Let’s talk about plants (baby)

Would you look at that. I almost went a whole month without a post. Oh well. Hey, check out the seeds I’m planting this year!

Seed packets for mint, hyssop, echinacea, yarrow, lavender, and sunflowers.

You might notice a few themes here, not the least of which is that everything but the sunflowers are perennials. It is my firm hope that not only will these plants survive and thrive in my garden, but also that I’ll never have to replant a thing after this year.

Another theme is that these perennials could perhaps best be described as “wildflowers,” or more accurately, “able to hold their own and spread.”

This year, I’m taking a more hands-off approach with my garden and the surrounding yard. Rather than fuss about, pulling “weeds,” and constantly watering, I’m more or less just going to let it be.

See, back a couple of months ago, I was flipping through one of my many Peterson field guides and recognized a few of the “weeds” I pulled last year. More specifically, I learned that half the plants I yanked were either edible, had medicinal properties, or both.

Free food and medicine, just torn out and tossed on the compost heap.

For this and other reasons I’ve decided to treat my garden and yard as a kind of “learning laboratory.” I’m going to stuff the garden with the seeds I bought, then basically just sit back and watch what happens. By which I mean that I’ll be spending a lot of time outside, sitting on the ground with a stack of field guides, and making friends with whichever plants show up.

And believe me, I’m ready for the plants to start showing up. Winter has been…winter.

Speaking of my garden, last year I tried something different. Or, at least, I tried to try something.

I had heard of this thing called the “Ruth Stout Method” of gardening, named for this amazing woman who, at about the age of sixty, realized that modern gardening is kind of silly actually. Tilling the soil, fertilizing it, etc.? Nowhere in nature did this sort of backbreaking manual labor occur, and yet the woods are full of plants. So, one year she decided to just throw a bunch of straw mulch down on the earth at the end of autumn, and the next year she dropped her seeds into the mess and waited to see what happened.

And plants were what happened. Her garden not only did absolutely fine, but it did better than ever. The straw held moisture so she didn’t need to water, it prevented invasive plants from coming in so she didn’t have to weed, and as the straw broke down it fertilized the soil all by itself.

Photograph of my garden, covered in broken down leaves.

This kind of “no dig” gardening really appeals to my lazier side, and I’d hoped to use all the leaf litter and pine needles we rake up every year in the fall as my mulch. Unfortunately, that plan didn’t exactly work, since it turns out that we don’t actually have enough leaves to get the six-to-eight inches of mulch the Ruth Stout Method requires.

I can’t tell you how surprising this was, given how much work it takes us to clear the yard of detritus every year. Still? Free fertilizer!

The leaves sat out in the garden all winter, and I plan to till them into the ground in a few weeks. I also plan to drop another half a dozen bags of good garden soil into the mix, since I’m still trying to build up the soil quality of the yard.

As for the sunflowers? We have a strip of lawn which sits between our driveway and our neighbor’s fence. Not only is lawn something which I hate in principle, but this particular stretch of lawn is a nightmare to mow. The soil is soft and prone to bogging down the wheels of the lawnmower, and the grass itself is some kind of extra-thick super species which even a freshly-sharpened blade struggles with.

So this year, it dies. We’re ripping it all out, tilling the ground, and putting in seventy-five sunflower plants. Hopefully we’ll get to eat a few seeds, but my guess is that the neighborhood squirrels are going to treat these sunflowers as an all-you-can-eat buffet.

But whatever. At least the yard will be a little prettier.

Photo of a forsythia bush full of yellow flowers.

And speaking of pretty, check out our forsythia. This thing has really taken off these last couple of years. Fun fact: forsythia fruits are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as an antibiotic and antiviral, so I’ll definitely be learning how to collect and process them this year.

Which brings us to the point of this post, I suppose.

Years ago, I was standing around in my local bookstore when, for some reason, I picked up the first of those Peterson field guides I mentioned. I flipped through its pages, glanced at the drawings and color plates, then decided to buy it. To this day, I couldn’t tell you why I bought it, just that I had the feeling I should do so and I’ve come to trust those feelings…to a certain degree. (I’m a terrible, impulse buyer and so I do have to pump the brakes on these feelings from time to time.)

After buying that guide, I ended up going down the rabbit hole of wildcrafting, foraging, and what is commonly called “wilderness self-reliance.” I watched hundreds of hours of YouTube videos, dug through dozens of websites filled with herbal info, and bought several additional field guides. All of this basically so that I could go into the woods and look for plants to work with.

And yet, sitting right there in my backyard, and “clogging up” my garden, were dozens of plants which I had been ignoring. Or “weeding.”

What’s in your yard?

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