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Anise Hyssop- Herb of the Year

By Heather Stone

Photo of a yellow bird sitting on an anise hyssop blossom.

photo courtesy of pixabay

Every year since 1995 the International Herb Association has named an Herb of the Year. This year’s selection is Anise hyssop, Agastache foeniculum. This North American native wildflower has a lot to offer in the garden, the kitchen, the medicine chest and to the pollinators.

 

Anise hyssop is native to the Upper Midwest, Great Plains and into Canada. It’s found growing in prairies, dry upland forests, plains and fields from Northern Colorado to Wisconsin in the US and from Ontario to British Columbia in Canada. Anise hyssop is a member of the mint family. It grows best in full sun to part shade in dry to moderately moist soils with good drainage. This low maintenance perennial thrives in zones 4-9 reaching heights on average of 1-3’ tall by 1-3’ wide. Beautiful lavender flower spikes bloom in summer and with regular deadheading will continue until fall. The flowers are edible and make for a nice cut and dried flower. Both the flowers and the leaves can be added to baked goods or salads. My favorite way to use them is finely chopped in a fruit salad.

 

Anise hyssop is easily grown from seed and established plants will spread by rhizomes or will self-seed in the right growing conditions. It also transplants easily. Deer tend to leave this plant alone, but the same can’t be said for rabbits. Anise hyssop works well in the middle or back of the border and is at home in native, wildflower and herb gardens as well as in prairies and meadows. Great companions for anise hyssop include Black-eyed Susan, Purple Coneflower, Bee Balm and native grasses. Anise hyssop also looks fantastic in pots mixed with flowering annuals.

 

While the flowers of this plant have no scent, the leaves of anise hyssop smell and taste like licorice with notes of lemon, pine and sage. Native Americans found the scent uplifting and used the leaves to help treat depression. This was but one of many uses the Native Americans had for Anise Hyssop. It was also used externally as a poultice to treat wounds and burns and as a wash for itchy skin irritations such as poison ivy. Internally, it was used for treating diarrhea, fevers and coughs. Anise hyssops’ antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and expectorant properties make it an excellent herb for soothing coughs and relieving chest congestion. I find it to be especially effective in children. The best time to harvest leaves for use is just past full bloom when the oil content in the leaves is at the highest.

 

Anise hyssop is also a favorite plant of many pollinators. The lavender flowers are a good nectar source and highly attractive to bumblebees, native bees, honey bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and beetles. Goldfinches love to feed on the seed so make sure to leave some flowers standing in the garden at the season. So let’s celebrate 2019 by adding a plant or two of Anise Hyssop to the garden this year.

 
Photo of a Blue Tit Bird eating from a suet ball.

MAKE YOUR OWN SUET BALLS FOR BIRDS

By Engrid Winslow

During the long cold winter months, fat is extremely important for many birds to survive. The species that especially love suet are woodpeckers and flickers, chickadees, wrens, goldfinches, juncos, cardinals, robins, jays, blackbirds and starlings. Be aware that raccoons, squirrels and mice are also attracted to suet so be prepared to use baffles or place mesh over the balls to deter them.

Suet is raw fat and has also been used to make candles and Christmas pudding. You can get it from your butcher and ask him to grind it for you. Then it needs to be melted and strained to remove any solids. If you want to avoid the “ick” factor, you can substitute l cup lard or shortening. The birds will eat it plain but many recipes call for adding seeds, dried fruit or even insects to the mix. Many pet food and birding stores sell pre-made suet cakes but it is so much more fun to make your own in various shapes and hang them outside. If you are getting only starlings, hang the balls with a mesh around all sides but the bottoms. This will make it possible for all of the woodpeckers to hang upside down and eat while the starlings are baffled and confused. Place them near where you already have feeders with plain birdseed and watch the fluttery show!

Here are some methods and recipes for making the suet cakes or balls:

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    1 cup crunchy peanut butter

    1 cup lard

    2 cups quick cook oats

    2 cups cornmeal

    1 cup flour

  1/3 cup sugar

Melt the peanut butter and lard and add remaining ingredients and cool.

