Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


Firewise: Preparing your home for wildfire season

Bob Lick's defensible space

Bob Lick keeps brush and native grass mowed next to his house in the forest west of Cheyenne, creating a defensible space in case of wildfire. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published May 31, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Take steps to become Firewise.”

By Barb Gorges

In the summer, when we smell smoke from the forest fires in Colorado and beyond, we might think we are safe here in Laramie County.

But several grassfires this winter and early spring should give us a heads up, whether we live within the city limits or “out in the county,” as people say around here.

It only takes an ignition source lightning, a burn pile, a cigarette ember), fuel (dry grass, resinous wood, anything flammable) and oxygen.

But there are things you can do with your house and landscape, especially if you live in what the firefighting community calls the wildland/urban interface, to reduce fuel, which can improve your chances of firefighters being able to defend your home.

Firewise Community sign

The community of Granite Springs Retreat in Wyoming is now a designated Firewise Community. The sign informs wildland firefighters that residents have taken action to make firefighting easier and safer. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Firewise Communities

Betsey Nickerson is the Laramie County coordinator for Firewise, a national program that works through the Wyoming State Forestry Division to help property owners, especially in forested areas, assess their fire risks and develop mitigation plans. Sometimes funding can be found to implement the plans.

The Firewise Communities program, in which a town or a group, like a homeowners association, works together, is most effective.

Bob Lick of Granite Springs Retreat, a development in the ponderosa forest 25 miles west of Cheyenne, attended one of Betsey’s talks about three years ago and realized his homeowners association needed to get onboard immediately.

This is the second year since it qualified as one of more than 1,000 Firewise communities nationwide. This Firewise committee educates neighbors and takes actions such as thinning pines along access roads and establishing one location where everyone can bring their tree prunings for safe burning.

On a rainy day in early May, as I visited Bob and his neighbors, it was hard to remember the approaching hot, dry and windy summer days ahead. Ironically, a wet spring means grasses will grow tall and lush. But when cured brown by mid-summer, they will provide perfect tinder.

The less flammable house

The Firewise website, http://firewise.org, has recommendations for the least flammable roof, wall, widow and vent materials.

Decks and fences attached to the house are considered part of the house. Bob and Marty Gill, another Granite Springs Retreat resident, have both used plastic lumber for their attached decks, which will melt in a fire, rather than burn.

Wooden fences need to be separated from the house with something that is not flammable, such as a metal gate or a brick pillar.

When there’s threat of fire, homeowners should remove straw welcome mats, patio cushions and other flammables.

The first 5 feet

The good news is that landscaping with rock is in fashion these days. Bob is in the middle of arranging a 5-foot-wide border of rock along the edge of his deck. Around the rest of the house is gravel, including his driveway, and more underneath the deck, to make sure nothing can grow, dry out and provide a rogue ember with tinder.

Barb and Milt Werner have built a terraced stone patio against one side of their log house that does double duty as a firebreak.

The three homes have hardly any foundation plantings. But with a beautiful natural setting, why bother?

Here in the city or out on the prairie, foundation plantings seem more aesthetically necessary.

Even though I live only 200 feet away from a fire hydrant, Betsey thinks I should remove the junipers that grow against my house. More than any of the other evergreens, junipers are about as flammable as a can of gasoline, she keeps reminding me.

Also consider the pine trees that lean over people’s homes, shedding needles on the roof and in the gutters. Talk about good tinder.

Deciduous plants are much less flammable than evergreens. The list of less flammable plants on Natrona County’s Firewise website is a roll call of native species found in mountain meadows. They are becoming more available through local nurseries.

A Firewise demonstration garden planned by Betsey and Laramie County Master Gardeners is being installed this summer at the Curt Gowdy State Park visitor center to show there are lots of aesthetically pleasing flowering plants that are fire resistant.

Barb Werner

Barb Werner and her husband Milt keep their pines limbed up, removing lower limbs to the recommended height to avoid ground fires from “laddering” up the trees and crowning. She also removes pine needles and cones within her defensible space. The wet day in early May belies the hot, dry summer days to come. Photo by Barb Gorges.

