Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming

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Cheyenne Garden Gossip book preview

“Cheyenne Garden Gossip,” my new book, is now available at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens giftshop and will soon be available in other shops. Preview:

Habitat Hero Garden Walk July 11, 2021

The Habitat Hero Demonstration Garden at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens is full of blooming columbines, penstemons and other prairie flowers in late June-early July. Photo by Barb Gorges.

July 11 Garden Walk theme is “Habitat Hero”:

Water-smart, bird-bee-butterfly-friendly gardening

By Barb Gorges

            The Laramie County Master Gardeners’ Garden Walk is back. The theme is “Habitat Hero” gardens. It’s scheduled for July 11, 1-4 p.m. It’s free, but donations are appreciated.

            Five gardens are on the walk, and all are certified Habitat Hero gardens. You can start at any garden and pick up the booklet that has the location and description of each. It might be easiest to start with the Habitat Hero Demonstration Garden at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, next to the parking lot in front of the conservatory, 710 S. Lions Park Drive.

            This garden will be hosted by two people who have been supporting the Habitat Hero gardening movement for about eight years, my husband, Mark, and me.

            Habitat Hero is an Audubon Rockies program, It was first conceived of by a woman who moved from Florida to Colorado. She soon realized she needed to relearn how to garden. Her love of birds and her recognition of the lack of water in the west helped her formulate the tenets of the program.

            The Habitat Hero certification process looks for water-wise gardening and landscaping practices that are bird and pollinator friendly and that emphasize native and native-type plants.

Bird and pollinator friendly practices include:

— Switching out bluegrass turf for native grasses or plants

— Foregoing chemical pesticides and fertilizers for other proven options

— Keeping cats indoors or at least in a screened patio or “catio”

— Finding plants that are native to Wyoming that will support native bees, or non-native ornamentals that haven’t been overbred and still produce nectar and pollen.

The Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities replaced turf at their headquarters with a water-smart, bird-friendly certified Habitat Hero garden. Photo by Barb Gorges.

            The five gardens are proof that a bird-friendly garden doesn’t need to look like a weed patch. The one by garden designer Kathy Shreve coordinates perennials into a season-long succession of blooms in the Habitat Hero Demonstration Garden at the Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities office, 2416 Snyder Avenue.    

            Nursery plants were purchased and planted in 2018. Garden host Sarah Bargsten, the new BOPU water conservation specialist, is quickly learning to distinguish weeds from self-seeded seedlings so that eventually the spaces between the original plants will fill in.

            Three private gardens are all tended by people who love to collect plants, so while you will see borders and raised beds like a normal garden, there is a lot of variety.

Experiments growing Wyoming native plants and other plants that might find Cheyenne’s climate comfortable fill Michelle Bohanan’s flower beds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Master gardener Michelle Bohanan uses the database function on the National Gardening Association website,, to track 900 species or cultivars she’s planted to date, though many have not survived Cheyenne’s climate.

Michelle has a mix of natives, horticulturally “improved” native cultivars and non-natives from parts of the world with climate similar to ours. Her garden is more of a laboratory but the overall effect around her pre-1890s house is quite charming. Her husband, Dean, is in charge of the temperamental roses.

Jutta Arkan’s ranchette landscape includes a variety of pollinator-friendly plants in raised beds, a rock garden and wildflowers out on the prairie. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Master gardener Jutta Arkan has an eye for landscape design. She and her boyfriend, Gus Schliffke, both retired Air Force, moved to their ranchette in 2018, about two miles north of Little Bear Inn.

Immediately, they went to work on a multi-year plan that included adding a third raised bed made with 70-pound stones, a rock garden, a “she shed” with a potting shed attached, vegetable garden, other garden beds and wildflowers seeded into the native prairie.

You will notice that the turf adjacent to the house looks like a golf course. It’s Gus’s domain and is managed with conventional practices as an intense recreational space. But Gus fully supports Jutta’s flower mania, calling himself her “indentured servant.”

Jack Palma, a member of the Cheyenne Habitat Hero Committee, provides water for wildlife in the shady garden behind his circa pre-1890s house. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Jack Palma is a member of the Cheyenne Habitat Hero Committee and has long been interested in birds and gardening. He and his wife, Do, own a pre-1890s historic house a couple blocks north of the Capitol. Big old trees make for a secluded backyard that he has enhanced with plants that appeal to him yet survive in shade.

Since joining the Habitat Hero committee, Jack has started to incorporate more natives. New this spring is a gravel garden at the side of the house that is almost entirely western natives.

