Life Lessons from the Garden: The Secret Ingredient

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

My mom is originally from Germany and still retains her thick German accent despite being in the United States for more than fifty years now. She has a rich heritage of living through World War II, coming to America through Ellis Island, and countless stories. My mother is strong, both physically and in character, with a quick wit, hilarious sense of humor and unending energy. I hope to be as vibrant as she is when I’m 81. Truth be told, I sometimes wish I were as vibrant today. My mom and I are both passionate about gardening. We share many joys as it relates to flowers and other greenery in our yards, but also many frustrations. The greatest frustration is what she affectionately calls “varmints.” Squirrels, rabbits, deer, chipmunks, etc. these are the types of creatures that can destroy a garden. We both like to be environmentally conscious in our gardens, trying to avoid lots of chemicals or inhumane ways to solve the varmint problem.

rabbit-717855_960_720One day as we were eating lunch at a restaurant, my mom began sharing about a home remedy she had found in a gardening magazine. It required combining various ingredients commonly found in your home that would get sprayed on flowers. Try to imagine her thick accent as you consider the dialogue that took place in that corner booth. “I tried a new formula for the rabbits that keep eating my plants,” she said. So I played along. “What’s in it?” I asked, expecting the usual ingredients. She responded, “Well, there’s water, und Ivory soap, und castor oil. ..” I thought to myself, “Hmmm … It doesn’t sound terribly potent.” She rattled off some other ingredients from her kitchen, which seemed to make the recipe a little more promising. Then she put down her sandwich, gave a mischievous smile, and said with dramatic pauses, “Then … I added … the secret ingredient.” I waited for her to finish. Looking at her expectantly, I gave her the look that says, “And the secret ingredient is???” Silence. She wouldn’t tell me! I tried prodding it out of her, but she just kept smiling, laughing at my discomfort, hesitant to reveal the lengths she went to for her concoction. Frustrated, I gave up my pursuit of the answer and went back to my lunch. Just as I was about to take a nice, big bite of my sandwich, she blurted out very matter of fact, “I peed in it.” Have you ever had a laughing fit? That’s what happened that day. I couldn’t contain my laughter. My mom joined in the giggling as we tried to subdue the moment. Other patrons in the restaurant began to stare, giving that look that questioned, “What’s your problem?” If they only knew!

We want a recipe, don’t we? Not just for problems in the garden, but we want a formula that will fix the problems of life: the path to financial freedom, the perfect diet, the ten steps to happiness, the “easy how-to”. And the magazines, media and infomercials are more than ready to tell us how to make it happen on our own for only three easy payments of $19.95. In fact, more than 8 billion dollars is spent annually in the self-help industry in America. I’ve found that I long for a secret ingredient to solve life’s problems too, mostly because I’m afraid to expose my own secrets that can hold me in chains and rob me of life. Secrets can take on different forms – maybe hurts from the past that haven’t been dealt with, moments of indiscretion that you’d rather keep quiet, a habit that has slowly grown into an addiction, an area in life where you’re afraid to admit you fall short. I do believe there is a secret ingredient that will help those who battle with these struggles. Don’t worry; it doesn’t require peeing in a bucket. But truth be told, it is even more unpleasant for most. It’s unconventional in society. It screams against the mainstream, asking something of you that most are unwilling to surrender

So, what’s the secret ingredient to living life to the fullest? Expose the secret. It sounds secret-1142327_960_720simple. But for most, the prospect of exposing their secret life causes panic attacks and cold sweats. “But then it’s not a secret,” you say. Exactly. There is incredible power in secrets. Secrecy is the enemy of our soul. We’re often convinced that we need to keep our struggles a secret; that we need to hide it in a veil of darkness. But darkness is where despair resides. When we expose our secret it allows others to share in our lives and know us from the inside out. I don’t know about you, but my deepest longing is to be loved for who I am, not for who I want people to think I am. When we’re truly known, yet truly loved, that’s when we’re truly satisfied. Many think that rejection or disgust from others awaits those who discard their masks of pretense and expose areas in their life where they might not have it all together. But the beauty of it is that the opposite happens. When authenticity shines through, it draws people in. Let’s all be authentic people, exposing our own secrets and admitting our faults. Let’s not only share in the pains, joys and struggles of others, but allow others to share in ours as well. That’s what relationships are for.

Tammy is a regular contributor to our quarterly member newsletter, and her articles will now be a monthly addition to our blog.

