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seeds

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There she is! I call her the compost beast. She lives on a tarpaulin on the upstairs deck. How beautiful she is, basking in the morning sun.

Let’s open it up and see more of her.

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The right end of the beast is the input end, AKA her “mouth.” This is where the new “compost food” (kitchen scraps, mostly) goes in. The left end is the output end, AKA her (well, you can figure it out).

150222-1050At right is a close-up of part of the input end. There are moldy fruits, egg shells, various other food debris, and you might also notice some bits of shredded paper.

A few chicken bones are allowed into the stream to add more phosphorus and calcium as they slowly break down. There are also a few twigs and stems of garden cuttings, but not the ones that have lots of viable seeds.

In the past I used to take the time to carefully break up the compost food into bite-size chunks, as a way of “pre-chewing” it so the beast could digest it better. But nowadays I don’t bother to pre-chew her food, because she does a very good job of it as the food decays inside of her.

Time to get to work!

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Before I can add any new compost food I need to do a bit of “grooming” using a soft-tined garden rake. With this type of composting one must act as a sorting agent, bringing the largest bits of undecomposed material back to the input end from the output end. They get re-cycled through the beast until they either break down or are removed during an operation I call “slimming down” that will be described in another post.

To accomplish this debris-sorting the rear end is groomed up toward the front end, bringing those larger bits back for re-digestion. Even though this grooming is only done to the surface layers, over time it is a very effective way to keep the beast sorted from front to back.

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Above is today’s “meal.” You can see citrus peels (often considered too acid for making good compost, but the beast can handle them). There are also avocado peels, egg shells, and a coffee filter (the grounds are there too!) and underneath are some rotting eggplant parts and much more.

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Above: A shovel has been used to open out the input end, creating a flattish space where new food can be added. But we are not ready to do that yet.

150222-1117The kitchen scraps alone would not make good compost. They are too dense and wet, and they are chemically unbalanced. First, I have to add some absorbent, high-carbon content bulk.

That’s easy enough. Like most suburban households, we generate a fair amount of scrap newsprint. This excellent material is sliced into strips with an old-fashioned paper cutter and deposited into the beast’s open mouth.

However, we don’t just use any old paper. Fortunately, the right kind is readily available for free. It’s mostly made of local free newspapers, almost all of which (these days) use good paper and non-toxic, soy-based inks. That’s what we want.

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I’m almost done! The compost food is deposited on top of the shredded paper, and mixed around a bit with the shovel. Any really large chunks are chopped into a few smaller pieces.

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Above: The beast’s mouth is re-closed by moving debris from around the edges back up on top of the new food. Now she is ready to digest her meal. Notice how she is all humped up around the new stuff. That hump will drop down over the next day or two, as the kitchen scraps rapidly decompose.

Below: Back in her tarpaulin robe, the compost beast lies in the warm sun, peacefully digesting her new meal.

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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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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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Growing a deep nature garden is not about planting a whole lot of different plants. It’s more about creating a blank slate (or, if you are lucky, a healthy starting ecosystem!) and then allowing the garden to “grow in” from there.

Most patches of ground already contain seeds of hundreds of kinds of plants, including rare natives. One of the basic principles is to start with what you have — within reason, of course. It might be necessary to perform massive triage at first, in which most or all of the plants are physically removed, and some landscaping is often a good idea. Seeds can be added if there’s not much in the ground to begin with.

A deep nature garden does not happen overnight, or even over several months. It’s a serious, long-term relationship between the garden and the gardener. The gardener’s goal is to remove what diminishes beauty, diversity, and productivity while occasionally adding new diversity in various ways.

Over the course of many months, it evolves.

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There may be an early surge of vigorous fast growing plants. These are not “weeds” — we don’t recognize that word. These early pioneers are valuable contributors, quickly building up a new, rich, diverse soil ecosystem. In this group (in the SF Bay Area) are prickly lettuce, sow thistle, petty spurge, grasses, California poppies, lamb’s quarter, purslane, and many more.

As each of these pioneers matures it is pulled out or clipped neatly at the base. Many are strictly deadheaded as their blooms fade. Most pioneers are not allowed to go to seed. Although some of these vigorous early residents are wonderful edibles (purslane, lamb’s quarter, etc), they are best grown for food in containers or farming areas. In the deep nature garden their presence is almost always temporary because they are gradually replaced by slower-growing perennials.

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Among all of these early sprouters are hundreds of other seeds and seedlings, of many different species. As the pioneers come out, these other plants begin to grow. Some are well adapted to their microclimate, and out-compete others. Those might end up dominating, but no species will be allowed to take over.

For a passionate deep nature gardener, a large part of the joy of deep nature gardening is the excitement of waiting to see what new kinds of plants will sprout up.

At any point we can guide the ecosystem’s development in several ways.

  • We can increase diversity in the form of new plants. These can be store-bought or they can be our special eco-packs.
  • We can increase diversity by scattering seed mixes.
  • We can prune plants as they grow, for best artistic, naturalistic appearance.
  • We can actively thin out plants that are limiting the beauty, diversity, or productivity of the garden.
  • We can handle overgrown areas though various forms of local triage.
  • We can scatter soil amendments to improve fertility or nutrient balance.

