Surprise Blooming of Stevia in the Garden

In the middle of November we experienced some low temperatures in the mid-20s. I was surprised that the Stevia plant in the vegetable garden didn’t appear to be bothered.

Even though it was covered with a sheet on colds nights just like the lettuce to protect it from frost, I was even more surprised when it actually bloomed!

Stevia flowers in clusters of five blossoms with five petals.
Stevia flowers in clusters of five blossoms with five petals.

At this late date I thought this sweet herb plant would be toast. Didn’t even consider that it would actually bloom as it’s native to semi-tropical Paraguay. Stevia is a Zone 11 plant so I’m quite surprised that it hadn’t yet withered in the cold temperatures we were experiencing in Central Pennsylvania in Zone 5-6.

Since about July the garden and grounds around here were pretty much neglected. The lawn wasn’t mowed, no weed-whacking was done, weeds grew everywhere and tomato plants weren’t lashed to their stakes like they should have been.

A couple of injuries kept me on the sidelines so about all I could do was pick a few cucumbers or tomatoes for my lunchtime salads and grimace at how unkempt everything looked.

One of the plants left to fend for itself in my absence was the single Stevia plant in the garden. It fell to one side but continued growing as best it could with the side branches now reaching for the sky.

Stevia side branch with many small white blooms.
Stevia side branch with many small white blooms.

I was totally surprised to see small white flowers blooming where small flower buds were at the tips of the side branches a couple of weeks before. The whole plant probably should have been harvested then, but I wanted to see what the flowers looked like.

Flower buds at the tips of side branches of the <em>Stevia</em> plant.
Flower buds at the tips of side branches of the Stevia plant.
Flowering Stevia
Flowering Stevia

Do the leaves taste just as sweet as they did a month ago? Yes! the plant was pulled out of the ground on 16th of Nov and hung upside down in the garage where it’s cool, yet doesn’t freeze. Leaves that weren’t damaged or look too dirty were cut or pinched off the plant and kept in a brown bag for storage in the pantry. We’ll brew them with some tea to lend a little sweetness naturally.

I’m curious how anyone else uses this plant from the garden. Sure, you can buy Stevia products from your local grocery store, but who else uses it in leaf form? Leave a comment below so we all can learn more about this interesting plant.

How To Plant and Grow Ground Cherries

Ground cherries make an excellent addition to most any garden. Especially those who have young children for visitors. Kids, even us big ones, love these sweet little fruits!

The care and planting of ground cherries is straightforward. At its easiest, plunk some seeds in the ground, make sure they’re watered, watch ‘em grow and enjoy eating them right off the ground in late summer. Read on for a few more specifics….

Planting Ground Cherries

Prepare a large container or space in the garden with organically amended soil, which is soil that has compost, rotted straw or peat moss added to it. As the summer months wear on nutrients in the organic material will become available to the plants. An alternative is to use expensive commercial fertilizers that can be purchased in any garden center. Familiar brands are Miracle-Gro All Purpose Plant Food and Jacks Classic All Purpose Fertilizer (which used to be called Peters All Purpose fertilizer).

Plant the small ground cherry seeds about one-quarter inch deep. Cover loosely with soil and press down with your hand. Water the soil after planting and then not until after the plants germinate.

For northern climates, Zones lower than 7, start the seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before the frost-free date for your area. Southern climates with higher zones have longer summers and more time in the heat to grow up these heat-loving plants, so the northern growers will want to give their ground cherries a head start. If you don’t know your growing zone, check out the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.

As a point of reference we’re located in Zone 6b. Every year we have volunteers that germinate on their own in the garden and grow to provide fruit in the late summer and early fall. When we’ve planted seedlings a couple of weeks after the frost-free date, we’ve had an earlier crop and definitely a larger crop than what we’d get from the volunteers. Therefore, in cooler climates its suggested to start plants indoors to assure a decent crop.

It will take two weeks for germination, but make sure your growing area is warm. These plants like it hot, so the top of the refrigerator or radiator make nice warm places to start them. Germination will take longer and the plant growth will be spindly if it’s not warm enough.

We’ve been able to find ground cherry plants in early spring at a locally-owned greenhouse, but haven’t yet spied them in any chain-store type garden center. Get your ground cherry seeds from wildeherb and try starting them yourself.

