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Is it a “weed?” You may have seen it by a roadside or in some disturbed area. A basal rosette of thin, iris-like leaves and knee-high stalks bearing composite flowers with spiky green sepals behind the purple rays. It’s a biennial, with just the rosette in the first year.

 

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Once you know it, it’s unmistakeable. It is purple salsify, also known as oyster plant or Jerusalem star, Tragopogon porrifolius, native to Mediterranean Europe and now found all across the US. It is a beautiful herb that is edible and full of good nutrients.

There is another plant called salsify. It is black salsify, Scorzonera hispanica, more commonly grown for food in Europe, but I have not seen it in our area. It has wider leaves and looks a bit like broadleaf plantain or dock.

While it can be invasive if it is not controlled, purple salsify is fortunately easy to clear. Pull out all the rosettes, using a weeder or other long, sharp tool to cut the root. Most plants won’t come back if you cut deeply enough.

141121-0711Those lovely flowers may not last long in our gardens because they are edible. Even the leaves and flower stems are edible, but the real prize is the crisp, carrot-like root, which has a nutty, earthy flavor something like oyster. The best time to harvest the root is just as the first flowers open. After that the root begins to become woody and loses its nutrient value.

Purple salsify spreads by releasing large dandelion-like, windblown seeds, so the responsible thing to do is deadhead any flowers you don’t eat. Or you can do what I do… cut that seed head as soon as it matures and save the seeds for planting as food plants in containers. Be sure the container is deep enough for the delicious root!

There is no place for purple salsify in a California natives-only garden, but this is one of those “friendly invasives” that we sometimes allow in controlled deep nature ecosystems. Like many other aliens, it must be carefully limited or it will spread. If you can’t keep it limited, remove it completely!

But with its edible roots and flowers and its simple, elegant beauty, it is one of those aliens we love to grow in safe, escape-proof containers.

There’s more about purple salsify at Wikipedia.

You can also read about black salsify.

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Nick says:

I was working in a streetside garden one day and a young girl stopped by, with her dad in tow. She looked about five or six years old. She asked what I was doing, so I described how I was clearing out overgrown creeping oxalis to make room for a melon sprout that had just opened its first yellow flower.

She watched for a few minutes, then asked “Why are you doing this?” I talked about how beautiful the garden was, and how important it is to make beautiful gardens on this planet. But she was quite young, and I missed the opportunity to answer more deeply.

I left a career of more than three decades as a computer firmware engineer to pursue a new calling with little relationship to the old one. Why did I leave behind a whole career for such a risky new path?

 

141120-0641a planet in trouble
I look out at the world, and I see beautiful, living species vanishing by the dozens and hundreds all across the planet.

Amazing natural ecosystems are being torn down, chewed up, and turned into mono-crop farms, cities, and endless uniform suburbs. The planet’s biosphere, also known as Gaia, is being progressively despoiled. Earth is a planet in trouble, and I want to do something to help restore it.

Despite what is happening out there, I still feel hope for Gaia’s future. Lots of people are already doing great work. Some projects are large or even huge, others are small and seemingly insignificant, but all of them are important.

I was ready to do something, but what could I do? I am just one tiny little human. After several years of “casting about” for the next thing to do, I was not particularly wealthy or even well-off. I realized I would have to start small.

 

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a new way of gardening
A new passion emerged for healing Gaia. I decided to start right at home. How could I improve the ecology of my own garden? Could I do that in other gardens?

In that moment of insight, the offering I call “deep nature gardens” was born. A new kind of gardening began to evolve, in which a healthy, diverse, beautiful ecosystem is the most important element. A whole new world of possibilities opened up, and it is still unfolding in amazing, new directions.

We have a big opportunity to work for planetary healing, and that is why I do this work. If enough of us begin to act in large and small ways, we can make a difference. We can create and preserve healthy ecosystems in so many places. The ever-evolving offerings from deep nature gardens are centered around exactly that opportunity and that hope for the future of Gaia. I am one of many people acting in various ways to save Gaia. You can do it too by creating a deep nature garden of your own, and in many other ways. This blog is not just about my own work, it is about what all of us can do to help heal Gaia.

 

141120-0728a growing community
Now, as more and more nature-loving people begin to find us, the passion for this work continues to grow. This path, this inspiring calling, is what I want to do.

There is a plan now, a way of moving forward to do even more for the planet, with new offerings and more beautiful deep nature garden spaces everywhere, not just here in the Bay Area but anywhere there is a gardener who wants to create something truly extraordinary.

