I feel that I have rewritten this story for the last several years of my growing babies and attempting to grow a garden simultaneously. I gave birth to my first beautiful baby at the end of 2020, a year that saw a huge spike in gardening and food growing all around the world, due to the fear and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, but also, I think, people sought out the garden for peace and solitude too during those times. That first summer of raising babies and food, I was overzealous and a little too ambitious with my garden footprint. My garden was consumed by weeds, and even though I knew I was doing important work caring for my daughter, I was still overwhelmed with guilt and regret from not being able to grow the amount of food I wanted to that year.
This year, summer 2023, I knew I would have my now 2-yr-old daughter and an infant son tagging along for my garden growing. Knowing what it takes to care for a young baby this time around, I planned to grow less and harvest what we could. The plan was to start seeds when I could, buy plants when seeds were too much work, and plant smaller spaces while trying to improve my soil with covercrop in spots that I would let rest this year. Even with these plans, I still felt like a gardening failure when the last frost date passed and the ground started to warm up and it felt like I couldn’t get a plant or seed in the ground. Then, as I walked around my homestead as the days went by I started to find some surprises.
Let me first say, raising babies in general is hard work, but alongside a garden in the humid West Virginia summer heat can be almost impossible. Most times the babies’ needs take over along with the weeds and the garden gets neglected. I keep telling myself, it is just for a season and that there is always next year to grow more food and better flowers. And babies don’t keep, as the saying goes. Still, I start seeds in cells in my greenhouse every year and tuck them in the ground everywhere I have established a spot for them to grow, whether they get harvested or no. Even though I am striving for less in this season of motherhood raising little ones, I am finding more success in my gardening this year with plants and seeds that my hands never touched and rather were “volunteered” or sowed by Mother Nature herself.
A volunteer plant, for anyone that is unfamiliar with this term, is a plant that the gardener didn’t plant herself but has resulted from the sowing of a plant from a dropped seed, sometimes from a bird, poop from an animal that has ingested it and then passed it in their manure, a fruit left to decompose, and so on. Some annual plants are very prone to re-seeding themselves year after year, such as with ground cherries, a favorite of my 2-year-old daughter because she loves picking little berries and eating them as she strolls around the yard. I have had two plants pop up this year on their own: one is in the raised bed where I planted them last year and it is about a foot tall and 2 feet wide. The other plant is hundreds of feet away, snuggly rooted up against one of our goat and cow shelters where lots of manure has been laid and it is every bit of four feet tall and five feet wide and absolutely covered in the little paper lanterns that hold the sweet pineapple flavored fruit my daughter loves to find.
Another surprise volunteer plant that has brought my family much joy this summer is our volunteer pumpkins. Every fall, we visit Kim’s Greenhouse, which is minutes from our house, tucked back in a hollow off East Mud River Road, and we buy up as many pie pumpkins as we can to use as a natural dewormer and nutrient boosting snack for our ruminant animals, the diary goats and cow. I have tried starting pumpkin seeds in little elevated mounds in my garden for years and had little success. Seeds will sprout but their vines and leaves always seem quick to putter out, drying up before ever producing a single fruit. Then this spring, we moved the animals to another section of fence and among the fence and weeds sprouted the most glorious pumpkin vines! This place is shade for much of the day in the morning but gets all of the afternoon and evening sun, and is not a place I would have thought pumpkins to grow, but thriving they are. We check on them daily to see if any new pumpkins have sprung from the many flowers it holds, and after a good rainstorm, it seems that the plants literally are growing before our eyes overnight. I daydream of baking a pumpkin pie with my children this fall from fruit grown right on our homestead.
I have a beloved flower, the Red Torch Mexican Sunflower, that I have had a place for on my homestead ever since I discovered it several years ago. By August, the bush-type flower is normally exploding with fiery red blooms and last year I covered our entire area alongside our front porch with them so that we could enjoy the blooms and all the pollinators they attract from the rocking chairs and swings we like to spend time in during the early mornings and late evenings. This year, none of my seeds in my greenhouse sprouted. And if I am being honest, I may have not kept them watered like I should or as I would before nursing my second baby became more important. But again, it is like Mother Nature saw me, another mother, in need of her help and she helped sprout some of my favorite flowers along the porch where their seeds had fallen last year. The plants may never reach maturity before the first killing frost but I am glad to have them growing in the garden just the same, alongside my son who is now rolling over and on his way to sitting up on his own.
There have been many sprouting volunteer annual plants this summer that I have enjoyed and have been grateful for, but one volunteer has excited me a little more than the rest. When we moved to our home, it wasn’t a homestead like it is now with animals and food popping up everywhere to feed us and the land. There were some perennial plants and trees on the property that we inherited with our purchase, and to my surprise, many of those trees were fruiting varieties. There was a lonely pear tree on the hill near our garage that needed a pollinator tree to produce, so I planted three apple trees around it the summer we moved in and now the tree is covered in little swelling fruits. Along our driveway, there is a large tree that drops fruit in November, even after the frost and is another favorite of my daughters, and it turned out to be a wild persimmon. It doesn’t need a pollinator, but I planted a domestic persimmon next to it anyway. And while I have been adding all of these trees, I have two peach trees, massive and ungroomed, on the hill behind our house. They bloom first every spring, pink blossoms promising a warmer season to come, but every year they fail to produce a single fruit. They may be old or may be too overgrown, things I do not know much about, but at one time they did produce fruit. I know this because this spring, while they were teasing me with their pink flowers, I noticed a smaller tree that was blooming just like them, tucked literally inside a yucca plant right next to my chicken coop, which is downhill from those two old trees. I imagine a seed was dropped there or a peach rolled down and was stopped in that yucca plant, and there it grew. A volunteer plant of any kind is a blessing, but finding a young peach tree was the reassurance I needed to let me know that there will always be seeds being planted and cared for whether I can find the time to do it myself or not.
Babies really do grow like weeds, in that they grow up fast, really fast, so I am enjoying this season while it is here. I will tuck seeds in the dirt as I tuck babies into bed and walk around my homestead, holding my son on my hip and my daughter’s hand, searching for more volunteers planted by a mother, like me, that loves watching her children grow.
By: Shayla Lucas