Easy Tomato Tart

Dealing with the deluge of delicious tomatoes in August is always a challenge. Recently I served this amazingly simple tomato tart that used up at least 5-8 large tomatoes and got rave reviews. The amount of tomato usage in a recipe is always paramount for me when I am looking at a counter top laden down with ripe ready-to-use tomatoes.

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Different tomato varieties

Recipe

2 medium onions caramelized in olive oil

1 package puff pastry, defrosted

1/4 c mayonnaise

5-7 ripe tomatoes, all colors

1 wedge of Cojita cheese crumbled to make 2 cups and some grated cheddar

1  small package of Feta cheese, crumbled

salt, pepper, dried thyme and oregano to taste

cut strips of fresh basil

Caramelize 2 onions in olive oil until brown. Slice 5-8 large tomatoes 3/8″ thick and let drain for about a half hour. Place both pieces of defrosted puff pastry in a jelly roll pan, press firmly. Spread 1/4 cup of mayonnaise on top of the puff pastry along with most of the caramelized onions. Sprinkle cheeses, cojita and cheddar, on top. Overlap tomato slices to cover the entire pan and press lightly into pan. Sprinkle feta cheese, herbs, salt and pepper. Add reserved onions and bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes until golden brown. Let cool about 15 minutes before slicing. Serve with basil strips.

Here is a step by step version:

  • Slice two medium onions thinly and slowly saute the slices in olive oil in a saucepan until caramelized. Stir the onions every few minutes to get an even brown color.

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  • Defrost a package of puff pastry which should contain 2 sheets. Lay out on a jelly roll pan(cookie sheet with short sides) and press to cover the bottom and side. If you want, you can spray a light mist of cooking spray on the pan first.

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Press puff pastry on the bottom and sides of the pan

  • Spread mayonnaise on top in a thin layer. I didn’t measure this, but it probably was about 1/4 of a cup.

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Spread mayo on top thinly

  • Spread the onion on top of the puff pastry, reserving some for the top.

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Spread your caramelized onions on top of the puff pastry

  • Sprinkle 2 cups of crumbled or grated cheese (I use cojita cheese which crumbles nicely) and cheddar on top the onions.

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Sprinkle cheese on top of the onions

  •  Now for the tomatoes. I used different colors of tomatoes and sizes for variety. Slice them about 3/8″ thick and leave them on the cutting board to drain slightly.

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Slice your tomatoes

  • Arrange your tomatoes in the pan, overlapping slightly and press them down lightly.

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Overlap the tomatoes covering the entire pan

  • Sprinkle some more cheese (I used crumbled feta), salt, pepper, and dried thyme and oregano. Add the reserved caramelized onions.

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Sprinkle the top with herbs and cheese, and reserved onions

  • Bake for 40 minutes at 350 degrees until the edges brown. Shredded basil placed on top was the finishing touch. Let cool before cutting. It is also delicious cold.

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Add some shredded basil to serve

 

Posted in Cooking in the garden, gardening | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Rearing Monarchs – Start With Milkweed

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Full grown meadow with lots of nectar plants and milkweed around my beehives

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A Monarch nectaring in a Joe Pye Weed flower

Rearing Monarchs at my house was one of my goals this year. But I needed a ready source of milkweed to hand as I knew they were voracious eaters of this specific plant. A meadow of grass and goldenrod surrounded my three bee hives and I decided to plant nectar plants and milkweed in the grassy area, backed up with the goldenrod which is an important source of late nectar.

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A field of Goldenrod backs up my beehives

Trolling the byways as I walked my dog for Monarch caterpillars on milkweed is not the same as having milkweed plants in my back yard. “Plant it and they will come” is so true-you just need the room to plant your milkweed and nectaring plants. Popping out the back door while preparing dinner to check for eggs, caterpillars, and milkweed made it much easier for me.

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Take it section by section

Start Early

Late February was my starting date when I had time that was not taken up with other garden duties. First lay out your area with paint or a hose. I targeted an area about 15 feet wide by 60 feet in front of my bee hives to provide my bees with lots of floral sources and loads of milkweed for the Monarchs that I hoped would visit. Saving old newspapers all winter prepared me for the day when I started laying it down directly on top of the turf. Wet the newspaper so that it clings to the ground surface without flying away in the wind. A convenient hose to water everything down as you place the newspaper down is essential. I used at least 5 layers of newspaper to kill any underlying turf.

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Potting soil bag

Go Section By Section

Using about a dozen bags of potting soil, I added a thin 1 to 2 inch layer on top of the newspaper to hold the newspaper layers firmly to the ground. Mulch is also an option. I progressed one section at a time as the newspaper could dry up and blow away if you leave it too long exposed. After leaving this sandwich sit for about 8 to 10 weeks, the turf underneath was mostly dead and the newspaper was almost rotted through so that I could plant through it. When I gathered my plants for the meadow, I planted directly through the soil and newspaper layer into the underlying soil.

