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Monthly Archives: April 2012

Morning light reveals a freshly rain-washed world. As the clouds begin to part, the eye is delighted by happy leaves and petals spangled with brilliant rain jewels. Words cannot describe how lovely it all is, so there are few words in this post.

Enjoy!

 

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Look at this monster! It’s like a gigantic plant amoeba, slowly oozing out across the landscape. Beautiful in its own way but just a bit too aggressive. Let’s see if we can tame it.

Here is a basic principle of ecosystem gardening: even though the garden is managed by a human, we want it to have a natural look, as if all the plants sprouted and grew right where they are. So the challenge in pruning is to make the resulting pruned plant look like it has not been pruned. Can it be done here? Let’s find out…

For this task, I’ll be using a method I call “edge undercut” pruning. The idea is that we want the plant to look as natural as possible, through the entire pruning process.

Edge undercut is accomplished by reaching in under the lowermost, outer edge of the plant and clipping as far as possible in the depths of the stems. The primary factor is whether or not the cut ends of the stems are visible. A secondary factor is whether there is an obvious notch or gap in the plant’s overall shape.

With sturdy shears in hand, I began with round 1. It took about 15 minutes. All around the outer edge, just a few stems at a time, frequently stepping back for a look. This is art, people!

Here’s how it looked after round 1. See how it still looks fairly natural. All I’ve done is elevate the lower edge a bit, giving the whole plant a smaller “footprint”:

…and here is the pile of clippings at this point:

The clippings will be added to the compost pile, which has just been started at the back of the yard.

I’m not done yet! The bush is smaller, but it still takes up too much space. For round 2, I have to start watching the flower balance. The bees LOVE the lavender flowers, so I want to be careful to keep as many as possible. Fortunately, the flowers are mostly on the upper section of the bush.

Around once more, this time clipping into the actual main mass of the bush, still stepping back frequently for an artistic evaluation. Here is how it looks after round 2:

It’s definitely smaller. I have not yet decided whether to remove the catnip plant on the right side. It’s the only medium size catnip left in the garden, but it’s a bit bedraggled.

I’ve clipped much more off on the east side (the far side of the picture above), giving the bush a bit of a “windswept” look and making more room for new plantings on that side. The main stems are now visible (but still no obvious cut stem ends!) and the open space created there will fill in over the next few months as the lavender bush adjusts itself, growing out new shoots to meet the light:

…and here is the second pile of clippings, more compost food:

Thanks to careful pruning, the giant lavender monster is now tamer, and the bees still have a bounteous source of nectar and pollen:

This post is part of the new ecogarden project at Elizabeth’s place

also part of this project:

putting in a redwood walkway

in the company of chickens

Your comments are welcome!

While I was over at the new ecogarden project this morning, something special happened back in the home garden. Remember those promising iris buds? Today they popped!

It’s been three years since these babies last blew, and I had forgotten what lovely pastels they show. Yow!

And the scent… I bring my nose close enough to tickle the petals, and inhale. Mmmm. Iris perfume is psychoactive, I swear.

Irises (Wikipedia article) come in two main groups, the rhizome irises, and the bulb irises. I like the rhizome irises because of their huge, showy, delightfully scented flowers.

Rhizome irises grow extremely well in this California climate, as long as they get enough sun. It seems like they actually prefer to be neglected.

There’s another interesting bloomer in the garden right now, one that many people might choose to pull right out. It’s this magnificent sowthistle:

Isn’t that a big old ugly weed? No! Not in this garden.

Look how lovely is the form of the plant, the strong stalk and the amazing wrap-around leaves. Look at the forms of the flower buds, flowers, and the puffy white seed head.

Sowthistle (Wikipedia article) belongs to the genus Sonchus, but identifying individual species can be difficult. This one is probably annual sowthistle (S. oleraceus). It has sturdy, hollow stems and milky sap.

The leaves frequently show the tunnels of leaf-miners, tiny caterpillars that live between the leaf layers. The tips of the stems often bear colonies of aphids.

The flower heads show buds, flowers, and seed heads in all stages of maturity:

For our parting shot, a close-up (below). A winged aphid has just landed – see her at the upper right? She’ll plunge her sucking beak into the plant and enjoy the milky sap, popping out a near-constant stream of tiny wingless daughters, each one already pregnant with more daughters. Within a few days, it is likely that this flower head will be crowded with hundreds of happy aphids:

Of course, it’s always possible that a lady beetle might find the mother aphid and her progeny, in which case all bets are off.

