Category Archives: nutrition

Be The Bee! How And When Hand Pollinating Makes Sense.

We had a nice long winter, down here in Texas, that had enough chill hours for my fruit trees. Unfortunately, our bee population this early in the spring is pretty sparse. I had some hardships that made it impossible to get out and pollinate my pear tree. After I watched all of the small fruit abort I was faced with the next set of flowers in my fruit trees: my peach tree. To bee, or not to bee? I chose to help my tree out. I used the following guide on my peach today.

It took maybe twenty minutes to do all of the lower branches. I had a lone bumblebee helping me with the upper branches. I’m sure he (or she) did a much better job than I did! Hopefully, I see some results on the peach. Plant as many bee friendly plants as possible! They certainly need our help. Read on about plant sex, and how you can help, by hand pollinating.

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Flowers are beautiful examples of sexual reproduction. We gather them, we create bouquets, we stick our noses into a plant’s sex organs and take a deep breath of intoxicating fragrance.

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The idea of sex (at least when we look at our own species) seems to be incredibly more complex and inherently immature.

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I will point to plants for transferable lessons in the beauty and enjoyment of sexual reproduction. Because: with flower sex, there are no immature experiences. Enjoying a flower is simple and healthy.

Plant sex: On display

Plants are never shy about reproduction. Those beautiful blossoms on your rose bush? Reproduction. The fruit you enjoy from the market? Reproduction. The nuts that provide fiber and protein in your diet? Reproduction.

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Plants can’t walk around and find their ideal mate. Instead they are more like billboards attempting to get pollinators to look so they might entice them to stop by and enjoy some nectar (and to spread some pollen around while they are at it.) With a plant’s sexual reproduction: it is in the plant’s best interest to get noticed (although some trees like pears offer low quality nectar and are often passed over in favor of more nutritious fare. Other trees, like pawpaws, use flies who aren’t very interested or talented pollinators.) Pollinators create new offspring for plants, fruit and nuts attract animals to help with dispersal.

Humans select strains for the best fruit as far as taste and visual appeal. However, we create imbalance in the system when we don’t remember to select to attract and feed pollinators. I believe helping create healthy pollinators is going to become a necessary interest that must be included in the future of breeding and research in horticulture. It will be in recognition of the importance of the balance that nature strives to create.

What is the difference between hybrid and open pollinated seed?

These are legal definitions for plants. If you would like to know how and why these are separated in seed catalogs this is a great explanation: http://www.garden.org/subchannels/care/seeds?q=show&id=293&page=1 You need to know the difference before you start on the pollination journey.

Purposeful hand application of pollen:

As a home gardener, you can effectively focus on two different things in hand pollination. The first is to (1) purposely pollinate plants to create (A) a new hybrid or to (B) isolate and maintain pure strains:

(A) Hybridization (taking pollen from one desirable plant and placing the pollen on a second variety. With this method you are trying to create a better strain than either of the parents) will produce a new type of fruit but the seeds will not be stable. Reliably hybridizing takes more expertise than the average home gardener has. If you allow one of nature’s pollinators to do this you will get something unique next year if you sow the crossed seed (although you may not enjoy eating it.) Letting nature engage in hybridization is like the slot machine gambling of the plant world. You may hit the jackpot growing hybridized seed but more often you may just lose your money (with lesser quality plants than the parents, wasted garden space, water etc). I will admit to enjoying random crosses that grow out of discarded winter squash seed in my compost heap. Even if it’s merely to marvel at the possibilities that plant genetics can offer us!

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In my home garden I occasionally play the game of: “Squash, squash, what is that squash?” I have had some crazy crosses come up when I haven’t rotated crops from year to year or have found them growing from discarded seed in my compost heap. This game can easily be played with all cucurbits (squash/melon/cucumber/gourd family). To play: encourage the help of bees. Just save seed after two varieties of the same species have been growing at the same time.

