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One reason I don’t turn the compost very often is that so many interesting things grow there. This healthy looking potato plant, for example. This morning it has opened its first flower, and what a beauty it is! Just as it opens, the camera finds it:

Not too much later, the flower has fully expanded, with bent back, pastel petals exposing the glistening, yellow anthers and light green pistil:

Potato plants (when they are healthy) seem like they are molded out of fine plastic. The shapes are so clean and precise.

This one is very likely making a whole bunch of little potatoes inside the compost. Later this year I’ll dig them out. If they are big enough maybe some will be eaten, and others will definitely get planted around the neighborhood. Such a strong plant deserves to reproduce!

It happens almost every year somewhere in the ecogarden. A large, robust grassy plant sprouts up, growing rapidly. Although I usually pull out almost all grass plants because they tend to be incredibly invasive, there are several kinds of grass that might be left alone. One of them is wheat.

This one sprouted in a container alongside verbena and sorrel. All winter it grew, and in early spring it went to seed. Now its huge spikes are nodding, laden with heavy grain. I don’t know where the original seed came from, but this variety of wheat now seems to be a permanent part of the biota in the ecogarden.

There are several species of wheat, with complex genetics. Some have two, four, or even six complete sets of chromosomes. It has been cultivated for at least 11,000 years after originating in the middle east. Like many old food crops, it has been selectively bred by humans until it is distinctly different from its wild ancestors.

This Wikipedia article has lots of great information about wheat and its history.

You may remember the blueberry flowers earlier this year. They are now berries, and it looks like a bumper crop from this still-young bush. Already these plump beauties are starting to show some purple-blue color!

UPDATE: the first ripe blueberries!

While the blueberries have been ripening, a sturdy escarole plant has sprung up right nearby. Its curly-leaved flower stalks punch up through the blueberry stems and the leaves of the neighboring bearded iris clump.

The blue flowers look like chicory, which makes sense because escarole is Chicorium endivia, closely related to the roadside plant whose roots contain many flavorful substances:

Do you see the lady beetle peeking out just below the flower?

Chicory, endive, frisée, escarole, all very close relatives, all edible in various ways, all wonderful to have in the garden. But where did the seed come from for this escarole plant? It remains a happy mystery.

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:

I arrived in the morning, when most of the yard was still in shade. As you can see, the owner of the property has spread a lot of hay on the ground, which has started to decompose in many areas. In some places it’s ankle deep.

Those white boxes are beehives, two of them with active colonies. In the distance at the rear of the yard is a chicken run with four very happy chickens.

The owner has requested a top-to-bottom ecosystem transformation for this space, with  just a few special requests. This will be fun, but also a LOT of work. It’s definitely a big project.

In this post we’ll do a general tour with some comments about possible directions to take. In future posts we’ll look at some more specific elements of the project.

As we enter the yard, on the left is an herb collection, the most maintained part of the garden at present. Owner kept stooping to pull “weeds” – I told her the first rule is “no more pulling of plants!” She acknowledged this might be a challenge for her.

The rectangular stepping stones will probably be replaced by something less linear, maybe wooden rounds or irregular flagstones.

This small bed features mint, salvia, and miscellaneous garbage. Minus the garbage and with some work, this will become a sweet little kitchen herb gardenette.

Looking back to the main yard, there is a bee bath and a huge mound of French lavender, behind which are several large catnip bushes and the beehives. Between the beehive in the front and the two in back are some raised beds, currently hosting a variety of volunteers – what some might call “weeds.”

At the right, against the fence, are piles of wood, rusty shelves of garden junk and some containers of toxic chemicals. Under the thick hay are wooden boards and more scattered junk. All of that stuff will be removed.

Looking to the left, there is a small patio area in the foreground. This will be cleaned up and surfaced with some kind of stones or bricks, made ready for happy garden parties.

On the small table are some veggie starts that the owner wants planted. She wants me to decide where to put them. There are tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, eggplants, some herbs, and a struggling artichoke.

Behind the table are two more raised beds. These will be moved to the front of the yard, where they will get full sun for almost the whole day, rather than the morning shade they get here.

Down the path through the arched metal trellis, the chicken run is visible.

The other raised beds, to the right side of the path. Kind of a mess. Hay and catnip bushes will be removed, and new (purchased) growing mix added. Some of the veggies will be planted here. The two beehives will eventually be moved to a slightly better location near the front fence, where they will get morning wake-up sunlight and partial shade for those hot summer days.

Eventually these two raised beds will also be moved to the front for the full sun there.

Turning around to look toward the front of the yard, one can see the area where the veggie beds will be, already brightly sunlit even at this early hour. Beehives will be near the fence at the picture’s left side.

