Tag Archives: gardening

2017 in Review

Most frightening stories of 2017:

  • January: The U.S. government may be “planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks”.
  • February: The Doomsday Clock was moved to 2.5 minutes to midnight. The worst it has ever been was 2 minutes to midnight in the early 1980s. In related news, the idea of a U.S.-China war is looking a bit more plausible. The U.S. military may be considering sending ground troops to Syria.
  • MarchLa Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
  • April: The U.S. health care market is screwed up seemingly beyond repair. Why can’t we have nice things? Oh right, because our politicians represent big business, not voters. Also, we have forgotten the difference between a dialog and an argument.
  • May: We hit 410 ppm at Mauna Loa.
  • JuneThe Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • July: Long term food security in Asia could be a problem.
  • August: The U.S. construction industry has had negligible productivity gains in the past 40 years.
  • September: During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. After the Cold War finally ended, Mikhail Gorbachev made some good suggestions for how to achieve a lasting peace. They were ignored. We may be witnessing the decline of the American Empire as a result.
  • October: It is possible that a catastrophic loss of insects is occurring and that it may lead to ecological collapse. Also, there is new evidence that pollution is harming human health and even the global economy more than previously thought.
  • November: I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by no foreign policy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfident leaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
  • December: A lot of people would probably agree that the United States government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, but I don’t think many would question the long-term stability of our form of government itself. Maybe we should start to do that. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been doing a decent job of protecting consumers and reducing the risk of another financial crisis. The person in charge of it now was put there specifically to ruin it. Something similar may be about to happen at the Census Bureau. A U.S. Constitutional Convention is actually a possibility, and might threaten the stability of the nation.

Most hopeful stories of 2017:

Most interesting stories that weren’t particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • January: Apple, Google, and Facebook may destroy the telecom industry.
  • February: The idea of growing human organs inside a pig, or even a viable human-pig hybrid, is getting very closeTiny brains can also be grown on a microchip. Bringing back extinct animals is also getting very close.
  • March: Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
  • April: I finished reading Rainbow’s End, a fantastic Vernor Vinge novel about augmented reality in the near future, among other things.
  • May: The sex robots are here.
  • June: “Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • July: Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • August: Elon Musk has thrown his energy into deep tunneling technology.
  • September: I learned that the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook named “ten key emerging technology trends”: The Internet of Things, Big data analytics, Artificial intelligence, Neurotechnologies, Nano/microsatellites, Nanomaterials, Additive manufacturing / 3D printing, Advanced energy storage technologies, Synthetic biology, Blockchain
  • October: Even if autonomous trucks are not ready for tricky urban situations, they could be autonomous on the highway with a small number of remote-control drivers guiding a large number of tricks through tricky urban maneuvers, not unlike the way ports or trainyards are run now. There is also new thinking on how to transition highways gradually through a mix of human and computer-controlled vehicles, and eventually to full computer control. New research shows that even a small number of autonomous vehicles mixed in with human drivers will be safer for everyone. While some reports predict autonomous taxis will be available in the 2020s, Google says that number is more like 2017.
  • November: It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.
  • DecemberMicrosoft is trying to one-up Google Scholar, which is good for researchers. More computing firepower is being focused on making sense of all the scientific papers out there.

I’ll keep this on the short side. Here are a few trends I see:

Risk of War. I think I said about a year ago that if we could through the next four years without a world war or nuclear detonation, we will be doing well. Well, one year down and three to go. That’s the bright side. The dark side is that it is time to acknowledge there is a regional war going on in the Middle East. It could escalate, it could go nuclear, and it could result in military confrontation between the United States and Russia. Likewise, the situation in North Korea could turn into a regional conflict, could go nuclear, and could lead to military confrontation between the United States and China.

Decline…and Fall? A question on my mind is whether the United States is a nation in decline, and I think the surprisingly obvious answer is yes. The more important question is whether it is a temporary dip, or the beginning of a decline and fall.

Risk of Financial Crisis. The risk of another serious financial crisis is even scarier that war in some ways, at least a limited, non-nuclear war. Surprisingly, the economic effects can be more severe, more widespread and longer lasting. We are seeing the continued weakening of regulations attempting to limit systemic risk-taking for short-term gain. Without a pickup in long-term productivity growth and with the demographic and ecological headwinds that we face, another crisis equal to or worse than the 2007 one could be the one that we don’t recover from.

