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Volunteer Army

Pop Quiz! (Bet you didn’t see this coming. Hurry! There’s still time to click another link! Oops, too late.)

More than anything in the world, gardeners want

A. to keep their plants alive

B. actual gardening shows on HGTV

C. to know how to pronounce Ophioglossum crotalophoroides ‘Walter’ (okay, maybe not the last word)

D. self-cleaning fingernails

And the correct answer? It’s a trick question, the only kind I use! The correct answer is

E. free stuff

Now don’t you feel silly? You knew that E was the correct answer all along because everybody wants free stuff, and gardeners are no exception. Why do you think they’ll go to a plant swap and take home daylilies even though they came to the plant swap in a desperate attempt to rid themselves of the hundreds of daylilies already in their yard? They end up swapping daylilies for daylilies and go home convinced that they outwitted the competition and got something for nothing.

The same compulsion manifests itself each spring, as unrecognizable shoots poke their heads up through the soil. Could this be a new plant? A volunteer? A freebie? Something that wasn’t there when the garden finally collapsed in the fall but miraculously seeded itself over the winter while we weren’t looking? Of course it is! And a brand-new hot tub just miraculously appeared on your backyard deck, too!

So we wait and watch and watch and wait, until a neighbor casually asks why you’re growing nightshade or garlic mustard or kudzu in the middle of your garden. At which point you mumble something unintelligible about stress at the office, quickly usher that person out of the yard and return with a fireman’s ax.

But that doesn’t mean that we never see plants pop up unexpectedly. Several years ago, a tiny juniper appeared in one of my garden beds near the house and next to the sidewalk. It was odd because I have no junipers anywhere else in the yard and neither do any of my neighbors. I don’t even like junipers particularly. But I decided, perhaps unwisely, that I would let this tiny volunteer grow. It is now the prettiest little Christmas tree, about 4 feet high with a perfect columnar shape.

However, in a couple of years it will undoubtedly block the sidewalk and the entrance to my house. I will not have the heart to chop it down and thus will spend the next couple of decades pruning and disfiguring what was once a pretty little plant just so I can get in the back door. It, in turn, will grow to resent my very presence in the yard and will begin to threaten me and my friends. (“I’ll make you itch with my prickly branches!”) Finally, I will be forced to torch the malevolent misfit, probably burning down my house in the process. Some people say I gravitate toward dark, paranoid fantasies. I simply say that I’m increasing the fire insurance coverage on my home.

This is what happens when you allow uninvited plants into your yard. We all know about morning glories, which suck you in by being pretty (I hate it when plants do that), then return year after year after year, strangling everything within a few hundred yards, including unsuspecting shovels and small dogs. This is the very definition of Rogue Volunteer Army — look it up on Wikipedia.

Then there is the relentless attack of vegetables that leap out of the compost pile — tomato seedlings by the dozens, for instance, that will never produce tomatoes because the compost pile is in the shade. Yet they germinate over and over again, taunting you with visions of Tunisian Pasta Sauce with Capers that you will never taste.

I know a person who somehow left a small automobile carburetor tucked away in a corner of the yard, only to have a carburetor drift establish itself, smothering everything else in the area. Do you have any idea of how deep carburetor roots go? Do you even know what an automobile carburetor is? I thought not. That’s just another example of how far this whole thing has gone. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to contact my insurance agent about increasing my carburetor protection.

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questions

I’d like to start composting. Do you have any advice on what kind of bin to purchase/build so that it is successful in the Chicago climate?

I keep seeing photos of interesting plants I’d like to grow, but they’re labeled zone 6 and I’m in zone 5. What can I do to successfully overwinter these marginal plants? I’d like to try them, but I don’t want to waste my money.

Is it possible to plant and grow Italian cypress in the Chicago area? Are our winters too severe for it? If they are, is there an alternative conifer that will provide a similar look?