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Sunflowers, Summer Sunshine

Sunflowers are such happy plants.  I fondly remember Maximillian sunflowers at Joe Field Road probably in 2012 as a relatively new Master gardener – Michelle planted them in the nature area, and then they were everywhere!  That’s when I first noticed the striking contrast of the golden flowers against the blue sky! 

Sunflowers at our first garden on Joe Field Road

In my yard, a few sunflowers have magically appeared, most likely with the help of our feathered friends. These volunteers have brought unexpected color to the area that had once been a shade bed. This year, as Spring started to transform to Summer I began to notice more sprouts and is my habit, I let them grow.   The striking flowers started to put on a show the first week in June, and with it came the buzzing bees covered in pollen.  Stalks appeared near my very sunny, dry riverbed and shot 8 -10 feet in the air.  

These bringers of cheer needed to be shared, so my plan was to begin clipping from the top, bending the stalks down. Cutting didn’t make them shorter, it made them more prolific. 

With June being my birthday month, there were opportunities to share these lovelies and some of the other flowers from my yard.  These arrangements made it to my former and new workout groups, and their families as well as friends, and neighbors.  Sharing these gifts from my yard brings me so much joy!  

My gift of sunflowers came anonymously, but they are also readily planted from seeds. and are hardy from   zones 2a-11b.   Planted in spring after frost,   they grow quickly and produce flowers throughout the summer.  The blooms track the sun from east to west during the day.  This is known as heliotropism. 

These yellow disks up against the blue sky reminded me of the opportunity to serve in Ukraine. The fields were covered in miles and miles of Sunflowers.  It was seen first-hand from a train across the country.  A very powerful memory as well as a present reminder.

Sunflowers in Ukraine

It is well known that the best time to cut flowers is early morning and it is recommended to put them immediately into a bucket of water before arranging.   One morning, this plan was implemented, and it went according to plan.   The second time, however, there wasn’t a chance to de-bloom the plant till midday.  Oh dear, it didn’t take long for my happy flowers and buds to go sad and limp, even in the water.   I hurriedly brought them inside, filled the vases with water, cut flower food and used the best specimens.  Hours later, most of those became viable once again, but it was a stark reminder of why we heed best practices.

It’s now the end of July and while the flowers still make me smile, it is time to reclaim my sunbed.  They are still producing in this 100+ degree heat, although not as readily as earlier in the summer.   Stalks will be stripped of flowers and buds, and then chopped down to make room for the Fall plantings.  There will be a chance for yet a few more arrangements. Don’t worry though, there are many other flowers in my crazy cottage garden for the pollinators.  

Even in the dog days of Summer, there is joy in the unexpected volunteers that grace our yards and there are flowers that thrive and make us happy even in this inferno that we find ourselves in during this season of HOT!  

Starla Willis, Class of 2011 

More summer thoughts:

Summer’ s Sky

Summer Song

The Rainbow Garden at Raincatcher’s


Swiss Chard Perpetual Spinach

August 11, 2022

Swiss Chard Perpetual Spinach, (Beta vulgaris var. cicla)

It’s the chard that keeps on giving! Last spring, while visiting a local garden center, the white “tag” caught my eye. Already a fan of Swiss chard, especially the peppermint stick variety, I was easily persuaded to try something new. After purchasing a 4” pot of Swiss Chard Perpetual Spinach, the only task left was getting it into my spring garden. Two seasons and five months later my little plant has not disappointed. 

Springtime growth was vigorous yielding smooth, dark-green leaves resembling spinach with fine midribs. Tasting more like a true spinach than chard, the flat, pointed leaves are flavorful and rich in antioxidants. Throughout the summer, at times it looked a little ragged but with a gentle trimming, new growth quickly appeared. Even during the 100 degree plus temperatures, Perpetual has maintained its vigor. Harvesting is best done when the leaves are still small and tender. 

