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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


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

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

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

Another Reason to Visit the Raincatcher’s Garden at Midway Hills Christian Church!

As if it isn’t enough to make a trip to the Raincatcher’s garden to enjoy the beauty of the garden, make friends, work with other volunteers, get certification hours, shop at a great plant sale (May 19th from 10 am – 3 pm!!!), learn about plants and good gardening practices, etc., now there is one more reason to make the trip to the garden. 

We have a new feathered friend who has taken up residence in an owl box built just for him or her. The owl box is high up in a tree in the courtyard facing the parking lot and the view that this lucky owl gets to see is the beautiful edible garden.  The best part is, when the owl hears voices, he/she tends to stick its head out and seems interested in the conversation! 

Thanks to Colleen Murray(Dallas County Master Gardener) for organizing the owl box at the garden and to Stan Herndon(Community Volunteer) for the photo. 

Jackie James, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 1993

Pepper Palooza at the Raincatcher’s Plant Sale

We made a decision last year to fill the courtyard at Raincatcher’s garden in 2022 with lots of pepper plants.  Some of the peppers will be grown to use in our very popular pepper jellies but several of the ones we selected are for ornamental purposes.  Ornamental peppers are safe to eat but they are typically used for their attractive color or ornamental quality rather than their flavor.  They are often considered too hot to eat by most people.  

Fish Pepper

A favorite ornamental pepper that you will see growing in the courtyard is the Fish pepper.   Last summer, we fell in love with this pepper plant growing in the edible garden.  In fact, most visitors to the garden asked us about this plant because it is so unusual and beautiful.  The Fish pepper is an African-American heirloom variety that dates back to the 1800’s. It is a large plant and the leaves range from fully white to part green and fully green.  I can testify to the fact that the peppers on this plant pack a lot of heat as I was asked to try it in preparation for the pepper class that was taught at the garden last summer!!!  

Fidalgo Roxa

Fidalgo Roxa is a pepper plant from Brazil and is considered to be “one of a kind.”  The flowers are white and purple and the plant will eventually be loaded with purple, pink and apricot colored peppers.  It is described to have a fruity flavor that is in the upper mid heat range.

  

Cherry Bomb

Cherry Bomb (AKA Hot Cherry Pepper) is another variety that we chose to grow this year.  It is a beautiful compact plant with brilliant red cherry-like peppers.  Despite its name, this pepper is described as having a heat level close to a mild jalapeno – medium heat with a sweet taste.  The pepper is fleshy and juicy and can be used as a substitute for jalapenos, in vinegars and is good for stuffing and pickling.  

 

Shishito Pepper

Shishito pepper is a Japanese pepper variety that is very trendy right now.  They are easy to grow and yield a lot of fruit in a short period of time.  The plants are compact and do well in containers.  They have thin skin which makes them perfect for quick frying, roasting and grilling.  The pepper is considered to be mildly spicy but occasionally you might find one that really packs a punch!  

Aji Dulce pepper

And back by popular demand, we have grown more of the Aji Dulce peppers for the sale this year.  This is a fun plant with red and green lantern shaped peppers.  They are sweet and can be used in many recipes.  If you read the article I wrote for this blog last year, you will remember that the seeds came from Puerto Rico from my good friend Paco.  We have had several requests for this “Paco” pepper plant from people who bought and grew this plant last year!!!   

The Raincatcher’s plant sale is on Thursday, May 19, 2022 from 10 AM – 3 PM at Midway Hills Christian Church (11001 Midway Road, Dallas 75229).  You won’t want to miss out on this opportunity to fill your yard with beautiful and useful pepper plants.  Other pepper varieties will also be available along with many annuals, perennials, herbs, shrubs, yuccas, ground covers, etc.  Hope to see you there!!!  

Jackie James, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 1993

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