Tag Archives: garden

Try again

The small plot of corn and soybeans at the bottom of the slope in the yard started off with a few hitches. Like the rest of the garden plots, the plot didn't exist when it was time to plant things, so the corn and beans got started in peat pots on the deck until I had space for them in the under-construction yard.

That's right: I transplanted corn and beans. I don't know if I'd say that you shouldn't do that, but it's a weird way to do it—just putting the seeds directly into the ground is the better way. (Someone else's experience with it: Corn Failure A.K.A. Starting Over). But, hey, do what you can.

The corn went in the ground first because it had gotten up to 20-30 cm tall in the peat pots. The beans had to wait a little longer—there wasn't much free time to work a plot for them with school and work and yard construction going on. So the beans just grew and twisted in their little peat pots in a plastic tray, sitting near where I was going to plant them.

As it turns out, something—the local groundhog, I suspect—discovered what was essentially a plastic salad bowl filled with young soybean leaves and left me with nothing but stems. Disappointing, but an obvious problem that was bound to happen.

Some tiny leaves would eventually start sprouting again before I put them into the ground. Once planted, they started to grow more confidently. But I didn't have a fence around the corn and bean plots yet, and though he had to work a little harder going plant-to-plant this time, the groundhog still managed to get his salad.

This happened three or four times, and by the time I got the chicken wire around the plot, only 18 of the ~32 or so original plants had survived—twisted and gnarly, not too many leaves, but still putting out a few bean pods.

So, learn and try again.

I'm saving the first rounds of beans as planting stock for next year—seeds that will be planted after the fence is up, and directly into the ground. And the open space in the bean plot recently got some late season additions of carrots, daikon, cabbage, and cauliflower—no way was I going to waste all that effort from turning over the local dirt (clay) with a spade.

I don't mind making stupid mistakes like this, to some extent. There was never enough free time this year to do it right, and the free time that existed wasn't at the right time for planting. So I improvised. Some things failed utterly—did any of the okra even stick their head out—but some things took off. Learn something and move on. Next year I'll have less space—I've been reminded that we don't live on a farm—so I'll have to succeed at a higher rate to use the space I'll get well.

Small innovations

The big innovations of the world are more interesting than the small ones. There's your last truism for the day—bigger is bigger. But the bigger things tend to take longer because bigger is more. The small things, though—you can make small innovations all day long out of the things right in front of you.

Using my Scoutcraft skills from twenty years ago, I made an enormous tomato cage out of the nuisance bamboo at the edge of the yard. (This is a week ago, it's an even bigger jungle now.) There are also some big tripods in the back for bitter melon and luffa. It's not a huge innovation, or a great one, but it's something out of nothing, and it's big.

But here's the bamboo innovation I'm really proud of. No rope necessary. The leaves and branches are also a nuisance. They're not structural like the main part of the bamboo, so I typically pack it into the yard waste and send it away. Then I wanted to get some mulch to put around vegetable plants whose soil was drying out in the sun... but I didn't really want to go out anywhere. I looked at the trashy bamboo twigs and leaves waiting to get disposed and thought—that looks like mulch.

Yeah. It is mulch.

Insanely proud of this simple idea. This was a week ago, and after a week of getting to keep moist soil all day, the chilies are much more mature looking now.

Not necessarily related, but the latest episode of Talk Python To Me is about something in the same pattern of small innovations: Episode 327, Little Automation Tools in Python.

Defensive gardening

The soybean plants have no leaves. The rabbits ate them. I watched a rabbit cruise through the soybean plot today, sniffing at the leaves in a manner that suggested he wasn't satisfied with the waitstaff.

I didn't know soybean leaves were tasty. Maybe they aren't. Maybe they're only tasty when you've eaten all the lettuce and the kale. And the pea leaves. And a few bites of squash leaves.

Listen. I know I had competition for the garden produce. It's fair game (for any species that doesn't have trespassing laws applied to it). But I've been juggling to get things done on the backyard, and animal security hasn't made it to the top of the queue.

Now I'm looking up what I can plant back there in the summer for fall harvest. Already did the hard work of turning over the soil with a spade—so what the hell? I have chicken wire and I have fence posts (read: bamboo that I need to cut back), so you can bet that there era of defensive gardening is about to commence.

Weeding the weeds

So there I was—

(all good stories start like this)

—pulling weeds from the area around the walkway around the garage. The east side of the walkway is cultivated: tulips (that need to have their bulbs pulled) and sunflowers (three feet high and rising) surrounded by wood chips. The west side has a row of new strawberry plants. The north side—the short leg of the "L" of the walkway"—is something different.

