Controlled Chaos: Welcoming Self-Seeded Plants Into Your Garden

In this month's SF Chronicle column (which will appear December 13, 2015) I reviewed a book called Cultivating Chaos: How to Enrich Landscapes with Self-seeding Plants. Every vegetable gardener knows that some vegetables self-seed in gardens. The mustard or arugula we didn't pull out before they set seed, the last beans, hiding in the foliage until they ripen and drop, the parsnip we let bloom to attract beneficial insects. These all will result in little surprises in the following year. With our long California seasons, with plenty of time for seeds to ripen, we probably see more volunteer crop seedlings than would gardeners in short-summer climates.

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(Self-seeded arugula with Daffodils, in February. A free salad green that decorates the garden until you eat it up.)

               What do we do about it? Depending on our needs, we may let the volunteer grow and eat it. Or, if it is in the way, we may move it, or if that isn't possible, because it will not transplant well, or if we have too many seedlings of it, we pull it out. No problem. We usually kind of like it that nature has given us something we might eat without having to sow the seed. So it is a short leap to enjoying volunteers in our flower gardens.

               The Cultivating Chaosbook is a celebration of ornamental plants that grow from naturally dropped seed, as opposed to seed we replant each year. It will be an inspiration to those who want to have a truly beautiful ornamental garden that embraces some of these plants. It includes many photos of handsome gardens or parts of gardens using self-sowing plants, tips on using them well in gardens, and a plant encyclopedia to illustrate and discuss the merits of a number of plant candidates.

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(I shot this image at Annie's Annuals. This nursery, in Richmond, CA, is a good source of plants that will reseed, such as these red poppies. They are at anniesannuals.com.)

                Here I must acknowledge that some gardeners are afraid of self-seeding plants. It has been a fashion recently to plant home gardens that are like the gardens of a commercial establishment in that the plants have been chosen to grow slowly, need little pruning, and stay put. A thick mulch is applied to keep weeds down, and any wayward seeds usually perish in the mulch. It's called low-maintenance gardening, and I suppose it is, but oh, how I would miss the serendipity of an old-fashioned garden flower bed.

               The authors of Cultivating Chaos understand that one does not want a garden to be 100% chaos. They say the trick to creating a pleasing garden design with self-seeding flowers is to contrast their relative chaos with "clearly defined architectural forms and areas of quiet that are the result of traditional garden planning."

               Yes! I knew this when I decided what I wanted in my own garden. It needed enough structure created by hardscape that some of the planted areas could be more random (or chaotic), with only an occasional formal row of some plant to add a modicum of order. Broken concrete and used bricks create low retaining walls and a patio, with some paths made of concrete pavers or decomposed granite. Now I have to decide how much self-sowing to allow. I have learned, as did the authors of Cultivating Chaos, that much of what goes on to manage the potential chaos is removal of unwanted seedlings.

               Removing self-seeding plants is weeding, really, but what you remove is often, and, as the process continues, more often, a flower rather than a true weed. (If there is bare earth, and even if there is a mulch, really, there will be weeds. So one might as well be weeding out flower seedlilngs as weedy plants with no ornamental value.)

               I must say here that my book, Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California, features a number of self-seeding ornamentals that thrive in our regional microclimates. I grow many of these in my own garden--including columbine, blue nigella Kenilworth ivy, feverfew, linaria, cineraria, nasturtium, Johnny-jump-up, and California poppy. I do buy plants and seed, but I depend on self-sowers to fill in between them and bloom each year without having to be purchased or sown.(And I also have volunteer parsley, chervil, arugula, potatoes, an occasional parsnip.)

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(A self-seeded Alpine strawberry, golden feverfew, purple cineraria, and columbine fill in this corner of my garden.)

               And, as I said earlier, many gardeners are afraid of self-sowers, so they are afraid of my book. A sad fact, since they are losing access to so much useful information, including information on which of the featured plants are deer tolerant, snail tolerant, drought tolerant (most), or attractive to humming birds.

             The book Cultivating Chaos skips lightly over potential problems and over the chance of plants escaping into wildlands. However, in Wildly Successful Plants, I don't skip these hard parts, but have delved into them thoroughly so that a gardener can make decisions that are responsible for our region and for an individual garden.

               One of the main principles of responsibility is that plants act differently in different regions. I was surprised to find lady's mantle (Alchimella mollis) listed in Cultivating Chaos as a self-seeder, as it has never done that in my garden. Nor has blanket flower (Gaillardia). On the other hand, they say that Mexican daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus) can be expected to self-sow only in dry locations with sandy soil. Here, in a dry summer Mediterranean climate, that plant reproduces like crazy (though the variety 'Spindrift', mentioned in Wildly Successful Plants, is said not to produce seed.)

