Apr 18, 2010

What's in Your Garden?

For many parts of the temperate world, it's time to plant a garden. Here in San Francisco, it's time to plant new things in our year round gardens. Last year my house mate planted corn, peppers, and brussel sprouts before I came back from London. Our summers are cold, so you need luck and heat to get corn and peppers. We had some scary looking mutant corn and no peppers or brussel sprouts.

Our garden failure was pretty interesting, and quite in line with our experimental approach to our patch of (rented) land. Corn is so adept at sucking up nutrients that it's used in restoration to address nutrient loaded soil after invasions of nitrogen fixing plants (ie, the brooms in California).  I was learning that information last summer as I studied invasive French broom while clearly pointless corn languished in my dirt. Blake wanted to give it a chance so I only ripped out individual plants when it was obviously finished.

Given that we've been working that area of our garden (< 1mx3m) for about 4 years with no input to the sandy soil, I'm guessing the corn was also stressed by a lack of nutrients. After the corn, our soil looked pathetic. We chose to rest all of our vegetable areas over the winter, though we could have grown greens. Instead we opted to pick up some "organic compost" from the San Francisco's Public Utility Commission at a free event last fall. I applied about 20 gallons to about 5 square meters. I used it as a thick topical mulch to slow the emergence of weeds in the former corn patch (<3msq). I integrated the compost in the remaining area (>2msq) and sowed San Francisco natives from local seed that I collected from my own plants and samples from my field work.

I've kept weeds down by mowing this year rather than full removal to reduce disturbance. I've been leaving the herbaceous material behind as a further mulch as long as it's not in seed. The land turned out about 60 young natives and have already given away the 15 I grew in containers. I'm letting the rest get big, maybe even through next year so they can be planted during the rainy season. I've got about 20 Phacelia, 15 Horkelia, 8 Achillea (yarrow), 8 Juncus, 5 Eschscholzia (poppies),  and more.

So all seems good in the garden ... until I heard that the "organic compost" might contain toxins. Turns out that the SFPUC sourced their compost inputs from 8 different counties, none of which use the same standards for their processing. In other words, standards in some counties do not remove heavy metals or icky shit (literally) like E. coli.
Ok, I'm not the most reactive person when it comes to toxins. I'm an asthmatic living in a city chock-full of car exhaust. I eat food that comes from the Valley, which I know was irrigated with water that is notoriously full of toxins (as in: If you fall in the canal you need a chemical shower ASAP). I forage in the city and along roadsides. I frequent dumpsters in search of food.

But I have yet to plant in the possibly toxic compost. My hella smart gardening friends, also of the non-reactive variety, suggest I plant something I can cook. I think they're right so I'm thinking beans and peas, nothing leafy. I guess the benefit is that these crops will fix even more nutrients ... though I'd kinda like to see some of the less than nutritious nutrients (the gross shit) taken up instead of fixed into the soil. I dunno.

Anyone have thoughts? I've also thought of just incorporating the weeds as they come up this year and leaving the land open. It seems like a waste though. And I have to hand mow the weeds every couple of weeks lest they go to seed at the moment. That will slow down when the rain stops. Any other suggestions? It's our sunniest spot so it's hard to watch it sit for what will end up being a full year if we plant nothing. And that will be two years of no yield since last year produced only mutant corn. What would you do? Keep in mind that one or both of us might move out of this place permanently in a few months so we need crops that fruit quickly.


Anonymous said...

I'm working on my backyard in Bernal, and trying to weed out weedy grasses, and encourage the native grasses. I've posted some pictures here

any ideas on which ones are natives?


rachel kesel said...

i love this game, which i call "name that plant".
1. wild oat grass (avena sp. likely avena fatua)
2. tough one, i'm guessing cheat grass (bromus tectorum)
3. uncertain id: ehrharta erecta (no common name)
4. foxtail barley (hordeum murinum)
5. too dark to id
6. definitely ehrharta erecta (aka scareharta)

I'm guessing they're all invasives but I can't be sure of 2, 3, 5. 1 ,4, 6 are very invasive. I rarely see backyards with natives unless they were tended. If I were to guess that one were native, possibly 5. are any of them bunch grasses? have you noticed that any are perennial (is there duff from last year at the base of the plant)?

you might check out calflora.net to help you with id. and for a good key, i like beidleman and kozloff's 'plants of the san francisco bay region'.

i have some free native forbs if you want to swing down to excelsior some time. you could bring grass samples and we could try to get a firm id.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your help. 3 and 5 are the ones that seem like they could be native to me. They are bunch grasses, and at least one "tuft" of them has been there for several years. I'll check out Calflora and see if I can figure it out. teri

rachel kesel said...

if there are tufts on 3 look at the melica's, specifically melica torreyana, which can look a lot like ehrharta.
for 5 i'd look at bromus carinatus (though the flowers seem to small but could be pic scale) and vulpia octoflora, maybe also lolium perenne. all of those frequent your area.

Ann Flower said...

What a beautiful garden! I would have loved to walk there, and see all the gorgeous flowers! Thanks for sharing

flower Philippine said...

Oh' I love your garden. Wish I can also have a healthy garden like that. Anyway, thanks for sharing. I am well inspired.