Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


Composting can be simple

Compost bins

These composting bins built by Don McKenzie of Cheyenne are crafted with a few extra features, such as handholds on the front boards to aid in sliding them up and out when the time comes for turning or removing finished compost. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Aug. 2, 2015 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s Journey section, “Don’t be afraid to compost. Put your food waste and yard waste to work; composting is easier than you might think. ”

By Barb Gorges

“Compost, 3. A mixture of various ingredients for fertilizing or enriching land.” (This definition first recorded in print in 1258 A.D.)—The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

It wasn’t long after agriculture was invented, I’m sure, that someone began talking about composting. Maybe it even predated agriculture, and someone simply noticed the plants growing next to refuse piles were larger than the rest.

Today, composting methods can vary, but they ultimately accomplish the same thing: provide a nutrient dense soil for your plants.

Styles of composting

There are the free-form methods of composting where, like jazz, we are inspired to experiment with what’s available. Whatever goes into the piles, eventually decays.

Then there are the methods requiring careful construction, like classical music: a particular size and construction of bin, proper proportions of green and brown materials, and a certain amount of moisture and manipulation to maximize the speed of decomposition.

And of course, rather than make their own music, many folks opt for the radio, sending yard waste to the city’s compost facility. And, hopefully, everyone is also picking up finished compost to use in their gardens.

Benefits of composting

Whatever kind of composting you choose, keep in mind the benefits of applying composted material to your yard:

–Compost provides nutrients, same as chemical fertilizers, plus more micronutrients.

–Compost has microorganisms that help plants absorb nutrients.

–Compost releases nutrients slowly so that plant growth is healthier.

–Compost helps the soil hold water.

–Composting by using leaves and grass clippings as mulch means you don’t have to buy other mulching materials. (If your yard doesn’t produce enough stuff to compost, visit the city compost facility or ask neighbors.)

At the most primitive level, composting can be accomplished with tools you already have for yard and garden maintenance, and with not much more effort than disposing of yard waste.

The science of composting

Over time, Mother Nature rots nearly every once-living thing. Still, there are a few principles to keep in mind for best results.

Several sources say the optimal size of a pile is a cubic yard, 3 x 3 x 3 feet. Using some kind of container–a bin, trash can or fencing–holds it together.

Composting requires the right amount of moisture. With our dry climate, you may need to add water sometimes.

Composting requires oxygen, or you may begin to get the odor of anaerobic decomposition. Holes in the side of the bin or wire mesh sides help. So does turning the pile, so that the stuff in the center trades places with the outer part.

Introducing good microbes speeds the process and is as easy as adding a little dirt—even soil clinging to weed roots may be enough.

Mixing green stuff, like grass clippings, with brown stuff, like dried leaves, with the addition of regular turning, can make the compost “cook” hot, possibly hot enough to kill weed seeds and diseases. But like me and my husband, most folks I talked to don’t manage their compost at that level–not enough to reach that sanitizing heat level.

What not to compost

We are primarily discussing composting yard and garden waste and so everything is a candidate. However, we should talk about a few exceptions:

–No seeds of weeds. Add weeds to compost before they go to seed.

–No weeds that sprout easily from little segments of roots, like bindweed and creeping bellflower. (Creeping bellflower has lavender bell-shaped flowers, and is common in Cheyenne.)

–No diseased plants.

–No woody stuff unless it is chipped into small pieces. If it doesn’t decompose in one batch, sift it out and add it to the next, or put it under your shrubs and trees as mulch.

–Nothing that has been treated with herbicides within two months. Same goes for pesticides, especially if it is intended for the vegetable garden.

Manure is a more complicated subject. It has to be from a grazing animal—not from cats, dogs or people. It could be full of seeds. It could be full of salts, which our soils do not need. It could be full of medications. It could be too hot—too strong—and burn your plants if it hasn’t aged enough.

Composting kitchen waste is something I’ve never been able to get my family interested in. But what I’ve learned is you want to stick to plant materials. No meat, no dairy, no grease, no oils, no salt, no processed food with unpronounceable ingredients. Maybe eggshells. To be safe, just stick to fruits and vegetables—including coffee grounds.

And no wood ash. Gardening books written by easterners forget that places like Cheyenne already have alkaline soils and wood ash will make it worse.

Methods

Years ago, Mark and I bought a system that is essentially a sheet of heavy green plastic with several stakes that fit into any of multiple slots in the sides to form it into a barrel shape 3 feet high and 8 feet around (2.5-foot diameter). We throw stuff in and when we need some compost, perhaps months later in the spring, we dig out the stuff at the bottom.

We have four large trees that shed plenty of crispy curled brown leaves in the fall. Some of those we layer in the vegetable garden after frost to decompose. Some I use in the perennial flower bed for winter insulation—thinning them out in the spring if necessary.

The rest we bag up to keep them from blowing away, saving them for spring. Then, we dig more of them into the vegetable garden, use them as mulch or add them to the bin between layers of lawn clippings—though clippings are often used as mulch as well.