               There is also a question of whether a plant could become a wildland weed. Again, only a paragraph of warning in Cultivating Chaos, but a careful analysis in Wildly Successful Plants. My analysis is possible in part because I am writing about a specific region, whereas Cultivating Chaos, which was written by Germans and which tries to be more universal in coverage, can't deal with the fact that fennel and ox-eye daisy, which they recommend, are nasty weeds here, while lady's mantle, as I mentioned, doesn’t seem to self sow at all.

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(California poppies are featured in both Cultivating Chaos and Wildly Successful Plants, but I've explained in Wildly Successful Plants that the native in the Central California Coast region is this two-toned variety.

               To be a wildland weed, incidentally, a plant needs not only to self-sow, but to be able to compete in regional undisturbed or lightly disturbed wildland habitats. This ability varies by plant and by region, and I've analyzed it carefully before suggesting each plant in Wildly Successful Plants.

               The strength of the book Cultivating Chaos lies not in its analysis of using self-sowing plants responsibly, but in its photos. They give design ideas that will inspire you to want a bit of chaos in your garden. There are all-the-same-color flower plantings and ones with bold contrasting color schemes; informal gardens with only paths through the self-sown beds; and gardens in which chaos plays against formal hedges and hardscape. There are self-sowers peeking up through pavers and ornamenting dry-stone walls. There are photos of plants that have formed handsome seedpods, backlit to show their edges. The photos make me want to create ever more lovely self-seeded chaos in my garden.

Full bibliographic Info:

Cultivating Chaos: How to Enrich Landscapes with Self-Seeding Plants, Jonas Reif, Christian Kress, with photos by Jürgen Becker, Timber Press, 2015.

Wildly Successful Plants Northern California, Pam Peirce, with photos by David Goldberg, Sasquatch Books, 2004.

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(Seedpods of some common self-seeding flowers.)


Some Resources for Waterwise Gardeners

This is not meant to be a complete list, by any means, but here are a few publications and links that will be useful if you are selecting plants for a waterwise garden.

WUCOLS stands for Water Use Classification of Landscape Plants. This project, sponsored by UCDavis, California Dept of Water Resources, California Center for Urban Horticulture, lets you find out the water needs of over 3,500 landscape plants in six different regions of California. The most recent version WUCOLS IV,can be accessed at the following address:

http://ucanr.edu/sites/WUCOLS/   Click on "Plant Search" Or you can use this link: WUCOLS IV

For information on growing California Native Plants, check out the Las Pilitas web site, laspilitas.com, or use this link: Las Pilitas Nursery.

Here are links to two articles on the subject of watering trees during a drought that were recently in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Trees Out on A Limb

Watering Trees in A Drought

Finally, here is a short list of books that you will find useful as you seek ideas and plants for a waterwise garden:

California Native Plants for the Garden, Burnstein, Fross, O'Brien, Cachuma Press, 2005.Photos, text on garden uses and care.

New Sunset Western Garden Book. I think the most recent is 2012, and it does have all color photos, which are helpful, but the text of couple of editions right before this one were a little more thorough.

Plant Life in the World's Mediterranean Climates, Peter B. Dallman, University of California Press, 1998. Maps and charts show how the 5 mediterranean regions are similar and, importantly, how they differ, then explains the habitats to which many of our favorite plants are adapted.

 Plants and Landscapes for Summer-dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region, East Bay MUD, 2004. Inspiring photos and useful information.

The Random House Book of Indoor and Greenhouse Plants, Roger Phillips & Martyn Rix, Volumes 1 & 2, Random House,1997. Despite the name, thiese two volumes cover mostly mediterranean and other subtropical plants that we can grow outside. The photos and text about the plants in their native habitats are very useful.

Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California, Pam Peirce, Sasquatch Books, 2004.California garden history, plant origins, garden maintenance instructions, garden design, and a philosophy for a regional garden.


Resources for Learning to Identify Plants

Learning to identify plants by family is a really good way for a gardener to get a handle on plant ID. It gives you a head start on understanding all sorts of things about a plant. It makes it easier to learn the plant's name, if you don't already know it, gives clues about how to grow it and propagate it. You will start to organize your knowledge of plants in very useful ways.

Next week I'll be teaching some California Master Gardeners to identify 5 plant families. For my students and others who are ready to learn more about plants, the following list of books and a web site will be of help. They offer descriptions and illustrations of plants in different families, as well as explanations and drawings to show the meaning of botanical terms.

