The veggie garden is ankle- to calf-deep in miner’s lettuce this time of year. It began with a single generous packet of seed a few years ago, and now it comes back reliably–if by “reliably” you mean “with a vengeance.”
It’s spread onto walkways, in cracks of concrete next to the house, even in the scrappy little patch of green that’s left of the much larger lawn. But hey, it’s a California native. It’s edible. It’s pretty.
It has perfoliate leaves–leaves that when mature can completely encircle the stem, making it appear as if the stem pierced the leaf. And it pulls up easily enough from where you don’t want it. Definitely easy to like.
If you don’t want it to re-seed, just pull (and eat) the greens by the time they begin to flower. But if you want to encourage the plant’s spread, let a few of the plants bloom, set seed, dry and then crumble the dried plants wherever you want plants next year. It’s not a super-meticulous method of propagation, but it works as long as you don’t cultivate the soil too intensely.
Calflora shows Claytonia perfoliata to inhabit many coastal valley to foothill locations statewide. And there’s a herbarium sample that was collected just down the block from me. It can get by with no added water, but will give you a nice kitchen crop when kept just-moist. Sun exposure: full sun to dappled shade. It’s pretty adaptable and just about the easiest thing to grow.
Edit, March 15, 2023: In the 5 years since I wrote this appreciation the colonial name of “miner’s lettuce” is being retired for the less colonial name of “indian lettuce,” or, probably better, “rooreh,” its name in the language of the Ohlone people, one of the peoples to have used (and to currently use) this plant. “Rooreh” is now the common name you’ll find listed in many sites, including the Jepson e-flora.
So there I was, a couple years ago, walking the quiet galleries of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, when I encountered this patch of urban decrepitude:
Weeds! Growing in the cracks between the walls and floors!
Well, of course, the domain of botany is usually outside the museum walls, and what you’re seeing is an art piece by Yoshihiro Suda. Each of these itty bitty little growths is actually a miniscule piece of sculpture, carved out of wood and then painted to resemble plant-life.
Fun, yes, but if it’s a wet wintertime in Southern California—ack!–you’ve already seen all the weeds a sane human should be expected to endure. But hey, this is art. Calm down, I told myself. As much as I wanted to do it, I resisted my natural urge to pluck the little green monstrosities and introduce them to the lifecycle of compost.
And then I start wondering. These don’t look like the typical weed species in my garden. Are these examples of the weed species the artist encounters in Japan? Or is there artistic license being exercised here?
But whatever species they are, it’s clear that these plants aren’t meant to be there, that these are weeds. To a gardener, some things are universal.
Part of this weekend’s tasks was to help install signage at a couple of the gardens that will be on the Garden Native garden tour this weekend. How many times have you gone to a garden and seen the perfect plant, but you no have idea what it is and there’s nobody around to ask? That’s exactly the scenario the organizers are trying to avoid.
The signs have the name of the plant, but they also have this little handy QR code at the top. When you read the QR code with a smart phone you’re transported to a PDF with more information–and usually, photos–of the plant, with notes on things like the plant’s eventual size, its water needs and often with notes on how to use it in the garden. These PDF files are downloaded to the user’s device, so they can have a record of what they’ve viewed. Unless your cell phone reception is really poor or you have a limited data plan–or have no smart phone at all–this arrangement works really well.
Who wouldn’t want to know the name of the perky yellow San Diego sunflower in the distance?
Of course not everything requires a sign. If you have an old lawnmower, but have native plants instead of a lawn, what do you do? How about making some garden art out of the old lawnmower? Brilliant.
It’s interesting to see how many uses these QR codes are being put to. They’re used all over for advertizing. And you’re starting to see them more frequently on interpretive signage, like here. I wasn’t responsible for making these signs, but even I haven’t been immune to using QR codes. In my case they’ve appeared in some artwork of the last couple of years.
Here’s a short video of a temporary installation I had up at the San Diego International Airport from May to December of last year. It’s simply titled Twenty-Two Flags. Each of the 22 flags has 33 QR codes, each with fragments of text from the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a book I’ve described elsewhere as a Fodor’s Guide to reincarnation and the afterlife.
Add up all 22 flags and 660 QR codes and you have the entirety of the two books that make up this first-millennium text. Unlike the garden signs, the codes in my piece link directly to the text and don’t rely on using the web to connect to more content. Each QR code can be asked to store over 1200 different characters. That’s a lot of text!