I recently visited Laramie County master gardener Maggie McKenzie to see what she is experimenting with these days.

Her husband, Don, built a nice three-bin system, much like the one you can see next to the green shed at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. One bin is for collecting, one for cooking and one is available for spreading.

Lasagna gardening

Hugelkultur, a European gardening method in which compostable materials are layered over logs and wood debris, is catching on in the U.S. Maggie McKenzie established this bed last year and her husband, Don, decided to add the retaining wall. Photo by Barb Gorges.

She is also having success with “lasagna gardening.” To start a new garden bed, lay down a thick layer of wet newspapers (The Wyoming Tribune Eagle is printed with soy-based ink and is safe to use) or wet cardboard.

Top that with a 2-to-3 inch layer of peat, then a 4-to-8-inch layer of yard waste, then more peat, then more yard waste, until you have built up 18 to24 inches. As it ages, it will shrink. Letting it overwinter is best.

Maggie’s lasagna is for vegetables and is set up inside a raised bed frame, which keeps the wind from taking it apart. For annual upkeep, just add more layers. It is supposed to be ideal for starting and maintaining any kind of garden.

 

Hugelkultur

(Hugelkultur) Hugelkultur, a European gardening method in which compostable materials are layered over logs and wood debris, is catching on in the U.S. Maggie McKenzie established this bed last year and her husband, Don, decided to add the retaining wall. Photo by Barb Gorges

Maggie is also trying a variation of lasagna gardening that includes logs and other woody debris. Known as a hugelkultur bed, the woody layer is placed on top of the wet newspaper or cardboard.

The decomposing wood provides a steady supply of nutrients and holds moisture. Don finished the mounds nicely with retaining walls of sandstone.

Resources

Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, http://www.botanic.org. Look for the brochure on composting under “Gardening Tips.”

University of Wyoming Extension Department, http://www.wyoextension.org/publications. Search for “composting.”

“Organic Gardener’s Companion, Growing Vegetables in the West,” by Jane Schellenberger, editor of the “Colorado Gardener,” www.ColoradoGardener.com.

“The Colorado Gardener’s Companion,” by Jodi Torpey of Denver.

“Lasagna Gardening,” by Patricia Lanza.


Match wits with weeds

Tyler with stirrup hoe

Tyler Mason, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens’ horticulturist, demonstrates use of the stirrup hoe in his wide beds in his plot at the community gardens. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 12, 2015 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s Journey section: “Can you weed out the weeds? Try these strategies to get your lawn and garden in tip-top shape.

By Barb Gorges

“A year of weeds leads to seven years of hoeing.” –Folk saying recounted in “Sustainable Horticulture for Wyoming,” University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service.

The penstemon in my perennial flower garden is creeping into the lawn. The grass is creeping into the flowers. Technically, that means both penstemon and grass are weeds—out-of-place plants.

Besides growing where they are unwanted, most weeds are aggressive, crowding out preferred plants and even reducing the productivity of vegetables. Often native to Europe or Asia, coming here accidentally or intentionally, they seem to outpace even native plants, excelling where ground is disturbed.

Unfortunately, weeds aren’t usually as edible as our vegetables or as beautiful as our flowers. But for a different outlook, check out “The Wild Wisdom of Weeds” by Katrina Blair, a Colorado gardener.

I recently visited with Tyler Mason about strategies for dealing with weeds. He is now the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens’ horticulturist. He practices integrated pest management, opting for the least toxic, but effective, methods to control weeds.

Thistle

Canada thistle may require several applications of appropriate herbicide to eradicate it. If you chose not to poison it, don’t let it flower and spread seeds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Know your adversaries

The two biggest weed pests in gardens here are field bindweed and Canada thistle. Both develop extensive roots. And any tactic that doesn’t remove or kill every little piece will increase their vigor.

Creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides), with stalks of multiple lavender bell-shaped flowers, runs a close third because it spreads too well.

Also on Tyler’s list: dandelion, curly dock, crabgrass, plantain, and common groundsel.

The book “Weeds of the West” is a great field guide to weeds in gardens, cropland and rangeland.

Beware of Trojan horses

Manure is great fertilizer, Tyler said, but not if it still has viable seeds when not thoroughly composted. Sometimes, weed seeds may come with plants you bring home.

Plantain

Plantain, native to Europe, is a shallow-rooted weed that likes bare, compacted soil, thus its nickname: “white man’s footprint.” One plant can produce 20,000 seeds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Don’t stir things up

There are hundreds of seeds lying dormant in the soil just waiting for a bit of sunlight. Tilling the vegetable patch brings them to the surface.

No-till gardening is becoming more popular. Once a bed is built, the soil and its micro-organisms are allowed to do their thing, improving soil structure and fertility. Amendments are added as top-dressing.

In the Botanic Gardens’ community garden Tyler is using wide-bed gardening in his plot this year instead of the traditional rows. Each bed is a berm about 6 inches high by 2 to 3 feet across, running the length of his garden. Access paths on either side are well-mulched with straw, reducing the area needing to be weeded.