As for the Habitat Hero Demonstration Garden at the Botanic Gardens, it started in 2018 with the seedlings I’d planned to put in my own garden plus other donations. It reflects my attraction to the prairie plants I first learned to identify in the “Sticks and Weeds” class at the University of Wyoming. It has lots of penstemons, coneflowers, columbines, milkweeds, yarrows, blanket flowers—all self-seeding and easy to grow. We’re all looking forward to welcoming you to the 2021 LCMG Garden Walk!

Cheyenne Botanic Gardens Habitat Hero Demonstration Garden


Crabapple spectacular

Flowering crabapples all over Cheyenne were spectacular this spring. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published June 12, 2021, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Crabapples offered spectacular show this spring in Cheyenne”

By Barb Gorges

            It was an exceptional spring for flowering crabapple trees all over town. Our wet weather provided moisture and no late frost killed the buds or flowers. The older trees are probably Dolgo (white) and Hopa (pink) varieties.

            If you are inspired to plant a crab, look for the newer varieties that are more disease-resistant and cold hardy to Zone 4. Some are purely ornamental and some produce fruit worth preserving as jam and jelly.

            Flowering shrubs have done well this spring, even lilacs, which are not reliable bloomers here.

            The first shrubs to bloom in our yard, very end of April, were the Nanking cherries. Honeybees were soon buzzing round them. They flower before they leaf out. Some years they lose their flowers in a poorly-timed snowstorm. This year it was the house finches pinching off flowers. They could be looking for nectar. They left enough blossoms that they’ll be assured of fruit by late summer.

Nanking cherry shrubs attracted honey bees in early May. Photo by Barb Gorges.

            Our American plum bloomed white next. A bird sitting in the tree overhead planted it years ago. Since there are few plants that thrive on the north side of a house, I left it to grow, even though I didn’t know what it was until it finally fruited about three or four years ago. The clusters of five-petalled flowers showed it was in the rose family, same as apples and cherries.

Golden currant blooms for a longer time than other blooming shrubs. Photo by Barb Gorges.

            Golden currants began to bloom as early as the Nanking cherries and continued much longer. They have tiny, bright yellow flowers. The birds planted one against the trunk of one of our old ash trees. You can’t get a shovel in the ground there. The other is a nursery variety, the name I didn’t record. It seems to flower more prolifically, but it also gets more sun and has less competition. Currants are edible, but we leave them for the birds. I noticed the birds have planted several more among the Nanking cherry hedge.

            Viburnum lantana is another shrub the birds have planted. There’s an extensive planting of it up on the corner. It gets thick white bunches of flowers and then red fruit that ripens into deep blue. Beloved by the birds, they plant more as they go. Just dug a two-year-old sprout out of the daisies for a friend with a bare backyard.

Viburnum lantana flowers eventually become dark blue berries. Photo by Barb Gorges.

            The last shrub to bloom in our yard is the chokecherry. Just the opposite of the Nanking cherry, it leafs out before it produces its long racemes of tiny white flowers, precursors to an abundance of fruit.

Mark likes to make jelly and syrup with it, with plenty of sugar. Because it flowers later, it’s less likely to be affected by late snows. If you, like me, want it to spread and fill in an area for more privacy, be sure to avoid some of the new hybrids like ‘Sucker Punch’ that are meant to be trees.

To keep a more primitive variety of chokecherry suckering as a thick hedge and to keep berries within reach, periodically remove the stems that want to become trees.

Chokecherry is one of Cheyenne’s hardiest shrubs/trees. Photo by Barb Gorges.

            Sally, our 15 ½-year-old Golden Retriever, and I have been walking around the neighborhood so slowly that there’s plenty of time to contemplate everyone’s front yard. I love the ones filled with flowers and thoughtful landscaping.

But it seems that each year more of the homes, built mostly in the 50s and 60s, are becoming rentals. I know for some of the houses it’s a case of the kids not ready to give up the family home after the parents are gone. But the problem is, most landlords, especially rental property businesses, and probably tenants as well, want low maintenance yards. They think those have to be turf only and are unlikely to plant more trees and shrubs. That could mean fewer crabapples blooming in 50 to 60 years.

Melting turf

I was on a yard call mid-May with Laramie County Extension horticulturist Catherine Wissner and Master Gardener interns to look at several issues. One was big dead areas all over the lawn despite the homeowner’s persistent watering last summer. As Catherine put it, the turf “melted” and left gray residue.

It’s a fungal infection. The best option if you want to keep growing turf in such an area is to consult your local garden center for the best anti-fungal product to treat it. However, this homeowner was planning to replace much of her turf with a mountain meadow-style landscape.

I love late spring/early summer. So green with possibilities.

Flowering crabapple detail: having 5-petal flowers is a characteristic of plants in the rose family. Photo by Barb Gorges.


Spring gardening pleasures

May 4: Tiny hail shower engulfs species tulips. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle May 7, 2021, “Finding new growth is a spring gardening pleasure”

By Barb Gorges

We had to buy new grow lights because we had so many tomato seedlings this spring. If you arrive at the Laramie County Master Gardener Plant Sale early enough, you can buy one.

