The Portulaca Protection Program and Other Stories From the Children’s Garden

white and pink moss roses with bee
Moss-rose flower by Naomi Zhong (2013) CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr.

I recently started a summer job as a garden educator at a nonprofit community garden. The organization's main focus is providing access to locations, water sources, and low-cost seeds and plants for low-income urban residents to grow their own food. One of the programs, The Beanstalk Children's Garden, is an educational garden that encourages kids and families to explore plants, nature and healthy eating. Summer camps and children's groups schedule time to take a tour of the garden and participate in experiential learning activities.

Most of my job this summer will be as a tour guide and educator for the garden, but I am also involved with garden planting, harvesting and maintenance. For example, the last 2 weeks (since I started) have been a hubbub of frenetic activity. We have been caring for the perennial plants in the fruit garden (berry bushes, fruit trees, strawberry patch), as well as those in the vegetable, herb and curiosity gardens. We have been frantically tilling, planting annuals and flowers and tucking them all in with a liberal layer of mulch across the entire garden. (Oh, Cotton Burr Compost! You may be a bit stinky, but you and I are becoming close allies in our battle to enrich the soil and protect against weeds.)

And then there is the weeding! The Beanstalk Children’s Garden consists mostly of raised beds linked by bricked paths. We did some pretty solid “clean-out” work in the beds before the tiller went through. However, the most challenging aspect is weeding between the bricks of the garden paths. Since it’s been raining for days, the damp soil makes it a little easier to pull rooted plants from between the bricks. Still, it can be really hard to get a grip on the tenacious weeds that manage to root themselves in tiny cracks- I’ve already worn through one pair of garden gloves from the bricks.

I did find some helpful weeding tools in the painting (not gardening) section of the hardware store: the 6 in 1 painting tool (which looks like something a Klingon might bring to cook dinner) and putty knife. Both are skinny enough to get between the bricks and pull up crabgrass, dandelions or other things that may have rooted there. These tools are also helpful to removing what my supervisor lovingly calls “garden boogers”: mixtures of sand and soil that wash out of the beds into the cracks of the brickwork, bound together with a thin membrane of algae and moss.

Garden booger in situ.
Garden booger in situ.
Removed strip of garden booger
Removed strip of garden booger

I have a certain admiration for the perseverance of the plants that manage to spring up between the bricks – if they’re tolerated, we call them “volunteers.” If unwelcome, we call them “weeds” and pull them out. One of the tenacious plants that falls in between these categories is the portulaca, also called the moss rose.

Each year, the garden purchases a several flats of different colors of Portulaca to plant in the gaps between bricks around the end caps of the beds. They add a lot of color to the garden, especially at kids’ eye height at the base of the raised beds. They are also tough as anything and can take pretty much whatever weather conditions a Midwestern summer can throw at them. Last year’s portulaca babies have reseeded themselves between the bricks of the paths, and are popping up in their beautiful succulent glory. Normally, we would treat any plant growing from the bricks of the path as a weed and pull it out, it order to keep the garden looking nice. However, we started saving the portulaca plants we pulled out with intact roots, instead of chucking them with the rest of the weeds into the compost.

I have started referring to this covert process as the Portulaca Witness Protection Program. We find portulaca volunteers while weeding the bricks, gently pull them out with intact roots and rehome them along the edges of the beds.

The Portulaca Witness Protection Program:

Step 1: Find a baby portulaca

baby portulaca growing between bricks
Example of baby portulaca growing from bricks. Note substrate of “garden booger.”

Step 2: Gently remove the portulaca from between the bricks, keeping roots intact. This requires some practice, especially determining how much slow steady pressure to maintain in pulling on plant.

Portulaca plant with exposed roots resting on person's palm
Portulaca with exposed roots.

Step 3: Find a new home for portulaca. Remove existing weeds and enough soil to cover roots.

A new home for the portulaca, a gap along the edge of the bed.
A new home for the portulaca, a gap along the edge of the bed.

Step 4: Tuck portulaca into soil, cover roots. I have also been using the discarded “garden booger” strips of sandy soil and algae as “tape” to cover edges of portulaca roots and keep plant from washing away.

Portulaca in new home. Note strips of garden boogers used to secure soil around plant.
Portulaca in new home. Note strips of “garden boogers” used to secure soil around plant.

Step 5: Observe the relocated portulaca plants. We have been placing the transplants around the edges of the beds for maximum visual effect. Hopefully, some will survive the trauma of relocation to produce blooms for the rest of the summer.
portulaca along edge of bed


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