Hollyhocks are probably not your first thought when it comes to edible gardening, but these tall, bold beauties of our grandparents’ time may surprise you.
First, did you know that all parts of a hollyhock are edible? My chickens may not share that world view, but we frequently differ on menu items.
In addition to being edible, hollyhocks are surprisingly useful plants. Hollyhock stems make excellent starter firewood, and the roots have been used for centuries as medicine. While I do not make any medical claims about plants, research has shown that infusions of hollyhock roots may reduce stress. I’ll leave that to you.
Let’s see what else we can find out about these durable garden flowers.
Hollyhocks are members of the mallow family. Native to Europe and Asia, there are 60 or so species of hollyhock, or Alcea, with Alcea rosea being the most commonly grown. The Alcea genus includes all the hollyhocks, except for one species that is native to the western hemisphere, the streambank wild hollyhock (Iliamna rivularis).
While the streambank wild hollyhock is in a different genus, the blooms are still lovely. For this post, we will be focusing solely on Alcea hollyhocks.
Hollyhock flowers are impressive. Growing along the stalk like flagrant Brussels sprouts, large hollyhock blooms can be pink, red, apricot, raspberry, bluish pink, white, purple, or yellow. Their sturdy, unbranched stems can be equally impressive, rising 3 to 10 feet in the air, depending on the variety. There is even a nearly black cultivar, called ‘Creme de Cassis’.
Broad leaves may be toothed or lobed and grow on long stems called petioles. Both leaves and stems are generally covered with star-shaped trichomes, or hairs. While those hairs may irritate your skin, if you are sensitive, it is the hollyhock flower that grabs our attention.
Caring for hollyhocks
Hollyhocks are not particularly picky. They grow best in Hardiness Zones 3-8, can be grown in full sun or partial shade, and prefer good drainage. The only thing hollyhocks do not seem to like is dry soil. Here in California (Zone 9b), dry soil is the rule in summer, but a thick layer of arborist chips mulched over the area and planting them in a relatively protected corner of the yard seems to be help enough and they return every spring to fill my summer with gorgeous flowers. Being near a fence or trellis also protects these tall stems from wind damage.
To keep your hollyhocks healthy, cut stems back to 6” or so above soil level after flowering is completed. Continue to top dress and irrigate the area and new stems will appear throughout the growing season. In winter, cut plants back again and protect with a 6” layer of straw or mulch. Come spring, gradually remove this protective layer to help plants become acclimated. Once spring growth is in full swing, remove the straw and start thinning.
By removing the cut stems from the area and composting them, you will interrupt the disease triangles and thwart pests of hollyhocks.
Hollyhock pests and diseases
On the downside, like other members of the mallow family, hollyhocks are prone to mildew and rust and will attract weevils, mallow flea beetles, and orange tortrix moths. The caterpillars of a few other moths and butterflies, including painted ladies, will also chew on hollyhock leaves, as will slugs and snails, spider mites, and Japanese beetles. Aphids, capsid bugs, and cutworms may also cause problems.
Because they are prone to rust and mildew, hollyhocks should always be watered at ground level. Wet leaves nearly always attract disease. Diseased leaves should be removed and thrown in the trash whenever they are seen.
Hollyhocks and children
Hollyhock seeds are large and easy to work with, making them a good choice for a children’s activity. Hollyhocks do not like being transplanted, so it is better to sow seeds where you want them. A hollyhock’s long taproot doesn’t like being disturbed, once it begins its downward growth.
Traditionally, hollyhocks have been used to create secret garden spaces for children and solitary readers. Simply draw a line where you want you secret hideaway’s walls and plant seeds along that line. Seeds should be planted in groups of 3 or 4, placed 2 to 3 feet apart. Only cover lightly with soil, if at all, and keep the area moist but not soggy until germination occurs. Thin each group by snipping off all but the best one seedling at ground level. They may look tiny and lonely, at first, but these plants get large and need good air flow to stay healthy.
Before you know it, you will have a secret garden space of your very own, attended by the many bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators that love hollyhocks as much as we do!
Chromatography allows you to take a closer look at the glorious colors of autumn leaves.
Autumn leaves change colors because chlorophyll levels are reduced. These levels change because of plant hormones, called auxins, that prepare leaves to fall before snow or heavy rains in winter. This period of preparation is called senescence. The act of dropping leaves is called abscission.
Through most of the growing season, leaves are one shade of green or another. The green pigment we see is the chlorophyll used in photosynthesis. There are actually several other colors present, we just can’t see them. Chromatography gives you an inside view into those colors.
Chromatography and pepper heat
High-tech chromatography (and some crazy math) are used to rank the heat of chili peppers. The American Spice Trade Association (ASTA) measures the pungency of different samples with Scoville heat units (SHUs), as a function of capsaicin levels.
Chromatography and companion planting
While there is plenty of science to support the importance of installing plants where they will thrive, the concept of plants ‘liking’ and ‘helping’ one another is actually a failed attempt at simplifying complex processes. Back in the 1930’s, Dr. Ehrenfried Pfeiffer conducted a study he called the “sensitive crystallization method” using chromatography. Somehow, the good doctor decided that matching colors implied compatibility, which it doesn’t. But the process is very fascinating, nonetheless, so let’s get started!
Your chromatography experiment
You will need the following supplies:
Here are the steps:
If you enjoy curry, you may want to try growing your own fenugreek. But don’t do it for the wrong reasons.
Fenugreek is one of those foods touted as a miraculous cure-all for cramps, hair loss, high blood sugar, insufficient breast milk, indigestion, and diabetes. While there may be some truth to the diabetes claim, all the other claims lack any scientific proof, and even the diabetes research is incomplete at this time. That being said, there are plenty of delicious reasons to grow your own fenugreek.