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Spread topsoil on top of the newspaper

Planting

Early in the spring, I gathered perennials in quarts and plugs to plant. Different varieties of of milkweed were planted among the other perennial plants to give a long season of bloom time, from early in the season to late. I planted all my milkweed transplants that were started in February into the ground at the same time. Go to Planting Milkweed to see how to start milkweed from seed. Weeds started growing, but I let them in! This wasn’t a manicured groomed perennial border and I didn’t bother the weeds that popped up.

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Planting Milkweed inside in February

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Newly planted perennials planted in the meadow, backed up by goldenrod

In early May, after danger of frost was over, I broadcast mixes of different seeds that were pollinator friendly in the open spaces. Mixing together many seed packets made a diverse mix and I sprinkled these on top of the soil and firmed it down with a hoe.

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Mixing lots of seed packets together

Firm the seeds into the soil with a hoe and water lightly

Firm the seeds into the soil with a hoe and water lightly

Next Step

Now I have a great little meadow which is a nectar source for my honey bees, as well as for other pollinators. And a great area to pick milkweed to bring in to feed my Monarch caterpillars. Watering in the spring is the only maintenance that I had to do until the plants rooted in and started growing. I left it alone after the initial planting and watering and have enjoyed the flowers that popped up all season long. To see what types of plants that pollinators seek out, check out Plant These For Bees.

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Milkweed in the foreground with other perennials and sunflowers

 

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The meadow is growing in nicely in July

Next Up: Rearing Monarchs

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Posted in gardening, Pollination | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Butterflying

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Butterflies are flying everywhere in my yard, swooping, basking, and fluttering like graceful ballerinas in a ballet. Observing the butterflies visiting my flowers and trying to catch them with my camera is easy to do with digital technology and for many people has turned into a hobby-butterflying. To make it more likely to capture them in my lens, I did some research about their habits and floral preferences.

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Swallowtail inserting its proboscis into Phlox

More than 765 species of butterflies occur in North America, north of Mexico, according to the Fish and Wildlife service. Butterflies are very sensitive to weather as well as the caterpillars that turn into butterflies. Eggs and caterpillars in the hot weather hatch and grow more quickly, so here in Maryland, August is the ideal time to view butterflies. But what are the best practices to attract butterflies to your garden? And where can you go to see different species if you don’t have a garden?

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Queen butterfly on tropical milkweed

Flowers

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‘Black Beauty’ Lilium is the top draw for butterflies in my garden

Colorful flowers attract butterflies which rely on the sugar-rich nectar for food. Small patches of blooming plants lure butterflies and concentrate them in a small area. When my ‘Black Beauty’ lilies bloom in August, when the greatest number of butterflies are active, I can observe dozens at a time congregating in a small 5′ x 5′ space.

Host Plants for Larval Food

Many people forget that butterflies require plants that serve the needs of all life stages of the butterfly. The insects need places to lay eggs, food plants for their larvae (caterpillars), places to form a chrysalis and nectar sources for adults. Adults are often found near their larval host plant. Why not support the entire life cycle of the butterfly?

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After planting milkweed in my garden, Monarch caterpillars appeared

Carry a plant identification field guide to find host plants if you go out in the field and/or plant the larval food plants in your garden. Milkweed is an easy larval food plant to start with. Go to Got Milkweed…….? post to see the benefits of this plant. For a list of host plants, go to Host Plants. I always include Asters, Sunflowers, Dill, Fennel, Parsley, Coneflowers, and Passion Flowers in my garden as common host plants.

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Beautiful Passion Flower is a host plant to spiky bright orange Gulf Fritillary and Variegated Fritillary caterpillars munch the plants on their way to becoming butterflies.

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Life cycle on monarch with milkweed

Other Attractants

Some butterflies rarely or never visit flowers and visit things like animal dung, dead animal remains, rotting fruit, or tree sap. Especially in rainforest understories, where flowers are hard to find, butterflies will instead eat the liquids from fermenting fruit found on the forest floor.

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Owl butterfly feeding on fruit

Moist Soil or Gravel

Many butterflies gather at mud puddles or stream banks to drink water and take in various nutrients like salts and minerals. Often when I hike on my local “Rail Trail” covered with gravel, I see butterflies swooping in and settling on the moist gravel.

