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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!

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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You may recall a previous post about stinging nettles. They are now blooming, but as we shall see they are probably also doomed. First, let’s examine the delicate flowers.

Like almost all wind-pollinated flowers, those of stinging nettles are quite small and not at all showy. In fact, there are no visible petals. The tiny flowers shown here are little more than capsules the size of sand grains.

Nettles are dioecious, meaning that each entire plant is either male or female. The plant featured here is the only stinging nettle in my garden, and it is male. I am watching throughout the whole garden for nettle seedlings, which I will carefully nurture (and maybe transplant if they are not in a good place). I’d like a female plant so I can harvest some seeds.

When each male flower capsule becomes ripe, it bursts in the warm sun, releasing a little puff of airborne pollen. Watching for a few minutes, I noticed one of these puffs every thirty seconds or so from each flower-bearing stem. Sadly, I was unable to photograph a pollen-burst – they happen very fast, and in less than a second all the pollen vanishes like smoke into the air.

Here’s an even closer look at those flowers. They may look soft and fuzzy, but the flowers are just as nastily stinging as the leaves and stems!

As I mentioned, this nettle plant may be doomed. Why? Because it shares a container with some extremely vigorous sunchokes (AKA Jerusalem artichokes), which are basically strangling anything else growing there. I would have harvested all the sunchoke tubers from this container last fall, but the stinging nettle plant had many stems at that time and I just didn’t want to dive in there and dig in the soil, even with gloves on. Nettle stings really do hurt!

As a result of the non-intervention last fall, the sunchoke tubers multiplied at the expense of the nettles, and completely took over the container. In the picture below, the dense, broad yellow-green leaves belong to the sunchokes, while the last remaining nettle stems are the spindly-looking ones sticking up above the sunchokes. It seems unlikely the nettle will survive until sunchoke harvest time later this year.

In this picture you can also see a small Santa Barbara daisy, also struggling to survive, down in the semi-shade on the right side:

One of the most prized and interesting ecogarden community plants is this stinging nettle. It lives in a container, which is especially important for this very vigorous and prolific beauty. It spreads via underground root-shoots and if allowed to it would fill vast areas.

Of course the most well-known property of stinging nettle is how just-plain-painful it can be to touch it the wrong way. It’s really that bad… those thousands of little needles are like tiny syringes, instantly injecting a whole cocktail of nasty chemicals designed to cause maximum annoyance under the skin of any mammal.

Nettles are actually edible and full of protein, vitamins, and other goodness. Dried or cooked, the needles lose their sting. It makes a good tea.

There are a bunch of alleged remedies for nettle stings, including the juices of various herbs. I find that if I can get to the hose within a few seconds, a very hard spray of water directly onto the stung area for at least 30 seconds does a great job of flushing the nasty chemicals from the injection point. It still stings, but the hurt goes away a lot faster.

When visitors come to the ecogarden, I try to remember to warn them about the dangerous “nettle zone” of the upstairs deck. Also present in this happy container: a dozen or more fat sunchoke tubers (unharvested as yet, partly because of the nettles in the way). In the above photo you can see their sprouts just coming up – there’s one down at the front, just to the right of the gray rock. There are also smaller herbs including chickweed, strawberry, fringed willow-herb, sorrel, Santa Barbara daisy, and more.

See what this container ecogarden looks like by the middle of May, when the nettles are blooming.

Read more about stinging nettle in this fascinating Wikipedia article