Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


Buffalograss: less water, fertilizer and work

Brent Lathrop, buffalo grass

Brent Lathrop’s buffalograss lawn is the perfect low water, low fertilizer, low work alternative for the High Plains. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published March 22, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Rethinking your lawn? For less fertilizing, watering and mowing, try going native with buffalograss.”

By Barb Gorges

By the end of our long winter, our thoughts may turn to excuses to get outside, even working in the yard. But it doesn’t take very long before we remember the actual drudgery of lawn chores.

If you’d rather be fishing or biking or hiking or camping this summer instead of mowing, get a tip from Cheyenne resident Brent Lathrop: buffalograss.

Kentucky bluegrass is the default lawn in Cheyenne. However, I know half a dozen homeowners like Brent who have switched to a grass species native to our High Plains.

Last fall, I went to see Brent’s backyard, a swath of buffalograss. It was heading into dormancy, turning from green to the pale straw color of the winter prairie.

Because of the covenants in his neighborhood, his front lawn must be the conventional Kentucky bluegrass.

This is the fourth native lawn Brent has established, and the most difficult because of three droughty years at the beginning.

The backyard of his new house was raw dirt when Brent seeded it in 2006 with a mix of 90 percent buffalograss and 10 percent blue grama, another native grass. By 2011, the lawn was finally looking the way Brent wanted.

Choosing to go native is a natural choice for Brent. “It’s in my DNA because of what I do,” he said. He works for The Nature Conservancy as the program director for southeastern Wyoming. A low maintenance lawn, requiring less water, fertilizer and work, is a step towards more sustainable landscapes.

Once buffalograss is established, technically speaking, it doesn’t need irrigation, but Brent waters it a couple times in the spring to help it green up sooner, to cater to his neighbor’s lawn expectations.

Last year, Brent spent only $194 on lawn watering for the entire growing season, including back and front yards, while his neighbors reported spending more than that each month.

Buffalograss closeup

Because Brent used seed to establish his buffalograss lawn, seed heads develop. Buffalograss established by using plugs or sod is reproduced vegetatively with all female plants and no pollen is produced–a side benefit for people with allergies. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Only 3-4 inches tall, buffalograss could be left unmown, but once again, Brent considers his neighbors’ sensibilities and mowed six times last year, to keep it a little less ragged.

What he would really like to do is burn the grass. It evolved with fire and can get “decadent” without it, but figuring out how to do that in a residential neighborhood with yards bounded by plastic fences is problematic.

Buffalograss appreciates a little fertilizer. Brent fertilizes once a year, mid-June, at half the recommended amount. Not bagging his clippings when he mows also adds nutrients.

Weeds are not much of an issue. Brent digs any by hand. Besides that, in my research I discovered buffalograss is susceptible to some of the common weed killers.

He will need to deal with some Kentucky bluegrass invading from other yards. But he also encourages native wildflowers to grow, just as they would on the prairie.

One of Brent’s fringe benefits during the first years of his new lawn was horned larks hanging out—and nesting.

Now that the neighbors have all fenced in their backyards, the horned larks have moved on to the still open spaces under construction in the development. But other birds still visit—and more of them are seen on his grass, his jealous neighbors complain, than on their conventional lawns.

Pros and cons of buffalograss

Buffalograss is not a perfect substitute for Kentucky bluegrass.

Buffalograss greens up later than bluegrass and goes dormant in the fall earlier.

Buffalograss does not thrive in shade lasting more than half a day. But bluegrass will.

Buffalograss does not stand up to heavy, constant traffic because it spreads by stolons, connections from plant to plant growing above ground. Bluegrass spreads by rhizomes underground.

In its favor, buffalograss has excellent heat, drought and cold tolerance and few insect and disease problems compared to bluegrass. Though if given too much water and fertilizer, buffalograss will become prone to weeds.

Buffalograss, like some of the other native alternatives, can be a little more work to establish, compared to rolling out a carpet of bluegrass sod.

Buffalograss detail

No need to remove native wildflowers invading your buffalograss lawn–they are perfectly natural. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Pick the right cultivar

Buffalograss comes in several varieties that have been developed for different areas of the country. The newer cultivars grow more densely and greener. Brent is growing one of those new ones, “Cody,” developed in Nebraska. Avoid Texoka, which is more suited to growing conditions in Texas.

Seed is available at local garden centers, but you may have to shop online some place like Stock Seed Farms in Murdock, Nebraska, http://www.stockseed.com, to find exactly what you want, Brent said.

Buffalograss is also offered as plugs and sod. These options aren’t easy to find locally. One place Catherine Wissner, University of Wyoming Extension horticulturist, mentioned is Turf Master Sod in Fort Collins, Colorado, http://turfmastersod.com.

Buffalograss plugs or sod would be worth finding if you have allergies because they are all female plants, propagated vegetatively, so they don’t produce pollen. Look for these cultivars: Legacy and Prestige.

How to plant buffalograss

The 4900-square foot buffalograss lawn cost Brent less than $500 to install by seeding, the cheapest alternative.

The best time of year to start a buffalograss lawn is mid-April to early May, according to one source, or mid-May to mid-June. But it will actually depend on when we are clear of snow. Another possibility is mid-August to mid-September.

Replacing a bluegrass lawn with buffalograss, though, means removing the old lawn. Killing it with an herbicide is not the preferred method. It can be smothered with plastic or just dug up, stacking chunks upside down in your compost area where they will decay. You may opt for replacing a section of lawn each year.

Everything you know about preparing a site for bluegrass works for buffalograss. Get a soil test to see what fertilizer and organic matter might need to be incorporated before seeding.