Fenugreek as food
For over 4,000 years, people have grown this annual legume. It thrives in semiarid conditions, and its seeds and leaves are popular ingredients in dishes from South and Central Asia. Like other legumes, fenugreek is high in protein and fiber. A 3.5 ounce serving of fenugreek seed provides 323 calories, 58g. carbohydrates, 25g. dietary fiber, and 23g. of protein. It also contains significant portions of the RDAs for thiamine (28%), riboflavin (31%), Vitamin B6, (46%), folate (14%), iron (262%), magnesium (54%), manganese (59%), phosphorus (42%), and zinc (26%). [Who knew curry was so good for us?!!?] Fenugreek seeds are generally roasted to reduce bitterness and enrich flavor. And it’s not just the seeds of the fenugreek plant that are eaten. Fresh fenugreek leaves, which are said to taste similar to spinach, are used as a vegetable in many Persian and Indian dishes. Dried leaves are used as an herb.
The fenugreek plant
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum), also known as methi, samurai, and hilba, among others, is a fragrant annual. It may grow as a single stem, or as a small bushy plant, reaching a height of 2 feet. Green to purple oval leaves are small and trifoliate (having three leaflets). It looks a lot like clover and alfalfa. Flowers are small and either white or purple. Seeds develop inside curved yellow pods. This plant is moderately drought resistant and it can handle a light frost.
How to grow fenugreek
This plant needs heat, so you may want to grow it in a container, maybe on a windowsill. Fenugreek has a shallow root system, so the container does not need to be very large. You can grow fenugreek as a microgreen by simply sprinkling seeds on top the soil in a shallow container, and then lightly covering them with more soil.
Fenugreek seeds should be planted 1/4” deep, in rich potting soil. Keep the soil moist until germination occurs. Fenugreek does not like our heavy clay, and it does not take kindly to being transplanted, so it is best started where it will stay for the growing season. These seeds sprout very quickly, usually in only 2 to 4 days, making it an exciting children’s activity.
Fenugreek pests and diseases
Fenugreek is susceptible to root rot, powdery mildew, and charcoal rot. These diseases can be minimized by allowing the soil to dry out between waterings. Aphids are the most common pest of fenugreek.
Fenugreek can be grown as a microgreen, or you can go for the full growing experience. Generally, young leaves and shoots are snipped off the plant early in the growing season. Then the plant is allowed to continue growing to produce seeds, usually 3 to 5 months after planting. To harvest seeds, the plant is removed and hung upside down to dry.
Have you had your fenugreek today?
Sometimes it is difficult to know just where to begin, especially when you are new to gardening. Themed gardens are one way to jump-start the garden planning process.
Garden planning basics
Before you start designing your garden, landscape, or foodscape, there is some important information you will want to have on hand:
Creating a garden plan
Planning a garden can feel overwhelming. Sometimes, the best way to start is to simply select one type of plant, often tomatoes, and grow from there. A single potted tomato, however, is not going to transform your landscape. You can also go to the other end of that spectrum and learn about landscape design, using boundaries, lines, surfaces, forms, texture, color, art, furnishings, and lighting to create your masterpiece. Somewhere between those two extremes is a balance of what you want, what you have the time to maintain, and what plants need to stay healthy. To help you pull your garden together and select plants, you may decide on using a garden theme.
Types of themed gardens
Traditionally, themed gardens have been classified by either a geographic location, a type of terrain, or a historical prototype. Using a theme narrows down your options and pushes you to be more creative. Some traditional garden themes include:
But, there is another way of looking at themed gardens. You can create your own themed garden to create a favorite dish or holiday meal, or it may be a children’s garden, an herb garden, or an edible storybook garden. Having a theme can help guide you with plant selection. Today, we will look at some common edible garden themes, the plants that might be used in those gardens, and maybe a little garden art, just for fun.
Salad gardens are very rewarding, because lettuce and other greens and radishes tend to grow quickly. There are a rich variety of salad greens available, red loose leaf, pale green curly endive, buttery Bibb lettuce, upright cos or Romaine lettuce, dark green spinach, and many more. You can also add color to your salads with rainbow Swiss chard, with brilliant red, pink, white, and yellow stems that can be sliced up just like celery. Oh, yes, and you can grow celery. And cucumbers, sweet peppers, carrots, artichokes, corn, dandelion greens, mustard greens, fennel, jicama, and kale can also be used in a salad-themed garden. You can even add a dwarf almond tree for some slivered almonds on top of that salad. If you prefer your vegetables stir-fried, a stir-fry garden makes it simple to throw together a flavorful, healthy, fresh-from-the-garden meal. Carrots, onions, garlic, cilantro, bell peppers, hot peppers, even your own saffron can all be grown at home.
Introducing children to gardening at an early age is an excellent way to get them outside, away from technology, and physically active. A children’s garden nearly always features fast growing, dramatic plants, such as a fort made out of sunflowers, or a pole bean teepee. Children also enjoy fragrant edibles, such as chocolate mint and lemon thyme, and fast growing radishes. Unique plants, such as golfball-sized Parisian carrots, and cucumbers that look like miniature watermelons (Mexican sour gherkins), can add whimsy and fun to your children’s garden. Favorites, such as strawberries, blueberries, and cherry tomatoes can create a magical play area, filled with delicious, healthy edibles that create curving paths, secret hideaways, and storybook reminders.
Aside from the meat and cheese, you can grow pretty much every other ingredient used to make a pizza. You can grow tomatoes, onions, and garlic, for the sauce, along with herbs, such as basil, oregano, and thyme. You can also grow sweet red, green, orange, and yellow peppers, hot peppers, and artichokes for your pizza. If you like, you can even grow your own olive tree in a container, and a patch of wheat, for the crust. And if pizza isn’t your thing, you can pick a different dish, and create your own garden theme using those ingredients.
A storybook garden is a delightful way to add art and whimsy to a landscape. Designing, installing, and caring for a storybook garden is an excellent children’s activity, as well. Nearly all traditional children’s stories can be used to create a storybook garden: Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden are popular favorites, but you can use any book you like that has edible plant references.
Herb gardens are attractive, tenacious, and rewarding. Except for basil, most herbs will continue to grow for many years. Rosemary, lavender, and thyme add fragrance, flavor, and beauty wherever they grow. Members of the mint family, oregano, lemon balm, summer savory, marjoram, and sage are best grown in containers, due to their tendency to spread. You can also add chives, cilantro, and tarragon to an herb garden. You may want to add a nice place to sit and enjoy a good book. It’s going to smell so lovely, you’ll want to stick around.
