Welcome to Thyme to Garden, the new blog from the UC Master Gardener Program of Santa Clara County.
We look forward to offering you content that is thought-provoking, informative, and helpful in your gardening adventures. We hope we can provide you with some of those “I learned something new” moments and that you'll look forward to each seasonal issue of Thyme to Garden! Subscribe to receive our quarterly blog in your inbox!
Pollinators Need Our Help
By Rhonda King-Curry
You've probably read that pollinator populations are declining worldwide. Pollinators are important. They are responsible for 1 of every 3 bites of food we eat. Mounting evidence shows that home gardens can make a big difference in helping pollinators. How can you help? In addition to skipping the pesticides, pollinators need three things: food, shelter, and water.
Food: Grow flowers of different sizes, heights, shapes, and colors that are planted in clusters (3'x'3 drifts) that offer different blooms almost year-round. Growing different kinds of flowers will ensure there's something for everyone. Pollinators will be busy from late winter through the end of autumn foraging at flowers, so having a variety of flower types will ensure different pollinators have something just right for them.
Tiny native bees need tiny flowers—let some of your herbs make their tiny flowers. Umbel-shaped (umbrella-like) and flat flowers allow landing pads for butterflies and medium-sized bees. Tubular-shaped flowers are good for hovering pollinators like hummingbirds or larger bees that grasp onto the petals of flowers to hang on. Don't worry about focusing on planting only red tubular flowers for hummingbirds. They'll forage at all flower colors. With red flowers, they have less competition from bees because bees only see ultraviolet light. Bees can't see red, so they generally leave red flowers to the hummers, and are instead attracted to colors such as white, blue, and yellow.
Why grow flowers that bloom in late winter? Some native bees, such as bumblebee queens, emerge from their nests early. They'll fly in rainy cold weather while honeybees stay in their hives. After hibernating all winter, bumblebee queens are hungry, so Manzanitas, Ceanothus, and other early bloomers are quite the welcome sight.
In California, we have about 1,600 different species of native bees. Most are solitary, meaning they don't live in large hives or cooperate with organized divisions of labor like the non-native honeybee. Native bees, without a colony or hive to protect, are not aggressive and rarely sting people. They come in all sizes and most are generalist feeders, so they'll forage at all flowers. But some native bees are specialists, so they'll only be interested in particular flowers or flower families. Having a variety of flowers for bees to choose from will ensure something for everyone.
Shelter: Most native bees are cavity-nesters (either in hollow stems above ground or in tunnels underground). When deadheading plants with hollow stems, leave some taller stalks for the native bees. Also, don't cover your entire yard with deep layers of mulch. Many native bees need bare soil to make nests. Leave some unmulched soil, perhaps behind taller shrubs, for nesting sites.
Water: A shallow dish of muddy water will help pollinators stay hydrated. Why muddy? Because butterflies engage in a behavior called ‘puddling' where they suck up nutrients necessary for reproduction that nectar can't provide. Bees find water by smell, so if the water is too clean, they might miss it. Bees can't swim, so add some wine corks, large pebbles, or marbles to the shallow dish so they have somewhere to land.
Summer Seed Saving
by Hillie Salo
As we transition from spring to summer, consider letting your plants go to seed. You can then harvest your seeds for future plantings.
The easiest crops to save seed from are of those that self-pollinate, such as lettuce, peas, beans, and tomatoes. Self-pollinating plants reduce concerns of cross-pollination and will produce seeds true to type; that is, future fruit just like the parent. Hybrid seeds will not breed true.
As the weather warms, lettuce will become noticeably bitter to taste. Soon the plant will start to bolt. Bolting is the process where a stem shoots up and a seed head forms. At first, yellow daisy-like flowers will appear, which then turn white and fluffy. Under the fluff, you will find seeds. The seed heads do not ripen uniformly and can be harvested individually as they ripen. If this is too tedious, you can wait until about 50% of the seed heads are fluffy, then cut the stalk. Place the stalk and seed heads into a paper bag until totally dry and most of the seed heads have ripened.
Though peas can be grown in spring and fall, they are best saved as we go into the warm season. The heat of summer will reduce issues with powdery mildew. Peas and beans are best left on the vine for as long as possible to dry. When they dry and rattle in their pods, they can be harvested individually or you can pull the whole vine. Then, let the pods continue to dry for another week or two. When the beans are totally dry, put them into the freezer for a few days to kill weevils.
