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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

Conquering a Fear with Friends  – in the Garden!

June 22, 2022

A view of the garden through the cantaloupe vines

The ground in the melon patch is covered with cantaloupe vines. Twice I have seen a rat scurrying for cover under the leaves.  Despite many childhood summers on my grandparents’ farm, I find the prospect of being in an enclosed space with rodents a bit off-putting to say the least. 

I told my fellow rodent averse gardening friends about it on a recent volunteer workday. Unsurprisingly, no one else was eager to go on cantaloupe duty. We decided that if all six of us went to harvest the cantaloupe at the same time, any creatures would flee.

A couple of us went inside the fenced enclosure to harvest.  Others served as melon spotters because the fruit is hard to see amidst the dense leaves.  As soon as we picked the cantaloupes we handed them off to someone outside the fence –  – a huge help because melons are unwieldy and there was no place to set a basket without crushing the vines.

Working together we quickly harvested 44 pounds of perfectly ripened cantaloupe that we donated to North Dallas Shared Ministries. We also harvested another 12 pounds or so of imperfect fruit that we tasted and shared among ourselves.

Courage has never been so delicious!

Success! Both the Ambrosia and smaller Sugar Cube varieties did well.

Beverly Allen, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2018

Photos courtesy of Don Heaberlin, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2021

IT’S POLLINATOR WEEK

June 21, 2022

It’s a good time to think about the pollinator area at the Raincatcher’s garden.

First this area is just a part of the large garden—the whole garden attracts and supports pollinators.

So why a designated pollinator area?  This area provides an opportunity to encourage visitors to think about the role the garden plays in supporting bees and butterflies. 

As visitors see the interaction of insects and plants, information becomes more relevant and hopefully of more lasting benefit.  The role the garden plays in the support of these amazing creatures comes alive when bees are seen carrying pollen or butterflies hover close to their host plant.  

Raincatchers spreads the word—every garden can and should—make a difference—when thought and care goes into it.

So what is the first thing to think about when making a garden pollinator friendly?  The old rule—First—do no harm!  Chemical pesticides cannot be used—reducing use is not an option; butterflies and bees are insects so to try to attract them and then kill them is simply not  to be considered.  Just because it says organic—doesn’t mean its ok, some organic products can be used carefully—very carefully!

Its complicated—of course it is—but a garden is plants and in the pollinator area the aim is to grow as wide a variety of plants as possible—aiming for as long a bloom time as possible but also the aim is to have a variety in size and form so bees and butterflies large and small and even tiny can find something that appeals to them.

Butterflies are the stars of any pollinator area and to support them their life cycle must be considered.  Flowers are essential for adults but to really help there must also be the host plants or plants where eggs are laid and larvae grow.  For most butterflies the plant is a specific one cannot be changed. Without the correct host plant—no eggs, no larvae, and no new butterflies.

There are many plants at Raincatcher’s but lets  look at a few that would make great choices for a new pollinator friendly garden.

  1.  For a great many years a huge lantana has been a garden feature.  Rightly so everyone seems to love it.  Its literally a magnet for butterflies large and small –maybe it’s the “landing pad” flower form?  Bees love it too so it’s a winner.
  2. Salvias—it doesn’t seem possible to have too many.  The large ‘indigo spires’ and the ‘amistad’  attract bumble bees and other large bees take time to watch them as they climb into the individual flowers—don’t worry—they will tell you with loud buzzing when you take that step closer.  
  3. Two small trees—Bee brush and Texas kidneywood attract honey bees and a variety of small and even tiny native bees—take time to watch and breath in while close the flowers smell lovely.
  4. Coneflowers—they are popular with everyone butterflies and honey bees as well as native bees visit.  Keep them deadheaded and they bloom for a long time which is so valuable.

Now think about some host plants.

  1.  Pipevine is growing under the vitex tree.  Its just really getting a good start now and must grow more.  It’s the host plant for the beautiful pipevine swallowtail.  Its growing well but there isn’t enough those larvae eat an amazing amount and its important to have lots.  This is true of all the host plants grow multiple plants .  It isn’t a good situation to have larvae run out of food before they are grown.
  2. Common fennel this is a host plant for eastern black swallowtails—we have had some larvae on this plant. Dill and parsley are great too but fennel is wonderful for standing up better in summer.
  3.   Prickly ash—this is a large tree it’s a host plant for giant swallowtails.

We have small candlestick trees growing, (Senna alata) a host plant for sulfurs.

We also have baby African milkweeds growing.

These are just a few of the plants growing.  Come and visit the garden to see them.  There will be garden workers on Tuesday mornings but you are welcome to visit any time.

But it can’t stop with a visit.  Every garden counts—and that means yours—think how you can make it more pollinator friendly.

Pollinators are depending on us—just like we are depending on them!