I should also say that this is the second of two talks on the subject I can present to interested San Francisco Bay Area audiences. Each covers 5 families, includes a Powerpoint slide show and an extremely useful handout, and takes about 1 3/4 hours to present.  If you might like me to give one or both talks to a group of gardeners, you can send me an email through my website, pampeirce.com,

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Flowers are central to plant ID. A rose is known by its five sepals and petals, many stamens, and single pistil. In a double-flowered rose, many or all of the stamens have been replaced by petals.

Here are resources to help you learn more:

The Botany Coloring Book, Paul Young, Jacquelyn Guiffre, Harper Perennial, 1982.  Learn plant anatomy and terminology through coloring the illustrations.

 

Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification, Thomas J. Elpel, Hops Press, LLC, 6th Edition, 2013. Learn to identify plants based on plant family patterns. Covers eight common families.

 

Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary, James G. Harris, Melinda Woolf Harris, Spring Lake Pub, 2001). Twenty seven hundred definition, nineteen hundred illustrations.

 

Seed to Seed, Suzanne Ashworth, Seed Savers Exchange, 1991.  Food crops, listed by plant family, with discussions of pollination and seed saving.

 

The families of flowering plants, L. Watson and M. J. Dallwitz. Descriptions and illustrations for the plant families. Includes an interactive key for plants and a set of botanical poems by Giles Watson. The link to this web site is:  http://delta-intkey.com/angio/ or use this link: Families of Flowering Plants

Often, plant descriptions in gardening books will include the name of the plant family to which a plant belongs. For example you will find plant families listed in the Sunset Western Garden Book and in Golden Gate Gardening. If you want to know what other plants are in this family, try looking it up on the Watson & Dalwitz site, or try Googling the scientific name of the family. Wikipedia has articles on each plant family and you will find other useful sites.


Naked Ladies--Wildly Successful Plant of the Month

In California, August is the month of the naked ladies. They are to be found dancing in gardens and along roads up and down the state. They dance, however, only in the wind, being rooted firmly in the ground--not wild California women, but pink lily-like blossoms of the plant Amaryllis belladonna. The fanciful name was inspired by the fact the plans have no trace of leaf when they are blooming.

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These, in our neighborhood, were planted behind a low privet hedge, so they peek modestly over the top when viewed from the street. (Not everyone finds them shocking, though, in Italy, they have the much more modest common name of Madonna lily, and in Spain, a name that translates to "Girls going to School.")

Below, I shot a cluster of them close up, so you can see the big bulbs at the top of the soil.

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This is a plant of mysteries. The first is the absence of leaves when it blooms. The explanation for their lack is that they have strap-like leaves in winter that you could easily mistake for Agapanthus leaves. They dry up completely well before the flower stem emerges.

The second mystery is why they sometimes refuse to bloom. In the wild, in the chaparrel-like fynbos of the Cape Province, they bloom only after a wildfire strikes--which happens every 5 to 40 years. In gardens, they tend to bloom every year, but if they are in shade in winter and spring, they may not bloom at all. One guess is that the wildfires remove other plants that shade the leaves in winter.

In South Africa, botanists puzzled for a long time about how the flowers were pollinated, considering a hawk moth, carpenter bees, and other bees. Whatever does it there, something also does it here, because seeds do form. They are soft pearly pink or white balls the size of BBs. I germinated them in pots, just to see, but they don't usually germinate in the garden. This is probably because fall rains are later here than in South Africa, so the delicate, fleshy seeds dry out before they can grow.

These plants grow nicely in unwatered parts of the garden. They rarely need any irrigation at all, being from the western, Cape region of South Africa that has a climate very similar to ours--wet in winter, dry in summer.You'd only need to water a bit in an unusually dry winter. And, while the plant has no need for summer water, it can tolerate a moderate amount of it in spring and summer in soil with good drainage, meaning you can grow it in the same bed as other plants that are moderately drought-tolerant. The bulbs are best left alone for a number of years to produce large clumps.

A good time to plant naked lady bulbs is late summer, when they are most dormant. If you are dividing an existing stand, dig them as soon as the blooms fade.

In South Africa, naked ladies are often interplanted with native bulbs that bloom at other times, such as spring blooming Agapanthus or winter blooming Chasmanthe. (Chasmanthe is a tall, orange or yellow-flowered plant often mistaken for crocosmia here.)

These were among the South African bulbs Thomas Jefferson obtained and tried to grow in his greenhouse, though in general, he wasn't a very successful greenhouse operator and soon gave up, deciding to use the greenhouse as a sun room instead. By 1850, the bulbs were introduced to California, which accounts for the fact they are sometimes seen blooming in places where no one lives now. They have survived in abandoned farm sites and on Alcatraz Island, where they were part of the prisoner or employee gardens recently rennovated. (While they persist, and multiply, they don't generally spread far from the original planting, so if they were planted in a row, the row remains, just blooming more profusely after many years.)

