Categories
Gardening Nature Parenting

Sharing and Starting Plants

Today is Earth Day. It may be co-opted by brands posting on social media, but I think it’s still worth celebrating in its original spirit (see Emily Atkin on what Earth Day is supposed to be). I was considering posting about divesting from for-profit banks as a not-obvious but critically-important way to help the planet. I hope to do that, still. But here we are and I haven’t written it, so instead I’ll briefly report and muse about swapping seeds.

Yesterday I hosted an informal seed and seedling swap. It was just three of us, standing around a table in the cold, but it was a blast. One person brought chard seedlings, plus all kinds of seed packets including white corn and tiny cantaloupes. Another shared tomato seeds and seedlings of a family heirloom cultivar that his father has saved and replanted over many years.

After the swap, with plant life on my mind, I dug around in a five-gallon bucket of dirt. It’s a special bucket of dirt: my two-year-old and I filled it in the fall, then gathered acorns and mixed them into the soil. Our experiment was to see if they’d sprout after overwintering outside. And at least one of them has!

It’s rupturing with life! I moved it to its own pot.

Sharing seeds and plants and stories and tips and excitement on a cold spring day left each of us energized about plants and the earth. It renewed my sense of possibility, about plants and how humans are made to help each other. I plan to keep casually swapping seeds this spring and summer and then maybe run this swap again next year, with more planning and advertising to make it bigger. I hope to start seeds indoors next winter to contribute seedlings of my own.

In the meantime, I have a ton of pawpaw seeds on hand that need new homes. I processed dozens of fruits in the fall, setting aside the seeds. They’ve been kept moist and in the fridge all winter to give them their requisite cold hours and now should be ready to sprout when the soil warms up.

Pawpaws are unusual fruit trees, native to Michigan (among other places). The New York Times wrote a couple of stories about them last year. Their seeds are slow to sprout and not the easiest to grow, but I’m taking it on as a challenge.

I also harvested a lot of Red Russian kale seed from my crop last year. I have maybe a thousand seeds left after planting and giving away lots already:

My half-full jar of remaining kale seeds. Think it’s thousand? More? Less?

If you want some pawpaw or kale seed, or want to trade other perennials like sunchoke tubers or prairie dock seeds, drop me a line.

Let’s swap seeds and stories next spring. Happy planting!

Categories
Gardening ruminations

Invasive plant sukkot

I write this during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. “Sukkot” is the plural of sukkah, the temporary hut that Jews construct for the fall harvest holiday.

I had an epiphany this year: build the sukkah out of buckthorn! Common buckthorn is an aggressive invasive species that plagues the city of Ann Arbor, the state of Michigan, and the Great Lakes region. Since a friend showed me some growing near my house, I notice it everywhere and take pleasure in removing it, as outnumbered as I am in that fight. I’ve cleared it at my previous home in Scio Township, at my in-laws in East Lansing, and now pull it from city parks.

A sukkah needs a roof of s’chach, or cut plant matter. Buckthorn is perfect for this: it’s slender, long, and leafy. In fact, it could do double-duty: it’s ideal for the roof but larger, thicker specimens could also make up the frame of the sukkah (which can be reused from year to year). At the end of Sukkot, the buckthorn can be disposed of in municipal compost carts, where any berries will be destroyed in the heat of the city’s compost piles.

Categories
DIY Gardening How-to ruminations

Building a hugelkultur mound in a city backyard

This was a leap-of-faith project during Michigan’s bleak COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” period. I’m documenting it here as a plan for building a hugelkultur bed on a small city lot as well as to preserve a pleasant COVID-19 memory. Behold the thriving hugelkultur mound:

It’s exploding with vegetables – see below for pictures of the hill itself

Hugelkultur is a permaculture concept where you pile up organic material (logs, leaves, compost, etc.) and then grow a garden on top of it. Here is a good explanation of hugelkultur and its benefits. It’s also a fun word to say. We refer to our mound as “the hugel” [German for hill].

This was the perfect COVID-19 project. Under lockdown in April, we had nowhere to go. I was spending lots of time with my kids at home during the day. And I wanted to be outside. Building a garden bed with the materials at hand was a small act of protest against the feeling of being dependent on a global supply chain whose fragility had suddenly been exposed. I couldn’t easily get soil or lumber delivered for a conventional raised bed. And crucially, the city’s compost and yard waste collection was about to resume for the spring, so my neighbors had their maximum amount of organic material awaiting disposal.

Starting with a hole

Categories
Gardening

Do curly and Red Russian kales cross-polinate?

Last year I grew curly kale (starts from the farmer’s market) and Red Russian kale (replanted annually in my own garden since about 2012). They overwintered, flowered, and are now falling over under the weight of their seed pods.

I plan to harvest the seeds and wondered, will the resulting plants be a cross between the varieties, given that the plants are flowering just a couple of feet apart from each other? It appears they won’t, because the two kales are actually different species. According to the Comox Valley Growers and Seed Savers (2015):

All the curly kales and the lacinato belong to the brassica oleracea species. They will cross with each other and with many other crucifers – cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower and collard greens.

The Red Russian and Siberian kales belong to brassica napus species and will cross with each other but not with the other kales. They will also cross with rutabagas, rape and canola. It seems that the napus variety can self pollinate without suffering from inbreeding depression and also it does not have a self incompatibility mechanism which so many plants do.

So the two varieties of kale should stay true in their seeds. We’ll see next year!