Ecological Collapse? The story about vanishing insects was eye-opening to me. Could global ecosystems go into a freefall? Could populous regions of the world face a catastrophic food shortage? It is hard to imagine these things coming to a head in the near term, but the world needs to take these risks seriously since the consequences would be so great.

Technology. With everything else going on, technology just marches forward, of course. One technology I find particularly interesting is new approaches to research that mine and attempt to synthesize large bodies of scientific research.

Can the human species implement good ideas? Solutions exist. I would love to end on a positive note, but at the moment I find myself questioning whether our particular species of hairless ape can implement them.

But – how’s this for ending on a positive note – like I said at the beginning, the one thing about 2017 that definitely didn’t suck was that we didn’t get blown up!

2017 garden retrospective

Now that there is snow on the ground and any possibility of actual gardening has ground to a halt, I find myself thinking about the growing season that just passed and the next one coming up. This wasn’t a great gardening year for me. A brand new human being sprouted in my household in January and ended up requiring a lot of care and maintenance throughout the growing season, along with the care and feeding of a four-year-old seedling we already had. The actual garden got mostly neglected. Weeds took over around mid-summer and I didn’t put the effort into beating them back that I would like to.

Still, the two trees and various perennials I planted in 2016 just chugged along all season even under and among the weeds. Their roots should be growing and strengthening, the seed bank will gradually shift toward “weeds” I like, and I think there is plenty of hope that the garden I originally envisioned will gradually start to take shape in the next few years. It helps that what I envision is only semi-tame to begin with.

What went well:

  • The Asian pear tree grew like crazy in its second season, and is now about as tall as it was advertised to be. Early in the season, it was swaying alarmingly in high winds, but the bottom seemed stationary so I didn’t stake it. Later in the season, it seemed to strengthen and stiffen, and is now doing well.
  • The Asian persimmon grew a little bit in its first year. Any growth was welcome after my first attempt with an Asian persimmon was dead on arrival. We will see how it does next year.
  • Other perennials did just fine in their second year, including lemon balm and butterfly milkweed. The yarrow the previous owners had, which I moved, continues to do well. My chives and garlic chives both did well and flowered. Violets and green and gold both started to fill in nicely as ground covers. The previous owner’s black-eyed Susans are doing well and even getting a bit aggressive. They have a bunch of bee balm that is doing well, which is good because I think I destroyed all the bee balm I planted myself when trying to pull out some aggressive daisies. It’s not that I hate daisies, but they don’t have much redeeming ecological value and one small clump is enough for me. A couple of the previous owners’ purple coneflowers are still hanging on too.
  • My greatest triumph of the year was getting wild strawberries sprouted and established.
  • My plan to attract black swallowtails with parsley, dill and fennel was a qualified success. Something ate the dill early on, but the parsley survived all year, and the fennel grew like crazy (I didn’t know fennel was such a large perennial, I plan to keep it but may move it elsewhere.)
  • Thai basil and Thai sweet basil did awesome in our big tubs as usual.
  • Maypop – Planted a couple vines as a long-term substitute for clematis and they took off. Will see if I end up regretting this some day.
  • I’m almost embarrassed to say my dandelions and chicory are doing well, but hey, I have had a soft spot for these “weeds” ever since I was a kid and they are always welcome in my garden.
  • I had a pitcher plant and Venus fly trap that were very happy for awhile growing in Sphagnum moss under my air conditioning condensate line. The Venus fly trap petered out sometime in the fall, but I brought the pitcher plant in for the winter and it seems to be bumping along.

