Stevia: grow this natural alternative sweetener in your garden

When most people think of ‘Stevia’, they think of the powdered green (or white… if it’s been bleached) stuff used as an alternative sweetener you can buy from most supermarkets. But it doesn’t start out that way. Stevia is an herb that you can grow in your garden.

It’s always a fun experience to invite someone to taste a leaf of the plant, and for them to realize what it is. It’s pretty cool when it’s an exciting experience for someone. I usually like to do the “Hey try this” with Cinnamon Basil or Lemon Basil. Another good one is German Chamomile flowers or Lemon Grass… more for pressing between your fingers and smelling. Maybe it’s because I hope that if I can get people to start experiencing bits of the amazing-ness of plants, they’ll start growing more of their own (though Carrie and her husband Corey already to grow tomatoes and flowers).

Now, about stevia. I get a lot of questions about it, so I thought I’d give you a quick brief on it, according to my experience in growing it.

Stevia is actually a whole group of plants in the Asteraceae (daisy) family. The single plant prized for its sweet leaves is Stevia rebaudiana (so be sure that’s what you’re getting when you’re purchasing seeds). Some say that growing from seed won’t produce a sweet plant, or that you’re less likely to get a sweet plant… but in my case, it’s clearly very sweet (about a quarter of a leaf is more than enough to sweeten a cup of tea).

You can also purchase S. rebaudiana as a seedling, usually when it’s about 4-8 inches tall, so ask your local nursery about that. It may be easier to start with a seedling because, from my experience, Stevia rebaudiana is a rather finicky plant to start from seed. Once it’s growing, though, it grows very well. I managed to get six seedlings to come up at this past spring, but only one made it all the way to adult-hood. It’s a sturdy plant once it’s become established. It produces fairly thick, tall stalks, but you can keep it lower and bushier if you pinch it back every few weeks. I didn’t want to do that in its very first season, since I was finding it a bit hard to keep any of them alive past 3 or 4 inches of growth, so I was happy to just let it grow and become stronger and more established this year.

If you just let it grow and reach its full height, it’ll begin to put out flower heads once the stalk reaches 2-3 feet tall. The leaves become very sweet as the flower heads begin to appear, and that’s just about the time you want to cut the stalks and dry the leaves.

Cut the stalk about 6 inches above the ground, right above a set of leaves. The plant will sprout two new stems right above each of the leaves (as you can see in the picture at the bottom right). These stalks were cut about a week earlier, and already you can see the growth of two new stems right above each of the leaves.

I found that S. rebaudiana likes a good dose of water nearly every day (and sometimes twice a day when it gets hot, especially if it’s in a container), but the container/soil needs to drain very well so it’s not standing in water, and has enough time to dry in between waterings. I used sifted compost and sand to create a good, healthy mix for my stevia, and it worked very well. If stevia gets too wet or the roots sit in water too often or too long, it can be affected by fungal disease, so good drainage is a must.

I wanted to use compost, because a stevia plant that is fed with a nitrogen fertilizer will keep the leaves green, and perhaps produce more leaves, but they won’t be as sweet, and sweetness was my goal. So to keep the plant healthy, with plenty of nutrients, without compromising the sweetness, compost seemed to be the best option and it worked well with a good dose of sand mixed in.

A common garden fertilizer without nitrogen in it would work well, too. On the last note of nutrients – I have heard that fertilizing your stevia plant with Boron will increase its sweetness (perhaps boron is part of the process of making the sweetener that stevia plants produce), but I haven’t verified that claim.

There is a new ‘North American Stevia’ plant, which has been developed to contain less of the stevioside and more of the Rebaudioside A. Both are sweetener chemicals, but the stevioside has a slightly bitter aftertaste, and the North American Stevia plant has been developed through cross-pollination and selection, to have less of the stevioside chemical in it, and more of the Rebaudioside A chemical, so you don’t get very much of the bitter aftertaste.

The packet of seeds I grew did not indicate that it was one of these or not, so I don’t know which one I have. The leaves on my plant are definitely sweet, and I don’t taste much of a ‘bitter’ aftertaste, though it is certainly a different sweetness from sugar… and maybe an ‘off’ aftertaste lingers a bit on the tongue. If you want to be sure to get the new North American Stevia plant, it would probably be best to purchase one as a seedling, since cuttings are guaranteed to be true to the mother plant. Check your local nursery for seedlings, or you can order seeds online from,, and

The stevia stalks grew tall and strong, but they were a bit brittle, so I took care to stake them, and I’m glad I did. The tallest stalk had the top snapped cleanly off during a very windy storm over the summer… the one bit that I hadn’t supported with some stakes and rope, so I was glad I’d supported the rest of the plant.

Grow your stevia in full sunlight. The more sun, the more the plant will produce the sweetness in the plant, and the healthier the plant will be.

