Saturday, May 1, 2021

Herbs Attract and Support Beneficial Insects in the Garden

by  Peggy Riccio

Small thyme flowers

The herbs in my garden live among the annuals, perennials, vegetables, and shrubs. I do not have a separate, formal herb garden.  Every new herb plant gets tucked in any space I can find. I harvest them to use them fresh in the kitchen and for floral arrangements. By summer, many of my herbs are blooming along with everything else but that’s okay, they still serve a purpose. Even if I didn’t get to harvest them, they are helping the rest of the garden by attracting and supporting beneficial insects.

Flowering herbs can attract beneficial insects that will destroy the “bad” bugs. These beneficial insects are either predators, i.e., they eat harmful bugs, or parasites–they lay their eggs in or on the “bad” bug which release larvae that consume the bug.


Dill flowers

Many of these beneficial insects are small, thus preferring easily accessible nectar chambers in small herb flowers. In many cases the adult insects need the nectar and pollen of the herb flower while the “babies” or larval stage eat the insects we don’t want in the garden. For example, the larval stage of ladybugs, which look like mini alligators, consume aphids, many beetle larvae, and spider mites, among others. One can attract ladybugs into the garden by planting cilantro, dill, fennel, oregano, thyme, and yarrow so the adult form, the ladybug, can enjoy the pollen.

Lacewings are beautiful slender green insects with translucent wings. Their larvae, known as aphid lions, eat a large number of aphids –thus they have a lion’s appetite — and many beetle larvae to name a few. Lacewings are attracted to angelica, caraway, tansy, yarrow, dill, fennel, and cilantro.

Parasitic wasps are small, non-stinging wasps. There are many types but they all destroy pests by laying eggs inside or on the pest. The eggs hatch to release larvae that consume the prey, eventually killing it. Parasitic wasps will destroy tomato hornworms, bagworms, cabbage worms, Japanese beetles, and squash vine borers. The wasps are attracted to dill, fennel, lemon balm, thyme, yarrow, and cilantro.

lemon balm

Lemon balm

Tachinid flies look like houseflies but as parasites, they destroy many kinds of caterpillars, Colorado potato beetles, cucumber beetles, Mexican bean beetles, and Japanese beetles in the same manner as parasitic wasps.  The flies prefer cilantro, dill, fennel, parsley, feverfew, and chamomile.

Hover or syrphid flies look like small wasps because they have yellow bands but they don’t sting. The adults–the flies–will “hover” as they drink nectar from dill, fennel, feverfew, lavender, mint, yarrow, and cilantro flowers. The larvae will consume aphids, cabbage worms, other caterpillars, and mealy bugs.

Hover fly in the cilantro

Many aromatic, perennial herbs, such as oregano, thyme, and lemon balm, are not eaten by deer and small animals so they become permanent fixtures or “houses” for beneficial insects. Plus herbs are usually planted in bunches or become small shrubs, providing a large “neighborhood” for these insects.

However, despite the number of plants in the garden, these insects will only stay if there is a need, i.e., food for them, and if the surroundings are hospitable. Beneficial insects seek large populations of bad bugs in order to feed their own population. Some beneficial insects wait to lay eggs until there is enough “food” so it may be that the appearance of many aphids is the trigger to have ladybugs increase their own population because they now know there is plenty of “food.” In other words, if there a lot of aphids on bearded irises, wait to see if many ladybugs will arrive on the scene to correct the problem before reaching for an insecticide.

Spraying chemicals may kill or alter the balance of beneficial insects. It is now known that plants that are under attack by bad bugs release chemicals which are signals to the particular type of beneficial insect that would be needed to correct the problem. There may be a little or minimal plant damage in order for the beneficial insects to receive the signal to come to that plant.

This year, plant more herbs in your garden. Herbs are useful for you and for your garden by attracting and supporting the “good guys.”

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

FRED, The Bleeding Heart

Bleeding Heart by Peg Riccio

Last fall, a friend gave me the root of her bleeding heart plant she called Fred. Unfortunately it was some time before I could get the root from her that by the time I did, it was very dry and hard. I soaked it in a tub of water for a day before I planted it. It was so desiccated, I did not think it would make it through the winter. But this spring I was pleasantly surprised by a tuft of foliage peeking through the soil. Fred is alive! Since March, Fred has produced beautiful fern-like leaves and nodding racemes of pendulous blossoms. Each blossom looks like an earring or a puffy locket on a chain and is actually comprised of two outer rose-colored petals and the two inner white petals. If you turn the flower upside down and pull the rose petals apart you will see the lady in a bath. Lady-in-a-bath is another moniker for bleeding heart.