The piece was part of a show looking at the art/science/tech interface. Something appealed to me about encoding a fairly ancient text that’s endured through the years using a very contemporary and most likely to be short-lived technology. In the end you can call me a bit of a Luddite. I love tech, but I don’t really entirely trust it. Give me a handwritten note, a letterpress book–or a plant. Those things I can trust.
With several days above 80 degrees this week, it’s feeling like spring. And surveying the garden, it’s looking like spring too.
Lest any of you in the lands of blizzards and crazy snowfall think I’m gloating, let me show you one of the many weed patches around the garden. Yes we have lots of spring flowers already. But we also have lots of zones around that look like this. But enough of this unpleasantness. On to some flowers!
The first things anyone walking up to the house will notice are the two ginormous flowering spikes of the Agave attenuata. They’re a pretty common plant around town, but their seven or eight foot flowering spikes from November to February or March cannot fail to impress. If the blooms were coral pink or violet you almost might call the plant gaudy, but they’re a quiet icy greenish-white. Gaudy, but in a subtle way.
The number of California native plants in the garden keeps growing. Their two most common spring flower colors seem to be bright yellow and lavender, a combination that can stand my teeth on edge, so I tried to tone down the clashes with some plants with in-between shades of bloom. Apricot is a great peace-maker color, and I’ve used a golden chuparosa, Justicia californica ‘Tecate Gold’ and apricot mallow, Abutilon palmeri.
But still, there’s lots of yellow around: Bladderpod (Peritoma/Isomeris/Cleome arborea), our local coastal coreopsis (Leptosyne maritima), plus aeoniums from the Azores or Africa.
And there’s plenty in the lavender category: the very first (and really early) flower of Salvia ‘Winifred Gilman’, the prolific prostrate black sage (Salvia mellifera repens), “blue” dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) and blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) that reseeds itself at the edge of the veggie garden.
And a few others:
This is my first contribution in many many months to the Garden Bloggers Bloom Day meme hosted by Carol of May Dreams Gardens. Thanks for hosting, Carol. Check out what’s flowering around the garden blog world [here] !
What kind of vegetable gardener are you? Do you spend winter charting out rows and developing timetables for when things needs to go into the ground? Or does chance play a big part in what’s in your veggie garden?
Here’s a photo of one corner of my small veggie garden, proof that I’m definitely of the second school. I do a little tiny bit of planning. And I drool a little over veggie catalogs just like most of us do. But the garden that develops has a lot to do with what the garden wants to be this year, as much as what I want it to be.
I like chard. Chard likes me. For me it’s easy from seed. And if I buy a sixpack of something and let half of it go to seed, there’s usually enough chard plants coming back from seed for two or three years. In my near-coastal San Diego garden chard produces almost year-round, so it’s one of the backbones of the veggie garden. Russian red kale can do the same for me, though looking around the garden it’s time to get another generation going… Soil nematodes will eventually find both of these plants, so I like to give the plants a break and rotate what I’m growing.
Another staple that returns reliably is miner’s lettuce, Claytonia perfoliata. Once the weather cools and the rains start up it comes back all over the garden. You can find this fairly common California native state-wide when you’re out on the trail, and you’ll also find occasionally find it on the menus of adventurous restaurants.
The crisp-to-slightly succulent foliage has a mild flavor, something like spinach, but what makes it really cool are the rounded leaves that grow all around the stem (perfoliate leaves) when the plant begins to bloom mid-spring. Be sure not to pull out the youngest plants, which have long, strappy leaves. And don’t lose patience when you only get heart-shaped leaves for a while. (Call them “lover’s lettuce” and use them for a Valentine’s Day salad!) The anticipated round leaves will come, along with starry little white flowers on a short stem in the center of the round leaf. Very cool, and definitely worth the wait.
A little planning went into some of the other things in the garden. Pod peas are great this time of year, so I planned ahead to get some seeds into the ground in late October. Super Sugar Snap did well for me last season so I planted more of that variety. Unfortunately the raccoons dug up and dined on most of the seedlings, so I’ll be running a comparison with another pea variety, Oregon Sugar Pod II–racoons willing.
And what else? There’s some leftover dinosaur kale from two seasons ago, still alive, worth a salad every few months. And leeks. I’ve never had much luck with them, probably something to do with not watering them enough and not mounding soil around the developing stems. But the raccoons don’t seem to like them so far.