Return to Reverence – The Marigold

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

Early on in my marriage I wasn’t exactly a gardening diva. In fact, I had very little interest in gardening. But my husband’s father, Louie, had gardening in his veins. I fondly remember going to his house and weaving my way through narrow passageways of seedling flats in his garage. Soon, the flats were transferred to a small greenhouse set up in his driveway. It wasn’t long before friends, neighbors and strangers were stopping in to buy his plants and engaging in some of the most colorful conversation they had ever had.

download (1)Louie, the ultimate salesman, always touted each variety of flower he grew, but none seemed to rival his affection for marigolds. Yes, I said marigolds! It’s not just the marigold’s distinctive scent that causes many seasoned gardeners to turn up their noses. What is it then, that brings many to dismiss them? Could it be that we have become gardening snobs, believing we have progressed too far in our botanical knowledge to extol such a lowly flower, as though it is only reserved for the commoners and unsophisticated gardeners? I hope not. I long to bring marigolds back to their once revered reputation. It’s name alone expresses how admired and respected it once was. In fact, marigold or “Mary’s gold,” was named after the most revered of all women in history, the Virgin Mary, and were believed to bring good luck. Originally discovered in Central America in the 16th century by the Portuguese, it was brought back to Europe where it grew in popularity. Today in South Asia, yellow and orange marigold flowers are grown and harvested by the millions to make garlands used to decorate statues and buildings. In Mexico and Latin America, marigold flowers are used to celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day, and flower heads are scattered on relatives’ graves. So, it stands to reason that they should receive an honored place in our own gardens. Through the years many hybrids have been developed to bring out the most desirable characteristics like large flower heads, various plant sizes and unique colorations.

Perhaps the furthest advances in breeding, however, have been in diminishing one of its most notable qualities: its scent. Many people find the scent offensive. I personally find it’s something that one needs to learn to appreciate. I like to think of it like coffee; when I first tried coffee, I couldn’t understand why anyone would drink such an awful concoction. But with time I came to acquire a taste for the brew and now I love to greet each morning with a hot cup of coffee. And likewise, I love to greet each spring with marigolds.

Many use marigolds to outline garden beds or vegetable plots, believing they help keep out rabbits, deer and insects. While marigolds can deter some pests, they are not the all-purpose pest and plant repellent that people have been led to believe they are. Yet the marigold itself is virtually pest and disease free, with the exception of their arch-nemesis, earwigsfrench-marigold-1225611__180, which like to nestle and munch inside its tightly clustered flower heads. Despite countless breeders’ attempts, very few new color varieties of marigolds have been developed. The most common remain the yellow, gold and orange varieties seen in garden centers and catalogues. You will not find a pink marigold… yet.

Burpee’s Seeds, however, has done exceptionally well with developing unusual white varieties of marigolds. ‘French Vanilla’ is my personal favorite. It’s scent is light and pleasant, and is one of Burpee’s earliest triumphs in hybridizing white marigolds. It grows to 2’ with large 3½” flower heads and deep green foliage. The blooms are white with a hint of cream. Other notable white varieties include ‘Snowball’ and ‘Snowdrift’. Burpee’s Seeds played a major role in making the marigold among the most used flowers in America. After sweeping over Europe and Asia in popularity, David Burpee saw the promise in marigolds. In 1915 he took over the seed company founded by his father, W. Atlee Burpee. Young David felt that marigolds held promise and decided to feature them in his catalog and fund research. If you love giant flower heads, try the ‘Inca’ or ‘Inca II’ varieties. These giants produce 4-5” flower heads of bright yellow or orange on stocky 20” plants. If you’ve driven down South Oneida Street in Appleton during the summer, you’ll notice this variety lining the streets of Marigold Mile. Many other great varieties are available. Here are the three most common types of marigolds:


  • African or American Marigolds: These plants grow to 3’ in height with large globe-shaped flowers. ‘French Vanilla’ is among these beauties.
  • French Marigolds: These plants generally grow from 5-18” tall. Flower colors include red, orange and yellow, as well as bicolor varieties. Flowers grow to 2”across. A great new variety is called ‘Fireball,’ a unique combination of yellow and reddish orange with a large flower head.
  • Signet Marigolds: Recognized for their finely divided, lacy foliage and clusters of small, single flowers. The flowers are yellow to orange colored and are edible, having a spicy tarragon flavor. The foliage also has a pleasant lemon fragrance. A popular variety is ‘Starfire,’ with petite, bushy plants that boast hundreds of small florets.

downloadThe marigold. It’s no fuss, easy going, with a bright and sunny disposition. It may not be the flashiest of flowers or even the most impressive. It’s good at highlighting others around it, and is reliable, strong and simple. But I suppose that is why I love the marigold so much. Its attributes, character and charm remind me of Louie, who has sadly since gone on to meet the Master Gardener of all gardeners. It is partly because of him that I am so passionate about starting my own seeds, and I will always grow ‘French Vanilla’ marigolds in his memory.