Bleeding heart is an herbaceous perennial that prefers a woodsy environment with moist soil that is high in organic matter. Some shade is best, can be morning sun and afternoon shade or dappled light. With such delicate foliage, you would think that rabbits would decimate bleeding hearts but both rabbits and deer do not seem interested in this perennial. However, by June the leaves do get yellow and ratty and eventually the plant goes dormant as summer’s heat arrives. In order to prevent a gap in the garden, other herbaceous perennials such as hardy geraniums or hostas can grow to fill in the gap during the summer or annuals can be planted in its place.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Growing Ginger for Gingerbread Cookies

by Peg Riccio, NCA Blog Editor
November 21, 2020

gingerbread menWhen we think of gingerbread, we think of breads, cakes, and little edible men. But what is gingerbread really? Where does the “ginger” come from? Is this something we can grow here in the DC metro area? To celebrate National Gingerbread Cookie Day today, let’s explore ginger the spice plant.

The term “gingerbread” is from Latin “zingiber” via Old French “gingebras,” referring to preserved ginger. The term “zingiber” is derived from Greek “zingiberis” which comes from the Sanskrit name of the spice “singabera.”

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is an herbaceous perennial plant native to southeastern Asia. The plant can grow up to 4 feet tall and has sharp, thin leaves. The plant is grown for its roots which are really modified stems called rhizomes. You may have seen these knobby rhizomes in grocery stores in the produce section.

Ginger was first cultivated in China and spread to Europe via the Silk Road. In medieval England, gingerbread meant preserved ginger and was not applied to desserts until the 15th century. Ginger was the most common spice in medieval Europe, after pepper.

Making gingerbread cookies in the shape of people is credited to Queen Elizabeth I who had them made to resemble and to serve to visiting foreign dignitaries. These became so popular that baking gingerbread cookies in the shapes of people and animals became a staple at European medieval fairs. Over time, the festivals came to be known as Gingerbread Fairs and the cookies were called fairings.

From gingerbread figures it was inevitable that the next step would be to build gingerbread houses. Gingerbread houses originated in Germany in the 16th century and are just large, rectangular-shaped cookies “glued” together with frosting. These are highly decorated with sweets and became associated with Christmas tradition. As German immigrants settled in America the tradition continued particularly with the Pennsylvania Germans.

gingerbread house


In the United States, the first known recipes for gingerbread are in the American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (1796). These were in loaf form because molasses, which was less expensive than sugar, produced a softer cake or loaf. George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, served her recipe for gingerbread to the Marquis de Lafayette when he visited her in Fredericksburg, Virginia. During the American revolutionary war, soldiers received ginger in their food rations.

Gingerbread now refers to baked goods made with ginger and other spices such as cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon and sweetened with honey, sugar, or molasses. Gingerbread can be a loaf, cake, cookie (soft), or biscuit (hard like ginger snaps or gingerbread men).

Although you can buy ginger rhizomes and ground ginger at the store, you can also grow ginger. It takes about 8 months for the plant to develop the rhizomes for harvest so in the DC metro area, one has to begin indoors in the early spring.

Adria Bordas, horticulture extension agent with the Fairfax County Virginia Cooperative Extension Office, recently posted her experiences on Facebook. She bought three ginger rhizomes from a grocery store in March and harvested 5 pounds of ginger in November.

“Ginger does better if you soak the rhizomes in water before you plant them. This method re-hydrates them and removes any chemicals that prohibit sprouting,” she said. After soaking overnight, Adria planted her rhizomes in a small container with a light potting mix called pro-mix.


The three original rhizomes Adria purchased from the store. Photo courtesy of Adria Bordas

.“Plant so the rhizomes are vertical, not flat, so sprouts shoot up. It can take 2 weeks before you see sprouts so don’t get discouraged.” Adria planted hers about 2 inches deep. Because she had a skylight in her living room, she was able to position the container to receive enough light and warmth. In May, she re-planted them outside in a 20-inch container with pro-mix and a little bit of compost.

“They do better in part shade than full sun,” she said. “The only amendment I added was Bumper Crop in the summer.”

ginger plant

Adria’s ginger plant outside in the summer. Photo courtesy of Adria Bordas.

