Garden Grown Wild

Vegetable Gardening with a Heart and Mind for Nature

Perkins Park Community Garden is a cultivated space. We took a section of town land that had fallen out of human use, cleared the space, and set up 29 plots for gardening. The upside: twenty-nine gardeners every year get a chance to grow food, learn organic principles, and get in touch with nature among a community. Those benefits mean a lot to us gardeners, but there’s a downside as well. In creating our garden, we destroyed a natural ecosystem, from soil microbes to insects, birds, and so on up the food chain. 

Our destructive human footprint is not unlike all of the lawns, parks, backyard gardens, manicured median strips, and other cultivated areas around town, all places that could benefit from rewilding. Even in a space where growing vegetables is the primary goal, there are steps we can take that cause less destruction and help support our local ecosystem.

Soil First. If you take good care of the soil, it will take care of your plants.

  • Stop using synthetic chemical fertilizers such as MiracleGro, which don’t support your soil ecosystem and can run off, causing more widespread damage to the environment.
  • Get your soil tested and opt for organic materials such as plant-based compost, worm castings, and composted animal manure. Organic granular and/or liquid fertilizers can be applied as needed. Many of our gardeners at PPCG use Espoma GardenTone or PlantTone or Neptune’s Harvest.
  • Cover up! Use natural mulches such as straw, chopped leaves, wood chips, grass clippings, or even lawn refuse bags to protect your soil from erosion and add organic matter.
  • Living roots feed your garden soil. Aim for (1) plant diversity and (2) keeping your garden planted for as long as your growing season will allow.
  • Spare yourself back-breaking labor and build your soil by moving to low-till methods.

Share your space by planting for wildlife.

  • Fit a few flowering plants among your vegetables. They’ll add beauty to your plot, plus the pollinators they draw may boost your veggie yield.
  • Choose wisely–not all flowers have the same value, so look to get the most impact, especially if you have limited space. Zinnias are easy and popular with pollinators, but consider some native flowering plants as well, which may have greater ecological importance.
  • The milkweed plant shown here provides complex benefits– from foliage to flowers to seed–for many levels of the food chain. So even though it flowers only a short time in late summer, its benefits are year-round, especially if seed heads are left in place at the end of the season.
  • It can be difficult and a little tricky to know what will provide the most benefit to the local ecosystem. Rely on local nonprofits specializing in native plants (links below). Watch and observe your garden to see what’s popular and don’t be afraid to edit if you can add something of greater value.

Know your pests and tolerate some damage.

  • It sounds obvious, but it’s still worth noting: planting for wildlife means that the plants may get eaten. That’s the point.
  • One year my parsley was disappearing at an alarming rate. The culprit was this beautiful swallowtail caterpillar, which shown here, is feasting on dill. (Both parsley and dill, by the way, are non-native plants, but the swallowtail will eat them because they are close enough relatives of native members of the carrot family.) Plant a little extra and be happy they found a home in your garden.
  • On the other hand, some pests should not be tolerated. The spotted lantern fly, for example, looks beautiful but can cause serious damage.
  • Take time to identify the critters you find in your garden by relying on reputable resources, noted below.
  • Control pests through the least harmful way possible by, for example, handpicking them or using row covers. Even organic pesticides can cause unintended harm to beneficial insects.

Know your weeds and pull them only as necessary.

  • Do not immediately assume that a “weed” is a bad addition to your garden.
  • Plants such as dandelion, purslane, and yellow wood sorrel–common ones at PPCG–can offer benefits. Some are edible for insects birds, and/or humans and protect your soil as well.
  • It’s important to identify the weed and understand its growth pattern and potential benefits or harm. Resources are noted below.
  • Weeds such as garlic mustard are more pernicious and should be given special attention to control them. Every spring we make an effort to pull the garlic mustard from the uncultivated areas around the plots.
  • Weeds in the garden bed can be controlled by using mulch and limiting digging and soil disruption, which brings seeds to the surface where they can germinate and grow.

