March 2015

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Flowers on the menu = Tasty ingredient

Pansies and violas are the perfect floral complement in a salad of fresh spring greens and feta cheese. ©Wiktory/iStockphoto

Pansies and violas are the perfect floral complement in a salad of fresh spring greens and feta cheese. ©Wiktory/iStockphoto

As restaurants embrace farm-to-table fare, gardeners need to celebrate their own backyard bounty.

We already know about tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans and lettuces, but there are more than vegetables to grace your table.

Think flowers.

Last spring, I had lunch at Courses restaurant atop the former Stouffer’s Hotel, now home of Ivy Tech’s Corporate College and Culinary Center. Besides the great bird’s-eye view of the city, one of the nice things about the delicious meal was the salad, which featured lettuces, herbs and flowers grown on the grounds of the campus at Fall Creek Parkway and Meridian Street.

Flowers? You, the unadventurous eater, ate flowers, you ask?

Yes, indeed. This time, it was the slightly sweet, slightly crunchy taste of violas and pansies. This was not my first taste of edible flowers. I’ve eaten peppery nasturtium in salads, enjoyed lavender ice cream and shortbread cookies and, in Grenada, imbibed a glass of very sweet sorrel, made from Roselle hibiscus flowers (H. sabdariffa).

“Roselle can also act as a diuretic, so it should be taken in small doses,” wrote Denise Schreiber in her book, Eat Your Roses: Pansies, Lavender and 49 other Delicious Edible Flowers (St. Lynn’s Press, $17.95).

eat roses coverSchreiber’s book provides other cautions, such as you should avoid eating anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), if you are pregnant. At 7 by 6 inches, spiral bound and full or tips on harvesting, uses and recipes, it fits right on the shelf of cookbooks.

Her book reminds us that we actually consume flowers and leaves in teas, such as chamomile, rose hip and jasmine. And then there’s that bean we grind to make our morning elixir.

Edible flowers should always be pesticide free and grown for culinary use. Many edible plants have delicious flowers, worth the sacrifice of a few zucchini and other produce. These include the blooms of squash, onion, radish and just about any herb. Garden pea (Pisum sativum) flowers and shoots are all the rage right now, but don’t confuse these with sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus), which despite its name, is poisonous.

This brings up an important point about eating flowers, leaves and other parts of plants: Know what you are eating. If you don’t know what it is, don’t eat it. Always go by the scientific, not the common, names when looking for edible flowers.

Lots of grocery stores and farmers markets offer edible flowers, if you don’t want to grow your own. Avoid flowers from florists because you don’t know if they’ve been treated with pesticides.

Evergreen perennials for the Midwest garden

The grasslike 'Evergold' sedge is evergreen, too. It was left in this container to add another color and texture to a winter arrangement, it's third season in a pot. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

The grasslike ‘Evergold’ sedge is evergreen, too. It was left in this container to add another color and texture to a winter arrangement, it’s third season in a pot. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Say evergreens and most people think pine, spruce or arborvitae. But several perennials fall into this category, including a couple of grass-like plants.


Sure, sedge (Carex spp.) can be a weed, but there’s a whole bunch of these grasses that have been cultivated and made garden worthy. Some are native, too. Not only are many sedges evergreen, they are tolerant of dry, wet, sun and shade.

Probably the most readily available is ‘Ice Dance’ (C. morrowii). The narrow green and white blades perk up containers or perform like a pro as an edging on a garden bed. Sedges also can serve as a ground cover.

A great place to see a large planting of a native sedge is outside the Deer-Zink Pavilion at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. A large bed is planted with Pennsylvania sedge (C. pensylvanica), a shade tolerant beauty that looks great all year.

Sedges bloom, but their flowers, although attractive, are not particularly showy. I don’t cut them off. There are several yellow or gold cultivars, too, including ‘Evergold’ (C. oshimensis). Most sedges range 8 to 15 inch tall.


Along the same ideas as sedge is lilyturf (Liriope spp.), another grass-like ground cover that gets about 12 inches tall. It, too, tolerates sun or shade, but its spike of blue flowers is showy in late summer, followed by black berries.

