140519-0725

One of our favorite “trouble plants” is the lovely buttercup oxalis, Oxalis pes-caprae. It is a fascinating little herb originally from South Africa. Above is a patch of lantana that has been completely smothered in a lush carpet of buttercup oxalis.

Yes, it is a noxious invasive that can overwhelm many other kinds of plants. Despite what some gardeners may say (Oh, that stuff never dies. It will be there forever!) it can be tamed, controlled and even completely eliminated. But without the use of icky chemical toxins (please, don’t!) it could take a bit of persistent work.

140519-0733In South Africa it’s a native surrounded by local herbivores that eat it. Here in California it can spread rapidly through underground runners and bulbs. Many gardeners hate it because it is very difficult to remove. Directly pulling up the plant almost always leaves the bulbs behind, which can be as deep as six inches or more. Yikes!

 

it can be done!
The good news is: They can be cleared by persistent, complete plucking of all new rosettes every few weeks during the winter growing season.

But you really will have to keep after them! Do not allow any rosettes to get to the blooming stage because that is when they send out dozens of tiny underground bulblets. Each bloomer will be surrounded by a six-inch radius of tiny new plants next spring. You must pull out all rosettes, no matter how tiny.

It is enough to pluck out the stems if you are patient and persistent, but the biggest ones can come back four or five times before they give up. Fortunately, we can move faster. Just keep plucking.

You can eliminate them faster if you get the bulbs. Use a long, thin, sharp tool like a weeder, screwdriver, or thin trowel to shove down deep under each rosette. Your goal is to break open the soil without breaking the lowest stem of the plant. It can be tricky, especially if your soil is dense, but there is a certain joy in gently shaking off loosened soil to find a bulb clinging to the thin thread at the bottom of the root. That one will not come back!

 

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you can eat all of it
Not everything about buttercup oxalis is bad. Not only is it exceptionally pretty, it is also edible. The sweet-sour yellow flowers and flower stalks are great in salads, and the bulbs are said to be good for getting rid of tapeworms. I haven’t had a chance to test that claim yet.

As invasive as they are, we love these little plants. But we keep them in their place. Where is that? Several places, actually.

 

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a drift in the leaves
Natives-only gardeners may cringe, but there can be a place for these little beauties in a deep nature garden. There may be a spot in the semi-shade with deep leaf debris, where buttercup oxalis can poke up through the leaves. The best place for such an oxalis drift is under a deciduous bush or tree, so that they can enjoy some filtered sun during the winter growing season. The annual leaf drop from above can challenge them and help to keep them under control.

In the picture above there are lemon-yellow buttercup oxalis flowers under the blooming wisteria vine, and spilling out into a sunny meadow of california poppy, wild strawberry, and English violet.

If you want a big harvest of the sweet-tangy flowers you can create a more robust and productive drift of oxalis. Just let the little cuties grow in some likely place. In the picture below is such a drift among some beautiful rocks. If it is strictly removed from other garden areas it can be a gorgeous and tame part of the ecosystem. But it will definitely need to be controlled around the edges.

 

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tame, beautiful, delicious
The best place of all for a wonderful, edible little invader like buttercup oxalis is a container. As you might imagine, they are fairly easy to grow. We’ve been growing some in our eco-packs. Want one?

Read more about buttercup oxalis at Wikipedia.

 

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141229-1205

Greetings to garden friends,

I hope everyone has been enjoying a very merry / happy / wonderful holiday season!

In 2015 there will be lots of new offerings and new ways to be part of the growing deep nature community. I’m excited to announce the first of these new opportunities.

141229-1248I have partnered with an excellent online venture, headquartered right here in Menlo Park. It’s called Learn From Neighbor. Through LFN I will be offering a brand new series of classes and workshops about deep nature gardening and related interests.

The first of these events will be a complete introductory course in deep nature gardening. If you’d like to create a deep nature area in your landscape but you prefer to do your own gardening, this is your chance to learn all about deep nature gardening and ask as many questions as you like.

Here are just a few of the things we’ll cover:

  • We’ll explore a beautiful, mature deep nature garden.
  • What is a deep nature garden and what makes it special?
  • What are the life stages of a deep nature garden?
  • What skills are needed to grow and maintain one?
  • What tools are needed, and how are they used?
  • How to make ultra-compost, a potent living food for the whole ecosystem.
  • How to grow eco-packs, small micro-gardens with many kinds of plants.
  • How to grow artistic mini-gardens, full ecosystems in mid-size containers.
  • Create your own mini-garden in a container to take home.
  • Arrange a free on-site visit in your own garden at a later date.

This fun and informative workshop will be held on Saturday, January 17 at 1PM at my place in Menlo Park. The cost is $50 and you can get a 15% discount until 1/4/2015 with the promo code LFN2015DNG. Attendance is limited to 15 people, so if this sounds interesting you should sign up soon.

You can read more about this class and sign up at LFN site, and you can also explore their main site.

In future months I plan to offer lots of classes and events, possibly including these ideas:

  • advanced deep nature gardening
  • plant and critter identification
  • naturalistic pruning and shaping
  • deep compost: ultra-compost workshop
  • the simple life: mushrooms, molds, mosses, and more
  • eating out: foraging for wild edibles
  • nature hikes in our wonderful local parks

Is there a topic you’d like to learn about related to gardening, ecology, farming, nature or science in general? What would you like to learn more about? Get in touch and let me know what interesting classes you’d like to see in the menu!

