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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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For once, all the weather models agree: We are going to get really, really wet!

As you may be able to discern from the IR view above, the jet stream is aiming right at us, sucking up gigatons of water off the warm ocean between Hawaii and the California coast. Yes, it is one of those iconic “pineapple express” patterns, and this is going to be a big one. We can expect a day of heavy rain and lots of powerful wind.

141209-0712The storm is expected to arrive in the Bay Area early Thursday morning, with rain and wind lasting all day.

If you have outdoor furniture or any other large, light objects now is the time to move them indoors or out of the wind. Check that your gutters and downspouts are clear. If there are lots of fallen leaves in the street, now is a good time to rake them into a pile away from street drains, or put them into the green bin. Better yet, spread those non-conifer leaves across your garden’s open spaces, where they will not only fertilize the earth, but protect it from erosion by heavy rain.

If you have plants in containers out under the sky, especially if they are succulents or cacti, it might be a good idea to move them to a sheltered spot where the rain will not flood them for hours and hours. Some plants might be killed or damaged by prolonged root flooding.

Trees or bushes with extended branches might be damaged by many hours of high winds. You may be able to protect some of these by tying down the long branches or covering the plants with a tarp that is tied firmly to heavy objects like cinder blocks.

If you have an open composting system, it’s a good idea to cover it with a tarp weighted with bricks or other heavy objects. While the compost will not be killed by a long, heavy rain, such a deep soaking will definitely wash many valuable nutrients down into the ground, where they will eventually be lost into the water table.

I am excited that we are finally getting a beautiful, powerful winter storm. This one looks like the biggest one in years. I can’t wait for those first drops, waking me up Thursday morning early. I hope you will enjoy the storm as much as me!

Want to know more about this coming storm? Check out this blog post from WeatherWest.com.

Below: A water vapor picture, showing how the jet stream is sucking up moisture from the ocean.

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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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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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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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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.