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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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We have not seen much dew in the Bay Area in this year of record drought, so here’s a reminder that sometimes there is actual moisture around here! On December 24, 2012 the sun lit up this tiny spider web among irises and Santa Barbara daisies.

140519-0623The spider that spun this web was no larger than a pin head, yet it contained enough instinctive knowledge to construct this complicated, 3-dimensional structure suspended expertly from  leaves and stems.

A typical organic garden contains thousands of spiders of many kinds. Most of them remain hidden in the vegetation, actively exploring for prey. Only a few spin webs that are large enough to be easily noticed.

The presence of spiders in the garden is ecologically profound, because they eat a significant fraction of the flying and crawling insects. In webs just like this one in the same garden, I have spotted fungus gnats, parasitic wasps, fruit flies, many other small insects, and even a lady beetle.

There are more than 42,000 kinds of spiders. They have been around for 400 million years, evolving from fascinating little critters called trigonotarbids that looked a little like modern ticks and mites.

Back in those early days there were no dew-spangled spider webs because web-weaving spiders had not yet evolved. True spiders with spinnerets appeared around 300 million years ago during the Carboniferous, a time when yard-long dragonflies cruised the skies. It must have been a great time to evolve predators!

There’s more about spider evolution at Wikipedia. There’s also a neat article about trigonotarbids.

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

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It’s November 19, 2012, and the garden at little yellow house is now as blank as it will be. The big square section on the right of the front walk is about 50% bare ground. The biggest plant is the pittosporum bush  near the house on the left. To its right (near the truck) is the bare space where the giant silk tree came out.

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On the left side the big wisteria looms over three just-pruned daisy bushes. On the right are some grayish French lavender bushes, and on the left a butterfly iris and a low Santa Barbara daisy. Directly in front are some decorative strawberries and English violets.

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The right side street strip contains purple-blooming lantanas, still unpruned and just recovering from the damage done during the great big silk tree removal. Also present here, buttercup oxalis and some annual grasses pushing up between the step stones at the street edge. At the upper right, the street strip is temporarily shaded by a street-side recycling bin.

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In the left side street strip the blue mailbox post rises near a massive clump of red-flowering stonecrop, also known as sedum, currently not blooming. Beyond, a wild-looking mix of white flowering sweet alyssum, creeping oxalis, California poppies, and much more. This small section of the garden is already one of the most diverse, ecologically healthy areas.

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Between the big pittosporum bush and the front of the house an old flagstone walkway is being deconstructed. These stones will be reassembled into a more eco-friendly mortar-free patio where mosses and other small plants can establish their own kind of ecosystem between the stones. Beyond the remains of the walk way is the blank space where the silk tree was removed. This is where the next major action will take place. Let’s fast forward a couple of weeks to December 5…

140510-0917Here in Menlo Park we are very tree-aware. When a large old tree comes out (a “heritage tree”) the law says you have to plant a new tree that can grow as big.

At right, two trusty garden experts from Roger Reynold’s Nursery put in in a strapping young red maple. Sadly, Roger Reynold’s has since gone out of business.

We chose a large-leafed deciduous tree to replace the old silk tree. While this maple will drop its big crinkly leaves all over the garden, they will be easy to remove from the tops of bushes and smaller plants, and easy to redistribute under the bushes and in other deserving parts of the garden. Unlike the old silk tree, it will not drop tons of fine debris, smothering everything beneath. It will also experience a wonderful annual cycle, being beautiful in different ways around the year. A big improvement!

For now, the new garden citizen is small and bare. In coming episodes of this series of posts you’ll be able to watch as it leafs out, grows a bit, drops its leaves, then leafs out and grows some more. We’ll prune it now and then as its branches reach out into the air. It will be quite a few years before it reaches the garden-shading extent of the old silk tree!

Below: On December 10, 2012 the garden at little yellow house basks in the slanting winter sun. Even now, it is mostly a blank slate. Its deep nature evolution has only just begun!

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Next: the garden greens up with massive diversity, and the first frost of the winter.

