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

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December 19, 2012. Morning sun slants across the garden at little yellow house. There was some serious rain, and now thousands of sprouts are popping up in every blank space. The garden is greening up!

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Above: An odd little corner of the front strip features a variety of fascinating plants including petty spurge, groundsel, mallow, cut-leaf geranium, English violets, buttercup oxalis and more, plus a few pretty autumn leaves. Here’s a closer look:

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Right now, our most important task in this garden is thinning out extra sprouts of anything that is too abundant, plus removal of certain plants like buttercup oxalis that we generally prefer to restrict to selected areas because of their invasive nature.

Below: An area shadowed by a purple lantana in the street strip shows a bit of frost on leaves of English violet.

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Above: On the left side of the front walk the daisy bushes enjoy the sun while the wisteria bush behind it is still in shade. It leaves are turning yellow and dropping down. There’s frost on the neighbor’s roof in the background. Under the daisy bushes in front there is a carpet of violets and decorative strawberries, still filling in. Like almost every other plant in this garden they were there to begin with, not deliberately planted.

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Above: Skipping forward to Christmas eve, 2012 the garden continues to grow in rapidly. In the front strip is a drift of blooming buttercup oxalis, pushing up between the frost-burned stems of lantanas. In spite of the frost damage, some stems of lantana still bear pretty purple flowers.

This is one of two areas where we are allowing the oxalis to stay. Here it has to compete with the vigorous lantanas, and it is also quite difficult to extract from this zone without damaging the lantanas. The other oxalis drift is under the big wisteria bush, where they look pretty pushing up through the carpet of fallen leaves.

Below: Closer looks at the buttercup oxalis. The beautiful yellow flowers are edible and excellent in a tart-sweet, tangy way. Try them in salads!

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Below: A few more sweet little scenes from the garden at little yellow house on Christmas eve, 2012. We see English violets, sweet alyssum, a cute mushroom, and some autumn color.

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Next: Wisteria drops its leaves, the owner begins a stone patio, and there’s lots more thinning to do.

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At last, it looks like some good rain is coming to the Bay Area. This morning’s sunrise flared up with brilliant red fire, lighting up the landscape with crimson.

There was a brief photography window for about five or six minutes. What an explosion of color!

Sailors (and gardeners) take warning! It’s going to be wet soon.

Yay!

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The headlines proclaim, “The Worst California Drought In Recent History!” At the same time, thousands of gardens across the Bay Area still feature green lawns watered every day by pop-up, high pressure sprinklers, releasing a flood of water to keep them green, along with copious mist that evaporates into the air. What’s wrong with this picture?

In our semi-arid climate with frequent, prolonged droughts, any kind of lawn that needs regular water is wasteful of one of our most precious resources. More people are choosing to reduce or eliminate their lawn irrigation. You might have a golden-brown lawn or an inert, sun-baked gravel- or dirt-scape. There are even dead, dry lawns that have been spray-painted green.

Some people might choose to replace their lawn with a succulent garden, or with a heavily mulched space with super-drought tolerant plants (often California natives) watered by tiny little drip heads.

There is certainly nothing wrong with these water-wise lawn replacements. Every one of them reduces water usage and helps us better manage our resources. Congratulations to all gardeners who choose these and other xeriscaping options.

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At deep nature gardens we have developed another water-wise alternative for ecologically conscious gardeners.

If you value beauty, diversity, and abundance but you don’t like drip-watered mulch-scapes, slow-growing succulent gardens or spray-painted lawns, consider creating an ultra-drought-tolerant deep nature garden.

Here in the Bay Area we are surrounded by hills covered with some of the lushest, most diverse and abundant ecosystems in any dry climate on the planet. Our beautiful chapparal hillsides are supremely drought tolerant and yet they are densely clothed with rich, diverse vegetation. How do they do it?

We have studied the evolution of drought-tolerance in garden spaces, especially the kind of “managed nature” that is present in a deep nature garden.

You can have a garden of exceptional beauty, diversity, and abundance that is able to survive even times of extended dryness. Even when it is dry, such a garden can feature green leaves and an assortment of open flowers that attract bees, butterflies, and many other critters.

Any time is a great time to get started. We’ll remove that thirsty grass. We’ll move some soil around, making high and low places, and add some beautiful natural looking rocks with moss and lichen. We’ll plant a few starters and scatter a layer of eco-mix seeding blend. There will be a carefully managed watering scheme that will encourage just the right blend of plants. As everything grows in we’ll remove anything that does not fit.

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Within a few months you’ll see the beginnings of something extraordinary: a natural looking garden that is equally healthy whether it is in the middle of a wet rainy season or an extended California drought. Not only is it resilient to wet and dry, it is also beautiful. Deep nature gardens are living works of art.

If this sounds interesting please get in touch. Let’s have a free visit to your garden and talk about what is possible.

We look forward to hearing from you.