This is my work now, and I joyfully offer it to the world, in person and through our excellent modern online tools.

If you are local, my assistants and colleagues and I can shape your garden and continue its evolution as a hands-on service. But no matter where you are, if you have the commitment and the passion I can help you create and evolve a beautiful deep nature garden.

I hope that many more lovers of Gaia will get in touch and explore how to create a beautiful ecosystem, a diverse and abundant species enclave, in their own landscapes.

I also look forward to developing our other offerings, including enclosed ecosystems, artistic mini-landscapes, and so much more that is still being invented, or even unimagined as yet.

 

gratitude
Thanks to all of you who are becoming part of this! I feel so much gratitude to be part of this extended community. I am grateful also to the little girls and boys who are just now asking “why are you doing this?”

in love with Gaia,

Nick Turner

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Large bunch grasses can be among the most challenging plants to prune. Every year they send up dozens of flowering stalks, which quickly turn into seed-heads shedding vast numbers of tiny potential grass sprouts all over the nearby landscape. Many gardeners resort to heavy weaponry to simply shear them right down to the ground, leaving behind an ugly, unhealthy, flat-topped “tuffet” of cut stems and leaves. Definitely not naturalistic!

I was recently faced with just such a challenge. Large clumps of perennial grass had gone to seed and grown out into unruly pompoms with long leaves (blades) trailing out across nearby plants. The client agreed that another annual shearing was not wanted, but could these grasses be limited back without sacrificing a natural look?

Of course they could! But it involved three different pruning methods, two of which were invented on the spot. Let’s start in the back garden, where a large grass looked like this in the “before” picture:

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First, the seed stems. They all had to come off. I reached in and clipped the seed stems way down among last year’s sheared-off stems. That worked to invisibly remove them, but there was a problem: I was also removing a lot of the green blades clinging to the stems. This was not good because those leaves made up about a third of the overall density. I was thinning too much!

I invented a new method just for this kind of grassy seed heads, clipping about half way up each stem, just a tiny bit above the node where the largest live blade was attached. Most of those blades were left in place, and the overall density was preserved. I call this new style of pruning “partial grass deadheading” because it leaves the lower half of the seed stalks in place while removing the business ends.

The second kind of pruning was also brand new. Unlike the leaves of broadleaf plants, grass blades elongate as they grow. This is an adaptation to herbivores that bite off the ends of the blades. Such shortened blades can still grow longer. But there are no grass-eating herbivores in most suburban gardens, and the blades of the bunch grasses tend to grow longer and longer. I realized that for these grasses to be trimmed in a healthy way I had to become that herbivore.

Having recently experienced a haircut, I realized that I could use a method similar to what my friend Janice had done to my head. I swept my hand across the ends of the over-long blades, scooping up a manageable handful and gently tugging outward. Then I clipped off the ends of all the blades in that handful, depositing the cut off bits into the debris bin. By repeating this operation all around the outer parts of the clump, I was able to reduce the lengths of the blades without creating a sheared off look. I call this pruning method “bunch grass haircut pruning.”

With the seed heads gone and the blades shortened all around, the bunch already looked much better. But the overall size of the bunch was too large and there were lots of old blades and stems around the base. It needed to be smaller without sacrificing the naturalistic look. I used a variant of undercut pruning. Reaching deep under at the base, I grabbed a small tuft and clipped it right at ground level, repeating and carefully observing the results all around the base of the plant. The density near the base was reduced, creating more of a fountain appearance and less of a pop-pom.

Here is the result on the bunch grass in the “before” picture above. Notice how much more visible are the small silvery plants near the base:

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Out in front of the house at the base of a tree, there are three more clumps of the same grass. Applying the same three pruning methods, these clumps were rapidly tamed. There is a “before” picture at the top of this post; here is another:

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Let’s have a closer look at the rightmost clump before pruning. See how dense are the seed stems, and how long the blades:

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This is how these grasses looked after the pruning. What do you think?

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I love pruning as much as I love creating deep nature gardens. I am available to prune almost anything in your garden (except mature trees, for which we bring in a licensed tree surgeon). If you are not near us, I am also available through online media (email or real-time video) to coach you on how to prune your plants.

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What we do is not like “regular” gardening!

In some ways the relationship between a deep nature garden and its human caretaker runs in the opposite direction than it does in a “normal” garden.

