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.
It all seems a little surreal. Less than three weeks ago I was on a plane landing in a very snowy Denver. Waiting for transit to downtown required a 50-minute wait in 8 degree weather. Before that the coldest temperature I’d ever experienced was 11 degrees one September morning shivering on the slopes of Mount Whitney. So this trip broke a personal record.
That week also was a city record for Denver, the most snow ever to fall in a single February. This view out the hotel window was on the day the record fell (along with the snow). Among sightseeing opportunities, the Coors brewery would have been walking distance if it sounded like an interesting thing to do. On this cold, snowy afternoon the walk did not sound tempting.
Denver often warms enough to melt some of the snow between storms, so what was on the ground was a nice light snow blanket, not the smothering white wooly layers much of the rest of the country has had to deal with.
To this subtropical California it was all pretty exotic. So, plants that get frozen like this come back to tell about it? Sounds like an episode of The Walking Dead to me.
But don’t let all this snowy whiteness fool you. Denver and the rest of the state have undergone a big transformation since they legalized pot, and things are quite green in the indoor grow facilities. Someone in town was commenting that large industrial buildings are suddenly hard to find with all the competition from the growers. It’ll be interesting to figure out the carbon footprint of this new industry. A 2012 piece on energy use in California found that the power used for the indoor cannabis crop in California was equivalent to 9% of all household use. Colorado’s carbon footprint is bound to grow…
Now, a couple weeks later, back to San Diego, it’s totally “spring” in the gardens around here. Friday was a day spent outside with a bucket and a hose, hydrating new plants and annual wildflowers. And yesterday was the third freakish day with temperatures almost matching those of Palm Springs out in the desert. It is hot. The established plants will be fine if the heat breaks, but the new plants haven’t had a chance to put down mature root systems. The annuals set seed and disappear once the going gets tough, so a little deadheading and extra water will keep them going a few extra weeks. And a few of the perennials respond the same way, including the local sea dahlia, Leptosyne maritima. A few buckets of supplemental irrigation is pretty little investment, especially when you look across the street to the neighborhood lawns.
But the humans have had enough. Can we have our normal weather back for a while, please?
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.
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?
The bog gardens have been looking really good this spring. Plants that I got as single-growth divisions are establishing themselves, and smaller seedlings are starting to approach their awkward but exciting teen years.
Compared to the rest of the garden–which this year has had the worst plague of gophers in recent memory–the bogs have grown up safe in their little green zones, insulated from the subterranean horrors of the garden by four inches of concrete. Apparently gophers aren’t great at chewing through four inches of concrete. Who’d have thought.
Rather than drag you down the rabbit gopher hole, let me show you some of this year’s successes in the bogs.
The planting above the pond features mostly taller, green-tubed forms of carnivorous species like Sarracenia alata and flava. There’s isn’t easy access to this garden, so the tall, green plants read nicely from a distance against the dark leaves behind them. This used to be a pond that leaked, but now filled with dirt and then plastic tubs buried up to their necks in the dirt and planted with the bog plants. The plants seem pretty happy.
Another failed pond morphed into this other bog, using the same planting techniques as the upper pond bog. These plants share the same tub of growing medium as five or six other plants. This bog you can walk right up to, so it features smaller growing plants are almost eye level. This is where many of the small all-green plants go, along with species or hybrids that really need to be viewed up close to appreciate them.
And then there’s this, the main growing zone, a long seating area that I built with an integrated wet bog. Basically the bog is a long rectangle, built up with eight inch sides, and waterproofed with pond lining. The plants each get their own pots and stand in a thumbnail’s depth of water.
This is where a lot of the big, splashy numbers go. These are plants that look good from across the garden or bear inspection from close-up while seated on the bench.
Yah, it’s been a tough year, with life sending us nettles and then gophers. But at least the plants in containers are thriving.
We had pretty good rainfall in December, and early January had some nice wet stretches. Seedlings are popping up everywhere.
After a long dry Mediterranean summer it’s easy to get lulled into not checking the garden frequently for weeds. But once the rains begin things start to sprout. Every gardener probably has a few a few patches like this where things got a little out of control.
And then there’s this pot full of tiny scarlet pimpernel seedlings, so thick and verdant it almost looks intentional.
One of the more unpleasant weeding jobs was this patch of Burning Nettle, Urtica urens. There are a couple of native California Stinging Nettles, subspecies of U. dioica, but the one in my garden is an introduced weed of “moist disturbed places,” according to some references. This spot in the garden where it comes up every year is definitely disturbed, but it’s only moist when it’s watered by the rains.
This one’s edible, as is the California native. And if you’re willing to gear up in the kitchen with thick latex gloves, you can cook with it. Try to catch the plants when they’re young, even earlier than the ones in this shopping bag if you can get them. As you pull and prepare them pay special attention to unprotected forearms. Save “Feel the burn” for your next trip to the weight room.
This, my concoction–fairly unseasoned so as to serve as an introduction to fairly pure nettle flavor–wasn’t exactly one for the recipe blogs. It was like eating the color green from a tube of paints made from pure chlorophyll. Actually, before I cooked with it, I was worrying a little bit because so many of the discussions of nettle start with a long essay on its nutritional benefits. Okay, it’s good for you, but how does it taste?
But later John made up another pasta that was pretty tasty, and then followed it up with a richly-flavored variant of the many nettle soup recipes that are out on the web. Nettle has been redeemed. Good for you–but also delicious!
Maybe three years ago I started some coyote bush from local seed. This species, Baccharis pilularis is a pretty easy plant to reproduce this way, pretty close to “just add water.” It produces plants that are either entirely male or entirely female in the kinds of flowers they produce, or “dioecious” in botany-speak. When you grow them out from seed you have a pretty even chance that a single plant will be male or female.
Each gender has its uses in the garden. The males are great if you want a fast-growing reliably green mound of foliage that keeps requires close to zero added water in a garden situation. Virtually all coyote cultivars are boys.
The females are also fast-growing reliably green mounds of foliage that keeps require close to zero added water in a garden situation. But unlike the males produce thick foliage-obscuring quantities of white seed heads in the late fall and early winter when most other plants aren’t quite so glamorous. They’re spectacular, but come with the down-side that the seeds can flit about and land all over, populating your garden with little coyote bushes. This is why most named cultivars in the nursery trade are males. The sole exception, which was pointed out to me by Barbara of Wild Suburbia, is Centennial, a believed hybrid of this species and B. sarothroides.
Some closeups of the seed heads…
I’ve waxed poetic about the hillsides shot with flashes of white like this one that you see at this time of year.
Now I guess I’m putting my money where my mouth is. How bad is it having a female coyote bush in the garden? I’m about to find out, and I’ll report back here. But I doubt it’ll be any worse than a few other plants in the garden that spread themselves about. And if a few plants find their way into the bleak rental next door where the only things the renters are growing in their dirt-patch of a garden are mastiffs and bulldogs, how can it be a bad thing?