30 feet out

When firefighters refer to “defensible space” around a home, homeowners get a vision of moonscape. True, you wouldn’t want your propane tank here, or the cute shed with the wood shake shingles, or your wood pile.

Trees are fine, in small, isolated islands, not in a continuous mass like a windbreak. Short shrubs, mowed grass, and gravel paths between flower beds can make a charming, fire-resistant landscape.

Even pine trees can be acceptable if they aren’t too close together. One secret Bob learned is that you can remove one pine in a clump of three, for instance, to allow the other two to take up more water, making them more fire resistant.

Also, limbing a pine tree—removing the lower branches—keeps a ground fire from laddering. That is, using branches, fire can easily make its way up the tree to reach the crown. Here, the flames catch more air and wind, billow out and throw fire-brands at nearby roofs and trees.

The recommendation is to remove evergreen limbs up to 6 to 8 feet above ground level. However, the pine trees near Barb and Milt’s house are hardly 12 feet tall so they use the other rule: remove no more limbs than those in the first third of the tree’s height.

One unexpected benefit is that more grass grew under the trees, Barb said.

While her gardening is limited to half a dozen containers well-fenced to keep deer out, Barb does put a lot of effort into raking up pinecones and excess pine needles that could be fuel for a stray ember.

30-100 feet out

Those in neighborhoods with less than 100 feet between their house and property boundary realize the need to work with their neighbors.

Out on the prairie, after the ground-nesting birds have fledged in late June to early July and the taller grasses begin to turn brown, it may be time to mow this zone.

Homeowners in the forest may have grass to mow there also, as well as trees and shrubs to manage as in the 5-30-foot zone.

Maintenance

Once you’ve had your property assessed for wildfire risk, and you spent the next few years completing all the recommended mitigation, you still have to keep up with maintenance. Check for leaves and needles in gutters, debris under the deck, dead wood, vegetation growth, and clutter.

Just chant the Firewise mantra: “clean, lean and green.”

Access road improvements

The homeowners’ association has worked to make the roads more passable and safer for wildland firefighters by removing, thinning and limbing trees along access roads. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Insurance

Short of moving downtown, following Firewise principles is the best insurance against the increasing risk of wildfires during hotter and drier summers, and even dry winters.

Would using Firewise make a difference in home insurance policies? Betsey said she hasn’t heard of anyone receiving a discount, though it might help prevent loss of insurance.

But it should make for more restful nights for the increasing numbers of homeowners who take fire preparedness into their own hands.

Resources

Betsey Nickerson, 637-4912, 421-8012 cell

University of Wyoming Extension, “Living with Wildlfire in Wyoming,” http://www.uwyo.edu/barnbackyard/_files/documents/resources/wildfire2013/wildfire_web.pdf

Firewise Natrona County, plant list, http://www.firewisewyoming.com/

Colorado State University Extension, Firewise Plant Materials, http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/natres/06305.html

National Fire Protection Association, Firewise Communities, http://firewise.org


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Wildscaping: bringing nature home

Allium

Allium flowers attract a bee. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published May 3, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bringing nature home with wildscaping.”

By Barb Gorges

The idea of wildscaping, landscaping your yard for the benefit of wildlife, has been around for a long time.

But there is a new spin on it. Here, the emphasis is on using native plants to provide shelter and food for wildlife.

Why native?

Let’s say you plant a shrub that is native to another continent–an alien. It may produce berries our birds will eat, but it did not evolve with our local insects, entomologist Douglas Tallamy explains in his book, “Bringing Nature Home, How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.”

Our native herbivorous insects usually find the alien leaves to be inedible. And that is exactly why aliens are so popular with gardeners.

But, Tallamy writes, if you fill your yard with insect-edible native plants, there will be plenty of insects for birds to feed their young and your yard would be contributing to the health of the greater landscape—and indirectly, human health.

Don’t worry, in a healthy habitat, your plants won’t be leafless.

So a stand of native trees and shrubs supporting native insects could produce more birds than say, a stand of Russian olive trees, an invasive exotic in Wyoming that has crowded out native species in many places. In fact, land managers are now working to eradicate it.

