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Why You Need Tammi Hartung's Books - Plus a Chance to Win a Free, Signed Paperback!

Hartung books
My own collection of Tammi Hartung books.

By Lisa Brunette

I've been fangirling author Tammi Hartung for some time now. I think you should share in the love, so we're running this giveaway, which I'll get to in a moment. I picked up a copy of her 2014 book The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Food in Harmony with Nature a couple of years ago at my neighborhood used book store, and I was immediately hooked. When I found out she'd also written on growing healing herbs and how to make use of native plants, my soul-sister crush was cemented.

Here's a list of just a few of the many things Hartung has taught me:

  • That plants signal their use somewhat metaphorically, through color, shape, and way of being in the world. This is called the "doctrine of signatures." A good example is the heart-hued, heart-shaped rose petal offering healing powers for the heart muscle.
  • Your quest for food plants does not have to be in conflict with your desire to help support wildlife. In fact, the two can coexist in a mutually supportive way.
  • It's surprisingly easy to grow, harvest, and make use of your own healing herbs as teas, tinctures, food medicine, syrups, poultices, balms, the list goes on.

An ethnobotanical herbalist and organic farmer, Hartung champions an approach to gardening that is gentle on the earth and its creatures. Her books are enormously helpful if you've wanted to garden but felt turned off by guides that call for fertilizer and pesticide use, or simply zap the fun and natural-world connection out of the endeavor. 

Now for a rundown of all four books, in order of publication date. I highly recommend every one. You can try scouring used book store shelves for them, but I've also provided handy links to the Amazon pages for each. We don't receive anything in return for including these links.

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Growing 101 Herbs That Heal: Gardening Techniques, Recipes, and Remedies - Storey Press - North Adams, MA - 2000

Publisher's Description: What better way to take your medicine than straight from the garden? From St. John's wort to fennel, chicory to skullcap, herbalist and gardener Tammi Hartung introduces you to the special cultivating and care techniques required to grow 101 versatile and useful herbs.

How I've used this book: As a reference guide for the historical medicinal use of 101 herbs and for how-to's on handcrafting herbal teas, tinctures, and other products. It's illustrated and full-color, which helps you picture unfamiliar techniques and makes it an attractive reference.

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Homegrown Herbs: A Complete Guide to Growing, Using, and Enjoying More Than 100 Herbs - Storey Press - North Adams, MA - 2011

Publisher's Description: Infuse your yard with the flavor, fragrance, beauty, and healing power of organic herbs. Whether you want to work herbs into existing flower or food gardens, grow them in containers, or plant a dedicated herb garden, Homegrown Herbs is your in-depth guide to everything you need to know about planting, caring for, harvesting, drying, and using more than 100 herbs.

How I've used this book: Same as the above, as I believe this is an updated version of the original. But they're definitely both worth owning. This one includes some helpful tips on harvesting and drying flowers and herbs, a list of edible flowers, a good assortment of food medicine recipes, and other additions.

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The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Food in Harmony with Nature - Storey Press - North Adams, MA - 2014

Publisher's Description: Make beneficial wildlife part of your food-garden ecosystem: they'll pollinate your plants, feed on pests, and leave behind manure to nourish your soil. Tammi Hartung has spent years observing natural rhythms and animal habits in her garden, a peaceful place where perennials attract pollinators, ponds house slug-eating bullfrogs, mulch protects predator insects in the soil, mint gently deters unwanted mice, and hedgerows shelter and feed many kinds of wildlife. Her successful methods are a positive step toward a healthier garden.

How I've used this book: This book has formed the basis for my wildlife-friendly garden design at Dragon Flower Farm. It's why we have a brush pile supporting families of rabbits and other critters, a rock garden for snakes and reptiles, and a host of other features that encourage everything from opossums to monarchs to visit our garden.

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Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine: The Curious Stories of 43 Amazing North American Native Plants - Storey Press - North Adams, MA - 2017

Publisher's Description: The plants in your backyard have amazing stories to tell and fascinating uses you've never known about. For millennia, we humans have relied on these plants to nourish, shelter, heal, and clothe us. Through captivating tales and images that illuminate our lost wisdom, Tammi Hartung reveals the untold histories of 43 native North American plants and celebrates their modern versatility.

How I've used this book: The prettiest of Hartung's works, the hardcover is a pleasure to leaf through for the luscious imagery, entertaining fun facts, and short tips on native plants we might actually take for granted. It's a bit of a fascinating history lesson, too, as told through flora.