Holiday dinner garden
What if you could create a traditional Thanksgiving, Christmas, or other holiday meal from your own backyard? You can. If you plan ahead, you can harvest an abundance of many popular holiday meal ingredients: beets, carrots, potatoes, onions, peas, beans, sweet potatoes, pearl onions, fennel, tomatoes, and spinach are just a few of the possibilities. Sage, basil, oregano, parsley, and mint can also be grown for holiday meals. Whatever traditions your family celebrates, you can create a garden patch that saves you a trip to the grocery store and gives you full bragging rights.
Fruit cocktail garden
You may have seen grafted fruit cocktail trees available through garden catalogs. These dwarf trees usually feature nectarines, peaches, plums, and apricots, all on the same tree. You can flesh out your fruit cocktail garden with potted raspberries, blackberries, currants, and strawberries, and then surround the whole thing with a small blueberry hedge. Imagine all that sweet deliciousness in one place.
Put aside images of a serene, manicured Japanese tea garden and imagine, instead, growing your own tea. Tea plants (Camellia sinensis) can be grown outdoors in Zones 8 - 12, or indoors year round. But, this traditional black tea is not the only plant grown for its use as a tea. If you love tea, you know that you can also enjoy chamomile, mint, and lavender tea. Other options for a tea garden include lemon balm, jasmine, coriander, bergamot, hibiscus, elderberries, ginger, rose hips, raspberry and blackberry leaves, licorice, lemon grass, blackcurrants, dill, and dandelions can also be used to make tea.
The more pollinators that visit your garden, the more likely you are to have a good sized harvest. You can attract bees, butterflies, honey bees, and many other beneficial insects with brilliant blooms of borage, salvia, and butterfly bush, and by allowing many common food plants to go through their complete lifecycle. Carrots, caraway, celery, chervil, cilantro, cumin, parsnips, dill, fennel, and parsley are all umbellifers. Umbellifers have umbrella-shaped flowers that beneficial insects love. Allowing lettuces, Swiss chard, and others to go to seed also provides nectar and pollen for these beneficials, as well as hummingbirds. The changing shape, colors, textures, and sizes of these plants keeps your landscape interesting. Just be sure to provide a water source for all these tiny helpers. A birdbath or small fountain is all that’s needed. Just be sure to clean them, every once in a while.
Rather than leave creating that garden for some distant future date, pick a patch of ground today. Select your theme and cover the area with some aged compost while you choose your plants and your design. In no time at all, you will be enjoying the fruits (or vegetables and herbs) of your labor!
What’s your garden theme?
Celery is a kitchen staple that you may (or may not) be able to grow in your home garden.
I say “may not” because it has thwarted me the few times I have tried it. Not that the plants didn’t grow, they grew quite well, through the cooler months, but they grew outward, rather than upward, and the flavor was very strong. Before we learn from what I did wrong, let’s learn the truth about this challenging crop.
A misrepresented edible
Celery plants have been misrepresented in elementary schools across the country for decades. The part we eat is not a stem, and the stringy bits that get caught in your teeth are not all plant veins. The familiar stalks, which are so well suited to dips and fillings, are actually the plant’s petioles, or leaf stems. Some of the differences between a stem and a petiole are:
Some of the indigestible strings of celery fame are vascular tissue, This is why, if you place a celery stalk in a glass of dyed water, you can see the dye move up, through the xylem. [Kids love this stuff!] The other stringy bits, however, are living structural components, called collenchyma. The tissues that make up the collenchyma are able to absorb water and behave much like a stiff gel, to hold the plant upright.
The celery plant
Celery (Apium graveolens) got its name from the Latin for ‘aromatic bee favorite’. As an umbellifer, celery is cousin to carrots, fennel, cumin, caraway, celeriac, parsnips, dill, parsley, anise, and poison hemlock. Celery flowers attract many pollinators and other beneficial insects, such as hoverflies. There are actually three different types of celery, each grown for a distinct crop: petioles, leaves, or roots. The celery plant originated in marshland - very unlike my hot, dry California summers, and only slightly moist winters.
How celery grows
Celery is a cool weather plant. It grows best when temperatures are 55 to 70°F. Grown in summer, it will bolt, or go to seed. This is fine, if you want to harvest celery seed for your spice cabinet. It is also a good way to end up with celery plants throughout your foodscape. Once a celery plant has gone to seed, the petioles will become very tough. [You can still use them to make soup stock, however.] Celery plants can tolerate light frost, but not consecutive frosts. Celery is a biennial, grown as an annual.
How to grow celery
While you can start a new celery plant from the base of a store bought celery, you need to be aware that those plants are certified safe to eat, but they are not certified safe to grow. Installing a store bought celery plant in your garden may be fine, and it may introduce a destructive virus or bacteria that may take years to overcome. It’s your call. Of course, you can always delegate those store bought celeries to indoor containers…
Celery is grown from seed. Seeds should be started 8 to 10 weeks before your area’s last frost date. You can also direct sow seeds in late summer for a winter crop. In either case, seeds should be planted 1/4-inch deep. Some growers recommend soaking seeds overnight prior to planting, to speed germination. Be sure to harden off your seedlings before planting them outside. Seedlings should be spaced 10 to 12 inches apart in the garden, containers, or raised beds, once they are 6 inches tall. If you have a particularly bright window, celery can be grown on a windowsill.
Celery needs lots of sun and it is a heavy feeder. You can protect and feed plants as they grow by top dressing around the plants with aged compost. Once petioles begin to emerge, you need to tie them together, to force them to grow upright. Celery needs least one inch of water a week to grow those crispy petioles. And they should be fed every 10 to 14 days. As the plants grow, gently build up soil around the plants, keeping the leaves exposed. This blanches, or etiolates, the stalks, by blocking light from reaching the chlorophyll, making them turn pale green to white. This also help prevent bitterness. You can get a similar effect by wrapping plants with straw, heavy fabric, or cardboard tubes, the same way you would with cardoons, to halt photosynthesis. Be cautious when watering, after you have set up your planting method. Water that sits on leaves and stems can lead to rot and other problems.