One of the challenges of this project is that the entire rear of the yard is shaded until midday by tall trees.

While the shade is great for the chicken run, it is a little too much. Some of the tree branches will be artfully removed, resulting in more dappled light for the rear of the property.

The trees include two figs, several majestic pines, and some other broadleaf trees. All of them need serious pruning and shaping.

There is also a struggling rose bush that might do better with more light.

I am imagining a lovely forest floor type ecosystem under the trees in the back. May apples, anyone?

So… off we go! I could not resist getting started right away.

First, I cleared away the junk and catnip from the area around the raised beds by the beehives. We let the chickens out, who happily scratched around finding grubs and beetles in the newly disturbed soil. You go, girls!

There was enough time to partly plant two of the raised beds. I would definitely call this an emergency planting. As you can see, the tomatoes are looking a bit wilted. But this is good soil and they should perk up with proper attention. In the interest of expediency, the veggie plantings here are being done in a  fairly traditional non-ecofarm style, just dropped into the raised beds.

In future posts we’ll take a look at some of the resident interesting plants and critters, and begin to see some more serious cleanup.

Here are updates on this new ecogarden project:

taming the giant lavender

putting in a redwood walkway

in the company of chickens

Thanks for following this project! Your comments are welcome.

One of the main themes of this blog is what might be called “applied ecology” – ways of healing the planet by creating, maintaining, and evolving ecological systems that are resilient and healthy for Earth and its inhabitants (including us).

acres of palm oil plantation, where Indonesian rain forest used to grow

all around the world, people are catching the ecology bug

They are finally realizing that spraying poisons on farms and home gardens to suppress bugs and weeds is Just Plain A Bad Idea, as butterflies and bees die out and birds fall out of the sky. They are noticing how we are fishing all the edible creatures out of the oceans, from krill to whales. They are seeing how the Amazon basin, Indonesian forests, and other natural treasures are being steadily turned into endless tracts of cattle pasture and monoculture plantations. These and dozens of other warning signs show clearly that our planet, our beloved Gaia, is desperately ill.

The more people notice these horrible trends, the more they are beginning to take action.

gorgeous green roof over a car park in Victoria, BC

big projects and big ideas

There are talented, courageous people producing documentaries, articles, and other large-scale media exposing the truth everywhere.

There are people with Big Ideas like desert-greening using solar seawater desalination, sustainable closed-cycle eco-aquaculture farms, green roofs and green walls, enclosed greenhouse eco-farms, innovative new farming ecosystems using unconventional species, and tons of other fabulous projects.

There is a huge amount of creative exploration going on, with some people spending lots of money and time on such ideas.

some very lucky chickens live here

smaller local efforts

Other people, a group much greater in numbers and adding members all the time, are acting on a more local level.

Some of these are home gardeners turning their lawns into healthy urban wildflower meadows. They are suburban families installing chicken coops and rabbit runs in their back yards, feeding their family farms with kitchen scraps and home-brewed compost. They are guerrilla gardeners, tossing native-plant seed bombs into vacant lots, spreading biodiversity everywhere. They are volunteers helping schools build eco-friendly organic gardens, farms, and composting systems.

Thousands and thousands of us, across the world, are waking up to the ecological imperative of re-growing the planet’s sustaining bounty in large and small ways, everywhere.

everything you see here is edible

a personal quest

Since I recently left the world of “working for a company” the personal quest has moved more and more deeply into the global applied ecology movement.

Personal goals now center on helping people imagine, design, install, and maintain all sorts of eco-friendly systems. I want to show people how to preserve species diversity by growing ecosystem gardens. I want to help people build and run backyard ecosystem farms, where nothing is wasted and excess production helps support the neighborhood, in exchange for kitchen scraps that feed the farm. I want to become a local resource for anyone who wants to be more ecologically attuned to the living systems of the planet.

This blog is offered as both a source of inspiration and an ongoing presentation of what I do. The aim is not only to do this on a local scale with friends and neighbors, but also to take part in the larger movement, possibly joining one or more bigger projects as seems appropriate.

I offer myself to Gaia, and to my fellow humans, as an agent of the global ecosystem. How can I work with you to preserve existing ecosystems and bring more healthy ecological diversity into the world?

some specific directions

There are many great ideas out there, some in development and some still just ideas. Here are some ideas you might find inspiring and interesting. Use your favorite search engine for more information about any of these rapidly evolving fields of applied ecology. There are lots of projects popping up all over the planet.

green wall in Paris, France

green roofs, green walls, and indoor ecospaces

Most buildings are little more than sterile boxes, with carefully controlled, unhealthy, dry air. What a waste of valuable space! The roofs, walls, and interiors of buildings can be so much more.