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Tammi Hartung.

Just as I finished this last book in Hartung's oeuvre, I lamented she had no more, but then I discovered her blog, which is an extension of her work as co-owner of Desert Canyon Farm. As mentioned in her Amazon author bio: 

She and her husband, Chris, own Desert Canyon Farm, a certified organic farm since 1996 in southern Colorado, where they grow more than 1800 varieties of plants. They grow all types of herbs, heritage and heirloom food plants, native and wildlife habitat plants, edible flowers and more. In their flower seed production field, they grow over 60 varieties of perennials for a German seed company called Jelitto Perennial Seed Co., so seeds from Tammi's farm end up being grown by gardeners and growers all over the world!

Through the blog newsletter, I enjoy hearing about Desert Canyon's work across all four seasons, as well as getting to know Tammi and Chris, not to mention dog Shrek. Tammi's blog posts offer a glimpse behind-the-scenes for both the farm and her latest author project, a children's plant book. As an avid hiker myself, I also like the photos and accounts of their hikes through southern Colorado terrain, which is much more arid than my environment here in Missouri. Side note: Tammi is a friendly, responsive writer, too; I reached out to her to find out if I could buy her books directly through her instead of Amazon (the answer is no, as she directed me back to the 'zon), and we had a really nice exchange. She's also graciously provided signed copies of her wildlife gardening book, which brings me to the giveaway details...

And Now for That Chance to Win a Free Paperback

We're giving away two paperback copies of Hartung's third book, The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Food in Harmony with Nature, signed by the author. All you have to do if you're new to Cat in the Flock is sign up for our email newsletter. If you're already a subscriber, all you have to do is get one friend to subscribe to our newsletter, and both you and your friend will be entered into a drawing. The bulleted how-to:

  1. If you haven't already, sign up for our email newsletter. That's all you have to do! New signups from today's date onward are automatically eligible for the drawing.
  2. If you're already signed up, forward our newsletter, share a link to our blog, or somehow else get one of your friends excited about Cat in the Flock enough to sign up for our email newsletter.
  3. If you're getting a friend to sign up, mail us at this handy link to let us know you succeeded, and include your friend's email address used in the signup so we know to credit you and your friend!
  4. That's it! We'll reach out if you've won. For friends-telling-friends about Cat in the Flock, if one of your names is selected, you both get a copy of the book.
  5. The deadline to enter is Valentine's Day, Feb. 14.

Good luck on the drawing, and in the meantime, I hope you check out Tammi's books and get as much out of them as I have. 

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A Three-Year Transformation: Dragon Flower Farm 2017-2020

July 2020 2
Dragon Flower Farm, July 2020.

By Lisa Brunette

This fall marks three years since we purchased our home - a 1904 World's Fair-era house on 1/4-acre just outside the St. Louis city limits. Those of you who've followed this blog since then - or even before that time - have witnessed a series of trials and triumphs as we've worked incredibly hard and enjoyed the fruits of our labors. While the to-do list continues, and with gardening it seems the work is never done, we feel we've already achieved much toward our vision: a productive, wildlife- and pollinator-friendly garden bursting with native plants, beneficial non-natives, and edibles.

When we bought the property in fall 2017, we got a great deal, likely in part because the backyard was what you might call a problem situation.

August 2017 1
August 2017.

To the left you can see the zigzagging chainlink fence and the way the whole property butts up against the neighboring apartment building parking lot. Bonus: A view of the dumpsters! The yard was a relic of mid-century landscaping values, with big fat circles of day lilies, hostas, and euphorbias, at that point overgrown with weeds and spilling into the grassy areas, which were also mostly weeds. I think a lot of potential buyers took one look at this yard and saw themselves having to do a lot of awkward mowing, not to mention constantly hacking away at nuisance foliage. Here's the view straight out the back door.

August 2017 2
August 2017.

That first year, we didn't do anything radical to the yard, or the house, for that matter, as we were still getting to know the place. It's a good idea to sit with a big project property like this, if you're living in it yourself, to come to understand it fully before diving in with major fixes. It was a chore, but we mowed the lawn and beat back the invasive overgrowth as best we could.

August 2018 1
August 2018.