What didn’t go well:

  • No luck even sprouting anise hyssop or mountain mint. I have never read anywhere that these seeds are hard to sprout.
  • I made a half-hearted attempt at miner’s lettuce again. A couple anemic seedlings just petered out as soon as it got hot.
  • Surprisingly, no luck with sunflowers, because squirrels just ate them right away.
  • I tried cilantro in window boxes, but it just bolted right away. The flowers were semi-interesting for a few weeks and attracted interesting little pollinators, but then they just died and looked terrible the rest of the year.
  • No luck sprouting Thai chilis.
  • No luck sprouting parsley, but of course it is easy and cheap to buy at almost any farmers market or hardware store.
  • Surprisingly, my white clover petered out in the hot summer and dry fall, which is one thing that allowed so many other weeds to come in. The roots are probably doing fine and we’ll see if it bounces back in the spring.
  • Sunchokes – these came roaring back in one of the big tubs in the spring with no intervention on my part, then gradually started to look really anemic and gross in the summer before dying completely. This doesn’t mean the roots are dead and won’t come back next year, of course.
  • White mulberry – one of these bounced up to small tree height in a matter of weeks in late summer and early fall. I don’t want it and need to do something about it ASAP before doing something requires a chain saw rather than a hack saw.
  • French sorrel looked anemic and weed-covered in the summer, but seemed to perk back up a bit in the fall.

Plans for next year:

  • Sunflowers – just direct seed tons of them, more than the squirrels can eat. Sunflower seeds are cheap. I still like my idea of using them as sort of a biological fence to keep out neighbors’ weeds.
  • Miners lettuce – still want to try to get a stand of this established. I may try a combination of direct seeding and transplants.
  • Sea kale – the one new seed I plan to order this winter.
  • Anise hyssop and mountain mint – I want to take yet another shot at these. Maybe just start a whole bunch of them and try some direct seeding too. And if none of that works, maybe break down and mail-order some plants.
  • Thai basil and Thai sweet basil – I’m excited because I saved seeds from plants last fall. If they don’t sprout, these are easy to buy our local Asian market.
  • Thai chilis – I want to try getting these to sprout again. With all the recalcitrant seeds that don’t want to sprout, I think I will stop being so stingy with seeds, and start putting large numbers of them in plastic bags with moist paper towels on top of a heat mat.
  • Parsley and dill – I like using these to fill in empty spots where I might put perennials in the future, mostly to attract caterpillars. Maybe I’ll put these in the window boxes. I want to try getting parsley to sprout, but if not I’ll just buy some.
  • Fennel – like I said, the one I have is doing fine and I just want to move it.
  • White mulberry – I’m going to try cutting the monster to the ground and “mulching” it with Epsom salts. Supposedly, these can dry out a tree stump without actually being toxic to anything nearby.

So, next steps are to research how early I can set out some of these plants, and start counting back to when I should be starting the seeds. Fun stuff.

Sowing density effects and patterns of colonization

That’s plant colonization, in case you were wondering what kind of colonization I am talking about. This study has a fairly simple premise – that in restoration you can sow the seeds that have the most trouble establishing at the highest densities, and seeds of plants that germinate and spread easily at lower densities, or even not at all.

Sowing density effects and patterns of colonization in a prairie restoration

A cost-effective approach in plant restorations could be to increase sowing density for species known to be challenging to establish, while reducing sowing density for species that easily colonize on their own. Sowing need not occur evenly across the site for rapidly dispersing species. We explored these issues using a prairie restoration experiment on a high-school campus with three treatments: plots sown only to grasses (G plots), to grasses and forbs (GF1), and to grasses and forbs with forbs sown at twice the density (GF2). In year 2, GF1 and GF2 plots had higher diversity than G plots, as expected, but GF2 treatments did not have twice the sown forb cover. However, high forb sowing density increased forb richness, probably by reducing stochastic factors in establishment. Cover of nonsown species was highest in G plots and lowest in GF2 plots, suggesting suppressive effects of native forbs on weedy species. Colonization of G plots by two sown forbs (Coreopsis tinctoria and Rudbeckia hirta) was apparent after 2.5 years, providing evidence that these species are self-sustaining. Colonization was greater in edges than in the central areas of G plots. Through construction of establishment kernels, we infer that the mean establishment distance was shorter for R. hirta (6.7 m) compared to C. tinctoria (21.1 m). Our results lead us to advocate for restoration practices that consider not only seed sowing but also subsequent dispersal of sown species. Furthermore, we conclude that restoration research is particularly amenable for outdoor education and university-high school collaborations.