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    1 cup crunchy peanut butter 
    1 cup shortening
    1 cup flour
    3 cups cornmeal
    1 cup cracked corn
    1 cup black oil sunflower seeds and/or mixed seed

Melt the peanut butter and shortening, add remaining ingredients and cool.

 
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4 1/2 cups ground fresh suet

  3/4 cup dried and finely ground bakery goods such as Whole-wheat or cracked-wheat bread or crackers

  1/2 cup shelled sunflower seeds

  1/4 cup millet

  1/4 cup dried and chopped fruit such as cranberries, currants, raisins, or other berries

  1. Melt suet in a saucepan over low heat.
  2. Mix the rest of the ingredients together in a large bowl.
  3. Allow the suet to cool until slightly thickened, then strain and stir into the mixture in the bowl. Mix thoroughly.
  4. Pour or pack into forms or suet feeders or pack into pine cones.

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  1/2 lb. fresh ground suet

  1/3 cup sunflower seed

  2/3 cup wild bird seed mix

  1/8 cup chopped peanuts

  1/4 cup raisins

  1. Melt suet in a saucepan over low heat. Allow it to cool thoroughly, then reheat it.
  2. Mix the rest of the ingredients together in a large bowl.
  3. Allow the suet to cool until slightly thickened, then stir it into the mixture in the bowl. Mix thoroughly.
  4. Pour into pie pan or form, or pack into suet feeders.

Optional or substitute ingredients: millet (or other bird seed), cornmeal, cooked noodles, chopped berries, dried fruit.

 

BBB Seed’s Wildflowers to Attract Butterflies and Birds

by Heather Stone

Photo of two birds on a birdbath.

Photo courtesy of pixabay

It brings great pleasure to see more birds and butterflies about the garden and we as gardeners can do a lot to attract and protect the birds and butterflies that visit our garden. These critters simply need a safe place to live and healthy food to eat.

Wildflowers to attract butterfly and birds seed packet.

Butterflies

For butterflies, providing food (host plants) for caterpillars, nectar sources for adult butterflies and a safe place to overwinter can all be accomplished in a small area. Caterpillars of some species of butterflies have very specific larval host plants, while some will eat a wide range of species. Nectar is the primary food source for most adult butterflies. Planting nectar-rich plants in the garden is sure to attract more butterflies. Depending on the species, butterflies overwinter in all stages of life from egg to adult. Some places they overwinter include leaf litter, the bases of bunch grasses, rock piles, brush or wood piles, behind loose tree bark and near their host plants.

 

Birds

Just like butterflies birds need healthy food to eat and shelter. Start by planting native plants in your garden that provide seeds, berries, nuts and nectar. Shrubs and trees, especially evergreen species, provide excellent shelter and nesting sites for birds. Birds also need a year-round water source such as a bird bath. Providing nesting boxes and offering food in feeders will attract even more birds.

Photo of an orange and yellow butterfly on a marigold bloom.

Photo courtesy of pixabay.

Try planting our Birds and Butterflies mix to attract more birds and butterflies to your landscape. The mixture of annuals, perennials, introduced and native wildflowers is designed to attract butterflies over a long season of bloom from spring until fall and a variety of birds to the seeds come autumn.

 

Sources:  Gardening for Butterflies, The Xerces Society

https://www.nwf.org/sitecore/content/Home/Garden-for-Wildlife/Wildlife/Attracting-Birds

 

Oh, Sunflowers!

By Engrid Winslow

Sunflower photo courtesy of Christy Short.

Gorgeous Sunflower Photo Courtesy of Christy Short

Sunflowers (Helianthus sp.) are such a great annual for so many reasons. First of all, they are so darn cheerful with their big, bright blooms during the hottest part of the summer.  They are also easy to grow.  Just poke them into the ground and keep them well-watered until they germinate and then stand back because they thrive in rich soil and heat.  The pollen is loved by bees and the seeds are attractive to birds.  Sunflowers come in so many varieties with sizes ranging from 12” to 15‘ tall and the colors vary from pale lemon yellow to bright yellow, orange, red and bronze.  The petals can be single, double or in fluffy multiple layers (check out Teddy Bear Sunflower).

