It’s been one month since Germany closed its borders to neighboring countries, one month since we’ve been able to visit the Kleingarten located only 200m (660ft) in Switzerland. It’s a little sad not being able to observe the garden transition into spring. Around this time of year the fruit trees are blooming and it’s the perfect time to celebrate spring by cooking food over a fire. We were lucky enough to enjoy a small picnic, with proper social distancing of course, under the flowering plum tree the day before the closing.
When we left, the onions and raspberry brushes were awakening from their wintery slumber and we noticed the tiniest of seedlings popping out of the prepared meadow areas from the fall. They were so small that it was undetermined whether they were in fact the meadow seedlings or weeds, though I have the sneaking suspicion that the birds might have helped themselves to the seeds over winter. If we had access to the garden to see if they are weeds, we could have cheated and sowed another round of the mixes and protected them from the birds with a thin layer of fleece until germination.
The garden probably looks a bit rough at the moment with overgrown grass, but we enjoy its wild look and in the past have even put off mowing a few extra days to enjoy the casual nature of the space. Before the border closing, Dan, a member of the Schrebergartencrew, sowed peas, carrots, cilantro, spring onions, spinach, and potatoes, of which the carrots and peas had already begun sprouting.
I’m confident the vegetable seedlings will do well in our absence, so long as the slugs show some mercy; I am slightly concerned about the meadows sown last fall, as they are supposed to be mowed by mid-May for the success of the project. It would be a shame to see the hard work from the garden crew go to waste, but there is a more concerning issue that needs to be carried out by June: the winter rye cover crop.
For the three sisters project—corn, beans and squash—we sowed a cover crop of winter rye Secale cereale and hairy vetch Vicia villosa in September 2019. Cover crops suppress weeds, protect the soil from the winter elements, and improve soil structure when chopped and dropped or rolled and crimped the following late spring. As a grass, winter rye usually grows back when you cut it, but it won’t if cut at a certain time, and this trait makes it an easy annual cover crop. And the time of the cut varies from year to year based on the weather.
How it works: the rye grows in the vegetative state from late summer to early spring. Then when daylength reaches 14 hours it’s triggered into the reproductive state of forming flower heads. Part way through seed maturity, during the milk stage, is the time to cut the rye. The ‘milk’ is the nutritious sap sent up from the roots and body of the plant; it’s the perfect time to cut because the movement of sap makes the plant think it has fulfilled its purpose producing the next generation. Cut the rye too early, the roots still have the nutrients and energy to grow vigorously in order to produce another seed head. Cut the rye too late, you lose the benefit of storing the nutrients from the decaying roots in the ground because all the nutrients will be in the seeds above ground and the seed might spread.
Depending on how warm or cool the spring is depends on whether the chop and drop occurs in May or June, at least in our area; it is not done on a specific date in the year. Last year we chopped it in early to mid-June; this spring we’ve experienced some lovely almost early summer-like weather so the rye might need cutting in late May.
The maturing winter rye seed heads are also a wonderful indicator of warm temperatures and tell you, as a gardener, that it’s time to plant out the warm season crops such as the three sisters, tomatoes, peppers, sunflowers etc. I’m nervous about spreading the rye to the three neighboring plots. Once the milk stage begins, there is a 2-3 week window to cut the plant and if the German-Swiss border stays closed by mid or late June, I feel we will have a headache later in the year with the neighbors.
Though we haven’t been able to visit the Kleingarten, the Balkongarten has taken off! The flowering waves of Blumenzwiebel are a joy to observe now more than ever during these uncertain stressful times. The miniature irises and crocuses were a beautiful first act followed by the lightly scented grape hyacinths and anemones with the now grand finale of tulips. Behind the scenes of the spring bulb performance the herbs, leafy greens, and flower seedlings are germinating for their mid spring and summer debut.