(B) Keeping plant strains pure: The other part of this type of pollinating is isolating varieties to prevent hybridization. You will need isolation space (which varies per plant type), grow only one variety or use barriers like bags to keep what you have pollinated fertilized by only what you have chosen to place on it. You can try this if you have had a few successful seasons in your home garden and feel ready to expand your skills. You can learn more about keeping open pollinated seed strains pure or creating new hybrids here: http://www.seedsavers.org/Education/Seed-Saving-Resources/

and here: http://www.seedsavers.org/Education/Seed-Saving-Instructions/

If you are a seasoned gardener, I suggest this site: http://seedalliance.org/index.php?mact=DocumentStore,cntnt01,download_form,0&cntnt01pid=12&cntnt01returnid=139

(I always encourage people to support seedsavers.org. They are a genetic bank for open pollinated and heirloom strains of vegetables. They are maintaining diversity which is in complete opposition to GMO and hybrid seed companies like Monsanto.)

The second part is 2) Lack of pollination: The second focus in hand pollination is to make up for a lack of pollinators. No bees is a big deal! When sexual reproduction in a vegetable or fruit garden is bee reliant, you can intervene if there is a lack of them. Just make sure you add bee attracting flowers next season. You aren’t going to want to have to totally replace the bee’s handiwork. They work hard!

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Where we fit in:

Just like humans can sometimes use help with fertility: plants that use sexual reproduction can use our help as well. Male and female organs on a plant use pollination to reproduce. Here is a list of common vegetable plants and how they reproduce: http://www.harvesttotable.com/2009/05/how_vegetables_are_pollinated/

There are three main categories of pollination and gardeners can easily affect them:

A: Pollination by wind. This happens between separate male and female flower parts found on plants like corn (how to hand pollinate corn: link) You can help these plants along by physically rubbing the male pollen onto the female flower to increase your chances of fertilization. You can specifically help corn by cutting off one of the tassels (located at the top of the plant)

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Corn tassles.

and knocking pollen onto the silks as they emerge (found closer to the middle of the plant).

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Corn silk from this years plants.

B: Self-pollination: This happens within the same flower like tomatoes (how to hand pollinate tomatoes: link ) The key for these plants is agitation: grab a stem and give the plant a good shake. It is a little like what a good wind or rain storm would do. Self pollinating plants have their male and female parts close together. The pollen needs to drop a very small distance onto the stigma. Grabbing the plant and giving it a good shake will help knock loose pollen from the anthers onto the stigma.

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You can grab a tomato plant and give it a shake to knock the pollen off of the male part of the flower onto the female part. Tomatoes are self-pollinating. Each flower contains both male and female parts.

C. Animal pollination. Where a plant relies on something in the animal kingdom to spread pollen from plant to plant. Examples are bees, butterflies, moths and other insects pollinating your home vegetables and fruit trees. Here is a list of plants and their pollinators: link

Ideally you have a ton of bees in your yard from avoiding insecticides and other chemicals while ensuring you plant nectar and pollen rich flowers. This should create conditions to assure that you have pollinators already on your property eager to pollinate your fruits and vegetables. Even so, early in our season we are short on pollinators. Unfortunately, most suburbs are surrounded miles and miles of a monoculture of lawn grass. Homeowners struggle to keep weeds out of their lawns just so neighbors (or an HOA) don’t judge them for noncompliance. While homeowners are planning their herbicide attack they don’t notice the hum of bees enjoying those same weeds.

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Lawn weeds in Bermuda grass. These are tiny, but the bees love them!

I hope within the next decade we start looking at the ground around our homes as the potential to support nature rather than trying to enforce an arbitrary idea of beauty. Humans seem to enjoy battling the way things work in nature by forcing the unnatural concept of perfectly manicured lawns. Try removing as much grass as possible and replacing it with pollinator friendly, native plants.

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A butterfly magnet: lantana.

When does it make sense to hand pollinate?

Cucurbits are number one on this list of home fruiting plants that have issues with pollination. Cucurbits include: winter squash (which includes pumpkins), summer squash, melons, cucumbers and gourds. They produce large fruits on a bush or a long sturdy vine. If you have struggled getting these plants to produce for you, it may be time to start looking at pollinating the flowers yourself.

