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Urban Gardener: Volunteers, Step Forward

Saturday, June 14, 2014

 

Urban gardeners rejoice in June. Seeds, seedlings, carefully contrived trellises, many winter born dreams are now come true. We’ve planted, cultivated, hoped. Growth is everywhere. Dreams do come true.

Many of us peruse seed catalogs, haunt garden stands, cast envious eyes upon other plots, and plant. Our careful soil preparation anchors the future bounty. Cool weather makes for comfortable days out doors and labors a joy. The inevitable warm weather ahead subtracts interest from the garden and draws us away for vacations and days at the shore. What’s coming up in the garden? Just what is in the future? How do we sustain our initiative?

We live in a four season climate that offers garden opportunity for spring, summer and autumn. Many folks lump all three seasons into one planting. With a little planning it’s especially useful to plant spaces for multiple crops with each season. Let’s take a look at spring, summer and fall plantings after a short detour. Once again it all starts with soil and sunshine.

Many plants freely self-sow. Seeds can remain dormant for years in soil, most notoriously, crabgrass. Others shed enormous amounts of seed after bloom. Abundance comes in many forms. Gardeners are curious observant people. We carefully watch our plantings and learn to identify young plants long before they develop extensive root systems. Nature’s apparent careless distribution of seeds has method and success. Among my favorite gardening techniques is to embrace the random as well as performing only the most necessary labor.

There is much benefit in tolerance. I allow room for volunteers in the garden. The spring after spreading manure in the garden dozens of poppies emerged from the margins of the bed. Glorious pink poppies grew out of nooks and crannies to capture the eye and delight the heart. Each spring they grow again in corners and odd spots. No convention defines a garden as some sort of geometric grid. Volunteers are the gardener’s friend.

While you’re harvesting spring lettuces, endive, arugulas, rhubarb, pay attention to the sprouts among and beside the planted crops. Red clover and white clover have naturalized in my garden. Their humble blooms are favored by bees and luck resides in each leaf. Better, clover roots enjoy a symbiotic relationship with bacteria that fix gaseous nitrogen into forms available to plants. This important nutrient is most often added to turf for faster growth and bright green color. Other, equally desirable plants benefit as well. Here is a volunteer that enriches the soil, offers heather pink and milky white flowers to bees and gardeners and enriches the soil. It’s possible to buy inexpensive inoculants to add once or twice to soils that have endured years of pavement, construction, and people. Clover is only one common example. Peas of all types, purple vetch, and common so called weeds are others. Volunteers often offer themselves rather than token values. Other common wildlings enjoy much more panache.

Love Lies Bleeding is a crimson stemmed plant that rises six feet or more into the garden. It loves precious sunlight. Otherwise known as one of the lesser grains, amaranth, a Native American plant, offers stunning crimson blooms in late summer. Once introduced into the garden, amaranth will self-sow for years. I briefly hesitate to pull out the multitudes of seedlings and then pull up the easy to spot seedlings when young. To wait longer is only to deprive more intentional crops vital sunshine, water and soil. Space in the urban garden is always at a premium.  Despite much thinning, I do leave a few to mature for glorious summer explosions of color. It’s impossible to capture all of the seeds despite the best efforts of birds and gardeners.

Lamb’s Quarters came to America from the old world. This now commonplace plant is easy to identify when solitary. However, this is a spy like plant that remains hidden from the most vigilant gardener. Recently I spent time admiring the first edible podded sugar snap peas. Their lovely green color, white blooms and enthusiastic ascent up a chicken wire trellis masked a stowaway. Among the pea plants were equally happy Lamb’s Quarters. An edible wildling, Lamb’s Quarters indicate rich soil. I pull them up and find them re-introduced each year with the annual load of manure. Their seeds successfully, like others, survive rumination in the four stomachs of cows and hitch hike a ride in the manure to our garden. Like virtually all other volunteers, I pull up before blooming and toss them onto the permanent mulch to dry out in the sun. Within days, they become part of the mulch and offer themselves to the endless cycle of growth and decay.

Jonny Jump Ups are so-called for their random appearances in the garden. Who can resist such charming ancestors of the domesticated viola? I always leave them alone to enjoy their freedom as much as possible. Their passport to survival is a sturdy nature and lovely small flowers. Allow this wonderfully cheerful plant to thrive along the margins of the garden. Where is it written that all gardens must duplicate the sterile uniformity of wide lawns? No, embrace more diversity for its merits and benefits.

Cleome is an old fashioned favorite heavily laden with memory and love. I clearly remember my first encounter with cleome in a childhood garden. It forms lovely five foot plants best known for white and pink flowers attractive to hummingbirds and kids. Children love to open the long seed pods that burst tiny seeds into the air. Most, to some gardener’s dismay, germinate and will thrive in good garden soil and maybe not so good soil. Here is a chance to see nature’s exploration of the world with plant colonists. Cleome will return admiration with plenty. Without a doubt, it is cleome that crowds around the breaks in mulches and open cultivated ground.

Is there a defense against volunteers overcoming valuable planting spaces? Yes and no. Yes, do mix in or layer as much organic material into existing soil. Once in, cut up the ubiquitous large brown paper bags so commonly used to carry away leaves and grass clippings. One or two selective cuts will flatten the bags into fairly large rectangles of brown paper. Lay the paper directly on the soil and anchor with some soil on the corners. Pile on whatever cheap, abundant, nearby organic material as mulch. Plant seedling right through the mulch and paper collar as needed. When occasion permits, this is most commonly fresh grass clippings or leaves. My limited turf is not a good source of fresh grass clippings.

My neighbor’s landscaper though, has bags of fresh clippings in the truck every day and I save him a trip to the landfill. He leaves the bags of clippings for me whenever nearby. Often the grass begins to compost very quickly right in the bag. Some of this composting is un-anaerobic or decomposes with limited or no oxygen. This is the only time compost will have an odor which soon dissipates as good ventilation waifs off gases and aerobic bacteria thrive. Grass clippings are not only seed free, they also mat nicely on the soil surface and soon break down. I like to stuff the clippings into the tops of large pots to avoid splashing while watering. The seedlings like their roots safe from eroding hoses and heavy water cans. Soon, the clippings turn a lovely subtle yellow-brown and are fine to walk upon. My shoes are never muddy and I kneel in the garden without having dirty knees.

A good mulching practice will keep your volunteers from over-crowding the planted crops. Continuous mulch has a multitude of benefits. Paper is a good barrier for any sprouting plant and lasts well into the fall. I always seem to have plenty of gently used brown paper bags or if you wish, put down 3 or 4 thicknesses of newspaper. Any thicker layers will not decompose as much as you’d prefer. Conventional wisdom denies this privilege to glossy printed pages, a small enough segment of the waste stream.

Now, go out and pick a bowl of strawberries and harvest spring plants. Soon, just as the hot weather settles in, replace the lettuces and other spring greens with heat loving beans, squashes, and cucumbers. Enjoy your volunteer plants. Eat some, allow others to bloom and enjoy serendipity in the garden. All is not defined, cabined, cloistered. Freedom exists on many levels, open your heart and garden to chance and the unplanned. There is much to love as the garden grows with or without you.

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.

 

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