Growing the Yellow Husk Tomatoes, a.k.a. Ground Cherries

Kind of like tomato plants, these husk tomatoes will spread out given the chance. It’s a matter of preference whether you stake them or not. If not, be prepared for them to sprawl and take up some room. If planted in containers definitely provide a trellis of some sort.

Harden off seedlings before transplanting them into the garden by placing them in a garage or other protected area before putting them outside. Wait to plant them until the ground has warmed up.

Plant seedlings about 2 feet apart in the garden. They can be spaced about a foot apart when trellising them. Make a hole, water the hole, put in the plant so its roots are deeply covered, pack the soil around the roots firmly and water again. Plant in full sun.

Ground cherries are like tomato plants as the parts of the stem that are covered by soil will root. This means that you can plant the seedlings deeply and you should so do especially when the seedlings are leggy or spindly. Planting them deeply will give the plants that much extra support and allow more roots to develop which helps them grow well.

Water a lot when really hot outside and give them an inch of water each week for sure. Keep containers watered but don’t let sit in water. Use foliage as a key as to the need for water. If drooping, get the watering can!

Fertilizing isn’t necessary if there is a lot of organic material in your soil. For pots, use a fertilizer like Miracle-Gro All Purpose Plant Food or Jacks Classic All Purpose Fertilizer according to the package directions.

Harvesting Yummy Ground Cherries

The only thing to do for harvesting these tasty fruits is to have patience. You need to wait for the fruit to drop off the vine and then you need to wait a little longer if the fruits are still green.

The fruit must be yellow to eat. The more golden the sweeter! Peel back the papery husk and enjoy. Pluck the fruit from the husk if you’re gathering a quantity to make a sauce, jam or pie.

This is the only fruit I know of where you can just drop it back on the ground to ripen some more if it’s not ready to eat!

You can gather husk tomatoes off the ground and bring them inside to ripen to a golden yellow. The harvest can begin about 70 days from the time the seedlings are transplanted.

Take notice to the squirrels around the garden. We’ve seen them come take the fruits, so just beware that you may have to chase them off. Squirrels don’t seem to come to the garden in hoards for the ground cherries like they might for sunflower seeds at a bird feeder, but let us know if you have any trouble with them in the comments below.

Geranium-like Yard Weed Pretty in Pink

This little hot pink weed drew my attention as I was weeding the herb patch.

It looks like a miniature Wild Geranium which blooms in late Spring, but this plant grows its vegetation in the summer and blooms a few months after the wild geraniums are done blooming for the year.

Hot Pink Geranium
Hot Pink Geranium

It is a geranium for sure, take a look at the simple flower construction and the long “beaked” seedpod at the top left.

How to find out which geranium, you ask? Of course the Internet can be your friend in seeking answers to all your questions, but sometimes an old-fashioned book is worth its weight in gold.

Try flipping through the color sections of Peterson’s Wildflower Field Guide to find a similar-looking drawing and read the specifics about your look-a-like plant. Match up the flower and leaf descriptions and you’re good to go!

Another great book to use for flowering plant identification is Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. It uses a key system to identify our pretty flowering friends. Decide if the flower construction is simple or irregular. If simple, how many repeating parts are there? In this case each flower has “5” pink petals. Answer similar questions to identify the plant type and leaf type and Newcomb will lead you to your flower.

If it’s a flower I’ve seen before and just can’t remember the name, I’ll flip through Peterson’s guide and usually find it quickly. Sometimes Newcomb’s guide can help you find a new plant faster, especially if it’s a flowering vine or shrub. Each book has their strengths and both are invaluable in the field, so take one along on your next wildflower walk.

Blooming Anise Hyssop Attracts Bees and Butterflies

Anise Hyssop or Giant Blue Hyssop has been blooming at the edge of our garden for a couple of weeks now.

This purple-flowering plant is native to the American plains, but we have found out that it grows quite well in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania.

The blooms are pretty spikes of purple that grow longer as the plant blooms for a few weeks time. That’s a nice thing about anise hyssop in that the blooms are long lasting.

