Asteraceae: My Favorite Family of Pollinator Plants

Warning: Reading this may lead to a fondness for dandelions.

What do these flowers have in common?

Zinnias

Sunflowers

Cosmos

Marigolds

Asters

Goldenrod

Dandelions

Artichokes

Artichokes?

I’ll give you a hint, the artichoke is a bud! If left to mature on the plant, it will produce hundreds of purple, narrow-tubed flowers cradled in one base.

These flowering plants are all part of the Asteraceae Family.

Plants are placed in families based on characteristics they share. These flower heads are all round and have a flat central disc. While each flower appears to be a single flower, all Asteraceae flowers are actually a composite of many small flowers, each with their own reproductive parts, packed densely into one receptacle.

The flowers in the center disc are called disc florets and those surrounding it are ray florets.

As beautiful as flowers are to us humans, flowers are trying to impress insects and birds. Pollination is the primary objective of a flower. Once pollination happens, the flower withers and dies. Pollination activates the fertilization of seeds, ensuring reproduction of the plant. Both ray and disc florets have all the necessary reproductive parts.

Another feature of plants in the Asteraceae family is their sepal-like leaves, called bracts, on the flower head’s underside. Bracts surround and protect the base of the plant where the seeds mature. They are arranged in either an overlapping or a linear pattern.
 

 

I took a few bracts off to see the seeds beneath — they are packed in there!

Rings of new disc florets emerge gradually in an orderly fashion from the disc’s outside perimeter to the center. A cone-shaped arrangement forms as the underlying seeds grow larger and require more space. This was a marvelous insight for me; one of the traits we love about zinnias is how long the flowers last. They last that long to ensure that every ovule (pre-seed) gets fertilized.

If you dissect a flower head, you can see the many seeds at various stages of maturation.

A good visual of a composite flower head is the sunflower.

Sunflowers are a bee magnet. We hear a lot about the benefits of growing “pollinator” plants in a garden. You need look no further than plants in the Asteraceae family for colorful flowers that attract insects.

The end result is hundreds of sunflower seeds to eat and ensure reproduction.

Not all Asteraceae plants have both ray and disc florets. A few species have one or the other. Dandelions, for example, are comprised of ray florets only. With my new appreciation of flowering plants, I don’t think I will be as quick to pull dandelions out of my vegetable garden anymore. After all, my Sicilian immigrant grandmothers picked dandelion leaves to eat. The leaves are a good source for vitamin C. During early times, the cool-weather plants were grown in kitchen gardens for settlers to eat to prevent scurvy.

Artichokes are comprised of all disc florets. The bristles that make up the choke are actually hundreds of very immature flowers.

Knowing this, I forevermore will say a prayer of gratitude when I remove those less edible filaments from a stuffed artichoke. For without the choke, we would not get seeds for more artichokes! THAT would be a travesty.

Studying and photographing the unfolding reproductive cycle of flowers in my garden has been a source of joy, a saving grace, and a silver lining of diversion while living through this crazy pandemic. I am grateful to my mother for instilling in me a love of gardening and to Mother Nature for providing everything I need to grow food in my backyard. I hope to inspire others, most especially children, to experience the peace and thrill of planting a seed, watching it grow, and being a witness to the beauty of the natural world.

A moth imbibing in nectar.

If there are cool-weather plants such as asters, cosmos, chickory, or chrysanthemums in your yard, maybe cut one open and see for yourself!

I am grateful to my fellow naturalist and Instagram friend, Rose Marie Trapani, for sending me a flowering artichoke in the MAIL so I could dissect it. That’s a whole ‘nother story! You can follow Rose Marie @oursiciliantable on Instagram.

Related Posts
How to Build a 4 x 4 Raised Garden Bed
Winter Floral Arrangements Using Greenery from the Yard
Lemon Tree Very Pretty
Family Dirt
Edible Landscaping with Nashville Foodscapes

© 2014-2020 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may not be reproduced without the written consent of Judy Wright.

Follow Judy’s Chickens on Instagram and Pinterest @JudysChickens.

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Growing and Cooking Sweet Potatoes!

I love sweet potatoes!

Sweet potato plants are typically grown from slips as opposed to seeds. The slips are created from baby vines that sprout on stored sweet potatoes.

If you gently detach the vines and place them in a jar with a little water, they will send out roots and start to leaf. Those little plants are called slips.

On commercial farms, slips are planted in late spring or early summer. Sweet potatoes are tropical plants and love the heat of summer.

The next photos were taken on sweet potato planting day at Delvin Farms in College Grove, Tennessee, on June 8, 2015.

Thousands of sweet potato slips were planted.

I have a fascination for farm machines that get a job done in simple, efficient ways. This sweet potato planter is ingenious.

As the tractor moves forward, farmers in the red trailer feed sweet potato slips into a device that drops them in the ground, covers them with dirt, and gives them a sip of water from the yellow tank.

Let’s look a little closer. Here are the guys dropping the slips into a feeder one by one.