Beebalm

Beebalm (Monarda). Hummingbirds are also attracted to these tubular-shaped flowers in the mint family. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Gardeners can also choose native plants that will provide nectar and pollen for butterflies and bees. That’s important, as both are suffering declining populations.

Our natives are better adapted to our location, plant biologist and author Susan Tweit told the 100 people who took part at the Habitat Hero workshop in Cheyenne in March, organized by Laramie County Master Gardeners and the Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society. Native plants are also more resistant to our weather extremes.

And in our area, they often require less water than aliens, and little or no fertilizer, she added.

Designing wildscapes

Tweit also discussed landscape design, another of her specialties.

Landscape design is about pleasing combinations of color, form and texture at each season. Wildscaping considers appearance along with providing habitat functions.

The mingling of layers, from trees to shrubs to ground cover, besides aesthetic appeal, provides shelter, or cover, and foraging areas for a variety of species that may each prefer different heights and micro-habitats.

Tweit cautioned that “going native” does not mean a weedy-looking patch. You can still choose formal, cottage style, meadow, or minimalist. Simply fill the space with natives.

How to transition

People moving into a newly-built house usually get to work with a blank canvas. But where do you put native plants in an established yard?

The trick is to keep your high maintenance, water-loving conventional aliens, if you still want them, in one area of your yard. Don’t mix these with native plants, as too much water can be deadly.

Blanketflower

Blanketflower (Gaillardia). Photo by Barb Gorges.

You can gradually replace your alien trees and shrubs with natives. Replace alien annuals (like petunias) with native perennials. Widen your flower borders. And one year at a time, replace sections of your Kentucky bluegrass turf, which is another alien species.

Tweit said her method for converting lawn is to smother it with layers of newspaper held down with rocks.

She doesn’t recommend killing turf with black plastic. That method collects heat and cooks the grass, but it also kills important soil organisms. As a last resort, use Roundup, the least offensive herbicide. Follow directions.

At our house, when expanding flower beds, we cut clumps of turf with a sharp spade and either turn each piece upside down in place, or shake off the dirt and take the roots elsewhere to compost.

Think about naturalizing remaining lawn with small, spring-flowering bulbs, like species tulips. They provide pollen for bees when little else is blooming so early in the season. By the time the grass needs mowing, their vegetation will have died back.

Water

Water is part of the complete wildlife habitat. If you don’t have a pond or flowing water on your property, you can use a recirculating water pump in imaginative ways.

Or a valuable low-tech solution Susan mentioned is water in an upside down garbage can lid embedded in the ground, with rock perches around and in it. You can include a product called a mosquito dunk, which releases a bacteria in the water that is toxic only to mosquito larvae.

You may also try a patch of wet sand to attract butterflies.

Black-eyed Susan

This Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) attracted a bee before its petals fully opened. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Native plant lists

Without being a field botanist, how will you know which plants are native to our area?

One resource is the book “Growing Native Plants of the Rocky Mountain Area,” co-authored by Jane and Robert Dorn of Lingle. Jane was also a presenter at the workshop. It features an illustrated selection of 500 plants, their favorite kinds of habitat and tips on growing them.

Hard copies are available through www.lulu.com. Cheaper, digital copies will be available soon through Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, http://home.lonetree.com/audubon/.

Meanwhile, the chapter website has the Dorn’s list of 114 native species specifically recommended for our high plains.

Also at the website is a link to “Wyoming Wildscape, How to Design, Plant and Maintain Landscaping to Benefit People and Wildlife.”

It is a jointly sponsored publication of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Bureau of Land Management, Audubon Rockies and Wyoming Partners in Flight.

This publication gets into the nitty-gritty of sustainable gardening practices and also has a plant list.

Finding natives

Native plants, by definition, are the plants that evolved in the local area. But local nurseries are only beginning to catch on to the value of natives.

It is cheaper to start your new wildscape from seed, of course, and there is a lot more variety available that way. Do not dig up native plants in the wild unless the site is about to be bulldozed, and only with permission.