Tag for Teddy Bear Sunflower packet with bushy foliage has multiple 3 - 6" golden-yellow, double blooms

It can be fun to watch the birds eat the seeds or you can make a fun project out of roasting them. To do this: soak the seeds in salted water for 24 hours, then roast in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper at 350 for 35 minutes, stirring frequently. Let them cool and store in an airtight container. If you want to serve them warm after roasting toss them with a bit of melted butter for a delicious treat. Sunflower seeds are high in vitamin C, E and are high in fiber which supports digestion, they also contain antioxidants, magnesium (for bone health) and can help lower cholesterol.

The roots of sunflowers have an allopathic quality which inhibits the ability of other plants nearby to grow properly. This makes them a great choice for weed suppression but keep them away from other flowers that you love.

Half awake sunflower photo courtesy of Christy Short.

Half Awake Sunflower (Photo Courtesy of Christy Short)

 

 

Quit Working so Hard This Fall

by Sandy Swegel

The old adages say cleanliness and hard work are virtues. That may be true in your kitchen, but in the garden, a little sloth can save many lives and make your life a little easier.  Mother Nature isn’t just messy when she clutters up the Fall garden with leaves and debris….she’s making homes for her creatures.  Old dead leaves may look like clutter that needs to be tidied up, but it’s really nice rustic sustainable homes for many of a gardener’s best friends.

Here’s who is hiding in your garden this winter if you DON’T clean up.

Ladybugs in the garden beds next to the house.  Ladybugs want a nice sheltered home safe from wind and exposed soil. I most often find them under the leaves and dead flower stalks in the perennial garden.

Butterfly larvae (aka caterpillars) in leaf bundles. Sometimes in winter, you’ll see a couple of leaves looking stuck to a bush or tree or in a clump on the ground.  Often there’s a butterfly baby overwintering there.

Lacewing at the base of willows or in the old vegetable garden.  Insects don’t work very hard in the fall either.  Often they are eating happily on the aphids in your vegetable garden or your mini forest and just go through their life cycle right there.  They lay their eggs on the bottom of leaves and the leaves fall to the ground.  If you clean up too much, you’ll clean up all the beneficial insect’s eggs

Slugs in your hosta garden. Even slugs are a good thing to leave for the winter.  They will be plump food for baby birds next Spring.

The bottom line is don’t do a good job of cleaning up in the Fall.  Take away any very diseased leaves.  Clean up the thick mats of leaves on the lawn so they don’t encourage lawn fungus.  But leave the flower stalks with seeds and the leaves in the beds.  They insulate and protect plants and insects.

Another good reason to be a little lazy this Fall.

Photos: http://www.nashvilleparent.com/2013/07/fall-for-fun/http://antsbeesbutterfliesnature.blogspot.com/2009/11/overwintering-caterpillars.html

 

Growing your Own Bird Feeder

by Sandy Swegel

I learned something really new this week. This week I learned that birds like to eat bugs. Well, duh, you say.  Think about it. One of the great images we have of spring is the mama bird dangling a worm over the gaping beaks of adorable baby birds. Then think about our typical bird feeders….full of sunflower seeds.

I was in the middle of converting a neglected path of weedy lawn into a flower bed and was thinking about “habitat” for birds. So I naturally considered sunflowers and plants with seeds or berries.  Then the teachable moment came at a talk our County biologist gave on native plants. She pointed us to Douglas Tallamy’s book “Bringing Nature Home Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants”. Tallamy points out 96% of North American wild birds feed their young with insects and larvae (caterpillars). Now the adult birds – like humans — may like the high fat, high sugar treats (berries) we give them…but it’s the protein in the bugs that is so important to sustain our bird populations.

Previously, I thought the point of planting native plants was because they were adapted to our local soil and weather and would survive better. But the real reason to plant natives is to feed the local beneficial insects (lady bugs, lacewings, moths, and all the little tiny flying things you can barely see) that live here already and who do the hard work of eating pests like aphids and thrips. They also do a lot of the pollination in our garden along the way.  Lots of insects means more pollinators for our flowers and more food for the birds – in other words, a healthy habitat.

So if you want to feed the birds, you need to feed the bugs. Nice plump insects, worms, and larvae are what bring more birds to your yard. Yum, Worms…it’s what’s for breakfast!