Corridors

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Cut-throughs for power lines are a good spot to view butterflies

Forest trails, waterways, woodland edges and power line cuts can attract diverse species of butterflies and become natural movement corridors for traveling butterflies. Adult butterflies use these for long distance migration, or to locate mates. I often go to a power line cut outs to see different species than what frequents my meadow and gardens at home.

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Clouded Sulphur butterfly seen in my yard

Warm Weather

Cold blooded creatures, butterflies remind me of snakes and lizards who seek out the heat of the sun for warmth, and that is exactly where you will find them. When the sun comes out, butterflies magically appear. Living for a fleeting 2 to 4 weeks, butterflies are interested in doing only two things-eating and reproducing.

Gulf Fritillary on Zinnia

Gulf Fritillary basking on Zinnia

Here are some tips that will help you observe and understand butterfly behaviors and hopefully catch a good picture with your phone or camera!

Quick, darting little skipper butterfly on Zinnia

Quick, darting little skipper butterfly on Zinnia

 

Butterfly Pic Tips 

  • Butterflies love the sun and need heat from the sun to warm their bodies, so you will see fewer butterflies on a cloudy day. Instead choose a sunny warm day with a slight breeze.

  • Butterflies are slower in their movements in cooler temperatures so you probably could catch them ‘basking’ in the sun at lower temperatures. Butterflies need an ideal body temperature of about 85ºF to fly. Since they’re cold-blooded animals, they can’t regulate their own body temperatures. If the air temperature falls below 55ºF, butterflies remain immobile, unable to flee from predators or feed. When air temperatures range between 82º-100ºF, butterflies can fly with ease. Cooler days require a butterfly to warm up its flight muscles, either by shivering or basking in the sun. And even sun-loving butterflies can get overheated when temperatures soar above 100ºF, and may seek shade to cool down.

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  • Watch where you stand when observing butterflies so you don’t cast a shadow that could scare them off. Move slowly with no abrupt movements

  • Ditch your tripod-with a moving target, the tripod is useless

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Monarch

  • Butterflies fly more often at 9:30 to 12 in the morning and 2 to 3:30 in the afternoon

  • When I see a butterfly alight on a flower, I press the shutter on my camera which can take up to 11 frames a second. At least one of those many pictures that you snapped will be a winner.

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A basking butterfly perches with its wings outstretched in a patch of sunlight to raise its internal temperature. This is a great time to get a good picture of them

  • Butterflies don’t have any chewing mouth parts, but eat by sipping nectar, through their proboscis. The proboscis is found curled neatly on the lower side of the head when not eating. When a butterfly eats, the proboscis extends like a straw which they insert deep into the flower to suck up the nectar, a behavior called ‘nectaring’. When eating they will circle around a flower for seconds at a time, making sure to drain all the nectar.

Curled proboscis

Curled proboscis

  • Male butterflies are found “puddling”, sipping at the moisture in puddles or wet soil. They are also benefiting from the salts dissolved in the water which increases a male butterfly’s fertility.

  • Butterflies lay their eggs on the specific host plants and are very particular in finding the perfect plant to do this.  I am always looking at my host plants to see if I can find eggs or caterpillars. A plant stripped of leaves is a good sign of caterpillars.

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    A tussock moth caterpillar munches on milkweed

Black Swallowtail caterpillar feeding on parsley plant

Black Swallowtail caterpillar feeding on parsley plant

Skipper butterfly on lily

Skipper butterfly on lily

 

  • Butterfly wings are transparent. Formed of layers of chitin, a protein that makes up the insect’s exoskeleton,  thousands of tiny scales  cover the wings which reflect light in different colors. Moths and butterflies are the only insects to have scales. Sometimes you can take advantage of this property and photograph butterflies with sunlight shining through their wings.

Transparent wings of a swallowtail

Transparent wings of a swallowtail

  • Butterflies taste with their feet. Taste receptors on a butterfly’s feet find its host plant and locate food.  A female butterfly lands on different plants, drumming the leaves with her feet to make the plant release its juices. Spines on the back of her legs have chemo-receptors that detect the right match of plant chemicals. When she identifies the right plant after visiting at least several choices, she lays her eggs. I follow a butterfly for a long time, hoping to catch her in this behavior to snap a picture.

Swallowtail on Mexican sunflower

Swallowtail on Mexican sunflower

  • Within about 10-12 feet, butterfly eyesight is quite good, so move carefully. Anything beyond that distance gets a little blurry to a butterfly. Butterflies rely on their eyesight for vital tasks, like finding mates of the same species, and finding flowers on which to feed. In addition to seeing some of the colors we can see, butterflies can see a range of ultraviolet colors invisible to the human eye. The butterflies themselves may have ultraviolet markings on their wings to help them identify one another and locate potential mates.