There are two types of lilyturf, one that spread by underground rhizomes (L. spicata) and one that is a clump grower (L. muscari). To help hold soil on a hillside or to cover a challenging areas, the spreading one would be ideal. The clump grower, a popular one is ‘Big Blue’, works well in many applications, including as a year-round container plant.

Coral bells

I can’t say enough good about coral bells (Heuchera spp.) because the come in so many leaf colors and forms. Found only in North America, coral bells are prized as much for their foliage as they are the blooms.

In fact, as breeders worked on this plant, the foliage got all the attention to the detriment of the flowers. But new introductions, such as ‘Berry Timeless’, have an improved floral show.

Coral bell foliage may change color as it moves through the season, but even in winter, there’s a presence in the landscape, even under snow. Coral bells are very shade tolerant, but prefer well-drained soil.

Heirloom or hybrid?

Pink Brandywine tomato is credited with sparking interest in  heirlooms. Photo courtesy Bonnie Plants

Pink Brandywine tomato is credited with sparking interest in heirlooms. Photo courtesy Bonnie Plants

If you’ve been perusing the mail order garden catalogs or online websites, you may have come across some confusing or unfamiliar terms.

Take heirloom, for instance. An heirloom vegetable or flower has been in cultivation for at least 50 years. Heirlooms also are open pollinated. To understand open pollination, we need a bit of botany, said seed merchants Renee Shepherd of and Patty Buskirk of in their newsletter.

The flowers produced by plants are either perfect or imperfect. Perfect means male and female parts are in the same flower. A tomato is an example of a perfect flower. Imperfect means the plant produces separate male and female flowers. Squash is an example of a plant that does this.

“Regardless, the pollen must be transferred from the male organ of the flower to the female organ in order for seeds to form. This can happen by wind or with the help of pollinating insects like bees,” Shepherd said.

An advantage of open pollinated plants is that the seeds they produce will generally come true when replanted.

Big Beef, a 1994 All-America Selections, is a hybrid that is  resistant to several diseases that affect tomatoes.

Big Beef, a 1994 All-America Selections, is a hybrid that is resistant to several diseases that affect tomatoes.

A hybrid is the cross pollination of two or more plants to breed for certain characteristics, such as sweeter or more plentiful peppers or disease resistant cucumbers. Hybrids have been around for decades – remember Gregor Mendel and peas? Seeds from hybrids are viable, but will not likely come true, reverting to one of the parent plants.

Many gardeners extol the flavors of heirlooms, asserting that a lot of umami is bred out of hybridized tomatoes for the sake of consistent size and color. And with flowers, the first attribute to go in hybridizing is frequently fragrance.

Many hybrid plants have been bred to fend off diseases, such as tomatoes rated F or V, indicating resistance to fusarium and verticillium wilt. This does not mean hybrids are genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. There are few, if any, GMO vegetables for home gardeners.

Can you have an organic garden if you don’t use certified organic seeds? “Yes! In your own garden, you want a safe environment with healthy and nutritious plants,” Shepherd said.

To achieve that: Maintain healthy soil, follow effective organic gardening techniques, use certified organic fertilizers and look for alternatives to chemical pest and disease controls.

Unless a seed is specifically labeled as treated, which is very rare in the home garden seed market, it has not been treated with pesticides or fungicides, she said.

Celebrate the 2015 Color of the Year with marsala-colored plants for the garden

img_pantone_edit color_of_the_year_2015_press_releaseIf marsala wine is known for anything, it’s cooking. Marsala chicken, anyone?

But, Pantone, the powers that be in all-things-color, picked the its hue to celebrate in 2015. “A naturally robust and earth wine red, marsala enriches our minds, bodies and souls,” Pantone explains.

Fortunately, unlike other Colors of the Year, such as turquoise in 2010, the selection of marsala is an easy ingredient to get in the fashion-forward garden.