Swale is a public food forest on a barge in New York City. Here’s what they’re growing:

Swale’s plant community is made up of perennial native fruit trees and shrubs, leafy self-seeding annuals and salt loving grasses. Our model for landscape design is inspired by edible forestry,  permaculture, and salt-tolerant estuary ecosystems. Our plants have come from many generous donations from Greenbelt Native Plant Center, the New York City Parks Department and Visitors onboard! Our plant list is always expanding. Want to bring a plant onboard Swale? Let us know!

Here’s what’s currently onboard:

Beach Plum, Black Chokeberry, Black Tupelo, Black willow, ‘Enterprise’ Apple, ‘Goldrush’ Apple, Fuyu Persimmon, Goji Berry, Hawthorn, Italian Alder, Newtown Pippin Apple (native to Queens NY!), Liberty Apple, ‘Northern Spy’ Apple, Northline Serviceberry, Pitch pine, Red Chokeberry, Sweetbay Magnolia

American Red Raspberry, Arkansas Blackberry, Blue Ridge Blueberry, Dogbane, Eastern Juniper, False Indigo, Flame Willow, Golden Curls Willow, Gooseberry, Missouri River Willow, Northern Highbush Blueberry, Pennsylvania Blackberry, Red Stem Dogwood, Rosemary, Sassafras, Triple Crown Blackberry, Winterberry

Asparagus, American, Blackgrass, Black eyed Susan, Buck’s Horn Plantain, Bugleweed, Anise Hyssop, Aster (New England), Bee Balm, Black Eyed Susan, Borage, Comfrey, Dandelion, Daylily, Echinacea, Evening primrose, French Sorrel, Garlic Chives, Goldenrod, Ground Cherry, Hopi Red Dye Amaranth, Lavender, Lemon Balm, Lettuce, Lovage, Meadowsweet, Milkweed, Miners Lettuce, Oregano, Peppermint, Perpetual Swiss Chard, Red Mustard, Red Russian Kale, Roman Chamomile, Rosemallow, Scallion, Saltgrass, Saltmeadow rush, Sea pea, Shore little bluestem, Spotted Joe Pye Weed, Stinging Nettle, Swamp Goldenrod, Sylvetta Arugula, Tansy, Virginia mountain mint, White Avens, Wild leek, Whorled mountain mint, Yarrow

Ground Cover
Creeping Thyme, Creeping raspberry, Golden oregano, Purslane, Strawberries, White Clover, Wild Low bush blueberry

Adam’s yucca, Groundnut, Jerusalem Artichoke, Walking Onion, Wild Yam

Vertical Layer
Clematis, Grapes, Hardy Kiwi, Hops, Scarlet runner beans

alternatives to systemic herbicides

If you really need to kill a tree, you can do it with a systemic herbicide like butoxyethyl ester. This is scary stuff because it gets taken up into the entire root, stem, and leaf system of a plant, and lingers for at least six months. It can cause colateral damage, contaminate soil and groundwater, and you can’t eat, compost, or burn anything that contains it. An alternative, for trees with a single trunk at least, is to cut the tree down to a stump and inject it with epsom salts.

Epsom salts is nothing more than magnesium sulphate, people use it in their baths to relax, and gardeners use it as a supplementary nutrient to rectify magnesium deficiencies in plants and trees. It’s also readily available, cheap and completely safe for people and the environment.

Large amounts of Epsom salts will draw moisture out of a stump much like an over-application of fertilizer does to roots, eventually drying it out, after which it will just naturally rot away. Any magnesium released into the soil will just be taken up by plants – magnesium is the key element in chlorophyll which allows plants to photosynthesize and makes leaves green.

“fleur de lawn”

This “flowering lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum. The lawn below is clearly mowed, so I don’t think anyone is claiming this mix is maintenance free, just a bit more drought tolerant, ecologically valuable, and visually interesting mix than a typical lawn, which might have a chance of slipping past your homeowner’s association. From a quick search, the yarrow and baby blue eyes are natives while the others are introduced. Which isn’t a problem for me in and of itself, as I am enjoying watching native bees feast on a mix of clover and yarrow right before my very eyes.