I’ll be overwintering my inside, which is why I grew it in a pot, because it is a very tender perennial. If you grow it in the ground, you can either lift it and pot it up to bring it inside for the winter (if you’re colder than zone 9), or you can harvest it the stalks and let the plant die, and then just grow it again the next year. If you overwinter it inside, be on the lookout for white fly. If your plant is being attacked by whitefly, spray the plant with a Insecticidal soap, or a dilute mixture of water and household dish soap (making sure it doesn’t have perfumes or other chemicals in it that may harm your plant). Or you can make a sticky trap with contact paper and a small stake.


The seeds are fairly expensive, as far as seeds go. Once you’ve got an established plant, you can propagate it with stem cuttings, which are more likely to be successful if you use a rooting hormone powder. I’ll be trying that myself in a few days, so I’ll give you an updated post to let you know how it goes.

To use stevia in cooking, once you’ve harvested the stalks, hang them upside down to dry until the leaves are brittle. Or you can pull the leaves off the stem immediately and spread them out to dry on a screen. Once they’re brittle, you can pull them off the stem and store them in an airtight container, or you can powder them (either manually or with a food processor) before storing them. Then, when cooking, add a measured amount of the stevia powder to recipes. Remember that because stevia powder doesn’t have the same properties as sugar, other ingredients in the recipe may need to be adjusted to retain moisture levels, rising action, etc. to compensate for the decreased amount of sugar.

I found a great Pinterest board with a bunch of recipes for stevia bookmarked. I think you’ll find it useful. I can’t wait to try some of the recipes on there myself.

For my herbal teas, I just add a bit of a leaf to stew with the other herbs. I can use the same leaf at least 2 or 3 times with great results.

I hope you enjoy growing and using stevia! Below are some pictures of the growth of our stevia plant throughout the summer. I thought you’d find them interesting.

Foraging for Elderberries – What are Elderberries and How to Find Them

Foraging for Elderberries

Elderberries are all over the place here. Since they make fabulous jam and syrup, we went and picked a bunch last Saturday.


We just moved to the area, so we were afraid it would be a bit of a wild goose chase to find ‘good spots’ to pick elderberries. No problem there – we found so many elderberry bushes, we filled all our buckets in two hours, and we barely skimmed the surface with the amount of elderberries we found.


All the bushes we picked from were most likely the species Sambucus caerulea, known as “blue elderberry”. (It is often considered a subspecies of S. nigra sub. caerulea. It depends on who you talk to.) It grows 30 feet high and has dark purple berries that look grayish-blue because of a light waxy coating that covers them. The flowers are white or cream in color, on umbels that are nearly flat across the top when you turn them sideways. They are not as pleasantly odorous as other elderberry flowers.

This species is native on the west coast of North America, from British Columbia to California. (Other areas of North America & Europe have a different varieties of native elderberries – see below for species description.)

We’ve seen for ourselves just how abundant it is in this area. They are everywhere! We were in a small wild area, in between farmland, about a quarter mile from the river. Every 5-20 feet we would come upon another elderberry bush. It was impossible to pick all the elderberries. Plus, the bushes grew so tall, we could only harvest the lowest 7 or 8 feet. The birds will still have plenty to eat if they get hungry for elderberries.

If elderberries grow in your area, look for them along less-traveled roads and in riparian areas. Elderberries do like damp soil, generally, and plenty of sunlight. That should give you some clues where to start looking for them.

(It would be best not to pick them along well-traveled roads. The pollutants near major roadways, from exhaust, weed sprays, etc. have likely contaminated plants in those areas.)

Elderberries do contain poisonous cyanic compounds contained in the stems, leaves, roots, and seeds. The berries are edible when they’re ripe and cooked. A handful of uncooked elderberries will generally have no ill effects, but if you eat too many, especially on an empty stomach, you’ll likely get sick.

The flowers are also edible, and have also traditionally been used to lightly flavor fritters, pancakes, scones, and cakes.

Identifying Elderberries with Certainty

If you intend to harvest the flowers, you MUST be certain to identify it properly. An inexperienced forager may mistake the flowers of the highly poisonous water hemlock for the flowers of the elderberry.

The umbelliferae (formerly apiaceae) family, commonly known as the carrot family, includes many plants that produce white, umbel (umbrella-shaped) flowers. Some are edible (carrots, parsley, etc.) and some are highly poisonous, including the water hemlock. When in doubt, DON’T eat it.

Water hemlock doesn’t produce berries. It is a herbaceous (non-woody) plant. (If it has bark, at least you’ll know it’s not a hemlock.) The leaf axils and stem nodes are often purplish. Its flowers are more open, with several little umbrella-shaped flower clusters in a spray.

Elderberry is a woody plant, with bark on its trunk and branches. It produces white or cream, flat-topped flower clusters.

Other elderberry species include:

  • S. canadensis: Known as “sweet elderberry.” Flat-topped, white flower bunches. Deeply purple berries (almost black). Native on the east coast of North America, from Nova Scotia all the way south to Florida, and west to Manitoba (in Canada) and Texas (United States).
  • S. ebulus: The smallest species of elderberry, growing only 3-5 feet high, and known as the “dwarf elderberry”. Native to Europe and the western parts of Asia. The flowers are white with purple anthers. Less used for food than the S. nigra.
  • S. nigra: Also native to Europe. Known as “black elderberry” or “European elderberry”. One of the most-used elderberries. Used medicinally as well as for food (berries & flowers).