First, there’s the food angle. Robert Scheer, the Indianapolis Star’s Wine Dude, tells us “Marsala is pure Sicily. Whether sweet or dry styles, they’re great for cooking into Italian favorites, and can be wonderful when combined with garden offerings, like shallots, and fresh herbs, like rosemary. If you sip marsala, you might taste flavors of vanilla, walnut, brown sugar or apricot.”

Sounds tasty.

(C) Valeniker/

(C) Valeniker/

Shallots are a worthwhile, onion- garlic-like bulb to grow. More mild than garlic, shallots demand a pretty penny at the grocery or farmers markets, but they are very easy to grow from a bulb or seed. These foodie favorites and can be planted in spring or fall.

Rosemary, of course, is not winter hardy here, so a lot of us grow this herb in a pot outdoors in summer so we can bring it indoors in winter. Whatever you do, don’t let the soil dry out. Rosemary is not a very forgiving plant.

Marooned coleus. Photo courtesy Proven Winners

Marooned coleus. Photo courtesy Proven Winners


At the plant level, I couldn’t find anything named marsala, but there are lots with wine in their moniker: Dipt in Wine coleus, Summer Wine ninebark, Wine & Roses weigela, Charmed Wine oxalis, Imperial Wine dahlia and Royal Plum Wine verbena.

Charmed wine oxalis. Photo courtesy Proven Winners

Charmed wine oxalis. Photo courtesy Proven Winners

If the name isn’t an issue, you can get that marsala color in the garden with Marooned coleus, one of my favorites. You can also work a few wine-colored pots, rug or pillows into the scene to confirm your fashion sense. Oh, and don’t forget the wine!

January garden checklist


Waiting for the beautiful red amaryllis to bloom. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp


General Landscape

  • Keep road and sidewalk salt away from plants. If necessary, screen the plants with burlap to keep off spray. Calcium chloride products are recommended over sodium chloride to melt ice. Sand, cinders, ash and fresh kitty litter also may be used instead of ice-melting salts.
  • Prune summer and fall blooming woody plants, including vines, shrubs and trees.
  • Use hand or a broom to gently brush away heavy snow that may accumulate on shrubs before it freezes.
  • new growthApply an all-purpose natural fertilizer or a dusting of compost around spring-flowering bulbs as they break ground.

Vegetables and Fruits

  • Examine produce, tender flower bulbs and roots stored for the winter to make sure there is no rot, shriveling or excess moisture. Remove and discard damaged material.

Extension and Master Gardener volunteers help others grow

From the left: Master Gardeners Karen Kennedy, Sharon Gamble and Carolyn McMahon.

From the left: Master Gardeners Karen Kennedy, Sharon Gamble and Carolyn McMahon. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

This was the year that cooperative extension services throughout the United States celebrated their 100th anniversary.

Although we may consider cooperative extension a purely American service, the practice of disseminating agriculture information to farmers goes back 2,000 years in Chinese culture. The idea of crop rotation was introduced in China in 800 BC.

Ireland is credited with launching modern extension services in the mid-1800s, primarily spurred by the great potato famine. Oxford and Cambridge universities embraced the notion of university extension, which took knowledge beyond the campuses in the 1860s.

Here in the United States, cooperative extension services fall under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and are lodged in land-grant colleges, such as Purdue University. Extension services became part of federal law in 1914 with the Smith-Lever Act. The idea was to share information with the public about agriculture, home economics, 4-H and public policy. Funding for extension activities is a mix of federal, state and local dollars, grants and donations.

Today, gardening, community development, family financial fitness, leadership and resource conservation are as much or more a part of extension services as agriculture. Here in Marion County, 4-H focuses on science, technology, engineering, art and math – skills incorporated into an active robotics program, for example.

Of course, my primary intersection with extension is through the Master Gardener program. These frequently unseen volunteers work in many important landscapes in the city, including the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, the Indianapolis City Market, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Cold Spring School, IPS’ environmental studies magnet. They conduct many free garden- and nature-related programs and workshops for the public.

Steve Mayer, the coordinator of Marion County Master Gardeners, says of the 390 members, 285 are active volunteers. So far this year, they have donated 14,572 hours to beautify and educate the community about gardening. “This wouldn’t be the most accurate number for 2014 because a lot of people haven’t reported all of their hours, yet,” Mayer said.