At the soil level, a stationary v-grooved piece of metal cuts a thin gully in the dirt. The slip drops into the gulley, and two fixed metal wheels move the side soil around the slip as the tractor moves forward. A squirt of water is given to each plant from the yellow tank. Ingenious, right?!

Beautiful!

In three to four months, the sweet potatoes will be ready for harvest.

In 2012, I planted about 15 sweet potato slips in a 4 x 13-foot raised bed. I had a very low yield, as you can see from the photo below. I never grew them again; they took up too much real estate for the yield. In retrospect, I suspect my soil was too rich from the nitrogen in the compost I added. Nitrogen leads to lots of leaf growth and not so much root growth, something to think about when growing root crops. The chickens, however, were thrilled to scratch for worms and insects in the newly turned soil. That was the plus.

With this not so productive past experience trying to grow sweet potatoes, you might imagine how excited I was to walk out of the YMCA  just as the Y’s landscaping team was converting the entryway garden from summer to winter plants. The summer garden was filled with flowers and ornamental sweet potato vines such as the lime-green Margaritas, the blackish-purple Sweethearts, and the grayish-green, pink-veined Tricolors.

The cool-weather planting consisted of pansies.

What caught my attention was the three mature sweet potatoes sitting on the brick ledge.

Hey landscaping company, I was that crazy, astonished woman who walked by and asked if the sweet potatoes really came out of the raised bed. “Of course,” they said. In all my years of planting window boxes in Boston as a newlywed, I never grew a sweet potato from the ornamental vines. It never occurred to me that the vines would grow vegetables.

That is what I love about growing food — there is always something to learn, and often what you learn is astonishing!

All of this leads to why, on March 26, 2020, I decided to drop a sprouting sweet potato from my larder into the dirt near the raised bed where I was planting unsweet potatoes.

Fast forward to May 16th when I spied a random clump of leaf growth in one of the dirt paths between the raised beds. It took me a minute to figure out the leaves were from the sweet potato I had planted.

Five months later, to my surprise and delight, I dug up five pounds of sweet potatoes; a few potatoes from each of those vines that turned into individual slips!

While digging up the potatoes, I found this spidery-looking thing in the dirt. I’m guessing it was the mother sweet potato.

This variety of sweet potato is so delicious and richly colored, I am going to try and spout it for a potato crop next year. Unfortunately, I don’t know the name of the variety.

I washed a few potatoes to use for my favorite quick dinner — Sheet Pan Supper: Italian Sausage, Peppers, Onions, and Potatoes. I forgot to add the onions! The white potatoes came from the yard, as well.

Sometimes I spiralize the sweet potatoes–for fun.

I mix the potato core from the spiralizer and the slinky-like potatoes with olive oil, garlic pepper, and salt, and roast them in a 425º oven. We call this side dish Nuts and Bolts Potatoes.

Here are a few other ways to prepare sweet potatoes.

Mrs. Lombard’s Portuguese Kale Soup

Roasted Rosemary Sweet Potatoes

Roasted Butternut Squash (or Sweet Potatoes), Brussels Sprouts, and Cranberries

Melissa’s Sweet Potato Casserole

Pumpkin (or Sweet Potato) Bread Pudding

Follow Judy’s Chickens on Instagram and Pinterest @JudysChickens.

Always check my blog for the latest version of a recipe.

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© 2014-2020 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Migrating Purple Martins Pass through Nashville

Here in Nashville, Mother Nature has given us a brief diversion from COVID, #SaferAtHome, Zoom meetings, FaceTiming, home-schooling, cooking, cleaning, weeding, and searching for a good movie on Netflix.

She has given us reason to “ooh” and “aah,” followed by a peaceful, easy feelin’.

She has done it all by sending us waves and swirls of Purple Martins coming in to roost after a day spent foraging for insects along the Cumberland River. The birds come to fatten up for their 4000-mile flight to Brazil and other areas of the Amazon Rainforest. I’d call this swarming a murmuration, but I’m not sure if that term is reserved for starlings only.

My niece, Elizabeth, was with my husband and me and captured the sky dance of the Purple Martins in this video shot at 7:00. Like I said, lots of “oohs” and “aahs” and even a “Holy S#$%” in there.

 

I learned about the Purple Martins roosting in Nashville yesterday in a New York Times column written by my friend, Margaret Renkl. Her article is definitely worth reading, as are all of her weekly Monday opinion pieces in the Times. Click here for a link to the story, A 150,000-Bird Orchestra in the Sky.

I am not sure how long the birds will be in Nashville. We drove downtown and parked in front of the Schermerhorn around 6:40 p.m. At first, we didn’t see any birds and figured we had missed them. Then, suddenly, they started to show up by the hundreds. It was exciting! We were glad we had made an effort to go downtown.

The trees were full of roosting birds.

The sky dance was extraordinary and just what I needed to get re-energized during a blah COVID-fighting week.

Take care and in the words of Dr. James Hildreth and Dr. Alex Jahangir, Nashvillians docs who have been leading our city in its fight against COVID, along with our Mayor, John Cooper, “We’ve got this Nashville.”