Susan Thornbury, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2008

Starla Willis -Pictures, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2009

Tomatoes In My Garden

June 14, 2022

Early Girl tomatoes ready to pick

What would we do without the advice of friends, especially Master Gardener friends.

Beverly, who volunteers in the vegetable garden at Raincatcher’s, gets the credit for my bumper crop of tomatoes this year. She talks about tomato problems as in her last blog and this one, but also gives promising advice.

After viewing the webinar Epic Tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier, Beverly sent these notes:

Pick tomatoes at full size and 35% of color. This has a cool name – “breaker stage”.  It will help prevent splitting due to rain and will also help protect from all kinds of creatures.

Ripen indoors, don’t use sunny area.

Do not pinch suckers off dwarf or determinate plants.

Don’t take off all suckers on indeterminates.

Suckers are new plants. On big plants they may extend fruiting periods. They also provide shade.

Use suckers, especially on hybrids like Sun Gold, to start new plants (clone). Let root in water.


More good advice from TAMU : Why are my tomato leaves turning yellow? Nutrition, disease, physical disorders may be the culprit.

And thanks to my eldest son and grandson for watering my garden during the crucial early stages when I was out of town with a brand new grandson. Your diligence made my tomato hopes a juicy reality.

Ann Lamb, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2005

Are Tomatoes The Jerkiest/ Most Obnoxious Plant There Is?

June 12, 2022

 I have given up thinking about tomatoes in terms of their life cycle. Instead I look at it this way;  each stage is an ongoing disaster until we shut down the whole operation in July because they will no longer set fruit. 

The life of a tomato is a progression through fungal disease, wilt, blight, and infestations of mites and hornworms.  We anticipate these events and do our best to prevent them but around June you can easily find yourself, as I did, staring at hornworms the size of my index finger.  Owing to their coloring, hornworms are perfectly camouflaged until they have defoliated their habitat, i.e. our tomato plants. (We sentenced the hornworms to community service at our host organization’s preschool so the children could observe their transformation into sphinx moths.)

Don’t forget that while you are dealing with disease and pests, you must also be aware of your tomato’s changing fertilizer and watering needs.  Decrease the nitrogen when they start to bloom. Keep your tomatoes watered consistently and while doing so consult your crystal ball for the next unexpected rain that will cause them to split. 

Are tomatoes the jerkiest plant – making us work much harder than any plant should expect? Or, are they good for us in the sense that taking care of something other than ourselves is good therapy? 


The tomatoes harvested so far this year have redeemed themselves by joining the peppers in family packs donated to North Dallas Shared Ministries.

Beverly Allen, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2018

The Old Red Shed is Gone

After many years of service as a storage facility for both the church and garden, the old red shed was in a state of disrepair. Rotted floors, bulging sides, leaking roof and collapsing doors made it unsafe for volunteers to use. Watching as it was torn down gave us a sigh of relief. 

What happened next, with nothing left but an empty space, allowed for a time of reflection. The area bordering the north side of the shed had been transformed into a lovely sensory garden, one of our newest additions to the edible landscape. Expansion to the now vacant area would require the installation of an irrigation system but the church had suggested that they might need the space for future use. The other option was to relocate the sensory garden. Our decision was something unexpected which, ultimately, proved to be a magical solution. 

Just a few yards away and bordering the stone pathway was a garden area we had previously christened as “The Kaleidoscope Bed”. With an eclectic mix of evergreen and perennial flowers and herbs as well as colorful annuals, it seemed as if we were being invited to consider yet another transformational opportunity. In the blink of an eye followed a sweet smile of happiness, the blending of gardens began. The Kaleidoscope Bed would graciously surrender its name while allowing existing plants and ornamental features to remain in place. 

Our plan going forward is to maximize the sensory impact that the garden has on its visitors. Adhering to the 70/30 rule, our primary focus will be the addition of more edibles supported by a small percentage of non-edibles. We’ll be including textural plants such as lamb’s ear for it’s soft, fuzzy feel and an upright, aromatic rosemary for both smell and touch. 

For real summertime garden beauty, we’re going to feature Balsamic Blooms Basil once again. It’s the basil that received a Texas Superstar designation in 2017. We first fell in love with its deep purple blooms and the sweet flavor of its gorgeous foliage in the spring of 2018. When we learned that this was the first basil to have flowers and leaves growing at the same time, our vote was unanimous to move it to the top of our seasonal list. Balsamic Blooms will always have a place of honor in the edible landscape. 

Balsamic Blooms Basil and Begonias

Our newly relocated and appropriately named Sensory Garden offers triple the amount of space than before to feature a wide variety of plants that stimulate the senses. Come by for an inspirational visit and let your soul be nourished by the wonderful world of nature.

