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flowers

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While preparing a client’s new garden last summer I came across a patch of dormant bulbs in a shady, mossy place under a bush. I tossed some of the topsoil and a few bulbs into a handy plastic bag and brought it home.

The soil and bulbs went into a round pot. There was not enough soil to fill it all the way, but I didn’t want to change the soil chemistry or add any new species to the mix so it was left partly filled. I put the new eco-pack in a partly shaded corner behind some other plants and forgot about it for several months.

As you can see, the bulbs sprouted up! How lovely. But what are they? I don’t know yet, we’ll have to wait until they bloom. What kind of bulbs do you think they are? Tell us your guess in the comments.

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The soil from that mossy place also contained thousands of moss fragments, which also sprouted up in the moist, shaded, forgotten pot. This is some of the lushest, most crisply beautiful moss in any of the eco-packs. Look how it glistens in the sun!

Although this pot was moved temporarily to a sunny location for these pictures, it has now been returned to its semi-shady home, similar to the location where it was originally found under the bush.

When the bulbs bloom, which seems likely this spring, I’ll publish an update. Watch for it in a few months!

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This peat-pot filled to almost overflowing with a grassy looking plant was received from a friend at a recent plant swap. At first I had no idea what it was. There are tons of grassy-leaved plants! But as you can see above, it has recently put out a bunch of drooping flower clusters. Now we can identify it! Let’s have a closer look.

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Wow! Amazing flowers with red-pink bracts above and pendulous drooping individual blooms. Each of these has green petals edged in bright blue with a red base, terminated by long stamens with abundant yellow pollen.

What kind of plant is this? From examination of the leaves and the bases of the leaf clusters, and from the general shape of the flowers, it seemed like some type of bromeliad.

Some research revealed that this is (probably!) Billbergia nutans, AKA “queen’s tears,” a true bromeliad related to pineapples, which grows as an epiphyte (attached to trees above the ground) in tropical areas of the new world.

How delightful to have this easy-to-grow new species in the collection! Now it’s time to divide this big old plant into lots of smaller ones… and anyone in the Bay Area is invited to come on by and get a starter sucker from this plant.

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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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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.

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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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