From her three rhizomes, Adria harvested 5 pounds of fresh ginger in November. Already she has made gingerbread with fresh grated ginger and banana bread with ginger. She is thinking of making a ginger syrup and highly recommends chicken, garlic, and ginger on the grill. “I just use a cheese grater or a kitchen plane to shred the ginger but I have found that if I freeze them first and then grate, it is much easier.”

Ginger can be stored in a dry, cool location as is or it can be frozen, either whole, peeled and sliced, or as a paste. Fresh, unpeeled ginger can be stored in the fridge for up to 3 weeks. Ginger can also be dried and powdered.

After hearing about Adria’s experience, I have been inspired to start growing ginger in March indoors. I will just buy a few rhizomes at the local grocery store and hopefully, this time next year, I will have fresh ginger to make gingerbread cookies for National Gingerbread Cookie Day in November 2021.


Five pounds of fresh ginger harvested in November. Photo courtesy of Adria

Monday, October 5, 2020

Pretty Poisonous Pokeweed

Pretty Poisonous Pokeweed

by Peg Ricco, Member of Camelot GC, District III

mature pokeweed berries

A common sight in Virginia now are the purple berries hanging from green shrubs along the roadside. Pokeweed (Phytolacca decandra) is an herbaceous perennial, considered a weed by most gardeners. Pokeweed is easy to find on roadsides, fields, and ditches as birds eat the berries and drop the seeds. From summer to fall, pokeweed blooms small white flowers on peduncles (stems) making them stick out. In the fall, the berries appear first as flatten green balls with a dimple in the center on hot pink racemes and later, as if they had been inflated, as deep purple, ¼ -inch balls on red racemes. The contrast of purple and red or green and pink is so pretty that pokeweed is often used for fall floral arrangements.

immature pokeweed berries

Pokeweed berries are attractive but it is important to know that all parts of the plant are poisonous. Some people even get rashes from touching the plant. If you have children or see pokeweed in areas where children frequent such as school playgrounds, you should remove the plants. Pull the thick stems after a rain when the soil is loose and when the plants are young. If they mature, they develop taproots, making them difficult to remove completely. If you are not worried about children, consider growing them as a native food source for birds in your garden.

white pokeweed flowers with both green immature and purple mature berries in background

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Culinary Herb Recipes To Try This Summer

Peg Riccio, Camelot Garden Club, District III

parsleyThis summer, as you cut and harvest your culinary herbs from your garden, try using them in a variety of basic recipes. Here are a few simple recipes — the herb you use depends on the flavor you want so try experimenting. For easy reference, print this article and tape it on the inside of your kitchen cabinet along with the list of herbs you are growing.


tarragon is often used in herb vinegars

Herbal Vinegar

Wash one cup of herbs, allow to air dry. Pack leaves (can use stems too) in quart glass jar with wooden spoon. Fill with 3 to 3 ½ cups vinegar to one inch from top. The vinegar should be 5% acidity and best types of vinegar are white or red wine vinegar, rice wine vinegar, or apple cider vinegar. Push down with spoon and bruise leaves. If a metal lid, first cover with plastic wrap, if plastic lid, just close. Store in dark place for 4 to 6 week, shaking every few days. Taste to see if too strong, add more vinegar, or too weak, add more herb. When done, strain leaves out and pour liquid into clean bottles and add a sprig of fresh herb for decoration. Label.


Wash herbs, let dry. Take a stick of unsalted butter out of the fridge, put in bowl, and let come to room temperature so is soft. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the chopped herb, do this to taste. Depending on the leaf, may have to cut into small pieces. Can put in a container to keep in fridge for 2 weeks or roll into saran wrap like a log and freeze for up to 6 months.


Put one cup of water and one cup of sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer. When sugar dissolves, turn off heat, add large handful of herb leaves. Bruise with wooden spoon by smashing against side of pot. Cover and let sit for 30 minutes. When cool, strain leaves out and pour syrup in glass jar and store in fridge for up to 2 weeks.

mint has a variety of uses in the kitchen including sweet syrups


Pulverize in the blender 2 cups washed fresh basil, 4 cloves of garlic, (chopped), and ½ cup olive oil until pasty. Add 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, blend again. Can freeze in plastic ice cube trays or flat in plastic bags.

Marinade for meat

Depending on the amount of meat can change the quantities but the ratio is 1/4 cup of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of vinegar like a wine vinegar, ¼ cup water, a dash of salt (like soy sauce), a dash of sugar (honey or brown sugar) and about a cup of fresh herb leaves (tear leaves apart if large). Have meat sit in this mixture for at least 30 minutes. Drain and cook meat.