Mark saved seed from our Anna Maria’s Heart heirloom tomatoes and our friends’ ‘Sunrise’ cherry tomatoes. He doesn’t test for seed germination, just seeds thickly. This year, he has 96 tomatoes growing on shelves in the bathtub and in the basement.

April 29: Mark Gorges uses fluorescent and LED (bottom shelf) lights to augment a skylight over the bathtub of this small bathroom to grow tomatoes for the Laramie County Master Gardener plant sale. Photo by Barb Gorges.

We bought two new shop light-type grow lights. These have red and blue LEDs. I was surprised to see that within a year of my last visit to Menard’s lighting department, there is not a fluorescent bulb to be found. You either buy a new fixture with integrated LEDs, or LEDs in a tube that can be made to work with some types of old fluorescent fixtures.

            I thought the 30-inch snowstorm mid-March (technically still winter) made my bulbs late to bloom. Then I realized I needed to remove a layer of leaf litter from over the crocuses. Later, when I glimpsed what I thought was a piece of windblown trash, it was really the big white “Giant Dutch” crocuses finally open.

April 10: “Giant Dutch” crocus. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Last spring my gardening was curtailed when I leaned over to pick a piece of trash out of the garden and wrenched my back. This year I’m trying not to do too much at one time. Then it snows or rains or blows too hard and limits me anyway.

            I was out again the last week in April pulling more leaves, finding many of my perennials sprouting greenery. Our front yard is a wind-swept expanse on which I’ve established mini windbreaks by planting a couple 18-inch-high junipers and by not cutting back my perennials in the fall. It works great for catching leaves and snow and protecting over-wintering pollinator insects.

I leave a lot of leaves as mulch to save moisture and to compost in place, but not so many that self-seeding plants can’t get some light. Later in the summer I add leaves back to suppress weeds.

            I also spent several hours in April cutting back last year’s perennial stems, chopping them into 3 to 6-inch segments and leaving them to become mulch/compost.

Some gardeners would have you leave old stems up longer or let them decompose without help, but in a publicly visible place like my front yard, or the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens Habitat Hero garden, where a crew of volunteers made cutting back go fast, it’s better to do it in April. Plus, it makes it easier to see the small, early bulbs blooming: crocus, squill, grape hyacinth and iris reticulata.

            Mark and I bought a new whiskey half-barrel planter, with the “Jack Daniels” stencil barely visible. Our old barrel lasted more than 30 years and two others the same age persist in more protected locations.

            Five years ago, in one of the few sunny spots in the backyard, I planted daylilies and iris I received free. Unfortunately, it is right where anyone needing access to our electrical connections needs to stand. I think it is time to move those plants and try a hardy groundcover planted between flagstones, maybe the “Stepables,” The trickiest part will be to find some to buy.

May 5: Perennial seeds planted in milk jugs in February (milk jug tops scrunched into the bottoms) sprout. Photo by Barb Gorges.

            In February I planted 24 milk jugs with perennial flower seeds and left them out in a cold, snowy corner of the backyard (see “winter sowing” at I moved them all to a sunnier location mid-April and all but five have seedlings already [the last five sprouted by May 8]. The question is, where do I plant them in June?

            I’ve been studying the front yard all winter from my office window. There’s still some lawn I can dig up to expand a bed and yet leave a wide margin of lawn along the sidewalk for shoveled snow, dogs on loose leashes and energetic children. I’ll continue to leave little turf trails for the mail carriers’ shortcuts.

            If you are tree planting this spring, be sure to remove all the burlap, twine and wire. Gently spread those roots out and get the transition from roots to trunk right at ground level. See Steve Scott’s excellent how-to at, “How to plant a tree in Cheyenne, Wyoming.”

            It’s a grand time to be in the garden, discovering all the new flowers and green growth, with the accompaniment of birdsong.

May 1: Honeybee visits Nanking cherry bushes in our backyard. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Garden lecture season lessons

“Nature’s Best Hope,” chaparral gardens, Plant Select, regenerative gardening and farming

Lauren Springer taught a class in chaparral gardening which features shrubby plants like rabbitbrush that need no irrigation once established. Photo by Barb Gorges.

“Gardeners learn lecture season lessons” was published April 10, 2021, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

            In gardening, there’s the growing season followed by the harvest season. And then there’s the lecture season, starting in January and extending into April.

            With many events going virtual this year, there was a lot to pick from.

            More than 300 people signed up for the virtual Cheyenne Habitat Hero Committee annual workshop in January. Many were from out of state, and even from Canada.