And strawberries, used in the garden more for groundcover and attractive green foliage than for berries. When they bear, it’s a great snack for the gardener pulling weeds. The berries almost never make it into the house.
And in the middle of all this randomness is a young tangerine tree, covered with delicious orange ornaments right now. Part of my veggie garden slacker-ness I blame on the tree. The plant is developing its root structure in the same place I have many of the veggies. The frequent cultivating and digging that goes with a traditional veggies garden would hurt the tangerine’s roots. So…more reason to only occasionally disturb the soil to plant things or pull them out. As the tree matures it’ll create more shade, as well as having a larger root system. By then it’ll be time to find a new spot for the veggies.
Until then, there’ll be a nice supply of ingredients for nice lunches like this one, with miner’s lettuce from the garden and crunchy kohlrabi from the store.
And no, I do not live inside Sunset Magazine. The rest of the table looks something like this, complete with reading glasses for the morning paper and fluorescent pink string to amuse the cat…
It’s only recently that I’ve gotten back to posting, and there’s close to a year’s worth of stuff that might have been blog-worthy.
Here’s a short, redacted list of 2014 highlights:
Atlanta Botanical Garden. Oops. Sorry. No photos. Someone let the camera battery get drained… Imagine, though, snow on the ground, an outdoor elevated walkway winding its way gracefully through the trees beneath what in summer would be a cooling canopy, several terrific interior conservatory spaces filled with fragrant orchids. Not a huge garden, but worth the visit.
June The Southwest
A creature waaay more scary than a racoon or gopher…
The drought continues. Even with some supplemental watering we lost a fair number of plants. This pile of brownery is what was left of the South African protea hybrid, Pink Ice. We had it for over twenty years–pretty good for a plant that’s considered difficult to cultivate. The loss of exotic plants in the garden is an opportunity at the same time: There’s now more space to plug in some more California natives. Already in the protea’s place are a Ceanothus Ray Hartman and a bush poppy.
The rain, the rain… Almost five inches of it fell in one month, compared to a total 3.27 inches in the eleven months from January to November. Nobody’s calling the drought ended, but months like this are a great down-payment towards a season of more normal rainfall. Here’s wishing for more rain, and for a great 2015, for the garden, and all of you!
The coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis) that I grew from wild-collected seed a few years ago is now a pretty major heap of greenery, something on the order of ten feet tall and even wider. The plant is a reliable, bright green, informal background shrub that asks for almost no water. Insects appreciate its late-season flowers for nectar when few other natives offer nectar on the menu.
Coyote bushes are either male or female, though almost all cultivars sold in nurseries are male plants, for reasons about to become obvious. Also, the most commonly-grown versions of this plant around here are the low-mounding groundcover forms like ‘Pigeon Point.’ My plant is a female, and beginning in November or so it also puts out an enormous quantity of seeds that are attached to a fluffy white structure called a pappus. The plant makes so many of these seed structures that the branches look like they’re covered with snow. And when the wind blows, these seeds float poetically on the breezes the way dandelion seeds do. (Both the dandelion and coyote bush hail from the ginormous daisy family of plants.) But the poetry stops and the cursing begins when the seeds land and you have coyote seedlings everywhere in the garden. I kid you not when I say that I pulled well over a thousand of these seedlings from around the garden just this past spring. These things are prolific.
The last couple of years I’ve been giving the plant a good trimming before the seed production gets too out of hand. I didn’t get to the task this year until a week ago, after the plant had already begun broadcasting its seed. Doing it in early to mid-November would have been ideal. The plant doesn’t mind the haircut, and by the beginning of spring you can hardly tell the plant has been pruned.
We can let wild plants into our gardens, but we often exert at least some level of control to make “nature” conform to the needs of a city garden. Now that I’ve lived with the mess and maintenance the last few years, I think that it’s time to pot up a half dozen or so seedlings and select for a male plant to replace this gloriously messy female. I’ll miss the late-autumn “snowfall,” but not the pruning and weeding. Sometimes what works really well in nature doesn’t transition so well into our little cultivated plots of land.
This will be my second year helping out with the photography for the spring native garden tour of the San Diego CNPS chapter. Last year I supplied a few of the images, but I mostly helped editing photos that others had taken, sharpening, cropping, and color-matching everything from cellphone snapshots to nearly-perfect finished photos. This year I actually had a chance to go out a couple days during peak bloom to get some source material myself, and there’ll be a few more of my photos in the mix.