Here is a table that might make these differences more clear:

traditional garden deep nature garden
garden expected to “obey” gardener gardener and garden co-evolve
gardener takes care of garden garden adapts itself to conditions
maintains a consistent design design co-evolves with gardener
garden is planted garden grows in
garden is “done” once it is planted garden constantly evolves
ecosystem is simple and controlled ecosystem is complex and self-regulated
contains only selected plants contains many volunteers
unexpected sprouts are removed unexpected sprouts are celebrated
pruned for controlled appearance pruned for natural appearance
wants to be “complete” may have some blank places
plant eaters are killed plant eaters are welcome
augmented with fertilizers augmented (if at all) with compost
“protected” by poisons not in need of protection
gardener works in the garden gardener merges into the garden
conforms to gardener’s vision always reveals new beauty

 

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Here at deep nature HQ we love to grow containers of plants called eco-packs. Some of them end up planted in various gardens, some of them get upgraded into larger pots where selected plants are allowed to grow further, some are given away to interested clients and friends, and a few of them are cleared and re-seeded.

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Eco-packs make great school projects, and they are just as much fun for nature lovers of all ages. They are our favorite form of volunteer gardening!

Nothing is deliberately planted in a “virgin” eco-pack because we love the surprise of watching to see what will sprout. Where do the seeds come from? They come from our special eco-mix, a blend of soil and seeds.

Here’s how you can create your own eco-mix and eco-packs, and discover some great new plants you might not have known you could grow. Many of them are commonly called “weeds” but actually can provide food, medicine, or other useful products. What will grow in your eco-packs? Let’s find out!

141103-0750First, you will need some eco-mix. You can make this yourself easily, or if you are in our area you can get some from us.

You will also need a suitable container (see below) and some quality, seed-free planting mix. If you know how, you can make the planting mix yourself, or get it from a nursery. Get the kind that contains good, rich compost, not the cheap kind with artificial chemical fertilizers. You only need a little bit in each eco-pack, so use the good stuff.

The simplest way to make eco-mix is to take a walk in a natural or semi-natural area. Bring a container large enough to contain a few cups of soil. As you walk around, look for areas of open soil or dirt near where there are diverse plants growing. Weedy, bushy roadsides can be good sources, as well as under mixed forest or in interesting wilderness areas.

Always ask for permission to take soil samples on private property. Be aware that in some nature preserves it is illegal to take soil samples, but sometimes it’s possible to get special permission. Don’t break the law!

Take about a cup of topsoil from each location, and don’t dig big holes. Try to leave the area looking as it did before you arrived.

Mix it all together, until all the samples are completely blended. At this stage you can add a few more seeds directly into the mix if you like. Don’t overwhelm the blend with too many of any one kind of seed. We like to collect the seeds of interesting looking plants whenever we find them and toss them in. Remember to ask permission if you are collecting seeds on private property or in a nature preserve.

These added seeds have brought lots of great species into the eco-mix that would not have been there otherwise, including various bushes, trees, herbs, flowers, vegetables, and several kinds of milkweed. You can add seeds from commercial packets, but we generally prefer wild-collected ones in our eco-mix.

141103-0754Now that you have some eco-mix, you’ll need a container. You can use anything you want as long as it is at least as big as a large coffee cup, but it works better if it’s at least twice that size. We often use empty plastic containers that held yogurt, soups, or other food products. Of course you can also use small plant pots. The best containers are about as deep as they are wide.

If needed, poke a few small holes near the bottom of the container. If you are using a plastic food container, it will work better if you poke the holes on the side of the container, not in the bottom. Put the holes a finger-width above the bottom so that some water will pool below, helping to prevent the container from completely drying out.

If you are using a commercial plant pot, cut a layer of film plastic to fit exactly into the bottom of the pot. The plastic will slow the leakage of water out the bottom, while not completely stopping it. To sprout the seeds we need nearly continuous moisture.

Fill the container with the high quality, seed-free planting mix. Don’t pack it down too firmly. Fill it to a finger-width below the edge.

Stir up the eco-mix and use a teaspoon to remove a small amount. Carefully deposit the teaspoon of eco-mix directly in the center of the container. Use the spoon to gently spread the mix, blending it down into the top inch (2 cm) of planting mix. Keep the eco-mix limited to the central third of the container. Why? Plants that sprout too close to the edge of the container may not grow well because they find it more difficult to compete for nutrients, being able to send their roots only in half as many directions.