Picking & Preparing the Elderberries

The easiest way to pick elderberries is to use a pair of scissors or clippers and cut the entire umbel off and place it in a bucket. Then when you’ve returned home, you can gently tease the berries from the stems in comfort.

To wash the berries and remove further chaff that may be mixed in with them, gently fill the bowl with water until there is about an inch of water above the berries. Then you can run your hand carefully through the berries without damaging them, since the water is holding a lot of their weight. More chaff (stems, bits of leaf, dried flower bits, etc.) will rise to the surface. This can be easily skimmed off with a sieve. (See the video below.)

Since the stems and leaves of elderberry can poison you, you’ll want to be very thorough and clean the berries well.

If you don’t have time to turn the elderberries into jam until a few days later, as in our case, when you get them washed and cleaned, you can freeze them until you’re ready to turn them into jam.

Gently scoop handfuls of berries out of the water, and place them in freezer containers or freezer bags, and freeze.

Each 5 gallon bucket we picked yielded 2 full gallons of cleaned elderberries, so we got about 12 gallons total. That is going to make a LOT of jam, syrup, and fruit leather.

Making Elderberry Jam & Syrup

Elderberry jam is delicious. It doesn’t have as strong a flavor as blackberry or huckleberry jam… it’s more on par with blueberry jam. (This, of course, is my own estimation.) Its flavor is very pleasant, like a dullish blueberry with a bit more acidity.

We have a fabulous recipe for Elderberry Jelly & Syrup. (One of our favorite uses of this syrup is to make Lemon & Elderberry Cheesecake!)


Growing Elderberries

Elderberries are loved by bees, butterflies and birds. If you don’t have elderberries in your area, you could grow your own. Learn more about growing your own elderberries.

Plant Nutrition: Needs and Deficiencies

The details: 
Like all living things, plants must obtain certain elements from their environment in order to sustain their biological functions necessary for survival. Of all the nutrients used by plants, 16 of them are considered ‘essential’ in the sense that plants cannot manufacture them themselves, but rather, must obtain them from their surrounding environment. These essential nutrients are as follows, listed in order or importance:

The structural nutrients:(1) carbon, (2) hydrogen, and (3) oxygen.

The primary macro-nutrients: (4) nitrogen, (5) phosphorus, and (6) potassium.

The secondary macro-nutrients: 
(7) sulfur, (8) calcium, and (9) magnesium

The micro-nutrients: 
(10) iron, (11) zinc, (12) manganese, (13) copper, (14) boron, (15) chlorine, (16) molybdenum, and (17) nickel.

Carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen: 
These nutrients are absorbed by a plant from its environment as carbon dioxide, oxygen, and water. These elements are so prevalent in the environment and so easily absorbed by plants that they never need to be supplemented as a fertilizer; hence, fertilizers never carry these elements as their major ingredients. Plants use carbon, hydrogen and oxygen for a whole host of biochemical functions, but one of the major functions of these three elements is the manufacture of cellulose sugar, the main chemical component of wood which allows plants to hold themselves up and grow tall. Carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen are thus accordingly labeled ‘the structural nutrients’.

Nitrogen, like carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, is extensively used for a whole host of biochemical functions. Nitrogen is found in all DNA, RNA, protein, enzymatic reactions, chlorophyll, etc. Nitrogen differs from the structural nutrients on two major points: it isn’t used as heavily for plant structure (wood) and isn’t readily attainable from the environment. For this reason, nitrogen is often the single greatest ingredient in most commercial fertilizers. More than any other element, nitrogen stimulates plants to grow vegetatively. Nitrogen is what gives leaves and lawns their characteristically rich green color. Nitrogen deficiency in plants is noticeable by stunted growth and yellowing leaves starting at the bottom of the plant and moving gradually upward as nitrogen deficiency persists.

 Phosphorus, like nitrogen, is related with a whole host of biochemicals within plants. Phosphorus is unique in that it helps to stimulate the growth of roots. For this reason, phosphorus is essential in helping new plants establish in the soil where they have been planted or transplanted. Phosphorus also aids in and stimulates the growth of reproductive parts in a plant. Phosphorus will help flowers bloom and help fruit and vegetable plants to produce. Phosphorus is so good at stimulating reproductive growth, in fact, that heavier amounts of phosphorus will actually hasten on reproductive growth, such that plants will produce flowers and fruits sooner than otherwise would have been the case. Phosphorus deficiency results in purpling of foliage starting with the lower leaves and creeping up the plant as deficiency persists.

(You can see an excellent example of phosphorus deficiency in grape vines here.)

