Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


Soil microbes better than rototilling

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Endomycorrhizal fungi spores are ready to grow into plant roots, carrying nutrients and moisture. Photo courtesy of Jeff Lowenfels.

Published May 7, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Soil microbes, no rototilling key to next generation of gardening”

By Barb Gorges

Twice in the space of a month this spring I heard rototilling renounced for the sake of keeping soil microbes healthy.

One speaker was Jeff Lowenfels, garden columnist and author from Alaska who spoke at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens/Laramie County Master Gardener spring lecture series. The other was Ron Godin, recently retired extension agronomist in western Colorado, speaking at the Wild West Gardening Conference in Cheyenne.

There are a billion microbes in a teaspoon of healthy soil. The interactions of the whole community of microbes is a giant web of who eats whom and who feeds whom.

Basically, decaying plant material feeds microbes and in turn, microbe “excrement” feeds plant roots.

Microbes include nematodes, bacteria, fungi and protozoa. There are some bad actors, but in general, everything balances and plants grow. For example, prairies and forests have self-sustaining soil microbial communities—no synthetic, chemical fertilizers or pesticides are required.

But when European farmers landed in the New World, they opened things up with the plow and have continued to plow ever since. Regular plowing (or hoeing or rototilling) disrupts the soil microbes. They can’t do their jobs. Farmers repaired damage somewhat with applications of manure and compost. But then came the 20th century’s inventive use of nerve gas left over from World War I as insecticide, and leftover nitrogen-based bomb-making materials from World War II became the perfect fertilizer.

Except that it wasn’t healthy for the microbes.

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Ectomycorrhizal fungi grow close to the surface of roots and grow webs around them carrying water and nutrients. Photo courtesy of Jeff Lowenfels.

Synthetic fertilizers starve the microbes in a way and pesticides kill off beneficial organisms, causing the need for a never-ending cycle of synthetic fertilizer and pesticide application. This was great if you owned stock in the large chemical companies, but bad when you understand the side effects including health issues animals and humans—especially farmers, because the chemicals get into drinking water and food.

 

Lowenfels happily dispensed advice on garden chemicals for years until someone sent him two electron microscope photos, one of a fungus that had trapped a root-eating nematode, and the other of a nematode happily chomping a tomato root unimpeded.

In the first photo, the plant was secreting a substance that attracted the fungus, which in turn attacked the nematode. In the second photo, the fungus was missing due to the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

After his conversion, Lowenfels wrote three books. He said the essential one is “Teaming with Microbes, The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web,” coauthored with Wayne Lewis. You’ll notice the play on words in the title–healthy soil is teeming with microbes, and you’ll be teaming with them.

Put away the rototiller

First, put away your rototiller. It’s still handy if you are turning your lawn into a pollinator garden, but otherwise, annual rototilling is detrimental to the soil microbe community. Godin said this advice translates to farming as well.

It will take time to undo the cultural tradition of breaking soil down into a fine, clump-less and smooth expanse of dirt. But there are two reasons for disturbing the soil as little as possible, even in a vegetable garden.

First, every time you dig into soil, you bring up weed seeds, most of which require light to germinate. You just made more work for yourself. Cut weeds off at the soil surface rather than digging them.

Second, microbes feeding your plants and fending off bad stuff can’t function if you break them up. Keeping them intact means less work for you, less fertilizer spreading, less watering since healthy soil holds water better. Pesticides are a last resort for serious problems. Re-inoculate your soil with microbes soon after.

In windy Cheyenne, there’s also a third benefit to not tilling your soil into fine dust: microbes “glue” things together and the resulting clumpy soil doesn’t blow away.

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In this electron microscopic view, Glomalin, stained green and coated with spores, is produced by a group of common soil fungi. It coats soil particles like super glue, sticking them together in clumps. Photo courtesy of Jeff Lowenfels.

To plant seeds or transplants, make an opening just large enough. The roots will find their way without the soil being “fluffed.” Healthy soil has lots of air spaces already. Then mulch.

 

Godin’s rule is 100 percent cover, 100 percent of the time. Cover for large gardens or farms could be annual cover crops later mowed to form mulch. In small gardens use leaves, grass clippings and compost.

Replace chemical fertilizers

In the years chemical fertilizers have been around, studies show fruits and vegetables have dropped in nutritional value. It’s due to the missing micronutrients soil microbes used to pull from decomposing plant material and mineral soils. Synthetic fertilizer is incomplete.

Traditional organic gardening recommends digging compost into the soil, but  Lowenfels says digging breaks up the soil community. Better to side-dress plants, leaving the compost (or mulch) on the soil surface where microbes will get at it and break it down. It works on the prairie and in the forest—there’s no 100-year-old pile of dead grass, leaves or pine needles.

Lowenfels said there are three different groups of plants in your yard. Perennial flowers, shrubs and trees want their nitrogen in the form provided by fungally dominated soils. The compost that promotes this is the brown stuff (mixed with a little green): dry leaves, bark, wood chips, twigs, branches—like the forest floor.

Annuals, including vegetables, prefer their nitrogen produced by bacterially dominated soil. This is green stuff (with a little brown), grass clippings, freshly picked weeds (without seeds) and fruit and vegetable kitchen scraps.

The prairie, like your lawn, falls in between. It appreciates finely shredded brown fall leaves and thin layers of green grass clippings.

Brew compost tea

Compost tea, compost soaked in water, is another way to inoculate your garden with microbes and feed them too. If compost and compost tea smell ugly, that’s anaerobic activity. You need aerobic activity—more air.

Lowenfels gives directions for making a bucket into “a simple actively aerated compost tea brewer using aquarium pumps and air stones.” Fertilizing your plants, and yes, your houseplants too, is as easy as watering them.

While chemical companies made their fortunes keeping our soils addicted to their products, new companies are offering to aid us in bringing our soils back to health. They are building better compost tea brewers. Labs can estimate your microbe population. Our local independent garden centers will sell you mycorrhizal fungi in powdered form you mix with water.

This new era of catering to microbes has gone mainstream. Lowenfels reported that at the 2016 Garden Writers of America conference, none of the tradeshow vendors was pushing synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

For the last 35 years, my husband, Mark, and I have cared for our lawn and garden without a rototiller or synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. We mulch the garden and use natural lawn fertilizers. I look forward to adapting Lowenfels’ ideas to step it up.

[If you are also adapting to the new era in gardening, let me know how it is going. Contact me at bgorges2 at gmail.com.]

More information:

Besides “Teaming with Microbes,” his first book, Lowenfels has also authored:

–“Teaming with Nutrients, The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrition”

–“Teaming with Fungi, The Organic Grower’s Guide to Mycorrhizae.”

 


Iris farm shares beauty, growing tips

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A visitor walks a corner of  C and T Iris Patch last June. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published April 30, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Iris farms, sharing beauty and growing tips

By Barb Gorges

There is an annual flower phenomena less than an hour south of Cheyenne, just east of Eaton, Colorado, from mid-May through early June. And after you find it, you might think you’d been to Eden.

It’s thanks to a tradition among iris farms to open to the public while the iris are blooming. Last year was my first visit to C and T Iris Patch’s acre of beauty, and it won’t be my last.

There is a gap between the spring bloom time and the best time to transplant iris—July into August—but Charlette Felte, of C and T Iris Patch, takes pity on spring visitors and allows them to take home select plants. I bought several and as per her instructions, cut the blooms and put them in a vase, then trimmed the leaves and planted the rhizomes (fat root-like appendages) in a sunny spot.

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Charlette Felte has a special patch of iris for spring visitors to buy from if they can’t wait for the traditional July-August transplanting season. Photo by Barb Gorges.

With 3,000-4,000 visitors, it’s good everyone doesn’t succumb to immediate gratification and can wait until orders are shipped in summer. If you can’t visit, the color photos in the online catalog are nearly as inspiring.

When Felte reached retirement age, she announced to her husband Tim that she wanted to move to the country to raise iris.” Fine,” he said, “find some land.” Two days later Felte had picked out a place.

Felte knew a lot about iris already. Growing up, her father would send her and her siblings down the street to help an elderly neighbor who had an iris garden.

“I thought they were the prettiest flowers,” Felte said.

Variations

C and T Iris Patch opened in 2000. It now carries 3,200 varieties of iris. The largest category is the bearded iris (the beard being the fuzzy patch on the falls—the petals that bend downwards). Within bearded iris there are classifications based on height.

[Here are the classes of bearded iris beginning with the earliest to bloom: Miniature Dwarf Bearded, Standard Dwarf Bearded, Intermediate Bearded, and then blooming at the same time as the Tall Bearded (mid-late spring), Border Bearded and Miniature Tall Bearded.]

If you are lucky, your iris may rebloom in the fall—when temperatures resemble those during the spring bloom. Some varieties are identified as rebloomers because they have a propensity for it, but it isn’t something to count on.

Now if you think all iris are blue or yellow, you really need to check out what’s available, either online or during bloom time. There’s also peach, orange, pink, brown, red and violet, and some are bi-colored, tri-colored, spotted, striped, and edged with accent colors. And for some reason, flower breeders are always trying for “black.”

The names people dream up for each new hybrid are sometimes beautiful, “Come Away with Me,” “Kiss the Dawn,” “Mist on the Mountain.” Sometimes they make you laugh “All Reddy” (a red iris), “Awesome Blossom,” “Coming Up Roses,” “Darnfino,” “Get Over Yerself,” “Got Milk” (all white and ruffled). And some might be a bit naughty: “Sinister Desire,” “Sunrise Seduction,” “Hook Up.” Or named for someone, usually a woman, “Sarah Marie,” “Raspberry Rita,” “Evelyn’s Echo.”

As I was perusing the catalog this winter, I noticed that each description mentioned the date the hybrid was introduced. The fun of breeding new hybrids actually goes back centuries to the origins of these iris in Europe, North Africa and Asia. North America has wild iris, but they usually prefer swampy conditions.

In Felte’s catalog there are varieties from the 1930s: “Rhages,” “Wabash,” and “William Setchell,” and from 1912, “Romero,” and the oldest, from 1904, “Caprice.” Among other kinds of plants, the older varieties are not as disease resistant. However, Felte said that the older iris hybrids, especially from the 1950s through 1980s, are hardier. The newer, rufflier, lacier, frillier, don’t winter as well. Plus, they don’t have as much fragrance.

Iris photos taken at C and T Iris Patch by Barb Gorges.

Growing iris

Iris are not fussy plants. They prefer drier conditions (they will rot if they aren’t dry enough) so they fit with today’s water-smart gardens.

Felte also recommends her Wyoming customers not choose the tallest, the 40-inchers, because they take so long to bloom, and Cheyenne is already two weeks behind Eaton. The delay is probably due to a combination of Eaton being 1,200 feet lower, 45 miles south, and having sandier soils that warm up faster in spring.

Iris leaves grow in fan arrays. In July, when irises are normally dug up for transplanting, the fan is trimmed to a 6-inch tall diamond. Otherwise, leaves are not trimmed until the following spring.

The rhizomes are covered with an inch of soil, up to the point where the leaves turn from white to green. Felte recommends giving the transplants an inch of water the first time, and then about half an inch per week until mid-September. Deep watering is better than frequent shallow watering.

Felte recommends rabbit feed (pellet form) for fertilizer, which is high in phosphates and other nutrients iris need for good blooms. They need very little nitrogen. The best time to fertilize is mid-to-late March, and again in July for the reblooming varieties or plants newly divided. Felte warns on her website to never use manure.

Trim the flower stalks after blooming to keep the color of the bloom true next year. Trim dead leaves away after winter, Felte said.

In three or four years, your irises will have multiplied and need to be dug up and thinned to keep them blooming. You can either increase the size of your iris garden or give the excess fans to friends.

New hybrids

While bees will pollinate iris and cause seed pods to form, Felte recommends removing them. Unless you have controlled conditions, the seeds will not grow true to the parent plant.

I asked Felte if she has ever registered her own hybrids and she said no, it’s about a 10-year-long process. First, you must provide enough seed true to the hybrid for 75 growers around the country and overseas to grow it out. They keep records for four years and submit them to the American Iris Society which will decide if your hybrid is different enough from all the registered varieties. [Some of the larger iris farms, such as Schreiner’s Iris Garden in Oregon, contribute new hybrids annually.]

Area iris farms open this spring

C and T Iris Patch will be open to the public this year May 20 through June 11, 9 a.m. – 6 p.m., seven days a week, at 20524 WCR 76, Eaton, Colorado, at no charge. The website, www.candtirispatch.com, has extensive information about growing iris, and they are ready for online orders as are other Colorado iris farms:

In Boulder, Colorado, Longs Gardens will be open to the public now through June 11, seven days a week, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., at 3240 Broadway. See www.LongsGardens.com for more information.

In Denver, check the website for Iris4U Iris Garden, 2700 W. Amherst Avenue, for their public hours, www.iris4u.com.

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C and T Iris Patch in Eaton, Colorado, grows a wide variety of bearded iris and allows the public to visit during the May-June blooming season. Photo by Barb Gorges.


Landscaping: When pros are cheaper than DIY

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The juxtaposition of a new sewer cleanout (not a gas line as the flagging indicates) and the gutter downspout extension becomes an obstacle for crossing the front yard. Photo by Barb Gorges. 

Published April 2, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

In landscaping design, a pro’s help can be cheaper than DIY

By Barb Gorges

December is not a month for digging a new garden bed—even if there is no snow—Cheyenne’s clay soils are frozen solid.

However, if you pay someone $3000 to dig a 7-foot-deep trench to fix an ailing sewer pipe, you may end up with a 4-by-10-foot mound of freshly tilled earth. The neighbors stopping by with Christmas treats all wanted to know who we buried in our front yard.

The juxtaposition of the new sewer cleanouts and our rain gutter downspouts presented obstacles for me as well as our mail and newspaper carriers, which got me to thinking about getting professional advice this spring.

When is it time to call a landscape architect? I asked David Ohde, of Ohde & Associates, who is licensed to practice in Wyoming and has been in business in Cheyenne since 1984.

Ohde said when you should call a landscape architect is for serious issues like drainage, steep slopes, erosion, stabilization and meeting regulations like Cheyenne’s Unified Development Code.

“We design outside spaces, not just plant trees and shrubs,” Ohde said.

Landscape architects deal with irrigation, grading, retaining walls, patios, outdoor kitchens as well as plant materials, however most of Ohde’s own business is commercial and institutional, rather than residential.

There is a limit to what licensed landscape architects in Wyoming can do. For instance, they can only design retaining walls up to 3 feet high without consulting a structural engineer.

Ohde knows when to call the experts for other situations as well. He said you can hire a landscape architect to do a verbal consultation at an hourly rate. You can also go further and contract for a design that specifies dimensions, plant species and other materials, complete with sketches and cost estimates.

You, the client, own the plans and can do the installation yourself or hire a contractor. You can hire the landscape architect to oversee the progress of the installation to make sure plans are being followed.

Perhaps the client wants to screen a view, or frame a view. Ohde can lay out the options, plant, trellis or wall, that are appropriate for the spot, based on whether it is in shade, sun or wind. If it’s a planting, does the client prefer something that grows slowly and needs little maintenance, or do they like yardwork?

Besides the nuts and bolts, landscape architects are creative. They interview their clients to find out what ideas they have already, how they might like to use their property, what their budget is, how much maintenance they want to do. They consider the architecture of the house and solve problems. Then they roll that all together into something functional and aesthetically pleasing.

(It is important to recognize whether a landscape architect has a trademark style, and if it matches your style. A minimalist designer fond of Asian aesthetics is going to be hard-pressed to make a would-be English-style cottage gardener happy.)

Be sure a landscape architect you hire is familiar with Cheyenne’s climate. Wyoming licensure is required for out-of-state landscape architects, but it is not necessary for working on single family residences (Note: an exemption is required).

If this sounds pricey for the average homeowner, you are right. (It is no wonder over half of the licensed landscape architects in Wyoming are in Jackson, in the county with the highest average income levels in the state.) However, without professional advice, Ohde points out that landscaping mistakes can be expensive, for instance, a patio installed without regard to drainage might cause flood damage.

The cost of hiring a landscape architect should be looked at, Ohde said, as “deriving benefit from professional service that has long-lasting benefits for the spaces we live with for years.”

If you don’t have a tricky landscape situation and you can’t afford Monet fine art-type prices and you’d still like some creative ideas, look for a garden designer.

Garden designers are not licensed in Wyoming. They range from the self-taught to the well-educated.

Sometimes they are independent and you can see a gallery of their work at their website. Often however, they work for a nursery or a landscape contractor.

Years ago, a local nursery sent out an employee to our house who measured our yard and drew up a plan for us at no cost. We bought the recommended trees and shrubs at that nursery.

For my current dilemma, a friend recommended Tyler Moore of Capital City Landscaping. He and his dad, Dan Moore, started the business in 2004. Tyler and his wife, Alicia, are now in charge of “creating your new piece of paradise.”

Tyler and his crew, like most landscape companies in town, can tackle just about anything, including the blank slate left by new construction. Tyler was in construction and carpentry earlier in his career and he likes building decks and pergolas (gazebos). He takes classes in the winter, learning about the latest trends in landscaping.

Tyler is also creative and pointed out that I could solve part of my obstacle problem if the downspout extensions were changed out for underground pipes that lead to a pop-up drain far from the house’s foundation.

What do his clients want? Often, low maintenance yards. But not always.

One eccentric, long-time client had Moore build multiple terraces with garden beds he filled with his plant collections. Later he added a faux mine shaft to feature an old ore car he found, and he had a windmill plumbed to provide water to wildlife, whether or not it was windy. (I was lucky enough to visit that wonderful garden, and gardener, a few years ago.)

Just as we don’t have to consult an architect or interior designer before remodeling the bathroom, we don’t have to consult a landscape architect or garden designer before planting a bush. However, if you want new ideas, a new perspective (and stay out of trouble on drainage and other serious issues), ask an expert.

Then the success of a project requires an expert who can imagine what the client doesn’t know about his profession and who makes the effort to explain things. And it takes a client who is open to ideas and bothers to check in frequently while the work is underway, avoiding expensive miscommunication. Over the years, I’ve learned the success of building and remodeling projects requires good communication.

Landscaping is the same.


The Mint Family

Photos courtesy of Jane and Robert Dorn. Hover over image for name of plant.

Skullcap, Scutellaria brittonii, 8 inches tall, native perennial found in rocky and gravelly places.

Coyote mint or mountain beebalm, Monardella odoratissima, 12 inches tall, prefers moist places in full sun.

Horsemint or purple beebalm, Monarda fistulosa, and cultivars, 2 feet tall, easily found in area nurseries. Transplants easily.

Giant (or anise) Hyssop, Agastache foeniculum (also called hummingbird mint),  3 feet tall, blooms July through September. Found for sale at nurseries.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Feb. 19, 2017

Introducing the mint family: from here, there and everywhere

By Barb Gorges

I was thinking a good winter pastime would be to research the mint family, Lamiaceae of which there are 7,500 species. I found tales of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Some mints were invited over to the New World because they were thought to be good garden plants, capable of providing medicinal uses, if not culinary flavor.

But some of them escaped the picket fences, becoming weeds that hang out on the dusty edges of civilization. Some poisoned livestock. Others just didn’t fit in the preferred landscape and have been periodically eradicated, especially the ones that insist on infiltrating the monoculture of lawn.

New World natives, while never originally confined to the cultivated garden, were valued for their medicinal know-how, but over time some recipes have been lost. They have been admired for their beauty and ability to thrive, each in its favorite wild place, providing sustenance to the local wildlife population. Only recently have we invited them into our cities and towns. But often we expect them to be made over into a showier version of themselves.

No matter where mints are from, they almost always share square stems and opposite leaves and they smell nice when you brush against them or crush their leaves.

Well-established garden mints

Immigrating people often take along their favorite plants from home. A surprising number of our favorite cooking herbs we grow in Cheyenne are mints that have travelled:

–Basil, Ocimum basilicum, traces its roots to India but is important to many cultures from Mexico to southeast Asia;

–Spearmint, Mentha spicata, Europe and Asia;

–Peppermint, Mentha x peperita, Europe and Middle East;

–Oregano, Origanum vulgare, Eurasia;

–Sweet marjoram, Origanum majorana, Middle East;

–Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, Mediterranean;

–Garden sage, Salvia officinalis, Mediterranean;

–Common thyme, Thymus vulgaris, Europe;

–Lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, Mediterranean;

–Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, Europe, Iran, Central Asia.

Garden mint turned weed

Horehound, Marrubium vulgare, is considered a medicinal herb, but has escaped cultivation. Originally from Europe, North Africa and Asia, it is now listed in the handbook, “Weeds of the West,” because it has invaded our native grasslands, including here in southeast Wyoming. Wherever there is a disturbance in the natural landscape, look for it. It’s considered a weed because it is unpalatable to livestock.

Robert Dorn, in his book, “Vascular Plants of Wyoming,” lists other weedy mints in our county:

–Creeping Charlie, Glechoma hederacea, Eurasia, common in lawns, attracts bees, has been used in beer and cheese making, but is toxic to cattle and horses;

–Dead nettle, Laminum amplexicaule, Eurasia and North Africa, problem in croplands and newly seeded lawns though one variety is considered good landscape ground cover;

–Motherwort, Leonurus cardiaca, Eurasia, an herbal remedy, introduced for bees, now invasive;

–Lanceleaf sage, Salvia reflexa, Eurasian ornamental, listed in “Weeds of the West” because it is poisonous to livestock when chopped into or mixed with other feed.

Exotic and native mints excel

But here’s a good mint that has become a naturalized in Laramie County and elsewhere in North America: catnip, Nepeta cataria. It is native to Eurasia and Africa. A hybrid, Nepeta x fassennii, known as garden catmint “Walker’s Low,” became the perennial plant of the year in 2007.

For every difficult mint, there are more mints that contribute positively to society. Here at the north end of the Front Range, and elsewhere in the drylands of the west, we are looking for plants for our gardens that don’t need much water. Some of those are natives and others from similar landscapes on the other side of the world.

Take Russian sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia, straight from the steppes of central Asia. It’s become extremely popular around here, plant it and forget it, but I don’t think anyone has taken advantage of its Old World reputation as a medicinal, or put the flowers in salad or crushed them for dye.

Water-frugal homeowners are replacing lawn with various creeping thymes, Thymus spp., and all of them hail from Europe, North Africa or Asia.

Horticulturists are always working on improvements and a catalogue like High Country Gardens shows examples. You’ll notice cultivars (cultivated varieties) with cute names. The improvements can be better cold tolerance, better drought tolerance, longer blooming and or bigger, brighter blooms. Some species are native to Turkey, like a type of lamb’s ear, Stachys lavandulifolius, or another from Arizona, another lamb’s ear, Stachys coccineus.

Wyoming natives

What I am more interested in meeting these days are the Wyoming natives, the plants that know how to get along with the native wildlife, including birds, bats, bees, butterflies, and other insects.

Looking again at Robert Dorn’s book, among the mints found in southeast Wyoming I saw:

–Dragonhead, Dracocephalum parviflorum;

–Drummond’s false pennyroyal, Hedeoma drummondii (used as a minty flavoring in Mexico);

–False dragonhead, Physostegia parviflora (related to obedient plant);

–Selfheal, Prunella vulgaris (a common lawn “weed” and Holarctic native—native to northern areas around the globe);

— Canada germander, Teucrium canadense.

Cultivated natives

These plants don’t show up in Dorn’s book he coauthored with his wife, Jane: “Growing Native Plants of the Rocky Mountain Area.” It could mean they aren’t showy enough or perhaps too difficult to grow. *

However, Dorn and Dorn mention these other Rocky Mountain mint cousins for our gardens:

–Giant (or anise) hyssop, Agastache foeniculum, also called hummingbird mint;

–Horsemint or purple beebalm, Monarda fistulosa;

–Coyote mint or mountain beebalm, Monardella odoratissima;

–Skullcap, Scutellaria brittonii.

Problem family members

Some gardeners have banned all mints from their gardens because they have heard they spread uncontrollably. That is true in my experience with the mentha species.

My chocolate mint, Mentha × piperita ‘Chocolate Mint,’ was well-behaved for 10-15 years until the summer I pruned back the big rosebush nearby and gave it more sun. It went ballistic. By fall I was ripping it out with my bare hands. Standard advice has been to keep crazy mints in pots so they can’t spread.

My lemon balm goes to seed before I notice and seedlings pop up the next year, but it never complains when I dig it up to share and make room for other plants.

Live and let live

The old-time culinary mints share my same raised bed and keep each other in check. Even the Russian sage hasn’t gotten out of hand as it would in a more open spot.

Maybe it’s time to try some of those new native cultivars and spice things up—and see what the bees think.

Note:

To see photos of these plants, search https://plants.usda.gov or Wikipedia, using the scientific names.

*To see Jane Dorn’s list of 25 native plants recommended for Cheyenne gardeners, and to purchase the digital version of “Growing Native Plants of the Rocky Mountain Area,” visit https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/habitat-hero/.


Horticulture careers

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Paul Smith Children’s Village, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

A version published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Jan. 22, 2017, was headlined “Find your 1st (or 2nd) career in horticulture.

By Barb Gorges

Have you thought about a career in horticulture?

Last fall, the White House announced the “America the Bountiful Initiative” because the number of students currently studying agriculture is not meeting real world job demand. That in turn is causing potential vulnerability of the food supply which is a national security issue. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study in 2015 showed that 35,400 students graduated with ag-related degrees in a year, short of the 59,000 job openings.

Under the program, government agencies, universities and corporations are encouraged to offer incentives: fellowships, scholarships, traineeships and awards.

Sounds like promising career territory, so let’s look at the aspect of interest to gardeners: horticulture.

Horticulture is partly agriculture and although everyone seems to have a different definition of the distinction, horticulture seems to cover everything that’s not large field grain crops or livestock, but includes flowers and landscape plantings.

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Tyler Mason. Courtesy.

I decided to talk to Tyler Mason, the horticulturist at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, to get a better understanding of the field. His career so far exemplifies the possibilities both in educational routes and job opportunities.

Kids will always play in the dirt, but Mason turned that into gardening early on. By age 12 or 13, “I was landscaping for neighbors: mowing, weeding, mulching and planting shrubs. I didn’t think it was work,” he said. Later he began working at a neighborhood landscape nursery.

Mason studied agriculture at Purdue University. “Hort 101,” Mason said, “was the basics of growing plants, pinching, pruning, fertilization, botany.”

He took internships at a retail landscape nursery and scouting for pests for an agronomy company. Then he had an internship at the Purdue Horticulture Greenhouse Gardens (more of a public garden).

After he graduated, he was working in horticultural research at Purdue, but he wanted to work in public gardens and see more of the world. That’s how in 2012 he came to be the assistant education director at the Paul Smith Children’s Village, part of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens.

Not only was he teaching, Mason was also responsible for the gardening, with the help of volunteers. An affable man, he can inspire both people and plants to do their best. And he’s also full of energy.

In 2014, Mason signed up for a master’s program at Colorado State University through distance education. His thesis was on volunteer management and he finished within two years. During that time, he became the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens’ horticulturist that is responsible for everything that grows outside the conservatory—the planting and care of the whole nine acres of themed gardens located within Lions Park.

But now Mason is about to embark on a different tangent. This month he begins work on his doctorate. This time he will go to school fulltime at CSU. In four years he will become a doctor of horticulture. He will be studying specialty crops grown organically and sustainably.

Specialty crops, Mason said, are essentially all that produce you see at farmers markets minus grains (agronomy), wine grapes (viticulture) and fruits of orchards (pomology).

The Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Coalition has enlisted northern land grant universities like CSU in researching varieties that do well within the USDA’s specifications for organically grown food. Part of the evaluation is taste. There aren’t many fields of research where you get to eat your subjects.

Which of the many careers in horticulture is Mason looking at when he finishes? Perhaps he’ll be a university extension service vegetable specialist for a state, preferably in the Mountain West, who would consult with growers. Let’s hope he still has time for his own vegetable garden.

Educational routes

The green industry, as it calls itself, employs people with all levels of education and experience.

While Laramie County Community College does not offer a two-year degree in horticulture, it does offer an associate of science degree that includes courses required for a four-year degree at other schools.

Meanwhile, at the University of Wyoming, in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the Plant Sciences Department offers the “Bachelor of Science Degree in Agroecology.” That is the study of more sustainable agricultural practices.

Courses offered include landscape design, plant materials and their propagation, organic food production, turfgrass science and greenhouse design and maintenance.

Other courses, for plant protection, include agronomy, plant genetics, plant pathology and weed science.

CSU is a much larger university and offers more variety in the horticultural field through the College of Agricultural Sciences. It has the Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Department which itself has three areas of emphasis:

–Environmental Horticulture which includes everything to know for landscaping, including business, design, management, nursery and turf management.

–Horticulture includes the horticultural version of business management, food crops, science, and therapy (requiring classes in counseling) as well as floriculture (flowers), viticulture (wine) and enology (wine making).

–Landscape architecture studies the relationship between design, nature and society.

Buried in the online catalog you will find the Organic Agriculture Interdisciplinary Minor, www.organic.colostate.edu, in which one studies organic food and fiber production, composting, diagnostics and treatment, microbiology for sustainable agriculture, organic soil fertilizers, crop development techniques and organic greenhouse production.

Horticultural careers

One doesn’t have to be a horticulturist to work in a horticultural business, though some knowledge of the discipline will help, and eventually rub off on you.

Consider the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. In addition to the horticulturists and the volunteers who grow the plants under their direction, the public garden has employees covering education, volunteer coordination, office management, community relations, and events management.

There are many categories of horticultural work. In which category will you find your first career, or maybe your second?

————

In December, at www.jobboard.hortjobs.com, there was this list of categories of horticultural positions:

Administration

Arboriculture (trees)

Botanical Gardens

Business Opportunities

Editorial/Media

Education

Environmental Projects

Environmental Restoration

Estate Gardeners

Floral

Fruit and Vegetable

Garden Center

Golf Course

Government, Federal, State and Local

Green Roof

Greenhouse

Grounds Management

Horticultural Science

Integrated Pest Management

Interiorscape (plants indoors)

Irrigation

Landscape

Lawn Care

Medicinals

Nursery

Recreation and Sports

Resort

Sales, Marketing, PR

Seasonal employment

Vegetation Management

Viticulture (grapes)

Zoos and Attractions


Garden gifts: books, magazines, classes

2016-12-garden-mags-barb-gorgesPublished Dec. 4, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Holiday gifts for the gardener on your list.”

By Barb Gorges

I asked members of the Laramie County Master Gardeners for their top picks for gardening magazines and books to give you ideas for gifts for the gardeners you know.

Gardening conditions in Cheyenne are somewhat unique so advice from these publications must be taken with a bit of local knowledge:

1) We have alkaline soils so ignore advice to add lime and wood ash;

2) We are officially in USDA plant hardiness zone 5 but microclimates can be harsher or milder;

3) Our average annual precipitation is 15 inches. Even if you run your well dry, you can’t reproduce a wetter, more humid location, which some plants require, like somewhere else in Zone 5—say southern Iowa.

MAGAZINES

Most of the magazines recommended are available at local bookstores. Discounted multi-year subscriptions and back issues are available online.

We are lucky that Colorado’s gardening climate is close to Cheyenne’s, making our local choice The Colorado Gardener (www.ColoradoGardener.com, free at outlets, including the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, and online, or $18/5 issues/year delivered). It is a full-color, tabloid-style, 16-page newsmagazine. In addition to articles and a calendar of Front Range garden-related events, even the advertising is informative.

Another option is Rocky Mountain Gardening (www.RockyMountainGardening.com, $24/4 issues/year). Previously known as “Zone 4,” it covers Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. It was recommended by Catherine Wissner, horticulturist at the Laramie County Cooperative Extension office, and several other respondents. Topics in a recent issue included hellstrip gardening (the hot, dry strip along the curb) and frost blankets (written by a Smoot, Wyoming, gardener). Wyoming is well-represented in the news section.

Judy Kowrach was one of two people who endorsed Garden Gate (www.GardenGateMagazine.com, $20/6 issues/year). With no ads, it is full of tips, plant profiles and design ideas. Despite its Iowa origins, much of the information is applicable to Cheyenne. Even without a subscription, you can sign up online for its free eNotes.

Kim Parker and several others listed Fine Gardening (www.FineGardening.com, $29.95/6 issues/year). It does a splendid job of inciting people to commit acts of gardening. I like their warnings on which featured plants are officially classified as invasive in which state and their scientific plant name pronunciation guide. And their deep website full of free garden and plant information.

2016-12-garden-design            I couldn’t come up with an issue of Garden Design (www.GardenDesign.com, $45/4 issues/year), but looking at a preview copy online, it also is sumptuously photographed. Its price reflects the 148 ad-free pages per issue. And its website is also full of free information, even for non-subscribers.

Finally, Rodale’s Organic Life (www.RodalesOrganicLife.com, $15/6 issues/year) is the latest incarnation of Rodale’s Organic Gardening and Farming. In 1978, that publication printed my interview of a man who built a better bluebird house. These days, think of it as the organic version of Better Homes and Gardens—mostly lifestyle, little gardening.

BOOKS

2016-12-garden-primer-rodales-ultimate-encyclopedia            My primary garden book, recommended to me several years ago by Shane Smith, director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, is The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch (2008, Workman Publishing, 820 pages). Written by a gardener from the cold climate of Maine, it covers every aspect of organic home gardening in well-organized chapters, but with an index for quick consultation.

Another option is Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (2009, www.rodaleinc.com, 720 pages). Earlier editions have been on my shelf for years. It’s a tad more technical, but both this and The Garden Primer are good how-to guides and problem solvers.

2016-12-peterson-kaufman-insect-guides            Tava Collins recommended National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects and Spiders (1980, Alfred A. Knopf, $20) for help identifying garden friends and foes. Similar guides are available in the Kaufman and Peterson field guide series.

Collins also recommended three books written by Colorado gardeners: Rocky Mountain Gardener’s Handbook, John Cretti (2012, Cool Springs Press); Rocky Mountain Getting Started Garden Guide, John Cretti (2015, Cool Springs Press); and Cutting Edge Gardening in the Intermountain West, Marcia Tatroe (2007, Big Earth Publishing).

For special gardening techniques that will work in our area, these next two were recommended.

Marie Madison cited The Bountiful Container: Create Container Gardens of Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits and Edible Flowers by Maggie Stuckey and Rose Marie Nicholas McGee (2002, Workman Publishing).

Susan Carlson, who I interviewed a few months ago about straw bale gardening, apprised me of a new edition of her favorite book: Straw Bale Gardens Complete: All-New Information on Urban & Small Spaces, Organics, Saving Water – Make Your Own Bales With or Without Straw by Joel Karsten (2015, Cool Springs Press, $24.99).

If your giftee’s interest is in growing native plants that attract pollinators or in identifying plants on the prairie, try these. Keep in mind the definition of “weeds” depends on the situation.

2016-12-weeds-of-the-west-rangeland-plants            Carlson listed Rangeland Plants: Wyoming Tough by Smith et. al. (2015, publication B-1265) It is a free download at www.wyoextension.org/publications or $8 at the Laramie County Extension office, 307-633-4383.

Richard Steele found Weeds of the West (Western Society of Weed Science, 2012, $34 at www.wsweedscience.org) to be particularly useful while manning the “Ask a Master Gardener” table at the farmers market this fall.

Collins mentioned the classic Meet the Natives: A Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, Trees and Shrubs: Bridging the Gap between Trail and Garden by M. Walter Pesman. It was revised by Denver Botanic Gardens staff in 2012 and republished by Big Earth Publishing.

2016-12-undaunted-garden            The author of one of my favorites, The Undaunted Garden: Planting for Weather-Resilient Beauty (2010, Fulcrum Publishing), Lauren Springer Ogden, is a firm believer in “the right plant in the right place” and is the originator of “hellstrip” gardening. Her photography is inspiring. She speaks often at garden events on the Front Range.

Her book would be a good accompaniment to the next two books, helping you to pick appropriate local plants to interpret their lessons. These books are about planet-friendly landscape gardening.

Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West (2015, Timber Press). This may be intended to introduce landscape designers to more natural, sustainable plantings. But you can apply the advice to your own yard, such as using groundcover plants instead of shredded bark mulch everywhere.

2016-12-garden-revolution-planting-in-a-post-wild            The other is Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher (2016, Timber Press). Proponents of the “right plant in the right place” too, the authors have designed this book to help you understand their premise: that with knowledge of your eco region and local habitat, you can plant a garden that will evolve over time with a minimal amount of assistance, i.e. chemicals and labor.

LECTURES AND CLASSES

One option: Give your favorite gardener tuition for the 10-week Master Gardener class beginning in January. For more information, call 307-633-4383.

Or give them tickets to the spring gardening lecture series Laramie County Master Gardeners is offering in conjunction with the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. Call 307-637-6458.


Vertical gardening

2016-11-vertical-farm-bright-agrotech-altitude-wall-2

Altitude Chophouse installed a Bright Agrotech Farm Wall to grow herbs for its restaurant and bar in Laramie, Wyoming, last summer. Photo courtesy Bright Agrotech.

Vertical gardening is growing into the wave of the future

By Barb Gorges

As we slip into the dark half of the year, we don’t have to say goodbye to growing our own fresh herbs, lettuces and other greens. There is an option for those of us without a greenhouse, hoop house or cold frame, even if we have limited natural light or limited space.

Think vertical. Think “Farm Wall.”

No more stooping over short little plants. No more weeds. No more intensive watering schedule.

Bright Agrotech, www.brightagrotech.com, a Laramie-based start-up, has been perfecting this system that maximizes production for every square foot. It works for farmers as well as hobbyists—indoors or out. The company now employs 30 people, many coming straight from the University of Wyoming.

As magical as this system sounds, it really works. Growers on every continent except Antarctica are using it. In 2015, the U.S. pavilion at the world’s fair in Milan, Italy, installed a demonstration Bright Agrotech ZipGrow Farm the size of a vertical football field, like a giant billboard full of leafy vegetables.

Locally, the system is being used at Cheyenne Central High School. There, agriculture teacher Ty Berry has his classroom’s system set up on a cart so he can take it places, including the state and county fairs last summer.

Elsewhere, Altitude Chophouse in Laramie grew edibles on an outside wall during the summer using this system.

How it works

The Farm Wall starts with towers. They will remind you of rain gutters upended, but they are made of food-grade white plastic which wraps around part of the open side, leaving a slot the length (or the height) of the tower for plants to sprout from. Towers come in 3 or 5-foot heights.

Bright Agrotech refers to these components as ZipGrow Towers. That’s because the growing medium can be “zipped” in and out of the towers.

The plants grow in a matrix made of curly fibers from recycled water bottles. They have a brown, protective silicone coating. Otherwise light would cause algae infestations in the originally clear material.

So how do you get the plant into the matrix material? Simple. It comes in two halves. You “zip” it out the end of the tower, spread the two halves just enough to place seedlings in between at regular intervals and “zip” it back into the tower. The plants spill out the lengthwise slot.

As you can imagine, the plastic matrix isn’t going to hold water well, so strips of wicking material are added with the plants.

The next step is to place the towers between the upper and lower horizontal gutters. The lower gutter is on the floor. The upper gutter can be slid onto a bracket on a wall (indoors or out).

2016-11-bright-agrotech-farm-wall-at-cheyenne-central-4-by-barb-gorges

An emitter keeps the tower below it watered. Photo by Barb Gorges.

What makes the Farm Wall water-smart is that it is a hydroponic system. Water constantly circulates. About once a week the water reservoir needs to be topped off. It looks like and is lined up with the other towers but has no growing slot. Water is poured into the top. At the bottom is a spigot that allows only a certain amount of water to sit in the lower gutter. A small submersible pump there sends the water up through a hose and across the top, inside the upper gutter. There’s an emitter above each tower, keeping it watered.

Without soil to provide essential nutrients, you must add them to the water yourself. What you add depends on what you are growing, which is where Bright Agrotech can give you advice. There are several commercial fertilizer mixes available, or maybe you’d like to try aquaponics, in which the water circulates through a tank of fish and picks up nutrients from the fish poop.

While on my tour in Laramie one unexpected thing I learned from my guide, marketing team member Amy Storey, is that the more growing cycles a unit of matrix material has been through, the better it gets. All the old roots and all the potting soil left behind by the seedlings enables good microorganisms to get established and start helping with their usual job, making it easier for plants to absorb nutrients.

One plus of the Farm Wall system: no pesticides are necessary, as long as good horticultural practices are maintained. And there are no weeds since you aren’t tilling the garden and causing weed seeds to sprout.

Considerations

There are several considerations with this system. The 5-foot high, four-tower package is $599 (free shipping). The two-tower, 3-foot high version is $369. There is also an 8-tower option. Beyond that size, you need to look at the commercial farm version.

You also need an electrical outlet for the water pump. While the commercial farming version needs to be hooked up to plumbing, the Farm Wall doesn’t. But you may want to install it where a few splashes of water won’t be a problem.

An electrical conductivity meter will help you know how you are doing with fertilization, though you might make do with nutrient package directions and your own observations.

You’ll need someplace warm to start seedlings under lights.

Speaking of lights, you’ll need some florescent grow lights set up vertically in front of the Farm Wall if it isn’t set up outside or in a greenhouse.

Obviously, root crops are not going to do well in such limited root space. So far, the most successful crops have been flowers, herbs, lettuces and other smallish greens.

At the University of Wyoming Extension, horticulturist Chris Hilgert experimented with strawberries, but hasn’t been successful—yet.

The possibilities

For growing small vegetables commercially, vertical farming is certainly more efficient than one layer of 6 to 12-inch high plants, especially in a greenhouse. Also, in an urban area, the cost of lighting and water pumping may be less than transporting produce from elsewhere.

In Jackson, where the town is isolated and the growing season very short, Vertical Harvest, www.verticalharvestjackson.com, grows for local restaurants, grocery stores and its own store in a 3-story glassed-in area on the side of a parking garage. On a tenth of an acre they grow the equivalent of 5 acres of conventionally farmed land through the winter.

2016-11-bright-agrotech-farm-wall-at-cheyenne-central-1-by-barb-gorges

Ty Berry has this Farm Wall in his classroom at Cheyenne Central High School planted with herbs and flowers. It was about to be replanted with beans. Photo by Barb Gorges.

This semester Berry’s students are planting beans in their classroom Farm Wall. It was paid for by an educational grant he wrote. Bright Agrotech also provided curriculum ideas to maximize the educational possibilities.

I remember 25 years ago when Cheyenne parent-teacher organizations raised the funds to pay for computer labs for their schools. Now computers are part of the school district’s budget and every student seems to have what amounts to one in their back pocket.

Perhaps someday it will be completely normal for a wall of every school building to produce healthy food for school lunches. Unless kids are already packing Farm Wall salads from home.

Note: Laramie, at 7200 feet elevation, is in a hostile environment for growing vegetables, which may have been the inspiration for Bright Agrotech founder Nate Storey, a native of Cheyenne with a PhD from the University of Wyoming. But his version of vertical gardening is catching on worldwide.

2016-11-vertical-farm-bright-agrotech-altitude-wall-1

The Farm Wall installed by Altitude Chophouse becomes part of the landscaping in downtown Laramie, Wyoming. Photo courtesy Bright Agrotech.