Self-seeding Vegetables – Garden Volunteers

Self-seeding vegetables are probably more common than you knew. We’re usually pretty good about cleaning up the garden at the end of the season so we don’t give self-seeding veggies a chance to replace themselves. Most gardeners who grow tomatoes have missed one or two during fall clean-up. When that happens, you find a clump of seedlings commonly called “volunteers” in the garden the following year.

If volunteer seedlings are offspring from hybrid plants, you won’t get the variety of the parent plant. If you grow a single heirloom variety, also known as open-pollinated varieties, your volunteer seedlings will be the same as the parent plant. If you grow more than one variety you’ll probably get hybrid seedlings.
self-seeding, tomato, tomatillo

Tomatillos are self-seeding and so good at it they can become weeds. One missed tomatillo can lead to dozens of seedlings. I planted them in the high tunnel in 2010 and haven’t had to since. I let one volunteer grow to give meenough tomatillos to make salsa verde, and pull the rest.

self-seeding, tomato, volunteer tomatoes

Garden Tip: Self-seeded tomatoes will tell you when to plant the rest of your tomato seedlings. If the soil is warm enough for volunteers it's warm enough for the seedlings you grew or bought.Click To Tweet

This spring I have beautiful seedlings in the grass in front of a high tunnel thanks to a self-seeding lettuce in the tunnel. A thunder storm moved through with wind strong enough to blow seeds out the door.  Lettuce is great for school gardens because you can start a cold-tolerant variety in early spring, eat the lettuce before the school year ends, and leave it to self-seed over the summer. Kids can enjoy lettuce again in the fall, and I’m sure there’s a science fair project in there.

Onions, leeks and scallions (alliums) are easy to let reseed. They are self-seeding biennials that will overwinter, break dormancy in the spring and put their energy into flower to produc seeds. The flowers are beautiful in shades of white, pink and purple. They require little care other than weeding and watering. Mature seeds are located in the flowers. They seeds will scatter when the breeze blows. I let my onions grow where they fall and thin as needed. They do well in the spot they’re already growing so I leave them there year after year, amending the soil with compost before the seeds drop.

Self-Seeding Root Crops

self-seeding, beetsBeets are another biennial that will self-seed if the beet root survives the winter. I let one or two overwinter in a high tunnel. The plants get big and fall over so they’re in the way. But for a short time, I don’t mind stepping around them.  They’re hardy and germinate while the ground is still cold. This spot in the high tunnel hadn’t been watered for weeks. I planted the oregano, Spicy Globe Bush Basil and sage, watered them well, and a few seeds germinated. They’re crowding the plants I put there but they aren’t hurting anything. I’ll pull the beets to eat soon.

Radishes are one of the simplest vegetables to self-seed. The radish root will probably split as the seed stalk begins to grow. Don’t pull the radish, it will be fine. The flowers are small and pretty. They stand out in the garden and attract pollinators. Each pod on the stalk has seeds.  After the pod dries you can crack it open and shake the seeds onto the ground.  I haven’t found that any of the varieties of radishes I grow need cold stratification.

Carrots are biennials I let self-seed, but it’s a longer process than the other plants I use. The plant resumes growth, sends up the seed stalk, flowers and is pollinated, and the seeds are collected from the flower. I tend to forget about them, my enthusiasm for seed collecting waning later in the season. I’m seldom disappointed when a hybrid reverts back to the parent.

Self-Seeding Vine Crops

Pumpkins, zucchini and squash are my favorite self-seeders. It’s fun to watch them grow and figure out what the parents might be and what they’ll look like, how big they’ll be and whether they’ll taste good. If they aren’t worth eating, they’re at least an interesting fall decoration.

Cucumbers are self-seeding if you leave them on the vine to ripen. We pick them when they’re long and slender and typically green when we’re going to eat them. If you want to let them self-seed or want to save seeds, let a cucumber grow. It will turn from green to yellow and possibly to orange depending on the variety. This is the third year I have seedlings resulting from the original seeds I planted two years ago.