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:
We had some leftover Brandywine Pink from last year, and those crazy things grew over 2 meters tall before they ran out of supports to grow on (and then kept growing up and over and down)
Baker Creek threw in the White Tomesol as a freebie with my order so, OK, plant it
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.
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'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 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:
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:
Just planting them
Planting in pots and keeping them watered for 18 months until they germinate...
Warm stratifying for 3 months at 15C and cold stratifying for 3 months at 4C
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.
I've got all my seeds in the mail, except for a few experimental ones. (Experimental to me—to the seeds it's just another day.) I've got a few extra plant lights, and I'm waiting on a shipment of peat pots, then I'll get the seeds started for later transplant. Then out they go.
That's all there is to it: (1) decide what to get; (2) get; (3) prepare; (4) plant. It's almost Too Easy—so easy, perhaps, that I'll just consider it done already and move on to something else because I got enough seeds to start a neighborhood garden jungle, and I still have a backyard that is a literal pile of clay from excavating the trench for the wall and steps.
That's where my head is this weekend. I need to get a few slow things moving inside, then go outside and use the daylight to build. In the meantime—between now and outdoors planting—I need to decide what goes where. Nominally I'd do that before starting seeds, but I'm just going to wing it with a variety of things this year, since I know I selected them intentionally to be planted, I just have to figure out where... and when... and how.
The garden (gardens) will break down roughly into a few regions or features:
Three sisters (corn + squash + beans)
Native wildflowers and grass
Tomatoes (these needy bastards need their own category)
Backdoor garden (herbs, leaves, onions, etc.)
Things on vines that will grow up bamboo poles onto the deck
Things that will grow on trellises, because I can put trellises everywhere and it helps me consume this obnoxious bamboo patch
A bunch of random vegetables that will stand on their own
Things to improve the soil here and there (beans for nitrogen, comfrey for compost, daikon to bust up the clay and decompose in place)
Tree seeds (pawpaw, Chinese hawthorn) that I'll get started but won't get planted for a while, obviously
The first step seems to be, since it will take a few weeks: getting the milkweed seeds ready to germinate. We'll start there.
For the rest I'll get an inventory going—I've already forgotten exactly what I've got—and start some specific planning. Here we go: the fashionably cool content that everyone subscribes for.
I've (re-)started working my way through Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture (notes) by Toby Hemenway in preparation for the gardening season. I just now got to the chapter that I was waiting for, the reason I was looking for a book about permaculture: complementary plants.
Plants as complex systems is an appealing idea. I don't think about them like that. In my mind, without thinking about them very deeply, they're just single-themed entities. A tomato plant makes tomatoes. A flowering plant has flowers. Weeds are a nuisance. Lettuce has edible leaves. And so on. Whatever main feature the thing has, that is its only feature—in my mind, at least.
I first came across the idea of permaculture while reading Seeing Like a State (notes) by James C. Scott. In Chapter 8, "Taming Nature: An Agriculture of Legibility and Simplicity", he screeds about agriculture. ("If the logic of actual farming is one of an inventive, practiced response to a highly variable environment, the logic of scientific agriculture is, by contrast, one of adapting the environment as much as possible to its centralizing and standardizing formulas.") But he also tours briefly through forms of agriculture that are alternatives to the only kind I know—the long, long, well-ordered rows of single-cropped corn and soybeans set in forever-long flat fields of glaciated Illinois soil.
The image of permaculture, on the other hand was messy, riotous. Aesthetically—from a distance—it was unordered, unkempt, uncontrolled. But the underlying logic made sense: if you conceive of each plant as being a system with more than a single-output, then each of those other outputs—the leaves it drops as mulch, the shade it throws, the wind it blocks, the rain it collects or blocks, the chemicals it produces around its roots, the nutrients it processes from the soil, the bees it attracts, and on and on—become an input for other plants, animals, and on and on. Designing the system to a human aesthetic of well-ordered rows breaks the network of inputs and outputs.
The city desk of a newspaper, a rabbit's intestines, or the interior of an aircraft engine may certainly look messy, but each one reflects, sometimes brilliantly, an order related to the function it performs. In such instances the apparent surface disarray obscures a more profound logic.
—James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State
That's where my head is right now. First it was acquiring a raft of seeds for their single outputs that I wanted. Next is figuring out if any of them are complementary in some way so I can think of how to plant them. Then, if there is time, I'd like to fill in the gaps: what other plants fit in the network of inputs and outputs and produce an "optimal system" (whatever that might be), or at least a good system.