Our first step in the fall of 2018 was to invite experts from the St. Louis Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home program to conduct a site visit. Based on their recommendations, we chose to remove our serious problem plants first, which at that time comprised the majority of the greenery. The chainlink fence was overgrown on every single side with noxious invasive plants, and these were taking over the 1/4-acre. The three culprits were: 1) winter creeper, 2) Japanese honeysuckle, and 3) sweet autumn clematis. These have been eradicated, though we continue to remove seedlings of all three to this day.

August 2018 2
August 2018.

Next we installed a 6-foot cedar fence around the entire backyard, to provide privacy and security, as well as screen the view of the parking lot full of cars next door (and the dumpsters). The fence turns out to have had the added benefit of protecting our plantings from deer. You wouldn't have thought there'd be a deer issue in suburban St. Louis, but I've spotted them at a nearby pocket park. Not that we would mind deer, but without the fence we would have had to devise another strategy to keep deer from the edibles and other plants.

That fall we also put in the first set of trees and shrubs and began the long process of sheet-mulching the turf grass, as it was our intention to convert the entire grounds to mixed plantings, with little to no grass. We used a layer of cardboard with a generous helping of mulch on top. We scavenged most of the cardboard from our neighbors' recycling bins the night before pickup day and ordered the mulch in bulk for the cost savings. In process, sheet-mulching looks like this.

April 2019
April 2019.

See my how-to on sheet-mulching, which is really easy, especially if you're talking about a small plot of land. But here's a glimpse of what it entails for a project of this scale. To mulch a 1/4-acre, you need a lot.

May 2019
May 2019.

We continued to sheet-mulch the lawn throughout the fall, winter, spring, and summer of 2018-19, so that by August of 2019, we had more than half the ground covered. Here's a panoramic image showing the wraparound fence, newly installed trees and other plants, and the sheet mulch.

August 2019 1
August 2019.

While laying cardboard and shoveling mulch on top of it, especially over this much area, was a lot of hard work, we have no regrets about the decision. This summer Anthony (who won't let me mow, not that I insist) didn't have to mow the backyard at all, and he didn't miss it. (He's not one of those guys who likes to mow grass.) Besides, without the grass to compete with, our native violet ground cover took over on its own, and we like it a lot better than grass.

During this time, we also added a long list of native trees, shrubs, and flowers, using thrifty resources provided by programs like the Missouri Department of Conservation's seedlings program, Grow Native! sales, and the free offerings of our local Wild Ones chapter. These plants filled out the landscape, taking the place of the invasives and attracting wildlife and pollinators in droves. 

Bees on monarda
Eastern carpenter bees on monarda.

Our first official edible from the garden? Wild cleavers, which I harvested in spring 2019 for tea (it's an awesome tonic for reducing swelling and water retention). Next came basil that summer.

By winter 2019, we had all but one small back strip converted from turf. This spring, we let it go wild while we focused on sowing food plants in those sheet-mulched areas, which by that point were ready for more tender plantings. We also built a squash tunnel, a rain garden, two hugelkultur mounds, and a wooden trellis. The trellis supports two varieties of our native passionflower, which spoiled the bees all summer and has already yielded edible fruit. It grew by leaps and bounds, too, from a slip of a seedling to a full-grown vine in one season. Here's a pic I took last week from the second floor of our house so you can see the vine already topping the trellis.

October 2020 3

This year we made great use of our spring ephemerals, turning them into everything from tea to infused vinegar, and we had a decent harvest of veggies and herbs, bringing in potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, cucumbers, horseradish, asparagus, chervil, basil, sage, marjoram, oregano, arugula, kale, borage, cilantro, coriander, turnips, lettuce, carrots, and at least a few tomatoes all total across the early spring, summer, and late summer growing seasons. We learned a lot through the process and look forward to a better 2021.

Pickles 2020
Homemade pickles, summer 2020.

Even people who were skeptical about our project are amazed by what we've already achieved, using words like "oasis" and "sanctuary" to describe the feeling of being in our garden. But in case that's not enough endorsement for you, here it is, by the numbers:

  • Invasive plants removed: 5 species
  • 'Statue' plants removed: 3 species (statues, while not invasive, provide little benefit to humans, animals, or pollinators)
  • Turf removed: 95% of backyard, comprising most of the 1/4-acre
  • Native plants saved or encouraged: 15 species
  • Non-native beneficials saved or encouraged: 4 species
  • Native trees and shrubs planted as seedlings: 23 species
  • Native flowers and grasses planted as seedlings: 29 species
  • Native flowers and grasses sown as direct seeds: 9 species
  • Bees counted: 25+ species
  • Birds counted: 30+ species
  • Butterflies counted: 20+ species
  • Wildlife counted: 7+ species
July 2020 3
July 2020.

