Tag Archive | Garden Education

Familiar Friend Can Add Drama

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tom Wentzel

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Rudbeckia Herbstonne is a very dramatic background plant. This specimen is 6 – 7’ tall and as you can see has the advantage of flower on the upper 1/3 of its height.   Therefore it does not interfere with foreground plantings.

It is a carefree plant. It does like rich well drained soil and will tolerate some draught once it is established. This plant in my garden was planted as two clumps about 5 years ago. The clumps have since grown together. Although it is does spread by rhizomes it general stays in its clump and is easy to control. Deer and rabbits tend to leave it alone but insects and birds love it.

With a little dead heading it will bloom from late July into fall. I leave the stalks in place for winter interest.

Pharmacy in your Garden?

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Traditional Medicine Market in China

There is no doubt that many plants are useful medicinally, just as there is equal certainty that many of them are poisonous. The problem is that these are often the same plants. The vast array of widely available herbal supplements and the equally huge assortment of books on herbal healing reinforce a general sense that natural products are safer than manufactured ones. But the truth is a resounding “sometimes yes and sometimes no.” Herbal medicine is a huge and complicated subject, well worth investigating but by no means something to plunge into incautiously. Things to bear in mind:

  • Very few scientifically rigorous studies have been done, largely because almost all such studies are underwritten by drug companies, and herbs, which cannot be patented, could never return the investment involved.
  • There is no way for the home gardener to standardize dosage: plants produce different amounts of active chemical agents depending on how and where they are grown, when they are harvested, and the variety characteristics of the particular plant.
  • Herbs may interact badly with other drugs, rendering them less effective or more toxic, in unpredictable ways.
  • Like other drugs, many herbal toxins are cumulative. Small doses may produce no adverse symptoms but become dangerous in the aggregate.

The don’t-mess-with-in list. A sampling of herbs that have historic reputations as medicinals but are potentially deadly: aconite (Aconitum napellus), deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), lobelia (Lobelia inflata), May apple (Podophyllum peltatum), and pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides and Mentha pulegium both go by this common name, and the oils of both are toxic). Note: for an interesting literary exploration of some of these poisonous plants, check out our upcoming August 9, 2016 blogpost on the natural poisons found in Agatha Christie’s books.

In addition, many well-known herbs appear to be carcinogenic (sassafras, coltsfoot, and comfrey); cause abnormal heart rhythms and/or violent gastrointestinal symptoms (tansy, broom, and blood root); or have other downsides that make freelance experimentation unwise.

The give-it-a-whirl list. A sampling of herbs that are very unlikely to hurt you and may well do some good, assuming you use only small amounts: agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria), catnip (Nepeta cataria), chamomile (Matricaria recutita and Chamaemelum nobile), echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium), garlic (Allium sativum), hops (Humulus lupulus), peppermint (Mentha x piperita), and valerian (Valeriana officinalis). Be careful with Borage as it absolutely deserves its reputation as a natural laxative; a few leaves go a long way!

In addition, there are herbs that emphatically should NOT be ingested but do have strong healing properties when used externally. First and foremost is aloe, most commonly Aloe vera, which deserves its high reputation as a healer of burns. [Personal side note: I incurred a really, really bad sunburn on my lips in late June of this year — I’m talking second degree burns. Since I have a lovely pot of Aloe growing in my house, I thought I’d smear a little on my lips to make them heal. I have NEVER tasted anything worse in my whole life!! I couldn’t wipe it off fast enough and it took forever for the taste to go away.]

Another healing herb to be used externally is arnica (Arnica montana) which is right up there as an easer of aching muscles, and comfrey (Symphytum officinale) does seem to promote the healing of wounds when applied as a poultice.

Saving Seeds, Saving Memories

By Master Gardener Tammy Borden

My first experience with saving seeds began with a beautiful hyacinth bean vine that I planted from seed during my classes to become a Master Gardener. I can still recall our entire class lined up with Styrofoam cups and starting mix while Larry and Kay Herried rationed out the seeds, eager to be an agent in allowing life to come into existence. Even the seeds looked intriguing with their matte black surface and white edging.

Within days, they sprouted and it wasn’t long before they overtook a small trellis. The seedpods eventually appeared following the delicate flowers, and it was easy to simply collect the encased seeds and store them until spring. When spring finally came, it brought so much gratification to know I was a part of continuing the cycle of life as the seeds from one plant soon became sev- eral dozen more that I could share with family and friends.

Saving seeds, in general, is not too difficult, and it can save you a lot of money. Here are a few basics that need to be followed for most varieties, whether they’re a vegetable or flower.