Remove debris, but don’t go overboard on tilling the soil—it shouldn’t be “fluffy.”

Spraying for weeds before seeding is mentioned in the handbooks, but Brent doesn’t recommend it. Instead, when the weeds emerged, he knocked them down with the mower before they went to seed. The weeds provided a kind of cover crop while the grass got established. And, remember, buffalograss is susceptible to weed killers when it is green.

How much seed do you need? For a small area with seed broadcast using a hand-operated seeder, figure 3-5 pounds per 1,000 square feet. For larger areas where a tractor can pull a drill, figure 20-30 pounds per acre.

If broadcasting rather than drilling, take half of your seed and distribute it while traveling back and forth, and then distribute the other half while traveling back and forth at a right angle. Lightly rake seed in.

To get your seeds to germinate, you’ll need to water lightly and frequently. Once they are established, you can gradually reduce watering.

If you were lucky enough to find plugs or sod, you need to water often enough that they stay moist—not flooded—especially under the sod.

Advice

There is plenty of advice about growing buffalograss—it was first used for lawns in the 1930s.

One publication that can be requested or downloaded is by University of Wyoming Extension staff, “Low-Maintenance Grasses for Revegetating Disturbed Areas and Lawns,”

http://www.wyoextension.org/agpubs/pubs/B1070.pdf. Another is “Landscaping: Turf in Wyoming,” http://www.wyoextension.org/agpubs/pubs/B1129.pdf.

For detailed information about growing buffalograss, consult the Colorado Master Gardeners Garden Notes #565, “Buffalograss Lawns,” at the Colorado State University Extension website,

http://www.ext.colostate.edu/mg/Gardennotes/565.html.


Water gardens paint pretty picture

Water garden

Lila and Garry Howell’s water garden, and koi, thrive despite Cheyenne’s climate. Photo by Lila Howell.

Published Mar. 1, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Paint a pretty picture with a water garden.”

By Barb Gorges

A water garden sounds too exotic to be true for Cheyenne. But I saw one last summer full of water lilies and swimming koi.

Lila Howell and her husband, Garry, have had one for 15 years. It’s the centerpiece of a little, tree-filled glade next to their house, which is just a few miles beyond the eastern edge of Cheyenne.

Lila, a longtime master gardener and garden club member, likes a challenge. But a water garden is only as challenging as you make it.

Water lily

Water lily. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Location

Like any garden, you’ll want to have it where you can enjoy it, close to the house, even visible through a window. The farther any garden is from your door, the more likely it is to be neglected.

A water garden is essentially a pool. It requires access to a water source as well as electricity for a pumping and filtration system.

A semi-shady place like Lila’s is nice—it cuts down on evaporation, meaning she only tops off the pond every 10 days or so during summer heat. But with shade comes tree leaves falling in the water and they have to be removed, Lila said.

Also, Lila pointed out, don’t put the pond in the path of natural drainage, where rain and snow melt flow, because unwanted stuff will wash in.

Preparation

The pool for the Howell water garden is an irregular shape, about 13-by-18 feet, and a depth of 4 feet. If you don’t plan to have fish, it could be much shallower.

Because of the contours of their property, the Howells actually brought in dirt, but arranged it to leave the depression for the pond.

Whether you arrange dirt by shovel or backhoe, Garry recommends using a plate compactor to compact the dirt. And be sure there are no sharp objects sticking up anywhere.

To be sure nothing sharp punctures your pond liner, use carpet pad under it. Old padding is fine. Some people use sand.

Alternatives

Any container that can hold water can become a water garden, perhaps an old whiskey barrel that’s been waterproofed. With just the addition of an aerator and a water lily, you can dress up your deck.

Pond liner

It’s essential to seal the bottom and sides of the pond. Replacing water that seeps out would be expensive, especially if the pond is near your house and the seepage finds your basement. Concrete is not desirable because it cracks as it ages.

Lila said sometimes roofing material is used because it is waterproof, but she said it kills fish. She likes her koi. They are fun to watch and they eat any mosquito larvae.

She said she and Garry were able to order a custom-sized pond liner from www.pondliner.com, and 15 years later, it’s still working. The company also carries standard sizes. One that is 15 x 15 feet square runs about $150 today. The website, and others like it, carries just about everything you’ll need for a water garden or fish pond, including the fish.

Lila and Garry have edged their pond with flagstones which protect the edge of the liner. Also, by having the flat stones jut out a bit over the water, animals that might want to eat the koi are kept out.

The ledge doesn’t perturb the Howell’s dog, however, as it likes to soak in the pond on hot days. So they have built an underwater ledge to help it climb back out.

Dirt

There’s no access to dirt in the bottom of Howell’s lined pond. Instead, water plants grow in special perforated baskets full of our regular old heavy clay garden soil. Regular potting soil has a lot of light-weight materials that will float away.

Lila adds a layer of pea gravel to the top of each basket to keep the dirt in and the fish from nosing the dirt out.

Water lily

Water lily. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Plants

The first couple years, Lila brought the water lilies in each winter. But it was too much work.

Since she had chosen to grow hardy, rather than tropical, water lilies, she finally tried letting them over-winter in the pond and they have been fine. Just as the fish can stay low enough to avoid ice forming on the surface, the water lilies’ main growing points are protected too.

Lila also has frog bit, with tiny leaves and flowers, and Louisiana iris. But she didn’t want cattails because their roots would puncture the liner.

Water hyacinth is invasive in lakes and streams in other parts of the country and it is illegal to grow it those places, but not Wyoming. However, Lila found her water garden was too cold for it to thrive so she quit buying annual replacements.