“Fleur de Lawn” – https://www.thespruce.com/flowering-lawn-reduces-mowing-adds-color-2152721

Roomba vs. weeds

There’s a new robot that can weed your garden.

The Tertill was designed to survive outdoors. The latest prototype uses four-wheel drive to navigate a variety of terrains unsupervised and inward-tilting wheels so the robot can grip surfaces and extricate itself when it drives onto rocks and into holes. The Tertill also relies on capacitive sensors, which help it avoid obstructions and understand when to activate its weed-whacker.

The mechanism functions without machine-vision software, which Franklin Robotics says is not yet robust enough to distinguish weeds from plants, at least not at an affordable price. When the Tertill rolls over a plant that is shorter than its one-inch-high bumper, it assumes the plant is a weed, activates its trimmer, and cuts it. It turns away from plants that are taller than its bumper, and from metal collars that should be installed to protect seedlings.

By the time the Tertill goes on sale—likely via a crowdfunding campaign—the robot will have two more garden-related capabilities. It will wirelessly transmit data about plant and soil health to owners’ smartphones, so they can improve their gardens, and it will repel foraging animals such as rabbits and squirrels by moving and making noise when they approach.

garden wrap-up

We’ve finally had a hard freeze in Philadelphia, a little over a month past the average historical first frost date. So I’ll go ahead and do my garden wrap up for the year.

I was excited about gardening this season because my family bought a house last summer, and it is the first time I have had a patch of land to my name since I was about 10 years old. The patch of land we are talking about is small – about 25 feet long by 5 feet wide, plus a fair amount of space for container growing on a brick patio. This is all south facing and not shaded by any large trees. So like I said, I was excited. I ordered a lot of seeds last winter, started them in late winter, and transplanted them in early spring. This post is my wrap up on what worked well, what didn’t, and my thoughts on where I might like to go next year.

Let me first bore you a bit with my gardening philosophy. I find it to be a fun and relaxing hobby for one thing, but it also fits in with the theme of this blog, which is the future of our species and civilization. As our civilization and species has displaced, co-opted and poisoned nature to an increasing degree, gardening gives us a possibility to experiment on a very small scale with a vision for people and nature to coexist in ways that benefit both. Along that theme, my gardening objective is first and foremost to create some biodiversity and habitat in a highly urbanized environment. That might seem like a hard thing to do, but almost anything you do will improve on what would be there otherwise. So one of my objectives is just to plant a large diversity of plants. I lean towards ones that provide food or habitat for bees, butterflies, and birds. That means a bias toward native plants and native ecosystems as analogs, but I don’t go for extremes. I have a bias toward plants that are edible by people, although I don’t always go to the trouble of picking them and eating them. Just knowing that I have some experience and ability to grow some of my own food gives me a little peace of mind. If we all did that, we could be a more resilient society. I use lots of mulch, don’t use chemicals and haven’t bothered with soil testing, although I might at some point out of curiosity. If plants don’t do well I don’t worry about it too much, I just take some notes and try to find plants that will. I go for mostly perennials, self-seeding plants that are tough as nails and able to out-compete the urban weeds.