Potassium differs from both nitrogen and phosphorus in that it is less commonly a component of biochemicals manufactured for day-to-day functions within plants. One of potassium’s greatest functions within a plant has to do with water relations – potassium is often responsible for transferring water here and there within a plant by way of osmosis. In the same sense, potassium aids in the transport of photosynthetic products or other biochemicals throughout a plant including defensive chemistry. A plant with adequate supply of potassium has higher drought tolerance and greater disease resistance. Potassium deficiency results in yellowing and sometimes spotting of lower leaves and moving up the plant as deficiency persists. Potassium deficiency also creates high susceptibilities for disease and insect predation.

Sulfur: Sulfur is necessary for the manufacture of sulfur containing amino acids which in turn are essential in the manufacture of proteins. It is a sulfur-sulfur bond that gives protein its folding ability and thus its enzymatic or catalytic function. Deficiency is marked by yellowing leaves, thinned stems, and spindly growth all starting at the top of the plant and working their way down with persisting deficiency.

Calcium:Calcium is the major contributor to plant cell wall strength; calcium deficiency results in weak cell walls. Calcium is also important in the water relations and translocation of biochemicals in a plant, albeit less involved than potassium. Deficiency symptoms include yellowing and/or deformation of plant anatomy starting at the most actively growing portions of the plant such as stem and leaf tips.


 Magnesium, like calcium, is also important in the water relations of a plant. Magnesium is also involved in energy transfer reactions within plants, thus magnesium is essential for healthy and continued respiration in plants. Deficiency is noticeable by interveinal chlorosis (only the veins remain green) starting in lower leaves and moving upward with persisting deficiency. The picture at right is an excellent example of interveinal chlorosis in a crabapple tree.

Iron functions as an electron transferring element in plants and is therefore heavily involved in photosynthesis. Iron is also involved in enzymatic activity as a co-factor. Deficiency is observed as yellowing of leaves starting at the periphery and moving inward with continuing deficiency. Extreme deficiency results in bleached leaves.

Zinc is also involved in many enzymatic activities but its precise function with proteins is still poorly understood. Zinc deficiencies have several varied characteristics: shortened stem segments; bushy clustering; narrow, thickened leaves; malformed fruit; malformed leaves where one part of the leaf grows while other parts do not. These symptoms occur at the top of the plant and work their way downward.

Manganese has been found to be a part of enzyme activation and some photosynthetic reactions. Like iron, manganese can also function as an electron transferring element. A manganese deficiency creates interveinal chlorosis in upper leaves.

Boron is primarily associated with strengthening of plant cell walls. Boron deficiency is marked by twisted leaves, cracked and thickened stems, and lumpy or uneven fruit; all these symptoms occur in the upper parts of plants first.

Chlorine is involved in osmotic relations within plants. A plant deficient in chlorine will wilt and have chlorotic leaves starting at the periphery.

Molybdenum is important in a few nitrogen manipulating reactions, particularly with nitrogen-fixing plants. Molybdenum deficiency mirrors symptoms of iron deficiency.

Nickel has also been found to help with nitrogen fixation. Some plant scientists still debate over whether nickel should be considered an essential nutrient to plants or not.

Making sure that your plants have an adequate supply of these nutrients will significantly contribute to your garden’s health. Just like you and I, plants will much more easily withstand the trials of their environment when they are well nourished. When nutrient deficiency symptoms start to appear in a plant that usually means the plant has been undernourished for some time. For this reason, it is always a good idea to regularly work compost into your soil, or to fertilize regularly, to ensure that your plants are always getting an adequate supply of the nutrients they need.

Ultra-Low Maintenance Food-Producing Garden

There are lots of options for perennial food crops; here’s what I wrote back in response to her question:

“Here are some cold-hardy perennial crops that I would recommend:

Tree crops: apples, cherries, apricots, peaches/nectarines, plums, pears, walnuts, butternuts, chestnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and persimmon.

Vine/bush crops: red raspberries, blackberries, black raspberries, blueberries, gooseberries, currants, highbush cranberries, serviceberries, elderberries, and grapes.

Herbaceous perennial crops: asparagus and rhubarb.

All of these crops should have varieties hardy to zone 4 or colder. They’re all perennials so there’s no year to year planting, and most will live for several years if not decades or more before requiring re-plant. The nut fruits are particularly beneficial because they provide excellent nutrition and, unlike most soft fruits, they can be stored and eaten all winter long.

If you’re going for low maintenance then definitely get dwarf or semi-dwarf varieties for all the fruit trees: dwarf fruit trees are so much easier to maintain, they have superior fruit quality, they start producing food much sooner than standard size fruit trees, and they have much more consistent crop yields from year to year.

The only difficulty I see with growing cold hardy vegetables is that you mentioned is that your garden would be left to grow wild. In this case, the vegetables, and other low-growing herbaceous perennial crops, would have to compete with tall weeds. The vegetable crops may put up a good fight with the weeds the same year you plant them but subsequent years of weed pressure would take its toll. This is particularly true for self-sowing: most weed seeds are genetically programmed to sprout and grow much quicker than domestic seeds thus allowing weeds to quickly over take and crowd out any self-sown vegetable seeds.