Maintenance

In some ways, a water garden with fish is a cross between a swimming pool and an aquarium, except chlorine is bad for plants and fish.

Housed in the quaint miniature cottage Garry built at the side of their water garden is the filtration system. Water from the pond is pumped with a 1.5 horsepower pump past a filter and a UV light to kill microorganisms. In the winter, only the pump is running, bubbling the water to keep the koi supplied with oxygen.

Every winter there are a couple weeks when Lila plugs in the tank heater, the same thing ranchers use to keep livestock water tanks open. It helps the pump keep an opening in the ice for the fish.

Lila recommends vacuuming up the muck in the pond in the spring and keeping up with it during the growing season, maybe twice a month during the summer.

Skimming fallen leaves needs to be done, otherwise when they decompose they steal oxygen from the fish.

Algae blooms seem to run in cycles, starting with one in the spring. Garry can put on his waders and get in and clean things up, including dead plant parts that sink to the bottom.

Lila has found the more plants she has growing in the water garden, and the more of the water surface they cover, the less of an algae problem she has because the plants take up the excess nitrogen the algae needs.

You must also be careful about yard maintenance adjacent to your water garden, Lila said. Fertilizer and weed killer will kill your plants and fish.

Depending on the weather, the water lilies begin to sprout in April and begin blooming mid-May and on into October. They come in dark pink, light pink, white and yellow. Each flower blooms for three to four days, closing at night.

At the time of my visit last August, the day after a hailstorm, the big water lily leaves looked a bit tattered, as well as the flowers that had been blooming. But Lila said not to worry, the leaves quickly regenerate and the tattered ones sink away, leaving her and Garry once again with their very own Monet water lily painting.

Water lily

Water lily. Photo by Barb Gorges.


Planting gardener partnerships

The Taylors

Jackie and Scott Taylor let their pregnant goats clean up last year’s high tunnel garden and fertilize for next year’s crops. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 18, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “How to plant a partnership. How do gardening duos work out what to grow and who will weed and water?”

By Barb Gorges

Last year, I relinquished our small vegetable garden plot my husband, Mark, so he could experiment with all the new information he was learning as a Laramie County Master Gardener intern.

I even refrained from harvesting any cute cherry tomatoes and popping them in my mouth when I walked by.

Well, almost.

This year, I want to grow vegetables again. This has me thinking about how gardeners work as partners. How do they split decisions and the maintenance? Before I learned to grow a tomato three years ago, it was easy: Mark grew our vegetables and I grew flowers.

I’ve interviewed people from four partnerships to see how they work.

Sisters

Jennifer Wolfe and her sister, Gina John, own the house, now 100 years old, in which they grew up. Because its location is close to the Capitol, they decided to turn it into office rental space. Because the city requires a landscape design for commercial properties, their gardening decisions are based on those requirements.

Jennifer, with her master gardener training, said they decided to make providing habitat for wildlife their objective, rather than waste money on lawn watering. So she and Gina have converted the space to mostly perennial flowers, with many of the plants contributed from their home gardens. You may have seen it on the Master Gardener Garden Walk in 2013.

Because her sister is still working, Jennifer is the primary gardener. Gina comes sometimes comes in the evenings to help and seems to be in charge of adding garden art.

Employees of the tenant, a health services company, appreciate the effort, often strolling the garden and opening windows to let the garden sounds and fragrances in.

The Taylors

Jackie and Scott Taylor were in business together for 30 years before they became serious gardeners. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Business partners

A quick perusal of the Laramie County Master Gardeners directory shows there are 15 sets of people who share the same last name and address. Presumably they are couples in which both take a serious interest in gardening.

One of these couples, Scott and Jackie Taylor, went so far as to take the advanced master gardener training recently.

They are cultivating a serious amount of space–15,000 square feet–including two high tunnels and an orchard, plus raising livestock, west of town, near Gilchrist Elementary. You may have seen some of their harvest for sale at the Tuesday and winter farmers markets.

In business together in Laramie for 30 years previously, they have learned how to disagree, come to a decision, and still be friends.

“We start with seeds, look at plot space, and it’s invariably a big discussion and I want more than there is room for and Scott reins me in,” said Jackie.

When it comes to the chores, Scott said, “I do the fencing and digging and bed prepping. Jackie does the seedlings.”

This is a fairly typical division of labor—one person is more attuned to the details of nurturing delicate plants.

Scott is also in charge of watering, with the help of timers, “I’ve got things on a rotation in my own mind.”

But Jackie, after weeding, will report on potential moisture level problems. And while the vegetables are a joint venture, “He’s more interested in the fruit trees and I’m more interested in the flowers,” said Jackie.

They’ve been married 44 years, “going on 70,” one of them said.

Scott’s advice, “Learn to laugh. You have to resolve conflicts, like over row spacing. You have to be able to talk it out and get on.”

There is a benefit.

“It’s nice to enjoy the fruits of our labors together,” Jackie said.

Family style

Riley Elliot digs gardening.

At a young age he was using his toy truck to move dirt in his mother’s garden. Now he, at age 11, and his mom, Carolyn, are newly fledged master gardeners.

You might run into Riley at the Paul Smith Children’s Village where he volunteers. It was when he and his mom visited in 2011, shortly after moving to Cheyenne, that director Aaron Sommers began encouraging Riley’s interest in gardening.

Last year, at home, out on the prairie west of town, his dad Reagan helped Riley build raised beds out of old shipping pallets and fence the deer out.

Riley grows vegetables he promises to eat, such as peas.

