So, in case you haven’t guessed already by the several book reviews I’ve posted recently in this blog, I am tackling a new writing project. In the past years I’ve really become quite practiced – and, according to my friends and some Internet strangers, quite skilled – at gardening. I’ve made some posts here and there about random strategies and tips for gardeners, but these have all been teasers really. Today – YES, TODAY! – I will start lending my voice to the first real work of nonfiction that I’ve ever written. I’m going to write a ghardening book.s
I’ve left the typos in the last bit up there because, honestly, it’s how I feel about it right now. I’m headbutting a thick wall of Imposter Syndrome. I’m, what, 35?! I’ve been gardening for….well, thanks to my mother it’s honestly been a lifelong interest, but solid actual WORK IN THE DIRT it’s been…..maybe…I want to be generous to myself and say 21 years? On my own in my own space, 8 years. And here I am, about to write a tome that will seek to not only introduce new folks to the joys of gardening and all the different things it entails, but to also change the minds of The Older Folks about certain things they Think are right and actually aren’t. Who the hell am I to do that? What the hell gives me the authority?
Short answer: the dying world and my passion for preserving it not only for future human generations but for future wild generations. There’s a saying my mother shared with me recently: “We are only borrowing this world from the next generation.” But that’s not true. We are the Stewards of this world for the next generation(s) – parenthesis because if we don’t start trying to heal the world then science says there aren’t going to be a lot more generations – AND for the other animals, insects, single- and multi-cellular organisms, plants, bacterium, etc! with which we share this ridiculous marble. We aren’t the only ones here! And we need to stop pretending that we can exist without the other ones that are here.
So I’m gonna write a gardening book. This means Nine Hundred Leagues (my third book in the Civil Dusk series) might be on hold for a little bit, but don’t worry, I am absolutely NOT dropping it forever. I’ve just got something to do first.
Have you ever wanted to grow vegetables in your own backyard? Have you ever wanted to roam a food forest, the surrounding branches loaded with fruit? Have you ever lost an entire crop of lettuce to rabbits, or berries to birds? Do you have a swath of land that isn’t doing anything for anybody? Are your knees and back aching from hours of pulling weeds? Are you a farmer who’s tired of fertilizing and weary of all the damn costs?
PERMACULTURE IS THE ANSWER!!
And hands down THE BEST book to learn about it is “The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture,” by Christopher Shein. Shein makes the lofty principles of permaculture attainable for anyone, from the large-scale farmer to the home grower. Whatever your goal, this book has the tools you need to achieve it. He even shares strategies for off-grid gardeners, because the whole point of permaculture is to grow with the Earth, not against her. If you’re looking for a better way to garden, this is absolutely where you need to start, and likely also where you will finish. And if you’re not looking for a better way to garden, well, you should be! Permaculture cuts down on the work of the gardener by revealing low-maintenance secrets that nature is already using all around us.
Hi friends! You may or may not know that I took a series of classes in the early part of this year about growing medicinal herbs. One of the books recommended by the teacher is “Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies,” by Maria Noel Groves, and I picked up a copy of it like the dutiful student I am. And, let me tell ya, I was NOT disappointed.
This book is an absolute must-have if you’re interested in herbal remedies. Not only does Groves include an encyclopedic appendix of various herbs and their uses, benefits, and in some cases dangers, but she includes snap-shots of healing gardens designed for every ailment that the herbal medicine cabinet could ever think to aid. Her descriptions of preparation methods, from teas to tinctures, are incredibly approachable for anyone from the beginner herbalist to the experienced chemist.
Here in zone 8 my blueberry shrubs are loaded with fruit! I have five different shrubs, each a different variety of blueberry and they’re all ripening at different rates! I couldn’t have planned it better. Each morning and evening I pull in a handful or two of delicious berries. Looking at the shrubs I’ll manage this for another month at least!! Delightful.
Gardening, whether in ground or in containers, outdoors or indoors, requires four things to maintain healthy plants: growing medium, light, water, and nutrients. As long as you have those things, you’re on your way to being a gardener!
