Ray's Garden Rows: The garden that grows itself

Ray Mueller
Late in the growing season, self-perpetuating species include cross-pollinated radish in the foreground, milkweed heads dispersing their seeds and the stalks of sunflower plants.

What follows starts with a warning – don't try it yourself if you want to impress anyone that you know anything about gardening or are doing it properly. I don't have what most people would consider a model or orderly garden.

This pertains to what grows every year without any input on my part in the garden space I have on my cousin's farm in northeast Fond du Lac County. Without counting weeds, there are five species that are in large part uninhibited or uncontrolled – dill, sunflowers, cross-pollinated radish, milkweed and winter onions.

Those five grow rather helter skelter amid my row plantings of potatoes, beans, beets, Swiss chard, peas and carrots along with a few tomato, pepper and groundcherry plants. The five are all self-perpetuated and largely untended.

Growing allowances

Because of competition for space, nutrients, and moisture with my planted vegetables, I hoe or pull some of the self-perpetuated plants but not nearly all of them. Where they are in patches and have already emerged by the time I seed the other species, I plant around them.

I tolerate the five species for the benefits they provide. The winter onions are the first to grow in the spring, supplying fresh greens by late March or early April in most years. They then revive in the autumn and tolerate freezing to again provide fresh greens into November.

As I described in an earlier column, the cross-pollinated radish choose their own growing timetable, emerging as the soil and air temperature dictate in the spring, advance to blooming in late May into July and produce ripe seed that takes root in August and then finally grows edible bulbs or tubers for harvest in October and November.

Multiple benefits

Although they use moisture and nutrients, the intruding species reduce the possibility of soil erosion, keep the soil from becoming too hot at times, provide shade to slow the rate of water loss, and are sources of organic matter and nutrients as they decompose.

Another reason that I tolerate the intrusion of the five species amid the vegetables that I grow for food is the benefits that accrue to several species of wildlife. I'm referring to bees, butterflies and yellow finches.

It astounds me to notice how the honeybees from a neighbor's hives gravitate to the radish blossoms – even when blossoms might be available on peas or beans at the same time. It's wonderful to hear the buzz as the bees flit from one to another on the dozens of blossoms on each branch of the radish plants. I have no idea what effect this might have on their honey.

Caterpillar caper

The self-seeded dill is usually the next of my uncontrolled species to flower. But, as I learned this summer, it accommodates the reproduction of the black swallowtail butterfly, which I have seen around the garden in most years.

When I took some stalks of dill for sale at a farmer's market this summer, I eventually noticed that one of them had a green, black, and gold caterpillar clinging to it. An astute home-schooled teenage boy and a woman customer both told me it was a black swallowtail caterpillar.

Monarch moments

In checking online later, I learned that they were correct. I'd been hoping that it was a Monarch butterfly because its caterpillars have similar colors while the design is different. I'd seen about a half dozen similar caterpillars in 2015, perhaps incorrectly thinking that they were Monarchs instead of black swallowtails.

As it turned out, I didn't see a Monarch butterfly until Aug. 17 of this year. I don't know if there was any reproduction on my large colony of milkweed plants.

Even without the Monarch connection, the milkweed attract the bees too and have beautiful flowers which exude a unique smell that might be a good choice for a fragrance. The only downfall with the milkweed, as I also learned this year, is that they droop and expire quickly when cut and placed in water in a flower vase in the house.

Sunflower flourish

As was the case with the dill, radish, and winter onions, the sunflowers established themselves because I had planted two varieties of them in the past. Because of their height, the single and multi-headed sunflowers are most noticeable of my self-perpetuating and uncontrolled species.

In their blooming stage at heights near 10 feet for some of the plants, they're a great attraction for both the bumble and honey bees. As the seed ripens, I hear the sharp short tweets of the finches which are feasting on the seeds. Even with the birds eating many of the seeds, enough remain in the debris for the sunflowers to return in the next year.

I have more concern about the dill because virtually all of the seed falls to the ground and starts to grow in September, not leaving enough time for blooming and mature seed development late in the season. So I save a few seed heads and then scatter the seeds to make sure there is a population in the following year.

Either in late autumn or early spring, we have an on-site burn of the sunflower stalks and some of the remaining radish plant foliage. For the most part, however, the remaining foliage and deteriorating stems provide organic matter for the benefit of the garden soil, which I also nourish with tree leaves.