“Last year, my first year gardening, I grew peanuts, popcorn and pumpkins,” he said. “Peas do real well and the popcorn did real well, and probably the peanuts (if the chickens hadn’t uprooted them while searching for grubs), but the sweet potatoes need more sand.”

He and Carolyn have big plans for this year, hoping to do better.

“We are just starting to do some flowers,” said Carolyn.

Since there wasn’t time to install the automatic watering system, Riley helped out with hauling hoses.

“We really didn’t have to weed that much,” he said, because raised beds aren’t very weedy.

While Riley believes in eating what he grows, he only wants to eat some of what’s in his mom’s vegetable patch. When the deer got her cabbage and Brussel sprouts, Carolyn said his reaction was, “I wish I could find Bambi and pat him on the head.”

 

Botanists

Jane Dorn spent years holding down the fort, garden-wise, while her husband, Robert, spent summers out in the field working as a professional botanist.

Not that he wasn’t interested in what was growing and helping with the gardening—he’d worked in his uncle’s greenhouse when he was growing up.

When Jane retired, the couple left Cheyenne and built a cozy house on acreage outside Lingle. Recently, they built a greenhouse over their vegetable patch. It has become Robert’s domain for experimenting with vegetable growing. He has begun to keep extensive records, the scientist in him unable to be suppressed.

Now, when planning this year’s garden, Jane and Robert discuss the veggies: what has done well, what seeds are left over, what new varieties in the seed catalogs sound like they might do well.

“We plant multiple varieties because some work better one year than another,” said Jane.

They also discuss Jane’s native plant prospects. “I’m trying to grow native wildflowers,” Jane said. Robert helped her build a rabbit-proof fence.

She and Robert are co-authors of “Growing Native Plants of the Rocky Mountain Area.” Jane will be speaking about growing natives at the Habitat Hero workshop March 28 sponsored by Laramie County Master Gardeners, Cheyenne Audubon and other organizations.

Discerning what the native plant catalogs are offering, whether they are new improved varieties, or just renamed originals, and whether they will grow at their homestead makes use of Jane and Robert’s lifetime of expertise.

While they have affinities for certain parts of the garden, Jane explained, “You don’t want to get yourself in a situation where one of you doesn’t know how to operate the rest.”

Both Jane and Robert weed, though with raised beds there is not much to do. While Robert has drawn up the watering schedule for the drip irrigation system, Jane can also run it. Jane seems to have a knack for harvesting beans, and Robert takes great joy in bringing greens in from the greenhouse every night for dinner–all winter long.

The Taylors

Scott and Jackie Taylor depend on two high tunnels to raise vegetables in southeastern Wyoming for local farmers markets. Photo by Barb Gorges.


Give your garden winter interest

Boy in backyard

I’m not sure what our son Bryan had in mind when he ventured forth with his toy shovel–digging to plant something, or digging to escape?

Published Dec. 21, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Give your garden winter interest.”

By Barb Gorges

“Winter interest” is a term you can Google. You’ll get sites wanting to sell you plants that flower in winter—in Zone 10, in Florida. Or maybe you’ll find Minnesota garden columnist Evelyn Hadden’s viewpoint that winter interest is anything that pokes up through the snow.

Cheyenne isn’t the tropics or the snow-covered north. Though we have at least seven months between the first hard frost of fall and the last in spring, we can be snow-free much of the time.

Winter interest is about the view from your window, rather than the summer experience of being in the garden. It’s about enjoying more subtle textures, such as different kinds of bark; and shapes. It’s about the sculptural qualities of branches. It’s about color, of which there is more than you might think.

Although our house was already 25 years old when we moved in, the winter view of the backyard was bleak: a flat lawn, clothesline poles, two big tree trunks, and all walled in by pink concrete block. Sending the kids out to play reminded me of sending them into a prison yard. It’s improved now with various plantings, but maybe it could be more interesting.

Spruce shrub

The spruce hedge at the entrance to the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens tapers towards the top so lower branches won’t be shaded and die. In the background is the columnar-shaped Woodward Juniper. Photo by Barb Gorges.

In early December, on what he calls a 50-50 day, 50 degree temperature and 50 mph wind, Shane Smith, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens director, and I discussed winter interest and took a tour of the gardens looking for it.

Conifers

The backbone of any Cheyenne garden is the evergreens, providing a backdrop and wind protection. At the entrance to the gardens’ greenhouse, a thick blue spruce hedge about 8 feet high blocks the view of the parking lot.

It started as a row of young, normal spruce trees planted 3 to 4 feet apart, but it’s pruned every year, forming an impenetrable wall. It’s important, Shane pointed out, that the hedge taper, becoming narrower towards the top. Otherwise, the lower branches are shaded, don’t get enough sun and die off.

Besides the typical Christmas-tree shapes, we saw a weeping variety of spruce, developed from trees that are naturally prostrate but can be trained to reach a certain height before cascading.

Junipers perform several functions. Low-growing varieties become ground covers, but Shane said to skip the really low kinds, only 6 inches tall, because they allow weeds to grow up through them.

Another, the Woodward juniper, developed at the old Cheyenne horticulture station, grows tall and narrow, providing a columnar shape that doesn’t take up much ground, and it’s a brighter green than some of the other, shrubbier junipers.

Rabbitbrush

Rabbitbrush is a native adapted to Wyoming’s dry climate. More moisture than regular rainfall will kill it.

One of our native shrubs can provide dried flowers. Rabbitbrush blooms yellow in the fall and the feathery,

pale-colored seed heads persist. The leaves are evergreen. Different varieties can range from a yellow green to a silvery color. You can also check out sagebrush, the epitome of Wyoming’s open spaces, which has silvery leaves year round, plus that quintessential Western smell when you brush against it.