seedlings that sprouted, transplanted, and grew well outdoors

  • white clover, Trifolium repens. I love clover as a ground cover because it spreads quickly, is able to out-compete all but the toughest weeds, and comes back year after year. These are exactly the same reasons my neighbors consider it a weed. But I also love it because it stays low, bees love it, it creates lots of nitrogen-rich mulch at the end of the season, is drought tolerant, and I personally like the look of both the leaves and flowers. And even though it is a tough competitor, it is very easy to pull it out of spots where you don’t want it and plant something else. Taller plants seem to coexist with it just fine, as long as you give them a head start to grow tall enough before it comes back in. Chickens, rabbits, sheep and goats will all eat clover. People will not eat it gladly but it is supposedly nutritious if you really had to eat it in a pinch. It’s not native, but I see it as a valuable plant for all the reasons above. I don’t understand why people prefer their ivy and Pachysandra ground covers, which cover the ground but have no other redeeming features. I consider these weeds and am trying to hold the line on their invasion until my clover army is ready to counterattack.
  • dandelions, Taraxacum officinale. Another non-native that people consider a weed. I have left wild dandelions alone in my garden, and have added some more marketed as “culinary French dandelion”. I like dandelion greens – you can get used to bitter greens over time, but if dandelions are too much you can mix them with lettuce or spinach until you get more used to them. When I was a kid I thought dandelion flowers and seed heads were pretty, and I was sad when my dad would mow them. Actually, I haven’t changed my mind! They spread, obviously, are drought tolerant, and come back from year to year, again things that make them a “weed” to people who don’t like them, and a desirable plant to people like me who do.
  • chicory, Cichorium intybus. Yet another weed I like the look of. Domesticated chicory comes in a lot of shapes and sizes. The leaves are edible when young – the endive and radicchio in spring mix are both varieties of chicory. The variety I have was marketed as “Italian dandelion”. They spread, come back from year to year, are drought tolerant, look cool, are tough as nails, and have pretty blue flowers supposedly although mine haven’t bloomed yet. The roots are commonly ground and mixed with coffee in Southeast Asia and India, and people I know in Appalachia do exactly the same thing. By the way, supposedly you can grind up dandelion roots and roast them for your coffee too.
  • butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa. Well, finally we get to a native. These are a preferred food source for native and migratory butterflies, produce cool orange flowers, spread, and are drought tolerant. Rumor has it they are not as poisonous as people think, but that doesn’t mean I have plans to eat them.
  • Thai basil, sweet basil, holy basil, Ocimum basilicum, Ocimum tenuiflorum. I lost track of which was which, but these quickly spread to fill my big half-barrel type pots out front, and provided us with all the basil we could use in stir fries and soups all season. Bees and wasps loved the flowers. They smelled great in the garden, in the house, and in our food. I suspect we could just bring some plants in for the winter and put them back out in the spring, but they grow so well from a handful of seeds that we don’t bother. We had some Italian basil but it succumbed to the heat the first time we were out of town for a couple days, whereas the Asian types would wilt after a couple days of heat but bounce back quickly with a little water.
  • sunflower, Helianthus. Just a fun, easy-to-grow plant. A few pennies worth of seeds dresses up your house nicely for several weeks, or more if you stagger their planting. I tried a “three sisters” thing which didn’t work because the beans and squash wouldn’t grow with the sunflowers, but the sunflowers themselves did great and looked spectacular. Sunflowers actually go back to a native North American ancestor but were bread extensively in Russia for some reason, so they are roughly to the native ancestor what a poodle is to a wolf. Bumble bees, which are native, seem to prefer sunflowers to almost anything else. Granted, this puts bees right outside your door at head level, which if you are allergic could be an issue. But I have never been stung by a bumblebee or any type of bee for that matter, just yellow jackets and hornets.
  • Chinese long bean, Vigna unguiculata subsp Sesquipedalis. I only planted a grand total of one bean, didn’t give it any kind of support, and paid it very little attention. It did nothing until the sunflower it was planted with keeled over. Then it exploded and produced a bunch of delicious beans at least a foot long, and sometimes 2 feet or more. Some rotted because they were on the ground. These are so easy and delicious that I may never go back to growing any other type. They have purple varieties too.

