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Introducing Gaillardia, preserving herbs

The Blanket Flower or Gaillardia is a perennial which has many bright colors, is long blooming, and requires little care. The blanket flower was once a wild flower which has transitioned well to a garden setting. It is an old flower which has stood the test of time and remained popular because of its many desirable characteristics. The first is the bright red and yellow bicolor flowers which are striking and really add punch to a garden, but they also start blooming in early summer and, if deadheaded, will continue to bloom until freeze-up. They are also cold-hardy to zone 3, so they do well in central and most of northern Minnesota.

Gaillardia flowers thrive on neglect and prefer a poor but well-drained soil. They are also drought tolerant and once established will rot if they get too much water. However, the first year they are planted they may need extra water so they become established if it is a dry year. Perhaps it is their wild heritage, but blanket flowers do not do well with chemical fertilizers. This causes them to become tall and floppy and to grow more foliage than flowers. What they do like is an inch top dressing of compost in the fall after they have died back. This will meet their need for nutrients as well as help with soil drainage.

As with any good thing, man is always experimenting with plants to improve blossom size, color choice, length of blossom time, and to sell more to the consumer. There are about 30 different species of blanket flowers. Some are annuals and some are perennials. Hybrid perennial blanket flowers have been developed by crossing annuals with perennials to improve the colors and length of bloom time. A disadvantage of this is a shorter life span lasting only two to three years. However, there are many varieties from which to choose. Dwarf blanket flowers (growing 10 to 16 inches tall) stand out when planted in groups of three or as a border in the front of a garden. There are solid colored gaillardia flowers in yellow, orange and burgundy in the normal height range of two to three feet tall. There are also fancy blanket flowers which have shaggy or fluted petals. However, these are for cold-hardy zone 4 and above; they will probably have to be grown as an annual here.

Drying herbs

If you have an herb garden this summer and have been enjoying the their flavors, these herbs can be dried and used during the winter months.

Air drying of herbs is the easiest and least expensive way to dry fresh herbs. This slow drying process also doesn't deplete the herbs of their oils. This process works best with herbs that don't have a high moisture content, like bay leaves, dill, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, summer savory and thyme. Moist dense herbs like basil, chives, mint and tarragon preserve better in a dehydrator, or by freezing them. Use a microwave or oven to dry herbs only as a last resort. These actually cook the herbs and diminish the oil content and flavor.

Harvest herbs before flowering for best quality. Herb growth slows as the weather cools, so late summer is a good time to begin drying herbs. Cut in the mid-morning after the morning dew has dried from the leaves, but before the plant has wilted in the afternoon sun. Cut healthy branches from your herb plants and remove dry or diseased leaves. Shake gently to remove any insects. If necessary, rinse with cool water and pat dry with a paper towel. Wet herbs will mold and rot.

Bundle 4 to 6 branches together as a bunch and tie with string or a rubber band. The bundles will shrink as they dry and the rubber band will loosen, so check periodically that the bundles are not slipping. Make small bundles if you are trying to dry herbs with high water content.

Punch or cut several holes in a paper bag and label the herb. Place the herb bundle upside down in the bag, gather the ends of the bag around the bundle, and tie closed. The herbs should not be crowded in the bag. Hang the bag upside down in a warm, airy room. Check every two weeks to see how the drying is progressing until the herbs are dry and ready to store.

Dry store your dried herbs in airtight containers or zip-lock bags and label. Discard any dried herbs that show the slightest sign of mold. Herbs are best if used within a year. Use 1 teaspoon of crumbled dried leaves in place of a tablespoon of fresh herbs.

Kyle Schulz is a Wadena County Master Gardener from Sebeka, and the regular gardening columnist for the Wadena Pioneer Journal.