Celery pests and diseases
Celery is susceptible to aster yellows, bacterial leafspot, Phytophthora tentaculata, blights, mosaic virus, fusarium wilt, pink rot, and crater rot. Aphids, armyworms, earwigs, leafminers, lygus bugs, carrot rust flies, nematodes, whiteflies, treehoppers, cutworms, and voles will all take a bite out of your celery plants. You can sprinkle your celery plants with diatomaceous earth, to reduce many of the pests.
Like peanuts, celery is known to cause allergic reactions in some people. Contrary to popular wishful thinking, eating celery is not a 'negative calorie' experience. Digesting that celery stalk does not use up more energy than it provides.
Finally, did you know that celery flowers and leaves were used as garlands for King Tut’s tomb, some 3,300 years ago? I didn’t, either.
Legumes are nitrogen-fixing plants that produce many of the foods we eat.
Peas and beans are common legumes. Peanuts, chickpeas, alfalfa, clover, lentils, vetch, mesquite, carob, tamarind, lupins, wisteria, and soybeans are also legumes. The unique behavior that makes legumes so valuable is that most of them are able to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that is usable by other plants.
Over 80% of our atmosphere is made up of nitrogen. Plants are greedy for nitrogen, but they can’t use atmospheric nitrogen. Some plants, our beloved legumes in particular, have developed mutually beneficial relationships with certain bacteria that live on or in their roots. These bacteria are able to combine atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen to create ammonia, which is then converted into a usable form of nitrogen. This is called the Nitrogen Cycle and is what makes legumes an important part of crop rotation and cover crops. Some people claim that marigold plants interrupt the nitrogen-fixing ability of legumes, but I have not found any research to support those claims.
With so many family members, it should come as no surprise that there is plenty of variety. Some legumes grow low to the ground in a spreading habit, while others vine, and other stand upright. All legumes are dicots, which means they produce two seed leaves before true leaves appear. It also means that the seeds tend to be made up of two halves. The fruit, nut, or seed of legumes is technically called a pulse. Pulses are grain seeds held within a pod, or simple dry fruits, that develop from a single carpel. Most legume seeds have a “zipper” along one side that opens up when the seed is ripe. This behavior is called dehiscence. These seeds are often rather large and fast-growing, making them an excellent choice when gardening with children.
Legumes as soil amendment
Legumes can be used as a green manure, cover crop, or an edible harvest. When used as a green manure, plants are allowed to reach the flowering stage and are then cut and left where they fall to decompose. This returns valuable nutrients to the soil and improves soil structure. Other legumes are grown as a cover crop to prevent erosion. Most legumes have strong, deep roots that help aerate compacted soil.
Legumes as food
Legumes are a high protein, high fiber food source. Fava beans, wax beans, lentils, lima beans, and wheat are all just a few of the legumes we eat on a daily basis.
Pests and diseases of legume crops
While the pests and diseases of most legumes are more species specific, nearly all legumes are susceptible to Fusarium wilt. Bean mosaic and powdery mildew are common bean and pea diseases. Stinkbugs enjoy legumes and, what makes them worse is that they can also transmit tomato bacterial spot. Weevils and treehoppers are common pests of legumes.
Adding legumes to your garden or landscape can improve the soil, feed nearby plants, and they provide a delicious harvest. Give legumes a try!
We’ve all seen those cans of yellow wax beans in grocery stores, but these plants are easy to grow, they add nitrogen to your soil, and the crisp sweetness of a freshly picked bean far surpasses anything canned.
Wax beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) actually refers to several different yellow-podded members of the common bean family. This family also includes lima beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, and immature ‘green’ beans. It is believed that wax beans got their name because the yellow color looks similar to beeswax, but no one is really sure. Wax beans are available in both bush and pole varieties.
How wax beans grow
Beans are self-pollinating annuals. These plants are fun and rewarding to grow. They grow quickly enough to work well as a children’s activity, reaching maturity in only 60 days. What’s really fun about these plants is that they can be grown pretty much anywhere: on a windowsill, in a container, in a straw bale, and in partial shade. Of course, they prefer sunny raised beds or traditional garden rows, but, the point is, these plants are EASY. Like other legumes, wax beans are able to ‘fix’ atmospheric nitrogen, making it available not only to themselves, but to nearby plants. Of course, this only works until the plant starts producing seeds, then the free lunch is over.
How to grow wax beans
Like other beans, wax bean seeds are mostly endosperm (plant food). Plant seeds one inch deep and 2 to 4 inches apart. If you grow bush beans (not the canned barbecue product), your plants will get 18 to 24 inches tall and about a foot wide, so thin accordingly. Pole beans, however, can be trained up trellising, fences, lattice, sunflowers, trees, pretty much anything they can wrap their tendrils around, without thinning. They can also be used in the traditional Three Sisters Method, with corn and squash. Trellising pole beans on something that goes over your head looks really nice, with ripe beans hanging down, from overhead. It’s makes picking easy, too! Some people say that planting marigolds nearby can be a problem, claiming that they interrupt the nitrogen-fixing capabilities of legumes, such as peas and beans, but I don’t know if this is true.
Wax bean pests and diseases
When it comes to bean pests, it’s all the usual culprits: cutworms, bagrada bugs, cucumber beetles, weevils, thrips, wireworms, leaf miners, and dried fruit beetles. As delicious as fresh wax beans are, it’s no wonder so many critters are after your harvest. Bindweed can also choke out your bean plants. Common wax bean diseases include anthracnose, bean mosaic, and fusarium wilt. Wax beans should not be planted near soybeans to reduce the likelihood of stem blight.
The large floral disk of sunflowers, jam packed with seeds, hardly needs description, but there is a lot more to this cheery bloom than meets the eye.
Ancient history & sunflowers
Sunflowers are native to North America. Recent research has shown that they were also growing in Central America way back into antiquity. There are some interesting name exchanges in primitive languages that lead archeologists to believe there were far more cultural exchanges between the two regions than was previously thought. According to researchers at the University of Cincinnati, “sunflowers were domesticated thousands of years and hundreds of miles apart” making them an interesting topic in human history. More currently, sunflowers are one of the world’s top oil producing plants. Each year, nearly 45 million tons of sunflowers are grown worldwide!