This is my fourth year container gardening and second year seed growing, and so far there’s a noticeable improvement in my abilities, everything seems to be faring much better than previous years. The major change I’ve made is consistent fertilizing with liquid seaweed and adding a top dressing of worm compost to the pots. But I believe the biggest contributing factor to the improvement is the focus. My attention is not divided between the Balkongarten and Kleingarten at the moment, giving me more time to make mistakes, act quickly, observe, and learn from them. It’s also allowing me to accomplish tasks, such as potting on, at the correct time.
This year’s balcony plan was supposed to focus on herbs, leafy greens, and a few flowers but due to the circumstances I’m growing a tomatillo, a few tomatoes, carrots, and parsnips as well. In fact, because of the extra time at home, I thought of a way to squeeze more plants on the balcony by creating a string wall for the spring peas and summer beans to grow up. Will it be a problem to lose my focus growing a few vegetables on the balcony this year? Probably, but that’s the beauty of learning.
And with the extra plants comes the shrinking of space. I’m facing the small-space dilemma many gardeners are experiencing: not having enough room for all the seeds that were sown. This is not the worst problem to have, for the seedlings bring us joy and they are a way to spread joy to the community, which is needed at the moment. If you feel comfortable and have extra seedlings, set them on the street with a sign stating “free seedlings” or in my case “Setzlinge zu verschenken.” Be sure to wash the outside of your pots with a mild soapy mixture to prevent the spread of the virus, being careful not to get soap on the soil. Your seedlings will brighten someone’s day on their walk outside the home.
It’s important during this time not to lose hope. We will get through this crisis and become stronger as a result. I hope you are staying safe and if you’re feeling stressed, remember that a garden, whether it’s a large plot of land or two pots on a windowsill, is there to help soothe an anxious mind.
The best and worst thing about gardening is the wait. In today’s world of instant gratification many would argue it’s always the worst, but gardening is more about observing and enjoying the process rather than the end result. Unfortunately, there are projects that are oh-so-difficult to wait for. I’ve been dreaming up a wildflower meadow project since May of last year, patiently waiting for autumn to arrive in order to start it. When it finally came, the garden crew and I completed phase one of building and I find myself eagerly awaiting phase two in the spring: emergence.
There are a few exciting questions I’d like to answer about this project:
Which of four different wildflower mixes will do best on the plot?
Which of two sowing methods will be most effective?
How will wildflower meadows look in a small space and will they actually be low maintenance?
What insects and other wildlife will the meadows attract and how will they change the ecosystem of the Kleingarten?
The two main reasons we sowed wildflower meadows in small areas are to increase wildlife and to reduce mowing in the least used spaces on the plot while keeping it aesthetically pleasing. There are many small, awkward, unused spaces within the garden serving no purpose other than being empty. We could potentially transform the areas into spaces for food production but unfortunately I know we won’t have the time to properly maintain them against the aggressive weeds. For the time being we needed a useful, low-maintenance solution for these challenging spaces, so why not attract beneficial insects and wildlife to the garden?
I decided to order mixes from a local nursery not only to support the local economy but to also utilize their knowledge of what grows best within the region. The mixes were chosen based on the type of soil the allotment contains and the overall goal we’d like to accomplish. The nursery could even create a specialized mix based on our soil, sun, moisture, and whatever wildlife we’d like to attract but I opted out of this in order to test their pre-made mixtures. The ones chosen were a universal, half shade, walkable grass, and wildbee mix.
The universal contains a mixture of poor-dry soil type and rich-wet soil type wildflower seed. This mixture is used to take the guessing game out of what seed will succeed, since the conditions will select which type will survive. It’s a bit of an insurance policy—if you don’t care and just want a meadow, or you misrepresent your soil conditions—the seedlings best adapted to the conditions will survive. I predict the dry-sandy soil seedlings will be out-competed by the wet-clay seedlings, but I could be pleasantly surprised that a few of the dry varieties persist. This mixture should be a success no matter what.
Half shade was chosen for the sections of the garden that contain shade. Most of the seeds in this mix are generalists tolerating any soil type from sandy loam to heavy clay so it should be a successful mix as well, though the description online states we may not see many blooms until the second year. The full glory of a meadow can be a multi-year process.