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My melon patch this year. I recommend trellising cucurbits unless they are a kind that will “slip” from the vine when ripe. Here’s how I do it: Simple, Inexpensive Vine Support I don’t support melons or squash that I grow like this. I don’t need to. Big vines like these climb naturally and retain their fruit as they do it. I cut the melons off when they are ready.

Identifying male and female flowers on cucurbits:

In the cucurbitae family there are separate male and female flowers. Once you can tell the difference between the sex of a flower, you can try your hand at pollinating.

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Male flower on a melon plant. Notice there is nothing but a thin stem attaching the flower to the vine.

These are the male flowers. They are easy to identify because they will be on the end of a long straight stem and covered in pollen. The male part of the flower is called the stamen. There will be a long filament that has a pollen covered anther at the end.

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I sliced a male blossom in half here. Notice the shape of the interior of the flower. There is pollen at the end of the stamen and no immature fruit below the petals.

At the end of the stamen is the anther. This is where you start. The anther is where the pollen (which is male) is found that is required for the female flower to produce fruit.

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Female flower on the same melon plant. Notice the immature fruit between the stem and the flower. There will be many more male flowers and if you eat squash blossoms you should plan on frying or stuffing the male blossoms. This would not affect the amount of fruit you get.

This is the female counterpart. You can spot female flowers by looking for the swollen ovary.

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Here is the interior of a female blossom. You can see that the stigma (on the inside of the petals) is pollen free and that there is a swollen ovary (the future fruit) that contains unfertilized seed.

These will abort and fall from the plant if they are not fertilized properly.

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If you have a whole lot of this…

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…and not a lot of this: You probably have a pollination problem.

Like most living things: the female reproductive organs are more complicated than the male organs. The entire length of the female part of a flower is called a pistil. Starting from where the pistil is attached to the base of the flower you will see a swollen area which is the ovary. It is full of potential seeds called ovules. Continuing up the pistil there will be a narrower tube called the style connected to the sticky tip of the pistil: the stigma. This sticky tip is what needs to be fertilized with the male pollen.

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Male and female parts within the same flower.

Here is a simple description that will give you a working foundation in hand pollination:

You don’t need to work with hundreds of flowers, just a few per vine. If they fail, go out and do it again, until you have the amount of fruit you are after. You will get better quality, larger fruit if you allow your plant to concentrate on only producing a few fruit per vine.

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Thai Golden Round melons. I have these on my melon trellis. Learn to build a cheap trellis here: Simple, Inexpensive Vine Support I’ve probably got 10 or more that are close to being ripe. These are not my favorite melon but they are prolific and the vines do well here.

If you have to stand in for bees frequently, you will realize how much work these little garden friends do for us. I recommend making plans to plant nectar and pollen rich plants so you can attract these busy bees to your yard and save yourself the trouble of trying to do it all yourself.

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Successfully pollinated by our neighborhood bees. The blossom is shriveled at the bottom of this melon.

The following is how I like to hand pollinate in small areas with large fruited plants:

I use a q-tip to gather and spread pollen. They are cheap and simple. I twirl it over several of the same species/variety of squash or melons. This is Thai Golden Round. Then I hunt for open female flowers and twirl the pollen onto the stigma. If you’ve done it correctly: the fruit will begin to grow and mature. If your attempt fails: the immature fruit will fall from the vine. You will have more chances and this is why I save and label my q-tips: I want to load as much pollen on them as I can. You can also use a small paintbrush or remove the male flower completely and rub it’s anther directly onto the female’s stigma.

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You don’t need to be careful if you aren’t saving seed, but you won’t create a squash with watermelon pollen. You still need to focus on one species of plant, even if you choose to mix varieties of pollen from the same species of plants. Here is a good explanation of cross-pollination in cucurbits: http://www.walterreeves.com/food-gardening/squashpumpkincucumberwatermelon-pollination-explanation/

You can label your q-tip by putting a piece of tape on it and writing the variety you used it on. If you aren’t saving seed you can use the same q-tip for all of your pollinating (I am not currently saving seed because I am trialing too many, in too close of proximity, to keep the strains pure. Although I usually keep at least one q-tip for each: winter squash/summer squash, melon, watermelon etc. In this way I make sure the q-tip only contains pollen that will fertilize the species I am trying to grow.)