Learn More:

Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants: http://tinyurl.com/a9voelq

The New York Times article on Tallamy: http://tinyurl.com/yqmlhx

Saving Birds Thru Habitat website: http://tinyurl.com/bfeljl2

Photo Credit: http://tinyurl.com/bxtwed4

 

 

How to Become a Great Gardener

by Sandy Swegel

I garden and landscape for a living.  I have accumulated a massive amount of information about the best ways to grow things, to take care of the soil, to encourage native plants and bees, etc.  When I’m talking to people, they naturally assume I have a degree in horticulture or botany.  So it surprises people to learn I have a BA in History and an MA in Theology. I’ve been thinking a lot about this because my friend’s kids are all starting college and trying to decide what to major in.  I had no idea when I was 18 that I would one day garden for a living.  But studying history taught me to think and analyze and reflect. And studying theology taught me the world is a mystery and it’s important to learn to observe and notice and simply “be” with nature.

So I encourage everyone to become self-taught gardening experts. You don’t have to go to school or even study.  You just need to start noticing what’s going on in the natural world. No teacher can tell you as much as your own personal experience will.  If you’re just a little systematic about it, you can be a much better gardener at the end of this year. Here’s some homework:

Journal. Keeping a garden journal of what you do, what you plant and what the weather is like is a great way to learn.  You may not know why what you are writing is important (when you planted, when plants started, days without rain, birds and insects observed, etc) but in hindsight, you can figure out when to plant so there are flowers for hummingbirds, or how much rain it takes to have big fungal outbreaks.  Even just being able to read the seed packet you glued into your journal when it’s time to harvest will be a big help.  Keep notes. Understand them later.

Pick a specialty this season. One year I decided to learn herbs.  I bought seeds and plants of every herb I could think of and grew them in a tiny 4 x 6-foot garden. I learned tansy is a big space hog that kinda stinks and crowds out the other plants, that cilantro and dill practically grow themselves, and that ginger root from the grocery store grows beautiful plants and tons of free ginger.

Take pictures of everything that intrigues you. Take shots of plants in other people’s yards, wildflowers on walks, blooming containers, weird plants you’ve never seen before. The photos will show you what you like and what really interests you.

Observe. Just look and notice everywhere you go. Ask questions of gardeners. Wonder about the weather. Notice creepy crawly things or buzzing flying things.  Again. Just take notice with a sense of wonder. You’ll make sense of it eventually.

One thing I’ve noticed about our BBB Seed readers:  you notice the natural world. You stand in awe at beautiful landscapes, tiny birds in nests, and clever ways people arrange flowers in a shabby chic decoration.  Use these great powers of observation and really teach yourself something new this year.

 

A Gift for Wild Animals

by Sandy Swegel

After the first big cold snow of the season, I find myself drinking coffee next to the window, captivated by the Wild Kingdom drama of the outdoors…watching the many different kinds of birds foraging or lurking near the bird feeder waiting their turn, or hearing the rustling of unknown small furry creatures in the garden debris.

The best gift for outdoor animals is a heated bird bath.  I might even put two out, one on the deck rail for the birds and one on the ground in a wild area for all the other thirsty creatures…rabbits, squirrels and even the field mice. When it’s super cold like it is now, snow doesn’t melt and there are no natural water sources near my house.  Maybe a water source will keep the squirrels from eating holes in my irrigation pipes.