The sunflower family
Sunflowers are part of a plant family called Asteraceae. The sunflower family includes asters, artichokes, dahlias, yarrow, marigolds, endive, dandelions, and Echinacea, just to name a few. Sunflowers can be annual or perennial, depending on the variety, microclimate, and growing conditions. Some varieties grow as a single fat, hairy stalk, while others grow several branches. There are eleven species of sunflower (Helianthus annus) in California. Some dwarf varieties are only a foot and a half tall, while others can reach twelve feet!
Benefits of sunflowers
If the happy blooms and tasty seeds weren’t reason enough to add them to your garden, sunflowers also attract many beneficial insects. Honey bees, lacewings, butterflies, hoverflies, and parasitic wasps enjoy the nectar, pollen, and prey insects found on and near sunflowers. Personally, I love the tiny finches that are so fond of eating the wide, spade-shaped leaves. Local squirrels and seed eating birds can become problematic, or you can simply plant a few extras near the fence line.
Heliotropism refers to a plant’s ability to track the sun’s movement and sunflowers are masters of heliotropism. Sunflowers use phytohormones called auxins and an internal circadian clock to follow the sun across the sky each day. During the night, they turn their west-facing blooms back toward the east, in anticipation of the dawn. Scientists were surprised to discover that bringing outdoor sunflowers indoors, with a constant overhead light source, the plants still went through their east to west cycle for a few days. It was also found that certain genes tell the east side of the plants grow more quickly during the day, while the west side of the plants grows more at night. As the plants mature, this movement slows, leaving most sunflowers facing east, rather than west. The reason? Scientists found that eastward facing flower heads (capitula) heated up more quickly than their westward neighbors. This added warmth attracted FIVE TIMES more beneficial insects, for better pollination and pest protection! [I have to assume that this directional movement is flipped in the southern hemisphere.]
Sunflowers and children
Sunflowers grow quickly and often to impressive heights, which makes them an excellent choice when gardening with children. In fact, if you plant your sunflower seeds properly, you can create a fort, a maze, or a magic castle right in your own back yard! Or, to watch germination as it occurs, you can place sunflower seeds inside a clear glass with a dark colored sponge. Place the seeds between the glass and the sponge and add water. Before you know it, the magic happens! Then take your sunflower sprouts and add them to a salad or plant them in the garden! In either case, they make a healthy snack and provide your children with a sense of ownership.
How to grow sunflowers
Most sunflower plants are grown from seed. A few species also propagate using creeping roots, which makes them a noxious weed in some agricultural areas. Sunflowers need lots of sun, water, and nitrogen, but they are less picky about soil than many other plants. Seeds can be started in cell flats or other small containers and then transplanted, or they can be directly sown into the garden or landscape, after the last chance of frost has passed. Seeds should be planted one inch deep and watered daily until they sprout. After they have sprouted, plants will need an inch of rain or irrigation each week, depending on the weather. For optimal growth, space your sunflower 2 ½ to 3 feet apart. Dwarf varieties only need 6 inches. Seedlings often need protection from birds, squirrels, slugs and snails. Sunflowers can take up to 3 months to reach full size. Sunflowers need lots of nutrients, so adding aged compost to the planting area will help them to get a good start. They do, occasionally need staking.
Sunflower seeds contain a chemical that is toxic to grass plants, so you should harvest the seeds before they start falling on your lawn or near other members of the grain family (Poaceae), such as corn, millet, wheat, barley, or bamboo. You can also plant sunflowers much the way Native Americans did, using the Three Sisters Method, by replacing corn with sunflowers. The squash or melon leaves will shade the ground around your sunflowers and pole beans will climb the stalks and provide a nitrogen boost before they go to seed themselves.
Sunflower pests & diseases
Sunflowers tend to be sturdy plants that fend for themselves rather well. Keep a look out for ant trails going up the stalks that can indicate an aphid problem. Sticky barriers can be used to block the ants, which makes the aphids more vulnerable to their natural enemies. Other sunflower pests include dried fruit beetles, cutworms, carrot beetles, some foliage-feeding caterpillars, leaf beetles, spider mites, thrips, and the dreaded sunflower bud moth. Fungal diseases, such as crown gall, downy mildews, powdery mildew, rust, and Verticillium wilt can be a problem, but this occurs more in agricultural fields than in backyard gardens.
Once your sunflower head has reached full size, it will probably be bent over and surprisingly heavy. If you stroke the face of the flower head with your hand, dozens of tiny dried bits (pappus) will fall away. Personally, I give all my sunflowers a quick rub to dislodge potential pests and to remove these bits. Before removing the head from the stalk, use your fingernail to nick out a few seeds and open them up. Are the seeds plump? If not, give them some more time. You certainly don’t want to harvest a head of empty shells! Seeds have normally reached maturity around the same time the petals start to fall from the flower. You can protect immature heads from birds with netting or large paper bags. Once the seeds have reached maturity, cut the stem an inch or two below the flower head. Seeds can be allowed to dry in the head, or they can be rubbed loose over a newspaper or old sheet. Be sure to blow away any chaff that may harbor pests or disease. I always save several of the largest, healthiest looking seeds for next year’s crop. After that, allow seeds to dry out completely before storing in an airtight container. You can also salt and/or roast your seeds. If you suspect seed pests, freezing your sunflower seeds will kill off any eggs that may be lurking in the shells. Sunflower seeds stored in the refrigerator or freezer are good for a year, while raw seeds stored at room temperature are only good for 2 or 3 months. Roasted, shelled seeds have a shelf life of 3 to 4 months, and unshelled roasted seeds can last 4 to 5 months.
Sunflower oil can be used as a horticultural oil, but I definitely prefer it as sunflower butter on toast or in place of peanut butter in cookies. Yummy!
One variety, the giant whorled sunflower (Helianthus verticillatus) was first seen in 1892. Then it was believed to be extinct until 1994 when it was discovered by Vanderbilt University student, Jennifer Ellis. The giant whorled sunflower is currently listed as an endangered species and is only found in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee - the birthplace of the sunflower species.
In the 1500s, Spanish conquistadores banned the use of sunflowers in Mexico, believing that they were an aphrodisiac.
Add some sunflowers to your garden today! (No matter what the Spaniards said!)
Bats in the garden? Let’s hope so!
