Ask Gardenerd: How to Get More Volunteer Tomatoes

I do believe my favorite question to date just came in to Ask Gardenerd from Jeff Bremer:

“Hi Christy, How do I encourage volunteers? Over the years in my tomato garden, a few volunteers would appear each season. Last year, in hopes of getting a lot of volunteers (for this year) whenever a tomato was damaged or half-eaten by some critter, I buried it in the soil. However, this year, not one volunteer arose. Is there anything I can do to encourage them for next year? Thx, Jeff “

Jeff, I love that you appreciate the wonder and blessing of tomato volunteers. Here at Gardenerd we affectionately call them, “Nature’s slap in the face.” They don’t need us and they grow better than anything we cultivate on purpose. That’s how I think of them anyway.

Volunteer Tomatoes

A volunteer tomato sprouted from under our compost storage tub.

A volunteer tomato sprouted from under our compost storage tub.

The tomato above went on to climb a giant Cecil Brunner rose with not a drop of irrigation and totally inadequate sunlight. It produced tons of paste tomatoes we had to pick from a step stool. We can’t explain it, except that nature is determined to survive.

How to Get More

Here’s my theory: when you buried the tomatoes with all the best of intentions, you interrupted the natural decay cycle of the tomato. The mucilaginous membrane around tomato seeds has to break down in order for seeds to germinate. By leaving them to desiccate above ground, that process continues. By burying the seeds, the seeds might rot before drying out and breaking down the membrane. Again, this is my theory.

So, it may be messy, but if you leave the tomatoes above ground and at the most throw some mulch over the top of them at the end of the growing season, I have a feeling you’ll end up with plenty of volunteers next year. Remove the human intervention and let nature do what she does best.

Random cherry tomato volunteers suspiciously in the location of a recent potluck table.

Random cherry tomato volunteers suspiciously where a potluck table stood last fall.

Your question also made me wonder if you conditioned or disrupted the soil before burying the tomatoes. Did you add compost or do a little weeding beforehand? Volunteers thrive because they have to struggle. If we make it easier for them, they won’t be as vigorous. Leave the soil as is, and set the stage for a game of survival of the fittest.

So, my best answer is to take yourself out of the equation and let Nature do her thing. In the end Nature always wins, right? Thanks for writing in, Jeff. Best question ever.

Hey Gardenerds, if you have suggestions for Jeff, or ideas that worked for you to generate more volunteers in your yard, post a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.

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3 Responses to Ask Gardenerd: How to Get More Volunteer Tomatoes

  1. Jeff Bremer says:

    Hi Christy,

    Thanks for your response. Looks like I’m doing the wrong things to encourage volunteers, but don’t know how to get around them. Here’s what I do:

    After the tomatoes are finished, I prepare the soil for a winter garden by mixing in a few bags of amend. Then in spring, I mix in more amend to get ready for planting tomatoes? Am I overdoing the amend?

    Thx, Jeff

    • Christy says:

      I amend my soil with compost in fall and spring, too, so I don’t think you’re overdoing it. You might try the no-till approach and just lay that amendment down on the soil surface, water it well and let your soil microbes work it in for you. That’s what we do here. Also, as @Jmelicher mentioned, if you make your own compost, it will be full of volunteers when you spread it out on your garden beds. We get a ton of volunteer tomatoes that way.

  2. Jmelicher says:

    I rotate crops in my 4×4 raised bed gardens. This year the squash went into last year’s tomato plot. And there were 2 tomatoes popping up amongst all the new squash vines by June. I live in Zone 4 – Minnesota lake country. Winters are cold! Think -20 degrees, and raised beds! Each fall I dump my summer cooked compost, and my wonderful worm compost (black gold) on top of my raised beds. I vote for worm compost as the best for helping our gardens flourish with volunteers!

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