Sustainable fertilizer: Nettle tea

Among other new things I’m trying out this year, I’m making a liquid fertilizer out of stinging nettles (Urtica dioica).

Urtica dioica grows easily from seed and spreads easily by rhizomes, so I grow mine in a container. potted stinging nettles urtica dioica and spiderOften used in traditional and herbal/alternative medicines to treat a wide variety of conditions in the urinary and gastrointestinal tracts, the skin, joints, and allergic conditions, stinging nettles contain significant amounts of trace elements like iron, manganese, and calcium. The plant also contains the major nutrients potassium and nitrogen. Nitrogen, of course, promotes new green growth, and potassium (symbol K, the third number in a fertilizer analysis such as 4-3-3) is often described as a multivitamin for a plant, promoting resiliency and overall good health.

stinging nettle urtica dioicaGardening literature from the UK suggests that nettle tea is an outstanding natural fertilizer. To make it:

  1. Gather stems and leaves of stinging nettles. (Use gloves. They really do hurt.)nettle stem showing spines
  2. Crush the leaves and stems with your gloved hands or chop them with a knife, and place in a large bucket. Weight them down with a clean clay pot or saucer.harvested nettleschopped nettles
  3. Cover the crushed nettles with water. nettles submerged in container of water
  4. Leave them to soak for 3-4 weeks. Word has it that the brew gets a bit smelly, so keep a lid on the bucket and perhaps locate it away from pathways or entranceways.
  5. Once the liquid has steeped, dilute it at approximately 1 part tea to 10 parts water. Apply to any plants, but especially those that seem to be struggling a bit.

 Note:

Nettles can interfere with certain prescription drugs, including blood thinners and blood pressure and diabetes medications. Don’t take them without consulting a doctor about potential interactions with your current diet and medications.

 

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More of a good thing: Propagating trilliums and other rhizomatous plants

My favorite time of the gardening year is when my trilliums come into bloom.

Trillium luteum

Trillium luteum

These plants, native (in the case of Trillium luteum) to North Carolina, grow in deciduous forests. Slow-growing and typically reproduced by tissue culture, they command hefty prices at nurseries and garden centers, in the range of $15-20 for a quart pot containing one plant. Please don’t use this as an excuse to harvest them from their native habitat; that’s strictly taboo.

I have been waiting patiently for perhaps eight years for these plants to multiply. This year, I think the oldest of my three plants may send up a second bloom. Growing trilliums is a bit like watching children mature, I suppose; the gardener must exercise a great deal of patience as the subject slowly and rather invisibly matures, showing exciting glimpses in brief bursts of what lovely and graceful specimens they will become.

Well, my patience is not where it ought to be. You can imagine my excitement, then, when I read in Nancy Goodwin’s delightful book, Montrose: Life in a Garden, about how she increased her stand of Trillium catesbaei by pricking the rhizomes with a pin to stimulate new growth.  She describes a ninefold increase in her plants in one year using this technique.

I contacted Nancy to ask about the process and she assured me it was extremely simple. Uncover the rhizome (easiest to do now, when the flower is visible), and prick it with a pin beneath the growing point, found at the end of the rhizome. The injury stimulates the plant to produce additional tubers, she writes. Perhaps while the plant photosynthesizes, it pumps more energy into additional tuber/rhizome (I will grasp this one day) formation, yielding a greater increase than would occur if, say, the gardener tried this technique during the plant’s dormancy.

Yesterday I gave it a try. I dug gently down with my fingers, not wanting to risk severing the rhizome with a vigorous plunge of a trowel (perhaps an irrational thought, given what I was about to do). I found the growing point, or what I think is the growing point, and, not having a pin to hand, gave it a timid poke with the tip of a pair of scissors. I made an incision only detectible by the droplet of white fluid that emerged from the rhizome. I filled the hole back up and firmed it well. I tried the technique on two of the three plants, so if I’ve erred in my execution, next year I can be assured of having at least one plant surviving (the one that’s sending up two flowers this year).

Feeling a bit bold, I tried it on the single specimen I have of Trillium sessile as well.

Trillium sessile (red)

Trillium sessile, dusted with pollen

Next year, we’ll see what emerges. You may want to give this technique a try in your own gardens. If you do, please let me know your results.

First dates: Gilia tricolor

Second in the series “First Dates: Plants I’m Trying This Year”

Gilia tricolor is an annual plant native to central California. Bees (and I) love the small, open-faced flowers.

Gilia tricolor

Gilia tricolor. Photo courtesy of Annie’s Annuals.

I have read that they like moist soil, and I have read that they like dry soil. I’ve read they like hot conditions, and that they prefer cool summers. At $2.25 per seed pack, I figured I could experiment and see who’s correct. It’s entirely possible that they all are.