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One of the most common comments from deep nature garden clients is about how much activity there is. “It’s totally buzzing with butterflies, bees, and birds!” said one client recently. But you don’t need to create a full deep nature garden to bring much more critter action into your outdoor spaces. Let us show you how!

Your garden is part of Gaia, the great global ecosystem. By making it more welcoming for many kinds of creatures, you directly help to heal the planet and contribute to the beauty, diversity, and abundance of the whole world. This is your invitation to take a more active role in that healing.

 

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Any garden can be made into a more critter-friendly place with some well-chosen additions. Got a wood pile? A rock pile? A bird bath? A bat box? What is the best critter shelter for that shady place under the camellia? What kind of critters can be attracted to that sunny bank?

You don’t have to give up the lawn or the trimmed hedge (unless you want to!) and you can decide which features to actually add. Your garden animation project can happen in easy steps, one new critter-happy feature at a time.

Deep nature gardeners are passionate about bringing nature back to suburbia. We want a garden full of movement, with lots of flying insects, birds, and even lizards, newts, frogs, and toads. It’s not an ecosystem without the critters!

More and more people are doing garden upgrades to attract and nurture many kinds of wonderful creatures. Will you be part of this movement?

 

Here are some of the excellent critter-friendly garden upgrades you can do:

* bird houses and bat boxes. There are many kinds of birds, and many kinds of bird houses. Just one is not enough! Your garden can be much more bird friendly if they have a place to nest. You can also create bird-friendly nesting zones in other places, such as a thicket.

140621-1417* flowers. Flowers are not just there to look pretty! They are very important in our gardens. They are for nectar, for pollen, and for specific kinds of creatures. We can help you select kinds of flowers that will bring many happy, busy flower-loving insects and birds.

* plants for leaf eaters and seed feeders. Plants are the base of the whole food chain. By providing plants that serve as food sources, you can attract even more fabulous creatures. The larval food plants of many kinds of butterflies are easy to grow, as are plants that provide seeds or nesting materials for birds. You can even grow plants that attract herbivorous insects that in turn tend to attract certain specific kinds of predators.

* bee boxes, bee banks, and other special insect features. There are many ways to attract and nurture an abundance of different kinds of insects. Many wonderful insects are becoming increasingly rare in suburban areas. By creating habitat for them you help preserve precious species diversity, which helps to heal the planetary ecosystem.

* a thicket. Every garden should have one! Here is an area, small or large, where humans never go. In this one place, certain plants are allowed to create a dense tangle of stems and leaves, pruned only on the outside. There are some kinds of birds and mammals who only nest and breed in such thickets.

140621-1423* water features. Whether it is a puddle, a bird bath, a pond, or even a pump-driven stream, a water feature is one of the very best ways to attract creatures not seen in any other place. Everyone wants a drink now and then, and lots of creatures use the water in other ways as well. If you don’t have some kind of water feature in your garden you are missing out on a lot of diversity.

* artistically placed decaying logs. Possible shelter for newts, toads, small mammals like wood mice, and a whole host of smaller critters like spiders, crickets, centipedes, and much more. There might also be moss and mushrooms.

* a beautifully arranged rock pile. A great place to find lizards, field mice, and maybe even a snake, plus a wide assortment of smaller critters who appreciate the dry spaces inside.

* a tree stump or dead tree (snag). If you have one, don’t yank it out! A tree stump can be one of the most interesting critter habitats. As it slowly returns to the soil it attracts an ever-changing, ever-deepening collection of happy creatures.

* open composting area. A place where the natural process of compost conversion happens out in the open, where local birds and other creatures can come to find many kinds of abundant food animals like grubs, worms, and other compost-dwellers. We are amazed at the unusual, interesting birds who visit our open compost systems.

These are only a few of the interesting and valuable garden upgrades you can add to bring more critters to your garden. There are many more, including dry composting, moss gardens, dirt / soil / mud banks, special soil areas, and even special “food breeders” designed to enhance the local ecosystem by releasing hundreds of harmless but highly nutritious small insects.

 

140621-1427let us help you make it happen
If all of this sounds as cool and exciting to you as it does to us, please get in touch!

As always, you are welcome to have a free get-acquainted visit. Let’s walk around in your garden spaces and talk about the possibilities.

Even the smallest gardens can be upgraded for better creature support, and we can offer countless creative ideas.

Mount critter shelters on a blank wall or hide them under the bushes. Add a few containers of clover, dill, or other butterfly larval food plants. If you grow veggies like carrots or brassicas, let a few bolt into bloom to attract many kinds of pollinators. Grow common, easy “weeds” like lamb’s quarter and amaranth that provide abundant seeds that small birds like finches simply can’t resist. If there’s a bird bath nearby, so much the better.

Read more about creative, artistic garden upgrades.

Want to get started? Let’s set up a free introductory appointment!

There are critters out there who need good homes! Will you help them?

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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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