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.