The good news is, savvy nurseries and seed catalogs have more and more natives available. But be sure to read carefully as not every plant offered is suited to Zone 5, our USDA plant growing zone, though Zone 4 seems more appropriate.

Horticulturally improved varieties of native plants—selected for brighter colors, bigger flowers or longer bloom times—can be OK, Tallamy says. They are close enough to the original natives to function in the same way.

When shopping, avoid plants treated with neonicotinoids, types of systemic pesticides that poison bees when they collect pollen from treated plants. For more information, see the Xerces Society website, http://www.xerces.org.

How to become a Habitat Hero

Audubon Rockies wants to recognize everyone who strives to make their yard more wildlife friendly. Check www.HabHero.org to find out how to nominate your yard this summer.

A few native plants for the Cheyenne Area

Courtesy of Jane and Robert Dorn

Trees

Colorado Blue Spruce, Pinyon Pine, Rocky Mountain Juniper, Bigtooth Maple, Boxelder, Common Hackberry, Lanceleaf Cottonwood

Shrubs

Rocky Mountain Maple, Western Serviceberry, Western Chokecherry, Silver Sagebrush, Redosier Dogwood

Perennial and Annual Flowers

Western Columbine, Orange Butterflyweed, Winecups, Purple Beeplant (Cleome), Purple Coneflower, Common Blanketflower, Annual Sunflower, Prairie Blazingstar, Wild Bergamot (Monarda), Penstemon (many kinds), Black-eyed Susan

Grasses

Indian Ricegrass, Big Bluestem, Buffalograss, Basin Wildrye, Bluebunch Wheatgrass, Switchgrass

Where to shop

Try local nurseries and garden centers and then look for native plants through these regional sources.

http://alplains.com, www.applewoodseed.com, www.avseeds.com, www.bathgardencenter, www.bbbseed.com, www.fortcollinsnursery.com, www.highcountrygardens.com, www.wyomingplantcompany.com

More info

Douglas Tallamy, author of “Bringing Nature Home, How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants” – www.bringingnaturehome.net

Susan Tweit – www.SusanJTweit.com

Susan J. Tweit photo

In close proximity to Susan Tweit’s house, this bed of native plants is arranged more formally, with cobbles providing additional texture and mulch. Courtesy/Susan J. Tweit.

xxx


Winter damages evergreens

Pine branch

If the buds on the ends of pine branches are undamaged, new growth will help camouflage dead needles until they fall off. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published May 4, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Evergreens looking dull? If this winter has caused your pines to brown, don’t cut them down just yet.”

By Barb Gorges

Don’t touch those red needles just yet, cautions Lisa Olson, director of Cheyenne’s Urban Forestry Department.

Wait until June to see if your pines and junipers get new growth before deciding what to do, she adds.

This past winter, property owners noticed that the needles on the tips of pine and juniper branches turned reddish brown. The color indicates the needles (juniper leaves are technically called scales), are dead.

Cheyenne had warm weather later in the fall than usual, preventing some evergreens from getting the cues that they usually get from cooler temperatures to go into winter dormancy. When the temperatures suddenly dropped in November, the fresh growth froze and died.

junipers

Most upright junipers (background) were not affected by the sudden freeze last November the way Pfitzer juniper shrubs (foreground) were. Photo by Barb Gorges.

While pines and junipers were most likely to be damaged, exactly which ones were hit hardest seems to have been hit or miss. Upright junipers seem to have no damage while the spreading Pfitzer juniper shrubs were most often hit.

But the amount of damage seems not to be so much a factor of how exposed the shrubs were to cold wind as perhaps variety.

In one Cheyenne neighborhood there is a sheared hedge of Pfitzers made up of five individual shrubs. One is totally green, the next three are totally red, and the one on the other end is green with red tips.

A property owner’s first urge is to cut off the dead stuff. However, this would add insult to injury for pines.

The bud for new growth is at the tip of the branch. A bundle of new needles grows from it in what is referred to as “candling.” That’s because it makes the tree look like it has hundreds of pale green candles before the bundles open up.

Pine trees keep their needles for three to five years before shedding them, Olson said. So if you are patient, the new needles will “overgrow” the dead ones, which will eventually fall off.