That area was just an area of clay catastrophe—blighted dirt that had been disturbed by installing the walkway. Some of the fill dirt around the house is mean stuff that resists the urge to become a part of the cycle of life. I didn't really have a plan for it, but to make it look better. Then when I got the milkweed seeds in the mail (Garden planning 2021, 3), I made the snap decision that that location would be a good place to anchor a butterfly garden. I had seeds, the dirt was there—hey presto, it's a match.

That's as far as planning—"planning"—got. Some seeds needed time in the refrigerator to cold stratify before planting. Those are on the deck or basement in jiffy pots now. The seeds that could be planted immediately got planted ("planted"). Really I just took those seeds and threw them around in a general area where I thought they should generally go. Hey—that's how nature does it, OK? If I'm going to get wildflowers and wild weeds, I'm going to go wild myself.

That was March. Now it's May. There are things growing in that milkweed area now. The problem is that I don't know which ones they are. (There are also some cosmos and marigolds growing there, but I recognize those and they're actually in some regular pattern, which I had to do because nature doesn't have a method for them, OK?)

I suppose I could leave it at that. Milkweeds are weeds—it's right there in the name—but they're my weeds. Like a maniac, I paid money for these weeds, so I want to see them succeed.

So there I was—pulling weeds from around the weeds.

I recognize the clover and the crabgrass—out they go, slowly and steadily. Walk by, pick a few out, dispose of them. Even though they're easy to identify, they play an optical trick on me. They're obvious, but somehow they're invisible unless you slow way, way down. Otherwise, the green blends into green on a quick scan. Slow down, see dozens of weeds where there didn't seem to be any before, and pull.

OK, great—not many of those weeds left. The remaining plants, other than the marigolds and cosmos, are definitely weeds. But are they my weeds? I don't know. I can't identify the individual plants, especially at this early lifecycle stage, so I categorize them by location. Some of them I planted all in one area—so I've got that one group sorted out. The rest? I see a few of one kind of leaf or stem-leaf pattern here and there around the walkway, but nowhere else in the yard, and I don't recognize the plant, so I assume those must be mine. It's the best I can do.

Maybe when they get larger they'll be easier to identify. Until then, I'm weeding and watering them. Give 'em the good treatment to justify the effort of researching and buying them. Maybe next year, be a little more observant.

Never enough anything

There is never enough of anything. This is in reference to the garden—have to limit the anything to something, else I'd have to consider everything.

Most of the seeds from Garden planning 2021, 3 have turned out OK. The leafy vegetables went crazy. Tomatoes and chilies started strong. Eggplants and cucumbers and a few others also started well. A few like fennel and black oil sunflowers didn't take at all—it happens. Some (corn, beans) haven't been started yet but will soon now that there is some space in the yard for them. All told, there must be two or three dozen varieties that are in or set to go in the garden.

They why is it that my brain is asking the question: is that enough?

Of course it's enough. It's not only enough, but too much. I still have some strawberry plants just sitting around bathing their roots in a plastic box until I can think of somewhere to put them. However I still keep a few bits of attention reserved when we eat or go to the grocery store to think if any of the relevant vegetables are things we can grow—in addition to what we already have. I still walk out of my way to see what seeds are available at the hardware store.

What is the nature of that question, Is this enough? It doesn't feel like fear of missing out. It doesn't feel like some sort of primeval need to horde against a possible time of want or starvation. It feels lighter—oh, I could do that, and I could do that, let's try that. But it's clearly unnecessary, and there seems to be no signal in my brain that lights up at the right time to say, "that's enough". There's never enough anything—even when there's too much. It takes practice to say, "that's enough"—resilience, fortitude, awareness. It's a talent and a skill. Enough.

Anyway, what we decided to order was some various weed (not that kind) seeds that produce some edible greens:

  • 荠菜 (jì​cài) - shepherd's purse
  • 马兰头 (mǎ​lántóu)
  • 紫苏 (zǐ​sū) - beefsteak plant
  • 韭菜 (jiǔ​cài) - garlic chives

But this is the last time. Now we definitely have enough.

Garden planning 2021, 7

Previous: Garden planning 2021, 6

I have some misgivings about preparing wildflowers for the yard. I mean, they're not very wild if they need my help. These wildflowers would never survive in the jungle, hunting their own food to eat, surviving with their wits and cunning. Wildflowers these days are too soft.

