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seeds

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One of the most fascinating projects here at deep nature central (my city apartment!) is the eco-packs, which are essentially very small container gardens. Each one includes one or more kinds of interesting seedlings or small plant starts. They are intended to be diversity enhancements for distribution to local gardens.

Most eco-packs start with a rich 50/50 mix of ultra compost and ordinary cheap planting mix. This is a mostly seed-free mix. In the center of that is deposited just a pinch of eco-mix, which contains something like 300 different kinds of seeds, including natives, domestic flowers and vegetables, and of course a wide assortment of what many people might call “weeds.”

The containers are generally either small traditional plant pots, or plastic containers harvested from our recycling bins. The container must be large enough to stay moist through a sunny, warm day, which means at least a pint or so of volume.

Once the sprouting begins, a successful eco-pack can quickly become rather crowded. Below, the lid of a container that once held a roast chicken from Safeway shows a dense collection of seedlings, many of which are ordinary invasives that need to be thinned out:

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This container is actually not an ideal choice for an eco-pack because it isn’t really deep enough. I’ll transplant this one into a larger pot soon.

Let’s thin out those weeds out-of-place plants:

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What’s left? Dominating the center in the picture above are two seedlings in the solanaceae (tomato / potato / nightshade) family. These are probably nightshade, which is very common and generally thinned out, but there are also some wonderful seeds of jimsonweed in the eco-mix, so I am keeping these until I can determine their exact identity. At the upper left are two sweet little Kenilworth ivy seedlings, one of my favorite small moisture-loving vines. Another one is at the top margin, and another one in front between the two probable nightshades. Also visible, two tiny sprouts in the carrot family, with their finely dissected leaves.

Here are more eco-packs with various kinds of interesting plants:

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This one (above) features two beautiful sprouts in the mint family, possibly lemon balm. At upper left, another little Kenilworth ivy. In the shady upper right is a scarlet pimpernel sprout, another highly invasive plant but one that is really quite pretty. It is a great ecosystem builder in young deep nature gardens, but one that must usually be cleared out as the garden matures.

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One of my favorites in the current collection is this vigorous plant on the left, sharing space with another Kenilworth ivy. This eco-pack has already been repotted once from a much smaller container, and it won’t be long before it gets repotted again. What is this beautiful young plant? It’s much too soon to be sure, but it could be statice or dock, or any of many other plants. I can’t wait to see it bloom!

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Not every eco-pack contains more than one kind of plant, or grows from seed. Here (above) are two little pots with sunchoke starts, growing from tubers. Also known as Jerusalem artichoke, these plants are in the sunflower family and will grow into 4-6 foot stalks bearing happy yellow flowers. In the fall, the stalks die back and the delicious edible tubers can be dug from the ground. Naturally, we’ll save a few for some new eco-packs!

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I can’t resist another picture of my favorite tiny vine. By now I’m sure you know what this is called!

The small white rectangle is a chunk of egg shell, one of the most visible ingredients in the ultra compost. Egg shell is a source of valuable calcium and a potent slug deterrent.

One of the best things about container gardening is how easy it is to control plants that otherwise can become incredibly invasive and unwelcome in an in-ground garden. Below: a gorgeous young buttercup oxalis grows rapidly, well on its way to sending up its beautiful, edible, tangy and delicious yellow flowers. Here in this container (and soon to be moved up to a larger one, where it will spread and grow further) it is completely under control and will provide lovely flowers and salad garnish for years to come, but in the ground in the garden it is extremely difficult to control.

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Local folks (including my garden clients and anyone else who’d like some new diversity in their garden) are welcome to receive eco-packs. Just get in touch, and I’ll tell you where I live and we can set up a time for you to stop by!

For now, all the eco-packs are free (although not all of them are available yet), but once I begin to accumulate some rare and especially interesting ones there may be a money price for those special ones.

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

 
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We rejoin our story of the transformation of our flagship site, little yellow house in Menlo Park, a short five days after the removal of the giant old silk tree.

It is November 14, 2012. The front garden, now fully exposed to sun, is about to begin a long-term shift toward something much more lush and interesting. But right now it still looks bare in many places. The front wall of the house bears a bright white scar where a huge old jasmine was removed.