Longstanding in the garden, the potential for an abundant fall crop is promising. Perpetual is slow to bolt, so it’s a great choice for the Southern garden. Use leaves fresh in salads, sautéed or cooked and added to your favorite recipes.

Features

Fruit Size: 8 to 10 inches

Growth Habit: Clumping, Erect, Sprouts in 14-21 Days

Days to Maturity: About 40 days

Growing Conditions: Sun (4-8 hours) to part shade 

Growing Tips

Sow seeds in place, ½” deep, after the frost-free date. Spacing should be 8 to 10” apart. Keep well-watered and side dress with compost for best leaf production.

FYI…

One cup of chopped chard contains only 35 calories. It also supplies more than 700 percent of your daily requirement for vitamin K. It is a good source of calcium, magnesium and vitamin A.

Linda Alexander, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2008

My Affection for ‘Kent Beauty’ is Growing

August 2, 2022

One of the showiest ornamental oreganos, Kent Beauty, a hybrid between Origanum rotundifolium and Origanum scabra, has charmed me with its attractive foliage and flowers. Mine was planted in a 12” terra cotta pot over two years ago but, come fall, I’m transplanting it to a new sunny location in my raised bed. Its intriguing beauty during the heat of summer and into fall will be refreshing.

Gathered from the garden; purple pentas, cinnamon basil, society garlic and Kent Beauty oregano.

Kent Beauty is an impressive oregano, having received the prestigious Award of Garden Merit of the Royal Horticultural Society. (The AGM is a mark of quality awarded, since 1922, to garden plants by the United Kingdom, Royal Horticultural Society.) A cup symbol on a plant’s label shows it has earned the AGM – the UK’s seal of approval that the plant performs reliably in the garden. It is only awarded to plants that are:

  1. Excellent for use in appropriate conditions
  2. Available
  3.  Of good constitution
  4. Essentially stable in form and color

Optimum growing conditions include full sun, dry to medium soil with excellent drainage. It performs well during extreme heat and drought but is intolerant of high humidity. Allow room for it to grow approximately 6 to 9 inches tall and 12 to 18 inches wide. Bees are attracted to the tiny purple, tubular blooms. An easy-to-care for plant that is disease free and has few pests.

Kent Oregano growing in a pot

Kent Beauty is an herbaceous perennial that forms a low trailing mound of silver-veined blue-green aromatic leaves. In early summer it starts producing whorls of pendulous, drooping heads of hop-like flowers in dreamy shades of shrimp pink, cream and pale green. This visual feast for the eyes continues into the cooler autumn months.

Take advantage of its versatility and use in alpine and rock formations, as a border plant, in containers, hanging baskets and for cascading over walls. Snip stems of the draping flowers for a dramatic addition to fresh floral arrangements.

Linda Alexander, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2008

Raincatcher’s Hot Weather Coping Strategies

July 28, 2022

It doesn’t take long for plants to become stressed by this summer’s intense heat and lack of rain. It’s probably safe to say the same for most gardeners. 

Here are the strategies we are using to keep the vegetables in the north garden healthy in the heat:

  • Research to find out which plant varieties are best suited for the region 
  • Water twice a day with two short cycles of 30 minutes using drip irrigation 
  • Mulch heavily
  • Use shade cloth to protect fall tomato and pepper transplants and plants showing signs of heat stress.

When we realized the fall tomatoes were getting scorched we improvised with cardboard so that we could get ourselves out of the sun that day. Later we used tee posts with binder clips to secure the shade cloth. We removed the shade cloth for about four hours in the morning and replaced it in the afternoon for just a few days before taking it off completely. 

We remove plants that no longer look healthy or have slowed down their production.  This was true of about half of the cucumbers. They can be restarted by seed outdoors in August. 

We are also trying a method called ratooning to improve our late summer and fall production of peppers and okra.  Leaving some leaf axils for photosynthesis, we are cutting low performing plants back to eight to ten inches from the ground. The articles below will provide more information about the practice.  According to the one from Clemson, ratooned plants will have the benefit of a strong root system and not take as long to produce fruit as a new transplant. 