Tomatoes are best harvested at just past peak ripeness. Squeeze or scoop out the seeds into a jar and leave for a few days to ferment. This will let the seed gel surrounding the seed dissolve, which allows for easier germination and will rid the seed of some seed-borne diseases.
Useful seed saving resources:
UCCE Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County seed saving basics
Seed to Seed, book by Suzanne Ashworth (copyright 1991)
Mornings At Martial Cottle School Field Trips
by Pamela White
Master Gardeners host native bee and pollinator field trips at Martial Cottle Park. The half-day morning field trip is offered to school groups, homeschoolers, and scout groups throughout Santa Clara County. Children rotate through four teaching stations spread across our 4-acre garden. The trip includes introductory lessons about native and non-native bees and ways of observing bees. The curriculum is based on life science standards for elementary grades, and the different learning styles of students are considered using a multi-modality approach. The closure lesson uses riddles to review what was learned and songs to review key concepts. There's even a bee waggle dance!
At the honeybee station, students create a hive with manipulatives (these are physical tools of teaching which engage students visually and physically with objects such as coins, blocks, puzzles, etc), learn what different types of honeybees do, and what jobs they have throughout their lifetime.
At the walk and talk station, students observe and learn about the Yellow-Faced Bumblebee, the Valley Carpenter Bee, and the Ultra-Green Sweat Bee. They tour the gardens, learn how to protect habitats for bees, learn about social and solitary bees, ground and cavity nesters, and different ways bees collect nectar and pollen.
At the bee anatomy station, students learn about bee anatomy and create a model of one of the native bees. They also sing a song about bee anatomy parts to reinforce learning.
At the pollination station, they learn what pollination is, the different ways plants are pollinated, and how bees navigate to locate, collect, and transfer pollen. The children make seed balls to use later to start their own small pollinator patch.
Interested in learning more about our school field trips?
'Mornings at Martial Cottle Park: Lessons In The Garden' are provided each spring and fall. These field trips are offered to students throughout Santa Clara County. Lessons are about plant life cycles, nutrition (why we eat all colors of vegetables and fruits and that we eat all parts of a plant), pests and beneficial insects in the garden, and insect anatomy. Lessons are based on life science standards taught in the elementary grades. Master gardeners and community volunteers provide these hands-on lessons.
The Fountain of Youth: Look No Further Than Your School Garden
by Lisa Fraboni
Since 1493, when Ponce de Leon, a Spanish explorer, attempted to reach the island of Bimini (now Puerto Rico) in search of the Fountain of Youth, mankind has sought the mythical spring in which youth is restored to anyone who drinks or bathes in its waters.
Research has shown that youthfulness can be maintained and even restored with proper exercise, time spent outdoors, and a quality diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables. Today, most Americans, including children, spend most of their time indoors. Today's children devote an average of seven minutes a day to unstructured outdoor playtime. An August 2022 article, from The American Academy of Pediatrics states, “The prevalence of childhood obesity in the United States is high, and obesity in early life is linked with long-term poor physical and mental health.”
School gardens have been found to be an effective way to promote lifelong healthy eating habits and connect students to the natural world. Gardening provides educators with opportunities to enhance student education through practical, reality-based learning. Benefits of school garden programs include:
Academic Achievement: The goal of every school is to excel in academia. The school garden is the perfect environment for hands-on learning, observation, and experimentation in all core curriculum subjects. Children can use scientific methods through plant-related experiments to measure plant growth, or observe the effect of sunlight on the quality of fruit, or analyze the quality of soil and water on food production.
Environmental Enlightenment: School gardens bring desperately needed green space to urban landscapes. Children can rest, heal, and meditate while experiencing the natural environment. These opportunities often lead to better mental health.
Healthy Lifestyle: California school-age children are increasingly overweight and unfit. They do not exercise regularly, nor do they eat the recommended daily servings of fruit and vegetables. These behaviors are directly related to increases in diabetes and heart disease. One in three school-age kids is considered overweight. Gardens are not only academic learning environments, but they also offer a place for children to learn where their food comes from. Children that are exposed to the process of growing and caring for their food show an increased interest in trying new foods which leads to a higher consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Regardless of socioeconomic standing, school gardens introduce children to diverse and varied food. Lastly, maintaining a garden requires students to dig, plant, and weed their beds, a great way to get quality outdoor exercise.
Social Skills: Maintaining a school garden introduces students to life-long social skills: responsibility, teamwork, ownership, and leadership. A school garden program also fosters a sense of community, bringing students, parents, teachers, administration, and community members together for a common purpose.