Saturday and Sunday, March 28-29, 2015
9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day
San Diego and Poway, California
In taking the photos I did a certain amount of randomly wandering around gardens, looking for pretty pictures. But in the end I tried to select for images that showed gardens as intentionally-created arrangements of collections of plants. Although native gardeners often aim to recreate slices of nature on their properties, I tried not to include too many photos of plants that could be indistinguishable from photos that could have been taken out on a hike. These are gardens, after all.
Also, I tried to get a few photos that might appeal to readers of aspirational shelter mags like Sunset, Dwell or Martha Stewart Living. (Five years ago I might have added “viewers of HGTV” to this sentence, but that network has long distanced itself from the “G” in its name. Pity.) A certain part of the public is immune to the siren call of the consumerist lifestyles highlighted in the pages of these magazines, and a large portion of the native plant community is even actively working against lifestyles that tax the earth’s resources unnecessarily. Still, good intentions are no excuse for bad design, and the gardens scheduled for the tour show had plenty of intelligent and beautiful design details that made for good photos. A garden-tour audience is broader than the core native-plant community, and many have some shelter-mag aspirations. What would be a better goal for an event than to show that you can have compelling design that treads lightly on the earth, and at the same time gives back by providing food and shelter for wildlife?
The tour will highlight work by accomplished local designers as well as homeowners, and runs the stylistic gamut from the orderly, decidedly gardenesque spaces of Greg Rubin (as in the one in the tour’s signature image above) to near-wild spaces designed by Wes Hudson. And in between those poles you’ll see lots of other approaches to garden-making.
For those of you not in San Diego County, you have almost four months to make your travel arrangements. (Really, it’s not such a stretch. Last spring I ran into a couple from Portland that had read about the event on this blog. Pretty wild!) It’s going to be another great garden tour, and I hope to see you there!
I often talk about all the weeds that come up in the garden. But fortunately there are lots of good guys coming up nicely.
One little experiment the past two autumns and winters has been seeing how well well old seed would germinate. Many gardeners end up with a drawer full of old seed packets, and I’m definitely one of them. The little envelopes can often say something like “Packed for the 2012 season” on them, but in reality you can often get good germination from seed that’s one or more years beyond the “buy by” date. Depending on the species, if you keep the unused seed dark, dry and fairly cool, you can let you have excellent results for several years to come. For this highly unscientific test I tried out seeds of several California natives:
There was also a year-old, unopened packet of globe gilia (Gilia capitata) that I thought I’d lost but much later found underneath the passenger’s seat of the car. It had spent all of spring and summer and fall inside a closed-up vehicle–abysmal seed storage conditions, nothing like what you find being used in seedbanks like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, where temperatures are maintained around zero Fahrenheit and humidity also down near to just a few percent.
To increase chances that I’d have at least some plants I sowed the seed thicker than I might have with fresh seed. Some of it was sown directly on the surface of the garden soil. Some of it was mixed with topsoil. I tried to keep the areas somewhat moist, but I failed so that everything dried out completely more than once. Like I said, this test was highly unscientific.
Camissonia came up strongly.
At least two plants of the Chinese houses germinated and made it to flowering.
Unfortunately I think that the Parry’s Phacelia for the last two years have been no-shows. and I’d say the same for the two penstemons. Also the same for the baby blue eyes. It’s always possible that I mistook some of these for lookalike weeds and pulled them, though–trust me–I haven’t been particularly meticulous in the weeding department!
Chia also came up pretty well, though not nearly as lushly as the Camissonia .
And remember the abused packet of globe gilia seeds? The ones that spent three seasons locked inside a car? I was expecting a big fat zero germination rate, but these came up the strongest of all. Look at all that green!
Since this test was so randomly conducted you can’t really write off that Nemophila, Phacelia and Penstemon seed is short-lived. It really could have been my rough conditions for germinating seeds that kept them from coming up. But the Camissonia, chia, Collinsia and–most spectacularly–Gilia not only will come up when they’re a little stale, but are also a little more immune to less-than-ideal germination conditions–like out in nature.
Armed with this information I picked up some marked-down seed at this fall’s native plant sale, some of last year’s stock that had been marked down to half. Call me cheap. Call me curious. But if I’m successful this spring could be pretty flowery in the garden. Wish me luck!
And what kind of success have you had with old lots of seeds?