Swallowtail on Zinnia

Swallowtail on Zinnia

  • Lots of hungry predators are happy to make a meal of a butterfly. Some butterflies fold their wings to blend into the background using camouflage, rendering themselves all but invisible to predators. Others try the opposite strategy, wearing vibrant colors and patterns that boldly announce their presence. Sometimes you have to look very closely to spot a camouflaged butterfly or moth.

The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed

The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed

Plant nectar rich flowers and host plants for a steady parade of colorful butterflies to visit your garden. Go to Plant These For the Bees for ideas on plant choices which work with many pollinators. Tithonia, or Mexican Sunflower, Zinnias, and Lilies are my all-time favorites for butterfly attraction and watching.

Skipper butterflies on Dahlia

Skipper butterflies on Dahlia

Bee Skep poster, go thttps://www.etsy.com/listing/182225449/18-x-24-pollination-poster-plant-these?

Bee Skep poster, go to Etsy Store The Garden Diaries

Posted in Pollination | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

From Plot to Plate-Squash Sex in the Garden

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Oven fried squash blossoms served with a blue cheese dipping sauce

My last post on Squash Birth Control showed you how to decrease your squash harvest. But how about if you want to increase your harvest? Maybe you only have one plant to work with and you want to eat squash every night? It is easy to increase your odds of growing fruit as each squash plant bears male and female flowers and you can use this to your advantage without the help of pollinators. You become the pollinator!

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An early morning harvest of squash blossoms, mostly male, but a few female ones

Most gardeners look at their squash plant blooming and see tons of flowers and start making plans for all that squash, pulling out recipes for squash bread and zucchini cake. Over the next week, you see with chagrin the blossoms fall off, some with small squash attached and wonder why? In reality, most of the flowers are male flowers and produce no fruit and pollinate the much fewer female flowers.

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An open female flower and a fertilized one that is starting to grow a squash fruit

Learning to distinguish between male and female flowers on the vine will help you figure out what your true harvest will be. Both male and female flowers occur on each plant and pollen from the male flowers has to make it to the female by way of insects or hand pollination. This is where the gardener can lend a helping hand.

The video below shows a snapshot of morning activity of flying insects in my squash blossoms. I have three hives so there is always lots of visiting bees to my flowers. But everyone doesn’t maintain bee hives and you can increase your odds of your squash flowers getting pollinated even in an urban situation by simply hand pollinating.

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Here you can see the difference: The female flower on the left with the enlarged center, the pistil, and the male flower on the right which carries all the pollen grains

The first week or two it is normal for the blossoms to fall off as only male flowers are produced and then the female flowers start opening. For pollination to occur you need bees- native, bumble, or honey bees and other insects, or a handy Q-tip!  If there is a dearth of bees, pollination is a lot less likely to occur, but not to worry- this is very easy to do yourself.

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Removing all the flower petals from the male flower, touch the pollen bearing anther to the stigma of the female flower

Simply take the petals off of a male flower and use the ‘brush’  or exposed anther and brush it against the stigma of the female flower thus transferring the pollen manually and ensuring that the female flower grows a fruit. You can also perform this with a Q-Tip very easily in the vegetable plot. I prefer to fertilize directly with the male flower and go to each female flower that I see, brushing the anther against the stigma of the female flower. Fertilization is necessary for fruit formation. If fertilization does not occur, the ovary  or little squash will wither away. The squash flower below on the right has successfully been fertilized and is starting to grow.

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On the bottom left is the male flower; top middle is a female flower; bottom right is a female flower that has closed up, pollination has occurred and the squash fruit is starting to grow

Male flowers greatly out number female ones and I take advantage of this and pick baskets of male flowers for recipes. Of course to cut your harvest, simply remove the fewer female flowers which can also be used in recipes. Just remember to cut off the center part, the stigma bearing part, as this can be tough. For recipes, check out Squash Birth Control-Squash Blossom Recipes.

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A bee and a cucumber beetle in a squash blossom

Here is one of my favorite recipes-Oven Fried Stuffed Squash Blossoms. Instead of messy deep-frying, I like to cook them at a high temperature in the oven. Serve with a dipping sauce, like a blue cheese mix.

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Baked stuffed squash blossoms ready to eat

recipeee

 

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Mix all your ingredients in a bowl

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Stuff cheese into blossom

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Blossoms all stuffed,ends twisted, ready for breading

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Breaded and ready to pop into the oven

Posted in Cooking in the garden, gardening, vegetable gardening | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Squash Birth Control- Squash Blossom Recipes

Pizza with squash and blossoms attached and grille corn-Yum!!

Pizza with squash and blossoms attached and grilled corn-Yum!!