Include native edible perennials in your garden. These are often low-fuss, high-yielding plants that provide benefit for you as well as the local ecosystem.

Adjust the perceived value of your garden and rethink aesthetics.

  • Broccoli as a beneficial ornamental?! Shown here, wild bees are loving these pretty and heavily-scented flowers from, strangely enough, an Asian variety of broccoli. I planted them last fall with plans to harvest the stalks during the cold months. When an unexpected windy and bitter day blew off their frost protection, I figured they were goners and just left them alone until I could replant. But then they surprised me and produced the prettiest and most beneficial plant of my garden at that moment, when few other plants were in bloom. I suppose I could have pulled them and planted spinach in their place, but their value for the bees far surpassed a spinach harvest for me.
  • Leaving behind leaf litter, stems, and seed heads at the end of the harvest can look messy by traditional standards. I get it. My yard makes me a little twitchy when I compare it with my neighbors’ tidy spaces. Make it a new norm and remember you are fostering life in that “mess,” including habitats for wild bees, overwintering egg cases, and food and nesting materials for wildlife. Clean up only the areas that are necessary, such as removing diseased/pest-harboring plant material and raking where leaves threaten to smother plantings. Your vegetable garden will be a more productive space next season.
  • For example, preying mantises (R) often leave behind egg cases in fall debris that could easily be discarded during a garden clean up. Side note: the preying mantis is an equal opportunity predator, which means she’ll eat the good guys as well as the bad guys.

For More Information

Plant/Seed Sources

  • Holly Hill Farm has been adding more native plants to their vegetable and flower gardening lineup. Sign up for their newsletter and watch for their annual cold and warm weather plant sales. Russ Cohen, local expert on native edibles, often presents as well.
  • The Wild Seed Project, located in Maine, is a great resource for seeds and education on how to grow and care for wild seedlings. I grew these New England Asters from seed purchased through this nonprofit.
  • The Native Plant Trust offers a wealth of information, educational courses, and native plants for purchase.
  • Plant sales from City Natives benefits the community gardens in Boston managed by The Trustees. Educational programs are offered as well.
  • Use Native Plant Trust’s Garden Plant Finder to choose native plants suited for your particular conditions and needs.
  • Tufts Pollinator Initiative is focused on making native plants readily available to local growers at a low cost. Upcoming sale on June 20, 2021.

Insect and Plant Identification

Regenerative Gardening Techniques

Why Grow Native?

What in the Devil Is This? Purple Leaf Edition

This spring, a whole flat of marigolds turned purple. So purple, they were almost black.

The marigolds, Durango Outback variety, have been garden stalwarts, the kind I don’t have to fuss with to get good performance. I like their pom-pom blooms, which show up well in dark areas of the garden with only a few hours of daily sun. Normally their leaves are green.

A quick Google search turned up a lot of discussion about purple leaves in tomatoes (see links below), but also plenty about marigolds. I’ve seen discolored leaves on marigolds before, but they look more like the photo here, with reddish-purple around the edges of the leaves. The color is anthocynin, a water-soluble pigment ranging from red-purple to purple-black that develops under a number of different conditions. Sometimes seedlings will tinge with anthocynin for a brief period of time in their stems, for example, as part of their natural development. Or, here, this basil variety will develop purple-red leaves that are normally high in anthocynin. (Younger seedling on left; in this case, I would get concerned if the color didn’t show up purple.)IMG_20200520_090443919

Anthocynin production is also a stress reaction that may help the plant survive a number of adverse environmental conditions, including cold, drought, light stress, and deficiencies in nitrogen, phosphorus, or both.

With regard to my marigolds, I ruled out cold and drought and started with nutrient considerations. Because I’d been growing in a soilless seed-starting mixture (Roots Organics Microgreens) that contains no added fertilizer, I’d supplemented with a liquid 2-3-2 Gardens Alive fertilizer at half-dose once per week. Giving a second half-dose feeding helped a little within a few days, but not much.

