Garden of Eatin' / Vegetables

The Accidental Tomato

Rogue tomato plants in the garden

We read a lot about how to grow our own food. We learn how to start our seeds at just the right temperature, give the perfect amount of sunshine and water (not too much, not too little), transplant at the right time, fertilize and weed and mulch and fend off the bad bugs with an arsenal of tools and sprays. If we follow this program, we’ll be rewarded with food in a few months’ time.

But sometimes, such a program goes out the door when nature simply takes over. Suddenly we’re reminded that gardening is an organic process that relies on no rhyme or reason. Gardening is as much a hands-off process as it is hands-on.

So when I discovered the “accidental tomato” growing in a largely neglected part of my yard a couple months ago, I almost didn’t believe it was actually a tomato plant. And not just one, but three plants.

Most of my food garden is grown on roughly 3,000 square feet on a sloping hillside. Another 2,500 square feet at the bottom of the hill is a nearly empty plot, housing only a lemon tree, a slowly growing pineapple patch, an unused greenhouse, and lots and lots of weeds. (Eventually, I’ll get to those projects… sigh.)

The day I discovered the rogue tomato plants, I was bringing a watering can down to the pineapples. All that bushy growth on the terrace below the pineapples was looking strangely familiar. I originally dismissed the plants as overgrown weeds, but now that they were larger, their leaves were becoming more distinct and their scent was undeniably a tomato.

Rogue tomato plants growing in the garden

Somehow, in the middle of a spurge-infested yard where no food had ever been grown before, next to random stacks of leftover construction materials, three tomato plants were thriving in the ground, with the only water source coming from our infrequent spring rains.

I didn’t even know tomato plants could grow on a 45° slope! In plain old dirt, no less. Not soil. But ugly, cakey, clayey, pebbly dirt.

Rogue tomato plants growing on a slope

The plants were about 2 feet tall when I first found them, with strong and healthy stems. I even spotted a few tomatoes growing!

Tiny tomatoes growing

The mystery is trying to determine which tomatoes these are, and how the seeds traveled so far in the first place. My neighbor thought a bird must have eaten a tomato from last summer’s garden and pooped out some seeds overhead… I suppose anything is possible?!

Rogue tomato plants growing in the garden

As of last week, the tomato plants were still growing robustly, with more flowers blooming and huge branches starting to sprawl over into the pineapple patch.

I’ve attempted to prune the unwieldy beasts, and will start to water and fertilize them regularly. Hopefully, I’ll end up with a handful of accidental tomatoes long before my other tomato plants start fruiting!

About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »

22 Comments

  • Sara Bremer
    September 2, 2021 at 10:14 pm

    I have a plot at my local community garden. I did not plant any tomatoes, but lo and behold, three tomato plants have cropped up and are thriving (and delicious!). I’m wondering if it’s possible that the person who had my plot last year may have planted tomatoes and the seeds have propagated? It’s fascinating. And truly a gift! I wanted wanted plant tomatoes this year but had doubts about my ability to help grow them. Apparently they didn’t need much help! The biology of nature is incredible.

    Reply
  • Linda Lou
    July 7, 2021 at 2:28 pm

    so little written about volunteer tomatoes!! (so thank you) It’s been a couple years since i vowed “never to plant another tomato as long as i live”…last time i figured out between the plants, fertilizer, neem, mulch, cages…i was paying about $6 a tomato! Well as we say: “man plan, God laughs” …no where in gardening is that more spot on than the case for volunteer tomatoes. Within 20 feet of where they were last planted…24 volunteer plants (far more than were ever originally planted) have popped up. im sure theyre from seeds from discouraging crops of summers’ past. Weirdest thing is, one if maybe 4 feet tall w little egg shaped tomatoes, and every day another two-leaf seedling emerges. it’s making me giddy!

    Reply
  • Allaiyah
    May 26, 2021 at 5:13 pm

    I found a tomato plant growing in a cat litter bucket that I’d previously grown zucchini in the year before. In an area that got very little rain & not much sun… In the bucket next to it was unmistkably the leaves of a carrot. & the stawberries that croaked last year from overwatering & fungus gnats survived being outdoors all winter & were thriving. Maybe now my parents will listen to me when I tell them tjat tomato plants do not need to be watered every single day.

    Reply
  • Surprisingly Janice
    November 22, 2020 at 12:12 pm

    Well we just discovered a tomato plant growing in our backyard and we were so puzzled as to how it got there. We don’t know what kind are they but they look like small cherry tomatoes. We haven’t taste any jet . I just love the fact that they were there. I just thought they were truly God sent.