So, as we round out 2014 and head into 2015, I thank Purdue’s extension services and especially Master Gardeners, for all of their good work and wish them all the best for another hundred years.

Easy-peasy gifts from the garden

Snip some herbs from the garden to make a bouquet garni. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Snip parsley, thyme, sage and other herbs from the garden to make a bouquet garni for foodie friends and family. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Gardeners have great opportunities for a few quick, but not-so-dirty gifts from the garden. For many of us, something homegrown makes the most thoughtful and memorable gift.

For foodies, harvest sprigs of sage, thyme, parsley or other herbs from the garden for a bouquet garni. Tie together with a cotton string or tuck into a cotton bag. Attach the bouquet garni to a favorite soup or sauce recipe.

Enable the bird lovers on your list. Smear some pine cones with peanut butter and roll them in birdseed. Attach a bit of wire to hang the cones from a tree limb or birdfeeder. Freeze and place in a plastic bag. Pair with a book about birds or wildlife. Squirrels will like this pine cone treat, too.

Snip dried blooms from a smooth-leaf or panicle hydrangea. Add some evergreen boughs and tie with a colorful ribbon as a gift for the host or hostess. Spray paint the dried flowers red or gold for a bit of holiday color.

Spray paint a dried hydrangea blossom and pair with a few evergreen boughs for a hostess gift. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Spray paint a dried hydrangea blossom and pair with a few evergreen boughs for a hostess gift. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Gather seeds from your favorite annual or perennial. Provide planting instructions on an envelope decorated with a picture of the flower and place the seeds inside. Attach to a garden book or a magazine gift subscription. Or, make a gift certificate that promises a division of a perennial from your landscape. Add an image of the plant, instructions for car and a delivery date.

Cut a stem or two of lavender, dry the leaves and tuck them into an organza bag to make a sachet. Lavender adds a lovely scent to the car, linen closet or lingerie drawer. Dried rosemary leaves, rose petals, cloves, citrus peels or needles of pine or fir trees also make sweet thinking-of-you, happy-to-see-you or just-because sachets.

A sachet is easy to make with a few sprigs of lavender. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

A sachet is easy to make with a few sprigs of lavender. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp 

Busy families will put homemade jelly, canned tomatoes or other home-preserved foods to good use during the holidays. These foods are also welcome by friends and family who will be entertaining this time of year.

Holiday wishes

As we approach the time of the year for reflection, I want to thank you for reading my columns, sending comments and sharing the information. I would not be able to do this without you.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Making birds count

Photo courtesy Wild Birds Unlimited

Chickadees and other birds enjoy the holiday spirit. Photo courtesy Wild Birds Unlimited

On Facebook the last few days, local birders have been crowing about spotting two female harlequin ducks, described as “a rare inland record for Indiana.” They were observed on a pond in a heavily developed retail and residential area of the city.

Most of us don’t trek to lakes or ponds to view birds. Rather, we’re content to watch them from the comforts of our cozy indoors or on the occasional walk outdoors.

Christmas Bird Count

Dec. 14 through Jan. 5 marks the 115th Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by the Audubon Society. Following a strict methodology, groups of amateur and expert birders gather at Eagle Creek Park, Goose Pond and other defined areas to identify and count birds.

This citizen science project provides ornithologists and other scientists with detailed information about which birds are where. Consider it a snapshot of what’s going on in nature.

Great Backyard Bird Count

I haven’t been involved in this project, but the last two years, I have participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count. This citizen science project, Feb. 13-16, 2015, is a partnership of Audubon, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is easy because you can do it standing at your kitchen window. If you are more ambitious, the project presents a great opportunity to teach children about their environment. If you have a bird feeder, pick a time of day and identify and count the number of birds at the feeder during a 15-minute period.

This count is done all over the world. In 2014, U.S. participants filed at least 36,000 checklists and identified 591 species of birds.

Water key to attracting birds

One of the ways to attract birds to your yard is to supply a source of water. A couple of years ago, my son gave me a birdbath heater, which works great at keeping the water from freezing.