seedlings that had some problems

  • bee balm, Monarda didyma. This is a pretty, edible native wildflower pollinators are supposed to love. I had a hard time getting it started but did eventually get a couple started and in the garden. Surprisingly, it has been swamped by daisies but I think it is still in there somewhere.
  • lemon balm, Melissa officinalis. This is supposed to be an easy, tough plant that pollinators love and you can make a nutritious tea out of. I only managed to get one started out of many seeds sowed, but sure enough that one seems to be tough and growing quickly.
  • chives, Allium schoenoprasum. I had no trouble getting these started and in the garden. They seem to be doing fine, but the kind I started from seed seem to be so thin they can’t even stand up. I have some older ones I bought as plants and brought from my last home, and they have much thicker leaves and are doing well. They are edible, obviously, and I love their purple flowers although maybe not everyone would.
  • wild strawberry, Fragaria virginiana. This is a native that has a reputation for being very hard to start from seed. Sure enough, I was not able to start it from seed. I “cold stratified” it in the refrigerator like all the books and websites suggested, got a grand total of one to sprout, and it didn’t make it.
  • anise hyssop, Agastache foeniculum. This is another pretty, edible, pollinator supporting, tough native wildflower that a lot of people consider a weed. None of the books say this is hard to start from seed, but I have had zero success.
  • Chinese purple eggplant, Solanum melongena. I got a couple of these to start, and one actually produced about 5 fruits, which were good. You would have to plant a lot of plants to get a significant crop.
  • Thai chili, Capsicum annuum. These shouldn’t be that hard but I had no success starting them from seed. I did get some Thai chilis though as I will mention in a minute.
  • mountain mint, Pycnanthemum spp. This is a native that pollinators are supposed to love. None of the books and websites suggest it should be hard to start from seed, but I have had zero success.
  • miner’s lettuce, Montia perfoliata. This is native to California and is supposed to be delicious. It’s an annual but supposedly self-seeds easily over there. I was sure it would survive a Philadelphia summer but I decided to try it anyway. Ultimately the plan is for it to get some shade from my persimmon tree, which is only a six inch seemingly lifeless twig as I will mention below. The miner’s lettuce was doing just fine until it had a run-in with a neighbor’s weed whacker. Whether it was an accident or they were trying to do me a favor, I have not figured out but it seems to have been ripped out by the roots and never came back.
  • sorrel, Rumex acetosa. This has a reputation for being touch, but I only got one of these started and it seems to be having a tough time competing with the clover. It’s hanging on though.
  • Thai eggplant, Solanum melongena. I had no success getting any of this started.
  • acorn squash, Cucurbita. I got plenty started but none set any fruit. The ones planted with the sunflowers were stunted, and the ones planted with the sunchokes were doing well until it got just a little hot and dry, and the sunchokes seemed to suck all the moisture right out of them and they died.
  • sunchoke, Helianthus tuberosus. This was my biggest disappointment after everything I have heard about these being a great-looking, impossible-to-eradicate, native wildflower with abundant potato-like tubers. In fact, I have heard these described as “famine food” because they are incredibly prolific in almost any soil, spread quickly, reproduce by both seed and tuber, and supposedly no matter how much you harvest you can’t get rid of them. Well, mine attracted some kind of leaf cutter ant that devastated them all summer, were not drought tolerant at all, and their flowers were not impressive. Maybe it was the particular variety, or maybe they just don’t belong in pots, but I probably wouldn’t try that variety again if I try sunchokes at all. It’s a shame because I have lots of the tubers which would be happy to grow back next year, so what do I do? throw them away, chuck them in a vacant lot?

plants/trees we bought and planted

  • parsley. We planted some in window boxes, where it did well as long as we kept watering it. One interesting thing was that black swallowtail butterflies kept laying eggs on the parsley all summer and fall. These are particularly pretty butterflies to see in an urban environment, and make really interesting fat green caterpillars. Unfortunately, they were so easy in the window box that birds kept picking them off all summer, and I don’t think any made it to adulthood. I suppose it was good to feed the birds. Next year I’d like to plant a whole bunch more parsley both to provide more caterpillar habitat and to feed the birds.
  • Thyme. We bought some and planted in a window box, where it did well.
  • mint. We planted several types in a window box, where it did great as long as we watered it, but fizzled out as soon as we were out of town for a few days during a hot spell. Mint is great but I don’t really want it running rampant in the garden so I will keep it in pots and window boxes.
  • Asian persimmon, Diospyros kaki. I ordered a nursery-grown sapling in a pot in the spring, planted it, and it seemed to be dead on arrival. The nursery provided a replacement in the fall, which I planted and we will see if it leafs out in the spring. These are really delicious.
  • Asian pear, Pyrus bretschneideris. I ordered and planted a bare-root tree and it has done well, shooting up at least 8 feet high in its inaugural year. These are delicious and pest resistant. Both the Asian pear and persimmon should only grow to 10-12 feet high. I intend these to be the book ends of my urban garden, providing some shade for the garden and house but not dominating the entire landscape. They both should have flowers in the spring and fruit in the fall. There just is nothing native that quites fits the bill like these two.
  • violets, Viola sororia. This is another tough, native, edible, pretty perennial “weed” that I happen to like. I have bought some and there are also volunteers in the garden and in my pots. They can have as much space as they would like.
  • green and gold, Chrysogonum. This is a pretty, native, perennial groundcover that is actually listed as threatened in the wild in Pennsylvania. Mine are nursery grown of course. Seeds are not available as far as I can tell. They look well-established although they are overgrown with clover at the moment.
  • chives, Allium schoenoprasum. Chives are easy to find at farmer’s markets and even hardware store, so I pick up a couple every now and then. The ones I have bought are thicker and more robust than the ones I have started from seed.
  • strawberries. I picked up a couple plants at a nursery, and they are doing great and spreading. They produced flowers and fruit in their first year, although something was clearly nibbling on them (squirrel, rat, opossum) so I did not.
  • garlic chives. I bought these at a Buddhist temple plant sale a couple years ago. They are doing great, are a hardy perennial with nice white flowers that pollinators love, and taste great in dishes like omelettes. They have a reputation for spreading aggressively – fine by me!