    Reply
  • Anna
    August 25, 2020 at 7:35 pm

    I also found a tomato plant growing in mulch near our AC unit. I have not had a garden in maybe 25-30 years because I cannot grow anything, and definitely not in that spot. My husband thought it was a weed and was about to pull it. It is loaded with grape tomatoes.

    Reply
  • Cheng Xu
    May 22, 2020 at 1:38 am

    I also found rogue ones! do I leave them there or repot? First one I found was dead already :(. Next two I found but too scared to transfer but also don’t want them to die if possible.

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      May 26, 2020 at 6:35 am

      Are these rogue tomatoes already growing in the garden? If so, you may be able to move them if they’re still in seedling stage. Otherwise, I’d leave them in place to continue growing, or thin them out if you have lots of other plants around.

      Reply
  • newtotheblock
    October 29, 2019 at 11:21 pm

    Did you ever find out what kind?? I had some random plant growing in my backyard and it seems like green tomatoes but they are not round and don’t really smell like tomatoes?? Very curious if they’re even safe to eat

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      November 22, 2019 at 2:37 am

      Our plants were definitely tomatoes. All tomato vines have a distinctive smell, so if yours don’t, I’m not sure what they could be. (For future reference, not all tomatoes are round. Some are heart-shaped, oblong, or ribbed.)

      Reply
  • Silly Little Sheep
    March 17, 2017 at 7:00 pm

    I have accidental tomatoes growing in all of my flowerpots simply because I use garden compost in pots and it’s full of seeds from old fruits that I have discarded. It’s amazing, isn’t it? That sometimes nature just does its own thing and shows us how well adapted those little seeds and plants are for survival.

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      March 22, 2017 at 5:05 am

      What I find amazing is how easily my volunteer tomatoes grow versus the ones I intentionally plant. 😉 Makes me realize that most plants are capable of fending for themselves without our interference!

      Reply
      • Robert Carroll
        September 6, 2019 at 9:29 pm

        You are so right about this. Often makes me wonder if we are doing it right as on occasion we have to force success. Nature never forces success. If something comes up of its own accord it nearly always copes well there

        Reply
        • Linda from Garden Betty
          September 12, 2019 at 2:05 am

          This is so true!

          Reply
    • Allaiyah
      May 26, 2021 at 5:50 pm

      Oh man, I just started composting this year. Anything that goes bad in the fridge goes in. Who knews what kind of rogue fruit might try to grow in my hobby crop. Maybe grapes.

      Reply
  • eric
    April 17, 2015 at 9:11 am

    Bird seed that’s what it was. .. left over bird seed the same thing happened to me the same number also. .. I have pictures

    Reply
  • IndianaJoes
    September 22, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    Great read. I had a rouge tomato plant sprout in between some potted viola plants on my 2nd story patio. I transplanted it and in a few months, surprise surprise, we had some tasty cherry tomatoes. Nature can be kind to those who nurture the less fortunate…

    Reply
  • Russ in Maine
    September 22, 2013 at 11:43 am

    When the tomato season is over I always crush the overripe ones in the garden spot. The following yr I always have tomatoes growing in random spots. They alway grow & taste great. I have given some of those new plants to friends & family that replant them 100s of miles away. Tomatoes are so amazing. Love your article on the leaves being toxic or being more food to enjoy.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      September 22, 2013 at 2:19 pm

      Sometimes I think my volunteer tomatoes grow even better than the ones I’ve purposely planted!

      Reply
  • Megan
    September 22, 2013 at 10:54 am

    I love rogue tomatoes! I don’t know if it’s birds or squirrels moving the fruit around, but it’s always fun to find out what variety it ends up being. (From the looks of that last photo, you seem to have some rogue nasturtiums, too?)

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      September 22, 2013 at 2:21 pm

      LOL yes, nasturtiums are quite weedy in my yard… but I love them! And to think I only started out with about 10 seeds sown the first year. They are EVERYWHERE now, even in the front and side yards where I never planted them!

      Reply
  • Christy Kuebler Carter
    March 6, 2013 at 8:53 am

    I’ve had the same thing happen. I have two flower beds in which we have planted flowers, but never any food. We now have two tomato plants, one in each flower bed. I’ve never grown my own food, so I need to do some research on how to care for these babies. And maybe this will be the beginning of our own fresh garden!

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      March 6, 2013 at 11:38 pm

      Oh, how fun! Just keep in mind that the tomato plants will take over your flower beds if you decide to keep them in there. They love to sprawl.

      Reply

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