Gardening where the sidewalk ends

Gone to Seed January 29, 2009

So many gardeners have already marked their seed catalogs, sent in orders, and received their exciting little packages. The most enterprising have already even started their seeds growing. Me? I’m still in ponder mode.

My mom is a bigtime seed-starter and January is the month when she spends many an hour flipping through the seemingly mile-high pile of catalogs she receives every year. She asked if I would like to look at some of them, since I was only mailed a couple this year, so I took a gander.

Seed catalogs

(Top row, from left: Thompson & Morgan, Johnny’s X 2, Nicholl’s, Park, Tomato Growers, Seeds of Change, Abundant Life, and Territorial)

With limited time and brainpower (I would say lately, but I think it’s a permanent condition at this point), I was not able to peruse them as thoroughly as I would have liked. Also, even the most realistic estimation of my probable success with starting, planting out and caring for even a few varieties of veggies and flowers in my small garden would probably indicate that I shouldn’t order much, if anything.

But how to resist the siren calls of these catalogs, which promise ease of growing, deliciousness of produce, and the beauty and bounty of summer when it’s so cold, colorless and dreary out in January?

Just a few of the temptations I will probably resist (this year, at least): epazote, chamomile, “Caveman’s Club” gourd, black Spanish radish (nero tondo), Mexican sunflower, agretti (an Italian green), and scarlet runner beans (no trellis big enough). Also noticed some other unusual offerings, like salsify, scorzonera, wolfberry plants (goji), and a hardy olive tree. I didn’t even allow myself to look in the back pages of any of the catalogs, where all the fun garden gadgets and tchochkes are described so alluringly.

What will I actually order? Well, my mom is so kind to start many things for me every year, such as snap peas, bush beans, marigolds, lettuces, calendulas, pansies, parsley, and basil, among many others. I usually direct-sow arugula, mesclun, and nasturtuims and let sunflowers grow from seeds the squirrels missed the previous year. If I can dig down and remove some of the evil clay underlayer below my veggie patch, this year I might get a few root crops going – purple dragon carrots and Misato Rose radish (aka Red Meat in other catalogs). My mom and I agreed to both try Nero di Toscana kale (sometimes listed as dino kale) and multi-colored chard, to get our dark leafy greens. I’m on the fence about Hungarian breadseed poppies – I love the idea of something that comes up from direct-sown seed and grows to 3-4 ft. tall, but I wonder if I’ll regret its tendency to resow and crowd out other plants. Spinach, borage and gloriosa daisy will round out my order from Seeds of Change, since I want everything I can to be organic. I hope they have what I want still left by the time I get around to ordering, maybe this weekend…

Did you restrain yourself with your seed order this year, or did you get carried away on an imagined summer breeze and abandon all reason? Oh, and another question – do you bother with paper catalogs anymore, or do you do all your seed perusing and ordering online?


Valiant Volunteers September 19, 2008

Cynthia of the wonderful blog Brambleberries in the Rain had a very thought-provoking post yesterday about allowing volunteer plants into the garden and the sometimes pleasing, sometimes frightening consequences that can ensue. It got me thinking about my own faithful garden volunteers.

Since my parking strip garden started from nothing (after we ripped out all the St. John’s wort, it was a blank slate), and my budget for replacement plants was small, I have relied a lot on volunteer re-seeders from my first year’s plantings. And some stuff just wanders in from the neighborhood via bird or wind distribution and I have to decide what stays and what goes.

Being fairly faint-of-heart when it comes to plant removal (Instead of “Hey little guy, you chose to sprout in my garden? That’s great. Now die!!!” I’m more likely to just let it stay and see how it grows.), I of course end up with a fairly random selection and a bit too much of some stuff. I am trying to learn to be more ruthless, and maybe next spring I will also recognize more of the “babies” as they emerge and can decide whether to edit (i.e. eliminate), transplant, or let them stay.