The walkable grass contains multiple varieties of native grasses with a few wildflower species. The Kleingarten needs to be sown with some grass seed, since it is patchy with mud in heavily trafficked areas, so I chose this for its function as a pathway as well as a food source for native insects and wildlife. This mix’s description states it can be mowed more often, handle trampling, and recover quicker compared to a traditional meadow. If it’s successful against foot traffic, then this autumn the garden crew will help sow more grassy pathways throughout.
The last mix chosen was a wild bee mix. The nursery’s website stated that it was created in collaboration with a wild bee expert to take into account the nectar and pollen production required for bees to raise healthy brood. It’s also designed to attract multiple species of bees including silk bees, fur bees, mason bees, carpenter bees, bumblebees etc. without containing invasive species of plants. I really hope this mix is successful, though I have the feeling it will not thrive as well as the others since many of the plant species listed prefer sandy or well-draining soil. But the success of any mix is better than nothing: even if this particular mix does not survive, many bee species will still benefit from the other three types sown.
This project also compares which of two sowing methods will be effective. Each seed packet was for 10m2 (107ft2). We roughly divided the 10m2 plots in half for each method (see half shade photo above), one hardworking method of removing sod and breaking up the ground, as recommended by the nursery’s instructions, and the other easier method of soil scratching with rakes. Soil scratching involves a few extra steps of mowing the area as short as possible, almost scalping it, then vigorously scratching the surface in a few directions with a sturdy leaf rake, then repeat the scratching in different directions with a bow rake to cut a little deeper into the ground. The goal with this technique is to weaken the grass roots without the slow backbreaking method of completely removing the sod. I have the feeling that the harder method of removing and breaking up grass will win, especially since the lawn mower is so old we couldn’t lower the deck to complete the first step of cutting the grass short for the scratching method. We did, however, add some Yellow Rattle seed to the universal and wild bee mixes to help the wildflowers compete against the grass. I only added it to two mixes because I didn’t have enough seed for all four.
Yellow Rattle is a semi-parasitic species that feeds on grass roots effectively weakening the grass to create spaces for wildflowers to grow. It’s known as the “meadow maker” and is called Yellow Rattle for the rattling sound the mature seeds make within the pods; the German name is pretty adorable too: Kleiner Klappertopf- little rattling pot.
After preparing the areas with each method, we mixed the seed with some sand to allow for even distribution and to see where we had sown since the seeds blend with the ground. Finally we took a few pieces of scrap wood, laid them over the sown areas and walked on them to press the seed into the ground for good soil contact. If your soil is dry you can lightly tread the seed with your shoes but our soil was wet and sticky on those days so we didn’t want to risk re-collecting the seeds with our boots.
There is an easier third method that is probably the most effective but requires time. Lay out a large black or dark colored tarp, which no light can penetrate, over the area and place heavy bricks in the middle and around the edges. Leave for five months, best a year, to kill and break down the grass. It’s important to pull the tarp fairly tight and place the heavy objects at regularly spaced intervals so the wind does not catch it and expose the plants or weed seeds to light and air.
The third thing I am interested in is seeing how wildflower meadows look in a small space and if they really are low maintenance. Most meadows I’ve seen are in vast open areas. There are a few beautiful ones nearby that are more than an acre and I am curious to see how they look and cope in a small fruit orchard allotment garden. It’s my hope that they’ll look great, be as low maintenance as they claim, and inspire someone to add a small meadow in their garden or backyard in order to help native wildlife.
The final and most exciting thing I’m interested in, what new insects and wildlife will we see next year? To be honest, I have the typical reaction towards insects: I hate when they fly around or are on me. I’ve always loved spotting them move about the garden but as soon as they take off toward me, they freak me out. I appreciate the hard work they do in our gardens of breaking down dead organic matter, improving soil fertility, pollinating our plants, and yes, even eating our plants, because those ‘pests’ we love to hate attract useful predators. And the more I’ve learned about honeybees, the more comfortable I’m becoming with insects in general. As long as they are not physically on me, I love them.
