Unrecruited love

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While cleaning up the sass-patch after the first frost - Maine didn't get a snapper until October this year - I fell to meditating on the volunteer, and wondered why he is so neglected by the garden columnists and the farming experts , although not necessarily in that order. A volunteer is anything that comes along by mistake and surprise, such as an unplanted dill in the cucumbers, and even though so thoroughly ignored by the experts he is a magnificent bonus in the tillage and sometimes brings more fun than the planned fruit.

It may be that the volunteer, as such, is something of a Maine matter, and possibly even a family esoteric. My grandfather, who first used the word with me in this context, was himself a Volunteer. The State of Maine, percentage of population, volunteered in the Civil War more than any other state, and Gramp signed up for Company I of the Sixteenth Maine Volunteers the day he turned eighteen. That was in 1862, in the dark days when the Union desperately needed men to save its posture. The ten companies of the Sixteenth represented all parts of Maine, and Company I was made up in Gramp's own area so all his comrades were boyhood neighbors. Comrades! There's a word we've abused! The Grand Army of the Republic was composed entirely of Comrades.

The Sixteenth had only one line officer with military experience - all the others were volunteers too. The historian of the regiment says its men were ''suggestive of Falstaff's model private, and when foraging, a tramp.'' Gramp was cited once by a reviewing officer as ''the worst soldier and the finest forager in the Union Army.'' Amazing that this bunch of fervent but unready men could, one year later, support General Chamberlain's valiant Twentieth at Gettysburg and turn back the Rebel charge! Gramp was there. I do remember the morning we were walking hand in hand through his acre of strawberries, and he pointed at a tomato plant and said, ''Aha! We have a volunteer!'' I never use the word myself, and I use it every summer, without a flashback of the little old soldier leading me through his gardens.

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The dill, already mentioned, is a persistent volunteer and once established is likely to last forever. I always pick off a few dill seeds, dry them, and the next spring I start them in a coldframe pot, to be transplanted where desired. One such pot will give me dill enough to frighten all the pickles in Knox County , and then I begin to find my volunteer dill plants here, there, and everywhere. My potted dill waxes, and then joins all the volunteers in making more volunteers the next season. While I, making sure, pick off a few dill seeds, dry them, and get ready for another coldframe pot.

Since the perfection of hybrid seeds, when nothing will reproduce itself any more, the volunteer can be nothing at all, or it can be what amounts to a new variety. Last summer a volunteer cucumber showed up in my carrots, a random seedling from hybrid ancestors, and I was amazed at the set of fruit. The likelihood of a new variety would run a million to one, and this looked like a winner. This volunteer had ten-inch cucumbers every five-six inches, and was running off across country like mad. When ready, the first cucumber was delicious. I kept the seed from one of the better specimens, and when I planted them in hills last spring, so they'd be right where I wanted them, not one sprouted.

This season I had a volunteer potato in the mulch pile around one of my high-bush blueberries. There could have been an odd potato vine tossed onto the mulch with a potato clinging, but I'd guess it was a vine with a seed ball. I saw the vine along in June, but off by itself it didn't get de-bugged and de-blighted, and there isn't any good way to cultivate a mulch pile and hill potatoes. The thing just growed and I called it Topsy. And after the vine faded I yanked and got over a peck of beautiful red potatoes - eight of them big as grapefruit. Yes, I kept some for seed; we'll see. But volunteers can't be planted; they've got to be there one morning, smiling up at you.

That morning when Gramp and I were walking in his strawberries and found the volunteer tomato, he stooped to work his fingers into the soil, and then hilled the loose dirt up around the plant with his hands. When he straightened up, he reached to take my little hand again, and he said, ''There! Charge!''

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