you harvest from seedlings you buy at your local nursery.
Determine whether your seedling needs to be moved. If the new plant is in fertile soil with plenty of room to spread out – and you don’t mind where it’s placed itself in your landscape – then you can leave it where it is.
But if the volunteer has arisen in a spot that inhibits its growth or makes it a danger to other nearby plants because it saps all the light, then move it to a different location – a sunny one. Tomatoes need eight hours of daylight to flower. Sunlight gives your tomato plants the energy to produce fruit, so if your plant doesn't have enough sunlight, you're less likely to see tomatoes fruiting.
Whether in the garden or out, make sure your tomato plant gets 1-3 inches of water a week.
If you are intrigued by the characteristics of your volunteer and want to preserve those traits, you can save seeds from these plants to try next year.
But keep in mind that there’s a good chance your rogue plant is a hybrid. Its size, color, and flavor may not remain true year to year. In fact, your volunteer seeds may produce a plant with fruit that offer even better, unique traits than this year’s rogue.
There are some good reasons not to keep surprise tomato seedlings, as in …
The volunteer tomato becomes a disease carrier. Those that sprout in early spring are typically more susceptible to early blight. If dark spots on the volunteer’s lower leaves begin to appear, then it’s a good idea to pull those and discard them, lest your unplanned tomato plants become a hotbed for fungi.
Another reason to pull out a volunteer tomato? When becomes a weed or a bully. Self-sown seedlings can crowd other plants. Lift them and move them to join your in-progress tomato patch. Or find a slot where they can thrive apart from squeezing out others. That goes for your compost pile, too. When a tomato plant begins to monopolize the black gold, it’s time to pull it or move it.
But otherwise, the case for growing volunteer tomato plants is easy. They’re free. They’re fun. They’re a mystery.
Spontaneous seedlings that appear in early summer make ideal replacements for expired spring crops or for tomato plants that have been hit by damping off or cutworms. When you’re able to leave them where they first appeared, volunteers can be an easy, low-maintenance source of tomatoes. Or if you’ve got a little extra space or a container that’s not being used, then you may want to consider saving those spirited seedlings and adopting them into your patio garden.
Volunteer tomato plants are surprises. But they’re surprises of the best kind.
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