We've done a good job of remaking the space as a beneficial habitat, but there's still so much we can do to improve. Only about 5% of our overall food intake comes from Dragon Flower Farm. While we know it's unrealistic to think we could ever achieve total sustainability, we know we can do better than that. We've thought about adding chickens, guinea fowl, or even rabbits to the mix since we are meat eaters. Currently, we get our meat from local ranchers we've met at a farmer's market, and that's a good source for us as we don't have the time to devote to animal caretaking.

October 2020 1
A view from above, taken last week, October 2020.

So the mission for next year is to increase the space we devote to annual vegetables, as well as our own skill and proficiency at growing them. While native plants are incredibly easy to take care of, annual food crops are much more involved. I'll end by asking you to wish us well with the perennial onions and garlic we just planted here in fall. May they yield a bumper crop of food next June.

Onion planting 2020

October 2020 2
Finishing up the onion bed.

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Hügelkultur - More Than Just a Pretty Word

Hugelkultur

By Anthony Valterra

Ah, the Germans, a lovely people with a lovely language. For example, did you know the German word for daisy is "gänseblümchen?" It just rolls off the tongue. The Germans created a method of gardening in which they cultivated plants on top of a constructed mound made up of logs buried in the earth. They call it hügelkultur - literally mound or hill culture. The theory is that as the logs decay, they provide nutrients to the plants growing on top of them. In addition, the mound shape provides a sort of natural rain drainage. Plants on the top that need less water get less, and those nearer the bottom get more water. You can also use the hill shape to vary sunlight. Plants on the sunny side get more light; plants on the opposite side a bit less. Finally, the hill itself is supposed to provide a bit more growing space. Imagine the mound as half of a sphere. If the mound was not there, you would be planting in a circle with an area based on the diameter of the sphere. But with the mound, you have a planting area half the surface of the whole sphere. Assuming a mound with a 10-ft. diameter, you are roughly doubling your growing space (if I did the math correctly).

Above is our first try at hügelkulture, as it stands today. We decided to make it an herb mound. It could just as well support other plants, but an herb mound is a common choice. As you can see, we did all right. We have good growth from the sage in the foreground, the marjoram at the top, and the grey santolina to the right of the marjoram. There are also a couple of young oregano plants tucked between the sage and marjoram. Not shown: the reddening lepiota mushrooms, which grew prolifically all over the yard including on the mound - delicious! More about them in this post here. Herbs that did not make it on the mound (this year) were all sown as seeds, a tough go for non-native perennials, especially here in the beginning before the logs beneath the earth had a chance to decay.

How do you make one of these mounds? I'm sure you are thinking it requires elaborate planning, detailed construction, and a great number of resource inputs. Or maybe you're looking at it and thinking, "It's a hill; how tough can it be?"

Herb mound hugel

If you have read about my squash tunnel here, and its tragic demise here, then you know I am a big believer in scavenging for resources. Fortunately, we live in the Midwest, where the same storms that brought down the squash tunnel regularly bring down trees in the neighborhood. And when workers are cutting up those trees, they are usually very happy to have you help them out by hauling off some of the debris. That's how we got the logs for the base of our hügelkulture.

Herb mound hugel 2

We took some of the logs and arranged them in a circle with the diameter we wanted for the mound.

Herb mound hugel 3

Then we buried them and placed more logs on top. Repeat this process until you have a mound - easy peasy!

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Once we had the mound shape, we covered it in cardboard, a layer of mulch, and planted herb starts.  As I said, they did pretty well. But in theory each year that goes by, they should do better and better. The buried logs will decay and provide nutrients to the planted herbs. The first year the logs barely had time to start the decay process so the herbs were more or less relying on the soil covering. After this winter, the logs should be breaking down nicely, and I hope we will see a much more robust hügelkultur herb mound next spring and summer.

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Information Is Good, Even If the Results Are Not - Spring 2020 Growing Season Report Card

Cucumber from Flower
Cucumber growing from flower.

By Lisa Brunette

If I had to sum up my first real vegetable garden season here at Dragon Flower Farm in one phrase, it would be this: It's all information, and information is good.