The workshop featured Douglas Tallamy, author of “Nature’s Best Hope.” He explained how planting at least 80% native plants in our gardens supports native insects, birds, other wildlife and people.

Jim Tolstrup, from the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, Colorado, talked about what native plants he grows and sells at the center’s annual plant sale.

Michelle Bohanan, Laramie County Master Gardener, explained how easy it is to start native seeds and the techniques she uses. The links to videos of all three talks are at

            Fort Collins Nursery always offers a nice lineup of  classes on winter Saturdays. I noticed Lauren Springer was offering one virtually on chaparral gardening.

            Springer, who has gardened in several Colorado Front Range communities over the last 30 years, specializes in what she calls “The Undaunted Garden,” also the name of a book she wrote and a garden she designed for The Gardens on Spring Creek in Ft. Collins, Colorado.

            Her idea has been to create lush arrays using plants hardy for our climate, from wherever in the world they might be found. In the eight or so years since the first time I attended one of her lectures, she has begun to emphasize native plants accommodating pollinators and saving water.

            This year, it’s chaparral—shrubby plants that do well in dry climates like ours. They need water the first year or two to get established and need only natural precipitation after that. They also need little maintenance. Some examples include Wyoming natives: threadleaf sage, fringed sage, rabbitbrush, leadplant, blanketflower, sulphur flower and prickly poppy.

            Springer declared that now at the age of 61, after years of landscape gardening, her knees are shot and she’d rather spend more time hiking and less time gardening. Most homeowners are of a similar mind so maybe this low-maintenance garden fad will catch on.

            The Cheyenne Botanic Gardens invited Ross Shrigley, executive director of Plant Select, to speak virtually. Plant Select is a cooperative endeavor of Colorado State University and the Denver Botanic Gardens. It develops plants suited to the Rocky Mountain region and gets them in the stores and catalogs. Some come from what’s now the High Plains Arboretum west of Cheyenne.

            The first part of Shrigley’s talk was a look at successful Front Range gardens and a few disasters. One disaster was a large pine tree that blew over, exposing that it had been planted without removing the burlap and wire cage around the roots and only one root escaped.

            Shrigley highlighted a number of plants to watch for as they come on the market. Not all are native to our region, but those would fit in Tallamy’s 20% non-native category. The non-native honeybees will enjoy them.

            Then I signed up for the four-day “Soil Regen Summit 2021” put on by the Soil Foodweb School, Much of it was geared to farmers and market gardeners from around the world.

            Elaine Ingham, who earned her PhD in the 1970s from Colorado State University and taught at Oregon State, is the director of the school. Her keynote talk explained how healthy soil works. It requires a massive number of microorganisms. They fill roles such as converter of plant materials on the soil surface and converter of minerals in the soil to make useable food for plants and other microorganisms.

            A functioning soil does not require chemical additives. To achieve this, farmers disturb the soil very little and keep it covered, either with mulch or a cover crop. Functioning soil also produces more nutritious crops.

            Market farmer Jean-Martin Fortier of Quebec, Canada,, explained how he works with regenerative farming guidelines successfully.

            The idea of not pulverizing the soil every year before planting is becoming mainstream. You can read about it on the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service website, Look for the Soil Biology Primer.

            Ingham made one startling declaration. If all farmers adopted regenerative agricultural practices, enough carbon would be sequestered to solve the climate crisis within six years.

            Farmers are beginning to see a way out of the petroleum-based fertilizer and pesticide cycle that has held them hostage for more than 70 years. There is more to regenerative agriculture than I can explain here so I hope you will investigate it for yourself.     

Shrub pruning basics

Pruning old chokecherry stems promoted growth of new, vigorous stems. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Mar. 13, 2021, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Horticulturist explains best practices for shrub pruning.”

By guest columnist Jessica Friis, horticulturist at Cheyenne Botanic Gardens

Shrubs are much more forgiving of pruning than trees. Pruning shrubs is more for aesthetic purposes.

Since trees get big, and the trunk and main branches are supporting most of the tree’s weight against environmental stresses like wind and snow, structural pruning is important. It prevents limbs from breaking and ensures that the trunk develops strength as the tree reaches mature size.

Shrubs, on the other hand, send multiple shoots out from ground level and aren’t supporting as much weight, so structural pruning is not as necessary.

Some of the pruning rules for trees also apply to shrubs. Dead wood should be removed–unless your shrubs are being used as a windbreak. In that case, you can leave the dead wood to provide more wind resistance.

Remove crossing branches to prevent rubbing and fusing, but don’t remove more than a third of the total canopy during the growing season. For safety reasons, remove branches that touch structures, block views for drivers, and obstruct public sidewalks and streets.

Winter is a great time to prune deciduous shrubs. You can see the branches better (but see notes below on blooming shrubs). Cuts should be made at ground level if removing the entire stem, or just above a bud or secondary branch if removing only part of it.