As for our heat stressed vegetable gardeners, a mixture of iced tea and lemonade has become the drink of choice on our Monday workdays.  A slice of watermelon or a delicious watermelon salsa helps too. 

Beverly Allen, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2018, encouraged by Ann Lamb

Pictures by Don Heaberlin, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2021

Watermelon & Peaches Salsa

GETTING MORE BANG FOR YOUR BUCK BY RATOONING SPRING VEGETABLES

OKRA! KING OF THE SUMMER GARDEN

A Nod to Nepitella

July 19, 2022

Our adventure in growing nepitella was challenging. Seeds were difficult to locate and few in number. Spring of 2021, the first flat of twelve seeds was started. Instructions were followed carefully but the seeds just seemed to slumber through the next three weeks. Finally, the tiny seedlings started popping up through the seed starting mix and we were hopeful our efforts would be rewarded.

And then they just stopped growing, bent those little heads over to the side and gave it up. We couldn’t have been more disappointed that they didn’t survive because our motivation for growing nepitella, a somewhat unfamiliar herb, was all about a recipe. Fortunately, we are close friends with a master gardener who happens to be a seed starting guru. His name is Jim and he agreed to take on the task of getting us to the finish line. 

Weeks passed with no news of germination. Sadly, we were losing hope of ever getting to try that special dish featuring nepitella. And then one day, Jim surprised us with a visit to the garden. He shared the good news that ten seeds had germinated but he wanted to keep them under his watchful eye for a few more weeks. We happily agreed and, once again, held on to hope that he would be successful. As you might have guessed, about a month later Jim arrived at the garden with a flat of strong, upright nepitella seedlings that were finally large enough for their new home in the edible landscape. Cheers of joy were heard throughout the garden. 

Nepitella (Calamintha nepeta) grows wild in the hills around Nepi, an old Etruscan town in the province of Viterbo, Italy, about an hour north of Rome. It is an aromatic herbaceous perennial that spreads horizontally by means of underground rhizomes. The small, fuzzy leaves look like marjoram and taste like lemony mint with notes of basil and oregano. Nepitella blooms in late spring producing tiny pale purple flowers which are edible and attractive to bees.  (FYI…As of this writing, July 14th, my three pots of nepitella are still blooming. Those delicate little flowers have been tossed into salads, vegetables, desserts and more!)

If a trip to Italy isn’t on your summer agenda, where old Tuscan towns filled with picturesque scenes leave you dreaming of a stroll up crumbling stone steps to the piazza, then let the heavenly scent of nepitella take you there. You’ll find it used in Italian cookery as an aromatic to flavor all sorts of dishes from beef and lamb through tomatoes and summer squash. 

Braised Artichokes with Nepitella

And finally, the recipe that inspired us to start growing nepitella was created by a well-known Italian chef and food writer, Pellegrino Artusi. His 1891 recipe for carciofi in umido con al nepitella (Braised Artichokes with Calamint) is the one that teased our taste buds. It consists quite simply of braising carefully cleaned and quartered artichokes with a bit of tomato paste, fresh garlic and a fistful of nepitella. The happy conclusion to this story is that the flavors of Italy have arrived in our garden and we are thrilled to share them with you. 

Linda Alexander, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2008


We have eight 4″ pots of nepitella seedlings to give away next Tuesday, July 26th. Look for them on the round table in the Edible Landscape Garden. One per person, please.

Learning is Occurring at The Raincatcher’s Garden

July 14, 2022

One of the many joys of gardening is that we are always learning. 
We study and anticipate issues as best we can but each garden and season has its own lessons to teach us.   Learning by trial and error, otherwise known as the hard way, seems inevitable.

Here we are with our lima bean harvest and I do mean bean, singular. 

This season our beans bloomed and bloomed but never got around to setting fruit. Blooms may drop due to inadequate water and bean set may also be limited by high temperatures. 