I arrived in the morning, when most of the yard was still in shade. As you can see, the owner of the property has spread a lot of hay on the ground, which has started to decompose in many areas. In some places it’s ankle deep.

Those white boxes are beehives, two of them with active colonies. In the distance at the rear of the yard is a chicken run with four very happy chickens.

The owner has requested a top-to-bottom ecosystem transformation for this space, with  just a few special requests. This will be fun, but also a LOT of work. It’s definitely a big project.

In this post we’ll do a general tour with some comments about possible directions to take. In future posts we’ll look at some more specific elements of the project.

As we enter the yard, on the left is an herb collection, the most maintained part of the garden at present. Owner kept stooping to pull “weeds” – I told her the first rule is “no more pulling of plants!” She acknowledged this might be a challenge for her.

The rectangular stepping stones will probably be replaced by something less linear, maybe wooden rounds or irregular flagstones.

This small bed features mint, salvia, and miscellaneous garbage. Minus the garbage and with some work, this will become a sweet little kitchen herb gardenette.

Looking back to the main yard, there is a bee bath and a huge mound of French lavender, behind which are several large catnip bushes and the beehives. Between the beehive in the front and the two in back are some raised beds, currently hosting a variety of volunteers – what some might call “weeds.”

At the right, against the fence, are piles of wood, rusty shelves of garden junk and some containers of toxic chemicals. Under the thick hay are wooden boards and more scattered junk. All of that stuff will be removed.

Looking to the left, there is a small patio area in the foreground. This will be cleaned up and surfaced with some kind of stones or bricks, made ready for happy garden parties.

On the small table are some veggie starts that the owner wants planted. She wants me to decide where to put them. There are tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, eggplants, some herbs, and a struggling artichoke.

Behind the table are two more raised beds. These will be moved to the front of the yard, where they will get full sun for almost the whole day, rather than the morning shade they get here.

Down the path through the arched metal trellis, the chicken run is visible.

The other raised beds, to the right side of the path. Kind of a mess. Hay and catnip bushes will be removed, and new (purchased) growing mix added. Some of the veggies will be planted here. The two beehives will eventually be moved to a slightly better location near the front fence, where they will get morning wake-up sunlight and partial shade for those hot summer days.

Eventually these two raised beds will also be moved to the front for the full sun there.

Turning around to look toward the front of the yard, one can see the area where the veggie beds will be, already brightly sunlit even at this early hour. Beehives will be near the fence at the picture’s left side.

One of the challenges of this project is that the entire rear of the yard is shaded until midday by tall trees.

While the shade is great for the chicken run, it is a little too much. Some of the tree branches will be artfully removed, resulting in more dappled light for the rear of the property.

The trees include two figs, several majestic pines, and some other broadleaf trees. All of them need serious pruning and shaping.

There is also a struggling rose bush that might do better with more light.

I am imagining a lovely forest floor type ecosystem under the trees in the back. May apples, anyone?

So… off we go! I could not resist getting started right away.

First, I cleared away the junk and catnip from the area around the raised beds by the beehives. We let the chickens out, who happily scratched around finding grubs and beetles in the newly disturbed soil. You go, girls!

There was enough time to partly plant two of the raised beds. I would definitely call this an emergency planting. As you can see, the tomatoes are looking a bit wilted. But this is good soil and they should perk up with proper attention. In the interest of expediency, the veggie plantings here are being done in a  fairly traditional non-ecofarm style, just dropped into the raised beds.

In future posts we’ll take a look at some of the resident interesting plants and critters, and begin to see some more serious cleanup.

Here are updates on this new ecogarden project:

taming the giant lavender

putting in a redwood walkway

in the company of chickens

Thanks for following this project! Your comments are welcome.

This happy little holly sapling has appeared before in this blog. Today we feature its very classy buds and young leaves, already showing their sharp little poky-bits. It’s in its third year now, almost ready to be transplanted into its own container. Still no signs of blooms, but lots of new growth.

European holly (here is the Wikipedia page; sadly it needs some editing!) is an ancient, hardy tree or shrub that used to grow in large forests in Europe. It is interesting to imagine huge, old growth holly trees up to ten meters tall. Such trees are exceptionally rare today.

A mature tree bears many white flowers pollinated by bees, followed in the fall (on female trees only) by the well-known, bright red holly berries. The berries are poisonous to humans, but birds like them, especially after the frosts have mellowed them chemically.

The big question for this little tree is which gender is it, and where can I find a plant of the opposite gender so we can make some berries?