Pruning for aesthetic reasons

Pruning out the older, browner stems of red-twigged dogwood encourages the growth of younger, brighter-colored shoots.

But the most common reason people trim their shrubs is to control their size and shape. While shearing, the practice of cutting off the tips of branches with hedge clippers to produce a formal shape, is tolerated by some shrubs, I don’t highly recommend it, especially in Cheyenne.

Shearing is not necessary in most landscapes and it only cuts off the new growth. The middle of the shrub accumulates dead branches which stop producing leaves when they are no longer receiving enough light. Then, if an early or late frost kills a patch of tender new growth, or a broken branch due to a heavy snow removes a chunk of the shrub, you end up with a gaping hole that may take years to fill back in, or never fill in at all.

I recommend paying attention to the mature size of the shrub and selecting those that will fit into your landscape. For example, some lilacs can grow to be 10 feet tall, so don’t plant them in a place where you want a 4-foot tall shrub. If you do need to control the size of a shrub, cut the taller stems back at ground level, leaving the shorter, newer stems (and remembering the one-third rule).

Some shrubs can be cut completely back to the ground if they need to be rejuvenated, but research first to make sure your shrub will tolerate it, and make sure the plant is properly irrigated and fertilized so that it has the energy and nutrients needed to grow back.

Pruning for pest control and plant health

Sometimes there are pests that prefer older wood, like the lilac borer, so it is recommended to cut the older, thicker stems at ground level to prevent the pest from invading your lilacs. 

For shrubs that are susceptible to powdery mildew and other fungal infections, thinning out some of the stems to promote air circulation around the leaves will help. 

Older shrubs that are not irrigated should be pruned very sparingly. Removing the dead wood is all that should be done during the growing season.

In general, removing up to a third of the older stems at ground level to make room for newer, healthier shoots will improve the look and health of most shrubs, so this is the best practice to start with. Dead limbs don’t count as part of the third, so feel free to remove those at any time.

Pruning to promote blooming

If you have shrubs that bloom, it’s important to understand what type of wood produces the flowers.

In some shrubs, like lilacs, mock orange and viburnum, the flowers are produced on wood that grew the previous year. So, if you prune the shrub before it blooms, you will reduce the number of flowers you get that year. With those shrubs, it’s best to prune as soon as possible after the blooms have faded, to give time for new growth that will provide next year’s flowers. Usually, the shrubs that bloom early in the growing season are blooming on last year’s wood.

Shrubs that flower on new wood, like elder and potentilla, produce flowers on wood that has just grown and can be pruned any time, but may produce more flowers if they are pruned in the winter or early spring.

Some shrubs–including roses, hydrangeas and spirea—have varieties that fall into both categories, so you’ll need to know which type you have. If you are unsure, my advice is to prune right after the blooms are finished, just to be safe.

Colorado State University Extension has a list of flowering shrubs and pruning recommendations in publications at as does the University of Wyoming Extension  at

           Guest Columnist Jessica Friis is a horticulturist for the Paul Smith Children’s Village at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. This column will be included in the book due out this growing season, “Cheyenne Garden Gossip: Locals Share Secrets for High Plains Gardening Success.” The book is a compilation of columns on this website.

Gardeners busy in February

Amaryllis flower begins to open. Photo by Barb Gorges.

“Gardeners are busy in February” was published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Feb. 6, 2021.

By Barb Gorges

            February is a busy time for those of us who enjoy a plant-filled life.

            The first half of the month is overshadowed by Valentine’s Day. Did you know that 80 percent of American-sold cut flowers are grown in Columbia and flown here? Those growing conditions are often toxic to the environment and workers. Read about how that happened at, by searching for “Veriflora.”

            Veriflora, a program offered through SCS Global Services, is an attempt to encourage sustainable ornamental horticulture. You are most likely to find certified plants and flowers somewhere like Whole Foods, but try The Home Depot too.

            If your beloved is a gardener, try a gift certificate to a nearby or online nursery instead. Or one of the myriad garden books from Timber Press.

            Winter is when gardeners gather for lectures and conferences—virtually this year. Here in Cheyenne the 7th Annual Habitat Hero Workshop in mid-January featuring Douglas Tallamy and two other speakers had more than 300 people register. You can watch the recordings by using the links at, on the Habitat Hero tab.

            Feb. 27 is the Landscaping with Colorado Native Plants Conference, with a day’s worth of speakers. See There you can find the speakers’ handouts from conferences dating back to 2017.

            Fort Collins Nursery has its usual list of Saturday classes, now through early March:

Amaryllis flower at its peak. Photo by Barb Gorges.

