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Volunteering is great but 'volunteer' plants are a whole different story

A box elder seedling.
A box elder seedling. Special to the Star-Telegram

Volunteers keep America going. Lynn and I attended the recognition luncheon for one of the big local ISDs a few days ago, and all those great volunteers who have given so tirelessly of their times and talents were being held up and praised.

If you’re wanting a sense of fulfillment, find a group or organization that needs a little extra help now and then. You probably won’t have to be a specialist in it. As we heard, school volunteers run the copiers or they go on field trips. They set up chairs or they help serve refreshments.

People who volunteer at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden aren’t usually trained horticulturists. They’re accountants and lawyers, sales reps and secretaries. They’re people who want to give back, and who in that case might like to do so in an outdoor environment. But they don’t have to worry about being asked to answer complex gardening questions. Trained staff can do that.

If you’re interested in volunteering, your city may have a full time office to help match up volunteers and their talents and interests with the appropriate organizations and their openings and needs. Try a couple. You’ll soon find a great match. A friend of mine retired and almost immediately started volunteering at a different place each day of the week. He works as hard as he ever did at his career job, but he loves every minute of it.

'Volunteers' of a different sort

As I sat there thinking about all those great volunteers and the recognition they were getting, my mind drifted to volunteer plants. These are plants that sprout up from seeds, seemingly God’s gifts to us gardeners. People look at them as treasures. They want to know what they are and where they should plant them or if they’ll do well where they are already growing.

The odds of a tree seedling landing and sprouting in an appropriate spot in your landscape are about the same as my chances of winning the Triple Crown (either with or without a horse). Birds plant these things. The wind plants these things. Planting sites are entirely random. Unless you’re talking about a large rural landscape, that volunteer tree is not going to be in a good place in your garden. It’s probably going to be in the way, too close to something, or directly beneath the power lines the bird was sitting on when the tree seed was “planted.”

And that even begs a more important question. Is that volunteer tree even worth saving in the first place? Five types that come up commonly in the beds at our house are cottonwoods, willows, hackberries, mulberries and box elders. And from those, the odd thing is that we don’t have any of those species on our 11 acres. The mother trees are somewhere else, and the seeds have been brought in by birds (mulberries, hackberries) or the wind (cottonwoods, willows and box elders).

Those five kinds of common seedling volunteer trees are all messy, undesirable species. You’ll never see them sold in nurseries for that reason, and if you transplant one to a spot in your yard you’re really not going to be doing much to add to the value of your home and its surroundings.

On the other hand, there are a few other trees that are of much higher quality. Pecans, oaks, cedar elms and pistachios will all sprout as volunteers. In those cases, whether you save seedlings or not is completely up to you, but remember that these trees need to be 30 or 35 feet apart to develop to full mature height and width. Don’t let them be too crowded, and don’t let them grow too close to the house or to concrete (root damage). Specifically with pecans, if you transplant one of these seedlings you will need to do it while the tree is still short and young (less than a year old). And you’ll be getting a native pecan with no predictability of its growth form or pecan quality or size. If you really do want a high-quality pecan variety that bears reliably, buy a grafted Caddo pecan tree. Don’t plant a seedling.

As for shrubs, the worst two types as volunteers are both ligustrums. Japanese privet grows to be 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide. It has large somewhat glossy leaves (less glossy than the more compact waxleaf ligustrum), white flowers and huge clusters of dark purple fruit in the winter. That would sound good on the first pass, but then you realize that birds love the fruit, and they carry them everywhere. This plant is horrifically invasive and should never be planted. Seedlings should be removed immediately.

Amur River privet is the other bad-egg ligustrum. It has smaller leaves and a somewhat more compact habit, but it, too, produces thousands of fruit annually. It has overtaken the woodlands of much of the DFW area, notably in Denton County as well as east of the metroplex. We’ve used this plant as a hedge in decades past. We trimmed it unmercifully into long, square boxes. Now it’s paying us back. We’ll probably never get rid of it, but we need to try. Just don’t plant any more volunteers.