However, both of these natives need to be planted where they won’t be irrigated. More moisture than our natural precipitation can actually kill them.

Deciduous trees and shrubs

It’s easy to think bare branches will be just black silhouettes. But with our abundant, sunny winter days, there is more to see, from gnarly cottonwood to smooth redtwig dogwood. Shane said to keep in mind that for dogwood and other shrubs with colorful bark, only the younger wood will show much color, so it is important to prune part back, close to ground level, every few years to encourage new growth.

Maybe you can choose trees and shrubs with fruit, red rosehips on rose bushes, orange berries on mountain ash, crab apples that cling after the leaves fall away—though how long they last will depend on how hungry the squirrels and birds are.

Karl Foerster grass

“Karl Foerster” is an ornamental type of reed grass. There are several varieties. This one grows 2 feet tall. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Other plants Shane recommended, some of which are growing at the gardens, are ephedra, with its weird bunches of long, match-stick-like twigs; mahonia, which reminds one of holly; mountain mahogany and various hawthorne trees.

Grasses

Ornamental grasses have become part of the professionally designed landscape, including the entrance to the Laramie County Library and many local businesses.

They dry to a nice tawny brown. Unlike other, stronger vegetation, they require only the lightest of breezes to accent the view with motion.

One kind Shane pointed out at the gardens is a variety of Karl Foerster grass growing in a 2-foot tall clump with feathery seed heads.

Another, blue oat grass, resembles a fountain of thin, bluish-green and silver strands which looks good as a lone specimen or as a herd of small, shaggy beasts. Shane said if you have a protected, south-facing exposure, there are other grasses you might try.

 

Blue oat grass

Blue oat grass has a fountain-like look. This specimen measures about 2 feet across. Photo by Barb Gorges.

If, at some point, the grasses are smashed by snow or it’s closing in on spring green-up, it’s time to cut back the tall grasses. Rather than clipping them, Shane simply grabs a bunch and saws through near the base with a small, folding pruning saw.

Perennials and annuals

Vegetable gardens are rather hopeless looking in winter. A good gardener cleans out all that stuff that turns slimy with the first frost. But maybe you left the sunflowers for the birds.

Some perennial herbs have winter color: silvery-looking sage (the cooking kind) and purple-y oregano. And some even stay green.

In the perennial flower bed there are lots of plants that don’t need to be cut back right away. Black-eyed susans, yarrow, and asters have interesting dry flower heads. In my garden, hollyhocks and mullein have big stalks that attract downy woodpeckers.

At the gardens, Shane and I found a clump of golden stalks with dried purple flowers, some kind of ornamental onion. And there was a sedum that had dried nicely.

But there will come a time when some of these dried points of interest break down and you will want to remove them.

Bulbs

Next fall, before heavy frost, get some of those early spring bulbs planted, even if it is just a handful here and there. Finding a crocus in March makes two more months of snow potential much easier to bear.

Ground cover

We still have bluegrass lawn at our house. Where the wind doesn’t blow off the occasional snowfall right away, it gets moisture and looks quite presentable. Native grasses look nice too.

Vinca, a vining ground cover, stays green, as do the leaves of some other low-growing perennials.

Use organic materials as mulch to cover bare spots around trees or in gardens. It’s good for the soil as it decomposes, and it can be interesting to look at, whether it is dried leaves or bark, natural or dyed color. Shane likes the look of pine needle mulch. He’s found if it’s ground up a bit, it doesn’t blow away.

Garden embellishments

Nothing says calendar page photo like snow gathering on a garden bench, wagon wheel or split rail fence. My favorite embellishment is a bird feeder or two, attracting bird color and movement and, even through window glass, cheerful bird sounds.

Junipers

Three varieties of juniper contrast with each other in color as well as growth habit: shrubby, ground cover and upright. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Resources

Go to the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens’ website, www.botanic.org, to the Gardening Tips section, where you will find lists of plants that grow well here.


Bonsai are not houseplants

Bonsai

Japanese white pine from the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Nov. 23, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle

A gardener discovers bonsai are not houseplants

By Barb Gorges

Everyone has heard of bonsai, trees growing in little pots—which is the actual definition of the Japanese word.

But there is much I didn’t know.

First, don’t pronounce bonsai like the war cry that sounds like “bombs-eye,” but rather, “bone-sigh.”

Second, most people recognize bonsai as a Japanese art form, but the Japanese brought it back from China more than 1,000 years ago.

And I was thinking winter was a good time to explore bonsai (say it with me, “bone-sigh”), as a specialized type of house plant, something to do indoors.

But I was partly wrong about that.

When I called Karl Kaszuba, a friend here in Cheyenne who said he first studied bonsai as a teenager, he explained that in the fall, bonsai trees are going dormant. Shaping methods, pruning and wiring, are used when the trees are actively growing.

Bonsai soil

Karl Kaszuba, Cheyenne, Wyoming, bonsai enthusiast, scoops up a handful of the gravelly soil he uses.  Pruning the tiny trees requires the special tools shown at his workbench. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Grow bonsai outdoors, mostly

In fact, the typical bonsai (say it once more, “bone-sigh”) is a temperate-climate woody species, either deciduous, like maple (or even a flowering or fruiting tree), or coniferous, like pine.

They naturally require downtime during the winter. The deciduous trees lose their leaves. Conifers stop growing. But if brought indoors with no cool temperatures reminding them to rest, they die a slow death.

Bonsai are traditionally outdoor plants year round. That works in Japan’s more salubrious climate. Here in Wyoming, we have a couple winter options, Karl said.