While bats can be vectors for diseases, such as rabies, more often than not, bats are a gardener’s friend. In just one afternoon, you and your kids can build a bat box that just might attract these garden predators for many years to come.
It is estimated that a pregnant or nursing bat will consume 2/3 of their body weight in insects each night. According to UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR), bats protect over $23 billion of American crops each year. That’s a substantial impact for a flying mammal that weighs in around 1/3 of an ounce!
A little bat history
Bats started flying around over 50 million years ago, after the dinosaurs died off, but we know surprisingly little about them. One thing we do know is that their numbers are in serious decline. According to the U.S. Forest Service, “Currently 56% of the bat species present in North America are listed or being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.” Loss of habitat and human prejudice are mostly to blame.
Contrary to popular myth, most bats are not vampires. Vampire bats are only found in Latin America and they prefer the blood of animals to that of humans. Most bats are insectivores. The rest of them eat fruit, mice, or other small mammals. These fruit eaters are frequently considered a “keystone” species. This means that the plants which rely upon bats for pollination and seed dispersal are critical to the survival of other animals and birds. Bats are the major pollinators of agave. You know, the stuff used to make tequila. And the Mexican Free-tailed bat is responsible for pollinating most of the sugarcane used to make a well known brand of rum. [Take a closer look at the label and you will see the bat!]
Many years ago, while volunteering at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, I worked with fruit bats in the Nocturnal House. Larger than our native bats, the zoo’s fruit bats were sweet tempered, gentle, and loved being scratched around the face and ears. Not what you expected, right?
Scientists are still debating bat classification. One camp believes that all bats evolved from a single mammalian flying ancestor. Others classify bats into two groups: megabats and microbats. Megabats are found in Asia, Australia, Africa and the South Pacific. The largest megabat species has a 5’6” wingspan! This group evolved from lemur-like animals and they do not have the gift of echolocation. Microbats are found everywhere except Antarctica and are believed to have evolved from shrew-like animals. Microbats do use echolocation to navigate. All bats have an excellent sense of smell. Worldwide, there are 925 bat species. There are 23 to 50 species of bat found in California, depending on who you ask, spread out between three different bat families:
There are 16 species in the greater Bay Area. The most commonly found include:
Benefits of bats
All bats in the Bay Area are insectivores. A single bat can consume hundreds of insects in an hour and they may live for 5 to 30 years, depending on the species. While research has shown that bats do not have a significant impact on mosquito populations, they do help control beetles, moths and moth larvae, wasps, ants, and cockroaches.
Bats generally mate in fall, but females hold onto the sperm for several months, until conditions are more favorable for their young. Then conception occurs. A single pup is born each year around May or June, blind and hairless. The pup is diligently cared for until it learns to fly after a month or two. Young bats will try to eat pretty much anything. Unfortunately, they do not like banana slugs. Like dolphins, microbats are believed to use the Earth’s magnetic field to find their way. Many microbat species migrate over 1,000 miles each year, the same way salmon do, returning to their place of birth.
Each year, many bat pups starve to death when humans try blocking bats from entering, not realizing that the young are already inside. Result, less bats in the world and dead bats in your attic. If you really must get rid of bats, hire a professional. A better choice would be to build your own bat house and lure your guests away from your home while taking advantage of their voracious appetite for garden pests. That being said, bats can carry diseases that are dangerous to humans, so wild bats should NEVER be handled. This is for your safety and theirs.
How to build a bat box
Bat boxes are simple to make. Since bats prefer tight, skinny spaces, a bat box is, for the most part, several sheets of wood separated by thin boards. To make the most out of your bat house, be sure to avoid these common problems:
Bat Conservation International has the best bat house plans I have seen. When placing your bat house, keep in mind that those hung on poles or in trees are almost never used because they get too cold at night, or opossums and raccoons will eat the bats. Chimneys work well, but then there’s the issue of guano (bat poop) accumulation. Guano should never be handled without skin and respiratory protection. Guano may contain lots of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium, like most fertilizers, but it can also make you really sick. It is used to make gunpowder…
No self-respecting baked potato would consider its raiment complete without freshly snipped chives. Chives can elevate even the simplest dish, and they look lovely, growing on a window sill.
Chives are members of the onion family. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are edible perennial bulbs. Their tender green spikes are frequently offset by purple spherical blooms that are equally edible. Many beneficial insects are attracted to the flowers, as well. Plant them once and they will provide many years of flavorful beauty.
How to grow chives
Chives are so easy to grow that they are an excellent children’s activity. Chives prefer well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0-7.0 and full sun. I have had chive plants perform equally well in partially shaded clay. This herb is tenacious - I’ve even had chive plants return after being decimated by chickens! Plant seeds 1/4 inch deep and water well. Light is not needed, at first, but seeds must be kept moist and at a temperature of 60-70°F to germinate. Chives make excellent container plants and they transplant easily, once seedlings are 4 to 6 inches tall. Established plants can and should be divided periodically to avoid overcrowding. To divide a chive plant, gently dig the entire plant out of the ground and pull it apart into smaller clumps, or you can leave it in the ground and sink a shovel down through the middle, removing a portion to be transplanted elsewhere. You will want at least 5 - 10 bulbs in the clump to be moved. Once established, your chive plants will readily self-seed.
Chive pests and diseases
The only pest I have seen on my chives is an infrequent visit from individual slugs. Onion maggots and thrips are said to cause problems, but I have never seen them. Damping off disease, powdery mildew, and pink root are also said to attack chives, but not in my experience. I think, in this case, the chive plant is the anti-pest. In fact, European gypsies traditionally hang bunches of dried chives to ward of evil and illness!
Snip off however much you will be using, as close to the base as you can without damaging the rest of the plant. If your chive plant starts looking worn out, especially in late winter, you can cut the entire plant to a height of 2 or 3 inches to stimulate fresh growth. If you harvest more chives than you need, you can snip them into small bits, lay them between layers of cloth or paper towel to dry and then store in an airtight container.
Herbs are excellent additions to an edible landscape or a windowsill garden, and chives are the easiest of the edible herbs to grow. Get yours started today!
Vascular bundles are similar to the human circulatory system. They are the visible veins seen on the back of leaves, but vascular bundles also make up the majority of a plant’s structure.