Before I gave them another feeding, I considered a third factor: my new lighting, a set of inexpensive shop lights I’d purchased to grow microgreens over the winter. The shop lights had performed well for trays of pea shoots and broccoli, sunflower, and lettuce microgreens. Given that success, I’d figured they’d do at least all right for seedlings, and in fact, most of my other seedlings were fine. (I’d even managed to get some micro tomatoes to flower under them.) Still, I moved half of the marigold seedlings to a full-spectrum grow light and left the other half under the shop lights. Within a few days, here’s what happened.DSC_3327

Shown above, the plants on the left have a few more days under the plant grow lights. I saw enough change within that time to convince me I’d hit on the solution.

Let’s talk a little more about those shop lights, because there’s a lot to know about lighting. For starters, visual perception of light and the specs on most lighting packaging don’t provide enough information for growers. What looks bright to the human eye might not be the right light for a plant at the intensity it needs. Although a whole winter of microgreens grew well under those inexpensive shop lights, crops that are grown simply for seedlings have different requirements from crops that are grown for mature plants. On top of that factor, each crop has a different set of light requirements for optimum mature growth.

IMG_20200602_161709548_BURST000_COVERThe takeaway: inexpensive shop lighting works all right for certain crops, but not for others. I’m sure there’s great variation among shop lighting, as well, and it’s difficult to determine exactly how much/what kind of light plants are receiving without a special light meter. I will continue to use the shop lights for certain crops and give my premium grow light space to those plants that need it.

Sources/ For Further Reading

Gardening Under Lights by Leslie Halleck. Available for free from Hoopla. This is such a great resource, I ordered a hard copy of it.

This gardener’s purple marigold leaves may have resulted from cold temperatures.

Causes of phosphorus deficiency. The fix is more complicated than adding more phosphorus.

Environmental Significance of Anthocyanins in Plant Stress Response.

Abiotic Stresses Induce Different Localizations of Anthocyanins in Arabidopsis.

Causes of tomato leaves purpling.

Brief YouTube video, phosphorus deficiency in tomato plants.

Purple leaf disorder in tomatoes.

What To Do This Spring While PPCG Is Closed

Check out The Trustees at Home, with links on gardening, virtual nature, keeping the kids busy, and more.

Complete a free vegetable gardening module from Oregon State University’s Master Gardener program. Some of the information in this program may be best suited for Oregon’s growing climate, but most looks like it’s relevant to us.

Follow the Insect Xaminer, a short video series from UMass Extension starting with (drum roll) the Gypsy Moth caterpillar. This first installment is quirky-gruesome in the context of  the pandemic, but I’m sticking with the series for its promised information on common insect pests.

Try a modified version of a technique known as winter sowing. I’m not encouraging anyone to run out to the store to buy anything, but if you can get your hands on a milk jug (or similar container functioning as a mini greenhouse), a small bag of seed-starting mix, and some lettuce seeds, cilantro, or spring onions, you can grow outside in a small, sunny space.

  • Because these plants like cold, you’ll have to open your containers on warm days or they’ll cook.
  • Once they are established with a few sets of leaves, you can probably leave the top off for good, unless we have an overnight with temps down into the 20s F.
  • I’ve never tried it, but some gardeners even start up their warm weather plants  (around now) in this fashion, though again, you’ll have to keep an eye on the weather. If we get a cold snap, throw a blanket over them.
  • There are a few benefits to protected outdoor sowing of garden plants. They’ll receive more light outdoors. (Even a sunny windowsill might not be bright enough for your plants, even if it looks bright to you.) Plus you won’t need to harden them off if you transfer them to a larger growing space. Just be aware that I don’t know when we’ll be able to get back in the gardens.

Holly Hill Farm–which like many other businesses is in need of our support–appears to still be having its early plant sale on April 18 & 19. (Their warm-weather plant sale usually happens in May.) Keep an eye on their website and/or sign up for email updates. They have altered their sales methods in response to COVID-19 concerns.