volunteers (my favorite category)

  • Thai chilis. I had zero luck starting Thai chilis from seed, then a very healthy chili bush decided to spontaneously sprout in one of my pots, probably from seeds in compost. It still looks great in early December!
  • cucumbers. I have never intentionally planted cucumbers, so these must have been from rotten cucumbers I threw in the compost bin a year or more ago. They popped up and produced a lot of little cucumbers, which tasted great!
  • pumpkins. They sprouted all over the garden and pots, I suspect because I tossed last year’s Halloween pumpkin in the compost bin. They didn’t set fruit unfortunately, but they looked cool.
  • black eyed Susan. There were lots of these in the garden to begin with, and I have not only left them but purposely scattered their seeds. They are a pretty native wildflower that native bees and wasps are supposed to like. They can spread and out-compete other plants, which is fine with me.
  • Purple coneflower. These started off well, but had an unfortunate run-in with a neighbor’s weed wacker and didn’t seem to recover. We will see if they show up again next spring.

new things I might try next year

  • frost seeding. For some of the seeds I had trouble starting indoors, I might just toss a handful in the garden in the winter, particular ones that need to “cold stratify” like wild strawberry and anise hyssop. I could also plant some seeds in pots in the winter and see if they sprout in the spring.
  • direct seeding. I may try more direct seeding next year.
  • heat mat. I’d like to get a heat mat and see if that makes it easier to start seeds like peppers and eggplant.
  • seed starting mix. I haven’t made an attempt to use a fancy, sterile seed starting mix. Maybe I’ll try that for some of the more delicate natives.
  • sunflowers as a buffer. Since sunflowers did such a good job at suppressing growth of other plants, maybe I will try a sunflower border and see if it can suppress some of the neighbors’ ground covers I don’t particularly like.
  • lots of parsley for caterpillars. lots more.
  • lots more Asian long beans. I have a fence I can grow these up. They are just fantastic and easy.
  • try again to establish wild strawberry, mountain mint, anise hyssop, and miner’s lettuce. These are all perennials I tried and failed to establish last year.
  • start lots more eggplant and chilli seedlings, earlier and with heat
  • if I try any type of squash again, look more carefully at their nutrient needs. They may need more phosphorus to set fruit.
  • add a new species or two – maybe wildflowers, or a small bush in a pot. In general I don’t like bushes in a small urban garden because they dominate too much space and are too permanent.

Bokashi composting

Bokashi is a method that uses anaerobic fermentation to compost almost anything.

You can use the bokashi system to pre-process food waste that normally can’t go into your compost bin and worm farm so it can be used there after it is processed.

All types of food waste can be processed, including:

  • meat
  • seafood & fish
  • cooked food waste
  • cheese
  • dairy
  • bread
  • onions
  • citrus
  • garlic

Since fermentation is much faster than composting, the bokashi system can produce fermented material in one week, that breaks down quickly when dug into the soil. When in the ground, the fermented material breaks down into soil in 4-6 weeks. Ideally, from start to finish, you can turn raw kitchen scraps into soil that can be used for plants in 30-45 days.