The trees can be heeled in, meaning that their roots, in those tiny pots, are protected with a pile of soil, or maybe they are really well mulched. A greenhouse would be handy or, what Karl has, an unheated garage with windows, as long as it stays above freezing.

For indoor bonsai, Karl works with tropical tree species, since the climate inside our homes is similar to what they require. For beginners, he suggests a narrow-leaf ficus. It is very forgiving. If you try a technique it doesn’t like, it may suddenly shed all its leaves, but then it will forgive you and grow new ones.

One of Karl’s larger bonsai specimens is going to spend the winter in a sunny little corner next to the house with its container completely buried in mulch. It also needs protection from wind which can desiccate or kill bonsai. If you were to glance at this pine, though, you’d think it was a weather-beaten foundation planting.

That’s another thing I learned about bonsai. It comes in different sizes. Some grow in containers the size of shallow soup bowls—no wonder people think they’d be perfect on the coffee table. The Japanese have a name for each size, right up to “Imperial,” about 5 feet high. They are the bonsai stationed at the entrance to the Imperial Palace.

Bonsai is also one of the few instances in horticulture in which deadwood may be prized. The traditional Japanese aesthetic is to form the “source material” to make it look like a mature tree at the least, or a craggy old tree at best. This explains why Karl was so pleased to point out some actual deadwood on his pine.

Sources of bonsai

Speaking of source material, which is the normal plant before it becomes a bonsai specimen, where does Karl find his? It could be a pine growing out in the forest that is already showing a twisted and rugged nature. He gets permission from private landowners or permits from public land managers before digging.

But there are several nurseries in northern Colorado that carry types of plants particularly prized for bonsai, as well as the specialized tools and potting mixes.

Potting mixes are another example of why a bonsai is not a houseplant. Forget the nice loamy black soil. While every bonsai practitioner swears by his own blend, most feature a lot of pea-sized gravel. Especially sharp-edged gravel, Karl said. It makes for a lot of small, fine roots—something you want for a plant trapped in a proportionately tiny pot.

With bonsai, what would have been a normal-sized woody plant has had its branches pruned to keep it small and to fit the bonsai artist’s vision. The roots get pruned too. In fact, fast growers may get their roots pruned once a year, Karl said.

Bonsai care and feeding

This limited amount of root mass means feeding and watering these trees cannot be a haphazard affair. Unlike normal potting soil with a lot of organic material, gravel can’t hold water or nutrients well.

Bonsai need to be watered frequently. Plants can require daily watering. An irrigation system works for some folks, but Karl wasn’t happy with his attempt.

Frequent fertilizer is essential, although standard houseplant fertilizers need to be watered down. Karl has added micronutrients to his regimen, treating his plants with them once a year. He’s also experimented with adding microorganisms. Pines especially seem to require a particular fungus to help them grow well.

Karl recommends two books by the late John Naka, “Bonsai Techniques I” and “Bonsai Techniques II.”

Shaping bonsai

Every gardener does a certain amount of pinching and pruning, but bonsai specialists are trying to create a picture, something that the viewer will be able to meditate on. Bonsai is meant to be seen only from the front, unlike houseplants in the window that we keep turning so they don’t get flat on one side.

Tree branches are wrapped in soft wire and bent to train them to grow in a desired form. You probably won’t see wires on trees on display or at competitions. And yes, there are many competitions, local to international.

Like other Japanese traditions, flower-arranging and tea come to mind, bonsai has a lot of aesthetic rules. They even have names for specific tree shapes to strive for. Besides trying to keep a tree alive in a small pot, there is this artistic angle. The more Karl talked about bonsai, the more I realized it is an intellectual pursuit, even a spiritual one for some.

When I took Tyler Mason’s bonsai workshop last year at the Paul Smith Children’s Village at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, I wasn’t looking for an intellectual challenge. I learned how to plant a jade plant cutting in a special bonsai pot, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to prune it. I’m so happy to see every leaf growing, I can’t bear to remove any until they die.

However, I do have an old jade plant that has had a tough life. It spent years in a 2-foot high, south-facing basement window. The branches grew up to the top of the window, then bent down and back up again. It has a very rugged, gnarly look. Maybe all it needs is the right bonsai pot.

More about bonsai

  1. Thalassa Cruso, known for her books on houseplants, had a public TV show in the 1960s. In one episode, she has a bonsai expert show her how to plant, prune and wire a small tree. Thalassa struggles with all that runs counter to her knowledge of houseplants, but her guest is extremely patient. See the video at http://vimeo.com/34299859.
  2. The Cheyenne Bonsai Society meets the second Saturday of the month at 9 a.m. at the Paul Smith Children’s Village at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, 616 S. Lions Park Dr. Everyone is welcome.
  3. Be inspired by going to the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens greenhouse to see the bonsai on display, created and donated by Pat Conrad.

xxx


Have a black thumb with houseplants?

Pothos

Pothos tolerates low light. As the vine lengthens, you can make cuttings and replant them in the same pot—just poke a hole in the soil with a pencil. Or if you lay the stem, still attached, on the soil surface, it will root. Or put stems in a jar of water where they can grow for years without soil. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Oct. 19, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

“Have a black thumb? With houseplants, you can cure it with dirt.”

By Barb Gorges

Do you have a black thumb when growing houseplants? The cure is as simple as having the right plant in the right place with the right amount of water.

Ironically, the best way to check the water needs of plants is by feeling the soil—and probably getting a little black dirt on your fingers.