Also looking very classy and happy in the sunlight are these brand new curly willow leaves. This tree is growing in a smallish container, but its long water roots have spread out in a fan underneath. One upcoming task is to repot it, which will be complicated by the fact that much of the tree is deeply entangled in vines and netting.

do you know what this is?

Our last feature today is this mystery herb. Several of these have appeared this spring in the containers upstairs. The curly leaves and distinctive flower stalk should make it easy to identify, but so far it has eluded me.

In our Bay Area climate it’s an annual that starts in mid-winter with a basal rosette of arugula-like leaves, then shoots up a stalk with increasingly curly, dark green leaves. The flowers are tiny and yellow, with four petals, maturing first at the base of the stalk. The unfolding flower buds at the top almost have a spiral structure. Very interesting.

Can anyone offer up a possible identification? Is this beautiful little herb edible by any chance?

If you know what it is, please do leave a comment! (button is at top left of post)

One of the main themes of this blog is what might be called “applied ecology” – ways of healing the planet by creating, maintaining, and evolving ecological systems that are resilient and healthy for Earth and its inhabitants (including us).

acres of palm oil plantation, where Indonesian rain forest used to grow

all around the world, people are catching the ecology bug

They are finally realizing that spraying poisons on farms and home gardens to suppress bugs and weeds is Just Plain A Bad Idea, as butterflies and bees die out and birds fall out of the sky. They are noticing how we are fishing all the edible creatures out of the oceans, from krill to whales. They are seeing how the Amazon basin, Indonesian forests, and other natural treasures are being steadily turned into endless tracts of cattle pasture and monoculture plantations. These and dozens of other warning signs show clearly that our planet, our beloved Gaia, is desperately ill.

The more people notice these horrible trends, the more they are beginning to take action.

gorgeous green roof over a car park in Victoria, BC

big projects and big ideas

There are talented, courageous people producing documentaries, articles, and other large-scale media exposing the truth everywhere.

There are people with Big Ideas like desert-greening using solar seawater desalination, sustainable closed-cycle eco-aquaculture farms, green roofs and green walls, enclosed greenhouse eco-farms, innovative new farming ecosystems using unconventional species, and tons of other fabulous projects.

There is a huge amount of creative exploration going on, with some people spending lots of money and time on such ideas.

some very lucky chickens live here

smaller local efforts

Other people, a group much greater in numbers and adding members all the time, are acting on a more local level.

Some of these are home gardeners turning their lawns into healthy urban wildflower meadows. They are suburban families installing chicken coops and rabbit runs in their back yards, feeding their family farms with kitchen scraps and home-brewed compost. They are guerrilla gardeners, tossing native-plant seed bombs into vacant lots, spreading biodiversity everywhere. They are volunteers helping schools build eco-friendly organic gardens, farms, and composting systems.

Thousands and thousands of us, across the world, are waking up to the ecological imperative of re-growing the planet’s sustaining bounty in large and small ways, everywhere.

everything you see here is edible

a personal quest

Since I recently left the world of “working for a company” the personal quest has moved more and more deeply into the global applied ecology movement.

Personal goals now center on helping people imagine, design, install, and maintain all sorts of eco-friendly systems. I want to show people how to preserve species diversity by growing ecosystem gardens. I want to help people build and run backyard ecosystem farms, where nothing is wasted and excess production helps support the neighborhood, in exchange for kitchen scraps that feed the farm. I want to become a local resource for anyone who wants to be more ecologically attuned to the living systems of the planet.

This blog is offered as both a source of inspiration and an ongoing presentation of what I do. The aim is not only to do this on a local scale with friends and neighbors, but also to take part in the larger movement, possibly joining one or more bigger projects as seems appropriate.

I offer myself to Gaia, and to my fellow humans, as an agent of the global ecosystem. How can I work with you to preserve existing ecosystems and bring more healthy ecological diversity into the world?

some specific directions

There are many great ideas out there, some in development and some still just ideas. Here are some ideas you might find inspiring and interesting. Use your favorite search engine for more information about any of these rapidly evolving fields of applied ecology. There are lots of projects popping up all over the planet.

green wall in Paris, France

green roofs, green walls, and indoor ecospaces

Most buildings are little more than sterile boxes, with carefully controlled, unhealthy, dry air. What a waste of valuable space! The roofs, walls, and interiors of buildings can be so much more.

Instead of ecologically dead surfaces, we could have living greenery, soaking up pollution and releasing clean fresh oxygen. The greenery in turn can attract and support butterflies, birds, and bugs. It can even be “seeded” with wonderful life forms like earthworms, salamanders, and frogs. Indoor ecospaces are wonderfully healthy for humans who live there, since they provide clean air and living natural beauty.