By not stepping on the berm and compressing it, the soil holds more water.

“Be effective with your water,” Tyler said. Water right where you need it. Same with fertilizer–don’t broadcast it over the garden, otherwise the excess will feed the weeds.

Stirrup hoe

The stirrup hoe, pushed or dragged so that its sharp lower edge is barely under the soil surface, severs weed seedling roots. Because it disturbs so little soil, fewer new weeds will follow. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Get them early

If your garden has any bare soil, you are bound to see weed seedlings. Pull them right away. Even thistle and bindweed are easy to pull, roots and all, when they are less than 2 inches tall. To disrupt seedlings while you are in a standing position, use a stirrup hoe like Tyler does, pulling it through the top quarter-inch of soil to severe the roots.

How do you know which is a weed seedling and which is a vegetable seedling? Plant seeds in a pattern. Or give your garden an advantage over weeds by transplanting starts rather than direct seeding.

Keep them in the dark

Black plastic sheeting, with holes cut for inserting vegetables, is a way to mulch. Used with drip irrigation and soluble fertilizers, it can be pricey.

Weed barrier cloth is often used for landscape plantings. But it can make it harder for the roots of desired plants to get water and nutrients. Over time, dirt blows in on top and weeds sprout anyway.

Rock mulch is popular these days, but it doesn’t contribute nutrients the way a mulch of organic materials can, like bark.

Creeping bellflower

In Cheyenne, creeping bellflower is quickly taking on a reputation similar to bindweed. It spreads and is difficult to eradicate. Photo by Barb Gorges.

In flower and veggie gardens, Tyler recommends materials that compost quickly and can be turned under, like grass clippings, tree leaves, straw (not hay with seeds). Take care they are not from diseased plants. Also, make sure they were not sprayed recently with herbicides. Weeds that poke through are easier to pull because the soil surface has not been baked by the sun.

Another way to keep weed seeds in the dark is to grow more densely—keep the ground shaded. Maintaining a healthy lawn cut about 3 inches high will shade out weeds, Tyler said.

Behead them

It is amazing how many seeds one weed can produce. The master gardener manual says dandelions have 15,000 seeds per plant.

Don’t let weeds flower. If you don’t have time to remove them, deadhead them by hand or mower.

Hori hori knife

The hori hori knife, a Japanese garden tool readily available here, is good for removing bigger weeds. It has a sharp edge on one side and a serrated edge on the other. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Dig them out

Tyler is fond of the hori hori knife, a traditional Japanese garden tool that looks like a narrow, pointed hand trowel with a sawtooth edge on one side. This is a good tool for weeds that breach the mulch, are too big for the stirrup hoe, or that have roots about as deep as the hori hori is long.

Overgraze them

When I was a range management student, I learned that cattle prefer forbs (wildflowers) over grass. They will nibble these “ice cream plants” to death if left in a pasture too long. Conversely, they could be trained to eat weeds.

So if you have thistle and bindweed in your garden, keep removing the green leafy parts as often as you can and eventually the plants can very well starve to death. At least they won’t spread.

If you have an over-grazed pasture full of weeds, please consult the Laramie County Conservation District.

Bindweed

One of the most difficult weeds to kill, field bindweed grows bigger leaves in more fertile soil. Tyler Mason likes to isolate bindweed from non-target plants by coiling up the vines in a cup with a hole in the bottom, and then spraying it with an appropriate herbicide. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Poison the invincible

There might be a situation that justifies using herbicides. But first, you have to find the right one for your weed, so you must be able to identify it.

Then you must follow the directions exactly as to formula strength, timing and weather conditions. Keep in mind that some herbicides will volatize—turn to toxic gases—when temperatures are more than 85 degrees F and then will blow onto non-target plants, the neighbors, your pets or yourself, Tyler said. He doesn’t recommend broadcast spraying or using feed and weed products. It can lead to toxic runoff which pollutes surface and ground water. Spot treat instead.

Exceeding herbicide label recommendations is another problem. It can burn the top of the plant, not allowing the plant to transfer the toxin to its roots—and so it re-sprouts instead of dying.

Finally, be sure to deadhead weeds before spraying so that bees and butterflies won’t be poisoned by poisoned flowers, Tyler said.

Draw the line

I heard that a concrete curb poured around the edge of a flower bed can be breached by grass.

I’m trying this solution, edging a bed with flagstones flush with the lawn. The lawnmower can run two wheels along them and no string trimming is necessary. However, in the spring, or whenever grass shows up between the stones, I can upend them and take a shovel to the white root-like grass stems, known as stolons, and cut them back.

Another advantage over concrete curbing: I can change the size and shape of my flower beds whenever I like.

Gardening is about discrimination, discouraging some plants and favoring others. Vigilance is important. But is there a gardener who doesn’t enjoy an excuse to spend time out in the garden?


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.

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