Stay tuned for more details from Braintree Farmers Market. They went to a virtual model on April 4, and it looks like the next date is May 2.

Download/stream the Birdsong radio app from RSPB.

Check out great gardening titles on Hoopla, available for free through Thayer Public Library.

Read all about why we need green spaces in The Wild Remedy, part illustrated diary, part scientific review of the mental health benefits derived from nature.

Go for a walk in any of the other numerous parks that are still open, such as DCR parks. Or try Great Esker Park in Weymouth, which was nearly empty on a sunny day this week.  For further info, here are links to the state’s assemblage guidelines and stay-at-home advisory.

Other ideas/comments? Please share below.

Photo credit: Gary R.

The End of Open Season

It’s open season at PPCG, and we’re the targets, our gardens laid out like a giant picnic spread for deer. Tomatoes, beans, peas, flowers, beets, lettuce, peppers, zucchini, chard…more tomatoes. Tomatoes are taking a tough hit. Peppers too.

This year seems especially bad for everyone, not just a select few. It’s our ninth season in our location. The way we’re sheltered on all sides by trees, tucked away from street traffic, we can probably count ourselves lucky the deer haven’t discovered us earlier.

But let’s figure out what we can to to make ourselves less vulnerable.

Things We Can’t Do

Deer track

Let’s get the don’ts out of the way first. Gary did some asking around at Holly Hill Farm, where he said they rigged a simple electric fence powered by a car battery. Tempting, but not especially safe in a public park.

Years ago, Christine and John S. looked into installing a perimeter fence, but quickly put that idea aside when they realized how prohibitively expensive it would be for us. Effective deer fencing needs to be a good 8 feet tall.

Products such as Liquid Fence, cannot be used in our gardens because they are not organic (#3 ingredient is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate).

Similarly, don’t hang smelly bars of soap (another recommendation I’ve read on a number of websites), which will drip down into the soil.

Probably Our Best Option: Barriers

UMassAmherst notes that the best way to protect a garden is to install some kind of physical barrier to keep the deer away from the crops. Since we’ve already ruled out a perimeter fence, that leaves us with…

  • Bird netting. It’s probably the cheapest option, found here at Home Depot for around $7.



I’ve used this at home to protect some plants from squirrels. It’s fiddly to use and easier to install if you have a second set of hands. One of our gardeners laid this product neatly over their entire plot, and it seems to be working out well. As plants grow, taller supports can be used to lift the netting (though you may need a bigger or second piece of netting).



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Another one of our gardeners wrapped this product around the perimeter, and yet another draped it over specific plants she wanted to protect.

Here, bird netting is wrapped around a plot and supported by plastic and bamboo posts. Both this product and the one below are fine enough that they won’t cast significant shade in our small plots.


⇒⇒⇒If you decide to use this netting, please make sure it’s secured. It’s very difficult to see, it’s a tripping hazard, and does a very bad number on our mower.


  • Plastic mesh fence. This product is made of a heavier, stiffer plastic material that can be wrapped around your garden and hooked onto/supported by U-posts. I installed this by myself and thought the hardest part was pounding in the stakes. Remember to plan how you are going to get in and out of the garden. Here, I left an opening near a walking path and secured it with a strip of “tomato velcro” for ease. In addition, because a deer could still lean into the garden to nibble on plants, I wove a tight piece of plastic-coated wire around the top.



So far it’s worked: no more crop damage and limited hassle getting myself in and out of the garden. Also, the mesh is unobtrusive enough that I don’t feel caged, but sturdy enough to function as a trellis for peas and pole beans.

The biggest downside is the cost, between $50-$60, plus the cost of the U-posts.

Deer climbed right into Joe’s raised bed and helped himself to Swiss chard, tomatoes, and beans.