This should be the last garden planning post. It's too late to plan. May is on Saturday. Most of the vegetables that started in the basement graduated to either the space above the retaining wall, or are tomatoes and waiting for me to figure out where to plant them. The only starter plants left in the basement are the various chilies and eggplants and bitter melons.

But now I've got these small, small wildflower seedlings down there as well.

These are the first batch of seeds that required 4 weeks of cold soak before germinating: butterfly weed, whorled milkweed, purple coneflower, and showy goldenrod. Then they got an extra week and a half on a side table because I was too lazy to get them planted. No matter—this gave the seeds some time to germinate so I could find them in their respective beds of moss or paper towels.

To my surprise, the seeds stored in wet paper towels outgerminated the seeds stored in wet sphagnum moss. My model for which one would be more successful was simple, and apparently stupid: plants grow in dirt, moss is more like dirt than paper, the seeds in the moss will grow better. If I do this again, I'll skip the moss and go for the paper.

Quite a few of each kind germinated, but in order of success it was: showy goldenrod, butterfly weed, whorled milkweed, purple coneflower.

There are still two others bags left in the refrigerator, waiting for slightly longer soak times. The individual wildflower seeds that I planted—"planted"—earlier didn't seem to take. I figured that since they were wildflower, I'd just throw them on the ground where I wanted them and then, since they were wildflowers, they would just grow, because that's how wildflower seeds do it in the wild. No one plants them. Maybe they're germinating now, I don't know—we'll see if some unexpected milkweed pops up.

There was also a bag of mixed wildflower seeds that I threw on the ground near our garage path, but later I covered them with mulch when I was putting mulch around the (very much not wild) tulips. Lots of these wildflowers have germinated and are poking through the mulch now.

We'll see what happens. It's hard to justify to anyone what is the utility of planting a bunch of milkweed and other plants. I just thought I'd be friendly to some butterflies who I've never met before. Maybe in this suburb where we live now there used to be the kinds of plants that would support monarch butterflies and other butterflies and insects and animals as they traveled from here to there. Maybe not. But there will be.

Garden planning 2021, 6

Previously: Garden planning 2021, 5

It's tomato time:

Jiffy pots came in the mail this week. Everything is a little slow because we live in viral times, but I'm not going to complain—let things take as long as they take. Besides, I didn't really have much time to get things planted until this week.

One other problem: the winter was so warm (relative to winter, etc.), I didn't build any shelving in the basement because I could work outside on the wall-that-never-ends. I'm going to move these things down into the basement, but the lights aren't set up. I'm just going to throw some 2x4s on top of some sawhorses and just clamp the lights to that. Good enough for Gilson.

I selected these tomatoes for a variety of reasons:

I was thisclose to not planting tomatoes this year because they're a pain to grow, especially in clay soil, but a packet of seeds is about the same cost as a big heirloom tomato right now so I guess I can justify the work. It would have been nice to get the soil ready to go before planting season, but we'll do the best we can this year and then chop everything and drop it on the ground for next year.

Garden planning 2021, 5

Previously: Garden planning 2021, 4


  • Spider milkweed (asclepias viridis)
  • Missouri coneflower (rudbeckia missouriensis)
  • Purple coneflower (echinacea purpurea)
  • Showy goldenrod (solidago speciosa)
  • Whorled milkweed (asclepias verticollata)
  • Butterfly weed (asclepias tuberosa)

These plants were all selected because they are native species that butterflies like. I also have some others, but these require some cold preparation before planting. Nominally, I might have gotten this strange drive to plant these kinds of things last year, then I could have just thrown them on the ground and let nature cold prepare them. But here we are. I'll try that for next year. (Nominally I might just pass the time like a normal person and find a good TV show.)

Each one has its own predilections for length of time to cold stratify, according to the seed sellers:

I'm using this as a general guide: Amanda Shepard. "How To Cold Stratify Seeds For Spring Planting". American Meadows (2018-03-07). I'm going to do some in peat moss and some in paper towels, just to see what happens.

OK—into the refrigerator they go. See some of you in April, some in May.