Parts of the vascular bundle
Vascular bundles are made up of the xylem and the phloem. The xylem carries water and dissolved minerals up from the soil, through the roots, to stems and leaves. The phloem carries dissolved food, especially sugars, down, from the leaves, to storage tissues in the stems and roots. There are various arrangements of vascular bundles, depending upon the typer of plant.
Diseases of the vascular system
The flow of water and nutrients is critical to a plant’s health. Many pests and diseases take advantage of this fact. Damage to the vascular bundle can cause wilting, chlorosis, or even death. Common pests and diseases of vascular bundles include:
Fun with the vascular system
You're never too old to enjoy this one and your kids are sure to enjoy it - put some celery stalks in a cup of water with food coloring and watch the dye move through the stalk's vascular system. Try it with other plants and show us pictures!
If you slice into a stalk of celery, you will be able to see vascular bundles that carry water, nutrients and hormones throughout the plant. These vascular bundles, or veins, are made up of the xylem and phloem.
The xylem mostly carries water. Xylem is Greek for wood, so an easy way to remember the word meaning is to think “water wood”. The xylem also carries some mineral salts, but that is mostly the job of the phloem. Generally, the xylem is found closer to the center of a stem, while the phloem is closer to the outer edge.
The most interesting thing about the xylem is that it pulls water upward from the ground, against gravity. If you’ve ever picked up a bucket full of water, you know this isn’t always easy. There is some debate about how this actually occurs, but most botanists agree that it has a lot to do with surface tension.
Water molecules like to stick together. As a plant breaths, evapotranspiration occurs, reducing the amount of water in the leaves and stem. The water in the ground in then pulled upward by the water in the above ground portion of the plant. The structure of the xylem helps support the water molecules as they are drawn up.
Xylem vessels are actually made up of elongated cells that are dead. Weird, right? These cells are arranged end to end, with little openings between each cell. There are secondary xylem cells that contain lignin. Lignin is found in cell walls and it is what holds plants upright.
Diseases of the xylem include Fusarium wilt, root rot, damping-off, and tomato spotted wilt.
Children's activity: This is crazy easy and the kids seem to really enjoy it. Simply take several celery stalks and place them in separate cups or glasses. To each cup, add some water and a few drops of different colored food coloring. As the stalks pull the water up, they bring the dye too, and the color changes can be striking. (It works faster if you trim the base of each stalk to create fresh openings for the vascular tissue.)
In honor of Lily Hardy Hammond’s 1916 book, In the Garden of Delight, planting it forward means adding plants to a landscape that can be gifted to others. It also means designing a garden or landscape that provides year-round food and color.
As one season passes and another arrives, a whole new set of conditions take the stage. Sunlight hours, temperatures, and rainfall make it easier for some plants and harder for others. Planning a garden design for year-round food and flowers can increase biodiversity and pollination, while reducing weeds, pests, and erosion. It also makes a landscape look lovely every month of the year.
Garden design 101
A few sheets of paper and a garden book or two can help you create a year-round garden design. Begin by drawing a rough draft of an area. Next, pencil in existing perennial plants, structures, lawns, and walkways. Everything else is fair game. You can color code the garden design to include sun and wind exposure, access to water, mature plant height, and color to create a workable garden design. This will also help you to select the best plants for each spot. Also, water use can be significantly reduced by planting varieties with similar water needs together. Put taller plants against a fence, medium-height plants in front of those, and then shorter plants closest to walkways. This makes full use of available soil without blocking anyone’s view.
Garden books, online resources, and local Master Gardeners can help you select plants that will provide flowers, food, and greenery for each season. As one season’s plants wind down, the next season will be coming in, providing year-round food and color. Containers, vertical gardens, and raised beds offer extra growing space and extend the growing season.
Edibles & ornamentals
Bay Area weather makes it possible to grow edible and ornamental plants year-round. Cool season greens and cruciferous vegetables prefer our winter and spring. Potato plants offer greenery in the landscape from spring to summer, and harvestable potatoes in the fall. Perennial edibles, such as asparagus, fruit trees, bramble fruits, grapes, kiwi, and rhubarb are excellent anchor points in a landscape. Ornamental plants can provide many different shades of green, along with other colors.
Planting it forward - for others
Life is rarely restrained. Most plants generate far more seeds than are ever expected to survive. You can harvest those seeds and plant them. Cosmos and marigolds go to seed easily. Those and other seeds can be collected and planted as gifts to family and neighbors. They also make welcome gifts to individuals in hospitals and retirement homes. Melon and squash seeds can be started in small pots and gifted to neighbors and local food charities. Succulents are durable in drought-prone areas and they nearly propagate themselves. This is an excellent children's activity for several different reasons and it costs practically nothing.
So, make the most of your landscape and share the wealth!
Companion planting is touted as an easy way to make plants help each other to grow faster and better. The problem is, most of the claims made about companion planting are bogus.
Companion planting fallacies
Companion planting enthusiasts claim that different plants “like” and “help” each other when grown together. While it feels nice to believe there is a magic relationship that occurs between these ‘companions’, nearly all of the lists you will find on the Internet are not based on scientific research. Most of this useless information is based on a 1930’s study by Dr. Ehrenfried Pfeiffer. He used chromatography* in something he called the “sensitive crystallization method” to determine which plants worked well together. Unfortunately, Dr. Pfeiffer’s results don’t have anything to do with how plants actually grow.
You can conduct your own chromatography experiment by crushing various leaves or flowers and mixing them with water. Then suspend a white coffee filter over the solution, with just the bottom edge touching the liquid. Over time, the various components will be drawn upward into the paper. Since different compounds have different weights and colors, the results look really impressive. This is a great kids’ activity!
History of companion planting
Over 5,000 years ago, the Iroquois and other native Americans sowed corn, pole beans and squash together using the Three Sisters Method. Corn grows tall, providing the nitrogen-fixing pole beans with a trellis. The squash shades the ground, reducing competitive weeds and retaining moisture. As an added benefit to gardeners, eating corn (a seed) with beans (a legume) provides a complete dietary protein! This is an example of science-based companion planting. More accurate terms for the concept are polyculture or intercropping.
