Published May 20, 2012 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Tomato Time! Here are some useful tips for successful planting and transplanting.”
Cheyenne’s average growing season weather is very pleasant. It is just those pesky extremes averaged in, those bursts of hail, hard rain, wind, cold and heat that make successful gardening tough.
Even though this spring has been unusually dry and warm, I’ve been expecting the other shoe to drop—snow. Did you gamble on more warm weather and put your plants out before Cheyenne’s recommended planting date of May 24?
Remember, there is still a 10 percent chance of frost until June 8, so make sure you have your old sheets at the ready to cover your plants on a cold night. Or try a product called floating row cover, which is spun polyester fabric available at many garden supply centers.
There are plenty of flowers and vegetables that weather a little frost–tulips, daffodils, crocus and other early bulbs and early perennials. Keep in mind for next year that pansies can be planted as early as April 15—and they bloom all summer.
Among the vegetables, the cole crops such as cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower, do fine with a bit of frost, either seeded directly or as transplants that were started even earlier indoors. No wonder cabbage-based dishes are a feature of ethnic cooking in cold, northern, short-growing-season countries.
For a list of recommended planting times for vegetables in Cheyenne, visit the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens or go to its website, www.botanic.org, and look for the Garden Tips sheet titled “Planting Schedule.”
By the last week in May, it should be safe to transplant everything else and sow seeds for plants that don’t need a head start, such as marigolds, squash and pumpkins, or those that dislike being transplanted, such as sunflowers and nasturtiums.
Some Cheyennites wait as late as the end of the first week in June to put in the heat lovers: tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.
To find out how to choose plants at the nursery, I talked to Jessica Friis, the assistant education director at the Paul Smith Children’s Village at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. She is a graduate of the landscape management program at Brigham Young University and manages the Village’s gardens.
“Ideally, you’d want smaller plants that aren’t root-bound. It’s hard to find that. Find some that haven’t bloomed yet. Make sure they have been well-watered and the soil feels moist,” she said.
Businesses other than nurseries can sometimes do a good job of plant care, she said, but be careful.
As you may know from previous columns, I’m challenging myself to grow tomatoes from seed, “Gold Nugget” yellow cherry tomatoes, and an annual flower, cosmos. I don’t feel so bad now, knowing they won’t be flowering when I’m ready to transplant them outdoors.
When picking out perennial plants that will grow well here, look for those marked “Plant Select.” This is a breeding program partnership between Colorado State University, Denver Botanic Gardens and growers. This label is an indication that the variety will perform well in Colorado, which generally means it will also thrive in Cheyenne. You can find them in Cheyenne nurseries.
Chances are that you are buying plants that were on display outdoors. If not, or you grew your own, give them an opportunity to gradually adapt to sun and wind, a process known as hardening off. Put them out for a couple hours one day, and a couple hours longer the next, increasing exposure over several days, making sure plants don’t wilt.
Friis has a few tips for successful transplanting.
For annual flowers and vegetables, turn the garden bed first (break up the soil crust), 6-8 inches deep. Then water it a day or two before you plant.
Also: “Water plants really well before planting, getting them soaking wet,” she said.
When you dig a hole for a plant, Jessica recommends making it twice the width of the root ball so the roots have an easy time growing.
Make sure your hole is deep enough the roots don’t fold back on themselves.
“We bury plants a little deep, up to the bottom set of leaves,” said Friis. “It gives a little extra protection.”
On tomato plants, you can even bury the second set of leaves.
Hold the plant over the hole at the proper height and fill in around it with dirt.
For plants that are root-bound, Friis said there is a debate about whether to “tear” the roots first.
“Try to loosen them up without breaking them,” she said.
When pulling annuals out in the fall, she said it is easy to see that roots that circled round and round in their pots before planting never grew any further out all summer—and neither did the plant tops.
If not root-bound, keep the root mass intact as much as possible to lessen transplant shock. Otherwise, a plant has to re-establish all those little root hairs before the green part can start growing again.
For seedlings in peat pots, the pots don’t decay much in the soil here and can inhibit growth. Break off the bottoms if the roots haven’t penetrated them yet. And don’t leave the rim of the pot sticking above ground—tear it off.
In Cheyenne, we should space flowers more closely than recommended, Friis said. Since we have such a short growing season, flowers won’t otherwise fill in the garden completely until nearly the week before first frost (September 20), so planters at the Children’s Village are packed thick.
“We use a slow release fertilizer, like Osmacote, applying it once a month,” Jessica said. “Or you can use a liquid fertilizer every week to two weeks.”
She fertilizes closely packed planters every week. However, many perennials, especially natives, require very little fertilizing other than decomposing mulch.
Don’t forget a layer of mulch for all your plants. Bits of semi-decomposed plant material, including leaves and grass clippings (don’t use fresh clippings though), will keep the soil from drying out too quickly. It also will shade out the weeds. Don’t leave mulch touching plant stems.
And finally, water well each day for several days, until plants are established, but water carefully so plants don’t become mud-bedraggled.
Read the seed packet directions to find out how deep seeds need to be planted. Try making a wide bed vegetable garden to avoid compacting the soil. See the Garden Tips sheet at www.botanic.org or pick it up at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens.
Don’t hesitate to thin seedlings as recommended, since crowding will decrease your yield, as a friend of mine discovered last year when she harvested the skinniest carrots she’d ever seen.
I collected seeds from last year’s flowers: marigold, feverfew, penstemon and gaillardia. Since the seeds didn’t cost me anything, I can sprinkle them generously this spring where I’ve pulled the winter leaf mulch away around the fading tulips.
I will water the seeds well and crumble a thin layer of old leaves over them for shade. My soil does not have a tidy, smooth surface so enough seeds always find the right spot to take root.
Do you have trouble with rabbits snacking on your new plants? Friis has found that a short, rabbit-proof wire fence works better than deterrents that must be reapplied frequently.
Next month we’ll take a look at other ways to mulch, water, fertilize and maintain a garden.