The cultivar I am growing, ‘Felicitas,’ offers half-inch pale pinkish-purple blossoms brushed with darker red-violet tones in the throat of the blossom, and a sharp yellow color in the cup. The anthers hold faint blue pollen above the blossom, which makes for a charming, offbeat color contrast (should it be called Gilia quadricolor?). The plant self-sows where it is happy. This, like the Mina lobata profiled yesterday and several of the other plants I’ll showcase later this week, are open-pollinated annuals. That means that while they’ll live their life cycle in one year (growing, flowering, setting seed, and dying), their offspring will perform the same show the following year. Thus, although the plants themselves are not the same, the result in the garden is much like that of having perennials (those plants which do come back year after year).

‘Felicitas,’ seems to be on the smaller side, growing 12 inches tall and wide, whereas others grow slightly larger, 18-20 inches tall and perhaps 12-18 inches wide. The flowers apparently smell faintly of chocolate, and what they lack in size they make up for in abundance. The leaves are fine and needle-like. A member of the Phlox family (Polemoniaceae), they can be found in Yosemite National Park.

Gilia tricolor 'Felicitas'

Gilia tricolor ‘Felicitas.’ Photo courtesy of Select Seeds.

They are supposed to make fine cut flowers.

I hope to grow these in the blue slope, a patch of west-facing land close to the radiant heat of the street. The plants that live out there need to be tough, and these seem to fit the qualifications.

 

First dates: Plants I’m trying this year

This week, I will share some of the plants I’m trying out in my garden for the first time.

Mina lobata

Mina lobata uses numerous aliases, including firecracker vine, Spanish flag, and exotic love vine. This sun-loving annual grows quickly to 10 feet long and produces lush, trilobed leaves similar to those of Ipomoea batatas, the sweet potato vine, to which it is related. In late summer to early fall, Mina lobata produces red flowers that fade to orange, yellow, and white. Those tubular (as in tube-shaped, not as in surfer-speak) flowers attract swarms of hungry hummingbirds, so plant it where you can enjoy the show. The vine will reseed to come back year after year, but do be mindful that the seeds are poisonous so keep them away from children and pets.

Mina lobata

By Magnus Manske (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Synonymous with Ipomoea lobata, this plant is related to morning glories and I expect similar habits. I’ve not had much trouble with reseeding morning glories, but I keep an eye out so nothing gets out of hand.  Mina lobata is said to cope well with heat and humidity, which I can guarantee in my neighborhood.

I thought I first saw this plant growing at Montrose last fall, combined with Helianthus, cosmos, and other fiery flora. But upon closer inspection, I’ve discovered that what I thought I was admiring was not Mina lobata, but Cuphea micropetalum.

Border at Montrose with Helianthus, Cuphea micropetalum, and orange cosmos.

Border at Montrose with Helianthus, Cuphea micropetalum, and orange cosmos.

This is what I thought was Mina lobata. It's not. It's Cuphea micropetalum.

This is what I thought was Mina lobata. It’s not. It’s Cuphea micropetalum.

To grow from seed:

Scarify the seed (scratch with sandpaper or nick the seed coat slightly) and soak in water overnight or up to 24 hours to improve germination. Sow seed outdoors after the last frost, or sow indoors and transplant after the frost risk has passed. Give its twining stems a trellis or tuteur to climb upon, or train it against a fence or wall you’d rather not see. Like clematis, its roots prefer some shade, and it likes rich soil, neutral to slightly acid pH, and moderate water. Do not overfeed Mina lobata with high-nitrogen fertilizer, or you will have lush vines and few flowers.

If left to dry on the vine, the seed heads may be harvested, cleaned, and stored in a cool, dry place.

 

Check it out: Durham County is getting a seed library

My local public library is starting a seed library.   

Digging Durham Seed Library

Beginning this week, all locations of the Durham County library will take donations of seeds: vegetable, flower, and herb; hybrid and open-pollinated. In late April, county residents will be able to “check out” packets of seed from three library branches (Main, South Regional, and Southwest Regional) and grow the plants at home. They must save some of the seed from the open-pollinated plants they grow, and “return” those seeds at the end of the growing season. Workshops on seed starting and saving will be offered in April and later in the year.

The first seed library (or one of the first) in the US  was founded in Gardiner, New York and became the Hudson Valley Seed Library, now a small business and certified organic farm dedicated to preserving heirloom and open-pollinated seeds and promoting biodiversity. The Durham County seed library is one of the first in North Carolina, but I hope to see many more sprouting up this year.