141229-1234One big reason I like Learn From Neighbor is the way they approach the relationship between the teacher and the company that hosts the web presence of the class and promotes it. They recognize that someone who has something interesting to teach is not always someone who has the time or expertise to promote and manage a series of classes.

Now there is an easy way to offer professionally presented and promoted classes and workshops on a regular basis, with a well-designed support system that takes care of signups and lots of other functions. LFN is a great way for people to share their skills and hobbies with other people in their local neighborhood.

I hope this new partnership with Learn From Neighbor will lead to an ever-expanding series of fun, fascinating events for lovers of gardens, ecology, and nature. Won’t you join us?

Happy New Year to all!

Nick Turner

141209-0710

For once, all the weather models agree: We are going to get really, really wet!

As you may be able to discern from the IR view above, the jet stream is aiming right at us, sucking up gigatons of water off the warm ocean between Hawaii and the California coast. Yes, it is one of those iconic “pineapple express” patterns, and this is going to be a big one. We can expect a day of heavy rain and lots of powerful wind.

141209-0712The storm is expected to arrive in the Bay Area early Thursday morning, with rain and wind lasting all day.

If you have outdoor furniture or any other large, light objects now is the time to move them indoors or out of the wind. Check that your gutters and downspouts are clear. If there are lots of fallen leaves in the street, now is a good time to rake them into a pile away from street drains, or put them into the green bin. Better yet, spread those non-conifer leaves across your garden’s open spaces, where they will not only fertilize the earth, but protect it from erosion by heavy rain.

If you have plants in containers out under the sky, especially if they are succulents or cacti, it might be a good idea to move them to a sheltered spot where the rain will not flood them for hours and hours. Some plants might be killed or damaged by prolonged root flooding.

Trees or bushes with extended branches might be damaged by many hours of high winds. You may be able to protect some of these by tying down the long branches or covering the plants with a tarp that is tied firmly to heavy objects like cinder blocks.

If you have an open composting system, it’s a good idea to cover it with a tarp weighted with bricks or other heavy objects. While the compost will not be killed by a long, heavy rain, such a deep soaking will definitely wash many valuable nutrients down into the ground, where they will eventually be lost into the water table.

I am excited that we are finally getting a beautiful, powerful winter storm. This one looks like the biggest one in years. I can’t wait for those first drops, waking me up Thursday morning early. I hope you will enjoy the storm as much as me!

Want to know more about this coming storm? Check out this blog post from WeatherWest.com.

Below: A water vapor picture, showing how the jet stream is sucking up moisture from the ocean.

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141125-0614

 

One of our flagship deep nature gardens is called “birch corner.” It has been taking shape since late summer of 2013. With the help of some good tree work from our licensed friends and some power tools wielded by the client, we took out a dead old lawn under a big pistache tree, pruned the tree back to let in more light, and drastically limited a birch (the garden’s namesake tree) that was also stealing light from the garden area below.

The ground under the pistache was shaped into hills and valleys, and a lot of beautiful rocks were added to create a walking path and many step-able access points.

In the past year the garden has grown a wide variety of interesting plants. Some, like several varieties of blueberries, spreading patches of bidens, and yellow lantanas were deliberately planted. But many more, like the fluorescent orange zinnias, burgeoning arums, and drifts of small tree saplings emerged on their own from seeds already present in the soil.

Let’s have a look around!

 

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Above: Viewed from the street, the right (west) side of the garden includes the namesake birch tree at the far right. At the extreme right side of the picture is a wooden fence shading that side, with a climbing rose on it. In the spring and summer this fence is also covered by sweet pea vines, deliberately planted and just now sprouting back up from last year’s dropped seeds.

In the middle of the picture are two large clumps of yellow-flowering bidens, which will soon be limited back before they take over even more space. A clump of hair grass stands at the top of a low berm, and in the back against the fence is a young apricot tree. Also visible are a few rocks and some logs slowly decaying into the ground (trimmed from the pistache tree above).

Below: A closer look at a spreading patch of bidens, with an orange zinnia peeking in at the right.

 

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Below, a patch of cyclamen that was planted last winter near the shady base of the back fence is still thriving and blooming. The base of the apricot tree is at left. A closer look shows many little sprouts of new cyclamen. It looks like it is naturalizing nicely.

 

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In this first year at birch corner we are still encountering a variety of vigorous volunteers that will need to be either limited or removed completely. Among these are the many sprouts of variegated arum, almost all of which will have to go.

There are two (non-chemical) ways of removing arums. The first requires patience – simply pull out all the leaves as they appear, until the tubers below run out of steam. But that method takes some persistence. In coming weeks and months we’ll use the faster approach which is to dig down and actually remove the tubers.

Below, a sampling of the arums at birch corner. Each one has its own particular pattern of leaf variegation. We’ll save a few of the most interesting ones, but they will be kept under control. Some may be moved into containers, where their invasive nature will be tamed and we can enjoy their beautiful leaves, flowers, and the seed heads with their bright red seeds.

 

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Birch corner is a forest floor ecosystem, heavily influenced by a dense drop of leaves from the pistache tree every autumn. Those leaves contribute to a gently acidic soil type, which favors plants like the blueberry showing its fall colors in the picture below.

 

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Here in California, autumn marks the beginning of the winter growing season. At birch corner, one sign of the coming winter is thousands of tiny sprouts of petty spurge and a few other low growing annuals. These will fill in, forming a beautiful green carpet that competes with leaves falling from above.

 

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We leave you with a few more of the many interesting new kinds of plants coming in. How many of these can you identify?

 

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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.

141120-0635

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

141110-0544

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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