Regulars and Shorts

In the Garden: The Entomologist and Etymologist Converse

By Alice Toler

Ponds in the desert. ALSO: Know your tomato types—determinate and indeterminate; the virtues of Umbellifers.
—by Alice Toler

It may not seem logical that an upland desert like the Wasatch Front should naturally sustain much in the way of wetland ecology, but before the land was developed the network of streams and rivers making their way from the mountains to the Great Salt Lake dotted the landscape with wildlife-sustaining sloughs, swamps, and beaver ponds. The increasing loss of this habitat has impinged upon the local wild­life for decades now, but you can do your small part to welcome wetland-loving plants and animals back into your garden by creating and maintaining a small pond.

Not only are garden ponds a tranquil and relaxing garden feature, but you can also encourage beneficial predatory insects such as dragon­flies. Dragonfly larvae are aquatic and will eat pretty much anything they can get their mandibles around, from mosquito larvae and other invertebrates to small tadpoles and fish fry. Adult dragonflies eat adult mosquitoes, flies, ants and wasps. Birds of all types are encouraged by water features, and honeybees also need water, especially in the heat of summer. Other native bees, which are also beneficial pollinators, use mud to cap their brood chambers.

Trent Toler (related), a local wetland ecologist, discussed the features of a garden pond from the viewpoint of creating a thriving wetland microenvironment: “Ideally, you would design it with a gently sloping edge on at least one side to provide a couple of feet of transition zone between the pond and your garden. You would plant this zone with rushes and wetland seed mixes, and the vegetation here would provide habitat for beneficial insects and amphibians such as leopard frogs and native toads. In the middle of the city it’s tougher to attract these amphibians, but given enough time you would be surprised what shows up. These transition zones are a really critical area for a lot of species, and we have lost a lot of them as the city has been developed.

“Birds in particular have suffered from the draining of wetlands along the Wasatch front. A lot of the streams that come down from the mountains are now flowing through pipes, so there are a lot fewer water sources for birds in the summer. Butterflies also need water in the summer, and at a big mud puddle in the heat of summer you’ll usually see all sorts of insects coming down for the water.

“Even if you have a pond without a transition zone, it’s better than a lawn. Anything’s better than a lawn! Any chemical-free pond will provide water for all sorts of animals, and if you have a tree over parts of the pond that will reduce the evaporation. The water will evaporate a little in the summer and may require topping up, but grass lawns and trees are also incredibly thirsty and transpire a lot of groundwater during the hottest months, so they are not really any more virtuous in terms of saving water.”

So, if you want a pond, go ahead and have a pond, safe in the knowledge that you are doing our ecosystem a favor. If you are planning to stock your pond with game fish (catfish, bluegill, etc), Utah Division of Wildlife Resources requires that you acquire a Certificate of Regis­tra­tion from them (available as a downloadable form) so that they can keep track of possible invasive species which could decimate the native fish in our rivers if they got loose. A fishless pond or one with ornamental fish only (such as koi) does not require a Certificate of Registration.

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Know your tomato types: determinate and indeterminate

Otherwise known as “bush” and “vining” tomatoes, these are the two main distinctions of growth habit in the tomato world. It is very important to know which kind of tomato you are growing, because they fruit differently and require different husbandry techniques.

Determinate “bush” tomatoes stop growing when they reach a certain height. They flower and set fruit all at once, and then die after fruiting. Most will grow to about four feet tall, while one of the smallest dwarf varieties, the Micro-Tina, tops out at about eight inches. These tomatoes do not require much trellising or caging, and should not be pruned or have their suckers removed as this will reduce the crop. They do well in containers. Roma tomatoes are determinate tomatoes, as are Alaska Heirlooms and Bush Beefsteaks.

Indeterminate or “vining” tomatoes will keep growing until the first frost, up to 20′ tall or taller if you treat them properly. They produce tomatoes all season, and are great for providing a continuous harvest for salads in the summer. You’ll need to provide a trellis or a cage support for indeterminate tomatoes to keep the fruit from resting on the ground and being attacked by slugs and other nasties. Most heirloom varieties are indeterminate.

Pruning the sucker shoots that sprout from the axils between the leaves and the main stem of a vining tomato will prevent the plant from growing into an impenetrable tangle, and will help prevent disease. It also directs more of the plant’s energy into producing fruit rather than more vegetative growth.


The virtues of Umbellifers!

Seasoning, medicine, companions, sometimes food—fennel and dill belong in every garden

Dill and fennel (Anethum graveolens and Foeniculum vulgare), two herbs that are often confused, are both members of the carrot or parsley family, the Umbellifers. Both plants produce large yellow compound flowers and have hollow stems and fractally divided hairlike leaves, but the agricultural and culinary uses of each are quite different.

Dill leaves tend to be more delicate than fennel leaves, and the seeds produced are flatter and thinner. A taste test is quite reliable—fennel has an anise or licorice taste, while dill tastes like pickles.

Roast fennel seeds to release their aromatic potential, and use dill in a sauce with salmon for an amazing flavor pairing. Dill is the classic pickling herb; plant it with cucumbers and garlic to jump-start your own homegrown, homemade pickles later in the season.

Some varieties of fennel, like Florence fennel, produce a large “bulb” (really a thickened stem), which can be harvested and sliced to use either raw in salads or cooked in stir fries, casseroles and stuffing.

Both dill and fennel seed are used in cooking and in traditional herbal medicine. The Umbellifers in general are estrogen-mimicks, and a now extinct species called silphium was actually used as birth control in ancient Greece and Rome. Fennel has been used to treat nausea, and both dill and fennel have been used in traditional “gripe water” used to treat colic in babies.

Dill and wild fennel both grow easily under benign neglect, but if you plant them too close to one another they will “argue” and attempt to cross-pollinate, so if you want both, plant them far apart.

Both dill and fennel make good companions to other plants, attracting ladybugs, parasitic wasps, and predatory flies who will prey upon insect pests on nearby plants. Butterfly larvae, aka caterpillars, love both dill and fennel, and you can plant them in your vegetable garden as “sacrificial” plants that will keep the varmints preferentially off your lettuces or other vulnerable crops.

Other members of this family include angelica, anise, arracacha, asafoetida, caraway, carrot, celery, chervil, cicely, coriander (the mature form of cilantro), cumin, hemlock, lovage, Queen Anne’s lace, parsley, parsnip and sea holly.

This article was originally published on April 26, 2013.