If you never have eaten a squash blossom, go down to the nearest farmers market and pick up a bag and try them out. Even better grow a few plants in containers or in a garden to pluck them fresh off the plant. They are a wonderful addition to summer menus. I grow squash, not only for the vegetable,  but for the flower. And when you pick the young squash at a certain point, you get both the veggie and the blossom, and that is the best of both worlds.

Picked fresh from the garden

Picked fresh from the garden

To eat them, I slice the squash in half and fry them up, put them on pizza, stuff the blossoms with goat cheese, and make latkes or fritters.  You could also cut them up into ribbons or a chiffonade and drape on top of a pasta dish. There are countless ways to enjoy the yellow trumpets that emerge from the plants all summer. Here is a great pasta dish using blossoms: Pasta with Squash Blossoms.

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Pick the blossoms first thing in the morning

Also, consider this as birth control for squash. It reduces your yield tremendously when you really don’t need another 20 zucchini or yellow squash cluttering up your refrigerator. when the squash comes in, it is an avalanche!

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Big variety of summer squash

The trick is to catch the squash when it is only a day or two old, has the blossom attached, and is still tender. Or just pluck the blossom before it is fertilized and starts a tiny squash.

Young squash with flower still attached

Young squash with flower still attached

The blossom is pretty fragile so carefully snip it off, and I like to give it a quick rinse as insects like to lay their eggs on the blossom, namely squash bugs and ants. Bees seem to get drunk on the pollen inside the flower and it is fun to watch them. Place the blossom in the fridge wrapped in damp paper towels for no more than 24 hours to use in your favorite recipe.

 

Early morning is the best time to pick them before the heat of the day wilts them. Shake out any bees that spent the night curled at the base and collect as many as you can. I use both winter and summer squash blossoms and have taken out flowers from my fridge that still have buzzing bees in them that awaken when taken out into warm air. So, be careful about examining them carefully first.

Open the flower, and snip off the stamen in the center as this can be tough.

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At this point, you can stuff them with goat cheese or just batter and fry them. They are sublime as a pizza topping. My favorite treatment though is Squash Latkes/Fritters.

Squash blossom latke recipe

Squash blossom latke recipe

 

Chop them up- I like the squash chunky

Chop them up – I like the squash chunky

Make your batter

Mix your batter

Add Chopped squash to batter

Add chopped squash to batter

Mix together

Lightly fold veggies into batter

Drop by spoonfuls into hot oil

Drop by spoonfuls into hot oil

Fry 3 minutes on each side

Fry 3 minutes on each side

Ready to eat

Ready to eat

 

Posted in Cooking in the garden | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Healthy Fruit-Infused Water

Cucumbers, mint, stevia, and lemon scented geranium are steeping in my pitcher

Cucumbers, mint,  stevia, lime, and lemon-scented geranium are steeping in my pitcher

It is hot here in Maryland and I am trying to quench my thirst with something healthy, no calories and with ingredients ready to hand – infused water. Its beneficial hydration in every refreshing sip!  If you often work outside like I do in the summer, there is nothing better than to whip up one of these infusions and relax with iced glass in hand. A good way to use left-over herbs and odds and ends from cooking, these additions can add pizzazz to your liquid diet.

Keep It Simple

When I feel the urge, I scout the flower and vegetable beds for something flavorful that I can throw into water to steep for a couple of hours. A variety of candidates will jump out at me, depending on the season. Stevia (the sweet herb substitute), cucumber, fragrant herbs, raspberries, blueberries, and mint are always welcome. Three or four items are usually enough to infuse a delicious flavor to my fresh well water. But something as simple as sliced cucumber and crushed mint leaves will do the trick.

From left to right - mint, cucumber, scented geranium, lime, stevia

From left to right – mint, cucumber, scented geranium, lime, stevia

Best Practices

  1. Be sure to wash off any chemical residue and dirt first. I garden organically, and know there is no chemical residue on my produce, but be sure to wash dirt and insect debris off. You don’t want any surprises…… like a Japanese Beetle floating in the mix!

  2. Use cold or room temperature water. Hot water can make things like berries fall apart.

  3. Springing for a fancy infuser pitcher isn’t necessary. Just use a clean glass or food grade plastic container.

  4. Cut up or smash (muddle) berries, squeeze citrus juices and use the leftover rind, tear up herb leaves, and throw in some edible flowers like beautiful blue borage for color.

  5. Infuse the flavors for about 2 hours at room temperature and then place in the frig to stop any unwanted bacterial growth.

  6. Keep the infused water up to 3 days in the refrigerator. I like to remove citrus, such as limes, and lemons within a couple of hours, as they can start tasting bitter. You can strain out any small flowers or pieces of fruit before drinking.

