If you planted tomatoes in your garden last year, you might notice unplanted “volunteer” tomato seedlings coming up out of the ground. There is no doubt that these tough, resourceful little plants can grow into something much bigger. The real question is: do these volunteer plants produce fruit, and if so, it is edible? I did a little research to find out more, and shared my findings below.
So, do volunteer tomato plants produce fruit? Yes, many volunteer tomato plants will produce fruit if allowed to grow to maturity. However, a volunteer plant may not grow into the same type as the parent plant. Although the fruit will be edible, the flavor or quality may be poor.
Of course, this all depends in part on whether the parent tomato plant was an heirloom or hybrid variety. It also depends on whether the parent tomato plant was self-pollinated or cross-pollinated. Let’s take a closer look at volunteer tomato plants, heirloom and hybrid varieties, and what you can do with volunteer tomato plants.
Do Volunteer Tomatoes Produce Fruit?
As mentioned above, some volunteer tomato plants will produce fruit. However, some will be sterile, meaning that they will not produce any fruit or seeds. In those cases, it would be a waste of time and resources to water and fertilize them, only to end up with no tomatoes at the end of the season.
Also, remember that your volunteer tomato plant may not be the same type as the parent plant where the seeds came from. This is because plants do not always “grow true to type” from hybrid seeds.
This means that even if a volunteer tomato plant produces fruit, it may have poor quality or taste compared to the parent plant. This is much more likely if the parent plant was a hybrid (F1) rather than an heirloom plant – more on hybrid and heirloom varieties later.
What Are Volunteer Tomato Plants?
A volunteer tomato plant is any plant that grows in your garden without you sowing a seed or placing a transplant there. Often, volunteer tomato plants come from germinated seeds from the fruit left on the ground after last year’s harvest. Usually, they will appear in the beds where tomatoes were planted the year before.
Tomato seeds can also be scattered far and wide by birds and other creatures. In fact, these creatures could even bring seed from a neighbor’s garden into your own. This could lead to volunteer plants growing in your garden that you have never planted before!
If you grew multiple tomato varieties in your garden last year, it can be difficult to determine which type was the parent of a volunteer plant. The only way to really tell is to wait and see what the plant grows into.
Even then, the plant could be completely different from anything you planted yourself, due to the potential for cross-pollination of two tomato varieties. Of course, this is less likely for tomatoes than other plants, since tomatoes are self-pollinating.
For more information, check out my article on self-pollination of tomato plants.
If you know for certain that a volunteer tomato grew from a seed from an heirloom tomato variety, then you can be reasonably confident that it will grow into a plant like its parent. You can also harvest seeds from the fruit of the volunteer and produce future generations of the same tomato plant!
What Are Heirloom Tomatoes?
Heirloom tomatoes come from heirloom tomato seeds, which always come from open-pollinated plants. A plant is open-pollinated if the plant was pollinated by birds, bees, moths, birds, or wind (as opposed to deliberate cross-pollination of two plants by humans).
An heirloom tomato variety is one that has been grown and maintained by farmers for generations, usually for 50 years or more. These farmers choose seeds from the most desirable plants every year, and sow these seeds the next year.
Any change in the plants, such as increased disease resistance, improved flavor, or different colors, takes place naturally over time.
For more information, check out my article on organic and heirloom seeds, and my article on what makes heirloom tomatoes so special.
What Are Hybrid Tomatoes?
On the other hand, hybrid (F1) tomatoes grow from hybrid seeds. These hybrid seeds result from deliberate cross-pollination of one tomato variety with another.
In other words, researchers are specifically selecting two tomato varieties to breed together. The goal is to produce certain characteristics in the offspring, such as increased disease resistance or longer storage life.
Hybrid tomatoes are often bred for mass-market production, meaning that the tomatoes keep well and look good, but may not have the intense flavor of heirloom varieties.
Can Hybrid Tomatoes Reproduce?