Linda Alexander, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2008

Avocado Toast…Dressed Up in Seasonal Colors

It was only a few years ago when just an ordinary piece of toast topped with gently smashed avocado became the rage. You’ll find it now on menus across the country from small cafes to upscale restaurants. Everyone seems to have created their own version by using an alphabetical listing of edibles including everything from artichokes and micro greens to tomatoes and tarragon for appeal. My approach tends to be more simplistic in style. 

An early morning harvest from my edible garden provides a seasonally fresh selection of blossoms, greens, herbs and vegetables. On Saturday mornings from April until November a visit to our local farmer’s market gives me additional options. Here are a few delicious suggestions that my husband and I have recently enjoyed but be creative with your choices because any combination that pleases your palate is a winner. 

Springtime

*Thinly Sliced French Breakfast Radishes, Onion Chives and Nasturtium Blossoms

*Broccoli Florets, Arugula and Mrs. Taylor’s Scented Pelargonium Blossoms

*Thinly Sliced Carrots Topped with Caraway Sprigs

*Swiss Chard Perpetual Spinach and Nepitella Blossoms

Summertime

*Sliced East Texas Peaches and French Tarragon

*Campari Tomatoes Sprinkled with Chopped Balsamic Blooms Basil Leaves

*Sliced East Texas Peaches, Sweet Banana Peppers and Purple Basil

*Armenian Cucumbers with Salad Burnet and Watercress

Avocado toast is something we enjoy for breakfast, brunch, lunch and as a delightful appetizer. For a light summer dinner we often serve it alongside homemade gazpacho or chilled cucumber soup. Our goal is simply to use garden fresh ingredients! The only exception is when I’ve made a visit to purchase fresh eggs from my master gardener friend who raises chickens at her ranch. A delicately fried egg sitting on top makes for a very scrumptious breakfast experience.

**Additional edibles from summer’s bounty will include anise hyssop blossoms, blueberries, shaved yellow crooked neck and zucchini squash, onions, jalapeno and shishito peppers. To complete the flavor kick be sure to consider a sprinkling of these herbs; anise, dill, fennel, lovage, mint, papalo, pipicha, lemon thyme and rosemary or any of your personal favorites. 

Linda Alexander, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2008

When Your Garden Provides the Ingredients…

Try These Three Recipes:

Asparagus, blueberries, garlic, jalapeno peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, basil, cilantro, Italian parsley, and mint are some of our Zone 8 seasonal garden crops. If you’re growing any of these springtime and summer favorites, consider giving them a starring role for breakfast, lunch, brunch or dinner. Each recipe calls for a list of ingredients which can be picked, snipped and harvested directly from the garden. The combined flavor profiles will elevate that fresh-from-the-garden taste experience we find so satisfying to our palates.  

Caprese Roasted Asparagus with Grape Tomatoes

Fettuccine with Cashew, Mint and Cilantro Pesto

Blueberry Zucchini Muffins

You may have noticed that the common thread in each of these recipes is olive oil. This past Christmas, family members and close friends received themed gift packages from my husband and me featuring olive oil and olive wood products. From olive wood boards, bowls and spoons to different varieties of olive oil, each one was customized for the recipient. A recipe for my favorite olive oil cake was included with each gift. 

As the spirit of giving continues, throughout 2022 our family and friends are receiving a monthly recipe featuring new and unusual ways of cooking or baking with olive oil. The three recipes listed above were for March, April and May. Summer recipes calling for olive oil will include farm fresh garden vegetables (corn, tomatoes, peppers, squash, etc.) and zesty, flavorful herbs. I’m even sharing a cobbler recipe that calls for ¼ cup of lemon olive oil!

 If you are an olive oil fan, check back for monthly recipes featuring this versatile product and its variety of uses. Writing in The Illiad, Homer revered olive oil as having the qualities of “liquid gold”. Let’s discover those possibilities together over the next seven months. 

A Bit of Trivia…It was the ancient Greeks who invented the salad dressing which was comprised of extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, sea salt and honey.

Linda Alexander, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2008

We Love Interns!

May 16, 2022

Here in the north garden at Raincatcher’s we are sheet mulching 800 square feet of turf demonstration beds to create more space for growing vegetables.  It’s more work than it sounds!  Luckily, the 2022 Master Gardener interns have been ready and willing to give us that extra bit of help to complete the project. 

One Tuesday in May a great group of interns helped us clear a path large enough to get wheelbarrows through to the gate of our brand new fence. They also cut a large cover crop of fava beans down to the ground. 

This past Saturday the class mustered again and created paths through the new beds.

They also solarized the westernmost bed where it has been most difficult to convince the Bermuda grass to go away. 

Beverly Allen, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2018

and thanks to Don Heaberlin, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2021


To learn more about solarizing click here.

And to learn more about becoming a Dallas County Master Gardener click here.

Plant Sale Thursday.

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