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    A water-glass with a built-in infuser

     

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    Stack your ingredients in firmly to release juices

Wash and add your selections to your fresh water and keep it at room temperature  for a couple of hours and voila’, you have those expensive flavored waters that you have paid a lot of money for.

A way to get rid of all my cucumbers!

A way to get rid of all my cucumbers!

One combination that I have tried is raspberries, lemon,  stevia, lemon balm, and lemon grass. The citrus notes give the water a refreshing zing and the raspberries stain the water a pale pink, kind of like pink lemonade. The stevia gives a sweet note to the water, but isn’t necessary. My stevia herb which is a natural sugar substitute, is growing like a weed, and I want to use it. The lemon grass is easy to use by ripping off a clump from the main bunch, stripping the leaves off, and slitting the fragrant stem to release those lemony oils.

Are there any benefits of infusing fruits/herbs instead of purchased flavored drinks? Yes!

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Herbal concoction

1) Flavor-Your home-made infused water will taste bright and tangy and full of flavor. I have taste commercially prepared flavored waters, and they can taste watered down and flat. Even infusing water for a scant 15 minutes tastes better than purchased waters.

2) Appearance- Wow-a huge difference from purchased flavored water! You are more likely to eat and drink something that is beautiful and colorful.

3) Calories & Health- No calories are in infused water. But purchased ones can have added artificial and non-artificial flavors and sugars. Staying hydrated is important for your health and what better way than to drink a batch of sugar-free infused water instead of soda all day long?

4) Preparation- Easy and quick to prepare with ingredients on hand and from your garden.

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Blue Borage flowers add color to this mix of lemons, scented geranium, mint, and cucumbers

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Gatherings from my garden

Flavor Ideas

Fruits and Vegetables

apples •  blackberries • blueberries • cantaloupe • carrots • celery • cherries • cucumbers • fennel • grapefruit • grapes • honeydew • kiwi • lemons • limes • mangos • nectarines • oranges • peaches • pears • pineapples • plums • raspberries • strawberries • tangerines • watermelon

Herbs, Spices, and Florals

basil • borage • cilantro • cinnamon • cloves • ginger root • lavender • lemon verbena • lemongrass • mint • rosemary • thyme • parsley • rose petals •  vanilla bean

Great Combos to Try

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Raspberry, lemon, and mint is my go-to infusion when raspberries are in season

Cucumber, Mint, and Raspberry

Orange, Mint, and Blueberry

Watermelon, Mint, and Lemon

Strawberry, Lime, and Cucumber

Raspberry, Vanilla, and Rose Petals

Blueberry, Lavender, and Borage

Kiwi, Cucumber, Honeydew and Honey (Yes, the honey is adding calories here, but hey, I’m a beekeeper!)

Cantaloupe, Mint, Raspberries

Raspberries, Lemon, Lemon Grass, Stevia, Lemon Balm

Lemon, Mint, and Raspberries

Rose Geranium, Stevia, and Mint

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Rose Geranium, Stevia, and Mint

 

 

Posted in Cooking in the garden, Edible plants | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Bee Balm-Pollinator Superstar

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Attractive to both hummingbirds and bees as well as humans, Bee Balm is one of my favorites as an early summer bloomer and easy to grow perennial. Commonly known as Bee Balm or Monarda, Bee Balm is “balm” to all flying insects and enjoyed by humans in teas and potpourri. Each flower head rests on a whorl of showy, pinkish, leafy bracts. Flowers are attractive to bees and butterflies.

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‘Jacob Cline’ Monarda, a good tall variety

One of the 21 superstar pollinator plants that I designed my poster with and available at TheGardenDiaries Etsy shop, Bee Balm is a pollinator superstar and always has many insect visitors on a sunny day.

Plant These For The Bees

Plant These For The Bees

 Other common names include horsemint, oswego tea, and bergamot, the latter inspired by the fragrance of the leaves, which is reminiscent of bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia). Bergamot orange is the flavor that gives the unique taste of Earl Grey tea.

A bee diving in!

A bee diving in!

From the roots, up to the flower, the entire plant has a spicy minty fragrance which quality repels deer and other browsing critters.

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Even rabbits shy away from Monarda

A valuable plant for landscaping because of this repellent attribute, Bee Balms now come in petite and dwarf sizes to fit into smaller gardens. Even though the entire dwarf plant is smaller, the flowers are the same size or larger than some of the taller varieties.

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Closeup of ‘Leading Lady Plum’

Although bee balm appears to have thin narrow petals, close up they are really little hollow tubes perfect for thin beaks like hummingbirds. “Leading Lady Plum’ has a scattering of dark plum spots on the tips of the petals, adding another color dimension to this standout variety.

