The Cook’s Garden, July 25

Hi everyone,

With much delight, Charlene, Collin and I were able to deliver not just vegetables to the monastery, but fresh cut zinnias. I must admit I watched the recipient’s face light up as we handed over the harvest. After all, how can one not smile when presented with flowers?

This is a first for us. Although we practice farmscaping in the vegetable garden, we have not specifically grown flowers to be cut for the sole purpose of being enjoyed inside. Let’s be honest; it can be hard for the gardener to cut and remove fresh blooms that contribute so much beauty to a garden bed. However, there sure is something magical about having fresh flowers on a table, especially next to a dinner made with freshly harvested vegetables. That was the thought process during the early planning stages, and it’s been a huge success, especially since our mystery wildlife muncher does not seem to have a taste for zinnias. Having a designated cutting garden of zinnias has other benefits too. These flowers are so easy! Plant some seeds directly into amended soil, water, and watch them grow, and bloom into all sorts of amazing colors. These beauties are also working to help keep the soil covered, suppress weeds, and attract pollinators. Oh, and did I mention the more these flowers are cut, the more they will bloom all summer long and into fall.

I’ve extended this idea into my personal garden, and I realize because I have labeled this small dedicated portion as a “cutting garden,” I have no reservations about removing flowers to bring inside. I also reaped an unexpected benefit. I found my daughter (who is not into gardening) with her camera taking photos of the arrangements I made. Our passions intersected!

hoping those zinnias, with all those different colors, will find their way onto a table and as the residents of the monastery gather around for their meal, will briefly pause and smile at the flowers before them, before feasting on vegetables harvested from the Teaching Garden.



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July 15th: Saturday In the Garden

Beneficial Insects and Vegetable of the Month: Squash.

Hello there!

Hopefully everybody had a great weekend, because we sure did! This past Saturday was another monthly installment of our “Saturday In the Garden” Class Series and there was fun had by all! In case you weren’t able to join us in the garden this past weekend, here’s a recap of our morning.

After all of our guests arrived, our SIG began with introductions from everyone’s favorite insect enthusiast, Nancy Berlin! Nancy went over the agenda for the day, gave a brief description of The Master Gardener Teaching Garden, and then lead the guests on a tour of the garden beds. Nancy and our participants traveled all over the garden to places that exemplified the topic of “Beneficial Insects” as well as any plants or beds that showed off some of the many pests that we have lurking around! Some of the stops included; The Herb Garden and all of it’s insect attracting plants, the black swallowtail caterpillars found on the fennel, the praying mantis egg cases found in the drought-tolerant bed, the many fragrant plants in the Fragrance Bed, and of course, the Bee, Butterfly and Hummingbird Bed. Nancy did a wonderful job and was able to spread the idea of promoting beneficial insects, while also answering any questions that arose.

“The Creator, if He exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles.” – J.B.S. Haldane

This quote was used by our terrific guest speaker, Jeff Schneider, to start off his lecture on Beneficial Insects. If you haven’t met Jeff yet, you should really get to know him! He and his wife Judy have been Master Gardeners since 2002 and they both have been actively involved ever since! Each year, Jeff goes to the Virginia Biological Farming Conference to bring back the newest information on organic farming techniques and he participates in many different aspects of the Master Gardener Lifestyle, including teaching our Vegetable Gardening Training Class, working at the Dale City Farmers Market, and regularly doing BEST Lawns Evaluations! Jeff is very knowledgeable on the topic of insects in the garden and he did a fantastic job of relaying all of his knowledge to our guests for the day! He really stressed the importance of getting bugs to do the work in your garden for you, and how these techniques can save time and money. Jeff was also able to incorporate squash, our Vegetable of the Month, into his talk by outlining specific management techniques for dealing with squash bugs and cucumber beetles.

And speaking of squash….. To highlight this month’s vegetable, each of our guests received a copy of Charlene Toloso’s Squash Recipe Book! To make the day even sweeter, Charlene brought samples of her Zucchini Dessert Squares and they were delicious! If you’re interested in getting your own copy of Charlene’s recipe book for this month, feel free to reach out to Collin Miller, the VCE Summer Intern, at


In summary, this month’s Saturday In the Garden was a success! Now we can look forward to next month’s class, “Some Like it Hot! Top Summer Plant Performers” on August 19th. Hope to see you there!


Cook’s Garden: Saturday July 8

This week’s Cooks’ Garden report from Harriet Carter. Thanks, Harriet!
Here’s the latest happenings in the veggie beds. The ground was still moist for the deluge on Thursday, so only the pots near Jannell’s raised bed were watered. Tatiana and I checked for bugs in the large enclosed area and found a couple of nasty squash bugs which we helped deliver into the swimming pool. They were sitting – you guessed it – on the lemon cucumber. There was one ripe cucumber, but we left it for the harvest tomorrow.

