“The definition of weeds should be revised as follows: all native plants are wildflowers, and all non-native invasive introductions are weeds.”
– Matt Rees-Warren, “The Ecological Gardener”, 2021
Now that the days are getting longer and warmer, I have enjoyed watching the accelerated growth of my overwintering kale, cabbage and broccoli. Last night I harvested fresh kale for dinner, and it was delicious cooked with black-eyed peas and rice. I look forward to the taste of homemade broccoli and cabbage in stir fries.
March is also one of my favorite months to start summer vegetables from seed which will be transplanted into the garden in May. These include peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, and Chinese cabbage.
Last year I experimented with early growth in coir pellets, but found that the netting didn’t break down very well after the seedlings were transplanted into the garden. This year, I’m trying not to rely on outside resources for gardening, so I’m starting seeds in leaf soil (shredded decomposed leaves), mixed with coconut fiber that I already have.
I learned that seeds don’t need a rich growing medium to germinate because seeds contain all the nutrients they need. Seeds germinate best in a light, fluffy medium so the roots can grow freely.
Once the seedlings emerge, they develop an initial set of “leaves” called cotyledons, which do the initial work of photosynthesis and supplying nutrients to young plants. Some plants, like peas, have cotyledons that stay below the soil surface and provide nutrients without photosynthesis.
When the seedlings sprout a second set of “true” leaves, it’s time to transplant them outdoors into nutrient-rich soil; so, timing is important. If planting seedlings outdoors is delayed, nutrients can be added by spraying the seedlings and soil with a very dilute amendment, such as fermented plant juice made from plant clippings and debris (see my chronicle of Sunday May 2, 2021).
In my experience, and from what other gardeners have told me, the most common reason seedlings don’t survive once they’ve been transplanted into the beds is that they have been left in the seed tray or pot for too long. (The second most common reason seedlings die after transplanting is that they weren’t hardened off enough beforehand.)
As much as I love starting to sow vegetables and harvest winter crops, my favorite part of gardening this time of year is watching herbaceous perennials come out of their dormancy. They are like old friends who come back every year to brighten up my garden and my attitude. I wait for their green shoots to emerge from the earth, and I miss them if they don’t arrive in time.
Last year, my Western Joe Pye grass (Ageratina occidentalis) never grew, and I really felt like a friend had mysteriously gone missing.
Joe Pye is one of the native species of so-called weeds that people tend to welcome into their gardens. Others include milkweed (Asclepias), sneezeweed (Helenium) and willowherb (Epilobium). see – weeds, not as enemies but as garden-friendly wildflowers.
Have you noticed that weeds – I mean wildflowers – are among the first plants to bloom in the garden? Their flowers provide pollen and nectar to early pollinating insects foraging; thus, they kick the early spring garden into action. They are particularly important for the maintenance of native insect species.
Rees-Warren calls annual and biennial wildflowers the “pioneers” of bare, disturbed soil because their seeds wait below the soil’s surface until a gardener turns the soil over with a spade. It reminds me of robins lingering nearby as I dig new plants; they know I probably brought some tasty worms for their lunch. Robins and wildflowers are remarkable opportunists.
Gardening without digging and mulching reduces colonization by wildflowers. Every time wildflowers take over a bare patch of land, it tells me I need to plant something else in that area to increase biodiversity. When I remove wildflowers, I learn how to ferment them for a homemade soil amendment.
Most importantly, I’m learning that I don’t need to remove all of the “weeds” because they are actually resourceful wildflowers that are an important part of my garden ecosystem.
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher, and writer. Email him at [email protected] She hosts a monthly podcast “Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants in the Rogue Valley” at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.