If you have space constraints, or you’re moving at some point and don’t want to walk away from your work, or if you don’t have an outdoor area with growing medium, or if you want to grow indoors, container gardening might be just the perfect thing for you. I choose to grow primarily in containers because I move every few years and like to take my plants with me. Some people garden with containers in water, which is generally called hydroponics. Others, like me, focus on containers filled with soil, because I primarily grow plants that naturally grow in soil and I think they deserve that natural medium. This is the style of container gardening on which this series will focus.
Perhaps the first thing to consider with container gardening is how much soil you’ll need and what size container is best. For a plant which is currently smaller but will grow larger, start with a smaller container and increase as necessary.
This plant is a young (1st year) blackberry plant that I started from a root cutting off a larger shrub. It is, consequently, in a smaller container than its parent plant (3 years old).
There they are next to each other. If you give a smaller plant a larger container straight off, its roots will never reach the water that will pond in the soil at the bottom of the pot. This can cause all sorts of problems from rot to bad fungus to insect infestation. As your plant grows, increase its pot size once a year or when you see the ends of the roots peaking through the drain holes. Repot to a container roughly a half size bigger than the current container, or no more than twice as big. You want enough room and fresh soil for the roots to spread and delve, but not too much room that you’ll have lingering water.
Yesterday I sowed 16 Eastern redbud seeds in these containers. I scarified and stratified them and this is the final step. Last year I sowed them in March, so I’ve tried them in February this year to see if they benefit from the last throes of winter. Fingers crossed that I haven’t wrecked the whole group!
So, yes, this year is CES Jr’s fourth winter, I think. Something like that. I potted her up this past season so she’s got plenty of space for roots and insulating soil. And yes, last winter I kept her in the garage. And this winter I figured she’d probably grown enough to be okay outdoors.
And then I got scared. Tonight’s forecasted low in my area is 37 degrees Fahrenheit, and where CES Jr currently sits is shaded by the house for most of the warming afternoon sunlight time. This means it will probably get cooler there than the forecasted low, and let’s be honest how accurate are those ever, really. So I figured there will probably be some frost around or on her in the morning. But I still wanted to keep her outdoors this winter. Sooooo…….
I put a translucent plastic bag over her, container and all. In theory this should provide a greenhouse-like effect. And then, because maybe I was panicking a little, this happened.
This container holds the bonus blackberry plant that split from the larger shrub’s rootmass when I potted up all of my berries last week. I also grow blueberries and blackberries, you know. But that’s a different story. Check out my Instagram page if you want to see more about that. https://www.instagram.com/nicolerordway/?hl=en
Anyhow, I also covered up the wee bonus blackberry. You’ll notice it’s next to, but not in, my cold frame. This is because the container area I had set aside within for this winter is already full to capacity. I wanted to grow plenty of kale. Looks like, in exchange, I might have compromised some tiny plants in containers. But hopefully it’ll survive. Blackberries are notoriously good at surviving.
I’ve noticed several people on a Facebook group I’m part of –
Ugh, this is like those recipe pages where people write a freaking novel about why they made the dish they made before they paste the recipe card square and fuck off. So I’m just gonna get to the point…WITH PICTURES!
Step ONE: collect pods! Collect the pods in autumn when they turn brown and crispy. I always collect what I can from my height and leave the rest for the critters. After all, one of the many great things about redbuds is that they feed our wild seed-eaters in the winter when other food is scarce. This technique is called responsible foraging!
Step TWO: Pop the seeds out of the pods! Sometimes you’ll be lucky and there will be a couple of seeds in a pod. Sometimes there won’t be a single fucking one! But that’s nature for you.
Step THREE: scarify the seeds! Scarifying the seeds allows moisture to enter the thick husk and hydrate the seed meat itself. You can do this after the cold period (called stratifying, more info to come) with a knife by nicking the husk gently, or with sandpaper by scraping the husk gently. OR, if you’re A PYRO LIKE ME, you can dump the seeds in just-boiling water for about a minute BEFORE the cold period (“stratifying“). I prefer this method because there is heat involved and, as mentioned, I’m a bit of a pyro, AND ALSO BECAUSE this allows you to immediately determine which seeds are viable and which ones aren’t. Seeds that FLOAT are not viable and aren’t worth your time nurturing. Seeds that SINK are viable and should germinate. After a minute in the recently-boiling water I scoop the non-viable seeds out with a spoon and drain the water from the rest in a fine colander.