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You can be as detailed or as simplistic as you want. My labeling depends on what I am trying to do for the season.

For more information including recipes, pictures and growing information: Here are some great links.

Learn all about melons: (This is a fantastic site out of Australia that includes growing information, recipes and reviews of melon varieties.) http://melonmaster.yolasite.com/

Learn all about squash: This site can take a while to load but it has reviews and recommended ways to prepare and consume pretty much any variety of squash, gourd and cucumber that you are growing. The site is listed alphabetically.) http://www.thenibble.com/reviews/main/vegetables/squash-glossary.asp

There you go! A simplistic guide to an incredibly complex field of study. Botanists can write the text books full of the complex how’s and why’s, but anyone with this simple guide can go out and enjoy becoming the bee!

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Spring Is The Time To Begin Backyard Foraging!

I love researching things that strike me as interesting. I’m creating a food forest in my backyard, so I want to know what parts of plants I can incorporate into my meals. Spring is a great time for edibles in the garden. I’m not talking fruit but instead: leaves, flowers and even pollen!

I bought an incredible book years ago that’s basically the Bible of medicinal plants. It’s here: best medicinal plant book

I trust that book and it is written by one of the foremost authorities in holistic healing through plants. It’s also handy to look up foraging websites like this one: learn about foraging!

Dill flowers

Of course many herbs are the leaves of plants so dill, basil and cilantro may be familiar to you, but did you know their flowers (some flowers are over poweringly strong, so try them before you include them in a salad.) are delicious too? Take a glance out your window and make a list of what you already have growing (even some weeds, like dandelion, are edible) and start your search. If you can’t completely identify a plant take a piece in a sealed zip lock to a nursery and ask for help. Don’t eat something if you aren’t absolutely sure what it is!

After identifying your plants and once you know what kinds of foods, teas and tinctures you want to try you can go out into your yard and browse! My leaves from trees are at their best in the spring. By midsummer the wind has them torn up and they are experiencing bug and disease pressures. So now is the time to use them.

If you are new to foraging: slowly dip your toes into this idea. Overconsumption or a rapid change in your diet can cause intestinal distress. Our modern diet is full of predigested simple carbohydrates and chemically laden empty calories. It takes a little while to get your body used to doing the work of breaking down whole foods.

Here are a few of the ways I use edible leaves, flowers and tubers:

Fig leaves. Popular from ancient times the fig tree has a lot to offer. Wrapping a meat like chicken or fish, and steaming it in a grill, imparts a coconut flavor. It’s very mild but a good addition to a lot of recipes. Click here for: Fig leaf cooking ideas

Here I have fish in fig leaves and a homemade tartar sauce. You can grill these but I prefer to oil the leaves and then place them on a cookie sheet with a piece of fish with sauce between two fig leaves. Then I cover them in foil and bake them. You can use any baked fish or chicken recipe. The coconut flavor is not sweet, so it goes well with many dishes.

Persimmon leaves. These make fantastic tea. You can roll the leaf from the tip back towards the bottom and stick the stem through the roll for a tidy treat. Click here for: Persimmon leaf uses that’s one in the cup below!

Pomegranate leaves. I love my pomegranate. It has soft seeds and is incredibly good. But the leaves make a great tea for insomnia. They have the most beautiful flowers, too! You can also use leaves and petals in your next smoothie: Uses for pomegranate leaves.

Goji (or wolf berry). These are great in salads. In fact, you could make an entire salad of all of leaves above! goji berry leaves

Red raspberry leaves and blackberry leaves have historically been used as teas to treat a variety of medical issues: WebMD uses for red raspberry leaves

NCBI uses for blackberry leaves

The white Mulberry (morus alba) are the best Mulberry variety to eat leaves from, as they are tender and have good flavor. Use as a salad, tea, or instead of grape leaves in recipes.

I grow olive trees and yes, olive leaf tea is also something you can make at home. My trees are young so utilizing the leaves creates a use for an immature tree. Here’s a link for the benefits of olive leaves: olive leaf

Lavender makes a beautiful tea and I also eat the flowers in salads and even sandwiches.