STEP ONE

In general, select seeds from heirloom variety flowers and vegetables. As a rule of thumb, do not waste your time trying to save seeds from hybrid plants or exotic species. The offspring will most likely look nothing like the parent plant, be weak, or may not sprout at all. My mother told me how she painfully came to realize this rule when she saved seeds from a hybrid cucumber… the following spring she planted the seeds; they sprouted, grew vigorously and had promising blossoms. But when the fruit began to set, every single tiny cucumber shriveled and fell off the vine, leaving her to resort to roadside stands and tasteless produce aisles.

STEP TWO

Once you’ve selected the plants you would like to save seeds from, allow the flower or fruit to mature on the vine so the seeds can fully develop. Choose from the healthiest and finest produce or flower heads. For most peppers, allow them to go beyond the green stage until they’re red. For cucumbers, allow them to get over ripe and turn yellow on the vine. For flowers, herbs and vegetables that set seed (lettuce, radish, etc.), let them get to that unsightly brown stage or allow them to set seed pods.

STEP THREE

Harvest the seeds. For fruits and vegetables, like melons, it caseed-saving.jpgn be as easy as slicing them open and scooping out the seeds. For flowers, like zinnias, pull the seeds from the center cone that forms. For others like nicotania (flowering tobacco), hold the seed pod inside an envelope and burst it so the thousands of miniscule seeds fall inside. After harvesting the seed, allow them to fully dry out of direct sunlight on a paper plate.

STEP FOUR

Fermenting… Huh? Fermenting is not required for most seeds. However, if you want to save seeds from that mystery tomato that your uncle’s been growing for years, you’ll need to read this part! Tomatoes require an extra step that will bring back memories of growing cultures in Petri dishes in your high school biology class. Tomato seeds are enclosed in a gel-like substance containing growth inhibitors that needs to be removed through a fermentation process. Remove the seeds and place them in a glass dish. Add a small amount of wa- ter to help separate the seeds from the pulp. Then set the bowl of tomato seeds and pulp in a warm spot and allow 2-4 days for the fermentation to take place. As with most fermentation processes, don’t be alarmed if the slimy mixture develops an odor. Wait for a layer of mold to form on top of your seeds & pulp, and for the seeds to fall to the bottom. Finally, remove the mold and rinse the seeds well in a strainer, removing any remaining pulp. Spread the seeds onto a paper plate or glass dish to dry.

STEP FIVE

Storage should take place in a cool, dry, dark place where temperatures remain fairly stable. Glass jars work well, as do paper envelopes. Make sure that seeds being kept in sealed containers are completely dry so that moisture doesn’t cause molding. Clearly label your containers with the variety name and date.

STEP SIX

Some seeds require cold stratification to germinate. Most hardy perennials fall into this category. Baptisia and milkweed are two examples. Cold stratification simulates a winter freezing period and can easily be accomplished by placing these seeds in the freezer for a couple months. Research on-line or use a good reference book to determine if your seed needs this cold treatment.

Saving seeds is fun and easy. There are many seeds that may require a slightly different method for harvesting, so I suggest searching on-line for your particular variety. Or you can purchase a book to help you sort through it. “Seed to Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth, available through Seed Savers Exchange, is one suggestion. Happy harvesting!

Disbudding

Ever wonder how florists get those big, beautiful flowers? A little trick called disbudding might be the answer. Many plants will make unusually large flowers if they’re forced to make fewer of them. The technique is called disbudding because it’s most commonly applied to peonies, chrysanthemums, and roses, all of which have clusters of serially developing buds on each stem. But disbudding is really just a form of pruning, and it can be used on almost any flowering annual or perennial.

The lead bud is usually the largest, even if you do nothing. Removing the flowers that would have come after it enhances the effect by permitting the plant to put more energy into fewer blooms.

ht109-38Disbudding is especially popular among exhibition growers, who are usually after that one perfect cut flower, rather than well-balanced plants or full-looking borders. As they have discovered, even spire-formers like delphiniums will make bigger leading spires if all the secondary blooms are removed from the stem. If you want the blooms to be really gigantic, limit the number of stems in each clump and be sure you have those stakes ready.

Limiting the number of stems as well as the number of flowers will also work with summer phlox (Phlox paniculata) and Astilbe, but it won’t help with globe thistle, Joe Pye weed, or hardy asters. When in doubt, experiment. Assuming you don’t go hog wild with stem removal, this kind of extreme disbudding will have no lasting ill-effects on the plant.