Bird seed, suet, mealy worms and peanuts feed the winter birds as do the seed heads of perennials we left standing and the fruits on hollies, viburnums and crabapples.

Gift ideas for the gardeners on your list

Rain chain from are solid copper. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Rain chains from are solid copper. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

It’s high season for gift giving and here are some suggestions for the gardeners on your list.

A wonderful holiday gift for gardeners or wannabes in the millennial group is The 20-30 Something Garden Guide by Dee Nash (St. Lynn’s Press, hardback, $17.95). Naturally, there’s a glossary, recommended tools and lots of encouragement to tell the millennials to just try it.

20-30 something 2

Nash details design ideas for three garden settings: balcony, deck and small yard. She deciphers seed packs and suggests what’s best sown directly in the soil and what’s best planted as a seedling. It’s pretty much everything a millennial needs to succeed. A third-generation Oklahoma gal, Nash blogs at, which won a gold award this year from Garden Writers Association for best electronic writing.


Coffee for Roses by C.L. Fornari (St. Lynn’s Press, hardback, $17.95) busts 70 myths embraced by gardeners, such as hummingbirds only visit red flowers, marigolds keep bugs out of the vegetable garden and roses should be planted with coffee grounds. An avid researcher, Fornari ( delves into the history of some common practices, explains why they don’t work and offers suggestions that do.

coffee roses 2

There’s something romantically alluring about David Austin roses. Breeding techniques have developed roses that retain their old world beauty and fragrance without old world disease problems. David Austin (800-328-8893) gift certificates make perfect stocking stuffers. With the certificate, the recipient can select his or her rose, which will be shipped at the appropriate planting time.

David Austin Roses - Gift Envelope and Vouchers

One of the best tools for an avid gardener is the transplant spade. The long, narrow blade is perfect for getting below the root ball to lift perennials and small shrubs for transplant. I’ve had my Fiskars Steel D-handle Transplanting Spade for years and it’s my go-to tool when planting or dividing perennials. It costs about $30 and can be found at garden centers or online.

fiskars transplant spade

At the luxury end ($80) is a copper rain chain. I’ve wanted this for years and when Rain Chains Direct (855-843-7246) invited several garden writers to try one, of course, I said yes. The beautiful 8 ½-foot long, solid copper chain can replace a downspout to slow rain coming off a roof. The chain also can be used where there is no spout, such as from a garage, to slow rain pouring from the roof.

December garden checklist


Holidayshuge christmas tree

  • When shopping for a fresh-cut Christmas tree, check for green, flexible, firmly held needles and a sticky trunk base — both indicators of freshness. Make a fresh cut and keep the cut end under water at all times.
  • Evergreens can be trimmed gently for indoor holiday decorations.


  • Houseplants usually require less water and fertilizer during the winter, but they need more light. Move plants closer to windows (but not touching glass) when days are gray.
  • Store lawn and garden products in a cool, dry place, protected from moisture and freezing, but away from heat.

General Landscape

  • Prevent the bark from splitting on young, thin-barked trees, such as fruit and maple, by wrapping them with tree wrap, or paint them with white latex paint, especially the south and south-west sides.
  • Protect broadleaves, evergreens or other tender landscape plants from excessive drying (desiccation) by winter sun and wind with canvas, burlap or polyethylene plastic screens on the south and west sides. Shields also may be used to protect plants from salt spray.
  • Protect weak-stemmed shrubs from extensive snow loads by tying their stems together with twine. Carefully remove heavy snow loads with a broom so limbs don’t break.
Plants have been protected with burlap. Photo courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden

Plants have been protected with burlap. Photo courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden

  • If needed, protect young plants, broadleaves and needle-bearing evergreens and other tender landscape plants from excessive drying from sun and wind by spraying with an antidesiccant when temperatures are above 40 degrees F. Always read and follow the label direction.
  • Mulch tender plants with organic material when they become dormant.

Vegetables and Fruits

  • Harvest root crops. Store in a cold location with high humidity.