There are so many fun interesting things about this project that I’ve never been more excited for spring to come. I will say I am worried that I’m getting my hopes up too much. The grass and weeds of this allotment are aggressive and if there’s one thing I’ve learned is not to set such high hopes for this space. I’ll consider it a success if we can get just a few wildflowers to stay in the battle against the weeds.
I want to talk about a flower I fell in love with growing this year. It’s called Tithonia rotundifolia, commonly known as Mexican Sunflower or Rundblättrige Tithonie in German. There are many things about this plant that I love, but the main reason is that it’s easy to grow from seed and very forgiving, so beginner balcony growers take note!
Tithonia rotundifolia produce sturdy stems and have the ability to reach over 1.4-2m (4-6ft) in height, which is tall for a small balcony space but the wonderful thing about this plant is you can control its height by pinching out its growing tips to induce compact branching growth, much like basil, and grow them in a small sized container to restrict overall growth. Their leaves have a large beautiful triangular shape with a velvety soft touch. The flowers present sunny yellow disks with otherworldly electric orange petals that almost seems to glow. When fading, unfortunately we have to tolerate the less vibrant bright orange. Their flat upright facing blooms invite native bees and other insects to land on them and if deadheaded regularly, they will produce buds until frost. Collecting seed is also easy when a few flower heads are left to seed.
Missouri Botanical Garden
I’m really excited to grow these plants again next year because I think they will make a beautiful shade screen on our hot south facing balcony. They were grown in balcony boxes with 15cm (6in) depth and grew 60-70 cm (24-27in). Next summer, they will be planted in a tall 60cm (24in) pallet pot to see if they’ll reach their full height. I tried growing tomato vines in the tall pallet pot in order to create a shaded section but they were too much of a hassle for our space.
They are, however, greedy plants requiring full sun, weekly/biweekly feeding, and daily watering when grown in containers. If forgotten for a day or two they will wither to the point of seeming lifeless but don’t worry, they will quickly forgive you once provided with water again, almost expanding before your eyes. Next year I’ll try growing some in the Kleingarten and imagine once planted out they will take care of themselves so long as they are not in a waterlogged area. Slugs will probably be the biggest problem.
If you need a back of the garden border plant or have 15l (4 gal) or larger container, give this beauty a try next season; it will not disappoint.
Over the past few years I’ve been changing my gift-giving game. I used to give generic items that people might like but might not be useful to them. When receiving items like this I thought, “if I don’t like receiving gifts like this then why should I give them?” It’s a waste of money and the person is stuck trying to figure out what to do with it. I’ve changed my mindset to giving things that I know they need/want, are useful, something enjoyable, or money when nothing fits the above criteria. At any point during the year, if a person says they’d like something, I make a note of the need/want on my phone for future gift-giving occasions. One Christmas I gave jars of red and green M&Ms with a little cash hidden in the center, creating a 3-in-1 useful gift with the delayed experience of finding money. I’ve also thrown parties that the person will enjoy, but lately I’ve been giving plants to friends who I know will enjoy them.
If you’re at a loss for a gift, consider giving a plant. Plants are wonderful gift-giving investments as they are constantly morphing through the seasons in life, hibernation, and death, and we are privy to watch. When in bloom, they can attract visiting pollinators causing you to pause, observe, and enjoy the present moment, while they are busy sipping away at the sugary reward within. Live plants provide more value than any cut flower arrangement can, and if you give something that is not obvious at first, like the M&M jar, the mystery will reveal its secrets over time.
In October 2018, I gave what seemed like a bowl of rocks and dirt for a friend’s birthday. I told her, “place it outside for winter, keep it moist, and you’ll be rewarded in spring.” To her delight, in March she produced yellow and purple crocuses, in April came the daffodils, and in May tulips should have popped up—but they never did. This might of been a bad batch of tulip bulbs, or my excitement in overstuffing the pot. Either way, she loved it.