Life Lessons from the Garden: From a Chore to a Delight

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

I grudgingly picked up the rake and began in the corner of my yard, which seemed the size of a small nation at the time. It was overwhelming. Spring had arrived, and the yard was strewn with litter, leaves and pine cones. But I pressed on, determined to conquer my yard. As I inched along I noticed a chickadee in a tree about twenty feet away. He’d swoop down to grab a single sunflower seed from my bird feeder and fly back up to his familiar branch. He’d sit and crack it against the bark to open it, eat the nut, and fly back down. This went on for quite some time, and as I continued to rake, I got closer and closer to my new-found companion. The chickadee didn’t seem to mind that I was now only a couple feet away. He flew down once again, right in front of me, and snatched a seed. I stood there for a moment, admiring his bravery. Curious, I leaned my rake against the feeder and reached inside to grab a handful of seeds. Raising my hand to the sky, I thought, “It sure would be cool if he…” Just then, the little chickadee flew down and landed on my finger. It felt like a whisper and I almost winced at the touch of his tiny feet. He gave a scolding chirp, grabbed a single seed and flew back to his perch. I stood there motionless for a moment with my hand outstretched. But inside my heart leapt with excitement and disbelief.

In an instant, the tedious chore of raking my lawn became a delight. I didn’t have a very willing attitude when I first started raking my lawn. But I obediently did it, despite my reluctance. And I was rewarded with an unexpected treasure. I think that’s true in life too. There are many things I know I “should” do, but I always find an excuse to put it off. Maybe there are areas in your own life where you are reluctant and unwilling because the sacrifice of time, money or effort seems overwhelming. But as is true with working in the garden, a great, and often, unexpected reward awaits you. Honestly, I can’t wait to experience the joy of raking my lawn this spring. But I would not have that willing attitude, had I not… grudgingly picked up the rake and began in the corner of my yard, which seemed the size of a small nation at the time ..

Tammy is a regular contributor to Garden Snips


Rhubarb Season is here

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tom Wentzel

UntitledThis is my first rhubarb harvest this year. There was one more, but I ate it. We all have bunches of recipes for using rhubarb so I won’t go there.

Chinese records from 2700 BC record its medicinal use. Marco Polo documented its use, but I’m not sure if he introduced it to Europe. A while ago, I visited Old World Wisconsin. In one of the Germany heritage houses there was a string of, what I thought, were chicken bones. It was dried rhubarb! Many of the historical uses that I have read seem to be medicinal, rather that culinary.

My first picking didn’t have that lip puckering sourness of later season harvests. The sourness is due to the pH (acidity) which is in the range of 3.1 – 3.2. For reference, fresh lemon juice has a pH of about 2. Adding sugar doesn’t “neutralize” the acidity, it simply covers it up.

Rhubarb leaves have a reputation as being toxic. This is due to the relatively high concentration of oxalic acid. Oxalic acid’s primary effects can be stomach irritation and kidney problems. Ten pounds of leaves would be required to deliver a lethal dose. Kitchen pot cleaners such as Bar Keepers Friend and ZUD use oxalic acid as the primary active ingredient.

Uses for Rhubarb leaves:

  • Use them as a mulch.
  • They can be composted in limited quantities.
  • GREAT for leaf castings
  • I have seen recipes for rhubarb leaf concoctions as insecticides and repellents. These have been anecdotal, their effectiveness has not been verified.

I will break my promise not to talk recipes. Here’s mine: Peel, then eat.

Life Lessons from the Garden: Guided Home

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

Migration is a mysterious thing. For us humans, it’s somewhat easier to explain our tendency to want to venture away from the familiar. But what about those birds? Surely they are the masters of migration. Not all birds migrate: cardinals, woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, goldfinches and blue jays are examples. Scientists aren’t quite sure why birds migrate, and how they migrate is almost as much a mystery too. For example, I have bluebirds in my yard each year. As I’ve done some research on bluebirds, I’ve learned that it’s very common for a family of birds to return to the exact same nesting box year after year. This is despite migrating hundreds of miles to get there. However, several birds that we see each summer travel much farther than bluebirds, which spend their winters in southern US states.

