Tag Archives: garden

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.

Garden planning 2021, 2

Previously: Early Garden Planning 2021

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.

Nothing does only one thing

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.