Sensory Enrichment: Gardens are the perfect place to create a sensory environment. Students can touch fuzzy Lamb's Ears, taste Chocolate Mint, hear the rustle of Broom Corn in the breeze, or see the vibrant colors of a Carnival Zinnia. Time in gardens has been directly linked to alleviating ADHD symptoms in children.
The Fountain of Youth is not a mythical spring but a way of thinking and living. School gardens bring the natural environment into the classroom and the students into the garden. Maybe we were looking for the Garden of Eden all along.
If you would like more information on the Master Garden School Advisory Program, please go to the site and complete a request form. Master Gardeners can answer school garden questions and if needed, come to your site and provide a garden consultation.
Six Plant Palettes to Quench Your Thirst
by Monique Frappier
Not so different from creating a habitat for native garden pollinators, the Garden-to-Glass Demonstration Garden holds a collection of nourishing plants to help sustain people. Focused on representing home gardeners with small spaces, as is the case for many county residents, and being alert to the need to conserve water, the idea emerged to showcase a compendium of edible plants to be used for crafting refreshing drinks.
The Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County carried on with the fun theme at the intersection of two realms where conservation meets the end game of creative concoctions. The Garden-to-Glass Demonstration Garden at Martial Cottle Park was established in 2020 to encourage home gardeners of all ages to ‘Drink What You Grow' through an evolving display of six raised garden beds, each one featuring its own potable plant palette.
- The Lots of Lemon palette is made up of plants with a taste and fresh scent of lemon to grow in a raised bed if one is short on space for a lemon tree. One of these plants is Lemon thyme, an herb for a Lemon thyme Prosecco! Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citrodora), Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), and Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) aptly fit in this plant assemblage to eventually also get snipped and sipped.
- A Refresh & Rehydrate palette includes plants to use as ingredients to flavor water – think agua fresca or spa water. To craft cool season smoothies, we grow kale, parsley, beets, fennel, and celery amongst the pollinator-friendly perennials; such as French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), Mexican Mint Marigold (Tagetes lucida), and Anis Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). All three re-sprout in the spring to supply us with licorice-like leaves that expand our repertoire of sweet-flavored drinks from around the world. And, from the tip of your tongue, the famous ‘La Vie en Rose' song rolls out when you sip on a Spritz made from the easy to grow Rose-scented Geranium (Pelargonium capitatum, ‘Attar of Roses'). This is another must-have plant in any palette and a great indoor plant as well.
- The Mint & More garden bed holds a palette of plants from the mint family, including basils (Ocimum spp.), bee balm (Monarda spp.), and shiso (Perilla fructescens). These offer up a mint-like flavor to any drink without worrying about them invading your garden like true mints. While Shiso is oftentimes grown as an ornamental in border gardens, packing a punch of chartreuse or maroon against a dark green backdrop, it is however ‘shisolicious'! Imagine basil, cinnamon, and mint all rolled into one as Shiso juice; it pairs wonderfully well with cucumbers.
- Our Soothing Sips palette is a mix of some popular plant choices to infuse, like culinary Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead') and calming German and Roman Chamomiles (Matricaria recutita and Chamaemelum nobile). Additionally, the not-so-well-known North American native plant of Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria), the only North American source of caffeine, is a plant we included in dwarf form. It's doing wonderfully. We are eager to start roasting some leaves to brew some tea.
- We also have one bed to showcase a Flower Power palette, where one can find examples of blooms to be used to flavor, color, and let's not forget garnish your drinks. Be mesmerized by, for example, the evocative fragrance of Violas (Viola odorata), the elegance of purple-star-shaped borage (Borago officinalis), or the tasty red tartness of karkade tea made from hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa) sepals.
- And finally, one raised bed holds the Close to Home palette, inspired by low-water, native plants that grow in similar climates to ours. Native strawberries (Fragaria vesca) and olive herb (Santolina rosmarinifolia) are some of the plants that have found a home here only to make their way to either a shrub or a bitter for a twist on the classic Negroni. We must mention Yerba Buena (Clinoposium douglassii), an overlooked low-water, ground cover that thrives in partial shade. The best thing about this mighty yet delicate plant is its leaves; which can be dried to steep a tea with hints of spearmint and bubble gum.
Even though the number of plants to include in the Garden-to-Glass Demonstration Garden is innumerable, we have doubled down on promoting water conservation, polyculture, and high-density planting in small spaces – all ways to improve plant health and yield. And, let's not forget that quenching your thirst with the plants you grow connects us, together, with nature. Cheers!
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