Herb paste

If you don’t need pesto, make basil paste to preserve
Can use this as a frozen base for pesto and then add the fresh garlic and Parmesan cheese to the thawed paste or a frozen base for stew or soup. Clean herbs but make sure are completely dry as water and oil do not mix. Blend in the food processor 4 cups of herb leaves to ¼ to 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil to make a paste. Freeze in bags or plastic ice cube trays. There should be some texture to herb so is a paste and not pureed like liquid. Good with savory herbs such as basil, parsley, and cilantro. If using a “sweet” herb like mints, may want to try sunflower seed oil instead.

Monday, June 22, 2020

National Pollinator Week

By Peg Ricco,

 This week, Celebrate National Pollinator Week 

It's the perfect time to learn more about pollinators, identifying the best plants and trees for pollinators in your area, and incorporating best practices to protect, harbor, and feed pollinators. 

It is amazing that something as small as a bee is vitally important to our food supply. As pollinators, bees transfer pollen thus ensuring that plants and crops develop fruit and seeds for us to consume. But bees are not the only keystone species that we depend on, we also need other pollinators such as butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, and birds, including hummingbirds. 

About 80 percent of the world’s flowering plants depend on pollinators (the others are wind pollinated). According to Cornell University, pollinators are responsible for every third bite of food we eat. Unfortunately, pollinator populations have declined due to pesticides, habitat loss, and disease. Gardeners who are aware of this problem have deliberately planted flowering perennials and annuals to provide pollen (protein) and nectar (carbs). Because of their dramatic 90 percent decline in population over the past 20 years, monarch butterflies have received quite a lot of support. Many gardeners are planting milkweed – the one and only plant for monarchs — or trying to produce more butterflies with home kits. Bees too have received national attention. Nurseries promote bee friendly flowers and gardeners have planted bee magnets such as Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium), goldenrod (Solidago), and gayfeather (Liatris).


Persimmon fruit, thanks to pollinators

These efforts have helped the pollinators and certainly gardeners have come to appreciate the importance of pollinators. However, an overlooked source of food and protection for pollinators are trees. Trees provide more flowers, plenty of foliage for larva (caterpillars), and a large infrastructure to hold hives and nests. Because of the number of flowers a canopy provides, trees can provide more pollen and nectar compared to annuals and perennials. Plus, as homeowners move from house to house, the herbaceous landscape may change but usually the trees and all of their tiny inhabitants remain.

Plant Small Native Trees for Homes                                                                                            “Trees are a permanent fixture,” said Steve Nagy, an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Board-Certified Master Arborist and Assistant District Manager at the northern Virginia office of the Davey Tree Expert Company. Based in Ohio, the company was founded in 1880 and has offices across North America.  For attracting pollinators in the Washington DC metro area, Steve recommends native trees that thrive in our particular climate (cold winters and hot, humid summers). “We recommend native trees because the chances of them growing well is higher that non-natives,” he explained. For typical suburban lots where space is a premium, Steve recommends swamp white oak (Quercis bicolor), willow oak (Quercis phellos), post oak (Quercis stellata), cucumber magnolia (Magnolia acuminata), sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), little leaf linden (Tilia cordata), persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), and serviceberry (Amelanchier). “Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is a great tree, too,” said Steve, “It is a typically overlooked native with good fall color.”

The crape myrtle branches bend down

Plant Trees that Flower at Various Times
 with summer-blooming flowers. While a tree can provide many flowers, usually it only flowers for a few weeks. Because different pollinators are active at various times of the year, Steve recommends planting trees with various bloom times. Instead of planting the well-known spring bloomers such as flowering cherry trees, flowering plums, star magnolias, saucer magnolias, and redbuds, homeowners can plant summer blooming trees such as little leaf linden, persimmon, cucumber magnolia, southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), and crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia).                                                                                                 

Plant Trees that Support Specific Pollinators. 

Another reason to plant trees is that certain pollinators require specific tree species or genera. Similar to the monarch butterfly’s relationship with milkweed, the spicebush swallowtail caterpillar only feeds on spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum). The zebra swallowtail caterpillar only feeds on young paw paw leaves (Asimina spp.) and the pink-striped oak worm moth gets its name from its preference for oaks (Quercus spp.).

Paw paw trees are vital to the zebra swallowtail butterfly