We had excellent production from our cantaloupes but the seedlings were planted a bit too closely together.  We created a wonderful resort, spa, and restaurant from the rat and squirrel perspective. The accommodations had privacy and shade with convenient access to food and water. 

When the creatures began to chew into the metal mesh vole cages that were protecting the fruit, we conceded defeat and removed the vines.  Fortunately there were only about 35 pounds of fruit left. We are giving it some time to see if it will ripen indoors. Meanwhile, we trust we have removed our support of the rodent population.

I was looking forward to trying a pepper variety that is new to us called Ashe County Pimento. The plants were loaded with immature peppers when I checked them one afternoon.  By the next morning the peppers were gone except for what appeared to be neatly diced salsa ingredients on the ground. 

Thinking that rabbits had developed a taste for peppers, we placed cages made of rabbit fencing around all of the pepper plants. The devastation continued on to the aji dulce peppers despite the cages.  The plan now is to try hardware cloth as a barrier against smaller rodents.

Our strategy for preventing the animals from taking the tomatoes (harvesting at full size and 10-30% of color) was not as successful this year as last. Judging by the half eaten unripened tomatoes scattered around the garden, the animals are saying, “No worries, we will eat them green.”

It is clear we must stay alert because other creatures are learning too!

Beverly Allen, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2018

Picture by Don Heaberlin, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2021

THE JOY OF SELF-SEEDING PLANTS—WITH A SIDE OF CAUTION

July 11, 2022

Lovely and tough plants for free—who wouldn’t want that??  Great plants that often carry memories of gardens and gardeners long gone can be yours; plants that in many cases would be hard to find in a shop.

Pollinator gardens are perfect for self seeding plants.  They attract and nourish the bees that carry out the pollination for one thing  Seeds cannot form with out pollination.  The garden and the bees need lots of plants and flowers—big  and small simple and complex—all sorts of plants and flowers.  Perennials are the backbone of the garden, of course ,but the bees and butterflies need flowers for as long as possible and as many of them as possible—so annuals are a must have.  Planting lots of annuals can be expensive.  There is the cost of buying them of course and that can be significant.  But its not the only thing to consider.  Think of all those plastic pots—really the world needs a lot fewer of those no matter how hard the gardener may work to recycle.  Then there is the growing medium—what really is involved with that—something to think about!. Those plants were likely transported from a distance—another cost.  It takes time and effort to plant them and additional water to get them started.  

Plants that come back all by themselves—those are starting to look better and better.

So why aren’t they loved by all???  There is no perfection in this world and there are no perfect plants.

There are so many good things about self seeders—they come up at the right time for them and seem strong from the very beginning without special effort to get them established.  

But they aren’t perfect and the faults cannot be ignored.

One of the big problems is—they come up where it suits—them—not the gardener!  The middle of a garden path often seems a great place.  How to get around this—some plants will have to simply be pulled out but be alert often young plants can be easily transplanted to  a different place with minimal effort.  A bigger problem can be sheer numbers.  This is so variable some years seem to favor certain plants and at times the self seeding can be for the gardener—way too successful.  Again, be alert its almost always very easy to simply pull out the tiny plants—remember just because you have too many a friend may have none—a sharing opportunity.

They are not predictable every now and then—they don’t come up as expected.  Its always good to save some seeds from treasured plants—remember its not so easy to obtain these plants.

The last—but significant problem is that for a plant to self seed—it must form seeds!!  Seems obvious right—but the gardener can fail to realize that this means the plant must fully mature, flowers cannot be deadheaded.  Unfortunately—this is rarely a pretty sight. 

The circle of life must be accepted.  However—this does not mean that every plant has to be allowed to go to seed.  Choose only the best plants—the others can be deadheaded or removed altogether.  In allowing a few plants to go to seed the gardener not only ensures new plants for the next year but look at it as an educational opportunity the whole cycle can be explained to garden visitors—maybe even share a few seeds.