 

 

Organic “weed and feed” for Lawns

Many gardeners are worried that the products being used to keep that beautiful lawn are, in fact, endangering the environment. With that in mind, then, there is a constant desire to use less damaging chemicals but, at the same time, retain a beautiful lawn. One solution may be corn gluten meal, a by-product of corn milling. It is quite high in nitrogen, which makes it a good fertilizer for grass, and it will prevent weed seeds from growing.

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Corn gluten meal being applied by a broadcast spreader

Corn gluten kills by drying up the baby sprouts as soon as the seed cracks open. However, it has no effect on perennial weeds or on annual weeds that are already growing. Furthermore, it must make good contact with the weed seeds in order to kill them — not a problem on bare soil but a tricky proposition if the grass is thick. It works best when the soil is warm, by which time many annual weeds have long since been up and about. And it lasts for only about six weeks, so you have to apply it regularly.

Corn gluten is a relatively benign fertilizer, and it can help control annual weeds if you use it faithfully, from spring to fall, for a couple of years. It is nontoxic and, in home-garden quantities, safe for the environment.

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One of my favorite hand tools for “popping” those weeds out of the lawn

There is no panacea, however — you cannot go totally organic and control 100% of weeds in your lawn unless you have some handy tools for digging out the weeds. There are a lot of really good hand tools to help you tackle those weeds, though, and maybe a cleaner environment for our kids and grandkids is worth the extra effort.

 

Drying Herbs

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Herbs and flowers drying in a warm, dry spot

All herbs can be dried, but not all of them are worth the trouble. Parsley, chervil, chives, and coriander, to name four popular favorites that are widely marketed in dried form, taste more or less like hay that way, no matter how carefully they have been processed. Most of the others, including basil, dill, thyme, rosemary, sage, and tarragon, come through very nicely — changed, to be sure, but still useful.

I’m a bit of a romantic so I like to dry my herbs the old-fashioned way: hanging them in bunches in my dry basement. The scent is heavenly when several different bundles of herbs are drying together.

Most herbs have the strongest flavor right before they start to form flower buds. They should be freshly picked, preferably in the morning as soon as the dew has dried. (Basil, however, is an exception. It’s more flavorful at the end of the day.)

If the herbs have long stems with sparse foliage at the bottom, you can hang them in bunches. Use rubber bands or twine to tie loose bundles of eight stems or so. Hang them in the chosen spot (dark, dry, warm area that gets plenty of air circulation), and keep checking on them. If the herbs have tightly packed leaves (or flowers) that might rot before they could dry, strip them from the stems and spread them on screens. Prop the screens on piles of books or bricks so air can circulate.

Over the past several years, many methods of drying herbs have arisen (including spreading them on a towel in the back seat of your car when it sits out on a hot day). I found a website that details six methods of drying — depending on the amount of time and money that you want to spend. Visit Mother Earth News for some ideas.

No matter which way you dry them, the herbs are ready to store when they are brittle and should be removed from the drying area as soon as this happens. Strip the leaves from the stems, but leave them whole. Store in air-tight glass jars in a cool, dark, dry place for up to a year. Color is a clue: a pale look probably means a pale taste.

 

Try Freezing your Herbs

Drying herbs is pretty commonplace and, for me, there’s nothing better than the fragrance of herbs drying in my basement. However, herbs that have been frozen taste fresher than dried herbs, but only for the first 4 months or so after freezing. After that, flavor declines rapidly, so freezing should be an addition to drying.

To freeze lemon verbena, lovage, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley, sage, and tarragon, use whole leaves (discard stems). To freeze dill, fennel, and thyme, use tender sprigs. Basil discolors when it is frozen, so if you want it to stay bright green, dip branches in boiling water, just for a second or two, then remove, discard stems, and gently dry the leaves.

Whatever you’re freezing should be completely dry. Spread it out in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place it in the freezer. As soon as the herbs are frozen, usually in no more than an hour or two, pack them in heavy plastic freezer bags and put the bags in freezer-safe glass jars (canning jars) for storage.

Chives don’t freeze well; they don’t dry well, either. Use them fresh or substitute green onion tops.

Another popular method for freezing herbs involves chopping them and adding them to liquid (water or olive oil), freezing them in ice cube trays, and pulling out just what you need to add to soups, sauces, gravies, etc. There are many places on the web with instructions on how to freeze herbs in liquids.

Remember: freezing herbs won’t help you any if you forget to use them, something all too easy to do. As a reminder, post an inventory of frozen herbs where you will see it when you reach for the seasonings.

 

Next time:  Drying Herbs