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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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These pretty little white flowers are field bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis, a Euro-Asian native that is one of the most hated crop pests in California. Like a tide of white-flecked green, bindweed is able to wash across agricultural fields in just one season, sending its twining stems out across the surface while sinking deep taproots far into the ground. Truly it is one of the nastiest invasives around here.

130501-0732At the extreme lower right of the above picture, the bindweed extends some shoots out across the sidewalk. As the ecodesigner of this garden, I frequently clip the “beard” of the bindweed as it reaches across the concrete walkways. I can certainly understand the farmers’ objections to this incredibly vigorous plant!

Almost all of the leaves in the first picture belong to the bindweed. There are some violet leaves near the top and  clover-like oxalis leaves near the bottom, between the two flowers. Directly below the lowest flower is another tiny shoot – can you see it? Can you identify it?

Bindweed is a nasty invasive indeed. But here in the deep nature garden, we do not recognize the word “weed.”

Properly managed, bindweed can be a beautiful component of a diverse, vibrant ecosystem, a healthy, contributing citizen along with many other kinds of plants. Bindweed adds beautiful morning-glory-like flowers, lush green leaves, and even attracts pollinators like the bee fly (not a bee – it’s a fly!) visiting the upper flower in the picture below.

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Do you have bindweed out of control in your garden? Here are three suggestions for management:

First, realize that no matter how fast a plant grows and no matter how deep its roots, you can move faster! If you feel like it is getting out of control, control it! Snip it down to the ground, repeatedly, every time you see it. You don’t even have to get the roots out, just keep snipping it. Seriously, eventually it will give up. If you want to get rid of it faster, dig out the roots. It’s up to you. If seedlings sprout up, pull them out too. But whatever you do, don’t spray nasty, refined chemicals!

Second, shade it. It likes full sun, so plant something above it that will provide shade. Then pull it out, repeatedly, as it tries to come back.

Third, limit it. I like bindweed, and I’m not afraid to let it grow in some places. But I do cut it back frequently. There are lots of plants I cut back, frequently. That’s part of being a deep nature gardener. But here’s an even better way to control and limit beautiful bindweed: contain it! Pull it out of the ground if you like, but why not plant a few shoots or seeds in a container, where it can flow out and over the edges, with its sweet flowers popping up all over the cascading stems. Lovely!

Bindweed in a container: perfect recipe for a beautiful but invasive alien vine that needs frequent management.

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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.

You may know that we just had a rather large and exciting storm here in the Bay Area. We usually get one or two like this between Thanksgiving and New Year. This one included a vast amount of rain, some of it applied in huge downpours. Fun!

The deep nature gardens took it all in stride, mostly. There were a few small injuries and other changes.

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Above: This red clover in the upstairs container garden looks a bit beaten down, but it will recover quickly. This container is one of the “old style” boxes that dries out rather fast because it lacks a proper moisture barrier. The clover will do great over the winter now that its deep roots are finally getting enough water from the rains.

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Above: The main garden downstairs is looking very crisp and green. The bright orange flowers of the leonotis bush (at right center) have finally finished, and now they droop all brown and wilted from its branches. Still, they remain noble and beautiful. One of the leaves of a Swiss chard plant (front center) has been knocked down by the heavy rain. You can’t see it in the picture, but recent frosts have killed off the above-ground growth of a lush patch of purslane that was growing near the sidewalk at lower right.

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Above: A favorite wild strawberry plant soaks up some late afternoon sun after nearly a week of dark skies. It opens a cheerful white flower or two and offers its bright fruit. Sweet and delicious!

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Above: This bluish-white lichen on a rock has expanded and soaked up the rain. Right now it is soft and flexible, clearly alive. It grows in these times, when its tissues are moist and vibrant.

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Above: the most obvious damage in the garden is this cherished avocado sapling, which tilts at a windblown angle. Stepping into the center of the garden, keeping my feet on the stepping rocks, I was able to set it back mostly upright with a careful foot down onto its roots. I think it will be fine.

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Above: Another bit of wind damage is this fallen branch. It belonged to a medium size bush, which might be some kind of heath or heather (Calluna or Erica). The fallen branch will hardly be noticed by the vigorous bush from which it fell.

Maybe you can help me identify the shrub. Below, a close look at some of its flowers, along with a little visitor, a hover fly in the family Syrphidae:

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I wonder where the little fly took shelter during the storm?