The fruit trees and bush fruits, on the other hand, are naturally much taller than the weeds. As woody plants, there obviously is no die-back in the winter and regrow in the spring as is the case with herbaceous perennials, so the trees and bushes are already way above their weed competition from the very get-go every season.

Asparagus and rhubarb are both herbaceous perennials and they are both pretty strong so they old probably be able to hold their own against weeds: asparagus can get tall and it has very deep roots; rhubarb can also get really tall and it has massive broad leaves that could push back against weeds. Strawberries are a delightful herbaceous perennial but I didn’t include them in my list because they are low-growing. If you’re truly going to let your acreage grow wild without any kind of weed control then taller weeds will gradually overgrow and shade out the strawberries. If you can’t be without strawberries but are set on letting everything grow wild then use a weed barrier with lots of mulch for the strawberry patch; this will keep the weeds down for a while.”


Hoverfly vs. Wasp

There are around 6,000 species of hoverflies, according to my reference books, and over 100,000 species of wasps. The most immediately notable difference between wasps and hoverflies is the antenna. Most wasps have antennae like bull-horns that begin more on the sides of the head and protrude outwards. Hoverflies’ antennae usually begin more directly in the front of the head, and are much smaller and shorter.

There are three other features that can allow you to immediately distinguish between a wasp and hoverfly. First, the abdomen of a hoverfly is often less round, having a somewhat flat appearance. Wasps have much rounder abdomens, and also have a ‘wasp waist’ the narrowing between the thorax and abdomen. The third distinguishing feature are the spots – wasps often have pairs of spots along the back of their abdomen and hoverflies do not.

There are other differences that are not immediately apparent, but may help you distinguish between a wasp and a hoverfly.

1) Most wasps have two sets of wings, hoverflies have only one set (in picture 7, below, you can see the wasp has one larger, more dominant set of wings, and one smaller, thinner set of wings – at orange arrow).

2) In the hoverfly wing there is often a ‘vena spuria’, meaning a marking that looks like a vein, but is not. In picture 1, if you look closely, you can see it. The ‘vein’ ends, just before the edge of the wing, and is not connected to anything else, so it is not a true vein.

3) In picture 4, you see a close-up of a wasp’s head. In the center are the ocelli, or the three simple eyes of the wasp, formed in a triangle, as well as the two compound eyes on the side of the face.

Hoverflies and wasps do similar things – they’re both useful in natural biocontrol. Aphids and other plant-eating insects can destroy crops and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage every year. Adult hoverflies feed off of only nectar or pollen, but the maggots (babies) of hoverflies feed off of a variety of things. Some eat decaying plant or animal matter which makes them useful in breaking down that matter into nutrients that plants can use. Some are insectivores, eating things like aphids or other plant-eating insects which make them useful as biocontrols. Adult hoverflies lay their eggs next to sources of food that will become food for the maggots, such as in the middle of an aphid colony.

Hoverflies can neither sting nor bite. They do not have stingers, and their mouths are formed more for mopping up substances than for biting. They can cause the disease Myiasis in sheep and (very rarely) humans. It’s caused by the maggots feeding off of feces or open wound areas, generally only where there are poor sanitary practices is this disease ever an issue. It’s common practice to remove a sheep’s tail early in their life, to help prevent this disease as well as others.

One type of hoverfly, the Narcissus bulb fly, is not beneficial in a garden. It lays its eggs on the stems of bulb plants (such as amaryllis, hyacinth, lilies, tulips, etc.) as the flowers die back in the late spring. The Narcissus bulb fly, though it’s a type of hoverfly, differs from other hoverflies because instead of eating aphids, the maggots prefer the pollen and nectar of certain bulb flowers. After hatching, the maggots of the Narcissus bulb fly will eat away at the bulb, causing damage and death to your flowers. If your bulbs do not grow in the spring, dig some up and cut them in half. If it is hollowed out to some extent inside, and/or you find a dirty, cream-colored plump maggot inside, your bulbs are infected with Narcissus bulb fly. Since it is not of much value to you in the garden, not being a predatory insect, the best thing you can do is to get rid of it.

Wasp larvae, like most of the hoverflies, also prey upon insect pests. I don’t know of any pest that doesn’t have at least one type of wasp as its predator. Adult wasps generally feed only on nectar, same as the hoverfly.

The typical wasp is viewed as large and aggressive, though many species of wasps are so small you probably have never noticed them – as small as 1/100th of an inch. Some wasps, especially yellowjackets or paper wasps (wasps that construct papery nests of chewed up wood) can be aggressive. But most wasps are not. (The picture to the left shows paper wasps constructing a nest – if you look closely you can also see an egg inside each compartment.)

The problem encountered with wasps is that they do like sweet things, which makes them attracted to picnics or ripened fruit, wherever they have access to anything soft and sweet. They will eat softer fruits, such as plums, peaches, etc. where they can break through the skin of the fruit, as well as apples or other hard-skinned fruits if there is already an opening created (likely by a bird or other animal).

