If you have a garden you know the old saying. “The best fertilizer there is the shadow of the gardener.” In that vein, spreading that shadow around the garden is a big part of not only the care of a garden but the joy of it, the experience of it, the awareness of it.
I can close my eyes and name every plant in every bed in my garden. Most of them I can tell you their use; if medicinal, edible, bee or pollinator helping, and a lot more about each plant. I love my garden. It’s because I walk my garden almost every day.
Yesterday I spent over an hour with one of my interns educating her on what to look for, how to respond to various things sighted, and a lot about the plants and soil. It’s about awareness and understanding of the whole of it, not just one bed or one plant. It’s a big jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces fitting together. It’s an entire eco system with each element fitting in with each other one.
Plants as a rule are not competitive, they are cooperative. It’s only when they are mismatched and need the same thing out of the soil, without adequate resources, that they compete. Then it’s the stronger of the competitors that make it, and even in that are lessons. We here at Hillside Gardens don’t row plant. We integratively plant using companion planting called “Guilds” in Permaculture Design parlance. They are meant to help each other.
So, the walk thru the garden gives you an overall sense of the health of the garden, any major or minor needs of the plants and critters, and things that need doing.
I listed a number of things to look for: yellowing leaves (magnesium deficiency or soil problems), holes in the leaves (bug damage – looking for predatory bugs and their eggs), wilty looking leaves (needs water or too much water and fungal or yeast wilt), not thriving plants (needs fertilizer or other stresses like hidden vole tunnels), lack of fruiting (lack of potassium or phosphorous and possibly too much nitrogen if the leaves are thriving), obvious bugs on the leaves like aphids, squash beetles, Japanese beetles and other pests, and on tomatoes leaves with only the veins remaining, (green stripped tomato or tobacco horned worms, or brown worms). These are the negative things that need attention. Sometimes you will see white ‘blooming’ on leaves meaning powdery mildew.
I always carry a pair of secateurs (hand held pruner), in my belt, and if I know I’ll find things to harvest, a basket.
Other things to observe are related to the stages of growth each plant is at. Young plants are green or not thriving meaning some attention is needed. Maybe they need some gentle fertilizing with compost tea, or not enough water, or light mulch to cover the surrounding open soil. Plants that are thriving and growing fruit (tomatoes, peppers, etc.) – are the blossoms progressing into fruit or falling off – for example – tomatoes, squashes, egg plant, etc. Are the fruits looking healthy and abundant or are some or all of them evidencing rotting or bug holes. With tomatoes ‘bottom rot’ means either a calcium deficiency in the soil (remedied by egg shells infused in vinegar, diluted and supplementing the soil) or inconsistent watering.
Some families of plants have their own particular problems like the curcurbit family (squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, gourds) get worms that invade the main stem cutting it off or so disabling it so that the upper vine starts to rot and doesn’t produce. Tomatoes get various kinds of worms, and even squash beetles, the flying kind, eating on the fruit or the leaves. Parsley gets monarch butterfly larvae (stripped caterpillars) eating the leaves but we let them have some because we need the butterflies.
We look for the beneficial insects like writing spiders (big black and yellow spiders that are our friends and eat bad bugs), lace wings, tiny transparent flies, dragon flies, bees, butterflies, and even paper wasps (bronze colored) and others. These we support.
We watch the progression of the plants that seed using pods and wait till their pods are dry and collect them to save for next year – before the seeds all fall off. The seed bundles get cut and put into grocery paper bags and labeled. This is particularly good for greens like lettuce, chards, spinach, all the cabbage family like kale, broccoli, turnip etc. (this is a large edible family). I leave the best of the plants to go to seed, and often let the plants ‘bolt’ (flower and go to seed) for the flowers which bees need for food.
We don’t grow anything here but heirloom, open pollinating, or heritage seeds so all the seeds are valuable for future generations. But often we get tremendous excesses, especially in the brassicus (cabbage) family. The excess are saved too because in the winter they are delicious sprouted for greens when good greens are hard to come by. I sprout mine in linen bags and use them in all the things I would use lettuce for in such things as sandwiches, salads, etc.