Nasturtium is a peppery tasting plant and the flowers and leaves are good as an addition to salads. Here’s more on nasturtium: nasturtium

Begonias are edible too! begonia and other edible flowers

The caladiums at the base of this tree are not edible, while the begonias surrounding them are. Always check before you try something new.

Canna is a substitute for asparagus in the southern garden. The plant is related to banana and ginger and the leaves can be used to wrap food for cooking: as banana leaves are used. The tubers taste like potatoes and are a great addition to a food forest (or a supplemental garden for those who want to try and outwit the end of the world. While people may steal your tomatoes, they will overlook your patch of canna!) canna uses

Daylilies? Why yes! They’re also edible the edible daylilily

Cattails, which I walked past for years and not had a thought to eat, are great in spring with their new shoots peeled and you can also use their profuse pollen as flour. cattail pollen

Fiddlehead fern fronds are a great spring treat and incredibly delicious! Edible fern frond

For those of you in cooler climes: pine needle tea is yummy. pine needle tea for vitamin C! Down here you can get your fill of vitamin C in cactus pads (or nopales) which I can get at our local grocer. lots of prickly pear cactus recipes!

One of my very favorite flowers for tea is hibiscus and turk’s cap (same family as okra and other mallows) which make a beautiful, tasty dark red tea. They sell dried hibiscus flowers this far south at our grocery store. Hibiscus tea is popular in Mexico as well as Central and South America. But I grow the plants every year for their gorgeous showy flowers. All hibiscus flowers are edible, the color does not matter.

An okra flower. These are great as fritters. You can find a recipe for those up on the daylily link.

Add a little honey and mulling spices, it makes for a lovely tea.

And last I’ll leave you with another plant I would have never thought to eat, and that is: fushia berries! Not only gorgeous blooms but edible! Who would have thought to pop a few of those in your mouth? fushia berries

I’m going to stop there, but I’m definitely not done going through what you can eat in your own yard. The list is incredibly long, so I advise looking up anything you have (or want, in the future) in your garden. So many things with so many flavors! Here’s a link to a few vegetables that do double duty as you are waiting for their main crop.

I will also leave you with a tale of caution. I grew up in the south. My mother used to put Lantana leaves in our sun tea every summer. They had a wonderful citrusy taste. They are also: poisonous. It had a great taste, and we never got sick, but I would never use Lantana for any purpose outside of pollinator gardens and for it’s beautiful flowers. SO, with that said: even if you taste something, and it tastes great, it doesn’t mean it’s edible. For heaven’s sake: look it up online first! We didn’t have Google when I was a kid, but there’s no excuse for ignorance now!

Happy foraging! And let me know your favorite garden plant to enjoy in early spring!

Reaping The Rewards Of Spring Planning

This month is heavy on the picking and light on the work. Why? Because I worked hard in the spring to create this exact scenario. Water-wise, deep beds have yielded incredible amounts of produce. See how we built them here: Hugelkultur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas  and here: Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed!

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Hugelkultur/keyhole garden inspired bed. These will have worm bins in the middle in a few weeks.

Instructions for creating a carefree, water-wise layer for a raised bed can be found here: Efficient Summer Watering In A Raised Bed

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Newspaper, landscape fabric, wood mulch, soaker hoses and a water-wise raised bed are a few of the things I use in my garden.

Sealed beds have created areas for flowers with no invading Bermuda grass and little to pull as far as seed born weeds. This is how I beat the Bermuda: Beds Over Bermuda grass Or: Landscape Fabric Sandwich.

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Attracting pollinators is easy with annual seeds. Bachelor buttons and zinnia are a few of the flowers I have growing right now.

All I have to do at the moment is to sit back and enjoy my garden. Down here in the South Texas summer, as the mercury rises and the afternoons become unbearably hot: that’s all I want to be doing outside.

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Organic gardening conditions are doable if you have planned ahead and removed the labor from the summer garden. After considerable planning and spring work: all I have to do mid-summer is watch for disease and insects and hook up the watering hose. Planning ahead will make the extra effort required to use more organic practices possible.

