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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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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 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.