February is the peak of my amaryllis collection flowering. I don’t put the plants through dormancy to try to get them to bloom at Christmas. Instead, I keep them watered and green year-round and they naturally bloom anytime between January and April.

I now have two Phalaenopsis orchids and their bloom schedule is similar. The new one started blooming shortly after it arrived by mail last April, and a couple flowers never dropped off. At the end of January, as I write this, they are still hanging on, surrounded by fresh blooms.

I might have hyacinth blooming by mid-month. In the fall I buried a pot of bulbs out in the vegetable garden. I marked the calendar for Feb. 2 to dig them up and bring them in.

The geraniums I brought in last fall are also blooming, so I don’t think Mark will be thinking I need more flowers for Valentine’s Day.

February isn’t too late to buy or order seeds. Last year, seed sellers ran short trying to keep up with demand—one garden news source says the pandemic encouraged 16 million people to garden for the first time last spring. Everyone should be better prepared this year.

Try regional online seed catalogs:

–High Desert Seed of Montrose, Colorado

–Wild Mountain Seeds of Carbondale, Colorado

–High Ground Gardens of Crestone, Colorado

–Snake River Seeds of Idaho

–Grand Prismatic Seed Company of Salt Lake City, Utah (also carries seeds for dye plants)

February is my last chance to get my winter sowing done. This is the technique well suited to cold-weather vegetables and perennial seeds, especially those that require cold treatment.

In a translucent milk jug that has been sliced horizontally just below the handle, I put wet potting soil about 3 inches deep. Seeds are planted at a depth of twice their width and then the top of the milk jug is forced into the bottom—they are flexible so it works. Leave the jugs on the north or east side of a wall so they don’t get too much sun.

Maybe move them into a sunnier location in late April, early May, when seedlings start popping up. No expensive lights or heat mats required. Just make sure the potting soil doesn’t dry out and that you slashed some slits in the bottoms of the jugs so that melting snow doesn’t cause all the contents to float.

Itching to spend time outside? Have any tree or shrub pruning to do?

With our lack of snow this winter, you have plenty of time to get out a measuring tape and measure your yard and plot its current accoutrements on paper. Make copies so you can sketch in different ideas for next season. I want to enlarge my front native/perennial/pollinator beds using the ergonomic shovel, HERShovel, Mark gave me for Christmas.

Finally, visit the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens conservatory. Walk through the tropical display on the first floor, following the arrows. The humidity will feel wonderful. Across the lobby in the Orangerie, continuing through March 13, is the Annual Glass Art Show, full of all the colors we crave in winter.  

Fort Laramie strawberries tough, tasty

Our Fort Laramie strawberries have a national reputation for taste and winter toughness.

Photo courtesy Gardens Alive.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Dec. 26, 2020, “Our Fort Laramie strawberries have a reputation for taste, winter toughness.”

By Barb Gorges

            “Fort Laramie Strawberries are from the ‘ice-box’ section of our nation, Cheyenne, Wyoming. This is a super hardy, wonderfully producing everbearing strawberry. You’ll harvest your first berries this very summer! And what berries – HUGE, bright, scarlet-red berries….”

–Burgess Seed and Plant Company, Bloomington, Illinois, online catalog description

            January isn’t too early to order your strawberry plants for spring delivery.

            The strawberry variety, Fort Laramie, touted in many catalogs, was developed here at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cheyenne Horticultural Field Station which opened in 1928. In 1974 it changed its mission and became the High Plains Grasslands Research Station.

            Test plantings of strawberries began about 1934. The two most famous varieties, Ogallala and Fort Laramie, are still popular today.

            Retired Cheyenne Botanic Gardens director Shane Smith remembers Gene Howard, the last director of the hort station before it switched, telling him these successful strawberries could trace their genetics back to native strawberries in the nearby mountains. The station’s successful plant varieties were often named for nearby places.

Selecting strawberry varieties

            I talked to Jane Dorn, a veteran home strawberry grower who remembers spending summers with her grandparents on their ranch near Encampment and her grandfather growing Ogallalas. She’s grown Fort Laramies in both Cheyenne and in Lingle, where she and her husband retired.          

            Fort Laramie strawberries are classified as everbearing, compared to day neutrals that bear continuously, and June bearers which are less hardy here.

In Cheyenne, “everbearing” means if there isn’t a late frost that kills the flower buds, they will bear in June or early July. You’ll get a second flush in the fall if an early frost doesn’t get the flowers or ripening fruit. Their hardiness promise, Zone 3-7, is that with a little protection, the plants will survive from year to year.

            While strawberries can be grown from seed, seeds are not as available as one-year-old plants. Fort Laramie plants are widely available online and in spring at local nurseries. Should you want to try other varieties, Jane suggested looking for those labeled as blooming “late mid-season” or “late.”