In the former “global bed” we harvested several yellow squash and three patty pan squash because they were huge. Sister Pat and company loved them and thought they would look great in a bowl as well. (See picture)

The tomatoes in Bio A are ripening nicely, though only Matt’s Cherries were there for the pickings. Hopefully we’ll have some of the others tomorrow. The rhubarb stalks look great however the foliage is another matter. We found a gaggle of Japanese beetles who were munching away. Many died in the “bad bug swimming pool” (soapy water), but still more descended. What’s up with these beetles? Rhubarb leaves are supposed to be toxic! (Several pictures as evidence enclosed.) 🙂 Every year their number seems to increase! We discussed using trap crop such as Virginia creeper which works wonders in my yard, and Leslie thought it would be ok to have some vines on the fence next year. Keep cool!

The Herb Garden

Herbs: What are they?

What are Herbs? Where do they come from? And why do we have them in our garden?! To answer these questions we have to start from the beginning…

I’m sure everyone has notice all of those delightful scents every time they walk past the herb garden, but what makes them smell SO good?

We know that the sense of smell has always been a vital part of the ecosystem. Many animals use the sense of smell to find food, to find mates, and to avoid danger, and in this case, our plants are no different! Many plants produce different aromatic chemicals in order to attract animals needed to disperse their seeds or to avoid being eaten by hungry insects. Mint, for example, contains chemicals that are toxic to some insects, but to use, however, it smells and tastes delicious!

Herbs have been used since some of the earliest civilizations. The Ancient Egyptians were shown to have used herbs such as fennel, coriander, and thyme as medicine, and many civilizations in China have been using herbal remedies since the 1st Century! Most of us, nowadays, just use these herbs for cooking, while some modern cultures still use herbs such as mint to take care of coughs, digestive issues, and headaches.

Our Wonderful Herb Garden!

About the Bed and the Bed Leader: Cheryl Ayres

Cheryl has been the bed leader of this aromatic bed for around 2 years now and she has been doing a fantastic job. This bed was originally started and maintained by Marilyn and Hank Spencer, until the role of “Bed Leader” was handed over to Cheryl and she keeps the bed looking as lush as ever (especially with all the rain we got this week), while certainly supporting the many diverse types of culinary and scented herbs planted by the original caretakers.

Over time, this bed has gone through many changes, such as the addition of new like the woolly thyme (perennial) and red basil (annual), while still maintaining the staples. The bed has also undergone a recent renovation, as you’ve probably already seen. One of the columns has been rebuilt, and the other is scheduled to be redone in late fall.

The Herb Bed is one of the few beds where taking a hands on approach is not only allowed, but it’s encouraged! One of the best features about the Herb Bed is that most of the plants growing here are edible! Cheryl even plans on putting up a sign that says, “Please Touch”. Luckily, most of the plants here are unappetizing to the local wildlife, so there is no need to worry about animal damage, unless the local deer decide to sit lay in the chamomile! (Pictured Below) Other than the signs of deer, this bed is often visited by turtles, birds, and plenty of butterflies.

After working in the bed for a long time, Cheryl recommends planting certain plants, especially the mint and lemon balm, in more confined spaces because she has seen how easily these plants can “take over”. She also wants homeowners to be aware of horseradish and fennel because of how deep their roots extend.


Purple Martins

This week we were lucky to have the husband of Master Gardener, Marlies Smith, come out and take beautiful pictures of our Purple Martins. Brian Smith has a Facebook page I highly recommend everyone check out! Gorgeous pictures.

Marlies wrote the guest blog this week:

It is wonderful going to work in the Teaching Garden and being greeted by the chatter of the purple martin colony.

Purple martins like open areas, and the field adjacent to the Teaching Garden is ideal for them to cruise in search of insects.

Martins are aerial insectivores.  They consume the insects during flight.  Dragonflies are a favorite, as well as moths, butterflies, flies , beetles, wasps and other flying insects.  Contrary to common belief, martins do not eat a large number of mosquitoes.  They cruise too high during the daytime to come in contact with mosquitoes very often.


rtins are also almost entirely dependent on nesting boxes provided by humans.  The house and plastic gourds adjacent to the Teaching Garden are ideal for them to breed.
Purple martins are very sociable, as  opposed to most bird species, which are often territorial.


Purple martins migrate from South America.  Scouts arrive first, selecting breeding sites.  They usually return to their nesting site from the previous year.  Once male and female form a pair, they build a nest which consists of straw, twigs and mud, followed by a compression lined with fresh green leaves where the eggs are laid.  They usually lay 4 to 6 white eggs.  Incubation lasts 16 days, and all eggs usually hatch within 48 hours.

Martins are dimorphic, meaning the sexes have distinguishing markings.  Adult males have an all dark, black/blue/purple plumage.  Females are not as dark and have a speckled white underside.

Martin scouts arrive in our area around the middle of March and will start their journey back to South America, usually Brazil, the end of the summer.  They have a long trip ahead of them.  For example: Migration from Erie PA to Sao Paulo Brazil takes an average of 4 to 6 weeks and covers 5,000 miles one way.  Wow!