In the mail today I received two things that are different, but similar. On the left is my membership card for the Long Now Foundation. On the right is a packet of Ivan tomato seeds from Victory Gardeners.
A line from Stewart Brand about the Long Now /about page: "The point is to explore whatever may be helpful for thinking, understanding, and acting responsibly over long periods of time."
And a line from Victory Gardeners: "We save local family heirlooms from extinction bringing these hardy cultivars to the seed banks, the marketplace and people’s tables."
Long-term responsibility—it's an important consideration. It's a healthy way to behave. It's a worthy mission. Long-term responsibility is what these two items have in common, in their own ways. Long Now promotes it as a way of thinking; Victory Gardeners promote it as a way of planting or eating.
It's not the same thing as the quixotic drive to expand the human lifespan to who knows when—I understand the feeling, to some degree, but I don't share the drive. It's not as healthy. Living forever implies that you might be there to clean up after yourself; long-term responsibility implies being mindful of what you're doing now and how that decision might propagate into the future, well out of your span of control. Heirloom seeds are a complement of that—plant varieties, created and natural, could disappear from existence without some thoughtful people intentionally saving them. You might not be there one day to plant them, but the seeds will be there as an option for someone else to plant. (So, a alternative definition maintenance might be: the conservation of future working options, or maybe optional working futures.)
This is also quixotic. So be it.
Is a future planted with esoteric saved things—seeds or ideas—more valuable than the alternative without them? It's not clear. The future doesn't even exist yet. When it does exist, we won't even be there for most of it, and what we save we won't be thanked for saving.
The future is like the few remaining wilderness areas. It's not valuable, and it's not useful. It's just there. It's an abstract gift that I've found valuable, saved for me by the chance or choice of countless others that I'll never know—a gift that cannot be created, only destroyed or not destroyed. Even the now feels a little larger and richer for having decided to maintain a possible future.
A similar thought, but closer to ourselves::
We are so used to the notion of our own inevitability as life’s dominant species that it is hard to grasp that we are here only because of timely extraterrestrial bangs and other random flukes. The one thing we have in common with all other living things is that for nearly four billion years our ancestors have managed to slip through a series of closing doors every time we needed them to.
This year it's time to put in a proper garden at the house.
We've already prepared the west side, installing a little sidewalk around the garage with some place to plant flowers and maybe some vegetables. The backyard, though, is where the real work will happen.
The project to flatten the backyard—installing a retaining wall behind the deck and some steps down from the garage back door— is getting... well, it is less unfinished than it was a few weeks ago. The wall is in good shape, but the steps need more time. And there is still a huge pile of dirt ("dirt"... more like clay) from the excavation piled up in the yard. That all needs to be pulled sideways to being leveling the lower side of the sloped yard, and some of the high side of the yard still needs to be dug out to bring it to level. Hopefully that will all be finished in a few weeks, before spring arrives
Let's consider finishing the hardscaping as Project 0—finishing the shape and size of the garden.
Speaking of the pile of dirt/clay: that needs to be fixed to grow anything well, even grass. It's awful. We planted a few potatoes last year, and the only one that grew only made it to about 2 in x 3 in (5 cm x 7 cm). That's it. That's as far as it could push the dirt around it to grow. Some of the other plants grew with ridiculously small root systems. That's it. That's as far as they could push the dirt.
So that's Project 1: fix the dirt. Probably that means raised beds for growing, at least in the short term. Long term, something should be done to build a good layer of dirt on top of the clay.
Project 2 is the most interesting for me: plant interesting seeds. I'm looking for old varieties—heirloom seeds and Missouri natives, plants that are the very definition of the place. I'm not against the modern hybrids, it's just that I can buy those at any grocery store, so they're not as interesting. (And they don't taste as good.)
Project 3: optimize placement. How do I keep fruit and flowers going in multiple seasons? How do I keep tall things from blocking small things? How do I mix plants to keep them from attracting pests? How do I get bees to come and help pollinate things?
Project 4: introduce automated monitoring and controlling. It's not necessary, it's just interesting. Why not teach the garden to decide when it needs water—and then water itself. How can I take data about which areas of the backyard get sun at which times on which days? Where does the rain fall, and where does it get blocked by the trees overhead? Which spots get hotter and cooler, more and less humid. How can you sense the health of a plant—size, color, chemical properties in the soil—and have it call for help? Can I power everything with solar panels? Can I store rainwater and use it instead of watering everything from the tap?
Left to my own devices, I would probably turn the entire backyard into some weird jungle garden. Fortunately I live with someone who has taste (and a degree in biology), so we might be able to turn it into something good.
Some resources I've found so far to answer a few of these questions: