There’s barely an organinzation out there that doesn’t benefit from some good volunteers; you know, the folks who come in, ask little or nothing from you, roll up their sleeves, and get to work doing what you’d have to do yourself. Well, same goes in the garden, though here I’m not talking about the people. Sure, they’re appreciated, but I’m referring to crops that “volunteer” or self-sow. You plant them once, and after that they keep coming back on their own, essentially doing your work for you.
Here are four that I’m really appreciating on the roof this year:
Red Shiso (Perilla frutescens). This is a show-stopper, with its deep burgundy coloration and its sharply dentated leaf margins. When it pops up in a desired location, I take full advantage of its ornamental beauty. Shiso’s flavor is spicy and complex: is it cinnamon….clove…anise that you taste? Try it and get back to me!
Then there’s the nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), a heraldic burst of floral color ready to amaze in any salad and to pepper the tongue following the visual feast. Now that they’ve naturalized in the roof garden, I have to fairly beat back their long, trailing stems so that they don’t utterly take over the bed where they sprout. There are bush varieties that are a little more polite…a range of colors, too.
Less welcome at the restaurant (too pedestrian???) but still a volunteer success in my book is Goldberger purslane (Portulaca oleracea). It’s paddle-shaped leaves, considerably bigger than those of its garden-weed cousin, are crisp and succulent (uhhh, I guess because it’s considered a succulent!). Although they are not very flavorful, I think they make a great textural contribution to the salad plate. Plus they kick buttocks (both!) in the nutrition department, serving up many vitamins and the highest amounts of good-for-you Omega-3 fatty acids in the plant world.
Finally, my newest favorite volunteer is holy basil (Ocimum sanctum). Last year was the first year we had it in the garden, and this year I was tickled to see it coming back on its own…the only basil I have seen do this. This basil, with the faintest touch, releases invisible clouds of its blueberry spice scent, which I find intoxicating. I so love that it’s in the garden to stay!
So volunteers are awesome, right? Well, if you go back to that organizational mindset, you probably all know of one or two volunteers who talked your ear off or who were a little too overeager to achieve and messed with something they shouldn’t have. In the human realm, we have to gently let these people know that they may be doing us too much good, and that they have to redirect their energies or go eleswhere. In the plant world, it’s much less complicated. Too much shiso, basil, naturtium, or purslane? Just pull and compost!