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‘Leading Lady Plum’ Monarda next to ‘Heart Atttack’ Dianthus

The “flower quotient”, a term I use for the relative size of the flower to the size of the foliage, is greater than most flowers. When a Bee Balm blooms, it is stunning, unusual, and one that stops visitors in their tracks.

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Nymph Grasshopper hanging out on a Bee Balm Flower

 The red variety is commonly known as Oswego Tea. Used by colonists in place of English tea after the Boston Tea Party, when they threw the English tea in the harbor to protest high taxes. Bee Balm continued for years as a medicinal and enjoyable tea and was frequently planted next to colonists homes for ease of gathering. To make your own tea, just air dry some leaves and steep them in hot water.

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Red Bee Balm or Monarda makes Oswego Tea

Coming in an array of colors and sizes, you can find a Bee Balm for any size garden now, some even fitting nicely into containers. Hybridizers have been busy with this plant and every time I go to the nursery, I see another small variety pop up. “Small” is the key word here; Most plants being developed now have a shorter stature and larger more colorful flowers to appeal to gardeners with limited space gardens or containers.

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‘Pardon My Pink’ Bee Balm

Because of the diminutive size of the new varieties, I tuck them in when I have a bare spot in the garden. Enjoying some shade in the afternoon in hot climates, these workhorses will bloom their little hearts out-usually lasting for 2 months or more if you dead head. The larger varieties can spread aggressively and should be controlled before they encroach and overtake other perennials.

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‘Balmy Pink’ Monarda fits in small spaces

Prone to downy mildew which can mottle the leaves, the newer varieties are more resistant to this disfiguring but not fatal disease.

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Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, isn’t as showy but still a great plant for pollinators

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An old-fashioned variety ‘Prairie Night’

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National Pollinator Week

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Eight years ago, the U.S. Senate in a rare unanimous approval vote, designated one week in June as “National Pollinator Week”  which addressed the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations.  In 2016 the dates are June 20 – 26 and the event has now grown to be an international celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture signs the proclamation every year designating this week. Pollinator Week was initiated and continues to be managed by the Pollinator Partnership, the largest non-profit organization dedicated exclusively to the protection and promotion of pollinators and their ecosystems.

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This year’s poster, Trees for Bees, by artist Natalya Zahn, is a beautiful reminder of the many trees you can include in your pollinator-friendly habitat

The creation of beautiful posters commemorates the event and this years poster by artist Natalya Zahn celebrates trees  in the landscape that will help attract pollinators. It is available by going to Pollinator Partnership.  Most people don’t think of trees as a valuable pollinator source, like they would with annuals and perennials, so I was happy to see the subject of the poster.  Because trees hold their blooms up high where you can’t see them, you don’t see the pollinator activity that you would down below with smaller plants. According to Doug Tallamy, who wrote Bringing Nature Home, Oaks rank number one as supporting at least 557 species of caterpillars as a host plant, and Cherries as number two attracting and supporting 456 species of caterpillars. And to have butterflies and other pollinators like birds who feed their young tons of the butterfly larvae, you need caterpillars.

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Maple Tree flower: Most people don’t notice that bees are visiting flowers high in the canopy of trees

To make it easy to figure out what to plant, you can ask at native plant sales, visit nature centers, and go to websites like plants.usda.gov. This website has  regional and state lists of native plants that you can plant in your area which includes trees, shrubs, vines, and herbaceous plants.

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21 popular flowers and herbs that attract pollinators

For seed sources, I rely on Botanical Interests for their great diversity and selection. You can order a seed packet from them, I Love Pollinators, #4007 which includes a mix of pollinator friendly plants- bachelor button, sunflower, borage, hollyhock, marigold, zinnia, hyssop, and dill. Costing only $1, all proceeds go to support the Pollinator Partnership which supports the health of our pollinators.

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This mix creates a pollinator-friendly habitat with annual and perennial flowering plants that supply pollinators with nectar, pollen, and shelter. For more information, go to http://www.botanicalinterests.com/pollinators

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Calycanthus, or Carolina Sweet Shrub, is a great native addition to a garden that will attract many pollinators

 

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Bee Catnip-Pollinator Superstar

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Cats are naturally drawn to aptly named Catmint or Nepeta

If you own at least one square foot of sunny or partially sunny garden space, you should plant Catmint, or better known in the trade as Nepeta, for longevity of bloom, ease of maintenance, and attraction to pollinators.

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A gold banded dragonfly nectaring on a Nepeta

As a landscape designer, I feel so strongly about this plant, that I incorporate Nepeta in virtually every design that I create.  One of my “go to” plants when designing gardens, there are different varieties that range from a diminutive 8″ high to over 3 feet tall. Growing in billowing aromatic mounds, I place it in front of borders.