While I’m about, I pick spent marigold flowers, pull a few weeds here and there, note where I need more mulch if soil is exposed, pick off flowering basil heads, tuck a lengthening tomato stem back into the support cage, note where pruning is needed for trees or bushes blocking pathways or invading the road, note where dead heading is needed on roses or other flowering plants, watch for beets and carrots ready to harvest, or just pull them and bring them in.
When roots or single plants are harvested this leaves a hole of unused garden space, which is precious and not to be wasted. So a note of where and what would go well in that space is made and later I bring in a replacement. This is called supplanting or succession planting and is a way to increase yield in a garden. Many plants are pull and replant, others are cut and cut again as in leaf lettuces, chard, etc. The replanting kind is a double resource in a season because it means a second or third crop in the same space. Radishes, root crops such as beets and carrots, lettuces, bush beans and other kinds of vegetables can be planted every two weeks for a continuous supply and these little holes in the garden are perfect for this kind of succession.
Thru the season many plants come ready to harvest. Here we have a number of kinds of berries, which ripen at various times in succession. I have specifically planted various cultivated varieties (cultivars) of blueberries which ripen at different times in the summer. That way we get fresh blueberries for about 6 weeks running as one kind then another ripens.
Tomatoes are either determinate or indeterminate varieties. The determinate ones such as ‘Homestead’ were bred to come harvestable all at once for canning purposes. Then the vine dies out and is no longer viable. Indeterminate varieties continue to bloom and fruit throughout the season. They stay put and keep growing. So, if you are doing your walkabout, you will notice which kind the tomatoes are and look for large numbers of green tomatoes on the determinate verities so you can plan for harvest and canning days. The indeterminate ones get picked as they ripen.
Peppers can be harvested green or colored depending on the use. Hot peppers often wait till they are red or yellow, as well as sweet kinds. On the walkabout, if you know it’s going to be an available harvesting day, I bring a big basket and pick as I do my other observations. I put all the various kinds of things in the same basket except the berries for which I bring a little separate plastic harvest box (used blue plastic mushroom packaging makes the best berry collecting containers). Often I will come in with a full basket and have to return for another at peak season.
We grow many kinds of cooking herbs such as basil, tulsi (holy basil which is medicinal but also a delightful tea), parsley, thyme, oregano and many others around the garden. Usually I just keep an eye on their health and only harvest them when I need to use them as they are best used fresh. But I watch for peak periods of medicinal herbs – often critical which stage of growing they are picked for greatest medicinal value. Some herbs in the mint family like lemon balm can become so abundant that I pick bundles of them before they flower and preserve them in my dehydrator or make tinctures or salves with them. So as I walk about I see which ones are ready for pruning back, and that becomes a larger harvest.
Some of the herbs such as motherwort will flower and seed sequentially on the same plant – seeds at the top with flowering under on the main stem – thru the summer. So, I prune off and save the dried seed stalks and process the seeds in the house, leaving the plant to flower again. The bees love the flowers so this also gives them abundant food throughout the summer.
I also look under the huge leaves of the squash, pumpkin, gourd, and pumpkin plants looking for those hidden fruit which can go nuts and grow huge. I also look at the under side the leaves of these plants looking for the little rows of bronze colored eggs of squash beetles, or the yellow clusters of furry looking eggs of the yellow with black spots Japanese lady bugs. I squish these eggs or pinch the clusters off the leaves, leaving a hole in the leaf that mends itself, and squish the whole cluster. I also look for the little white or red colored baby beetles and track them down to pinch them with my fingers. If you get them when they are young you will stay ahead of their invasive destructive behavior.
I love plants and admire them. I often tell them they are beautiful, or the babies I tell them they will grow up big and strong and make lots of fruit and food for me. They respond, believe it or not. Sometimes I even sing to them. This isn’t nutty behavior. There is scientific research that relates sounds of singing and talk to plants and the benefits from that. Plants obtain 80% of their food from the air, with little opening and closing pores on the undersides of their leaves. These pores open and close to absorb air and nutrients (like nitrogen and star dust minerals) opening when they are exposed to song bird music or the music of Bach. Yes, it’s real science.
As I walk around deadheading, harvesting, squishing a few bugs here and there, pulling a few weeds, I listen for bird song, for the sisserous music of bugs, and sniff the air. It’s amazing what the body can pick up from just taking the time and attention to absorb the perceptions in a garden.