My parking strip garden as of 9/16

This summer, I didn’t spend very much time in the garden. Between taking care of my daughter, having the cold from hell, going on a few vacations, and generally succumbing to massive laziness in the few hours that could have been used for chores indoors and out, I just pretty much let things be. So, the volunteers were my heroes – they did their work (growing with no help!) while I neglected mine. For that, I am grateful. Below are some of my favorites.

Sweet alyssum sometimes overwinters in my garden (Zone 8), sometimes not. But it usually leaves some seeds in the ground that sprout the following year. It doesn’t take over much space, its clusters of tiny white flowers smell delicious, and it’s one of the lower-growers that keep the weeds down a bit.

Sweet alyssum

Calendula officinalis, or pot marigold, seeds itself annually in my garden too. I usually have to pull a few out, since it tends to like to sprout right where I’m planning to plant my beans or parsley. Its flowers are so cheery, and I love their silky texture. The petals are edible and make a bright addition to salads. They do need fairly frequent dead-heading to stay nice-looking, and are also susceptible to mildew late in the season, as you can see from this photo.


Cerinthe major purpurascens, aka Blue Shrimp Plant, has always been a favorite of mine since I first saw it growing in a street garden a few years ago. Its gently arching stems produce a purply-blue flower that does indeed look a bit like a shrimp (its other common name is honeywort). In my garden, it sows itself liberally and sprouts in spring and again in late summer. No flower on this one yet, but click here to see what it ends up looking like.

Volunteer cerinthe

Hm, this is turning into a pretty long post (for me). I might have to think about doing a Part II. I’ll close this chapter with one of my favorite volunteers, Bachelor’s button (Centaurea cyanus), aka cornflower. The first year these started appearing in my garden, I pulled them up by the bucket-full, thinking they were a weed. They’re a bit on the tall side, so they don’t work as well at the edge of the border, but I usually leave a lot in, because they come up early in the spring and then again in the late summer. Most are blue, but there’s the occasional pink or white one that appears. How can I resist? Plus, the bees dig them, as evidenced below.

Bee in Bachelor's button

Do you have any garden volunteers whom you welcome in every year? Are there others you wish would pass on by?


Dr. Seuss Trees September 18, 2008

The City of Seattle has a program where neighbors can band together and request a set of free trees for planting in the parking strip, from a list provided by the city. It’s a great way to green up the block and increase the density of the urban forest.

A street several blocks from my house had obviously done this, but perhaps they either didn’t get the city’s help with pruning the trees or they did it themselves with poor results, because they ended up looking like this:

Crazy tree

The trees are so tall and spindly, with the branches so oddly spaced and shaped, that they provide no shade and are just, well, kind of weird-looking. Seattle is home to a great organization, Plant Amnesty, which tries to raise community awareness about proper pruning, recommends certifited arborists, and otherwise educates tree stewards about proper care methods for keeping trees healthy and well-shaped. A quick visit to their site is worth it if only to see their “Bad Pruning Gallery,” truly a chamber of horrors.

I can see why this one was on the city’s list – its twirlybird seeds are really something, turning pinkish now.


Going from the city’s list of approved small trees to a few online searches, I’m going to guess that this is acer grinnata, or Amur maple. If that’s the case, it should have some pretty amazing red foliage later in the fall. It’s too bad the trees weren’t treated better when they were young – their natural shape is more shrub-like, but with proper early pruning they can grow upright without looking quite so much like they belong in an illustration from “Green Eggs and Ham.”


Seed Snarfer August 31, 2008

My family looked out the window this morning and saw something pretty funny. A big, fat squirrel, perched precariously on top of one of my parking strip sunflowers, was scarfing down all the seeds s/he could reach. I had noticed yesterday that some of the flowers were leaning over and thought it was due to a windy day we had earlier in the week. Guess it was the squirrel’s climbing expeditions instead.

Sunflower Squirrel

One of the stems had snapped off halfway down, so I hacked it off and brought it up to our house level so that we could watch the fun from a closer vantage point. The squirrel soon reappeared and ate the entire huge head of seeds. “It’s like it’s a big feast!” was my daughter’s comment. Guess fall must really be here.

Squirrel Things Sunflower Seeds Are Yummy