First, let me just say that I'm proud of my resourcefulness in trying to grow most of our vegetables from seed. This was a huge cost savings, as I avoided losing expensive starts when things didn't work out. Because we're members of the Missouri Botanical Garden, I picked up most of my seeds on a Member's Day discount of 30% off at the Garden shop. These were organic, non-GMO, open-pollinated, untreated seeds put out by Botanical Interests. The rest I purchased from Seed Savers Exchange, a wonderful organization doing its part to "conserve and protect America's culturally diverse but endangered food crop heritage." 

For those keeping track, I'll note the seed sources below with the abbreviations BI (for Botanical Interests) or SSE (for Seed Savers Exchange).

Here's what worked.

Chervil. This was one of the first seeds (BI) to hit the soil, as early as March 7, and it was amazingly prolific. If you've never tried Anthriscus cerefolium, let me introduce you to this wonderful early spring herb. It tastes a bit like a basil-y licorice and makes a delicious pesto. Anthony loves it. When it dies out in early summer, it turns a lovely deep red. All hail, chervil!

Chervil Pesto
Anthony making chervil pesto.

Arugula. On a crisp, clear day at the tail end of March, I planted a big, 3-gram packet (BI) of Eruca vesicaria, also known as rocket. It germinated within five days, the rabbits avoided it, and we had a great arugula harvest - until in short order, it bolted. The high was 66°F and the low 46° when I sowed the seeds. Next year I will try sowing in mid-March instead of waiting those extra two weeks. Even though I planted them next to the fence where they would get some shade late in the day, it just got too hot for them too early in the season. But at least the flowers are edible.

Arugula Harvest
Arugula harvest, including flowers.

However, I'm about to get a second, fall harvest from the same plants. After they went to seed, I shook the seeds into the earth, bent the plants over for a week, and then covered them with a tarp for another three weeks. When I lifted the tarp, the plants had died down. I pushed them aside as a mulch, leaving a row clear for the new seedlings, which have sprouted in great numbers. This move was inspired by a talk given by Dean Gunderson of Gateway Greening, who suggesting using a tarp to squelch a cover crop and then planting directly into the dead plant matter.

Arugula Mulch-in-Place
Arugula, mulched in place.
Arugula Sprouts
Arugula sprouts.

Kale. On April 5 (high 53°F, low 46°), I sowed a huge, 10-gram kale blend pack (BI). These went into another part-shade area, near the base of the elderberry bushes; I read somewhere that they are companion plants. This kale has outperformed every other edible annual except chervil, with a high rate of germination and continuous production all summer. It's just now petering out. 

Nicola potatoes. By April 8, the temperature spiked already to 90°F, and it was on this day that I planted the first batch of seed potatoes (SSE). They did very well planted in a bed that had been mulched the previous fall with leaves (obtained free from neighbors). We only hilled them once, to about 6 inches, as suggested by Paul Wheaton of Permies.com. I just harvested about 3 gallons from one bag of seed potatoes. I don't have anything to compare this yield to, but to me, it was exciting to see all those potatoes.

First Potato Harvest 2020
Spread out to cure.

Borage. As far as robustness goes, this plant gets the blue ribbon. We've had huge borage plants all summer after sowing seeds (both BI and SSE) on April 15. They're a bee magnet, and we've enjoyed the edible flowers (taste like cucumber) in salads and as a water flavoring. We tried the leaves as a sautéed green but were not impressed with that use. It also has medicinal properties, so I might harvest for that.

Sunflowers. These are so easy to grow here in Missouri! I believe the squirrels planted one (our neighbor grows them) that bloomed last year by the back shed. I spread the seeds from that one last fall, and this year, we had a huge patch of sunflowers, all for free. To that patch, I added the variety 'Orange Sun' (SSE), which is just now blooming. I've been dutifully harvesting the seed heads, leaving some for the birds. The goldfinches make quite a meal of them.

Sunflower Close-Up
Sunflowers, originally planted by squirrels.

Scarlet Runner Beans. After first getting devoured by rabbits when they sprouted (SSE), these have rebounded and are in flower right now, making the hummingbirds happy. They've wound all the way up our flagpole. Planting them May 15 seems to have been a good move, but they need protection from rabbits, at least until established; they're leaving them alone now.

Flagpole Beans
Scarlet runner beans, twining up our flagpole.