Gus Broucaret, instructor of Horticulture at City College of San Francisco tells me that as a boy in San Francisco in the 1930s or 40s, he would have dirt fights with his friends on undeveloped hillsides, and then dig up a naked lady bulb, slice it open and use the sudsy sap inside to clean their hands before going home to face mothers who didn't much approve of their dirtying play.

Naked ladies are deer and gopher resistant and are fragrant. If you have enough to cut as well as ornament the garden, you will find they are excellent cut flowers.

A similar plant, of interest to those with smaller gardens is Nerine bowdenii, which has pink flowers on bare stems to 2 feet tall in late summer. 

There is much more on Amaryllis belladonna and other easy heirloom California garden plants in my book Wildly Successful Plants: Northern California, available in many local bookstores and nurseries. (See cover at right.)

 


Instead of Amazon, Indiebound

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Having been summarily dropped by Amazon.com as an affiliate, because of a new law in California that would require them to pay sales tax on sales here, I have summarily dropped them as well. I pay sales tax when I sell a book and feel that if I can do it, surely they can do it. California has ongoing revenue problems, and I think it is time for internet sellers to step up to the plate and help out. If they did, I've read estimates that the state would earn 1.2 billion dollars more than at present. And that, dear readers, would fund a lot of education, health, welfare, and infrastructure.

I had already begun a changeover from Amazon to IndieBound, and this caused me to solve the technical problems and get the links set up fast. Now when you click on the links to my books, on either this blog or my web site (pampeirce.com), you will find yourself at IndieBound.org. This wonderful site lets you order books through local independent bookstores. (The site also includes a sort of "social networking about books" function and offers tantalizing book suggestions.) Supporting these brick and mortar stores provides local jobs and adds sales tax needed to run our state. Also, ordering the books locally saves energy used to ship them to you. Please resist the megacorps and pay to promote goals you believe in.


We dug the potatoes in July...

And it took me this long to let you see how they turned out. Sorry. This was taken in my backyard, where

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the potatoes were smaller and fewer than at the City College garden. Makes sense, because what with the redesign of my garden, and the fact that this part hasn't been used for vegetables, I have just begun to amend this soil. I hope it will do better in the future as I add more organic matter. 

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These are potatoes being dug at the college garden. Here, we got 27 1/2 pounds of potatoes from about 28 square feet. I didn't weigh the ones in my back yard, but I think I only got about a 5th as many. Shows what good soil can do!

Note the digging fork. Use a digging fork to dig potatoes, so you will cut fewer of them than if you used a shovel or spade. (Digging fork, not pitchfork. A digging fork has wider, stronger tines. A pitchfork has thin, weak tines, useful for pitching compost or hay, not strong enough to dig with.)

Check out posts from earlier this spring to see how we planted the potatoes in both gardens. They started out 4" under the bottom of 4" trenches, then we filled in the trenches, then mulched with straw, as the plants grew.

These were Russian banana fingerlings--fingerlings because this is one of the varieties with that long, fingery shape. They have been delicious in soups and stews or cut up and roasted after rolling them in olive oil and herbs. 

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Next, here is a shot of two nice big zucchini plants. I put this in to show, again, the value of working on your soil so that it is rich in organic matter and well fertilized. These plants are nearly 3 feet tall. There are 2 or 3 together in each of the 2 "hills" of squash. It is also growing in "full sun," if you can describe it like that after 45 days of fog, fog, fog. Seed was sown in in early June, then we put row cover over the planted areas, because snails or slugs were eating the seedlings. We put bubbles of row cover over each group of seedlings, tucking the edges in the soil well, and put a drip irrigation line over the row cover, so that there was a drip emitter just over the center of the group of seedlings. When the plants were big enough to have prickly leaves (which snails and slugs don't like) we uncovered them. 

Beginning gardeners often buy squash plants from a nursery that are overgrown in the pot, maybe even already blooming. These will be rootbound, which squash plants do not handle well. It stunts them. That, combined with inadequate fertilizer and water, and with partial shade, often results in small plants.

Oh, these are a Romanesco type (left), which has striped and ridged fruit, and 'Dundoo' from Johnny's Seed's, a dark green-fruited zucchini that is supposed to be powdery mildew resistant. Both kinds held up pretty well in all those weeks of fog, but both, sadly, have some powdery mildew now. I've begun to take off the worst leaves, the ones covered with spores, before they spread the disease all over the plants. But these plants have been putting out lots of fruits. Hard to keep up with them, and we have two more, so I'm glad to have a class to help share them.