Gradually, the garden shifts. The big, fast, showy annuals are replaced by slower but more diverse long-lived plants that are more precisely adapted to the particular part of the garden where they grow. Shade plants will grow in the shade, and the dry summer sun lovers will eventually take over in the dry, summer sunny places.

All along the way we gently guide the ecosystem, aiming for that special aesthetic “ah!” moment, over and over again.

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It’s spring and the gardens are growing quickly now. On the upstairs deck the container garden is full of interesting plants, some known and some still unknown. It’s fun to watch the little unknowns grow up and (hopefully!) bloom so that they can be identified. Here are some of the most interesting containers in the current collection.

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Remember “a year with strawberries and holly“? That same container (above) has just received its fourth (or is it the fifth?) full thinning and pruning. The holly tree has just finished its first bloom, and it turns out to be a female. The inconspicuous green berries are in there among the spiky leaves, but it’s not yet clear whether any of them were properly fertilized. Meanwhile, the strawberries are just beginning yet another vigorous growing season. Various other plants are present in the pot, one of them hanging beautifully over the right side.

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Above, a medium size pot contains a gorgeous spray of lamb’s quarter, past the edible stage – for humans, that is. Various small birds visit regularly to feast on the tiny seeds. Some stringy chickweed quests out into the air on the right side.

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Above, a pot on the sun-drenched railing. This one also contains lamb’s quarter but the plants are much smaller. Why? For one thing, this pot gets less water than the other. This pot also has a healthy growth of sedum, a succulent that loves dryish conditions and is actively competing with the lamb’s quarter. Small they may be, but these lamb’s quarter plants also attract seed-hungry birds.

140412-0846At right, a container of various low-growing plants also holds some tall, thin purple kale plants. These graceful, deliciously edible beings have been popping up in many of the containers lately. Some were planted as seeds on purpose, but many, like these, are volunteers that came in with the eco-mix used to start the container. These will not last much longer because I will be eating them soon!

Kale is basically cabbage (Brassica oleracea) that doesn’t form a head. Among the huge group of human-evolved cabbage kin (including broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and many more excellent veggies) it is one of the closest to the original wild type, which is part of the reason it is so easy to grow.

If you have a container garden, plant some kale! It pops up right away and grows in almost any soil. It loves direct sun but also grows (more slowly) in part shade. You can eat all of the tender young plants (except the roots) – just clip it off right at the base. These purple beauties have a sweet, slightly spicy taste.

Below, a closer look at those dark, vitamin-rich leaves:

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140412-0848At right, one of two pots holding some purple-flowering irises harvested from the big stand in the front garden at little yellow house.

This amazing strain of irises seems to have no respect for the seasons. Unlike all the rest of the irises in the collection, they bloom whenever they feel like it, all year round.

There are some downstairs in the ground that just finished a bloom cycle, which is normal for irises at this time of year. But they also bloomed in December, and there were even some blooming during our hard frost. The flowers got zapped, but the buds waiting below just kept on coming. Within a few more weeks, they were blooming again. Crazy plants!

Irises come in two main groups, the bearded irises (like these) that grow from knobby corms right at ground level, and the bulb irises that grow from bulbs under the ground.

Would you like some of these ridiculously eager bloomers? Get in touch! You can have one of these two pots, just come by and get it. There are plenty more where these came from!

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Above, a recently thinned pot, one of the most valued ones. Why? It contains a May apple plant (the two tall leaves), and a California native orchid (the grassy leaves) whose specific ID was forgotten a couple of years ago. If the orchid blooms again (as it did two years ago) I’ll be able to re-identify it. There is also a sweet little strawberry in this container.

I thank my good friend Judy L for donating the May apple and orchid to the collection.

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Remember the “happy springtime raspberry bush?” It’s still alive and thriving! There were a couple of tough winters, but after a full thinning of invasive creeping oxalis, this container has renewed itself with the lush green raspberry canes and a healthy carpet beneath of tiny dichondra leaves.

The creeping oxalis is not completely vanquished – the little 3-lobed leaves still keep emerging, but I have been plucking them out with great persistence. Will it be possible to entirely clear this container of oxalis? I don’t know, but I’m sure going to give it a try!

140412-0851At right is a fascinating little woody sapling that volunteered in a partly shaded container. It is a slow grower that seems sensitive to too much direct sun. It is placed so that it is sheltered by the overhang of the railing, where it gets about 2-3 hours of direct sun every afternoon.

Is it some kind of spice? Is it an ornamental plant? Is it a tropical fruit of some kind? In case you’d like to help me ID this plant, it is evergreen and the new leaves every spring start out covered with a dense pinkish-white fuzz.

Whatever it is, this plant is the only one of its kind I’ve spotted so far, and it will be carefully nurtured! This year it is about 5 inches tall, and it has just split its growing point, resulting in two branches at the top. Will it bloom? Stay tuned for further updates on this fascinating stranger.

Below, a large container that has been allowed to “go jungle” with feverfew stems reaching up and Kenilworth ivy spilling over the edge. The feverfew will soon bloom with hundreds of small daisy-like flowers. It’s super easy to grow and reseeds very well, but needs to be controlled in an open garden.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of some deep nature container gardens. Thanks for coming along!