Inspiration for this surprise spring bulb planter came from an act in October 2017, when I took advantage of a half-off spring bulb sale and planted over 100 bulbs at my mother-in-law’s house. She forgot about them and the following spring was pleasantly surprised with a bounty of color in her front yard. Over time, the bulbs will multiply and provide even more color for her to enjoy.
If you don’t want to delay the gift’s suspense, you can always pot-up a variety of plants, creating a unique planter to tailor someone’s specific interests. In the summer of 2019, I gave a group of friends a hummingbird planter. The group was so generous allowing my husband and I to crash at their place for over a week, I decided to give them a special planter. The idea came from one of the researcher’s subjects of study, hummingbirds. He travels a lot and doesn’t have time to maintain a traditional feeder which requires cleaning and refilling every few days to prevent spoiling. I potted-up a large container with a few varieties of hummingbird favorites and told them to wait. It attracted multiple insect pollinators including bees, butterflies, and wasps and a month later, they spotted a hummingbird feeding from it!
This fall, a friend is expressing her desire to create a Balkongarten for next year and it just so happens that I have a strawberry plant with runners which I can give for her birthday in December.
If you decide to give a friend or family member plants, be sure to give them something low maintenance or at their skill level. Spring bulbs in a yard require no maintenance. The spring bulb planter required minimal watering, maybe once a month to every other month in winter. Something she could handle since she and her husband grow a forest of tomatoes, eggplants and peppers on their balcony every summer. Balkongarten friend is a beginner and is nervous that she’ll have a brown thumb, so I’m giving her easy-to-grow seeds and a difficult-to-kill plant. How do I know it’s difficult to kill? Well, I abused this particular strawberry plant. A lot of events occurred in 2018—the homemade potting mix that killed a bunch of plants; the balcony being demolished for the entire summer—that caused this one euro strawberry plant to be severely neglected in its original tiny pot. Come spring 2019, it was still alive, barely, so I finally planted it in a larger pot thinking it was probably a waste of soil. Turns out it recovered and by late summer started creating runners! No strawberries have been produced on this particular plant, which isn’t a surprise due to its abused past, so I can’t guarantee she’ll get strawberries in spring 2020 but I can guarantee that they’re tough to kill.
The hummingbird planter requires a slightly higher skill level and one that I knew the group could handle. They already had planters of marigolds, hot peppers, and herbs on their deck, so I filled a large container with low maintenance, hummingbird-loving plants. All they had to do was water it, feed it every so often, and deadhead it so the flowers would keep coming back—the same maintenance they were already doing with their other containers. At the end of the year or next spring, they could also split the plants in half to create more containers and potentially attract more hummingbirds. Or, they could plant them out in the garden, so long as they don’t mind the Bee Balm and Giant Hyssop spreading. These are native to their region but are members of the mint family. If you’re familiar with mint family members you know they grow like weeds. So they either need space to grow or barriers to contain them, such as a berm—the strip of soil between a street and a sidewalk.
If you have a friend or family member expressing they’d like to grow something indoors, but are inexperienced or have a brown thumb, try Money Plant Epipremnum aureum (also commonly called pothos) or Spider Plant Chlorophytum comosum. These houseplants can handle neglect and recover well after neglected periods, especially the money plant. They are also great plants to learn propagation techniques. If giving a store-bought houseplant and you’re not short on time, I suggest repotting it into a slightly larger pot at least one or two weeks before giving it. Waiting, will allow you to watch and care for it during its recovery after transplanting, and when given, will have started actively growing roots and shoots providing a boost of confidence for the person. Just be sure it’s in a pot with drainage, whether it’s in a light insert pot or a decorative pot with holes. If you plant it directly in a decorative pot without drainage holes, you’re setting up your friend for failure.
Plants are wonderful gift-giving investments. Just be sure to give the person a plant they can handle and one that fits their personality in order for it to be a successful gift-giving experience.