Chris Hilgert, University of Wyoming Extension horticulturist, says other than the hardy Fort Laramie, Ogallala and Charlotte, other varieties may require growing in a hoop house to be successful. Or be prepared to cover your plants when frost threatens during berry development.

            Chris will have a new publication on growing strawberries in Wyoming available early 2021 at

Fort Laramie strawberry plants are easy to find in online catalogs.

Photo courtesy Gurney’s.

Winter protection

            Jane recommends straw or other winter mulch 6 inches deep. It can be pulled back in the growing season to suffocate weeds and keep the berries clean.


            The best planting method for everbearers is the hill style. Soil is mounded about 8 inches high in a berm the length you need. The plants are spaced 12-15 inches apart in a double row. Removing runners allows each plant to put its energy into making more and bigger berries. Jane also uses raised beds, even an old water trough.

            Planting starts is a bit tricky, Jane said. There’s barely an inch of stem between roots and leaves. Dig a hole deep enough that the roots can hang straight before you fill in the dirt. She said two-thirds of the crown (where the leaves have been attached) should be above the soil line.

            Renovating your strawberries will be necessary every three or four years. Check there’s no disease before planting in the same place.


            Don’t skimp on watering. Figure one inch of water a week. Put a container out in the garden and see how long it takes to fill to the one-inch mark when you irrigate. Drip irrigation works well. Morning watering is best. If leaves are damp at night, it increases the likelihood of powdery mildew.


            Chris said fertilizing each year, and enough water, is the only way to get berries.

Jane is a fan of compost. Once she’s established the strawberry bed, a top dressing of compost will work itself in. You can also buy specially formulated strawberry fertilizer.


            Jane weeds by hand. You don’t want herbicides killing your plants and hoeing could disturb the shallow roots. Pull weeds frequently, while they are small.


            Every bird and other kind of critter loves strawberries! You’ll have to experiment with fencing, floating row cover and netting. Remember, some animals tunnel.


            Shane mentioned red stele disease which is caused by a soil fungus. It is most prevalent when strawberries are grown in wet conditions in clay soils. The roots rot—the stele, or core of the root turns red. You’ll notice your plants are less productive. He suggests starting a strawberry bed in a new location with resistant varieties.

January isn’t too early to order strawberry plants. They’re shipped at the right time.

Photo courtesy Burgess Seed and Plant Company.


Gardening gift ideas

Published Dec. 12, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Gardening gift ideas: books, shovels, orchids”

By Barb Gorges

            Thinking about ways to treat yourself or a gardening friend this holiday season? See what you think of these ideas.

“A Way to Garden: A Hands-on Primer for Every Season” by Margaret Roach            Margaret’s garden blog posts show up every Sunday morning in my email. They are transcripts of her radio interviews with all kinds of people in the garden world. Their chats are always inspiring and informative.

            This book of gardening information is an updated edition of her first book from 21 years before. Margaret, like us, is in Zone 5, but in New York State so some of the advice may need to be adapted a bit for here. I enjoyed the luscious photos and her generous gardening philosophy.

The Earth in Her Hands: 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants by Jennifer Jewell

Sometimes, on the way to gender equity, we isolate the underdogs to bring them to the public’s attention. I hope in years to come we won’t need to separate by gender anymore for projects like this.

            I found this book to be a fascinating read, not just because it highlights the accomplishments of women from around the world, but because it showcases the enormous variety of their plant-related careers and how they found them.


            Margaret Roach, garden journalist (mentioned above), is in here and so is Lauren Springer, garden designer in Ft. Collins, Colorado.

Here are some of the many other careers included: nursery owner, flower farm owner, floral designer, landscape architecture firm owner, horticulturist, public garden leader (various titles from CEO to director), landscape architect photographer, seed education program founder, garden historian, garden artist, garden magazine editor, herbalist, professor, scientist, horticultural therapist, botanist, botanical photographer, botanical artist, ancestral plant medicine educator and advocate, garden writer, biodynamic farmer, seed keeper, plant pathologist, plantswoman, gardener.

HERShovel, Green Heron Tools

            I asked for a shovel last Christmas, one in the style a gardening friend enjoys using. But it wasn’t the same shovel—hers may be out of production. It was heavy, the handle was too thick for my short fingers, the step at the top of the blade was too narrow, and it wasn’t good at scooping.

            Two women came up with a shovel a few years ago designed specifically for women—it’s “hergonomic.” Some men find it more comfortable to use too. For one thing, it comes in different sizes: small for people under 5-foot-2 and large for people over 5-foot-7 and medium in between.

It has a large “D” handle, wide enough to grip with both hands and it is light. I’m anxious to try one. Then maybe I won’t be asking my husband, Mark, to help me dig as often.

