Garden planning is difficult. There’s joy in winging it, too

Picture of Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Executive Director

Gardening… like so many other detail activities… is an exercise in planning. I’m not sure if the proper planning/implementation ratio is 60/40, 70/30 or 90/10 but I do know that really good gardens take a great deal of planning. 

When it comes to vegetable gardening, that planning starts with reviewing the past season’s successes and failures. If you’re the type, it can also involve a painstaking review of detailed garden notes from the past and earlier seasons to help you avoid making the same mistakes again or to possibly pick out patterns – both the good and the bad – to direct the coming season’s effort. 

After the reviewing and assessing come the catalogs, the websites, seed orders (way too many, of course) and if you’re really, really good, the drawings of sequenced plantings and calendar of successional harvests. Of course there’s much, much more that can go into a thoroughly planned season of vegetable gardening.

But what happens if that’s not you? What if you don’t happen to be a thoroughly sociopathic, obsessive-compulsive list maker with a propensity to annoy your gardening and non-gardening friends alike with your incessant recitations of garden plans for the current year? What if you’re more of a seat-of-the-pants gardener – or as I like to describe it – an opportunistic gardener? Is there any hope for you (us!) to get a modicum of enjoyment and maybe even a few bits of consumable produce out of the not-so-well-planned vegetable garden? I might be a little biased, but my answer is an emphatic, yes!

Opportunistic gardeners… You know us when you see us. We’re the ones who buy a basket of vegetable transplants in spring with no discernable plan for their eventual home. We might use some to fill a bare spot in an existing bed. We might throw a few in a container here and there and dutifully water them until at least the end of July before throwing in the towel. We might let them duke it out in their cell packs on the driveway for far too long. We’ll just call that “stress tolerance” research.  But usually we get a few in the ground and they do something… eventually.


But the gold standard of the seat-of-the-pants gardener is the volunteer seedling.

Volunteers can pop up anywhere and they can be just about anything – a tomato from some incompletely cooked compost, a cucumber vine courtesy of some neighborhood terrorizing raccoon. One year I had a pumpkin seedling pop up in my front azalea bed. Training the vine all summer to grow all the way to the curb turned into a much-read column. 

But the art of the volunteer seedling is knowing when to “weed” and when to not. Screaming through the bed with the scuffle hoe to knock down the weeds before the mosquitoes get to your ankles might be fast and efficient but it robs you of the chance to selectively edit. To be successful at the art of volunteer gardening, you have to be ok with, “not sure what it is but I’ll give it a little time and see what happens.” That may not work well with the obligate planner but this is where the rest of us can shine.

This year’s edition of my volunteer veggie garden involves a tomato plant. I had planted one purchased tomato transplant (Japanese Black Pear variety) in my one large container that occupies the 4 square feet of almost sufficiently sunny space on my Highlands driveway. It was growing just fine. It had a few small fruits starting to get some size on them. That was until the newest neighborhood resident, about a 240-pound doe (with 3(!) fawns in tow) decided to use it for dental floss. 

My first thought was to run right out and buy a hunting rifle and find someone who could show me which end to point at the offending deer. The problem with that plan (aside from my lifelong fear of and ineptitude with firearms) is that my wife would promptly leave me, and I’d be stuck all alone in a house with no prospects of ever being able to grow a tomato. And besides, I like her pumpkin pie too much. 

Fortunately, our marriage was saved by a humble little volunteer... a tomato plant...

that magically popped up in my front azalea bed just as fawn #3 was choking down the last few of my Japanese Black Pear tomatoes.  I shifted my attention from driveway to front yard.

Now the volunteer tomato is a magical thing. Since I had no idea where the seed originated, I had no idea what to expect out of my little seedling. Open pollenated seedlings – those produced from a known mother plant and unknown father (pollen donor) are hard to predict. When both the mother and father are unknowns, the sky (as well as the cellar) is the limit. And then there were those pesky deer . . .

Well, the good news come midsummer is 1) My tomato plant is growing like gangbusters. Since it has completely overtaken 3 good-sized azaleas, the deer can’t reach far enough to get to all the tomato shoots. 2) My little tomato plant is now bearing actual ripe and edible tomatoes. They’re tiny bits – a little less than ½-inch across, bright red and with an incredibly juicy pop when you bite into them. They don’t make much of a BLT but straight out of the garden they’re delicious. There must be about 200 of those little gems waiting to mature. And 3) I’m happy to report that my marriage is intact for another season. I might even get a pumpkin pie or two this fall . . .

And all this fun without so much as a bit of planning!

This article was originally submitted to the Courier Journal on July 26, 2022.

About the Author

Blurb about Paul here.

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