There is no need to prune unless you have branches that need pruning for other reasons.

If a pine does not candle all over, it may not have enough new green growth to photosynthesize, to make new buds next fall. A year from now is when those results will show up.

Sheared junipers

Different varieties of sheared Pfitzer junipers, even in the same hedge, have had different reactions to the sudden drop in temperature back in November. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Junipers grow differently than pines. Buds aren’t just at the tips of branches, and if their buds weren’t killed by the cold, they also might be able to “overgrow” the dead needles with new growth.

The Pfitzers allowed to grow naturally have dead needles only on the tips of their branches—the newest growth from last year. Older needles are still green. So what happens to Pfitzers that have been sheared into tidy shapes? Many seem to be completely red. We’ll just have to wait and see if they survive.

But Olson says this might be a good year to consider replacing overgrown Pfitzers.

They are often used as foundation plantings but after a number of years they can grow 10 or 15 feet high and into odd shapes as their branches become deformed by the weight of heavy snow.

If you have one of these, you might consider not waiting to remove it and plant something fresh.

But otherwise, wait until June to see what grows before deciding what to prune.

“It’s amazing how trees can come back,” Olson said.

Personal communication from University of Wyoming botany professor emeritus Dennis Knight explains what happened in November in more detail:

“It’s quite a feat for any outdoor plant to tolerate everything that’s thrown at it, and often they don’t survive if one day it’s warm and the next day unusually cold.  If the transition extends over a few days, the plants become “hardened,” which means that the cells produce more sugar and that lowers the freezing point.

“Over the years in Wyoming, our native and ornamental plants have been selected in one way or another to have pretty short hardening periods, but mortality will occur.  The whole plant may not be killed, but if too many of the leaves and buds turn brown, the chances of survival are slim. The plant may look completely brown, but if the buds on the twigs or at the soil surface have not been frozen, there’s a good chance the plant will survive.  Learning from experience, horticulturalists tell us which plants are most likely to survive in our state and which ones are not.

“You mentioned the brown juniper leaves.  Keep in mind that most evergreen plants, like the conifers and junipers, will still have some brown leaves, usually most noticeable in the winter and spring.  The plants as a whole normally live much longer than individual leaves. “Evergreenness” is bestowed on some plants because they always have leaves that normally last at least one year before they fall off, and not all of the leaves fall off at the same time.

“Plants with mostly brown leaves after an abrupt freeze may appear a little thin during the following year, depending on how many of the buds were deactivated.  I hesitate to call them “killed” because the plant could be still very much alive.  Such plants produce new leaves using energy stored in the twigs and roots.”


Buffalograss: less water, fertilizer and work

Brent Lathrop, buffalo grass

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

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

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buffalograss closeup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pros and cons of buffalograss

Buffalograss is not a perfect substitute for Kentucky bluegrass.

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

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

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

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

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

Buffalograss detail

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

Pick the right cultivar

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

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

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

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

How to plant buffalograss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advice

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

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

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

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

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


Water gardens paint pretty picture

Water garden

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

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

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

Water lily

Water lily. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Location

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

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

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

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

Preparation

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

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

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

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

Alternatives

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

Pond liner

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

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

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

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

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

Dirt

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

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

Water lily

Water lily. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Plants

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

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

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

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

Maintenance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Water lily

Water lily. Photo by Barb Gorges.


Planting gardener partnerships

The Taylors

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

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

By Barb Gorges

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

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

Well, almost.

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

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

Sisters

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

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

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

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

The Taylors

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

Business partners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a benefit.

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

Family style

Riley Elliot digs gardening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Botanists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Taylors

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


Give your garden winter interest

Boy in backyard

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

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

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

Spruce shrub

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

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

Conifers

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbitbrush

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

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

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

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

Deciduous trees and shrubs

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

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

Karl Foerster grass

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

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

Grasses

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

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

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

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

 

Blue oat grass

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

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

Perennials and annuals

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

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

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

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

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

Bulbs

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

Ground cover

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

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

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

Garden embellishments

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

Junipers

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

Resources

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

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