Consider the Ruby Throated Hummingbird. It weighs the equivalent of a nickel, yet it flies thousands of miles from Central and South America, across the Gulf of Mexico, and as far north as Canada. The Baltimore Oriole, Rose Breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting and many warblers also come as far. Like bluebirds, they will often return to the same neighborhood each year. Think about it; there’s no mini GPS units strapped to their backs telling them to turn left in X mile, at which time they’ll arrive at their destination of the little brown ranch house on the edge of the woods. It’s a mystery. Something draws them home. Something compels them to keep going, to not be persuaded to go off course, despite the storms and blowing winds. It’s as if they are fixed like a laser beam on their final destination. They are not influenced, swayed or convinced to follow a different path. There is an unseen force guiding them and they know where they belong.

Oh, how I wish I were as compelled. I confess that I often begin many journeys of life with my eyes fixed on the prize and determined to follow the right path. It may be something as simple as a commitment to exercise, or something of a more serious matter like a promise from the heart. I sincerely long to make the right choices, but as storms come and the winds of life blow, I’m often discouraged to give up or settle for less than the goal, less than home. Temptations and tangents can easily come. I’ve made many mistakes in my life, and through them I’ve learned, quite honestly, that left to myself I can be led astray and settle for less than what I know was intended for my life. I can’t navigate life… by myself. My depth of sincerity isn’t enough. My will power isn’t enough. Even my best isn’t enough … by myself. I long to be like the bluebird who returns to my yard each spring, guided by an unseen force, a force greater than my flawed self. My heart treasures those times, when taking the right path is an effortless journey, one where I’m guided by that unseen force to where I belong. Left to my own defenses, my own efforts, and my own limited wisdom, I’d never find home. I’m so thankful that in the end, it’s really not up to me to get there, and that I can rely on a mysterious power and strength greater than my own to guide me home.

Tammy is a regular contributor to our quarterly member newsletter, and her articles will now be a monthly addition to our blog.

myGardenAnswers App

Recently I visited my daughter in Kentucky and was enjoying the beautiful spring-flowering trees. She asMyGardenAnswersk me the name of a tree and although it looked familiar (it was a Redbud), I was disappointed that I couldn’t answer her question.  When I returned home I found and downloaded an awesome, free app called myGardenAnswers.  It is so simple to use.  This is what the main screen looks like.  You use the camera on your phone and press “Take a photo of your plant”.  It displays the plants name, a photo and a brief description of it.  You can also ask questions and search for additional information.


When I was in Florida last week I put my app to work.  Outside my hotel, in the landscape was this shrub.  I took the picture below and the corresponding screen shows the results.


If the app displays multiple pictures you can pick the correct one.


This app provides me with on the spot plant identification and information when I want it. If you are one of those people who “needs to know now” I suggest you give this app a go!

Written by Bev Kindschy

Confession is good for the soul!

I love my gardens.  I don’t plant veggies (a few tomatoes each year is all), but I love the masses of flowers and herbs that grow around my gardens.  Watching the shoots come up in the Spring and the flower buds emerge as a variety of colors:  well, I just love that!  Inviting people over and basking in the oohs and aahs as I humbly bow my head and mutter “oh, it’s nothing” — who doesn’t love that?! The changing of leaves in the Fall with, once again, a riotous display of colors and fragrances:  again, I’m enchanted. However, I’m definitely not a summer gardener. There! I’ve said it out loud.

I do not enjoy deadheading so, when my dianthus and daisies start to droop I tend to just look in another direction.  Shrubs getting a little out of bounds?  Just take another path and maybe someone will correct that for me.  Containers that were gorgeous and held so much promise in June look a little woebegone in a July drought. To ease the boredom of the continual watering that needs to be done, I find myself playing with the different settings on my sprinkler and seeing which ones I can dodge most effectively. My garden journal, which I carefully divided into categories in the Spring, still holds a lot of sparklingly clean pages.  [Fortunately, I have been recording everything via photographs throughout the summer so I have something to fall back on next year when I start out like a house-afire with my planning in February and March.]

When I go on vacation, I’m always thrilled to walk through carefully manicured pathways on either side of which are mounds of gorgeous blooms of every color, size, and fragrance. With my trusty camera in hand, I record things that “I’m definitely going to incorporate in my gardens”. Yes, I admit it — that pretty much never happens. This ‘road paved with good intentions’ is a pretty common thing in our household. Last weekend, my husband and I were at a large arts & craft fair and I saw some lovely cat tails made of copper pipes. My husband said “Oh I can make those for you”.  After 33 years, I’ve learned the difference between “can” and “will”. We agreed that he’d probably get around to making them while I was out deadheading my garden. In other words, I bought them on the spot!

Written by Vicki