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On the left side of the front walk the garden was less affected by the tree removal. From left to right above, a healthy mugo pine occupies the far corner near the neighbor’s driveway; in the near corner there are three daisy bushes; in front of those, a little patch of violets and decorative strawberries; filling the background, a big old wisteria “tree-vine” that has been neglected for years; and in front of the wisteria there are two silvery French lavender bushes. The ground has been prepared and covered with leaves scattered outward from beneath the wisteria.

The front edges of this zone have been slightly excavated, so that the soil at the edge is lower than the sidewalk. That way, any watering or rain overflow will not wash soil out across the walk.

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The right side of the walkway looks much more bare. A lot of invasive violets have been removed along with a large amount of other common plants such as grasses that were occupying most of the space. At the left is a dense pittosporum bush that we will try to preserve. In front of it are some butterfly irises running toward a large patch of bearded irises in the far background. Just behind the left-most two rocks is a single stand of agapanthus, which will also be kept. It is the only full-size agapanthus that will be allowed to remain. The low patches of green in the foreground are mostly violets and various other fairly invasive plants, including the dreaded buttercup oxalis, destined to be one of the most frequently-thinned plants in this garden.

What is not visible here are the tremendous number of tiny seeds already present in the soil. As we will see in future episodes of this story, this garden still bears many traces of its former history.

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In 2012 we actually had some early winter rain. Here in a bare patch in front of the pittosporum bush there are hundreds of small seedlings. These include many grasses (soon to be removed!) and a bunch of fast growing pioneers we will allow to stay just long enough to do their good work of opening the soil and attracting some beneficial insects. These small ecosystem-builders include petty spurge, groundsel, cut-leaf geranium, chickweed, and more of the still-ubiquitous English violets. Also present, tons of buttercup oxalis coming up from their deep bulbs.

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Also in the same area, some naked lady bulbs sprout vigorously. These will now do extremely well in the newly sunny space!

Meanwhile, over in the driveway are stacked some of the limbs taken from the big old silk tree that was removed in the previous episode. They are covered with a truly amazing ecosystem of lichens and some small mosses. Some of these made lovely holiday decorations inside of little yellow house:

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Next: A new tree goes in, and a closer look at more of the interesting plants already present in little yellow house front garden.

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Way out back behind the abandoned car lot, out by the train tracks, deep nature is returning. Watched over by graffiti and boarded up windows, the pavement cracks slowly yield to invading plants and critters.

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090614-25Above, a triangular nano-garden of spotted spurge and annual grasses. Both are superbly adapted to this harsh environment. Each of the spurge plants can release thousands of nearly microscopic seeds that can remain viable for decades until they fall into a suitable place. The grass seeds carry tiny back-facing spines that help them lodge deeply into the cracks.

At right, a healthy looking plant with slightly fuzzy, slightly sticky leaves (is it some kind of cudweed?) pushes up through some tiny, reddish unknown plants, which might be thyme-leaf sandwort

Below, longer views of some more grown-in areas. These completely untended nano-gardens feature more cudweed, grasses, and some stands of tall prickly lettuce.

Also present are dead leaves dropped by nearby oak and eucalyptus trees, adding their shelter and nutrients to the tiny ecosystems forming at the bases of the pioneer plants.

We stroll around a bit more, enjoying the completely unpruned, totally natural shapes of the plants pushing up through the cracks.

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Below: bright sunlight shines through yellow-green leaves of prickly lettuce.

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Below: Around the corner there is a whole different kind of nature garden, where young eucalyptus saplings drop their chemically acrid, slow-decaying leaves to form an ever-deepening layer over the pavement.

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Below: A small eucalyptus has sprouted at the base of a paint-peeling garage door.

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Postscript: This area was photographed in June of 2009. Today, it has been repeatedly cleared of plants, and there is talk of tearing down the old buildings and putting in condos and “light retail.”

Oh well…

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The first “domestic” (human-bred-for-hugeness) strawberries of the year are now almost ripe. This is the first year that the volunteer strawberries in the container garden are receiving the brand-new seed-free ultra-compost, and it shows. Just look at these beauties!

The red-veined stems in the left rear belong to another volunteer, a strapping young seedling of Swiss Chard. It will be relocated into a new pot before it outgrows this one.

