Darwinian Gardening

Tomato plant and squash plant in a pot, in the garden among morning glories, irises, spearmint, etc.

I’m writing a 3-part series on composting over at Kitchen Stewardship; here’s how to get started with my composting system using 3 ordinary flowerpots, and I also mention two FREE composting systems my family members have used. Here, I’m explaining my general approach to the garden I nourish with my compost.

The idea and the name of Darwinian Gardening come from my mom, who devotes a section of her large garden to “the survival of the fittest,” with lovely and sometimes surprising results.

You could just fertilize some soil and then see what grows there, being totally hands-off about it.  Mom and I intervene a little.  The basic idea is to plant the seeds you have and encourage the plants you like, to grow a uniquely beautiful garden that’s environmentally friendly, inexpensive, and low-maintenance.

I don’t have a big garden like my parents do.  My front yard is about 12 feet square.  My back yard (not shown in these photos) is on a cliff and very shady, so we struggle to keep anything growing there to control erosion.  One of my favorite things about Darwinian Gardening is that many species of plants intertwine, creating lots of variety in a small area.  My garden may be tiny, but there’s a lot to see here!

Morning glories, lamb’s ears, and purple vine working together to choke out “weeds.”

My garden combines things I planted on purpose with things that just showed up. Every spring, I plant whatever seeds I have, root cuttings from my potted plants, and maybe buy a few bulbs or seeds or seedlings.

A lot of my plants “grow like weeds” and are essentially invasive species, but I don’t consider them “weeds” because I like them!  I only pull up plants I truly don’t want, like poison ivy and burrs.

However, my most enthusiastic plants sometimes choke out other plants that I want to grow, so I intervene by digging them up and moving them to a bare spot.  Morning glory vines twine around other plants and block the sunlight; while I’m supervising my kids playing outdoors, I patrol the garden and carefully unwind morning glories from the other plants and wind them onto things I don’t mind them growing on. Read more of this post

Sheet Mulching Turns Garbage Into Fertile Soil!

Last week’s guest post about choosing organic fertilizer drew comments from my brother, urban farmer and permaculture instructor Ben Stallings of Interdependent Web, explaining the good reasons to improve your soil with plants rather than manufactured pellets (even if they are made from organic materials).  Until then, I wasn’t aware that he had written an updated version of his Earthling’s Handbook post about sheet mulching with unwanted ragweed plants.  Here’s his article in Permaculture News giving more detail about the science and the technique.

I’ve also been contacted by fix.com suggesting that I share their helpful graphics about sheet mulching.  I’m happy to spread the word about this all-natural technique that puts your dead autumn leaves, compost, manure (a pet rabbit makes low-odor manure out of your carrot peelings and is cute, too!), old newspapers or cardboard boxes, and pulled-up weeds or grass clippings to work making rich new soil!  You can even set it up on top of a lawn without having to pull up all the grass first. Read more of this post

How to Choose a Safe, Earth-friendly Garden Fertilizer

This is a guest post by Josefine Schaefer of Fertiplus, a Dutch company manufacturing organic fertilizers.  Although I have not used their products myself, I support the idea of non-toxic fertilizers made from natural materials.  This is not a paid advertisement, and the article also includes advice on making your own organic fertilizers.  Fertiplus products are available through their website and can be ordered by email or telephone.

Facing the variety of options available in the fertilizers section, it is definitely not easy to make the right choice. There are mineral fertilizers, liquid fertilizers, and organic fertilizers. The organic type are increasing in popularity, with good reason: Fertilizers based on natural resources are a healthy alternative to chemical fertilizers, improve the soil’s structure, and do not disrupt the natural mineral and trace element content, moisture, and density.

What are Organic Fertilizers?

As the name suggests, organic fertilizers are natural products that are generated from natural resources, such as chicken manure or compost. Due to the fact that it can be a little tricky to estimate the exact nutrient ratio, organic fertilizers are sometimes also sold as “soil improvers”. This might be one of the reasons why some still shy away from organic fertilizers; however, the lower or varying dosage is not a downside: Because organic fertilizers have a lower proportion of minerals, they are easier to apply, and the risk of over-fertilizing and harming the soil is much lower.

The activation of mineralization largely depends on weather and temperature changes. This is a reason why results might not be visible immediately but will be more effective and natural in the long run: The organic fertilizer components are activated when the temperature rises, and they slowly but steadily release the nutrients over a much longer period of time. Read more of this post

Some Plants Are For Eating

Happy Earth Day!  Before I get to my main topic, I’ve got some special offers to tell you about…

  • First, instead of buying anything, check out the beautiful photographs in the Capture Conservation photo contest sponsored by the Student Conservation Association!
  • UPDATE: The sale on PlanetBox stainless steel lunchboxes has ended, but check out our review of PlanetBox–Nicholas is now finishing fifth grade and still using the same PlanetBox he got at the beginning of kindergarten!
  • Grove Collaborative is having a one-day sale on 42 different Earth-friendly cleaning and hygiene products.  UPDATE: The sale is over, but if you’re new to Grove (formerly ePantry), you still can start your order here to get an additional $10 discount, and I’ll also get a bonus!  Here’s my article explaining what Grove Collaborative is all about, with reviews of many of the fine products they carry.
  • GreenLine Paper Company will donate ALL profits from today’s orders for paper products toward the planting of trees.  UPDATE: That special is over, but still, check out their wide selection of office paper, household paper products, and janitorial paper products.  Buy by the case and save!  (If you live in Pennsylvania, like I do, or nearby, note that GreenLine is in York, PA, so the shipping distance is short–better for the environment than shipping a long distance.)

As spring settles in and you begin to spend more time outdoors, you may have access to some edible plants.  It’s fun to graze on fresh food that happens to be growing right there in your yard!  But if there’s a young child with you, doesn’t that set a bad example?  You don’t want the kid to think that we can just grab parts off of random plants and eat them–he might eat some nightshade berries or poison ivy and get sick or poisoned or itchy!

P1020014Here’s my daughter Lydia on her first birthday, last spring.  Our yard was at just about the stage it is now, with spearmint poking up through the mulch of autumn leaves as the tulips, lilacs, and dandelions are blooming.  Lydia was very interested in all the new, colorful things, and once she had seen me break off some mint leaves and eat them, she wanted to do that, too!

I was surprised how easy it was to teach her that some plants are For Eating while other plants are Not For Eating.  In our yard, spearmint, chives, sourgrass (yellow oxalis/wood sorrel), dill, and purslane come up every year.  Lydia was very pleased with the mint and chives, which are abundant, and within a month was showing us that she recognized “mihtt” and “hifes” as she named them while picking them.  She was rarely incorrect in her identifications, even at first.  Apparently recognizing a particular leaf shape is not so difficult a skill as we might think.

Being able to recognize some plants that are For Eating didn’t stop her from wanting to experiment with others, though!  We did have to watch her carefully and redirect her many times.  It’s a lot like learning to stay out of the street–which has required surprisingly fewer reminders than I expected, actually.
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