By the time I make the rounds up one path and down another, I also note what time of day it is, where it is shaded and where it’s hard sun, or partial shade. And I note how the plants growing in those conditions are doing. Sometimes I note sunburn on leaves, making them light tan, meaning they may need some shade cloth or being moved (especially true of perennials). Or several tomato plants doing well next to one not thriving, usually where there isn’t enough sunshine. They can be dug up and moved to more favorable spots but best done when smaller.
I’m always looking for plants that aren’t thriving, needing a dose of compost tea, or a top mulching of chicken manure (with bedding). If I see areas of soil between plants that are raw uncovered spots, I go back with straw or chicken manure/bedding and cover them. This is because that area is loosing moisture and the soil is heating up putting stress on the roots. This is about Permaculture precepts – laws of nature. In nature you rarely see uncovered soil. It gets covered up with organic matter like leaves dead grasses, etc., or opportunistic plants (we call weeds) will come in and satisfy the vacuum created. Nature considers top soil valuable and leaves these pioneer plant seeds in the soil for sometimes hundreds of years to act as band aids when the conditions say ‘protect the soil’. So, if you don’t want weeds, mulch.
As far as weeds go, we are located in the Piedmont (foothills) of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The whole Appalachian range is one of the most bio-diverse beneficial areas on the planet for medicinal and edible wild plants. The Cherokee people identified and used over 1500 varieties (not a typo) of medicinal herbs – most of them the same ones used in Traditional Chinese Medicine which you probably know if you’re an herbalist. So, when I first came to Georgia, I had that mentality that if I didn’t plant it, it was a weed. Then I took an herb walk from a noted herbalist in North Carolina, who pointed out one after another the plants I had been busily pulling as weeds in my garden.
It was a revelation.
Now I don’t pull something unless I know what it is, We get lots of things volunteering in my beautiful soil and pathways. So after that herb walk I started to study every plant on my property. When I got to 500, I stopped counting. I still find new plants and their medicinal uses (or edible, or dye, or fiber and basket making, or pollinator attractor, or nitrogen capturing – free fertilizer, or other beneficial properties). I’ve learned to respect what nature provides. I never spray bug or weed killer EVER. The only exception is tunneling or nest building yellow jackets or hornets. I don’t like being stung.
There is a spiritual relationship I have with my garden. It’s so amazing that sometimes I’ll just put out a little wish that I had a particular plant in my garden, and find it growing there that year or the next. So, in my walk about I note plants I don’t recognize, or ones that I am not sure about the uses. I try to identify it. And I get curious about the provenance of them.
I have native passion flower vines coming up at odd places, and instead of pulling them out, I get out a tomato cage and give it some support. This was one of those gifts from nature, as these beautiful flowering vines provide one of the best nerve tonics ever, as well as fruit.
That doesn’t mean I don’t pull the hundreds of baby oak trees that the squirrels plant in my soft rich garden soil every fall. Or that I never pull a spiny deadly night shade weed. I just know which are good guys and which are not. And even if something is beneficial if it’s in too great an abundance, I will remove it. But if it’s a beneficial, I don’t think of it as weeding, I think of it as harvesting. Usually I leave one or two of them to seed and carry on the next year. But if I don’t do that I would have no room in the beds for the vegetables and plants I actually intend to grow. I’m still the god of my garden’s universe with the power of life and death. I just think of myself as a beneficial one. Maybe garden fairy is a better way to say it though.
Every day I am out there I see something new and usually come back to the house with something I can eat or seeds to plant later, or something medicinal. We are so surrounded by such beneficence, such natural generosity, such abundance; I often have to remind myself that this is my responsibility too. Because as Luther Burbank, famous horticulturist of the 1930s and 40s (responsible for thousands of new cultivated verities which you probably have growing in your garden) said, when you breed out a characteristic from a native plant to suit humanity, you make a covenant with it to provide for it what you have taken from it in the breeding process. That means feeding, protecting, harboring, breeding, watering and giving it space.
Even if you only have a little bed of tomatoes, or a big flower garden, or an acre of food growing plants, the daily walkabout will provide for you and the garden valuable information, intimate understanding, and ongoing maintenance. And hopefully a few minutes to an hour of joy.
Certified Permaculture Designer, 55 year organic gardener.