Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming

Garden Maintenance: Watering, Weeding, Mulching and Fertilizing

fertilizers

Fish emulsion fertilizer and time-release fertilizer

Published June 17, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Garden-sitting: Getting the veggies you want takes work, patience and water.”

My season-long experiment to raise “Gold Nugget” yellow cherry tomatoes and cosmos from seed has cleared a major hurdle: transplanting.

When moved to its outdoor spot, the cosmos never even wilted a leaf.

One tomato with a damaged stem is growing fine. I’d made a little trench to lay it in and buried it completely, except for the top tuft of leaves.

Along with the tomatoes and cosmos, heliotrope, strawflower, eggplant, red cherry tomatoes, squash, pumpkin and gourds–the rest of my seed starting efforts—are growing in my garden. Now the plants and I have settled in for three months of watering, weeding and waiting.

Watering

The first thing I noticed after transplanting is that my vegetable garden layout doesn’t make for easy hose watering. I have to admit my wide bed design was influenced by the photo my son, Jeffrey, sent of his and his housemates’ garden. But I would imagine in Seattle, they seldom irrigate.

While my perennial gardens have done just fine over the years being next to the lawn sprinkler system, I’ve discovered the closest sprinkler head doesn’t reach the back of the vegetable garden.

There’s also the accepted wisdom that you should keep water off the tomato leaves to reduce spotting and rotting. (Good thing it doesn’t rain much here.) Plus, I would expect the pet sitter will charge double if she has to haul the hose around the yard whenever we are away.

All spring, I’ve been attending lectures sponsored by the Laramie County Master Gardeners and reading books by gardeners from Colorado’s Front Range. The advice is always the same: drip irrigation. Besides, it can use 30-50 percent less water than sprinklers. Turns out even the Seattle garden is set up for drip.

This is the method in which you lay out plastic tubing with little holes lining up with the plants which lets water soak into the ground rather than spray into the air with much of it blowing away.

When I look at the vast expanses of bare ground between vegetable plants—which will presumably be filled as the plants grow, it makes sense not to waste water on unplanted ground—it would benefit only weed seeds.

My plan is to check out what drip irrigation systems are available locally and compare them to my notes. You can read similar notes at http://www.ext.colostate.edu/PUBS/Garden/04702.html.

I’ll need a fitting that splits the water at my backyard faucet so that I can continue to use the hose when I need it. I’ll also need a backflow preventer, filter and pressure regulator.

Then there’s the ½-inch or ¾-inch flexible plastic tubing to take the water along the edge of the lawn out to the vegetables. For each plant I’ll plug in short pieces of micro-tubing with an emitter on the end—that gives me the flexibility to change things next year.

The hard part is figuring out how long to run the water to get an adequate amount to each plant. If spells of drying winds or heavy rainstorms don’t have to be taken into account, a battery-operated timer can be inserted.

The pet sitter would like that.

But, you ask, who wants to see black plastic tubes all over their garden? The answer is covering them with mulch, which is also the answer to weeds.

Weeds

In 30 years of gardening, here and southeast Montana, my worst weeds were the unwanted aspen sprouts in the lawn after we cut down the trees. The best control was pulling them for two summers. They disappeared after that. No poison required.

My perennial beds, about 200 square feet total, are converted lawn. Other than grass invading the edges, they have never had more than the occasional thistle or bindweed seedling, maybe a sprouting chokecherry pit deposited by a passing bird. And that’s the key—catch weeds while they are small.

Go out to admire your garden often and the interlopers will be easy to spot. Also, it’s easy to pull weeds out of healthy soil high in organic matter. In a small garden, forget the hoe—it just brings more weed seeds to the surface to sprout.

But on the other hand, if you see a weed you don’t recognize in your flower garden, let it grow. I had one turn out to be an unusual pink columbine. It’s happy in that shady corner and growing better than other plants I tried there over the years.

Check your unknown plant against Wyoming’s official noxious weeds list. Visit http://plants.usda.gov and click on the Invasive and Noxious Weeds link to find Wyoming’s list with links to photos of the species. The site also has a plant identification key. If you have a real weed, don’t poison it; just pull as much of it as you can before its roots develop. Definitely get it before it goes to seed.

Mulch

My front yard perennials grow so closely together they nearly completely shade out weeds. In other areas I depend on mulch.

I use last year’s leaves and grass clippings a couple inches deep—after the self-seeding seedlings get established in the spring. Mulch in my new vegetable garden is also cutting down on the erosion of the edges of the wide beds.

Be sure your lawn hasn’t recently had weed killer applied before using your clippings or they will kill your plants. Over the course of the growing season, as the mulch breaks down, you’ll have to add to it. Straw and pine needles are also recommended by experienced gardeners here.

I am not fond of sheets of plastic or weed barrier cloth covered by rock or bark mulch around landscape plantings. I worked on a college grounds crew one summer and discovered the weeds punctured the plastic. All kinds of dirt and detritus, including weed seeds, blew in around the rocks.

If you like rocks, make a rock garden. It will be less labor intensive than redoing rock mulch every year to keep it looking nice. Plus, vegetation cools the local environment in summer.

Plant-based mulch does several things besides shading out weeds. It eventually composts and fertilizes the soil. It also:

–Slows evaporation of soil moisture (saving money on watering);

–Keeps beneficial organisms and earthworms cool and happy;

–Keeps the soil surface from forming a crust that can repel water;

–Keeps plants from getting splattered with mud during hard rain; and

–Keeps dry soil from blowing—though you may have to figure out how to keep the mulch itself from blowing away.

If you find slugs under your mulch, maybe you need to water less often. Remove some of the mulch for awhile to let things dry out.

For pros and cons of different kinds of mulch, pick up the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens’ tip sheet on mulching or find it at www.botanic.org.

Fertilizer

For perennials, I’ve never added fertilizer other than mulch that eventually composts, but my kinds of perennials are closely related to native wildflowers and are not classified as “heavy feeders.” I am, however, feeding my vegetables and annual flowers liquid fish emulsion as prescribed by the package directions.

There are also compost “tea” recipes you might like to brew. See http://www.beginner-gardening.com/compost-tea.html.

Next month, I’ll let you know how the drip irrigation installation went. Please send me your most common Cheyenne lawn and garden problems and I’ll look for solutions. Also, tell me what you do to protect your garden from hail.

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