Even if you don’t get a HERShovel, or the HERSpadingfork, check out Green Heron Tools,,  for advice on proper shoveling technique and maintenance.

Because the two business owners originally trained in health care, they have illustrated physical health tips for gardeners. The best one is to change activities every 20 minutes or so. For instance, change off between weeding, pruning and digging to give a break to the different muscle groups used in each.


            Last spring, I took advantage of Fantasy Orchid’s pandemic mail order sale. It coincided with a couple of warm days and the box arrived from Louisville, Colorado, having been in transit only two days.

            I ordered a Phalaenopsis since I already had one and know that it is cat-proof. It arrived with big buds ready to open within a week, by mid-April.

            The last two of those 15 flowers are still hanging on. The miracle is that now, in early December, the first two flowers of the next wave have opened. There are at least another 10 buds developing that should last well into spring or even summer.

            This orchid has been a wonderful pandemic companion. We have it on our kitchen table and enjoy it every day. Having it 3 or 4 feet from our southeast-facing window means the blooms will last longer in the dimmer light. When it quits blooming, we will give it more sunshine. For more on how easy orchids are to grow, see   

We are what we eat and so are plants

“Gardening Without Work” by Ruth Stout

Published Nov. 14, 2020 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle

By Barb Gorges

 “You are what you eat,” is a phrase first attributed to a Frenchman in 1826, then a German in 1863. In 1942 it was the title of a book by American Victor Lindlahr. Plants are what they eat, too.

A multitude of sources today tell us we are healthier eating less fat, sugar, and salt. We are also healthier without the chemicals of conventional farming and food processing, as are farmworkers and ecosystems. The enormous growth of the organic food industry in the last decade shows consumers are listening. Even Cheyenne has an all-organic grocery store now.

Back in the 1970s, the organic food co-op I shopped off-campus expected me to bring my own containers and measure out my selections. Today, organic food may come in bulk quantities, but it is often packaged for convenience, even as frozen dinners.

 Organic convenience food costs more than what people may be willing to pay to switch to organic. But there are three ways to make eating organic more affordable.

1) Buy basics

And buy a freezer or take up canning if you buy in bulk. But even if you don’t do food preservation, buying already frozen produce is fine. Simple protein-vegetable-fruit meals from scratch don’t take that long to cook if you plan a bit (observes the woman who lets her husband do much of the cooking).

2) Plan for leftovers

Get them in the fridge or freezer asap so they don’t become part of the 40 percent of food thrown out in this country. Soup I make from last night’s leftovers is my favorite lunch and dinner is often creative casseroles.

Cooking mostly from scratch and not wasting food goes a long way to making organic food affordable.

3) Grow your own food.

But not all home-grown produce is created equal.

Your tomato is what it eats—the nutrition it gets from the soil. To get nutritious soil, skip conventional farming and gardening methods, and conventional commercial fruit and vegetable varieties.

 Donald Davis, University of Texas at Austin, was the lead on a 2004 study titled, “Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999.” It reported that many nutritional elements are lower in today’s varieties because they have been developed to grow fast.

“Uptake of nutrients has not kept pace with their rapid growth,” Davis said.

 Other studies also show a drop in nutrient values over the decades is due to fewer nutrients available in the soil. The more synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are poured on, the less nutritious the soil becomes because beneficial microbes are starved or killed.

And the more you need to keep pouring on. The for-profit chemical companies have had great marketing campaigns since the 1940s to make you think theirs is the only way to grow.

The alternative is to encourage soil microbes to grow in your garden. What do they eat? Compost and mulch, plant and animal materials. And then they feed your plants. See my column,

 J. I. Rodale was one of the early proponents of organic growing, and even the inventor of the term, “organic” to refer to the method. He started the magazine, “Organic Farming and Gardening” in 1942.

“Organic Gardener’s Companion: Growing Vegetables in the West” by Jane Shellenberger

Now the Rodale Institute is focused on regenerative organic agriculture. Not just sustainable agriculture but methods that improve ag land. It includes techniques such as permaculture, agroforestry and no-till farming. And organic gardening.

My favorite find at a used bookstore is any book by a garden writer pre-World War II, or even WWI, to find out how they gardened before the age of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

Most are not how-to books, however one written in 1961 by Connecticut gardener Ruth Stout is: “Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy & the Indolent.” The cartoon-like cover also says, “no plowing, no hoeing, no cultivating, no weeding, no watering, no spraying.” That describes organic.

A more available book better suited for us is Jane Shellenberger’s “Organic Gardener’s Companion: Growing Vegetables in the West,” published in 2012. She is the publisher and editor of “Colorado Gardener” magazine. Read all issues free online at

See my past columns for how to start your new vegetable garden and smother the grass over the winter where you want it to be. Also, Google “organic vegetable seed companies.” You deserve to eat well and be well.