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While preparing a client’s new garden last summer I came across a patch of dormant bulbs in a shady, mossy place under a bush. I tossed some of the topsoil and a few bulbs into a handy plastic bag and brought it home.

The soil and bulbs went into a round pot. There was not enough soil to fill it all the way, but I didn’t want to change the soil chemistry or add any new species to the mix so it was left partly filled. I put the new eco-pack in a partly shaded corner behind some other plants and forgot about it for several months.

As you can see, the bulbs sprouted up! How lovely. But what are they? I don’t know yet, we’ll have to wait until they bloom. What kind of bulbs do you think they are? Tell us your guess in the comments.

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The soil from that mossy place also contained thousands of moss fragments, which also sprouted up in the moist, shaded, forgotten pot. This is some of the lushest, most crisply beautiful moss in any of the eco-packs. Look how it glistens in the sun!

Although this pot was moved temporarily to a sunny location for these pictures, it has now been returned to its semi-shady home, similar to the location where it was originally found under the bush.

When the bulbs bloom, which seems likely this spring, I’ll publish an update. Watch for it in a few months!

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Here is a smallish eco-pack, whose main feature is a beautiful little Solanum “potato vine” (maybe S. seaforthianum or S. jasminoides) climbing up a post in the middle. This plant was deliberately placed here, sprouting from a bulb harvested from a client’s garden in San Jose, CA. I’m going to up-pot it into the round black pot.

150222-1213Right: The vine is not the only plant in the eco-pack. It also contains a tiny little stinging nettle deep in one corner. There are also a few small seedlings of scarlet pimpernel and Kenilworth ivy plus a few other seedlings that are still too small to identify.

When up-potting an eco-pack (or planting it in the ground) it is important to do our best to preserve as many of the plants as possible. Let’s see if we can keep the little nettle and the other seedlings.

Placing a few fingers directly on the soil (between the plant stems!) I invert the pot and squeeze it gently with my left hand. After a few squeezes the whole thing slips easily out.

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Above: The pack has been very carefully removed from its pot and the destination pot has a bit of good planting mix in the bottom. This is the perfect time to up-pot this eco-pack because the roots have grown enough to hold the soil together but not so much that they are sucking the last bits of nutrients out. We want to see the roots around the outside, but we also want to see a good amount of soil.

150222-1227Right: The pack and its rectangular chunk of soil rests on the planting mix in the bottom of the new pot. I do not “rough up” the root ball in any way – in fact I am very careful to preserve every bit of its structure. There are several kinds of plants here and their roots are deeply entwined. Let’s not damage them!

With one hand I scoop a bit of new planting mix and very gently pour it down into the open slots along the edges of the root clump, all around the outside. I am very careful not to pour any planting mix onto the existing soil surface.

Still very gently, I use two or three fingers to push down the new planting mix, adding more as needed until there is a new level surface outside of the plants that were already in the eco-pack.

A gentle shake and bump-bump of the pot settles the new mix into place. The results are below. Can you see the tiny stinging nettle, still happy at what used to be the corner of the old pot?

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One more thing. Any time a plant’s roots are disturbed, and especially if they are in contact with new, dry soil, it is important to give a serious watering. With the hand spray set on “shower” mode I give it a good deep watering, until it drips out the bottom.

That’s it! Now this little vine and its community will have some room to grow bigger!

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One of our favorite “trouble plants” is the lovely buttercup oxalis, Oxalis pes-caprae. It is a fascinating little herb originally from South Africa. Above is a patch of lantana that has been completely smothered in a lush carpet of buttercup oxalis.

Yes, it is a noxious invasive that can overwhelm many other kinds of plants. Despite what some gardeners may say (Oh, that stuff never dies. It will be there forever!) it can be tamed, controlled and even completely eliminated. But without the use of icky chemical toxins (please, don’t!) it could take a bit of persistent work.

140519-0733In South Africa it’s a native surrounded by local herbivores that eat it. Here in California it can spread rapidly through underground runners and bulbs. Many gardeners hate it because it is very difficult to remove. Directly pulling up the plant almost always leaves the bulbs behind, which can be as deep as six inches or more. Yikes!

 

it can be done!
The good news is: They can be cleared by persistent, complete plucking of all new rosettes every few weeks during the winter growing season.

But you really will have to keep after them! Do not allow any rosettes to get to the blooming stage because that is when they send out dozens of tiny underground bulblets. Each bloomer will be surrounded by a six-inch radius of tiny new plants next spring. You must pull out all rosettes, no matter how tiny.

It is enough to pluck out the stems if you are patient and persistent, but the biggest ones can come back four or five times before they give up. Fortunately, we can move faster. Just keep plucking.

You can eliminate them faster if you get the bulbs. Use a long, thin, sharp tool like a weeder, screwdriver, or thin trowel to shove down deep under each rosette. Your goal is to break open the soil without breaking the lowest stem of the plant. It can be tricky, especially if your soil is dense, but there is a certain joy in gently shaking off loosened soil to find a bulb clinging to the thin thread at the bottom of the root. That one will not come back!

 

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you can eat all of it
Not everything about buttercup oxalis is bad. Not only is it exceptionally pretty, it is also edible. The sweet-sour yellow flowers and flower stalks are great in salads, and the bulbs are said to be good for getting rid of tapeworms. I haven’t had a chance to test that claim yet.

As invasive as they are, we love these little plants. But we keep them in their place. Where is that? Several places, actually.

 

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a drift in the leaves
Natives-only gardeners may cringe, but there can be a place for these little beauties in a deep nature garden. There may be a spot in the semi-shade with deep leaf debris, where buttercup oxalis can poke up through the leaves. The best place for such an oxalis drift is under a deciduous bush or tree, so that they can enjoy some filtered sun during the winter growing season. The annual leaf drop from above can challenge them and help to keep them under control.

In the picture above there are lemon-yellow buttercup oxalis flowers under the blooming wisteria vine, and spilling out into a sunny meadow of california poppy, wild strawberry, and English violet.

If you want a big harvest of the sweet-tangy flowers you can create a more robust and productive drift of oxalis. Just let the little cuties grow in some likely place. In the picture below is such a drift among some beautiful rocks. If it is strictly removed from other garden areas it can be a gorgeous and tame part of the ecosystem. But it will definitely need to be controlled around the edges.

 

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tame, beautiful, delicious
The best place of all for a wonderful, edible little invader like buttercup oxalis is a container. As you might imagine, they are fairly easy to grow. We’ve been growing some in our eco-packs. Want one?

Read more about buttercup oxalis at Wikipedia.

 

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141209-0710

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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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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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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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!