Sahara desert used to look like this

rewilding

Gigantic parts of our planet have suffered enormous losses as a result of human activities.

There are huge deserts that used to be forests. There are endless tracts of grassy open space that used to feature fantastically varied natural life forms, but now only support bland mixtures of invasive generalist species.

All of this ecological devastation was directly or indirectly caused by the works of humans, often hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

The rewilding movement is about converting large and small tracts of land (and sea) into self-sustaining, diverse “wilderness” ecosystems.

The newly growing, managed wildland need not be exactly the same as the ancient ecoscape that was there before humans ruined it. In many cases it would be impossible to fully restore the ancient ecosystem, because of the presence of hard-to-remove introduced alien species. But with a little human intervention of the right kind, almost any bio-wasteland can be made much more diverse, much healthier ecologically, and much more productive for the planet as a whole, even if the species mix is not the same as the ancient original wildscape.

prickly lettuce, bearded iris, and a “living rock” with moss and lichens

ecosystem gardens

As a second-floor apartment dweller with an upstairs container garden and a small bit of actual earth downstairs, my own personal space for gardening is limited. But in this blog perhaps you can see what beautiful diversity is possible even in such a small space.

Here in this suburban zone, in this tiny space, there are hundreds of kinds of plants, including many unusual species that are quite hard to find in nearby gardens and lots. Where did all this variety come from?

I collect soil samples from many locations. There is a wonderful semi-wilderness creek near here, and there are many small areas that are allowed to mostly grow wild. A tiny handful of topsoil from such a place, properly nurtured, can yield up dozens of fascinating new seedlings of plants seldom seen in any “normal” garden.

After a while, such a garden of “collected volunteers” not only becomes a veritable botanical garden in its own right, it also begins to attract a fantastic variety of insects, birds, and other critters. You may see unusual butterflies, maybe even laying their eggs on your unusual plants (a good thing for sure!). You might find bees, beetles or plant-sucking bugs that are very, very rare in the local neighborhood – except, of course, in your garden!

It is one of my main goals to help people create ecosystem gardens, both locally in my neighborhood, and out there in the bigger world.

Read more about ecosystem gardens in another blog post.

wonderful compost “food”

ecosystem farms

If a farm produces any kind of “waste product” at all, it is not truly an ecosystem farm.

A typical pig farm produces tons of noxious pig poop, a kind of slop that is notoriously toxic and hard to deal with. Meanwhile, that wheatfield a few miles away gets plowed several times a year, releasing (and wasting) tons of blowing topsoil. Then it gets hyper-kicked by vast amounts of chemical fertilizers, before growing monoculture crops of grain grasses, most of whose biomass is removed from the land. Neither one is any kind of ecofarm.

But combine the pig farm with the wheat field, scale it down a bit, change the land to critter ratio, and add a few more subsystems, and we could design a true ecofarm where nothing is wasted. Its only inputs might be compostable wastes (maybe from customers!), sunshine, and rain and its only outputs might be edible or useful products.

As a partial first step toward the goal of self-sustaining ecofarms, some people are working on local inter-farm ecosystems, where one farm’s wastes become useful input for another farm of a different kind. This kind of inter-farm ecology is exactly right for suburban environments like Menlo Park, where I live.

One way I can participate in such a local farming ecosystem is by receiving your kitchen scraps and returning to you some of the valuable, power-packed compost I make from it. Another way is to give you seeds of some of the wonderful edible plants that grow here in my own garden. These are not only traditional vegs like carrots, chard, and radishes, but also delicious, nutritious plants like goosefoot, purslane, chickweed, and so much more.

rainforest in Australia’s Daintree Park

so much opportunity!

This is a rare time in human history. Not only are we fast approaching a dangerous, world-changing mega-crisis of overpopulation, pollution, and biosystem degradation, but we are also waking up and rapidly developing ways of healing and rebuilding those same vital biosystems. It is a spine-tingling, nail-biting time. Will the human race wake up quickly enough to save most of the existing biodiversity, or will the planet fall prey to a cataclysmic eco-disaster, in which only the hardiest generalist species will survive?

I want to live in a world in which Morpho butterflies still flit like blue metallic ghosts among the rain forests of South America. If you want these things too, please follow this blog, leave a comment (button is at upper left), or get in touch via nick [at] mindheart [dot] org. What can we do together to heal the Gaian biosphere?