Dirt on Gardening

Autumn is a great time of year to plant perennial flowers and shrubs and trees. Not all plant material is suitable to be planted in the fall, but if the plant is done blooming, it can be planted in the fall. Autumnal planting allows perennials the opportunity to develop roots for several weeks before winter leading to a larger, healthier plant the following growing season.

One of my favorite fall blooming shrubs is Caryopteris x clandonensis. It is currently covered in lavender blue flowers that stand out against the many greens of the plants that have already finished blooming in my perennial bed.

Commonly referred to as “bluebeard” or “blue mist,” Caryopteris x clandonensis is a deciduous shrub that in zones five and under will probably die back to the ground each winter. The die back is not really a problem, though; the shrub blooms on new growth each year and is only about two-feet tall and four feet wide.

C. x clandonensis grows in full sun to partial shade. It prefers loose, well-draining soils and will not grow in clay or wet soil. After this shrub is established, it will be drought tolerant.

The shrub is round in habit with fine stems. The lance shaped leaves are one and half to two inches in length, hairy and gray-green. The foliage doesn’t really have a fall color, but it is fragrant when rubbed.

The flowers are blue colored and bloom in late August to September. The flowers are not showy, just tiny flower clusters that are slightly fuzzy in appearance. The flowers grow on the stems between the top leaves of the plant. The flowers on most varieties of bluebeard will persist until frost.

Bluebeard is a valuable shrub because it adds flowers and color to the garden at a time when many perennials have completed their blooms. This shrub also works well because it’s not an extremely large shrub. It can be planted in front of tall perennial plants or shrubs. It can also be used as a low hedge. It will attract butterflies, too.

“Dark Knight” is a variety of bluebeard that blooms deep bluish-purple in late August until frost. “First Choice” is an early blooming variety that has dark blue buds that open to deep purplish blue flowers.

“Inoveris” is a little smaller than other varieties of bluebeard; it is about one and half to two and half feet tall and wide. It has deep blue flowers from July through September and dark green leaves.

Peppers always seem to hit their production stride in the late summer and early fall. I believe the peppers like the cooler days and nights. Not only do the pepper plants become loaded down with fruit, the fruit on the plants turn a brilliant red.

In New Mexico and other parts of the Southwest, peppers — particularly hot peppers — are dried into ristras. Chile ristras are long strands of peppers that are strung together to make brilliant decorations. The peppers in the ristra are also edible!

Ristras are made from peppers that are fully ripe and red. Green peppers, although ready to eat, are actually too immature to be dried. Immature peppers will wither and turn an odd orange color as they dry.

Any type of pepper can be used to make a ristra, but typically they are made with thick skinned pepper like Anaheim, Thai, Serrano or other pepper that has an elongated pod of at least six inches. It takes a lot of peppers — about four pounds or three-quarters of a bushel — a ball of sturdy twine or a roll of fishing line, a long piece of thick wire or sisal rope to make a full size ristra.

Clusters of three peppers must be held by the stems and the string wrapped around the stems three or four times. Then, wrap one loop of the string over the base of the stem and pull the string around the peppers tight. Continue this with three more peppers, tying the peppers about three inches above the last one.

After all of the peppers have been grouped together and tied up, the sisal rope or piece of wire should be hung from a door knob or long nail. Braid the chiles around the rope like a child’s hair is braided. The rope or wire acts as one strand and the stems of two peppers are the other strands. Push the peppers down and braid the next cluster. There should be no empty spaces in the ristra.

To preserve the ristra for a very long time, the dried pods can be sprayed with a clear lacquer. Remember, lacquered pods cannot be eaten. Pods that are not lacquered can be eaten and processed as needed.

Chiles will continue to dry and will turn dark red and become brittle as they age on the ristra. If the ristra is not placed in direct sunlight, the peppers may last for a year or more. Ristras should be hung in a well-ventilated area so the chiles do not rot or attract insects.

Ristras can be used for decoration with a ribbon, a piece of evergreen or other decor may be added to the top of the ristra. In the Southwest, a ristra is hung in a home to represent luck. Ristra are also used as décor for the holidays in the Southwest in the place of holly or poinsettias.

Questions or comments related to gardening? Contact Joleen at missourigardener@hotmail.com

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