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Deep nature gardening in containers can be challenging because there is a lot less room, and water and nutrients can be quickly depleted. Above is a container with some strawberry plants and a little holly sapling. It is late March 2012, and this container has just been thinned of annuals from the previous winter’s growing season. A little white clover has been left at the rear to help enrich the soil and there are a few small creeping oxalis and other small seedlings.

All of these plants came up from random seeds present in the eco-mix that was used to start this container several years before the above picture was taken. Here, the container has already been through a few cycles of growth and thinning.

It is not always necessary to do this severe degree of thinning in a container but in this case I want to encourage the strawberries to grow lushly and bear fruit, so most competition has been removed. A sprinkle of extra-rich eco-mix was added to encourage new growth.

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Above: By May of 2012 the creeping oxalis has spread and now bears cute purple flowers. There are many new seedlings, including a grayish cudweed just left of center. The strawberries have also become lusher, and the holly has a crown of new leaves. Behind the holly are some brownish clover seed heads. Also present (but hard to see): chickweed, lamb’s quarter, and more.

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By late June, even more growth. The cudweed has sent up flower stalks taller than the holly, and the white clover has intruded into the front of the container. It will need to be limited back very soon! But even with the competition, the strawberries are doing great, blooming and setting fruit in the depths of the leaves.

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Early October, and beautiful ripe strawberries dangle over the edge of the container. More are ripening all through the micro-jungle. The white clover has been completely removed, along with cudweed and some others. A tiny new tomato plant pokes up at right front.

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By early December the tomato has grown up a bit more and now bears one humble, green fruit. To its left another cudweed has sprouted up, and in the far back another creeping oxalis has filled in with pretty leaves. The strawberries have become dormant, and just hold on to a few green, yellow, brown and red leaves. At the far right a few sow thistle plants have sprouted and behind them are two stems of lamb’s quarter. Despite the lush appearance, this container is now growing very slowly in the cool winter weather.

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Mid-February 2013 brings us right around again, after a fairly drastic late winter thinning.The dormant strawberries are now fully freed of competition, once again ready for the next growing season. The holly in back is now about twice as tall. After the thinning, a generous layer of seeded eco-mix was strewn everywhere.

In the far background at the extreme upper right (beyond the neighbor’s deck) a blooming magnolia tree drops its petals onto the ground.

Just a few weeks later the container was, once again, lushly filled with interesting new sprouts.

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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.

A favorite plant is this sweet little blueberry bush, inherited from a neighbor. It was planted in this spot when it had only two tiny branchlets. The first year it bore nine berries, but what sweet, plump juicy treats they were.

This year, after a lush crop of more than 100 white-pink flowers, its six branches were laden heavily with plump, blue, edible gifts. While some of them were shared with the birds and slugs, most of them ended up inside of me. With the berries long gone the bush shows a different color as its leaves turn bright red.

Blueberries are in the family Ericaceae, a huge group that includes cranberries, heaths, manzanitas, madrones, strawberry trees, azaleas and rhododendrons. Most of these prefer low-fertility, acid conditions. My favorite close blueberry relative is Hawaii’s little red ohelo berry, which I have enjoyed while hiking in the lava fields near Kilauea volcano.

It’s hard to determine exactly what variety of blueberry this is. All of them are Vaccinium species, but there are several wild types and many cultivars. My best guess is that it is a hybrid of V. corymbosum (highbush blueberry) and V. angustifolium (lowbush blueberry). That would make it a half-high blueberry, very hardy and typically grown in California.

Follow back through time and read the previous blueberry post. From there you can follow further back to even earlier posts.

Do you remember the happy springtime raspberry bush? It has grown quite a lot, and now there are berries – but as anticipated, they are less than impressive.

Above is shown the very best stem of berries on the bush. It has three small berries, the largest of which has a mighty seven drupelets. Still, they are a pretty red color and the very tiny drupelets actually do taste like raspberry.

Most of the berries look more like the somewhat pathetic specimen at right, with two whole drupelets. Why are the berries so small? Very likely this bush is a hybrid between two commercial plants, whose genes got reassorted during the cross. Such hybrids rarely turn out to be of much edible value, whether the plant in question is a raspberry, radish, or rutabaga.

It is because of this quality hit from hybrid plants that heirloom seeds are so important for use in ecosystem farming. Heirlooms, if properly cultivated and pollinated, provide steady quality through many generations. Because of this long-term consistency, heirloom crops and other plants can also be more easily selected for new, better traits, which are easier to spot against the steady gene line.

UPDATE: A blast from the past and a more current photo.

Meanwhile, not far away something more impressive is growing. Remember the first blackberry flower? Now it and its sisters are growing into some very respectable looking berries:

The red color of this gorgeous specimen is intermediate between the hard, green berries and the luscious, ripe black ones. Most of the 50 or so blackberries on the canes still look more like the younger ones below, posing next to the rain gauge with leaves glowing in the sun:

Berries from previous years on these canes were delicious. This year’s crop is even larger! The size of the crop is especially interesting, considering that the canes are growing out of this container, featuring a carpet of moss and sedum, blackberry canes coming up at the right, and a happy carrot going to seed on the left: