Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


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Garden tours

Booyong Kim’s radial garden grows food in and out of the marked beds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Summer tours show wide variety of garden interests

By Barb Gorges

            Within the space of a week in mid-July, I went on seven garden tours—no, nothing like my week in Vancouver, British Columbia, with Road Scholar. Just Wyoming gardens.

            The first was Piney Island Native Plants at Sheridan College, owned by Alisha Bretzman. The greenhouse full of exuberant plants uses an evaporative wall and was cooler than the 102 degrees outside. The plant list on Alisha’s website is pretty much my wish list and she is willing to ship.

            The next day tromping around in the flower-filled Bighorns was another form of garden tour. Then Mark and I met up with our old friends Michelle and Bill to walk around Kendrick Arboretum adjacent to Trail End, the house Governor/Senator Kendrick finished building in 1913. He planted a specimen of each of as many Wyoming native trees as he could. In 2013, the area became a designated arboretum, a garden of trees, and more have been planted since.

            We visited friends Dusty and Jacelyn on their family’s ranch in the Black Hills and they gave us a tour of scenic spots. The ponderosa pine forest, my favorite, is very open and garden-like.

            Outside Douglas, my friend Jean took me to see her pollinator garden. Some of it comes from the free seed packets given out by the Converse County Conservation District. It’s a different mix from our conservation district. She also lamented how difficult it was to grow fruit trees, even though she is 1,200 feet lower in elevation than us. Those deer are so sneaky.

            Back home, Laramie County Master Gardeners met at a member’s garden to enjoy the results of her hard work. Jutta Arkan’s perennial garden beds are even more full and colorful than last year. Bees were busy and a hummingbird stopped by, even though her garden is an island on the prairie.

            Earlier in the day, Carol Creswell gave me a tour of her garden. She lives about 10 blocks from me. She and her husband have lived in the same house for 54 years. However, the house is not the same now—it has grown, filling the lot nearly to the mandatory setback from the property boundaries. Every remaining square inch is landscaped with timbers, rocks, pavers, shrubs, trees and flowers. There’s no lawn, but I think I spotted an ornamental grass or two. There’s a vignette around every corner. And so many corners to explore. The best is seen from the covered patio, but I like the view from the front sidewalk too.

            Carol is never satisfied. There’s always some improvement she can imagine. The week I visited it was the reconstruction of the waterfall so that it won’t leak. Next is installing drip irrigation. She’s been hand watering everything this dry summer. And then there’s the two-story atrium where Carol’s houseplants can stretch out in indoor sunshine.

            Booyong Kim’s house also has a two-story atrium. It’s where her friends send their plants when they outgrow ordinary house spaces.

            If you frequent the winter farmers market at the depot or the one on Tuesday afternoons in the summer outside the east end of the mall, you’ve seen her selling kimchee, potstickers and other delicious food. In the fall she will be teaching Korean cooking classes on Saturdays through Laramie County Community College’s non-credit Life Enrichment classes listed in their Outreach and Workforce Development catalog.

            Booyong’s description of her garden philosophy is intriguing, and months ago she agreed to my visiting this summer.

            First, her garden is shaped by a gently curved retaining wall on one side which is echoed in reverse on the other side, forming the tapered shape of an eye. Where the iris would be there are eight pie-shaped beds radiating, delineated by boards (her husband tackled the weird angles), with pathways between them. The very center is like the pupil, a round bed marked by bricks.

            The whites of the eye are rather free-form, filled with various flowers, some volunteers. The radiating beds, however, are under more intense cultivation: vegetables and herbs. Booyong’s mother, visiting from Korea this summer, is hard at work, but comes over to greet me. She is the reason the vegetables are identified with hand-painted signs in both English and Korean.

             Some of Booyong’s treasured plants grow in the walkways between the beds. The pigweed tidy gardeners would pull out or try to avoid by using weed-barrier cloth, are actually edible, with high nutrition values.

            While Booyong is still trying to decide what is special enough to plant in the very center, the pupil, she went ahead this year with an experiment: plowing a patch of prairie next to the house to grow row crops. Friends Rusty Brinkman and Vally Gollogly helped her plant two long rows of garlic that she was about to harvest. She uses it a lot in her dishes. Her other vegetables looked good, however, she said, the carrots were a bust.

            It’s been a tough year so far for our landscape and garden plants. But the growing season isn’t over yet. 

               


Transplant jam

Yellow monkey flower towers over other native plants waiting to be planted in the Gorges yard. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 16, 2022, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Transplanting calculations plague local gardener

By Barb Gorges

            Every summer I get myself in the same jam.

I transplant new plants and then leave them at the mercy of our pet sitter, Becky. She’s a good sport and good gardener and when we leave again later in the summer she will get to take home any of our ripe tomatoes.

            This time she’s sitting the cats and seedlings from my winter sowing as well as $100 of young plants from the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, Colorado. They’ve been propagating native plants from seed and demonstrating their use in suburban gardens for some time now, but it was during the pandemic when they adopted a summer-long, online plant sale.  

All HPEC’s plants—all straight natives, no hybrids—are offered for sale at www.suburbitat.org, with photo and description (size, bloom color and season, water and light needs). Place an order and it should be ready for pickup in three days.

            A group of us coordinated our ordering and drove down together. Director Jim Tolstrup gave us a summary of HPEC’s origins. Some 20 years ago, when 3,000-acre Centerra was on the drawing table, the development set-back from the two reservoirs became HPEC’s 76 acres. Small fees based on square footage of residential and commercial buildings became HPEC’s endowment.

In 2018, Centerra became the first Wildlife Habitat Community in Colorado certified by the National Wildlife Federation.

            HPEC is open free to the public daily, dawn to dusk. It features hiking trails, community garden plots, native plant showcase and an ethnobotanic exhibit, the Medicine Wheel Garden.

            When I got home, my dilemma was whether I should transplant my new plants four days before my vacation or leave them in their little pots. I decided on planting. Some plants were potbound and would have needed frequent watering, more often than if they were new transplants.

            But first I had to make room.

Out back I dug out some turf for the western virgin’s bower vine and removed volunteer Sweet William to make room for yellow monkey flower. Out front, I removed part of a large swath of cornflower, or perennial bachelor buttons, and gave much of it away, with the warning that it is not native, fills space easily, and is popular with bees. In its place I’m trying more monkey flower, western spiderwort, blue lobelia, and right on the edge of the bed because it’s so small, fernleaf fleabane.

            My gardening is mostly about trying new plants. I wonder how these straight natives of prairie and mountain will do in my shady, tree root-filled yard. By buying at least three of each, I can try them either in different spots or together to measure their odds of survival. I find out what they look like in winter, early spring, mid-summer and fall, and which insects like them.

HPEC’s plants are in 2 and 3/8ths inch pots, but 2 inches taller and less tapered for more root development than the standard pot. And faster establishment than plants in a larger pot.

            I tried transplanting gallon-sized, blooming, purple coneflowers into bare spots in the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens’ Habitat Hero garden one July and no matter how often I drove over there and threw water on them, some folded up shop within a month and the rest didn’t come back the next year.  I don’t think I used my current bare root planting technique—gently knocking (or washing) off most of the potting soil before planting. Mulching after planting is important, too.

            I’ve also tried setting out seedlings and year-old plants in spring there, but someone needs to keep an eye on them every day, like I do at home. This year, I made a deal with Isaiah, the exterior horticulturist at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. He could have my excess winter sown seedlings if he would keep an eye on my year-old transplants. So far, his success rate is similar to mine at home.

Rain

            Rain clouds keep dodging Cheyenne. By June 19 we were 3 inches behind, compared to the average year by that date. That’s a lot when the total annual average is only 12-15 inches. It’s hard to make it up with irrigation. One upside: less rain, less hail.

            In the summer of 1980, I was hired by the Bureau of Land Management office in Miles City, in southeastern Montana, to do plant surveys. They were cancelled because it was so dry that year. Nothing greened up, thus no plants to survey. We aren’t that bad off yet.

            But be moderate with your watering—just in case next winter’s snow doesn’t refill the reservoirs and recharge the wells.


Rock for lawn

Beth Miller’s front yard is a rocky oasis for hardy plants and mental respite. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published June 18, 2022, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Rock “lawn” blooms in Cheyenne neighborhood

By Barb Gorges

            I noticed one of my neighbors replaced her lawn with a rock garden a few years ago and recently she gave me a tour.

            Coincidentally, I knew the previous owner of the house, artist Elizabeth Nelson, then in her 80s, who had a conventional lawn and landscaping. The current owner is Beth Miller, whom I knew before she moved in.

            Beth started the transformation in 2010 in the front corner, planting a juniper shrub trimmed in the pom-pom style. Think of bonsai but with green balls at the ends of bare branches. Beth put in rocks to mark the border between the lawn and the mulch around the shrub.

            Then she decided to rock the whole front half of the yard. Initially, she was able to find “moss rock” with its interesting crusts of cryptogamic plants in town at Riverbend Nursery, then later expanded her rock purchases to Colorado.

Note: You must get permission to collect rocks on private land and you must check regulations for public land.

            Beth decided to rock the rest of the front yard, leaving a gravel path to wander across. When two enormous blue spruces were taken down in the backyard in 2017, more rock garden was created, along with a graveled play yard for the dogs.

Beth Miller’s backyard garden is built with stacked rocks. It’s a busy bird sanctuary. Photo by Barb Gorges.

            Small boulders and stacked rocks affect neighboring plants. Water runs off the rocks so plants get more water than they would normally. You can see this effect along highways where water running off the pavement makes the shoulders lusher than the nearby terrain.

            Rocks also absorb heat so perennial plants wake up earlier in the spring. But then there is more heat in the summer, so Beth has picked heat tolerant plants like yucca, agave, cactus, Mormon tea and other desert species as well as drought tolerant prairie perennials. Because of these species’ resilience, after she waters enough to establish new plants, she usually doesn’t need to irrigate at all.

            Like other gardeners, Beth enjoys the challenge of figuring out which plants to try where. The downside is that not every perennial plant makes it through the winter. This year Beth realized it was time to pull a couple yuccas growing too large too close to the sidewalk—those pointy leaves are dangerous. She’s hoping the remaining yucca will put up a 10-foot flower stalk like one of the others did last year. I made sure to walk the dog past Beth’s house when it was blooming.

            There are no boulders in the backyard—they don’t fit through the gate, but the stacked rocks create “Maggie’s Island,” named for the Corgi who enjoyed snoozing there in the sun. It is also the view from the dining room and kitchen windows.

            Beth has an artistic sense in the arrangement of rocks and plants, though she claims she’s more a crafts person than an artist. However, she does enjoy art and has been collecting work by a retired Colorado State University professor. He repurposes agricultural implements into benches including two Beth owns. He also made the fanciful snowmen from plow disks. The life-sized metal ravens come from an artist in Pennsylvania.

            Beth feels that the Mid-Century Modern architecture of our neighborhood’s homes is the perfect backdrop for her garden style. To set it off even more, she’s installed a corrugated steel fence at one side of the front yard. Something about it looks very organic when partnered with spikey plants.

            While Beth admitted that much of her gardening inspiration comes from Monty Don, the most famous gardener on British TV and easily found online, I’ve met other gardeners into either rocky gardening or spikey plants.

            Loree Bohl is the author of “Fearless Gardening: Be Bold, Break the Rules, Grow What You Love” and blogs at www.TheDangerGarden.com. Prickly plants are her favorites, too.

            Coloradoan Kenton Seth designed the crevice garden at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens and has a new book coauthored with Paul Spriggs coming out in August, “The Crevice Garden: How to make the perfect home for plants from rocky places.” His website is www.PaintbrushGardens.com.

            Starting a rock garden is a little more work and expense than most gardens. So Beth has the support of her family—as well as their muscles when they help with the heavy lifting.

            Her unique garden has been a place of respite for Beth, a place where she spends time in the morning before heading to work, sometimes even driving home at lunch for a few minutes more. And it’s a destination for all of us in the neighborhood to see what’s blooming next.


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Ruthless gardening

Overall, daffodils are hardier than the average tulip. They are more likely to resist hungry wildlife, snow and drought, and return every year. Daffodils come in a variety of shapes, sizes, bloom times and shades of yellow and orange. Photos by Barb Gorges.

May garden notes: tulip failure, ruthless gardening, bare root planting and mulching everything

Published May 7, 2022, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

            You know the ditty, “April showers bring May flowers.”

            There is truth to it—if you didn’t water your tulips during our dry April (or last summer), your tulip buds three or four weeks later may be small or not open at all. Quite a contrast from last year. The daffodils and small bulbs don’t seem to be affected as much, but the earliest ones were zapped by that cold snap. The best defense is a variety of bulbs slated to bloom at a variety of times March through June.

            My perennial flower beds are mulched every fall by falling tree leaves. The flowers’ stems keep them from blowing away. Underneath, it usually stays moist. In April I start removing layers to expose the early flowering crocus. I start clipping stems, chopping them in small pieces to add to the remaining mulch. But there are a couple areas that blow out and I can never keep mulch in place. This spring I noticed the bare areas have mysterious half-inch diameter holes in the ground. I think they might be ground-nesting bees overwintering. So bare ground isn’t such a bad thing.

            Neither is the broken top on the neighbor’s spruce tree, where the Swainson’s hawks have their nest again this year. Neither is the rotten section of another neighbor’s tree where the red-breasted nuthatches are thinking about nesting. Neither are the stringy dead leaves still in my garden that the robins are pulling for nesting material.  

            There is a time for ruthless gardening. I was reminded by Shane Smith, the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens’ founding director. He was featured in a webinar series last month hosted by the American Horticultural Society titled, “Conversations with Great American Gardeners.” I’d heard him say it before. Do you really want to spend hours hunting scale on a houseplant week after week? Instead, disinfect a cutting and toss the rest of it, which I did, or replace it with something new from the nursery. Isolate the new plant until you are sure it isn’t infected.

            I couldn’t resist the exotic tomatoes in the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog but at least I chose short season ones. So, our bathtub nursery has Berkeley Tie Dye Pink and Thorburn’s Terra-Cotta in addition to my husband Mark’s Anna Maria’s Heart. The extras will be available at the Laramie County Master Gardener plant sale, May 14, 9 a.m., at Archer.

            I’ve found homes for amaryllis I’ve started from seed. It takes as many as four or five years until they bloom. Friends are reporting back and some have hybrids of the two I have, a pink and white and a red. However, a lot of the newer varieties of amaryllis have been bred to be sterile, so no hybridizing fun with them. But they can bloom again. No need for dormancy if you don’t mind them blooming naturally sometime between January and April instead of Christmas.

            Bare root planting. It’s good for trees, shrubs, tomatoes, flowers, everything. When trees and shrubs are sold in pots or “balled and burlapped,” remove all the packing material, wire, twine and dirt. Spread the roots out in a shallow hole that is wider than it is deep. Don’t add anything but the dirt you dug out. You want those roots to spread beyond the hole instead of becoming dependent on potting soil and fertilizer, circling around and around and the tree being at risk of blowing over a few years later (search “plant a tree” at https://cheyennegardengossip.wordpress.com/).  

            Bare root also works for flowers and vegetables. But you may amend the soil with plenty of compost for vegetables—they are hungry. For perennial flowers, especially natives, match the kind of plant with the type of soil you have and leave it unamended.

            It is better to mulch than to hoe. Make sure the mulch, whether wood chip, straw or other plant material, is not up against the tree trunk or tomato stem, and not too deep—water needs to get through. But you want to shade out the weeds. Most weed seeds require light to germinate. That’s why disturbing the soil with a hoe gives you an unending chore. Try pulling tiny weeds, which won’t disturb the soil much, and cutting off the big ones at ground level frequently.

            Finally, my new growing season resolution is to garden in smaller increments of time. Maybe an hour a day removing excess leaves and chopping up last year’s stems instead of a marathon day and a week of sore back. Besides, in spring the yard—and the park and the prairie—are changing quickly and worth frequent walk-throughs.


Native Prairie Islands

Liatris, common name blazing star, will be included in the seed mix for the Native Prairie Islands program from the Laramie County Conservation District. Photo by Barb Gorges. 

Microsoft funds Native Prairie Islands program in Laramie County

Published April 23, 2022, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

             American humorist Erma Bombeck’s observation, and 1976 bestseller, “The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank,” foreshadowed a plan to improve pollinator habitat in Laramie County.

            Rex Lockman, wildlife and range specialist for the Laramie County Conservation District, identified the potential of new septic fields for a program he calls “Native Prairie Islands.”

            Septic systems are required for wastewater from homes and businesses outside the city’s sewer and wastewater treatment system. An underground tank collects all the wastewater (sinks, showers, toilets, washers, dishwashers, etc.) in a concrete vault underground. The solids settle to the bottom and have to be periodically removed.

            The water, however, flows out into a system of perforated pipes about three feet underground known as the leach field. The size of the field depends on the projected water use of the residents. Rex said a typical residential leach field is 3,000 to 4,000 square feet.

            Right now, there is a building boom on small acreage parcels in our county—and many leach fields with bare dirt. Rex wants to see what happens if the leach fields are seeded in native plants, to provide for our small wildlife: bees, butterflies, birds, etc.

            At the same time, Rex’s colleague, Jeff Geyer, LCCD water specialist, heard about grants available to communities where Microsoft has facilities—they have a “cloud” on the west side of Cheyenne and are building two more facilities on the east and south sides.

            These community grants are handled for Microsoft by a company called ChangeX. Although community groups can design their own, ChangeX has a website full of ready-to-use community-based projects to pick from such as community gardens, open orchards, Lego leagues and pop up museums. Jeff must have noticed the one called “Pollinator Partner.”

            Because of the way LCCD is set up financially, Rex and Jeff next needed to find a non-profit organization to partner with. Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society has been working with them on other projects. Chapter president Wanda Manley, who has had a long and close relationship with the district, helped with the seed list. Chapter secretary Lorie Chesnut, who is sometimes up to her ankles in LCCD wetlands projects, assisted with the grant writing.

            News that the grant request was successful came in March along with the first funds earmarked for a new seeder. It’s a little piece of farm equipment that can be pulled behind an ATV or garden tractor to seed raw areas like new septic fields and new construction.

            LCCD will be renting it out like they did the old one, $75 per day or $150 per weekend, late Friday afternoon through early Monday morning. The old seeder, after 10 years and many repairs, is being retired.

            The second installment of funds will be for the native wildflower and grass seed mixes. Wanda complained to me that liatris (common name gayfeather or blazing star) costs $300 per pound of seed. I’m trying to imagine collecting that much in the wild—around Cheyenne last year I only saw a few blooming on the prairie. Growing them for harvest can’t be much easier, trying to figure out when tiny seeds are ripe and catching them before they disperse themselves.

            This spring will be an experiment. There will be enough seed for a few people to seed their disturbed ground. A little irrigation will help seedlings get established and luckily septic fields and house construction sites are within reach of a hose. Rex said some new construction is in old wheat fields and those folks will need a lot more seed.

            Jeff is hard at work writing another grant to pay for additional native seed so that it can be offered to more landowners for free.

            These native prairie islands have several advantages. Once established, they won’t require irrigation—with the septic system sites a little more green and flowery than other seeded areas. Homeowners on 5 and 10-acre lots will otherwise find themselves competing for ground water with their neighbors, especially as our drought continues.

            Native wildflowers and grasses can shade out the weeds. While some weeds are interesting, the native plants are better at feeding native birds, bees and butterflies. Native plants, especially grasses, shelter native animals, including insects, and grassland birds which nest on the ground and need the cover.

            If anyone in this county knows a thing or two about seeding, it’s Rex and Jeff. I’m looking forward to the results of this great idea. And maybe, the island natives will take off across the oceans of prairie and renew their vigor.


Spring gardening starts indoors

A yogurt container stuffed with species tulip bulbs, Tulipa linifolia, forced to bloom early indoors, provides a welcome splash of winter color. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Spring gardening starts indoors: bulb forcing and vegetable seedlings

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Mar. 5, 2022.

By Barb Gorges

            March is the time of year to ignore garden news from balmier parts of the country, especially Facebook posts with greening landscapes with bright flowers and ripening vegetables. But there is plenty going on here—indoors.

Bulb forcing experiment

            The flowers I see on my windowsill late winter are usually phalaenopsis orchids and amaryllis.

            This year, I also have bulbs I’m forcing—the ones I couldn’t find time to plant last fall, threw in the fridge in early November and took out and potted in late January. After they bloom indoors, I will plant them outside, when the soil thaws.

            These weren’t bulbs typically recommended for forcing, like hyacinth. Now I see why. Iris reticulata, the rock garden iris, put up tall spikey, grassy leaves (that our cats chewed a bit before I put them out of reach), with the blooms hiding in the leaves. In the garden, the flower stems would be short and the leaves shorter. I blame the low-e glass in our windows for the missing wavelengths affecting growth.

            The species tulips, delicate little things from which typical tulips are descended, got leggy, too. But at least the flowers were above the leaves. They started blooming at the very end of February, adding a touch of hope to those below-zero days.

            Siberian squill also grew leggy—and then fell over, its little blue flowers never opening quite like they do in the patch I have in the backyard, which blooms in late April.

This is our seed starter from Lee Valley Tools. Pour water in the reservoir and wicking (hidden) delivers it to the open bottoms of the planting cells. That and the plastic dome keeps the soil moist. When seedlings emerge, we remove the dome. When the seedlings have one set of true leaves we transplant them in 2.5-inch plastic pots we’ve saved from nursery purchases. We may up pot one more time before plants are ready for the garden in late May. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Vegetables and other annuals

            March is time for planning your summer garden.

            Thinking about growing vegetables and annual flowers? If you don’t want to dig up lawn and or weeds, consider containers. A tomato plant will need at least a 5-gallon bucket with plentiful drainage holes. Fill it half with potting soil and half with compost. Squeeze in a few flowers in larger containers.

Raised beds can be built on top of existing lawn or weeds. To suppress aggressive weeds before filling it with weed-free garden dirt and compost, you might want to put down a layer of cardboard first.  But if it’s a shallow raised bed, sides less than 18 inches, the cardboard might cramp the vegetable roots.

            One advantage to container gardening is that you can change the location if you discover your tomato plant isn’t getting at least 6 hours of sun, is getting too hot mid-afternoon, is farther than you want to drag a hose, is in too much wind, or is too far from the house.

            Unless you have a hoop house (affordable substitute for a greenhouse), pick short season vegetable varieties suited to our short growing season. Seed packets will show “days to maturity” so look for vegetables that will give you edibles in under 90 days. The count starts when you transplant a seedling after the average last day of frost, May 25. The date of our average first frost is September 20. A 55-day tomato will give you fruit by the end of July or beginning of August.

            When figuring out when to start seeds indoors, count back from May 25 and allow about 6-8 weeks or whatever the seed package says.

            Some of the best tomatoes for our area will be available as transplants at the Laramie County Master Gardeners plant sale May 14 at the Event Center at Archer but wait to safely plant them.

            Whenever you “up pot” or transplant almost any plant—annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees—the latest advice is to gently remove as much old soil from the roots first so that the plant will establish faster in its new location.

            Forget starting plants in peat pots. You are supposed to be able to pop the whole pot and plant into the garden but here in Cheyenne, you will discover by fall few roots ever penetrated the peat barrier.

            Start thinking about how you will protect your veggies from hail. If you are growing intensively in a container or raised bed, you can knock together a hail guard. It looks like a card table that stands taller than the plants, but the playing surface is hardware cloth, a rough wire mesh.

            To be a successful vegetable grower, make a commitment to check your plants every day. Catching pest and disease problems early means you have time to get horticultural advice from the Laramie County Extension office or the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens.

            Every day, pick out the tiny weeds. You’ll hardly disturb the soil and all the hardworking microorganisms in it. Cut large annual weeds off at the soil surface instead of pulling them. A couple inches of mulch keeps most weeds from sprouting and keeps the soil moist longer.

            Gardening can contribute to mental health, but only if you spend time in the garden with your plants.

Iris reticulata, also known as rock garden iris, is another small spring-blooming bulb that can be forced to bloom indoors in winter. Plant the bulbs outside in early summer and they could rebloom next spring, if not the year after that. Photo by Barb Gorges.


Prairie plants adapt to town

Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, attracts bees. Photo by Barb Gorges.

“Prairie plants can be part of low-water town landscapes” was published Feb. 19, 2022, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

            The Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities is looking for examples of low-water yards. I can point to several in my neighborhood that received no irrigation last summer, but they aren’t pretty. Either they filled with thistles or they developed bare patches where the topsoil was blowing away and leaving grit behind.

            Sarah Bargsten, BOPU’s water conservation specialist, is looking for examples of low-water residential and commercial landscapes that are inspiring and informative and that would be identified on a map available on the BOPU website. If you think your landscape would be a good candidate for this project, send her an email at sbargsten@cheyennebopu.org.

            Low-water landscaping is one aspect of the series of annual Habitat Hero workshops put on in Cheyenne since 2015. Last month, Jeff Geyer, water specialist for the Laramie County Conservation District, took the audience through his experience converting his lawn from non-native bluegrass to native buffalograss.

            It struck him as expensive insanity to spend money on irrigating his large yard, anywhere from $400 to $600 per month during the growing season, plus fertilizer and herbicides, just to grow a “crop” of bluegrass that cost him and his wife even more time and money to mow just so they could pay the city compost facility to pick up the clippings.

            He experimented with establishing buffalograss, which is native to our naturally low-water prairie. It takes a lot less water to green up once established. It doesn’t need fertilizer. After a year or two of hand weeding, it will be thick enough to shade out any further weeds. It’s only 4 to 5 inches tall so you can get away without mowing and the seed heads look ornamental.

            However, one drawback is that it doesn’t grow well in shady yards. And its season of green is shorter than bluegrass, a small thing when you consider how water will become a costly commodity in the dry West.

A bee investigates the disk flowers of this composite flower, Purple Coneflower. Photo by Barb Gorges.

            Everyone’s favorite part of the Habitat Hero workshop is talking about the plants. The other prong of the Habitat Hero program is encouraging people to plant for pollinators—but plants that need less water than traditional flower gardens. Guess what? The plants native to the grassland surrounding Cheyenne are perfect. And popular.

            Showy prairie flowers like blanketflower (Gaillardia), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) and coneflower (Echinacea), have been very popular for years with conventional horticulturists wanting to develop cultivated varieties that are showier, taller, shorter, prettier and maybe even hardier.

            There’s a variety of purple coneflower that was introduced in 2012 called “Cheyenne Spirit.” Any given seed packet will give you a combination of white, pink, purple, orange and red flowers. It was developed by a plant breeder in Holland who apparently equates the name of our city and the tribe with this flower native to the Great Plains.

            Some coneflower cultivars however, get so showy that the daisy-like center disk flowers become more like the ray flowers, or petals, and they don’t produce pollen and nectar. Steer clear of those if you are trying to attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

            Also steer clear of stores where the clerks can’t tell you if the plants and seeds were grown without neonicotinoids. Neonics are a group of powerful systemic (internal)  insecticides. Any insect that chomps on leaf, stem or flower will die. Not good if you are encouraging caterpillars that feed baby birds or that you want to have become butterflies. Neonics also get into pollen and nectar and kill the bees and butterflies that way.

            So, if the clerk doesn’t know what you are talking about or can’t show you some documentation, go somewhere else. Or grow your own. It’s not too late for winter sowing—search for the topic at my website: https://cheyennegardengossip.wordpress.com.

            A terrific resource for learning about native plants for our area and finding sources for them is the new document by Jane and Robert Dorn, “The Cheyenne Plant Selector.” Find it and other resources at https://cheyenneaudubon.org/habitat-hero-resources.

            To remove bluegrass lawn to plant buffalograss or native flowers and other grasses, there are choices: smothering with sheets of cardboard, solarization by covering with sheets of clear plastic (cooking the existing vegetation), poisoning with an herbicide (get recommendations from the Conservation District) and what Mark does at our house, remove the turf with a shovel and compost it. Don’t till or the bluegrass will just pop up again.  

            Planting natives does not mean you have to give up all your favorite ornamentals and vegetables. Think of it as a new aspect of gardening to explore, one that benefits many more creatures and by extension, people.

This bee has collected a lot of pollen. Photo by Barb Gorges.


Medicinal herbs downtown

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is a common perennial native flower in Cheyenne. It’s easy to grow and the feathery leaves look good when it isn’t blooming. It’s also a well-known medicinal herb. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 22, 2022, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Medicinal herbs are backbone of downtown business owner’s dreams

By Barb Gorges

            Susan Allen dreams of having a farm, however the look of that dream has altered.

            Farming is in Susan’s blood. Her father, Bill Allen, was a fourth generation Colorado farmer when he became a co-owner of Riverbend Nursery and moved his family to Cheyenne when Susan was four years old.

            Later, in 1989, her father, and mother, Betty Sue, bought McIntyre’s, a garden center near where King Sooper’s is now. Growing up in these circumstances, Susan couldn’t help but become a plant person. By 2004 she had helped start the program of flower containers on downtown streets and planned and installed landscaping for places like the hospital courtyard.

            But 2004 was time for her parents to retire and they couldn’t afford to not sell the business and she couldn’t afford to buy it from them then.

            Along the way, Susan has picked up experience on organic farms in Colorado and served as president of the Garden Centers of Colorado. When she had her own farm there, she grew for her own farmstand. The photos she showed me were of thick rows of leafy vegetables, a tidy high tunnel, raised beds with wide, wood-chipped paths.

            But all that hard work was taking a toll on her mental and physical health, and she turned to a naturopath. That led her to enrolling in the intensive medicinal herb studies program at the Equinox Center of Herbal Studies in Ft. Collins, Colorado.

            Then, when her parents required more assistance, Susan returned to Cheyenne. She decided our city needed an apothecary, a place to buy medicinal herbs. Opening her new business, The Hawthorn Tree, 112 E. 17th Street, coincided with the beginning of the pandemic.

But the business has grown. To the medicinal herbs, Susan has added teas, spices, a classroom and meditative space in the loft, books (full disclosure, Susan sells my “Cheyenne Garden Gossip” book), baked refreshments and now, soup and sandwiches. The next step is to find a farm.

            Currently, Susan does not grow any of the herbs she sells. She estimates that 60 percent of those she offers could be easily grown in Cheyenne, including Wyoming natives—thus, Susan’s idea to find a farm. But it won’t look like her first farm.

When Susan first met her medicinal herb mentor, she was tempted to weed her apparently messy garden. But many medicinal plants are considered invasive weeds here, species from Europe, Asia and Africa and now Susan understands their value.

I asked her what her future farm will look like. Susan said part of it would be an enhanced field for foraging multiple species. (Always get permission to forage on land you don’t own. Avoid areas sprayed with herbicides and other chemicals.)

Susan shared a list of her top 10 herbs to grow here. I smiled because there is overlap with my top 10 native flower list to grow for pollinator species and to save water.

There is much debate about whether straight species, those that haven’t been altered by horticulturists, are better for birds, butterflies, bees, etc. Susan said in the medicinal herb world, it’s only about the straight species because those are the ones that have been studied.

Learning medicinal herbs is not a do-it-yourself project, especially learning to identify plants and then the parts that are useable.

I’m surprised at how unobservant people can be about bird and plant i.d. Misidentifying a bird can be embarrassing but misidentifying a plant can be lethal.

One good local example is comparing Allium geyeri, wild onion, with the similar-looking Zigadenus elegans, death camas—a plant with a warning built into its name. Even a common garden plant like rhubarb is toxic, except for the stems popular in summer desserts.

Then there’s learning how to prepare the herbs to maximize effectiveness.

Finally, there’s the study of how to use the herbs medicinally. Susan paraphrases ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, “All food is medicine.”

Herbalists have studied plant use for centuries. We often use culinary herbs and drink commercially prepared herbal teas, but it would be unwise to drink more than a cup a day without considering the medicinal effects and the interaction with your conventional medical treatments.

Here are Susan’s top 10 herbs for Cheyenne which you can start growing this spring (or which you may already have growing in your lawn). I find seeds for straight Wyoming native species in the online catalog for Prairie Moon Nursery.

Alfalfa

Calendula

Catnip

Dandelion

Goldenrod

Hawthorn (berry)

Lemon balm

Narrowleaf purple coneflower

Quackgrass

Yarrow

8th Annual Habitat Hero Workshop

Jan. 29, 2022, “How to Nurture the Prairie in Town and Country,” Laramie County Community College or virtual. https://cheyenneaudubon.org/2022-habit-hero-workshop.


Pass-along houseplant challenges

The Christmas cactus is not a desert cactus—it’s from high-humidity mountainous terrain in Brazil. In nature, it blooms in May, but in the Northern Hemisphere it blooms around Christmas. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Dec. 18, 2021, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Pass-a-long houseplants bring new challenges

By Barb Gorges

            A call went out recently: One of the long-time Master Gardeners and his wife were downsizing and moving closer to kids and there were houseplants needing new homes.

            My intention was only to stop by and say goodbye, but you know what happened. I came home with a mother-in-law’s tongue, a Christmas cactus and an orchid. I’ve never grown the first two before and this orchid has never bloomed. Three new challenges.

            Otherwise, I’m pretty good at growing philodendron, pothos, jade and spider plants. They tolerate a wide range of light, temperature and watering conditions. Phaelenopsis orchids have rebloomed for me reliably.

            When bringing home new plants, the first step is to check them for pests and diseases even more closely than you did before choosing them. Try to isolate them from your other plants, especially if you have pest problems already.

            The second step is to google the plant. I discovered mother-in-law’s tongue doesn’t mind dim light and the soil needs to dry out completely before watering. It’s so stiff-leaved, it will never wilt. It will take a while to see what the watering schedule will be. It depends on how well the gritty soil holds moisture, how dry the air in the house is, if the pot is full of water-sucking roots, and the rate at which the plant grows.

            If I religiously water all my plants only every Saturday morning, I will end up with only the plants that can survive that amount of watering.

Watering is the secret

            Most houseplants don’t need watering until the top inch of soil is dry.

            Then add water until it drips out the drainage hole. If you are not watering plants in a sink, don’t add more water than the saucer underneath can hold. If no water is coming out, wait a few minutes and add more water.

            Don’t leave water sitting in the saucer. Either dump it out or use a (dedicated to houseplants) turkey baster to suck it up.

Barb Gorges

            The Christmas cactus is gorgeous. It’s not a desert cactus and its soil should never dry out completely. It already has flower buds. I was told to prune it after it blooms to keep it bushy. And of course, plant people never throw away cuttings, we just pot them and pass them along to friends.

            Vegetative propagation of houseplants is one of the challenges gardeners enjoy. Often it is as simple as sticking the end of a leaf or branch in potting soil and not letting it dry out—or stay too wet. I’ve rooted tender twigs of dwarf aralia and Buddhist pine without using any rooting hormones, but it took several months.

            Getting a plant to bloom is the other challenge. A Christmas cactus demands a couple months of 12-14 hours of darkness a day to induce blooming. I leave my spring cactus (it’s similar but a different genus) in the guest room window over winter. It’s by a low-light window so it doesn’t get as many flowers as I would hope.

            Everyone thinks amaryllis, another Christmas staple, is either a one-shot bloomer and throws it away afterwards or that it needs to go dormant before it can bloom again. Neither is true. Just treat it like a houseplant. Water when necessary. Cut the flower stalk when it starts looking pale and mushy.

            The only reason people force amaryllis into dormancy is so they can time the resuscitation for blooming at Christmas. Without dormancy, they flower for several weeks each, sometime between January and April—the dreary months in which I appreciate their enormous flowers much more.

If an amaryllis flower gets pollinated (sometimes with our help), the stem will stay green and seed pods will form. When the pods turn brown and split, you’ll have wafery seeds. Float them on water for a few weeks and they will sprout a root and a leaf, and you can plant them. It takes two to four years before they are ready to flower.

            My phalaenopsis orchids start blooming late winter. I’ve followed the fertilizing instructions from Fantasy Orchids, where I bought them. They are very robust and have produced “keiki” or offspring. Separating and potting them up will be a learning experience. I’m not sure why I thought I needed to adopt another one—the orchid window is getting full. I guess it’s the challenge of fattening up this new one and getting it to bloom.

            Last week I counted 65 pots of 33 kinds of plants living by nearly every window of our house, including under the skylight and by the window in the attached garage where I winter containers of blooming geraniums. Only a handful of my plants require more than a 1-gallon-sized pot. Many are small enough to fit on the windowsill.

            I’ve had failures—plants that didn’t adapt to our home’s growing conditions or were too susceptible to disease. Otherwise, I like how houseplants provide greenery at our windows during the six months the view outside doesn’t have much chlorophyll showing.

            And three-quarters of my houseplants remind me of the friends who passed them along to me.


Book talk & signing Dec. 4, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens

Saturday, Dec. 4, 1 – 3 p.m., will be my next book talk and signing for “Cheyenne Garden Gossip: Locals Share Secrets for High Plains Gardening Success.” It will be at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, 710 S. Lions Park Drive. The talk starts at 1 p.m.

I’ll tell you how much fun it was to write this book, the many people who helped and the most important advice you need for gardening in Cheyenne. I’ll also have seasonal garden tips for you–and cookies.