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vegetables

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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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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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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!

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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.

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Spring Special from deep nature gardens

Want an abundant harvest this summer? Now is the time to plan and plant your veggie garden!

This year our Spring Special is all about growing food – and doing it in style, with ease, diverse abundance, and surprisingly low water use. With store-bought fruits and vegetables becoming not only more expensive, but also more and more coated with icky chemicals, isn’t it time to grow your own organic, yummy food plants?

Let’s get together on your property for a fascinating hour to discuss what’s possible in your garden.

  • What edibles do best in the sunny part of your garden?
  • What edibles thrive in dappled forest shade?
  • What edibles are already in your garden that you aren’t aware of?
  • How can you make best use of reliable and productive perennial edibles like fruit trees, rhubarb, artichokes and asparagus?
  • What kind of garden might maximize your harvest? A traditional raised bed garden, an integrated garden where your edibles are a part of your flower garden, or a collection of containers? Or perhaps there’s an innovative garden design that would boost your harvest.

After our on-site visit, you’ll receive an email containing a summary of what we discussed along with any additional advice and information that you might need. If desired, I can include tips for tasty ways to prepare some of the edibles we found in your garden.

 

140402-2138An hour of this kind of intensive garden-planning consultation is usually priced at $90, but until April 30 you can have this useful and inspiring conversation for only $75.

Are you ready to start producing lots of great edibles this season?

Get in touch and let’s set up your appointment!