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It has now been almost two years since this current adventure began into deep nature gardening. The work has evolved, and so has the very basic concept of what a deep nature garden is, and how it works.

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It has been amazing to experience the widely different perspectives people have on gardening, and even on the basic definition of what a garden is. I have worked among straight-edged platonic topiary solids, and amidst the wild tangles of ten-year-old thickets. In all of these very different plant-filled spaces, the question comes up of what the owner actually thinks a “garden” is.

I want to present deep nature gardening in an accurate way, so that people understand the concept and can make an intelligent decision about whether to create such a garden, or hire me to do it.

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What is a deep nature garden?
It’s a bounded slice of managed nature.

It’s a zone of the planet’s surface that is tended by a human and guided skillfully towards greater beauty, diversity, and productiveness.

It’s an ever-changing, evolving work of art.

It is an ongoing expression of an intimate interaction between one or more humans and a well-loved patch of soil.

Want to know more? Read about the principles of deep nature gardening.

If you would like a deep nature garden, I can create one for you or I can teach you how to do it yourself. If this sounds interesting, please get in touch!

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I recently received this sturdy Helleborus from a client’s garden (thanks, Franklin!) and planted it in a pot with some 50/50 ultra-compost / cheap planting mix blend. Today there are these sweet little cup fungi at the base.

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Cup fungi are in the division Ascomycota of the fungi, an ancient lineage containing about 230 species. The spores are released from the inside surface of the cup, either by the splashing of water drops or by airflow across the top opening.

I have not seen this kind of cup fungus before, so it is new (to me!) in my gardens. I’m not even going to try to identify it. Fungi in general, and especially the Ascomycota, can be difficult to pin down, often requiring a good microscope to look at the shapes of the spore-bearing structures.

It’s always such a pleasure to find fungi fruiting bodies among the plants. Judging from their location right at the base of the new plant, these probably came in with it. I happily welcome them!

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I am happy to announce that with the completion of a certain long-term project in coming weeks there will be a new opening for a regular deep nature garden client (or other interesting commitment!) up to three hours plus per week. This is an exciting opportunity to begin a brand new garden transformation.

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Want to know more? Read about the principles of deep nature gardening. I’m available for long-term garden transformations and in-depth consultations to help you evolve your own deep nature garden.

If a deep nature garden is not quite what you’re looking for, but you’d still like to help support my work, the best way is by spreading the word about what I do. Your kind referrals have always been my lifeblood in this work.

Can you think of anyone in your life that would like to learn more about naturalistic, edible, or artistic gardening? I can give you some business cards, or you can send them to this web site, deepnaturegardens.com.

The new opening in the weekly schedule does not have to be filled by a deep nature garden. It could be an eco-farm greenhouse or an enclosed aquaculture / crop ecosystem. There are other possibilities too. For more creative ideas, look in this site’s top bar under the menu called “our offerings.”

140416-0553Anyone who refers someone who signs up for regular visits or any other paid offering will receive their choice of:

    • dinner with me at an <insert ethnicity> restaurant
    • one hour of garden consultation, in person or on the phone
    • three hours of hands-dirty gardening
    • five eco-packs from our current collection

I’m activating the deep nature referral network… who will turn up the next lead?

Thanks in advance to all the great fans of deep nature gardening! What a cool way to serve the world.

Nick Turner

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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.

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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I love starting work in a garden early in the morning. One nice thing about these cool early hours is that many insects are still slow-moving and partly asleep. One such was this lacewing, a voracious predator of aphids and other small critters. I spotted it just as the sun touched the roses.

This one is probably a brown lacewing in the family Hemerobiidae of the order Neuroptera. These are less common than the green ones, and like the green lacewings they are always a welcome sight in the garden.

If the wide, stuffed-looking abdomen is any guide, this one is a female ready to lay eggs. The eggs are fascinating, deposited on the ends of erect, silk hairs attached to the undersides of leaves. Why the hairs? Some theorize that they protect the tiny, active larvae from each other by making it impossible for them to eat the other eggs before they crawl away looking for prey. Amazing little insects!

Here’s more about brown lacewings.

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The lacewing was not the only critter hiding among the roses.

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