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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!

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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.

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In the morning after a rain, in a client’s leafy forest garden… this beautiful gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) posed at the edge of a rock. It was still chilly and wet, and this torpid insect was so sleepy that I could touch it. When I did, it opened up its wings for a few seconds…

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A few minutes later the sun finally emerged, and the butterfly opened its wings again, absorbing warmth. After about 30 seconds it flitted up into the air, soon landing on a nearby viola flower. Wake up, it’s time for breakfast!

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Gulf fritillaries are mostly tropical butterflies, whose larvae feed on passion fruit vines. They are not endangered and are surprisingly common in the Bay Area, especially this year for some reason.

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Want to encourage more gulf fritillaries in your garden? The best way is to plant a passion vine, but you can also attract them with hardy, nectar-laden tropical flowers like lantana.

The second butterfly was a real blessing. At a different client’s garden, it was right there on the blooming pieris bush, just long enough that I was able to snap a picture…

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Is it a monarch or a viceroy? This one is a monarch (Danaus plexippus) as indicated by the lack of a dark bar across the hind wing. Actually, viceroys (Limentis archippus, non-poisonous butterflies who benefit from their resemblance to the poisonous monarchs) seldom are seen in the Bay Area, being more common to the east of the Sierras.

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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.

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This time of year we see bittercress (Cardamine spp.) in gardens around the Bay Area. It is related to the Arabidopsis thaliana “research cress” that is used around the world in genetic plant research.

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There are several species that are difficult to distinguish. If it’s blooming now, in January-March, it’s probably hairy bittercress (C. hirsuta). If it blooms in early summer it could be little bittercress (C. oligosperma). There are a couple of other less common varieties. All of them are small, cute, and totally harmless.

Although hairy bittercress is native to Europe, in my experience it is not at all invasive. You might read other opinions though!

130303-1431From the earliest stages, bittercress is distinctive. The rosette of tiny, pinnate leaflets with one larger, terminal leaflet is unique.

No matter whether you find them invasive or not, please don’t spray herbicides, as some authors suggest.

Instead, may I suggest you eat them? They are small, brightly flavored, and excellent as a flavor enhancer in salads. All parts of the plant are edible.

These tiny gems are always welcome in my gardens. They need moist, nearly bare ground to grow, and are often seen in shady corners where the moist ground has recently been slightly disturbed. Their sweet little flowers are tiny and inconspicuous, but their exploding seed pods are extremely cool.

As you might expect, bittercress tastes fairly bitter. But chop a few of these miniature leaves into a micro-salad for a nice little extra bite of sharpness. They are high in vitamins and very good for you, as long as you don’t spray refined chemicals in your garden.

By the time they start looking like the mature plants surrounding the pretty rock in the picture below, they are past edible. I generally pull them out at this stage, enjoying the mini-explosions of their ripe seed pods, spreading more seeds of this delicious little salad enhancement all over my welcoming garden.

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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?

If butterflies were cars, skippers might be tiny little sports cars. They are very distinctive, with their unique resting pose and hook-tipped antennae.

Skippers are common, flicking around among the flowers almost too quickly to follow. There are many kinds of them, and they can be hard to identify down to species. This one poses on a Swiss chard leaf.

As larvae, many skippers eat grasses, perhaps explaining why they are so common – their food is everywhere! But because their larvae are usually nocturnal, hiding in the grass root zone during the day, they are seldom noticed.

This first one is an unusual variety, not often seen in this garden. I like its dark brown background with yellow dots in a row on each forewing. Like most skippers it perches with its wings open. Does it do this to catch the sun?

Doesn’t it just look fast and active, like it is crouching to flit away?

The second skipper is a much more common variety, very likely the same kind as this one previously featured. It poses for us on a clump of white flowers, probably Bouvardia.

At left, the dark edges of the hindwings show up clearly. Look how streamlined this critter is!

Maybe they aren’t really sports cars.

Maybe they are actually little jets.

By September 1 the project at little yellow house was well under way. Did you miss the previous episode? You can also jump back to the first post in the series.

Let’s focus on the front yard, starting right out at the street.

street strips: lantanas, violets, sedum, alyssum, agapanthus

There are two strips of garden between the sidewalk and the street. Like many such street strips, they receive lots of sun and tend to be dry and hard-packed. In the foreground above is the longer strip containing a lot of trailing purple lantana. At this stage it is still dry and hard, but even so the lantana is blooming and there are violets (in the sun!) with green leaves.

In the background is the second, shorter strip with green sedum, white alyssum, and behind them some large agapanthus with their strappy leaves. We’ll deal with all of those another day!

Above: Along the streetside edge of the lantana strip is a zone of deeply embedded gravel. Until just before this picture was taken there was an evil bender board, secured into place by nasty lengths of rebar pounded down straight into the ground. Maybe you can see the darker area just under the front edge of the lantana, where the bender board’s removal has left a little “cliff” of freshly exposed soil. This bender board marked an artificial and definitely non-naturalistic division between the gravel and the lantanas. Out with it!

One more note about bender boards and rebar: As a barefoot gardener, I can tell you it is not fun at all to step down directly onto the top of one of those lengths of rebar.

As for the gravel, it is slated to be removed by shoveling the mixed soil and gravel into a large-mesh sieve, allowing the soil to fall through. The soil will be returned to the street strip. Later still, irregular slate stones will be placed here directly on the naked ground, adjusted with dirt underneath and between so that they will make a nice stepping zone for people getting out of cars. Because the stones will be directly on the ground, small plants will be able to grow between them, forming their own special micro-ecosystem.

You might have already gathered that I am strongly opposed to artificial dividing technologies like bender boards, underground weed barriers, and the like. A genuine deep nature garden does not require any kinds of technology to keep plants where they “belong.”

Above: The small walkway between lantanas on the left and the sedum on the right has been widened by using undercut pruning on both sides. The old limits on both sides are visible by the darker shade where the “beards” of both kinds of plants used to extend across the cement.

Undercut pruning is a special technique. If properly applied, it can tame wild mats and tangles of plants without leaving them looking “pruned.” How it is used varies depending on the type of plant. The lantana, with its tangles of brown, nearly naked stems, required a different approach than the thick-stemmed, heavy sedum. Only experience can convey the specific style of cutting needed for each kind of plant.

south corner: mugo pine, fake stream, daisy bushes

Above: The mugo pine has been pruned back, exposing the beautiful multiple trunks. Grasses have been removed in that area. As the garden evolves, various small herbs and flowers will be allowed to grow underneath the pine, filling in that space and making it look pretty.

To the right of the pine and extending back behind the daisies at the far right is a grass-overgrown fake stream created with gravel, bender boards, rebar, and a little wall made out of stacked flat slate stones. You can probably already guess how I feel about fake streams. All of these artificial barriers and divisions will be removed.

The center area in front is heavily overgrown with grass. Beneath and among the grass stems are Santa Barbara daisies, ornamental strawberries, and violets. Also there is a spiky-leaved plant (possibly an iris) with its leaves sticking up. About half of the grass (the easy half!) has already been removed. Clearing out the rest of this grass will entail several hours of careful work. The strawberries and violets, plus anything else interesting, will be preserved as much as possible.

Above: looking back toward the street from the walkway leading up to the house. In the shady foreground are some lavender bushes. Beyond them is the other end of the fake stream, and beyond that the daisy bushes. Beneath them, mixed grass, violets, and strawberries.

Next: We are just about to do a massive transformation of the back yard. Stay tuned!

Did you miss the previous episodes? Here they are:

little yellow house #1

little yellow house #2