Now that our new name is chosen and the new business is officially started it seems appropriate to have a flashback to one of my earliest manifestations of deep nature gardening.

Above is a container ecosystem garden, created way back in 2007 just a few weeks before this picture was taken. It features a strong young nettle plant reaching for the sky. There are also two kinds of sorrel: white sorrel that grows from bulbs (see the flowers?) and yellow sorrel that grows by runners. There’s a tiny patch of scarlet pimpernel down in front. Just visible at lower right, partly hidden by the rim of a pot, is a foxglove seedling that grew quite large and produced a whole series of beautiful flowers. Also present just in front of the nettle: a small Egyptian walking onion that sprouted from a bulblet that was deliberately planted. This is the only plant that was deliberately placed in this container. Everything else sprouted from the seeded eco-compost.

You might notice that large areas of the earth in this container are bare. In those early days, I was quite zealous about keeping some spaces clear so that interesting, unknown sprouts could emerge. I still do this, but not to such a great degree.

This particular mini-garden has the unique distinction of being the oldest container ecosystem in the collection that is still evolving and growing. To this day, it remains in almost the same spot at the south corner of the deck, still hosting a never-ending variety of volunteer plants and attracting its own cool kinds of bugs and other critters. It gets more sun now that the magnolia tree has been removed.

How does it look today? Remember the happy springtime raspberry bush and later its tiny little berries? It sprouted several years ago in this very container, and has now crowded out almost everything else, except for some sorrel and clover. The pink and white rocks are still there, hiding under the leaves. It looks like the raspberry bush is on its last legs now, though, so it might be time to clear out some of the sorrel and scatter a bit more eco-compost. What will grow among the dying canes?

This container has been through a whole series of evolutions, and there’s still much more to come!

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Knowing that I am friendly to diverse life forms, local friends and neighbors frequently drop off plants in pots, unwanted or extra seed packets, cuttings, and even bugs in jars (hopefully with holes in the lid!)

The newborn semi-dry desert container shown above contains a cactus and succulent dropped off by an anonymous friend, plus a bit of sedum from another container. All three will enjoy the expansion room in this new home, basking in the sun in a sheltered place on the upstairs deck.

This strawberry is also a new resident. It is enjoying the rich, seeded compost that has been added to its pot. Already, various green shoots are sprouting up. Most of the new seedlings will be removed, so that the strawberry plant can thrive with little competition. Some, like the edible chickweed that will cascade down the outside of the pot, will be left in.

Like these two new container ecosystem art gardens, my own life is also experiencing a fresh restart. Working with an excellent new guide, I am creatively evolving a brand new approach to the whole ecosystem gardening multi-project, and there’s a big, new, related goal in the more distant future that promises to be a lot of fun.

In the near future, watch these pages for updates on the new ecosystem art-garden offerings. With the help of the new guide, for the first time in years I can see a clear and (hopefully!) realistic path toward the goal of earning my entire income from ecosystem gardens and related projects.

Also known as Jersey cudweed, this noble little plant (Helichrysum luteoalbum) (Wikipedia) has some of the most interesting flowers in the garden. Not at all showy, it nevertheless manages to attract its own collection of pollinators, including tiny solitary bees, black beetles, and even tinier flies.

The flowers are borne on a tall stem from a base with several stems. The leaves are slightly fuzzy, a water-saving adaptation often seen in plants that may grow in hot, sunny places. After the flowers finish blooming, the whole central part of the flower drops off (taking the seeds with it) leaving behind the “everlasting” part, that actually looks more like a flower than the flowers themselves.

In my garden the everlasting cudweed usually only shows up in the container gardens, where the soil may sometimes dry out. That’s what they like!

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:

This raspberry bush is now in its third year, with beautiful leaves bursting from last year’s canes and also exploding up from the soil. It’s even showing flower buds already! Like most of the plants in the ecogardens, it’s a volunteer that sprouted from high-potency seeded compost.

Sadly, the berries produced by this bush so far have been disappointing. That’s probably because the bush is a hybrid, with mixed DNA from open pollination on a commercial plant. Someone (maybe me!) tossed some old rotting raspberries into the compost.

This year I’ll give the raspberry bush a good growing season by actively clearing out the sorrel and clover that also are competing in this container. Maybe the berries will have more than four or five drupelets if the bush has less competition.

UPDATE: The berries came, but they are still substandard. The bush has gotten bigger though!

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