Instead of ecologically dead surfaces, we could have living greenery, soaking up pollution and releasing clean fresh oxygen. The greenery in turn can attract and support butterflies, birds, and bugs. It can even be “seeded” with wonderful life forms like earthworms, salamanders, and frogs. Indoor ecospaces are wonderfully healthy for humans who live there, since they provide clean air and living natural beauty.

Sahara desert used to look like this

rewilding

Gigantic parts of our planet have suffered enormous losses as a result of human activities.

There are huge deserts that used to be forests. There are endless tracts of grassy open space that used to feature fantastically varied natural life forms, but now only support bland mixtures of invasive generalist species.

All of this ecological devastation was directly or indirectly caused by the works of humans, often hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

The rewilding movement is about converting large and small tracts of land (and sea) into self-sustaining, diverse “wilderness” ecosystems.

The newly growing, managed wildland need not be exactly the same as the ancient ecoscape that was there before humans ruined it. In many cases it would be impossible to fully restore the ancient ecosystem, because of the presence of hard-to-remove introduced alien species. But with a little human intervention of the right kind, almost any bio-wasteland can be made much more diverse, much healthier ecologically, and much more productive for the planet as a whole, even if the species mix is not the same as the ancient original wildscape.

prickly lettuce, bearded iris, and a “living rock” with moss and lichens

ecosystem gardens

As a second-floor apartment dweller with an upstairs container garden and a small bit of actual earth downstairs, my own personal space for gardening is limited. But in this blog perhaps you can see what beautiful diversity is possible even in such a small space.

Here in this suburban zone, in this tiny space, there are hundreds of kinds of plants, including many unusual species that are quite hard to find in nearby gardens and lots. Where did all this variety come from?

I collect soil samples from many locations. There is a wonderful semi-wilderness creek near here, and there are many small areas that are allowed to mostly grow wild. A tiny handful of topsoil from such a place, properly nurtured, can yield up dozens of fascinating new seedlings of plants seldom seen in any “normal” garden.

After a while, such a garden of “collected volunteers” not only becomes a veritable botanical garden in its own right, it also begins to attract a fantastic variety of insects, birds, and other critters. You may see unusual butterflies, maybe even laying their eggs on your unusual plants (a good thing for sure!). You might find bees, beetles or plant-sucking bugs that are very, very rare in the local neighborhood – except, of course, in your garden!

It is one of my main goals to help people create ecosystem gardens, both locally in my neighborhood, and out there in the bigger world.

Read more about ecosystem gardens in another blog post.

wonderful compost “food”

ecosystem farms

If a farm produces any kind of “waste product” at all, it is not truly an ecosystem farm.

A typical pig farm produces tons of noxious pig poop, a kind of slop that is notoriously toxic and hard to deal with. Meanwhile, that wheatfield a few miles away gets plowed several times a year, releasing (and wasting) tons of blowing topsoil. Then it gets hyper-kicked by vast amounts of chemical fertilizers, before growing monoculture crops of grain grasses, most of whose biomass is removed from the land. Neither one is any kind of ecofarm.

But combine the pig farm with the wheat field, scale it down a bit, change the land to critter ratio, and add a few more subsystems, and we could design a true ecofarm where nothing is wasted. Its only inputs might be compostable wastes (maybe from customers!), sunshine, and rain and its only outputs might be edible or useful products.

As a partial first step toward the goal of self-sustaining ecofarms, some people are working on local inter-farm ecosystems, where one farm’s wastes become useful input for another farm of a different kind. This kind of inter-farm ecology is exactly right for suburban environments like Menlo Park, where I live.

One way I can participate in such a local farming ecosystem is by receiving your kitchen scraps and returning to you some of the valuable, power-packed compost I make from it. Another way is to give you seeds of some of the wonderful edible plants that grow here in my own garden. These are not only traditional vegs like carrots, chard, and radishes, but also delicious, nutritious plants like goosefoot, purslane, chickweed, and so much more.

rainforest in Australia’s Daintree Park

so much opportunity!

This is a rare time in human history. Not only are we fast approaching a dangerous, world-changing mega-crisis of overpopulation, pollution, and biosystem degradation, but we are also waking up and rapidly developing ways of healing and rebuilding those same vital biosystems. It is a spine-tingling, nail-biting time. Will the human race wake up quickly enough to save most of the existing biodiversity, or will the planet fall prey to a cataclysmic eco-disaster, in which only the hardiest generalist species will survive?

I want to live in a world in which Morpho butterflies still flit like blue metallic ghosts among the rain forests of South America. If you want these things too, please follow this blog, leave a comment (button is at upper left), or get in touch via nick [at] mindheart [dot] org. What can we do together to heal the Gaian biosphere?