On your next visit to Raincatchers pollinator garden be sure to look for self seeded plants—and try some in your own garden.

Susan Thornbury, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2008

Rather than being broiled outside in our summer heat, read about these self-seeders indoors with a glass of ice cold tea:

Separating the Seeds from the Chaff

That Doesn’t Look Like Milkweed!

Getting Your Dollars’ Worth With Pennyroyal!

Pennyroyal

July 6, 2022

Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) is a perennial in the mint family of herbs (Lamiaceae). But don’t let its small size mislead you. As it creeps along the ground, usually only a few inches high, lax prostrate stems root wherever they touch the earth. If you’re searching for something fragrant to fill a semi shaded area of the garden, pennyroyal’s spreading habit will work hard for you. 

The name pennyroyal comes from its 1-inch roundish leaves which carry a strong mint flavor. During the summer months, small lavender flowers in tight whorls rise about 4 to 6 inches above the leaves. As with other “mints” pennyroyal prefers cool, moist soil and moderate fertilization.

Although no longer recommended for consumption by humans or animals, pennyroyal has other beneficial properties. Hanging baskets of pennyroyal on the porch will help keep insects away. Fresh leaves rubbed on arms and legs ward off mosquitoes, bees, flies, wasps and even chiggers. Pennyroyal can be used as an aromatic groundcover between stepping stones and in other small spaces.

Choose your location carefully, and allow pennyroyal plenty of room to grow. (Note: My biggest mistake was planting a 4” container of pennyroyal in a 4’ x 8’ x 32” high raised bed. Within months it was creeping along nicely into the bed, putting down roots and taking up my prime herb/vegetable garden space. The only solution was to dig up the entire plant and relocate it to a more confined shady spot with stone borders. It was the right decision.)

Caution: Avoid all contact with pennyroyal if you are pregnant.

Linda Alexander, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2008

Fennel Pollen: Spice of the Angels

Fennel Blossom

When was the last time a stroll through the garden refreshed your spirit and awakened your soul? Did early morning dew falling gently on the roses capture your senses? Brushing up against the cinnamon basil were you soothed by the spicy essence of cinnamon filling the air? Or did the mild, anise-like flavor of freshly snipped French tarragon inspire you to use it on a special fish dish?

Gardens have the ability to shower us with those divine moments. Nature blesses us as we take time to pause and allow silent expressions from the garden to fill our senses with joy and peace. For me, a quiet place of summer pleasure is found in the fennel bed. Grasping a small branch filled with feathery fennel leaves is an on-the-spot chewy taste experience I find very refreshing. A little “pop” of those delicate, tiny yellow blossoms makes for a grand finale!

Just a few weeks ago, a most surprising “fennel” find caught my attention. Located in the spice area of our local grocery store, a small, turban shaped jar of Fennel & Salt intrigued me. Reading the list of ingredients was like a trip to the garden; 90% Italian sea salt mixed with fennel seeds, black pepper, oregano, white pepper, laurel, grass pepper, curry, thyme, juniper, pimento and organic fennel pollen. (I especially liked the marketing description; Every jar contains an intensely aromatic blend of Italian sea salt and organic fennel pollen.)

At $16.99 a jar, I was hesitant for only a moment before adding it to my shopping cart. The Alexander Family Reunion was just days away and I had already planned for one of our evening buffet menus to include a large tray of sliced east Texas tomatoes. Little did I know until all 43 family members lined up for dinner on the second night, was that the culinary highlight of the entire gathering would be that tomato dish.

An hour before the dinner over fifteen vine ripened, heirloom east Texas tomatoes were thickly sliced, drizzled with a lovely bottle of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena then lightly sprinkled with my new discovery, the small jar of Fennel & Salt. Freshly harvested basil from my garden was cut, chiffonade-style, and strewn generously over the entire tray. It was irresistible!