Holiday Shopping List for all the Animals in Your Life

Dogs:  Plump baby carrots are the gift of choice for my dogs.   I had to fence off the main garden from their enthusiastic digging, but I leave an area of little round carrots and beets for them to “discover.” Cats:   Catnip of course. Don’t waste your time on anything else. Chickens:  Swiss Chard is my chickens’ most favorite food. I think they like its natural saltiness. I throw bags of dried leaves on the garden bed as insulation just so I can harvest some greens from under the bags all winter. Wild birds:  Sunflower Seeds naturally…and any seeds. I discovered dozens of little birds the other day in the snow in a patch of lambsquarter and tall weeds that I had foolishly allowed to go to seed. Bees:  Wildflower seeds of course. Rabbits:  A wild clover patch, anything green. Field Mice:  Any seeds left to fall on the ground.  Overgrown zucchini and pumpkins left to rot. Squirrels:  Pumpkins.  The Halloween pumpkin left out is the perfect squirrel buffet. Owls, hawks:  Any of the above-mentioned seeds left in the garden bring the mice and voles and other rodents that are the perfect gift for the birds of prey.  The rodents double as gifts for the snakes. Soil microbes: What else but moo poo tea is the ideal gift for the soil Earthworms:  Make them a compost pile.  And forget to harvest some of the root vegetables. As the vegetables decompose in place in early spring, hundreds of hungry earthworms show up for the feast. Humans:  All the vegetables are the perfect gift of health and vitality for the humans in your life, especially when packaged with the love you grew them with.

I wish to all this Winter:  abundant food and water and a warm place for all good creatures.

Photo Credit:

http://birdsandbloomsblog.com/2013/11/09/winter-bird-bath-tips/

http://dipperanch.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-last-purple-rattlesnake.html

 

Another Reason to Love Dandelions

by Sandy Swegel

I may never pull another dandelion again.  Well, at least not in my yard.  But it was an utter joy to learn something new about dandelions yesterday while enjoying my morning coffee and looking out the window.  We’ve had a very late Spring with heavy snows and everyone is worried about the bees having enough food.  Dandelions started blooming seriously last week and I sat drinking coffee and watching at least forty bees feed on the patch of dandelions in pasture grass outside my window.  And then came the delight. A tiny house wren…one of those little birds that live by the hundreds in tree or thickets…flew down and delicately started pulling on the puffball of a dandelion seedhead.  With great industry, the bird pulled off two or three of the seeds at a time (and dandelion seeds are tiny) and teased them from the hairy chaff.  He stayed pulling off the seed and threshing them for several minutes.  Naturally by the time I got the camera he was back in the tree chirping away.

There’s so much beauty and bounty around us every moment.  All these years I’ve been gardening and I never noticed how much little birds depended on finding weed seeds.

 http://www.birdsinbackyards.neth

 

First There Were Wildflowers

by Sandy Swegel

Cecilia posted a question on our Facebook page this week asking if we knew a website like ours for wildflowers.  Wait, I thought that’s us.  We’ve gotten very enamored of vegetables lately but we know our roots:  we started as a wildflower seed company.  BBB Seed’s name came from our original name, “Beauty Beyond Belief” which means the beauty of natural wildflowers that can be in your garden all year round.  Later BBB Seed also stood for Bounty Beyond Belief (heirloom vegetables!).  Once we added the great line of botanical products, it meant Botanicals Beyond Belief.  And I can imagine a time in the future, no doubt accompanied by a few margaritas after work when we’ll come up with some more BBB’s.

But wildflowers were our first love…and if you see the photos of our head honcho Mike’s house, you’ll see a wild meadow of wildflowers.

Wildflowers are really easy to grow.  There is an entire procedure you can follow to properly install a wildflower area:  kill all weeds first, spread seed in Fall or late winter and let spring rains gently bring them to life.  But sometimes life is busy and you don’t have time to do things properly.  I’m waiting with eager anticipation to see what happens with the package of Butterfly and Birds mix I gave my neighbor Dana.  She has over an acre of property and she’s in retirement, so can’t spend too much work in any one spot in her garden. But she loves wildflowers.  Last weekend I saw her with her hoe, scratching a six-inch path of bare soil along the entire length of her property.  She was removing grasses and weeds.  Then she sprinkled the seed mix the entire path of her narrow trough.  She followed with the hose watering everything in.  I heard her explaining to the seeds that she didn’t have a lot of time to make a fuss over them, but she’d make sure they got lots of water to germinate and grow and that she couldn’t wait until they made a beautiful fence of wildflowers along the edge of her property.

I think she’s going to be right.  A wildflower garden shouldn’t take more than that.  The consistent watering until the plants are established is important.  And weeds and grass will grow (and she’ll probably cut down the thistles that come up), but I’m pretty sure the wildflowers will prevail and make a natural fence of color and beauty for the butterflies and birds and especially for the people.