If you’d like to attract hoverflies to your gardens, try planting a type of alyssum, static, yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace, or any of the flowering umbelliferae family (anise, dill, fennel, etc.).

The video below is one that I put together for kids. It’s a collage of video clips of pollinators (butterflies, bees, and hoverflies). There are a couple of particularly good clips of hoverflies in it.

Centipede vs. Millipede

Millipedes do not have 1000 legs, though one species (of the approximately 10,000 species in more than 100 families) has up to 750 legs. Crazy. And *shiver*. Not something that particularly enthralls me.

Why do we , as gardeners, need to know the difference? Because they both have different functions in the garden. Each has their good qualities, as well as some less-desirable habits.

Centipedes are carnivores while millipedes are herbivores. This means that centipedes will attack and eat insects in your garden. Which is awesome. But centipedes are also more likely to make their way indoors… and that’s not so awesome. Being carniverous, they have to have something to prey upon. That means that if you make sure your home is clean and tidy so no other insects are dwelling indoors, they’ll have nothing to eat and they’ll retreat back outdoors. Make sure there are no damp or dank areas in your home, particularly in basements or closets, and also take care to remove any leaf piles, grass clippings, or other rotting organic matter that may exist on or around your home (in your rain gutters, on your roof, around the foundation of your home, etc.) and the centipede problem should sort itself out.

Centipedes can bite, though it doesn’t often happen. Their bite is said to be painful, and can cause swelling, numbness, and redness or other discoloration. Just keep your home clean, tidy, and dry, and centipedes will want to stay outside.

Millipedes eat all sorts of stuff, particularly old, decaying detritus, which is an excellent help for a garden. Piles of leaves, rotting wood, rotting fruits and vegetables, etc. are very attractive to them. If they multiply and become numerous, however, they’ll begin nibbling at your plants and any fruits (eg. strawberries) that may be touching the ground.

So if you find centipedes in your garden it’s generally best to leave them be. If you find millipedes in your garden, keep an eye on their population levels. If they start becoming too numerous, or you start noticing damage to plants or fruit at ground-level, especially seedlings, you may be facing a millipede infestation and you’ll need to find a way to decrease their population (no pesticides – that will only make the problem worse!).

Then remove all rotting detritus including leaves, fine mulch, undecomposed compost, rotting fruits or vegetables, etc. to discourage them from remaining in your garden. This will decrease their habitat, and will very likely decrease their numbers naturally. Avoid using pesticides. It will harm beneficial insects as well as harmful ones. Remember that it takes longer for predatory populations to respond to the increased populations of their prey. But things will balance out sooner or later. Pesticide use is rarely, if ever, justified for controlling millipede infestations.

It’s always best to try and attract beneficial insects that will naturally deplete the populations of the harmful insects than to use chemicals to try and get rid of the harmful insects. Chemicals can end up hurting beneficial insects too, so it’s best to use methods that will help nature balance itself out.

Natural Ant Deterrent

  1. Using plants from the mint family
  2. Using cornmeal
  3. Using a Borax/Sugar mixture

The mint family (or scientifically, the Lamiaceae family) actually varies quite a lot (around 900 species), and includes herbaceous perennials and annuals, some shrubs, and some that are considered weeds. Some of the common kitchen herbs such as basil, rosemary, oregano, and thyme are part of the mint family. The strong-smelling foliage of some plants in the mint family, especially Salvia, Common Sage, and Mint tend to deter ants. It’s even suggested that the strong smells confuse ants and send their sensories off-track.

To get rid of ants, you could use mint oils from a store, dilute them down some and spray it around your garden. Or you can grow plants from the mint family around your garden (in pots), which is one way to deter ants, and you can also use the leaves to make your own ‘bug spray’.

These plants are quite easy to grow, almost too easy. They can become weedy if not properly managed (so plant them in pots), but that also means that they can grow from cuttings quite easily. The plants themselves may also naturally discourage herbivores from consuming your garden because the leaves and stems are generally covered with tiny hair-like projections called trichomes which decrease the loss of water, and also prevent the plants from being palatable to grazing animals.

Salvia, sage, and mint are quite easy to recognize because of their square stems, hairy stems and leaves, and aromatic foliage. If you take a pinch of the leaf, rub it between your fingers and give it a smell, you’ll know at once whether or not you have a plant from Lamiaceae family. Plants from other families may have square stems or fuzzy leaves, but if you have all three of these identifying features, it’s highly likely it’s from the mint family.

Another problem with ants is that several ant species will ‘farm’ or care for aphids. Aphids can feed on the leaves, and then they produce a sticky sweet liquid that the ants can eat. And of course there’s always the danger of kids getting into ant piles. Ants aren’t welcome at all on my property.

Cornmeal: Apparently ants can’t digest cornmeal, so if you set some cornmeal out, they’ll take it back to the ant nest, eat it, and eventually the ant nest will die out. It’s a solution that takes more time. A quicker solution is using borax.