During dinner that evening, and for the next few days, everyone kept commenting on how unbelievably tasty those tomatoes were. Knowing, secretly, that the enchanting powers of a special “fairy dust” had transformed the dynamic of an otherwise ordinary dish, my explanation was simple. “Yes, it was indeed a heavenly experience thanks to a highly coveted item affectionately known as… fennel pollen, “the spice of angels!”  Like fennel seed, it has an anise-like licorice flavor with notes of citrus and honey that is perfect for enhancing sweet and savory dishes alike. 

Linda Alexander, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2008

Video by Starla Willis, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2011

THE POLLINATOR-FRIENDLY GARDEN—AND GARDENER

June 28, 2022

Pollinator week has passed but we will continue to celebrate pollinators all month long with pictures, stories, and garden advice. Plant with purpose, now is a great time to create a pollinator-friendly yard or garden.

Bees are Essential!

What is actually involved in being a pollinator friendly gardener?  First open your eyes to the complex world that is your garden.  Pay close attention to the plants and creatures and the interaction between them. This is how the garden will become even more useful to pollinators—and to the gardener as well.

Consider that pollinator can be one of a great many creatures.  What an opportunity for learning!  These creatures have been essential to life for a very long time but they need all the help that gardeners can give.  Solitary bees make up 90% of native bees and bumble bees make up the rest. They are social but live in small groups numbering in the hundreds, not the many thousands of bees that make up honeybee hives. Now honeybees do wonderful things but your garden is not an almond orchard.  Native bees will do a great job pollinating the flowers including the flowers of herbs and vegetables.

The gardener doesn’t need to know hundreds of bee names to observe the differences between them and to begin to see how they interact with the plants in the garden. Accept that wasps, flies and beetles are also involved in pollination.  Be careful and observe them as they go about their lives. They have a place in the world so share the message.

Didn’t pollinator gardens used to be called butterfly gardens?  Well, it’s an updated designation but butterflies are an essential part of gardening.  Butterflies are delightful and this is important. They are a wonderful way to engage potential gardeners—that’s everybody!

Vesta Crescent Butterfly on Hardy Ageratum

Bees are essential but butterflies win “most popular insect” every time.  Of course, the pollinator garden should attract and care for them.  Flowers are what is needed, lots of flowers. Plant as many shapes and sizes as can be grown and not just in spring but summer and fall, too. That requires planning and of course ongoing care but that’s what gardeners do.

 Everyone wants monarchs, of course they do, and that’s fine but don’t stop there.  There are so many butterflies to learn about. In this area the garden could be visited by eastern black swallowtails, pipevine swallowtails, painted ladies’, common buckeyes, lots of skippers (some people say they aren’t really butterflies) but they are lovely little creatures.  Snouts—so easy to recognize—yes they do have a snout.

Delicate hairstreaks love tiny flowers, there are dusky wings of various sorts. Funeral is a favorite with its dark wings bordered with white.  So many and all are interesting and beautiful. Take the time to look carefully. Honestly, they are just as enchanting as monarchs.

Gardeners want butterflies—so take the next step.  Find out about their host plants and try to grow at least three different kinds if possible.  Butterflies have an amazing ability to find their host plants so eggs can be laid. Then the larvae hatch. Do they eat the plants? Yes. Do the plants then look ragged? Yes”, but without this…no butterflies.  Do not assume this is common knowledge.  It isn’t and needs a good explanation. Never use pesticides, then explain again.  Butterflies and bees are insects.  Diplomatic skill must be used! So much to learn, but that’s the great thing. There is no need for boredom!

There are many sources of information on bees, butterflies, wasps and butterfly gardening.

A great butterfly reference is “Butterflies of Oklahoma, Kansas and North Texas”

(By John M Pole, Walter B Gerard and John M Nelson from the University of Oklahoma Press) 

Look up the Xerces society for information on native bees along with gardening and conservation information also. 

Susan Thornbury, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2008

Pictures by Starla Willis, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2011

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