Benefits of intercropping
Folklore and mysticism aside, intercropping improves pest control, maximizes production, increases pollination, and provides better habitat for more biodiversity. Here are the real benefits of putting the right specimens together:
Getting started with intercropping
As seed catalogs begin to arrive each spring, many gardeners are thinking about garden design and the placement of the next season’s crops. Rather than following corporate agriculture’s lead, with its heavy focus on monoculture and the resulting susceptibility to pests and diseases, knowledgable gardeners recognize the value of polyculture. Polyculture more closely follows nature’s tendency to combine many different species in a single space. Let’s take a look at the various factors that meet the scientific criteria to actually make a positive difference in the garden.
Some plants need shade, while others grow straight and tall. Combining shade-loving plants, or climbing varieties, with taller specimens can help you make the most of a growing area. As in the Three Sisters Method, corn and sunflowers not only provide fresh food, but their sturdy stalks make excellent supports for climbing plants, such as pole beans and cucumbers. You can further support those plants with ground-shading squash or fast-growing lettuces. It may help to think of an area in terms of layers: the uppermost canopy, climbers, low growers, and even root crops can often be grown in the same place, at the same time, increasing the output of your soil.
I have an ornamental apricot tree that grows in my backyard. Since it does not produce fruit, it’s not my favorite. In fact, I nearly took it out. Then, I saw that it was covered with aphids. At first, that seemed like yet another reason for taking the tree out, but then I learned about trap crops. Trap crops distract pests away from food crops. By providing a rich food source for these pests, my other plants were more likely to be ignored. Also, this heavy infestation acted like a restaurant road sign for beneficial insects, such as lady beetles and lacewings, inviting them to come and stay a while, which they do. Commercial growers have learned to take advantage of trap crops to lure pests away from crops. These heavy concentrations of pests are then killed off with insecticides or even vacuumed off of plants!
Biochemicals are produced by some plants that either benefit or harm neighboring plants. This is called allelopathy. In some cases, such as many aromatic herbs, these secondary chemicals are offensive to insects pests or herbivores. This chemical warfare is also used by sorghum to reduce nearby weed populations. Common pea plants also use chemicals to inhibit the growth of nearby lettuce, wheat, cress, or sorghum, along with weeds. On the flip side of the same equation, allelopathy research has shown that growing garlic and eggplant together benefits both plants.
Legumes have evolved a unique relationship with certain bacteria that allows them to fix atmospheric nitrogen into a form usable by plants. Neighboring plants benefit from this relationship by gaining access to more nitrogen. This benefits remains in effect until the legumes begin going to seed. At that point, there is no excess nitrogen to be shared. You can improve seedling growth of many other crops by adding an occasional lima bean, fava bean, alfalfa, or other legume plant in the mix, or using these beneficial plants as a cover crop or green manure.
Diverse habitats attracts beneficial insects, such as predators and pollinators. Monoculture, growing the same crop over an area, is prone to serious pest and disease problems (which is why chemicals are used so frequently in modern agriculture). The diversity created by growing many different plants in the same space can confuse pests into looking elsewhere for a host. Also, one plant may attract a pollinator, which is then given easy access to the plants in need of pollination.
Nurse cropping uses larger plants to provide protective shade and increased moisture for smaller or more sensitive plants. Tall, sturdy plants, such as corn, Jerusalem artichoke, and sunflower can be grown close together as a windbreak or to provide shade. In another form of nurse cropping, fast growing annuals can be planted alongside tender, more slow-growing perennials, to provide shelter, or to reduce erosion, until the woodier plants are able to protect themselves. Some plants, from arid climates, are able to accumulate salts from the soil, making them good ‘companions’ to more salt-sensitive plants.
Installing a wide variety of plants in an area also provides security. If one crop doesn’t survive, the other might. While most gardeners do not look to their plantings as a critical food source, this is not always the case. When a garden provides the majority of a family’s food, that security can be critical.
Succession planting is similar to intercropping in that plants, such as lettuce and spinach, are installed successively to provide an ongoing crop.
The science behind which plants perform best together is still being researched. Bottom line: pay attention to your plants and do what works best for you, your soil, and the varieties in your garden. And ALWAYS verify information before using it or sharing it.
Germination is the point at which seeds start to put out shoots and roots, after a period of dormancy. Germination can only occur when light, temperature, moisture, air and seed viability are exactly right. If one aspect isn’t correct, the seed will remain dormant until conditions change, improving the chances that the young plant will survive. Germination is activated by certain enzymes within the seed. These enzymes start converting starchy endosperm into energizing sugars and the miracle begins!
If preemergent herbicides are applied, this process can be halted before it begins. This may be a quick fix for defeating weeds, but it also puts chemicals into your food supply. Postemergent herbicides will not prevent seeds from germinating. Applying mulch is a far better method because it blocks germinating weed seeds from ever reaching the sun and mulch adds nutrients to the soil as it breaks down. Even if weeds sprout in mulch, their stems and roots are not as well attached to the earth, so they are easier to pull.
Propagation & heat
Some seeds, such as peppers and tomatoes, need quite a bit of heat to germinate. They also need long growing seasons to reach full flavor. You can start pepper seeds indoors, on heating mats specially designed for seed germination, to get a head start on the growing season.
This activity is what turned me on to gardening many, many years ago. It is simple, inexpensive, and a lot of fun for junior gardeners (and the rest of us, too!)
1. create a tube out of the paper or foam and place it in the cup, allowing it to expand to touch the sides of the cup
2. curl the kitchen sponge so that it holds the paper or foam in place and touches the bottom of the cup
3. place each seed between the cup and the paper, making sure to point each one in a different cardinal direction and keeping the seeds separate from each other
4. add enough water to wet the sponge
As moisture is absorbed (imbibed) from the sponge into the seeds, they will begin to expand. You will need to monitor the sponge, making sure that it remains moist, but not soggy. Within 2 weeks, if conditions are right, tiny sprouts will begin to emerge! Encourage your child to draw pictures of how each of the seeds behaves differently and to measure the growth every few days. When the seeds have outgrown their cup, you can transplant them to a sunny location and watch them become giants in the garden!
It still amazes me, even though I now understand the chemistry involved, how each seed, regardless of its initial orientation, always sends the roots (radicles) down and the shoots (plumules) up.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!