Borax is poisonous to ants. If you mix it with something sweet (sugar) they’ll eat it and it’ll kill them. To make a sweet borax solution us:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 cups water
  • 3 Tbsp. borax
Mix it together, then put it in a pop can or something else with a small opening, put it where the ants will get to it. It would be a good idea to weigh it down so the family dog can’t knock it over and lick up the sweet stuff. Or cover it with a dome of chicken wire so nothing will get to it but the ants. Take care in using this option! You don’t want your kids or animals finding it.

Note: Even though some plants from the Lamiaceae family are used in foods as aromatic oils and herbs, we always recommend that our readers be extremely careful before eating or tasting anything unfamiliar. We do not recommend trying plants yourself that have not been positively identified by a botanist, and labeled as safe.

Keep cut flowers alive longer

Buying someone flowers is always a delightful gift, but usually ends up being shorter-lived than we’d like. There are some things you can do to prolong the life of cut flowers.

The first thing to do is to cut the bottom off of the stems to make fresh openings in the flower’s vasculature because the original wound site will callous and seal off over time, causing the flowers to dry out more quickly. But here’s the key: you need to cut the stems under water. If you cut the stems in the open air the freshly exposed veins will initially take up air, creating an air embolism. This air embolism interferes with the flower’s ability to transfer water through its veins.

Also, if you make an angled cut, you’ll open up more of the stem to pull in as much water as possible

Second, put the freshly cut flowers in a container full of water that is slightly acidic. Acids prevent callous formation. This way the wound site of the cut flowers will not callous over and water will be free to flow up the stems to the flowers. You can make your vase water acidic by adding vinegar or lemon juice. Less than a tenth of your water volume should be the acid: a 10 ounce (29.6 milliliter) glass, for example, should have 9 ounces of water and less than 1 ounce of vinegar or lemon juice. For regions with hard water (usually arid/desert climate areas), you may need to use more acid. Just be careful not to use too much… er on the side of caution and add more if you think it needs it.

This is especially important if you have a flower arrangement with daisies in it, or any member of the asteraceae family. Flowers from this family tend to exude a gluey substance that will gum up the stems of the other flowers. Lemon juice helps to prevent this from happening.

Third, put a little sugar in the water. Just like you and me, plants need carbohydrates. Since the flowers are cut they can’t make their own food as well as they normally would, so a little sugar helps keep them fed. You don’t need very much; a few of pinches of sugar to a 10 ounce glass.

Fourth, you can add a biocide. This may seem odd but we need to control any bacteria or fungi that may try to feed on the flowers or the sugar we added to the water for the flowers. Our goal here is to add just enough biocide to kill germs but not enough to harm our flowers; it’s kind of a balancing act. A good household biocide would be bleach or rubbing alcohol. You may have to experiment with this one; If your flower water starts to become murky (a sign of growing bacteria or fungi) add more biocide. A good start is a few drops of biocide to a 10-ounce glass.

The bouquet at the left was a gift to my wife. Using these techniques, about 2/3 of the flowers still looked quite nice at 3 weeks.

Tree Rings, Roots, and Turf

When dealing with turf in a circumference around trees, using a cement ring probably is not the best idea. I personally think they can look very nice initially, but it’s later that the problem arises. Cement borders around planter beds work fine because the plants are generally very small and not able to exert much force either in their top growth or their roots.

Trees, on the other hand, especially slow-growing, hard-wood trees can exert quite a bit of force, especially with the growth of their roots. I’ve seen trees that were planted too close to houses such that the roots work their way into tiny nooks and crannies, eventually causing a huge crack in the foundation. Cement rings or borders are much less solid, so they are easily pushed aside and move by growing tree roots. So you may have a very nice border at first (see picture at left) but the roots of the tree will soon push it around and make it look very untidy (see picture below).

I’ve seen people try to create borders by putting down a thick layer of mulch (whether coarse or fine), but the grass will typically grow up through the mulch in time. Turf is very good at competing with other plants and it will encroach on other plants if given the chance. The aggressive nature of turf is normally very desirable – a nice thick lawn is very attractive. But in places we don’t want it, it can be bothersome to deal with. Once grass has grown through the mulch it is a very tedious process to remove it. For a thorough job, the mulch would have to be moved, the grass cut back, and the mulch replaced.

Another way to manage this problem is to rake out the remaining mulch and spray the encroaching grass with vinegar. Once the grass has died you can buzz it down with a weed whip and then throw the mulch back on around your tree. Ideally, you should weed frequently enough such that you wouldn’t need to go through this process, but in the case that you’ve let your lawn get away from you the process I’ve described above works well and saves your back from digging up sod. If you wanted to make it even more simple you could simply spray the grass with Round-up that is coming up through your mulch and then just throw some more mulch on top once the grass has died.

The picture to the right is an example of a tree ring that was cut out around a peach tree but was never mulched and is full of weeds. You can leave the ring around the tree bare, without mulch; that would make it easy to spray it with vinegar or another natural herbicide to kill any weeds or grass that grow there. Vinegar won’t hurt the tree as long as it doesn’t touch the leaves. You could also plant flowers around the tree and make it a flower bed.