My personal seed libraryI’ll be writing more about the benefits and drawbacks of open-pollinated and hybrid seeds next week. Right now, I’m sorting through my own seed library to find what treasures I can share with my neighbors throughout the county.

Garden project for a wet winter day: Desktop moss garden

I’ve always loved moss. Nothing else has such lush texture and color yet requires so little in the way of care. And since February’s damp gray misery persists, I decided to bring some nature indoors.

moss garden materials assembled

I assembled my materials:

  • an old bread loaf pan that has seen better days
  • a drill to make a drainage hole in the pan
  • soil
  • moss (some tufts harvested from my garden, and some which grew in place of my spinach).
  • a plant misting bottle.

drilling a hole in the panWhile mosses require a damp environment to grow, I’m hesitant to try growing it in a container without a drainage hole. I want moss, not mold. So I began by drilling a hole in the pan. Most regular wood bits will also drill metal and plastic. I can’t tell the size of the bit; the marking has worn off.

Incidentally, if you let go of the pan as you drill, you immediately acquire an unwieldy metal propeller. It’s better to do this when no one is around to be injured.

spinning panThe hole is drilled, but it’s a bit rough. I took it out to the shed to find a file to smooth it down.

hole in loaf panI had planned to use potting soil, similar to what had grown the moss in the first place. But on my walk to the shed, I observed more moss growing on my shady, damp clay ground. And I thought, why not give it what it likes?

wet acid clayThis is my naturally-existing backyard soil substrate. Its pH typically ranges somewhere around 4.5 to 4.8, so I don’t expect to need to “improve” the soil here with yogurt, buttermilk, or any other acidic additive typically recommended for starting moss.  The clay is quite dense, and when smoothed out, it might be mistaken (from a certain distance) for peanut butter gelato.

not gelatoI want the final product to look a bit like a loaf of moss, so this isn’t enough soil. I mixed in some discarded potting soil to build up the level.

small loaf of dirt

It was already adequately wet, so I simply mounded it into a hilled loaf shape and compressed it well.

accidental mossThis is the moss that grew where my dead spinach seeds did not. After 3 months, it is well established and peels off in a thin sheet.

thin sheet of mossWhat does it take to plant moss? Simply pat it firmly into place, and mist.

moss garden planted

Mosses are ancient, nonvascular plants. They photosynthesize and take in water and nutrients through their leaves, but reproduce by spores. Rhizoids, not roots, anchor mosses to their growing substrate.

There are three kinds of moss planted here, two of which I harvested from my garden. I don’t know the identities of any of them, but I’ll try to find out. I will keep the moss moist with a daily misting. Normally I’d consider a daily task like misting a tedious chore, but I’ll keep the pan and the mister on my desk and will give it a simple spray each morning as I begin work. Over the next 3 months, it should establish itself and begin to spread. I’ll share photos as it comes along.

Seed viability, part 3: Planting seedlings embedded in paper toweling

The easy sprouts have been potted up, and now it is time to tackle the ingrown ones.

seedlings embedded in towel

Now, the good thing about seedlings growing through their germinating substrate (the paper towel) is that, if you can be trusted with a pair of scissors and have sharp ones to hand (does anyone besides tailors ever have sharp scissors?), you can trim yourself a little seed mat by which to handle the seedling, making transplanting relatively risk-free. Or you can use a box cutter, if you have a sharp blade and clean it first with a bit of rubbing alcohol.

How to Pot Up Seedlings That Have Grown Through Paper Towels

1. As before, prepare a seed flat with moistened, sterile seed-starting mixture. This flat, incidentally, is an upcycled Chinese food take-out container, and it is perfect for such a task.

prepared seed flat

2. Taking care not to cut off the root (which may have tiny root hairs emerging from it), guide the blade of the knife or scissors between the sprouted seeds. Cut a small section of towel to support the seedling:

seedling embedded in paper towel

3. Carefully cut individual seed mats out of the towel. Hold the towel up to a light to help you find the space between the roots.

hold up the seeds to the light

4. Plant the seedlings, giving adequate space to each one. Don’t overcrowd the flat. Gently firm the roots against the soil.

fully planted seed flat

The seed capsules on the soil surface fell off during the planting process. These are not additional, fresh seeds planted in the flat, which would overcrowd the plants.

5. Top the seedlings off with fresh seed-starting mix, up to the base of the seed leaves.

top-dressed flat

6. Water gently, using a rose on a watering can or the spray function of a faucet or squirt bottle, and set in a bright, warm space.

Keep an eye on the seedlings, in whatever form they were potted up, and do not allow them to dry out. Bottom-watering is best: Set the flat in a shallow dish of water and allow the water to wick up through the drainage holes in the bottom of the flat. Once the seedlings have developed one or two sets of true leaves, they may be potted up again.