Another important factor to note: deer can easily jump over a fence that’s 4-ft high, the size I used. But also, they apparently (1) don’t like enclosed spaces and (2) like to have a clear landing space when they jump. Still, there’s no guarantee. From Joe’s raised bed next to mine, it’s an easy leap into my lettuces. Parkour dining. Maybe I’ll pound in a few wood stakes near the center of my plot to give them pause before they make the leap.

One other way to make either kind of barrier–the bird netting or the heavier fencing–more effective would be to add some kind of “flag” to help the deer see it, so they don’t blunder into it and get spooked, which would likely result in a lot of damage to structures, plants, and maybe even deer too. Worse than a few nibbles. (Ever seen the movie Tommy Boy?  This. Scene.) (YouTube link)


Might Be Worth a Try: Deer Repellents

  • Once a deer gets a taste of a crop, it might  be difficult to apply any smelly/distasteful/frightening product that’s safe for you and strong enough to stop deer. Also, these types of products must be used very consistently. Are you willing to put in the effort and accept that they are more likely deterrents than guaranteed barriers?
  • I know at least one organic grower who uses PlantSkydd, which is OMRI-listed. It’s primary ingredient is dried blood meal (cow and/or pig). For the best chance of success and your own safety, follow all directions carefully, and note that it must not be applied to “edible parts of fruit, vegetables, and other food crops.”
  • Predator urine (Amazon link) might frighten off a deer. One source indicated this was the most effective offensive scent.
  • Border your garden/targeted plants with herbs that deer don’t like, such as oregano, lavender, and rosemary.
  • Human hair, collected and hung in the garden in nylon stockings might also frighten off a deer, but remember the deer in our area are likely quite used to humans.
  • Motion deterrents, like pinwheels and dangling disposable pie pans or CDs are img_20180629_080123739easily installed. I put these in the category of “it can’t hurt to try.”
  • Ultrasonic noisemakers may be effective until a deer becomes accustomed to them; also, they may work best when paired with a visual/motion deterrent.
  • Solar-powered predator lights (Amazon link), again, may be most effective when paired with other deterrents.

Crop Selection

Another option is to choose to grow plants not favored by deer. I’ve had good luck with tomatillos, ground cherries, eggplant, herbs, onions, and some flowers such as dahlia, zinnia, cosmos, tickseed, snapdragons, and calendula. For more ideas, see here and here.

Do Nothing

Maybe it’s obvious, but doing nothing is also a choice. It’s all right if you don’t want to go to the expense and hassle of installing barriers, etc.. Nothing in PPCG’s rules indicates that you have to take any measures against deer; we only require that you maintain your plot organically.

One Final Note

For best control, remember some facts about deer.  They are afraid of anything new, yet learn quickly and adapt to your strategies, so try several repellents and rotate them.”

Sources/ For More Info

Preventing Deer Damage from UMassAmherst

Keeping Deer Out of the Garden from Bonnie Plants

Deer Deterrents–Scents from U of Vermont Extension, Dept. of Plant and Soil Science

Nonlethal Deer Damage Abatement Techniques–Deterrents from Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control

Deer Proof Gardens: 4 sure-fire ways to keep deer out of your gardens from Savvy Gardening

Deer-Resistant Plants from Old Farmer’s Almanac

Deer-Resistant Garden Vegetables from SFGate Home Guides

How to Build a Plastic Mesh Deer Exclusion Fence from Purdue Extension






In Case of Drought…

For a few weeks now, my favorite meteorologist/horticulturalist Dave Epstein has been tweeting about how dry it’s been. (That rain we had Monday night amounted to barely 1/10 of an inch.) Though the Northeast Regional Climate Center declared the entire northeast drought-free as of May 3, rainfall amounts in Boston have fallen below average for about the past month, which is making me think about (1) how to get our gardens established and healthy now while (2) not wasting any water. (Below, the green line is our cumulative total, up to June 18; the maroon line above it represents “normal.”)


I know I’ve mentioned the advice to water less frequently and more deeply, once your plants are beyond the seedling stage. When the surface of your garden soil is kept continually moist through shallow, frequent watering, your plants’ roots are happy enough hanging out where the water is, leaving them susceptible to drying out if you head to the Cape for a weekend.