(PS, I always thought colander had two L’s, but Spellcheck just informed me it sure fucking doesn’t, so we’ve both learned something today.)
Step FOUR: stratify the seeds! Get a plastic baggie or other airtight container. Dump the seeds in the baggie. Dampen your fingers under the faucet and flick a sprinkle or so of water in the baggie. Seal that fucker and toss it in your fridge and FORGET ABOUT IT until you need that sausage that you’ve been saving for a stew. Check to make sure there’s a smidgen of moisture in the baggie, and if there isn’t then repeat the bit with the fingers and the faucet, and FORGET ABOUT IT AGAIN. See, redbud seeds need a period roughly 3 months long of cold temperature (NOT FREEZING, we’re talking fridge temps not freezer temps) to properly germinate.
4A: KEY NOTES ABOUT THE BAGGIE: So listen, don’t be an idiot like me the first time I did this. Grab a Sharpie or other permanent soft-tipped marker and notate the date that you fridged the seeds and the species of tree they are on your baggie. This way you won’t come across a long-forgotten baggie in the back of your fridge years from now and wonder what the fuck these seeds are. Maybe they’ll still germinate. If they’re like my pumpkin seeds that I did this to, maybe they will. But maybe they won’t. Practice good propagation and label your baggies. Luckily redbud seeds are pretty unique-looking.
Step FIVE: sow your seeds! When the last frost has passed and your seeds have been in the fridge for at least 3 months (90 days minimum, don’t fuck around with this part), sow your seeds in individual containers of soil. You can also sow them straight into the ground, but in my zone (8A) we sometimes get a random frost that forgot it was supposed to be springtime. Having my treelings in containers enables me to bring them indoors if I need to protect them from a random frost. A cautionary note with REDBUDS: These trees develop a long taproot pretty quickly, so if you sow them in containers plan to start them in a 1 gallon size and pot up within the first growing season. I don’t have a picture for this step because I didn’t take any last year and obviously I can’t sow my seeds yet as it’s Nov 29 and they’re stratifying right now. But I trust my dear readers of horticulture and propagation tips can imagine what seeds in containers of soil look like.
And that’s it! I promise! Follow these steps and in the spring you’ll have oodles of redbud treelings in pots! For really realz! And if this somehow doesn’t work for you, please comment below so we can figure it out together.
A quick word: I’m in plant hardiness zone 8A. If you’re in a colder climate, this post may not apply to you. If you’re in a warmer climate, this post probably does. If you have no clue what zone you’re in, the USDA provides a nice chart! Check it out at https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/ But here’s also a screen print I grabbed on 11/4/21. Those are minimum winter lows on that chart that you’re looking at.
In and around my zone we have a longer growing season. This means I can sow cole crops in the fall like brassicas (broccoli, kale, cauliflower family) with little worry about them surviving the winter. Last year I tried this theory out with kale and it worked WONDERFULLY. After a little frost baby kale leaves are actually sweet! Summer gardening is nice and all, but you have to contend with insects and diseases. In the spring, fall and winter these concerns are limited. I’ve become quite a fan of leaving the summer for the development of squashes and root vegetables, and doing most of my “at-risk” gardening in the fall, spring or winter.
Right now, for example, my blueberry plants are changing into their autumn foliage in a magnificent blaze of color across the garden.
My kale is a successful experiment this year. I say that because last year (2020) I bought a seed packet for 2020 use. I sowed about half of it and refrigerated the rest. This year I sowed the rest of the 2020 seeds and they are coming in quite nicely.
I pruned my container-grown mint pretty heavily this past summer (2021, like probably late September) and it LOVED the abuse and has come around hard for a second round. Fucking mint, y’all. Beat it up, IT LIKES IT.
And the bell peppers. These guys did HORRIBLY in the summer and went to mold, weirdly enough. But this fall? Right now on November 4? FRUITS!!!!
They’re actually going red faster than they did during the summer months. I surmise that bell pepper plants prefer cooler temps in the 60 degree range for ripening. Further experimenting shall be performed next spring! I plan to start these early next year, like late January indoors for seed germination. I’ll transplant outdoors after the last frost and see how they do. I suspect they don’t like our warmer summer here in Zone 8A but will enjoy the transition seasons.
What’s your garden look like right now? Share in the comments below!