Plants indoors provide several benefits besides accenting your décor. They produce oxygen and add humidity. Some, including the spider plant and pothos, remove toxins from the outgassing of building and furniture materials.

Also, scientists tell us gazing at their natural forms does something good for our psyches, especially over a long winter.

The right plant

Often, people complaining about their black thumbs are having a bad experience with a potted plant that came from a florist. It was in full bloom and now it’s dead.

The likelihood of a beginning indoor gardener finding success with a hothouse plant is about the same as for someone trying Mount Everest for their first hike.

Houseplants are often descendants of tropical plants brought back by Victorian-era explorers in a time when the wealthy could afford glass-walled conservatories. When glass became more affordable, houseplants proliferated.

But these plants come from many micro-climates around the world with varying amounts of humidity, rainfall, light and heat.

Your best bet is to start with the standards, plants that can tolerate a wide range of conditions. These tend to remain foliage-only plants in the climates provided by our homes and offices.

My three favorites, spider plant, jade plant and pothos, which looks like variegated philodendron, are also easy to propagate so you may be able to find a friend who will share cuttings or a starter plant.

With jade and pothos, planting a cut stem is as easy as poking a hole with a pencil into a small container of potting soil and inserting the stem. With the spider plant, a “baby” growing on the end of a long stem can be cut off (or left attached), laid on top of the soil and held in place with a paper clip bent in a u-shape. And then keep the soil moist—not wet—until they start showing new growth.

Spider plant

Spider plants prefer bright light, not direct sunlight, but can survive in shade. Most have a white stripe down the center of the leaf; some have a green stripe or a plain green leaf. Older plants produce stems with new plants, “spiders,” and little white flowers. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The right place

In nature, plants grow where they get what they need. To be a successful indoor gardener, you need to match the plant with the conditions at your house.

Many houseplants prefer sunny, south-facing windows. Others are fine with shorter periods of sunlight on the east or west sides of the house. Some plants prefer dimmer light on the north side, or being placed a distance from a window. Only fake plants survive very dim light. And for some varieties, bright overhead fluorescent office lights will be enough.

How do you tell how much light your plant will need? Read the label that came with it. Or find out what kind it is by asking a Laramie County Master Gardener, or look it up at the library or online.

Experiment with your plants. If they grow long and leggy, or older leaves fall off too soon, they might need more light.

Humidity can be important. I had an avocado I grew from the pit that did very well in a bathroom in which two teenagers showered every day. But then we got a new furnace with a stronger blower that dissipated the humidity better and the plant died. Short of growing humidity-loving plants in a terrarium, it helps to group plants together, so they humidify each other.

Garden soil—at least our garden soil around here—is a bad choice for indoor plants. General, all-purpose potting soil that can be found at any garden supply center will work for the majority of houseplants.

All pots need drainage holes and a saucer that allows you to see when water starts draining out. A pot too big will make your plant look scrawny, besides, many plants prefer cramped roots–it encourages some to bloom. My azalea has been in the same pot 20 years and blooms regularly.

Jade plant

Jade plants are succulents with thick, water-storing leaves. In full sun they grow bushy and may even flower, but even with less than ideal light, they look interesting. Always err on the side of less water rather than more. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Watering

Don’t kill your houseplant with kindness. Most types will drown, literally, if you keep the soil soaking wet. Roots need air and as soil dries, microscopic air pockets develop.

On the other hand, if you let the soil get too dry, especially some of the potting soils with a lot of peat moss, they can become hydrophobic and it’s hard to get them to absorb water again.

During the winter, my spider, jade and pothos plants can easily go a week between waterings. But other plants will dry out faster if they have soil that doesn’t hold water well. Same with plants in clay pots, small pots or located near the heating vents. This is where people with black thumbs must get their fingers dirty.

The general rule is that the top inch of soil should dry out before watering again. So a few days after watering, stick your finger in the dirt. You can also learn to evaluate the soil’s dryness by the color of the surface, or if you have small plants in light plastic pots, check how heavy they feel.

My watering method is to pour enough in to fill the pot nearly to the rim, but no more than the saucer below can hold. Then I wait, water other plants and come back in a couple minutes to see if any water is draining out. I repeat this until I see water in the saucer. If water more water is draining out than what would evaporate in an hour, be sure to dump it or suction it up with a turkey baster so the roots don’t rot.

Maintenance

A plant in a livable temperature, receiving the right amount of light and water, is not stressed and is resistant to pests and diseases.

Plants look greener if you trim away dead parts. If you occasionally wipe or wash dust off their leaves, they absorb more light and your plants will grow better. Don’t block pores with leaf polishes.

Directions for houseplant fertilizer may recommend frequent feedings, but be very cautious, especially in the fall as days get shorter and indoor plants grow more slowly.

Wait until early spring to start fertilizing, when plants are really growing again. Even then, don’t be too generous. My three recommendations, spider, jade and pothos, do well enough at my house with hardly any fertilization. Cheyenne tap water seems to be about all they need.

Spider plant shoots

“Spiders,” spider plant offshoots, root easily. Photo by Barb Gorges.


Get your turf ready for winter

Lawn

Laramie County Master Gardener Martha Mullikin enjoys her Cheyenne lawn in mid-September with her two dogs. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Sept. 21, 2014 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Get your turf ready for winter: Tips from a Cheyenne resident whose lawn is wedding-worthy

By Barb Gorges

Let’s talk about growing grass today—or what folks in the landscape business call turf—and what you need to do to prepare a conventional, Kentucky bluegrass lawn for winter.

I asked Martha Mullikin, a Laramie County Master Gardener, to describe her lawn maintenance schedule.