In news from the garden book world, the new edition of Roz Creasy's book Edible Landscaping is to be released November 1, 2010. It's a big book on designing your landscape to include edibles of all kinds. The first edition, from 1982, was illustrated with watercolors and line drawings, but this one has her wonderful photography. Do check it out.


Golden Gate Gardening Available Now

Due to a snafu with the distributor, my book Golden Gate Gardening (see cover in right column of this blog) has been unavailable for a little while. But now, my publisher says it is back in stock. Bookstores and other retail outlets can order it from the distributor PGW. Individuals who can't find it readily in a store can order it directly from Sasquatch Books, either online at www.sasquatchbooks.com or by calling them at 1(800) 775-0817. (Or tell your bookstore or nursery where to order it.) If you are gardening to grow vegetables, fruits, herbs, or cutting flowers in the Bay Area, this book will definitely help you get more out of your garden all year. 


Finding Golden Gate Gardening in December 2007

Larry wrote a comment after my last entry about the fact that he has been waiting for some weeks for a copy of Golden Gate Gardening from Amazon.com. I called the publisher today (Sasquatch Books) and they told me that the book is definitely in print and in stock. The problem seems to be a new owner for their distributor. Books are being moved from one warehouse to another in a different state, and so are in limbo. The problem will be solved by early January. Sorry.

Although books aren't flowing into the Bay Area as they should be at the moment, I know there are plenty of them already in Bay Area stores. If you are having trouble finding the book, try local bookstores and nurseries. The San Francisco Sloat Nursery (www.sloatgarden.com) has a few, and they can send them to their stores in other cities. Flowercraft Garden Center in San Francisco (www.flowercraftgc.com) is also well stocked.

The book would make a great holiday gift for anyone gardening in the Bay Area or from Mendocino to Monterey, since right at the end of the year is a great time in our area to be starting some seedlings for planting. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, leeks, lettuce, Florence fennel, and celeriac are the seeds I'll be sowing in the Christmas to New Year week or with my spring class in mid January. In February, I will be sowing radish, peas, mizuna, arugula, fava beans, carrots, beets, and a few other crops directly in the ground.

The Florence fennel and celeriac that we start inside early in the year will be part of an experiment to see if we can avoid damage by a most annoying garden pest. These crops and others at the college garden have been falling prey to some rodent. It has been eating off the roots, leaving the plant standing. When you pick up the plant, it has a gnawed base. Could be a gopher, but I suspect a rat, since I never see the aboveground mounds of a gopher and gophers are more likely to pull the whole plant into their tunnel.

Ccsf_garden_sept_9_003_copy We have taken action. Students removed the soil to a depth of 18 inches from one of our raised beds. In the fall, we lined it with 1/4 inch mesh galvenized fencing (also known as hardware cloth). In February, we will plant that bed and the neighboring, unlined bed with Florence fennel, celeriac, parsnip, leeks, and parsley, all favorites of whatever is eating the roots. Then we shall see if the lining will stop the damage. When we emptied the soil out of this bed, we found a tunnel entering from the side of the bed that was wide enough to stick an arm in up to the elbow. It was just under the wood of the frame. Stay tuned to see if we can outsmart the critter this year!


Reading About Wasp Behavior

I just bought a second book on the behavior of wasps. This one is called Wasp Farm, and is by Howard Ensign Evans. This wasp expert watched wasps on an 8 acre farm in upstate New York, and wrote about it in 1963. I found the book used, with the title on the spine barely readable, but when I opened the cover and saw the inside cover emblazoned with a wasp family tree, I knew this was going to have solid information. And I am looking forward to the chapter called "Thirteen Ways to Carry a Dead Fly."

My other book on wasps is called The Hunting Wasp. It was written in 1955 by a South African whose name is John Crompton. He reports on the observations of a number of others, including the famous French entomologist, Henri Fabre, and the Americans, a couple by the name of Peckham.

Most wasps are predators or parasites of garden pests. For example, some dig a nest in the ground and bring to it a paralyzed caterpillar. In this they lay eggs, which hatch into larvae, and these eat out the innards of the caterpillar, pupate, then emerge as adult wasps. Others, tiny wasps, lay eggs in aphids, parasitizing them.

Wasp behavior is sometimes quite remarkable, as when the Ammophila wasp spend considerable time choosing a pebble of just the right shape and weight, carries it to her soil-covered nest, and uses it to hammer down the loose soil. A tool-using wasp!

I'll report on this new (to me) book.