Garden planning 2021, 4

Previously: Garden planning 2021, 3

Here we go:

  1. Pawpaw
  2. Apios americana
  3. Comfrey
  4. Chinese hawthorn


I've never seen a pawpaw fruit before. Never tasted it. I know it as an abstraction—a Quintessentially American Fruit. I've only heard about it because: (1) there is an old and becoming-extinct dialect of French in Missouri called Pawpaw French which was centered around Ste. Genevieve, Missouri and Kaskaskia, Illinois (Paw Paw French: Two 20-somethings bet St. Louis can save a vanishing dialect, St. Louis Public Radio, 2015-07-13); and (2) it shows up in lists of local foraging guides (Shane Franklin, "Wild Ones" Teach Foraging in Missouri, KSMU, 2012-08-13).
I bought some seeds of three varieties:

Nominally, I'd buy some seedlings, but they're fairly hard to come by. So we'll start from seeds. Kentucky State University has a guide: Pawpaw Planting Guide. The short story for starting is that they need cold, moist conditions for 70-100 days, so off to the fridge they'll go—but only some of them. I'll put half of them in the refrigerator in plastic bags with some sphagnum moss, and I'll just plant the other half in the ground straight away to see what happens. It's a reckless experimental control, but I have more than I need (although I can tell I'm assuming a high germination rate, which seems unlikely).

Apios Americana

Apios Americana is an American native tuber. I don't remember where I learned about this one, but I've seen several references to it being one of the foods that kept English immigrants in 1600s Massachusetts alive.

This reference seems to be the main one: Reynolds, B.D., W.J. Blackmon, E. Wickremesinhe, M.H. Wells, and R.J. Constantin. "Domestication of Apios americana". In Advances in New Crops (1990): 436-442.

Here are a few references I've found for growing it, starting from a string of tubers. This one seems simpler: plant it 2- or 3-inches deep—no real preparation required. They have vines that like to climb, so I'll plant some where I'll have a trellis, some near a deck pier (or maybe I'll put some trellises between deck piers this year), and maybe some hear our old compost bin and let it climb on that.


Comfrey is, as far as I can tell, a permaculture cult plant. It's main features are (1) it has a deep, deep taproot that will pull nutrients from a different level than other plants, and (2) the leaves grow back fast so you can hack them off and let them turn into mulch. The second feature seems to be the chief characteristic, and I'll try it for that, but I'm curious how that deep taproot is going to fare against our garbage clay soil.

I got root cuttings of a variety called Bocking 14, which doesn't spread by seed. This one also seems to not care about preparation, just plant it 2-inches deep in clay soil. I'll put it near to where I'm planting other vegetables so I can cut the leaves off and throw them there as mulch. I'll get it started in some pots and then move it—still need to reshape some of the areas where I intend to plant
A few links for info:

Chinese hawthorn

The last one is a special plant for my wife: Chinese hawthorn. I couldn't find any seedlings of this for sale in the US, so we're starting from seeds. There are tons of other kinds of hawthorn trees, including the Missouri state flower, the white hawthorn (Crataegus punctata). This one, Crataegus pinnatifida, is special because the round red fruits are skewered on bamboo sticks and covered in sugar: 糖葫芦 (tánghúlu).

This one looks like it's going to require a little more patience. From the Plants for a Future database: "Be patient, it will take at least 18 months before any will germinate." (And the specific PFAF page for Crataegus pinnatifida.) It looks like I'll experiment a little with this one, trying a few methods:

  1. Just planting them
  2. Planting in pots and keeping them watered for 18 months until they germinate...
  3. Warm stratifying for 3 months at 15C and cold stratifying for 3 months at 4C

Garden planning 2021, 3

Previously: Garden planning 2021, 2 (2021-03-05)

I have seeds—so many seeds. Too many seeds. I'm a reasonable man, sometimes, but when it comes to filling out lists, and then fulfilling the items on the list, some part of my brain gets activated in a weird way and the stupid thing won't rest until I have a monstrously complete list and, if I'm not careful, a monstrously large pile of things like seed packets. Usually I can avoid this—I could easily fill the garage with tools, for example—but sometimes the momentum is too great to stop.

Blah blah blah—as if I could keep writing words and writing words and avoid the thing that comes next: making an inventory of the seeds, and then getting ready to plant them.

Making an inventory of the seeds I have on hand was more work than I expected. After moving in 2019, I discovered several small caches of seeds that we had in the apartment in St. Louis, and maybe also in the apartment in Burbank. Small things are easy to lose, hard to find intentionally, and easy to find unintentionally. Add those to the seeds I bought this winter, and now I know what I have to work with.

The next part is: how do I work with them?

Some of the milkweeds need to be prepared in the cold for several weeks. Some of the vegetables will get started early indoors. Some of the old packets that I don't care too much about (chives, green onions, several extra packets of various lettuce) are just going to get tossed into some general area and we'll see what happens.

Meanwhile, I need to do a little research about the best timing for planting for each of these things. I've got a file going here—Garden 2021—where I'll add what I find.