Anise Hyssop in full bloom will attract bees and butterflies.
Anise Hyssop in full bloom will attract bees and butterflies.

Bees and butterflies are attracted to the flowers like crazy. Standing near the hyssop one can hear the buzzing of the bees that visit constantly. We’ve seen several kinds of butterflies and hummingbirds visit the blossoms as well.

The leaves smell of anise and can be used to make a tasty tea that is sweet enough to not require sugar or honey!

All-in-all Anise Hyssop, Agastache foeniculum, is one nice garden plant because it attracts pollinators, provides beautiful flowers to look at and leaves for tea, and it’s a perennial too!

Joe Pye Weed and Loosestrife Purple Along the Roadside

Several purple flowering plants can be seen along most country roads that haven’t recently been mowed.

Most notable among these pretty flowering weeds are the tall Joe Pye Weed and Purple Loosestrife.

Joe Pye Weed can reach more than 6 feet tall while Purple Loosestrife tops out at 4-5 feet tall.

The flowers of Purple Loosestrife are held in spikes with a vertical look to them, while the purple flowers of Joe Pye Weed are more like rounded clusters. The purple color is similar between the two plants.

Joe Pye Weed (left) and Purple Loosestrife (right) flowering along a country road.
Joe Pye Weed (left) and Purple Loosestrife (right) flowering along a country road.

Other purple flowering weeds are yet to make their presence known, including New York Iron Weed and New England Aster. Look for them to start flowering at the end of the month and well into September.

Mosquitoes Lay Eggs on Still Water No Matter How Shallow

Unforgotten buckets left to collect rain water can be perfect places for mosquitoes to lay their eggs. The small amount of water that accumulates in discarded tires is deep enough for mosquitoes to carry on generations.

How shallow are we talking? Only a 1/4 inch or so is all the water that’s needed for a mosquito to lay her rafts of eggs on the water’s surface. As long as the water is still or stagnant mosquitoes will find and use the smallest puddles that can’t be used for much else.

Take this shallow indentation in a plastic chair. Rain water collected in the seat of the chair and was left to lay. Algae grew, leaves and dirt collected in there, and eventually a mosquito found her quarry.

Shallow water in a chair seat was deep enough for a mosquito to lay her eggs.
Shallow water in a chair seat was deep enough for a mosquito to lay her eggs.

Even though the depth of the water was minimal the stagnant puddle was perfect for laying eggs.

Watch this video showing how mosquito larvae wriggle around in the shallow water.

Shortly after that video was taken the chair was tipped over to remove the standing water. To reduce the mosquito population around your house, make sure to tip over any buckets or other objects that can collect rain water.

New Lavender Flower in Grassy Field

A new flower for me. Had I not taken a second look my scanning of the empty field would have lumped in this new flower with the chicory that was starting to bloom everywhere.

But wait a minute…chicory is a powder blue color and its blossoms seem to be stuck to the main stem at random places. This new flower was terminal on a long stem. The main stem rose up a couple of feet into the air and at the end was a single composite flower of irregular flowers.

Field Scabious Among the Tall Grasses
Field Scabious Among the Tall Grasses

(Photos taken 26 June 2014.)

Field scabious flowers held high among the grasses of an open field.
Field scabious flowers held high among the grasses of an open field.

The petals were a softer color more to the purple side of blue, like lavender. And the petals were shorter and didn’t have the teeth at the tips like the fringed petals of chicory. Continue reading New Lavender Flower in Grassy Field

Is That A White Phlox Blooming in Summer?

The other day I was driving over to an Amish woman’s vegetable stand when I spotted this group of plants that looked like a small version of phlox blooming in white at the edge of a corn field.

How could a phlox be blooming in the heat of summer? I thought phlox was strictly a spring-blooming plant, so of course I had to stop to look a bit closer and find out what these pretty white flowers were.

Bouncing Bet flowering next to a country road near a cornfield.
Bouncing Bet flowering next to a country road near a cornfield.

(Photos taken 10 July 2014.)

Bouncing Bet has been introduced in North America and is native to Europe. It can be found across the United States in waste places and in great masses along roads and at the edges of fields.

The plants stood about a foot tall and may continue growing taller and still Continue reading Is That A White Phlox Blooming in Summer?