But if you like numbers as much as I do, you might still be wondering “how much” and “how often” to water.

One inch per week on average is the number I often see. That’s around .62 gallons per square foot of garden per week.

Here’s the rough math…

  • Most of our gardens are 72 square feet, which means we should be giving them around 45 gallons per week. (That sounds like a lot to me, but remember we’re talking about averages here. You may get away with less if your plot is shaded, etc..)
  • It took me 40 seconds to fill a 1.5-gallon watering can using my normal hose setting and pressure. (Your time might be different, depending how you use the hoses.)
  • 45 gallons/1.5 = around 30 watering can fill-ups. At 40 seconds each, that’s 20 minutes of hose time per week. Again, that’s an average amount.
  • You can also try setting tuna cans in multiple locations around your garden and stop watering when they’ve fill to the desired amount.

But there’s more to consider. The soil in New England tends to be sandy and rocky, which means water percolates relatively quickly, beyond our plants’ active root zones, no matter how deep they go. One 20-minute session per week would likely waste a good bit of water and leave your plants dry.

UMass Amherst suggests that watering twice per week should be ample for well-mulched vegetable gardens–for us, about two 10-minute watering sessions–without factoring in rainfall. Or, if you’re using tuna cans, water twice to 1/2-inch.

It takes practice knowing what works well at your particular site/with your particular plants. Every year is different, too. (I’ve been at the same plot for almost ten years, and I’m still figuring it out.)  Though morning or evening watering is best, keep an eye on your plants and go ahead and water right away if your soil is dry and your plants are looking droopy on a hot afternoon. Note that squash and cucumbers will wilt under heat stress.


How about rainfall? Here’s our new rain gauge, all nice and level and very empty. For now. When we get rain, we’ll have a better idea of how much water we need to supplement in a given time period.

Old Farmer’s Almanac points out that sometimes the best time to water is right after a rainfall–especially short, light ones–to ensure water penetrates deep.

A few more tips:

  • Compost!  The organic matter in compost will help retain water.
  • Mulch! Use a couple of inches of materials such as straw, shredded bark, chopped-up leaves, seaweed, hulls, newspaper, or compost.  Natural materials, in contrast to plastic mulch, for example, add organic matter. (See above.) Keep it away from the base of your plants to discourage rotting.
  • Keep your gardens weeded. Don’t make your plants compete with weeds for nutrients and water.
  • Consider intensive planting (reducing the spacing between plants, as appropriate) to create shaded cover over your soil. In some sections of my garden, I don’t have room for mulch because the plants are tightly spaced.
  • Old Farmer’s Almanac makes a case for cultivating your soil–roughing it up to help the water soak in. Cultivation may well help in the short term, but in the long term, it may damage your soil structure and lead to more problems with water penetration; also, I’m not sure how well you can cultivate if you’ve applied mulch.

Remember, too, that your plants will need less water as summer moves beyond typical peak water needs in July.

Of course, no matter how carefully you pay attention to amounts and measurements, nothing beats poking a finger down into the soil a couple of inches to see how dry it feels. Is it damp enough to stick together? Try holding off.

Whatever methods work best for you, start planning now. Just in case.

Sources/ More Info…

Food Gardening with Less Water (from the University of California’s UCCE Master Gardener Program, folks with experience dealing with severe water shortages)

A More In-Depth Look at Food Gardening with Less Water (from the same group above)

How Much Water Does My Food Garden Need (again, same group; focuses on the math)

Advice on Efficient Outdoor Watering, from UMass Amherst

Old Farmer’s Almanac tips (includes a chart showing approximate water needs of different types of vegetables)

More tips from Old Farmer’s Almanac

What is evapotranspiration?

Weather data (Northeast Regional Climate Center; I spent way too much time playing with weather charts on this site)

National Weather Service

Braintree’s Water Usage Phases