One fun note of interest I want to make has to do with the picture below. You’ll notice that there is a very distinct line around these trees. This actually is not because the turf has been cut away. These trees are a type of pine which exudes a chemical toxin into the soil that prevents other plants from growing around it, allowing the roots of the pine tree to have more nutrients and space for itself. The scientific term for this phenomenon is called allelopathy.

Annuals vs. Perennials: A Perspective in Flower Gardening

Perennials require less work because you only need to plant them once. Annuals on the other hand have to be replanted every year but they tend to produce more flowers and bloom for longer periods of time than do perennials. If you’re going for less maintenance, perennials are the better choice. If you’re going for looks, annuals are the better choice

Some annuals may come back on their own the following year from seeds from a previous plant; and some perennials may not be compatible with your zone and so will die in the winter and need to be replanted each year. The overall definition of a perennial is a plant that regrows from a root stock that has lain dormant in the ground during the winter; and an annual is a plant that will die at the end of about a year and subsequent plants are new plants grown from seeds.

The details:

Perennials are those herbaceous plants that live for more than one season whereas annuals only live for one season. Some might wonder why you would ever want to plant annuals since that would require replanting every year. The big thing that annuals have over perennials is that they tend to produce more flowers and have a much longer blooming period than perennials. Perennials usually bloom in the spring, summer, or even as late as the fall but rarely bloom for an entire season. There are so-called “ever-blooming” perennials that bloom for longer periods of time than is typical for perennials. But the best everblooming plants are the annuals.

The Black-eyed Susan pictured to the right is an example of an ‘everblooming’ perennial: it doesn’t bloom in the spring very much at all but it will bloom for all of summer and for some of autumn if the weather is mild. A list of everblooming perennials is provided at the very bottom of this article for your quick reference.

The reason why annuals produce more flowers and have longer bloom times is because of their life spans only a single growing season. Since the lifespan of an annual is so short, it must try to produce as much offspring (seed) as possible in that growing season, thus increasing the odds that at least a few of their many seeds will germinate and pass on their genes to future generations. Producing lots of seeds requires lots and lots of flowers. In essence, annuals are trying to make the very most out of the short life they have to live. Since annuals only live for a single growing season, there is no ‘growing zone’ assigned to them. The growing zones are used only for perennial plants. The growing zone(s) assigned to each plant tells you in which zones that plant will survive the winter and be able to come back each year. Since annuals aren’t going to live for more than a single growing season, from the last frost to the first frost, there’s no need to assign them to growing zones. So when you go to a nursery, if it has growing zones, it’s a perennial, and if it doesn’t, it’s an annual. To see which growing zone you’re in, check out the USDA growing zone map.

Petunia’s, like the one pictured to the left, are perhaps one of the most popular of the annuals: they produce lots and lots of flowers, bloom all season long, and come in an enormous array of colors.

Perennials have no such push to produce that many seeds (and thus flowers) because they know that they will be around from year to year, so naturally they spend more energy getting established in their environment and concentrate less on producing mass offspring. This prolific flowering nature in annuals is why the gardening professionals who take care of high-profile landscapes almost always use annual flowers instead of perennial flowers.

When planning your flower garden, another point to consider is permanence. Usually you plant perennials because you don’t want to replant every year which can be quite a task. If you’re not worried about constant bloom and you’d rather avoid replanting every year then perennials would suite you well. Just be sure to choose your colors and textures well since your flowerbed is not going to change from year to year. The flower bed pictured to the right is composed of a selection of Corral Bells which have a distinctive dark foliage with contrasting bright flowers raised up on spikes (though not seen in this picture). This is a good example of a more permanent perennial flower bed with season-long interest. A closer look at the Corral Bell foliage is pictured below.

With annuals you can look forward to a new look every year. And of course, you can always mix and match, changing it from year to year. The possibilities are nearly endless.

For those who want to have longer bloom times but would also prefer not replanting every year, I have provided a list of common “everblooming” perennials below. However, I also want to mention that there are now some varieties of everblooming roses, hydrangeas, gardenia (the Jubilation gardenia), daylilies and lilacs (the Bloomerang and Josee lilacs).

One of my wife’s favorite everblooming roses is the Pink Meidiland rose. It’s not one of those over-plush roses where you can’t see into the middle of the flower. It’s an old-fashioned looking rose, and it produces pink blooms quite consistently from spring all the way until the first frost, and the blooms turn into orangey-red rose hips that will stay on the bush most of the winter, adding color nearly year round

Now for other flowers… In the list below, the common name(s) are first and genus name is second in italics. Like many horticultural plants, flowers are also bred many different ways in order to select for certain characteristics. Herein lies an important point: when going to the nursery with a specific plant in mind, be sure to have its genus, species, and even cultivar name in order to guarantee that you’ll get exactly what you want. Common names are not always a sure thing.