Lettuce. This went in on May 16 (high 80°, low 64°), which also seems to have been too late. I could have sown it in early March, according to this St. Louis-specific gardening calendar, which I now have in my arsenal. We had some great lettuce harvests until they bolted, too quickly. I used a mesclun mix (BI), but it was heavy with a couple of varieties that were too prickly to eat, and it also contained a good deal of arugula, which duplicated that patch. For the fall season sowing, I'm avoiding the mix.

Cilantro, Dill, and Lemon Basil. I sowed all of these (BI) on June 7, and they did marvelously well, the dill coinciding with the cucumbers nicely for use in pickling. Lemon basil is amazing in pesto. I'm actually not a huge fan of cilantro, so I let it go to seed, and I've harvested a ton of coriander seeds. I think these all could have gone in a tad earlier, though.

Bee on Dill
Bee on dill flowers.

I realize that's not a lot of successes, but considering we made no soil amendments whatsoever, and this was a first attempt in this climate zone, it's not bad. The soil had been turf grass converted through sheet-mulch method to garden space. So it was basically clay soil with a layer of decomposed grass, cardboard, and mulch as a thin topsoil. We did have a small amount of compost. We watered with diluted compost tea around the vining plants on the squash arch and in the cabbage patch, and we spread compost in just a handful of spots.

A few things did... OK.

Amish Snap Peas. Delicious, and the rabbits thought so, too. We finally got some after the rabbits moved on to better fare later in spring. Next year, I'll get more packets, too, as one (SSE) didn't do it, and protect them better. I'll also sow with the chervil in early March.

German Chamomile. Again, one packet (BI) not enough, but this is very nice to have.

Chamomile
German chamomile.

Sage and Rosemary. The saddest seed loss was that none of the perennial herbs germinated, except for a couple of sage plants and two rosemary seedlings. All of the seeds were Botanical Interests except the rosemary, which was from Seed Savers.

Nasturtium 'Black Velvet.' After a good soaking overnight, these seeds all germinated, but they either needed to be sown earlier than April 30, watered better, or both. 

Sweet Potatoes. These actually came from Stark Bros. (where I've purchased many of our fruit trees) as sprouts. The rabbits chomped them down when they went in May 1, but they've since recovered very well, at least judging by what's above ground. We'll see how the harvest is this fall.

'Waltham' Butternut Squash. Two ginormous ones grew from one seed packet (BI) sown May 15 and graced the bamboo arch before it toppled in a severe storm this week (more on that later). We saved them, don't worry.

Squash on Arch 2
Waltham butternut squash on bamboo arch.

Cucumbers. We sowed the 'A&C Pickling' variety (SSE), and they've mostly come in misshapen. But we have managed to get some pickles out of the bunch. These and the squash above could have gone earlier in May.

Red ('Red Acre') and Green ('Copenhagen Market') Cabbage. I've been babying these things ever since sowing seeds (BI) on June 7, way too late, as it turns out. Next time, we sow in early March. A crop of the reds expired during a dry patch, and I replaced them with another set, which I've watered and composted around. They looked really promising until this week, when it seems some insect has discovered them and is making lacework of the leaves just as they're beginning to ball.

Ground Cherries. I didn't think these seedlings (SSE) survived my transplanting, but four of the plants did, and they are doing quite well. These native plants bear fruit that resemble tiny tomatillos, and they taste like a cross between a pineapple and a cherry tomato. Definitely a keeper, and their low habit trails well over our violet ground cover.

After that comes the clear failures, of which there are admittedly many.

Sadly, there were a ton of perennial herbs that never germinated: lavender, parsley, summer savory, tarragon, thyme, marjoram, lemon balm, oregano. None of the bulb onions worked out, and neither did the chives, though we did get a handful of spring scallions, which I grew in part shade. The sorrel was devoured by rabbits. Two attempts at beets failed, though we did get a handful in the second attempt (Chioggia style, with stripes, as in the below image). The carrots grew tops but not roots, the lovage didn't sprout, the turnips made a poor showing, and the comfrey seeds simply ignored me. I don't know why amaranth, which seemed to suggest such wonder, decided life wasn't worth trying. Parsnips made a liar out of whoever told me they like compost, and the broccoli, rue, and St. John's wort all failed to transplant.

Chioggia Stripes
One of the few beets.

What grade would you give us on our gardening report card? I'm going with a C.