Right now I just add water and watch for the summer bug invasion. Armed with Neem oil and a watering hose I have much to enjoy and not much to worry about. I do my heavy work in the spring when the weather is nice and I am motivated.

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With our long season I am planting corn in February/March and harvesting in June. We have two corn seasons down here. Smaller gardens have the ability to produce large quantities because of the extended growing season.

We have a short winter downtime. Our growing season is close to 280 days. But it wouldn’t be this much fun if I hadn’t thought ahead and prepared. Two years after buying our home I have slowly eked out a great garden space, despite our: heavy clay soil, invading Bermuda grass and my annoying health issues. Here’s what I am currently enjoying in a near maintenance-free garden:

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Figs are ripening.

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The corn hit 7 feet and started tassling last month. I have already harvested the majority of the corn. Because I live so far South, my growing season is ahead of most of the rest of the country. If you watch my blog you can plan ahead and have the techniques that I use ready as your spring, summer and fall approaches.

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2014 has been a great year for corn for me. I grow only heirloom vegetables (outside of tomatoes) and corn is one of the most genetically modified and hybridized vegetables you can grow. Avoiding gmo contamination is huge problem with seed corn because it is wind pollinated and pure strains of older varieties are becoming harder to find. Check out heirloom seed sites like seedsavers.org and help ensure genetic variety for our future.

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The kitty who makes his own rules. I can’t keep him out! As you can see the netting I used to keep him out in the spring has totally failed at this point. He’s an antique (20+ years old!) and a good friend, so sometimes I let him win in the battle of the right to rule the garden!

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Tickseed (Coreopsis) is a favorite of mine. Virtually carefree and in constant bloom. It just takes some deadheading to keep it beautiful all summer.

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Love in a mist (Nigella damascena) is fun annual to grow. Look for seeds, you won’t find these annuals in pots in a garden center! The great thing about older garden staples is they are extremely easy to save seed from and grow year after year: just like your (great+) grandma used to!

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Keep pollinators happy with old time favorites. They offer great diversity in pollen and nectar for our garden friends like: hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. Find flower lists online or just order an annual flower seed mix. Seed mixes of heirloom varieties are the most appealing to the bugs you want to attract.

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I grew canna lilies from seed this year. (They are perennials down here and a fun addition to an edible garden.) I belong to a seed train (a group that shares seed between it’s members for the price of postage.) I found mine on yahoo groups. If you can’t find one: start one! You will soon find takers. Getting a box in the mail is like Christmas for seed train members. You will receive favorites from random gardens across the nation!

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Culinary oregano in bloom. A great addition to salads, sandwiches and cooked dishes. I recommend growing lots of herbs. They are easy to care for and are usually pretty mild when they are picked fresh. Because of this: you can enjoy fresh herbs in all kinds of meals and they attract all kinds of good bugs.

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Persimmons.

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Tomatoes from one of my monster cherry tomato plants. If you live in the deep south and wonder why you have trouble with tomatoes: it’s because the temperatures in the summers stay too hot. Tomatoes will abort fruit and flowers once it hits our summertime temps. I know it seems counter-intuitive but tomatoes are pretty picky about their growing temperatures, even hot ones. Since we don’t cool off at night, the summer won’t give you many tomatoes. Our viable season for tomatoes, down here by San Antonio, is very short in both the spring and fall. Try smaller varieties and determinate types that will set all of their fruit at once. Because the season is so short for them I don’t bother with seed. I go with transplants from a garden center and I am usually pleased with the result.

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Basil in bloom. Letting my herbs flower and go to seed has been one of the best ways to attractant bees and other beneficial insects to my yard.

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Bouquet of zinnia, echinacea, day lily and cosmos. I have bouquets like this all season long.

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Kumquats.

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You can never have enough fresh figs!!!!

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Would you like to know what I know about successful gardening? Check out the tab at the top of the page titled: Gardening Basics There’s a lot to digest on that page, so book mark it and come back as you need more information. It covers all you need to know to grow, and the information is free. You can do this and I can show you how!

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