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We like to arrange freshly seeded eco-packs in a large tray, placed in a sheltered area that gets only a few hours of sun in the early morning or late afternoon. Avoid midday sun on these little beauties!

Now it’s time to water. The best way is from above with a gentle, rain-like setting on a hand sprayer. Keep watering this way until there is water coming out of the holes in all of the containers. We generally keep on watering until the tray below is flooded but not overflowing.

You need to water like this every day for at least two weeks. Once there are some sprouts you can taper off the watering, so that the top layer of soil is dry for just a few hours every day.

Very soon you will see sprouts. What will grow? We are so curious!

Next begins the thinning. If you don’t thin the sprouts they might grow into a dense clump that is hard to prune. There will also very likely be many “duplicate” sprouts of a few kinds. These need to be thinned down to just one or a few of each kind. Start by very carefully pulling out sprouts that are very close together. Try to leave the rest undisturbed. If they are too tightly packed to pull, use very fine scissors to clip each one at the base. Below: the results of an early thinning.

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As more sprouts emerge, you’ll need to keep thinning. It doesn’t matter whether you know what kinds of plants these are… but with experience you will begin to recognize many kinds of sprouts, even if you don’t know their names. For us, this is the real fun of growing eco-packs. We can recognize lots of the sprouts by now, and we can either choose to keep them or take them out, making room for the more interesting, less easily identified ones.

In time, you’ll have a cool little pot with one or more different kinds of beautiful plants. What you do from there is up to you — you can up-pot into a larger container, you can plant the eco-pack directly into the ground, or you can give it away to a friend.

You can also clear everything out if there’s nothing interesting, and reseed with more eco-mix or with specially selected seeds. But don’t be in too much of a hurry to reseed. Some of the most wonderful kinds of plants only sprout after many weeks of moisture. Be patient! It helps to label each eco-pack with the date it was last seeded. We generally wait at least a month before clearing and reseeding.

Enjoy your little surprises! It’s up to you whether to try to identify all the plants. If you get anything you can’t identify, send us a picture!

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Did you miss the previous episode in this series? You can also jump back to the beginning.

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December 19, 2012. Morning sun slants across the garden at little yellow house. There was some serious rain, and now thousands of sprouts are popping up in every blank space. The garden is greening up!

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Above: An odd little corner of the front strip features a variety of fascinating plants including petty spurge, groundsel, mallow, cut-leaf geranium, English violets, buttercup oxalis and more, plus a few pretty autumn leaves. Here’s a closer look:

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Right now, our most important task in this garden is thinning out extra sprouts of anything that is too abundant, plus removal of certain plants like buttercup oxalis that we generally prefer to restrict to selected areas because of their invasive nature.

Below: An area shadowed by a purple lantana in the street strip shows a bit of frost on leaves of English violet.

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Above: On the left side of the front walk the daisy bushes enjoy the sun while the wisteria bush behind it is still in shade. It leaves are turning yellow and dropping down. There’s frost on the neighbor’s roof in the background. Under the daisy bushes in front there is a carpet of violets and decorative strawberries, still filling in. Like almost every other plant in this garden they were there to begin with, not deliberately planted.

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Above: Skipping forward to Christmas eve, 2012 the garden continues to grow in rapidly. In the front strip is a drift of blooming buttercup oxalis, pushing up between the frost-burned stems of lantanas. In spite of the frost damage, some stems of lantana still bear pretty purple flowers.

This is one of two areas where we are allowing the oxalis to stay. Here it has to compete with the vigorous lantanas, and it is also quite difficult to extract from this zone without damaging the lantanas. The other oxalis drift is under the big wisteria bush, where they look pretty pushing up through the carpet of fallen leaves.

Below: Closer looks at the buttercup oxalis. The beautiful yellow flowers are edible and excellent in a tart-sweet, tangy way. Try them in salads!

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Below: A few more sweet little scenes from the garden at little yellow house on Christmas eve, 2012. We see English violets, sweet alyssum, a cute mushroom, and some autumn color.

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Next: Wisteria drops its leaves, the owner begins a stone patio, and there’s lots more thinning to do.

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At last, it looks like some good rain is coming to the Bay Area. This morning’s sunrise flared up with brilliant red fire, lighting up the landscape with crimson.

There was a brief photography window for about five or six minutes. What an explosion of color!

Sailors (and gardeners) take warning! It’s going to be wet soon.

Yay!

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