The Putnam County Master Gardener Volunteers Present: Gardeners of Putnam County. This is the eleventh in a series appearing in the Sentinel every other week into October. Each article shares the experience of a different Putnam County gardener, focusing on a particular garden project or feature that brings the gardener joy.

When Master Gardener Volunteer Millie Ruen retired from teaching in Columbus, she left her home and garden there in 1997 and returned to her hometown, Ottoville, to build a house with a much larger garden on 3 acres east of town. She applied knowledge and skills acquired from studies in the arborist program and years of gardening to creating what in 2019 is virtually an arboretum with a variety of tree species plus many flower and vegetable beds, all surrounding her home and a one-third acre pond. Much could be said about Millie’s trees, but in August and September what commands attention is the brilliant reds and golds of her late summer annuals.

Millie attributes her love of bright-colored annuals to childhood memories of her mother’s zinnias. Although Millie says she was “never involved with perennials,’ she does have several large beds of Autumn Joy sedums and purple Obedient Plant for bees and butterflies in the neighborhood. The annuals that make up most of Millie’s flower beds are varieties she favors for their intense color: Prestige Scarlet celosia, golden Indian Summer rudbeckia, Bonanza marigolds, a blue salvia, tall sunflowers, dahlias (in a good year), cannas and, of course, old-fashioned zinnias.

Passersby on County Road 24 are treated at this time to a blaze of zinnias, marigolds and Indian Summer rudbeckia stretching in rows along the road in front of Millie’s house and bending to line the driveway. Beds behind the house feature large swaths of Prestige Scarlet celosia. Further on, bordering the far side of the pond above a low stone wall are long rows of marigolds, celosia and rudbeckia backed by scarlet cannas. This spring Millie also planted dahlias but they and some cannas drowned in the heavy rains. In their place she planted black oil sunflowers, which draw goldfinches and other birds. Some furry or feathered benefactor gifted Millie with the seed for the sunflower, a branching giant that can reach 15 feet and flowers heavily. The plants are now blooming profusely and feeding wildlife in large patches around the garden.

Until about 7 years ago, Millie’s “signature plant” was giant red cockscomb, a variety of celosia.. Dried, the flowers held their color and made striking floral arrangements. The only seed source was Burpee’s. Millie says, “I noticed over several years that I could not get the big red cockscombs from the seed I always bought, so I wrote to Burpee’s.” The company found that its seed stock had been contaminated, so the giant cockscomb was no more. However, Millie found a striking replacement in Prestige Scarlet celosia from Twilley Seeds. In bloom it looks like a little Christmas tree with red ornaments.

Millie starts most of her hundreds of annuals under grow lights in her basement. She broadcasts marigold seed in flats but gets better results with celosia and rudbeckia by starting the seeds in individual cells. When she transplants the seedlings outdoors, she waters the furrow beforehand to give them a good start.

Over the years Millie has softened her heavy clay soil by working in grass clippings and leaf mulch (at one time receiving all of Ottoville’s autumn leaves). She keeps the beds weed-free by weekly hoeing and tilling between the rows. Although she has a gas-powered tiller, she has found that an old-fashioned wood-framed push model—a family heirloom from the early 1900’s—works well for weeding and is eco-friendly besides. Another ongoing chore is deadheading the flowers to keep them producing..

Late this fall, Millie will till down the annuals and dig tubers for storage. Then she’ll plant oats in the beds, her choice for a cover crop because it will die during the winter (no springing back to life as a weed the next year).

Millie enjoys the beauty that results from her hard work and finds great satisfaction in sharing her love of gardening and her expertise. She sums up what her garden means to her with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “If eyes were made for seeing, then beauty is its own excuse for being.”

Master Gardeners are Ohio State University Extension-trained volunteers working with county Extension personnel to provide educational services to their communities. Master Gardener classes will run this fall, Oct. 1-Nov.19, on consecutive Tuesdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. To sign up, call the Putnam County Extension Office, 419-523-6294, or email to Deadline: Friday, Sept. 20.