Some hybrid tomatoes can reproduce. However, there is no way to tell whether the seeds you sow will lead to a plant that can produce fruit.
Seeds taken from the fruit of a hybrid plant may not always grow true to type. This means that if you plant these seeds, you may get a plant that is completely different from its parent.
Thus, the result could be a sterile volunteer tomato plant with no fruit. You could also get a volunteer tomato plant that produces fruit with poor quality or taste.
For more information, check out my article on the pros and cons of hybrid seeds.
Should I Keep My Volunteer Tomato Plants Alive?
There are a few things to consider when deciding whether to keep or get rid of your volunteer tomato plants. You should consider the space you have available, the likelihood of disease, and the origin of the parent plants.
The Case For Getting Rid Of Volunteer Tomato Plants
It may seem cruel, but there are several good reasons to get rid of volunteer tomato plants before they grow too large.
Volunteer Tomato Plants Can Spread Disease
For one thing, volunteer tomato plants can spread disease in your garden. For example, the fungus that causes early blight in tomatoes can survive the winter in your soil.
If a volunteer tomato plant pops up in infected soil, it can spread early blight to other plants nearby, including tomatoes or any other nightshade plants (peppers, eggplants, or potatoes).
For more information, check out my article on tomato blight and how it spreads.
Volunteer Tomato Plants Compete With Other Plants
Volunteer tomato plants can also compete with other plants in your garden, including their tomato brothers. This might not be so bad if the volunteer produces plenty of nice, tasty fruit.
However, as we learned earlier, the volunteer may end up being sterile and producing no fruit. If it does produce fruit, it may have poor quality or taste. This is more likely if the parent tomato plant was a hybrid variety.
In many cases, volunteer tomato plants will act as weeds, using up water and nutrients that other plants need. If they get large enough, they may even block other young plants from getting enough sunlight.
You Can Burn Volunteer Tomato Plants To Make Ash For Your Compost
Getting rid of your volunteer tomato plants won’t be a complete waste. If you burn them with some wood after pulling them up, you can create a wood ash mixture that you can add to your compost pile.
Eventually, this mixture will make a good supplement for the soil in your garden. As an added benefit, burning the plants will kill any disease (bacteria, viruses, or fungi), which is not guaranteed in a compost pile.
For more information, check out my article on using wood ash in your garden.
The Case For Keeping Volunteer Tomato Plants Alive
Of course, there are also reasons to keep volunteer tomato plants alive. For one thing, if the volunteer seed came from an heirloom tomato plant, then it is likely to breed true and grow into the same type of plant as its parent.
Also, you may end up with an interesting new variety that produces fruit with a great flavor or color. Of course, if you grow only heirloom tomatoes, you will probably just get with more plants of the same type, which can increase your harvest at the end of the season.
What To Do With Volunteer Tomato Plants If You Keep Them Alive
If you do choose to keep your volunteer tomato plants alive, then you will want to prevent disease and competition in your garden. To do this, make sure to transplant your volunteer tomato plants to a separate area. Tomato seedlings and young tomato plants do well after transplant, compared to some other plants (carrots are notoriously bad for transplanting).
One option is to transplant each volunteer plant into its own separate container. Then, you can put the containers on your deck, patio, or even indoors. Just remember that indeterminate tomato varieties will quickly grow too tall to be kept indoors!
You can also transplant all of the volunteer tomato plants to a separate area, or “bullpen” if you will. This area should be away from your garden, to minimize the risk of spreading diseases.
Give them as much care as you can afford, and see how they produce. You never know when one of them will turn into a great producer for you!
If you want to do all you can to keep your tomato plants (volunteer or otherwise) alive, then check out my article on the common mistakes to avoid when growing tomatoes.
By now, you know that volunteer tomato plants can produce fruit, but only in some cases. It is difficult to know in advance what, if anything, you will get out of volunteer tomato plants.
I hope you found this article helpful – if so, please share it with someone who can use the information. If you have any questions or advice about volunteer tomato plants, please leave a comment below.