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Nepeta paired with Heuchera in border

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Related to catnip but a much showier flower, it will attract cats to explore it and rub against, though I have never had trouble with cats destroying it as I do with catnip. A “drug of choice” for my cat, she makes a beeline for my many plants of Nepeta when she escapes outside.

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Not only is it a totally reliable perennial for zones 3 – 8,  you can enjoy the lavender shades of blooms for many months if you sheer it back by 1/3 after the first flush of spring.

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A bee superstar, I am profiling all the plants on my poster “Plant These For Bees” available at TheGardenDiaries Etsy shop. Catmint is one of my all time favorite perennials in the landscape as it is trouble-free and most importantly-deer, rabbit, and any other critter resistant. Gray green leaves give off a minty fragrance that four-legged varmints stay away from. I even use it to barricade other more desirable plants that deer prefer.

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I use Catmint in heavily deer browsed areas in the landscape

Approaching a good stand of Catmint/Nepeta, the first thing you notice is the darting of insects, throughout the profuse lavender blue flower wands. Mostly bumble and honey bees, but I see all kinds of small native bees and butterflies are attracted to the display.

070Easily grown in average to poor soil, even clay hard-pan, Catmint once established is quite drought tolerant. Limey green is one of my favorite colors in the landscape, and I can even get Nepeta with a lime foliage, called ‘Limelight’. A great companion to roses and peonies, Nepeta should be on your “must have” list.

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Used in an entrance garden, Catmint looks good with golden leaved plants

Lots of varieties are available, but I prefer ‘Blue Wonder’ at 1 to 2 feet tall or the taller but confusingly named ‘Walker’s Low’. The smaller varieties, like ‘Kit Kat’ are so dwarf that they don’t flower as profusely as the larger ones but are useful in small areas. Preferring full sun, but tolerating some light shade, Catmints are great selections for a bee friendly landscape.

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Cats love this plant!

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It’s a Small, Small, World-Mini Hostas

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Mini hostas spilling out of a strawberry jar

A shade workhorse, hostas, according to the Perennial Plant Association are the most widely planted perennial in the world. Easily tucked into small places in the garden, and a perfect accent in trough and other miniature garden containers, these diminutive hostas are becoming a crowd favorite.

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Hosta ‘Mini Skirt’

On the pricey side, these adorable plants are being snatched up everywhere. They can run from $18 too $30 a piece.

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Planted into the garden, miniature hostas stay low to the ground and form a tapestry of color, making a great ground cover, seen at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens

Usually less than 6 inches high, miniature hostas should be placed carefully in a garden bed so you don’t lose sight of them when other plants encroach. That is why I like to use them in trough gardens. You are placing this little gem in a highly visible location for maximum impact in a container. But try planting a rainbow of them in a garden bed for a great little ground cover in the shade. Recently I made a trip to Carolyn’s Shade Gardens in Media, Pennsylvania and was impressed with the variety available.

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A trough with ‘Frosted Mouse Ears’ backed by potted miniature hostas at  Carolyn’s Shade Garden

And the names!! Mini Skirt, Lemon Lime, Blue Mouse Ears, Neutrino, Cracker Crumbs, Dew Drop, Shiny Penny, Appletini, Baby Blue Eyes, Little Red Rooster, Tears of Joy, Sunlight Child, Curley, Sun Mouse, Church Mouse, Kiwi Golden Thimble- the list goes on and on. Marketing a plant is all about finding that perfect name and these minis take the prize for catchy names.

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Irresistible with sculptural leaves and charming textures make it difficult to stop at one, and you’ll be tempted to fill a garden with them. Taking up less space in a space challenged property, and ideally suited to container growing, these little minis are perfect on their own or as a companion plant.

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‘Blue Mouse Ears’ tucked into a boulder crevice

Easily grown like all the larger widely known large hostas, they are pretty indestructible. For the best care of hostas, plant them in rich organic soil with a slightly acidic pH.

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Flowering like champs, the minis perform like their larger relatives

Drainage, like with so many plants, is most important. Dormant season crown rot is one of the few diseases that attack these plants.  With this in mind, when newly planted, keep the roots moist, not wet. Once established, hosta plants aren’t fussy and are very tolerant of summer drought and last for years.

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Perfect for fairy gardens, this one is ‘Blue Mouse Ears’

One of deer’s favorite food, plant hostas in containers if you have a property overrun with these pests.

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Planted next to a ‘Jack Frost’ Brunnera, adds some contrast to this mini

For my post on a hosta nursery, go to Happy Hollow-Hosta Mecca to see more varieties or Carolyn’s Shade Gardens.

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