COVID Projects
How to Build a 4 x 4 Raised Bed Starter Garden
Upbeat Movies to Watch While Social-Distancing
How to Make Gorgeous Birdhouse Gourds
How to Make Artisan Bread the Easy Way
How to Make Greek Yogurt at Home
Marion’s Crazy Good Pumpkin Bread with Chocolate Chips
Fall Planting Guide for Your Kitchen Garden
Putting Your Garden to Bed with a Blanket of Cover Crops

Follow Judy’s Chickens on Instagram and Pinterest @JudysChickens.

Always check my blog for the latest version of a recipe.

If you enjoyed this post to become a follower, please be sure to press “confirm” on the follow-up letter that will be sent to your email address.

© 2014-2020 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

How to Build a 4 x 4 Raised Garden Bed

In the beginning, the naive among us, and that was a lot of us, thought COVID would be a passing thing. I would never have believed I would be unable to visit, hold, and smother my grandchildren with kisses for so many months. In June, when the number of new COVID cases dipped, my husband and I got in the car and drove south, first to Hartwell, Georgia to visit and hug one son and then on to Orlando to see another.

While we drove (and listened to cookbook author Ruth Reichel’s delightful novel, Delicious!), I got to thinking about a way I could stay connected to my grands that was symbolic of times we shared when they lived down the road from us. I thought about this photo that I keep on my kitchen windowsill. You’ve gotta love a two-year-old superhero who wears a diaper.

The photo became my inspiration for a COVID project I hoped would provide outdoor fun for my grandchildren. I wanted to build them a vegetable garden so they could experience the anticipation and joy that comes with watching a seed unfurl its leaves as it pokes out of the ground. That you get to eat the food you grow is secondary to the miracles and discoveries that happen every day in a garden.

Meanwhile, my husband, the builder in the family, was like yeah, yeah … But what is your plan, Judy? Plan? I had no plan. I am more of a make-it-up-as-you-go kind of person. I drew up something for him on a napkin that he translated into a plan.

My Plan:

His:

We went to Home Depot to get supplies.

Here is what we built in one afternoon.

Here is how it looked two months later.

How We Built the Garden

First things first — before you get started building a space for a garden, look for a sunny spot with easy access to water. Next, write up a list of plants you want to grow.

And we’re off…

We bought two eight-foot cedar boards that were 8″ in height. Do not use pressure-treated lumber as the chemicals that keep the wood from rotting will leach into the soil over time.

By all means, let a staff person cut the boards into 4-foot lengths for you. Also, look around for a big piece of cardboard to line the bottom of your garden.

You will need a box of three-inch screws. And, if you are going to divide your garden into squares, you’ll need string and thumbtacks. I would not recommend the twine shown here. It disintegrated within two months.

Next, head to the garden center to purchase soil. To keep costs down, we bought inexpensive topsoil and composted manure for the bottom layers and saved the richer raised-bed soil for the top. You will also need to buy a bag of all-natural “sandbox” sand to help with soil drainage.

The formula for calculating how many cubic feet of soil to buy is as follows. Volume = length x width x height. All the numbers need to be in the same type of units- in this case, feet. Thus, 4 x 4 x .67 (8 inches = 8/12 =.67) equals 11 cubic feet. We bought 12 CF because once you water the soil, it gets compacted, and you need a little more volume to fill it. Soil bags come in cubic feet.

 

If you don’t have a drill, it’s going to be harder to put your raised bed together. You could simplify the process by buying lumber and specialized cement blocks or use a raised-bed kit.

Instructions in Pictures

Planting the Seeds

Stopping to Smell the Flowers

Watering the Garden

One of the discoveries – snake beans that germinated in three days!

Two Months Later

Last week, we planted a few cool-weather seeds.

One day, while the children were on a walk with their parents, they passed this patch of pineapple plants. The homeowner gave them a pineapple and told them to cut off the top and stick it in the dirt to grow their own. I never thought about how pineapples grew.

I think my son and DIL have gotten the “growing edibles” bug because, in addition to planting the pineapple, they have added three fruit trees to their backyard: guava, mango, and fig, and planted seeds to grow cosmos which attract bees and butterflies and my granddaughter. She loves to pick flowers!

Nothing could make me happier than to pass on my passion for growing food to my family. Now, when I FaceTime with my grands, they often take the phone outside to show me their garden. It keeps us all happy and connected when we can’t be together for hugs. My friend, the Reverand Susan Masters, put this notice on her Facebook page. She, like me, is a hugger!

Related Posts:
Edible Landscaping with Nashville Foodscapes
Family Dirt
Fall Planting Guide for Your Kitchen Garden
Putting Your Garden to Bed with a Blanket of Cover Crops

Follow Judy’s Chickens on Instagram and Pinterest @JudysChickens.

Always check my blog for the latest version of a recipe.

If you enjoyed this post to become a follower, please be sure to press “confirm” on the follow-up letter that will be sent to your email address.

© 2014-2020 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.