Maybe that sounds harsh. After all, we got some food out of our backyard! Not many people can say that. But I feel like a C is fair. It's passing, with plenty of room for improvement. The biggest question is, can we make the A-list without purchasing soil amendments? It was good this first time to see what we can do first on a bare minimum. But next year? We shall see.

Sunrise over the Farmyard
Sunrise over Dragon Flower Farm.

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The Trials and Triumphs of Sowing from Seed

Dill
The umbels of dill flowers.

By Lisa Brunette

Every food plant you see pictured here in this post was grown from seed. Unfortunately, for every one of those, there's another plant that was supposed to have grown from seed but did not.

One of our bummers this summer is that only about half of the seeds sown this spring germinated. It's a good thing our survival didn't depend on the success of those seeds, or we'd have more than a pandemic and a constant stream of social outrage to worry about here in 2020.

Still, we're pretty thrilled with the Dragon Flower Farm all the same. We've had a bumper crop of kale from just one packet of seeds, and before the arugula bolted, it was mighty tasty.

Arugula_Flower
Metallic sweat bee on arugula flower.

Seed sowing is a bit of a roller coaster ride. It's a thrill-a-minute to watch seedlings sprout up where you did nothing more than place a bit of fluff in the dirt. It seems audacious and incredible, and you wonder why everyone isn't putting seeds in the ground everywhere, every day. But when only maybe a few out of a whole packet germinates, it can feel like when you go on one of those rides that's so short, it's over before it even began. Is that it? You wonder. What did I do wrong? Even worse is when you carefully place a whole packet of seeds in the ground and get nothing, as if you waited in line for an hour only to have the ride shut down once you hit the turnstyle.

Chamomile
German chamomile.

This was the first year I've ever set out to grow a substantial kitchen garden. All of my past gardening forays were either rehabilitative (I'm pretty good at rescuing f'd up landscapes) or cut short, as I left the gardens just as I was getting started (read about my lifetime of frequent moves here). I'm also doing things differently by fusing the native plant garden approach with permaculture techniques. So I expected to make a lot of mistakes, and to largely learn by doing. While there are a lot of books out there, for both native plant and permaculture gardening, so much of what you do is site-specific and theoretical. You're working with nature, too, and she's got a mind of her own.

Nasturtium
Nasturtium 'Black Velvet.'

I've been puzzling over what went wrong and have a handful of lessons learned that I'll share here, as I still think sowing from seed is the move, in so many ways. It's tons cheaper, and if you get into seed saving, you pretty much have a continuous food loop without having to buy new seeds or plants. Don't let my dismal 50 percent success rate dissuade you; I'm not giving up by any means! But here's what I'm thinking about.

  • Probably the seeds didn't get enough water. We had a long dry spell, and coupled with a crushing amount of work at the day job, I just didn't get out there to hydrate them often enough.
  • The rabbits ate most of the early-season seedlings, as there wasn't much else growing for them at the time. Peas, lettuce, carrots - it was all tasty food for rabbits, and we didn't have enough protection to ward them off.
Borage_Flower
Metallic sweat bee on borage flower.
  • I don't believe the ground was quite 'ready' for all the tender annuals. We had a layer of newish, still-decomposing mulch, grass, and cardboard over the top of that lovely Midwestern clay you hear gardeners bemoaning. Our soils are actually the perfect Ph for growing most food plants, but that clay needs to be aerated, somehow, and since I'm going entirely no-till, I didn't want to dig it up. I'm still working on this one, but I think it basically comes down to a long-term investment in building up the soil.
  • Some seeds could have benefited from a little prep beforehand. Too late I read that beet seeds do well with a soaking in water. I'd done that with all of the nasturtiums, and they germinated in due time, at a fairly good rate.
Squash_Flower
Squash flower.
  • We didn't get the seeds and seedlings (started indoors) out there in time. I'm still adjusting to the growing season here, and I hesitated too long in spring, with that Prince song "Sometimes It Snows in April" playing in my head. Hence, bolted broccoli and arugula.
  • Speaking of seedlings, I don't have a great place to start seeds indoors because #Chaco. Our little monkeycat won't leave potted baby growing things alone, so they were a little spindly because I tried to get them going in a weird spot where I could keep them barricaded and netted.

Sure, blame it on the cat, he says.

But the cool thing is, here in USDA Zone 6a, I've got another chance at the broccoli and carrots, starting... now. I've got more seed packets coming, my friends, and I know just what to do with them... At least, I think so?

Cilantro_Flower
Cilantro flowers.

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