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130430-0814Yum. These are not the only nearly-ripe domestic berries. There are at least 30 more in various pots throughout the upstairs container garden. All of them sprouted as volunteers, right out of the seeded eco-compost (which contains many seeds of food plants, having been created partly from kitchen scraps).

The sturdy young plant pictured at right is also being fed the new seed-free ultra-compost. It has sent out six tendrils (one is not visible in this picture) three of which are being rooted in another pot, which is out of frame below.

Looks like a good year for big, fat strawberries!

Meanwhile, deep in the shadowy recesses of the deep nature garden downstairs, the smaller wild strawberries have been blooming and fruiting for several weeks already. Those wild berries are small, but wow, what flavor they have.

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Always, with commercial agriculture, it seems like we have to compromise between flavor and nutrients on one hand, and sheer production mass on the other. Which is better?

I like the results when commercial strains are carefully grown with lots of love, hand-pruned and hand-fed, to create huge berries that actually taste good, that can be left to ripen naturally until they are bright red and plump. Yum!

But those little wild type berries sure are tasty.

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This time of year we see bittercress (Cardamine spp.) in gardens around the Bay Area. It is related to the Arabidopsis thaliana “research cress” that is used around the world in genetic plant research.

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There are several species that are difficult to distinguish. If it’s blooming now, in January-March, it’s probably hairy bittercress (C. hirsuta). If it blooms in early summer it could be little bittercress (C. oligosperma). There are a couple of other less common varieties. All of them are small, cute, and totally harmless.

Although hairy bittercress is native to Europe, in my experience it is not at all invasive. You might read other opinions though!

130303-1431From the earliest stages, bittercress is distinctive. The rosette of tiny, pinnate leaflets with one larger, terminal leaflet is unique.

No matter whether you find them invasive or not, please don’t spray herbicides, as some authors suggest.

Instead, may I suggest you eat them? They are small, brightly flavored, and excellent as a flavor enhancer in salads. All parts of the plant are edible.

These tiny gems are always welcome in my gardens. They need moist, nearly bare ground to grow, and are often seen in shady corners where the moist ground has recently been slightly disturbed. Their sweet little flowers are tiny and inconspicuous, but their exploding seed pods are extremely cool.

As you might expect, bittercress tastes fairly bitter. But chop a few of these miniature leaves into a micro-salad for a nice little extra bite of sharpness. They are high in vitamins and very good for you, as long as you don’t spray refined chemicals in your garden.

By the time they start looking like the mature plants surrounding the pretty rock in the picture below, they are past edible. I generally pull them out at this stage, enjoying the mini-explosions of their ripe seed pods, spreading more seeds of this delicious little salad enhancement all over my welcoming garden.

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We’ve had some rain lately and every little space is sprouting up with lots of green. Here at the edge of the gravel parking space the dirt between the stones has exploded into life. All those seeds were right there in the soil, through all the hot baking summer days, driven over repeatedly by many cars and trucks. Amazing that they are still viable!

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There are at least 20 kinds of seedlings in here! Sadly, all of this mixed salad has to be pulled out. But we can still enjoy its green lushness, thanks to pixels and bits.

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Sedges have edges and rushes are round.

I think I learned that line in high school. Sedges, like grasses, have flat, long leaves. But unlike grasses, they have three-sided stems with edges. Rushes, which also resemble grasses, have long, thin, round needle-like leaves that usually stick more or less straight up in bunches.

This sedge is probably tall flatsedge, Cyperus monandrus. Most gardeners pull these out right away, knowing they can incredibly invasive. But in this deep nature garden, many otherwise invasive plants are allowed to get a small space of their own. This tall flatsedge has a nice semi-shady place. It has built itself into a lovely little clump that attracts various interesting critters.

If you decide you’d like a small (or large) clump of sedge in your nature garden, here’s a bit of advice. If you don’t want to be pulling out thousands of sedge sprouts, cut off the seed heads as soon as they are ripe.

Here’s an idea: display them in a place that their seeds will not spread all around the garden. How about mounting them near a bird feeder, maybe over a cement deck? Little birdies like to eat sedge seeds.

Or you could be a fanatical deep nature art gardener like me and enjoy the beautiful seed heads as they naturally age in place — and I guarantee you’ll be pulling out sedgelets forever, just like me.