Uninvited Guests

IMG_3772The sizzling summer weather has been working wonders on our balcony garden, lately. Plants that were mere sprouts just a few weeks ago are now completely monopolizing their containers, sprawling out, spilling out, and reaching for the sunlight.

I wish I shared their enthusiasm! If I were a garden pest, humidity would be the weapon to completely vanquish me. In fact, even in my human form, humidity does an excellent job of repelling me from time spent outdoors — at least on the hottest days of summer. We still take long walks and do some hiking or biking, but we try to stay in the shade or limit our activities to the early morning or right at sundown!

While I’ve been busy living out the summer like a shade-dwelling, air-conditioning addict, however, the balcony garden has been busy putting out lots of showy blooms and even playing host to a few uninvited guests. I’ve been making note of each of our guests when I’m doing the daily watering. The tenacity of nature even within the confines of a container garden is, at times, astounding — how a bit of earth, three stories off the ground can be its own little ecosystem.

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The most dramatic of our uninvited guests have taken up residence in the parsley. Our parsley plants have been with us since last year (I brought them IMG_3797inside for the winter), so they’re now entering their maturity phase, sending up shockingly tall spikes of woody green stems that tower over their usual foliage. These spikes — which will eventually bear flowers resembling Queen Anne’s Lace — are the plants’ attempt to create seeds and complete their biennial life cycle. As fascinating a spectacle as that is to watch, the flower stalks have also become host to a few black swallowtail caterpillars!

Some gardeners kill the caterpillars or otherwise remove them. Since they will do negligible damage to our parsley plants, we’ve decided to let them stick around. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to see one of the adults emerge in their brilliantly-colored, winged glory. I’ll try to keep you updated on their progress — assuming they don’t do a disappearing act.

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The Gazanias have been putting on quite a showing of blooms now that the summer heat has arrived. My only complaint is that the flowers close up on cloudy days or when the sun’s going down. Since James has a long commute from work, it means that he misses out on most of the blooms (except on sunny weekends, of course).

While watering and deadheading the Gazanias, recently, I discovered another uninvited guest — an offspring or two from last year’s basil crop (the Napolitano variety, with the jagged leaves)! Other than adding compost and a little vermiculite, we keep the soil from our containers from year to year (only throwing out and replacing soil that has become host to pests). As a result of this, however, sometimes seeds from last year’s matured flowers get mixed into new containers and germinate anew! So far, I’ve counted about ten wee basil plants growing in various containers — some of them too crowded out to succeed, but others doing quite well, albeit out of place.

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Perhaps better illustrating this phenomenon are the Morning Glories from two years ago! They are tireless self-propagators! Each flower produces several seeds inside a tiny pod which gradually splits open and drops to the ground. In this case, the seeds drop back into the container, into a neighboring IMG_4039container, or fall three stories below where they sometimes germinate if they find any soil at all. Two years ago, we planted a mixed variety of Morning Glories. Since then, they have continued to come back each year — and each time, the flower color and shape is a little different since the fancier varieties usually revert back to the basic species.

I guess the irony of Morning Glories is that they can be a bit fussy if you’re purposefully trying to grow them — they hate being transplanted, the seeds require soaking or scarification in order to sprout reliably, and sometimes they refuse to sprout no matter what you do. And yet, if you let nature take its course, the plant produces enough offspring to take over an entire garden! They’re considered an invasive weed and are illegal to grow in some states — it’s not hard to understand why. Even though I combine all of the soil from the garden and mix it in a giant container before each growing season, Morning Glories seem to sprout even from the depths of the containers!

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Rather than fight them off, in most cases I’ve decided to leave them in place unless they would jeopardize the plant meant for the container. I’ve come to see them as a graceful beauty in our balcony garden. They usually begin to flower around August — most often when some of the plants from spring are beginning to get weary and put out fewer blooms.

While watering the Anise Hyssop, last week, I noticed another uninvited guest squatting in the garden: a basic red Petunia. We had a single, red Petunia in our balcony garden, last year. I suppose it’s possible that one of the flowers managed to produce seeds that fell into a container instead of on the balcony floor, but I’m still amazed that the seed managed to survive all of the mixing of soil and find its way close enough to the surface to germinate. Plants are kinda heroic, at times.

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Next to the Delphinium, I recently noticed that a single Purslane has sprouted up in a tidy corner. An interesting-looking plant that grows in the wild or can be cultivated, it’s also an interesting salad green that can produce cute little flowers of varying colors (depending on the variety of the plant). I’m pretty sure the one we’re hosting will produce tiny yellow flowers.
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How did it get here? My guess is that it was a rogue seed buried within the bag of new potting soil we bought this spring to replace the bit we’d thrown out. Unless you manage to buy the absolute premium potting soil (I just can’t bring myself to do it), you’re likely to wind up with a few weed seeds, rocks, mushrooms, etc. thrown in. Last year, for instance, I was given a painful reminder of what stinging nettle looks like. Note to self: don’t weed without gloves!

Though they weren’t invited and though they can sometimes overstay their welcome, our uninvited guests do make the sometimes sterile environment of a container garden seem more like the bit of earth we secretly desired for it to be. Sometimes it seems — with all of our planning and strategizing — perfection is the only thing that will please us. Maybe we secretly long for someone else to take the reins?

These little natural interventions make me a little less homesick for the Big Garden we were so fortunate to be able to grow, last year. Every unlikely insect that visits us high up on the third floor (like the lone grapevine beetle who stopped in to sample our morning glory vines, the kind-hearted ladybug who passed through to help out with our aphids), every stray weed seed that miraculously climbs the stairs and plants itself into a conveniently bare spot — they’re all little reminders that nature is full of plants and creatures working with one another in spite of our best efforts to assert our own control over them. Together we make an interesting garden — even on a balcony that faces a dumpster.

(The picture of the Morning Glory blossoms was taken by James on our balcony garden in 2010. Our current crop of Morning Glories will probably start blooming in another week or two.)

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~ by Jason on July 21, 2011.

5 Responses to “Uninvited Guests”

  1. The flowers look soooooooo pretty, ya’ll!
    Miss ya’ll.

  2. I have to post my garden photos…

    The caterpillar looks exactly like the ones I found on our dill today ;-( What are you supposed to do about them? They are way too beautiful to kill!

    • In my experience — unless you have tons of caterpillars — it really doesn’t do any harm to leave them in place and just enjoy the show. In our little container garden, we have only two parsley plants and two caterpillars (who actually seem to prefer only one of the parsley plants). The plants have almost no damage from hosting, so I wouldn’t bother moving them because they’re really fragile, mushy things. Besides, I live on the third floor of an apartment building — where could I possibly move them to?!

      Rather than moving them, I’d just keep an eye on them. If they start to stress out, for instance, your ONLY dill plant, you might move them.

  3. Your garden is looking amazing… Those flowers are lovely and I have basil jealousy! We joke that if it isn’t one thing, it is another in our garden… We’ve had blight, flea beetles, drought and this year… Deer (who ate cabbage, our tomato plants and all of our egg plants… total feast). I have an annual realization that if we were New Englanders of old and dependent on our garden for actual sustanance and not just salad fixins we’d be in trouble!

    • Thanks, Jen! 🙂

      From what I hear, deer can be quite a problem for gardeners. I’m a little nervous about one day having our own plot of land because I’m sure we’ll have to face this adversary head on, then! People try everything from fences to cougar urine, I hear… and sometimes to no avail! 😀 Sorry to hear about your plants, though.

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