She has a large lawn, large for being located in the older part of town. It is where famous local architect William Dubois (1879-1953) once had a tennis court. It’s large enough to host large weddings and other parties—which Martha has.

Fertilize

Martha’s rule of thumb is to fertilize on the holidays, depending on weather: Easter, Memorial Day and the 4th of July. She uses fertilizer rated 10-10-10, the ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus to potassium. This is not a lot of fertilizer because, as she says, “the more you fertilize, the more you have to mow. All you’re doing is watering and mowing.”

And now that he’s retired, that work falls to her husband, David.

They use Ringer Lawn Restore more in the summer, she said, “because it puts (good) bacteria into the soil.”

It’s available locally. Without chemicals, it introduces microorganisms that break down organic materials in it to make nutrients available to plants.

“We don’t use the weed killer-fertilizer combinations because I compost grass clippings,” Martha said. Otherwise, if the clippings aren’t set aside for a year, the residual herbicide will kill flowers and vegetables in gardens treated with the compost.

After the final lawn mowing, she uses a “winterizer” fertilizer, one that is designed to be slow-release—you wouldn’t want a big hit of nitrogen to encourage the growth of tender little grass blades right before winter weather.

It is equally important to read the directions on the packaging and apply the right amount of fertilizer and make sure it doesn’t get washed into the street. Wasting fertilizer wastes your money and pollutes streams and groundwater—where someone—if not you—gets their drinking water.

In some patches of Martha’s lawn, she has white clover growing. Clover is a nitrogen fixer, acting like fertilizer, so if it were growing with your grass all over your lawn, you could reduce the amount of nitrogen you use.

Weeds

Martha usually digs dandelions and other weeds, seldom resorting to weed killer for persistent spots.

Every time the above-ground parts of a weed are removed, the weed’s ability to feed its roots through photosynthesis is lessened, eventually starving it, and hopefully killing it, just like cows do when they continually graze their favorite plants.

Dealing with weeds on an as-needed basis rather than broadcasting weed-killer over your whole lawn means you save money and might get a sweet surprise, such as little violets blooming in your turf.

Watering

Martha has a well for watering, but pumping it has a cost as does using our municipal water. So it makes sense to be as efficient as possible.

Using a sprinkler system like Martha’s means you can set it on a schedule. But that schedule needs adjusting based on how rainfall and summer heat affect how fast your lawn dries out. The length of time an individual zone runs depends on how hot and dry it is compared to the others.

What you want to do is soak the top 12 inches of your yard. This is where most of the tree and shrub roots are, and where the grass roots should be reaching. Lightly watering often will keep roots too close to the surface where they may dry out and die. Plus, wetting a lawn too often encourages diseases.

Catherine Wissner, University of Wyoming Extension horticulturist, suggests one last deep watering before the ground freezes to benefit turf as well as trees and shrubs.

Also plan to water your yard if we have any of those long, dry spells in winter when it is warm enough to set out a hose and sprinkler. But don’t forget to drain or blow out your sprinkler system before water in the pipes can freeze.

Remove leaves

Martha suggests using the lawn mower to pick up leaves with the grass catcher. “You have to get rid of those leaves or you will have snow mold,” she said.

Considering leaf mulch can be used to keep down weeds in the garden, you can see how detrimental it might be to a lawn. The snow mold, a fungus, breaks down the leaves—and your grass.

The nice part about using your lawn mower is that you will be mixing grass clippings with dead leaves—a desirable combination of green and brown materials for composting. Also, small bits of leaves decay, or compost, faster than whole leaves.

If you don’t have compost bins, use plastic leaf bags, leaving the tops open so moisture will be added by rain and snow. Or dig the chopped leaves into your annual flower or vegetable garden.

For protecting perennial flowers, I’ve found it’s better to use whole leaves that are curled and dried—but not cottonwood leaves that remain flat and form an impenetrable layer. After the killing frost, add a foot or so of the curly leaf mulch. In windy locations, keep it from blowing away by laying some wire fencing over or around it.

Mowing

With our long, snowless spells, the grass roots benefit from shading by the grass blades, just as in summer.

“David usually mows 3 inches high. The last mow is 3.5 – 4 inches (as high as the mower goes)—pretty high. You don’t want to shock it by cutting it very short,” Martha said.

Rather than a weekly affair throughout the growing season, mowing should be done as needed, so that no more than one-third of the height of the grass is removed at one time. Mowing is needed more frequently in spring to keep up with growth, less often by fall.

Aeration

Considering our lawns often get a lot of traffic, including walking back and forth to mow, the soil can get compacted, making it difficult for water and fertilizer to soak in. And all the healthy soil microorganisms need air too.           “I really do think aeration helps. We like to do it in the spring right before we fertilize. A lot of places recommend two times a year, but we never have,” Martha said.

So try renting one of those core aeration contraptions. Don’t worry about leaving the plugs on the soil surface if you do it in spring like Martha. They will soon break down.

If you have a thatch problem, core aeration is better than power raking.

The benefits of turf

Some people replace their lawns with rock and gravel, thinking it will cut back on maintenance.

However, dirt blows in on top, allowing weeds to grow, which require pulling or toxic weed killers. Then you have to sift out the dirt out every few years to keep it looking nice.

The advantage of a lawn is that all those growing grass plants add coolness and humidity to our homes’ hot, dry summer environments. And all vegetation, including the lawn, helps absorb sound.

Lawn maintenance can be a lot of work if you use too much fertilizer and water, making the lawn grow faster than necessary.

But there are types of turf, based on native grass species, which require far less maintenance and water. I plan to examine those options early in the spring. Let me know if you have any experience with them.

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