Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


Vegetable growing advice

 

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Laramie County Master Gardener Kathy Shreve prepares a trench for seeds in a raised bed set up with soaker hoses. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle June 4, 2017, “Time to get your garden growing.”

 

By Barb Gorges

I spent a recent evening in the garden with Kathy Shreve, Laramie County master gardener, reviewing what to know about local vegetable gardening. The topics mentioned here are covered in greater depth in the “gardening” section of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens website, http://botanic.org, which also has the link to the archive of my previous columns.

Timing

Wait until the end of May or later to transplant tender veggies like tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers or put them under a season-extending cover like a low tunnel. You can also plant them in containers you can scoot in and out of the garage.

However, Shreve started cabbage and onion plants indoors and planted them before the snow May 18-19 and they were fine. Some vegetables, like members of the cabbage family, don’t mind cold as much.

While peas, cabbage types, lettuces and other greens, can be planted earlier than the end of May, most vegetable seeds planted directly in the garden prefer warmer soil temperatures. Measure with a soil thermometer found at garden centers.

Shreve said we can plant as late as June 20. Plant fast growing crops as late as July if you want a fall harvest.

Location

Keep in mind the vegetable garden needs a minimum of six hours of sun per day, preferably morning sun.

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Shreve transplants cabbages she started indoors. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Transplants

Because of our short growing season, tomatoes and other tender vegetables are started indoors. Always look for the short season varieties of these plants. Shreve said she looks for 80 or fewer “days to maturity.”

If the plant was not outside when you bought it, it will need hardening off. Start with the plant in the shade for two or three hours and day by day increase the amount of sun and the length of exposure by a couple hours. Keep it well watered.

When transplanting, Shreve advises digging a hole for your plant, filling it with water, then letting it drain before planting.

To remove a plant from a plastic pot, turn it upside down with the stem between your forefinger and middle finger. Squeeze the pot to loosen the soil and shake it very, very gently.

If there are a lot of roots, you can gently tease them apart a bit before putting the plant in the hole.

Hold the plant by the root mass so that it will sit in the hole with the soil at the same level of the stem as it was in the pot. Fill soil in around the roots, then tamp the soil gently.

However, tomatoes can be planted deeper since any part of their stem that is underground will sprout roots, the more the better. In fact, Shreve said to pinch off all but three or four leaves and bury the bare stem.

Lastly, keep plants well-watered, not soggy, while they get established. Wait a couple weeks before adding fertilizer to avoid burning the plants.

Mulch

Shreve mulches with certified weed-free straw available at local feed stores, but grass clippings and last year’s leaves can also be used.

Placing mulch 2 to 3 inches deep keeps the soil from drying so fast, shades out weeds and keeps rain and overhead watering from spattering dirt onto plants, which may spread disease. It can also keep hail from bouncing and inflicting damage twice.

 

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Seed

Root crops, like carrots and beets, don’t transplant well, so you are better off starting them from seed.

While fresh is good, Shreve said she’s had luck with seed seven years old. But the germination rate isn’t going to be great. She might spread carrot seed a little more thickly if that was the case, and it’s easy to thin to the proper spacing (and the thinnings can be tasty).

Because Cheyenne is dry, Shreve plants in a little trench. That way, when moisture comes, it will collect down where the plants are.

Seed packets tell you how deep to plant. The rule of thumb is three to four times deeper than the breadth of the seed. Lay the seed in the bottom of the trench and sprinkle that much dirt on them. Then water well, but gently, so you don’t wash out the seeds. Keep the soil surface moist until the seeds germinate.

Lightly mulch when the seedlings are visible, adding more as the plants get bigger.

Mark rows with popsicle sticks or plastic knives left from picnics.

Water

Once plants are established, let the top 1-2 inches of soil dry out between waterings. Test by sticking your finger in the soil. Water deeply.

Shreve waters every other day using soaker hose and drip irrigation systems, except when it rains. She originally tested her system for 30 minutes to see if water made it to the root depth and decided on 40 minutes.

Water in the morning, or at least make sure leaves are dry before dark.

Bugs and weeds

Mulch should eliminate most of the need to weed. Shreve said to keep up with it—it’s easier to pluck weed seedlings than to have them establish deep roots and go to seed.

For bugs, Shreve said it is easy to Google “what insect is eating my cabbage,” or take the critter, or evidence, to the Laramie County Extension horticulturist, Catherine Wissner. Her office is now out at Laramie County Community College, fourth floor of the new Pathfinder Building.

Never use pesticides until you identify your problem, and then try the least toxic method first. Again, more is not better. Never apply more than the directions indicate.

Slugs—my nemesis—indicate a garden is too wet.

Shreve said to roll newspaper to make 1 to 2-inch-diameter tunnels. Place rolls around affected plants in the evening. By sunrise, the slugs will be inside the rolls to get away from the light and you can dispose of them, rolls and all.

Fertilizer

Never add wood ash or lime to our alkaline soils as those work only on eastern, acidic soils.

Shreve likes slow-release products which are less likely to burn the plants, as are the natural fertilizers. Additionally, compost tea is a good soil conditioner.

Again, more is not better. Shreve uses half of what is directed until she sees how the plants respond.

Over-fertilization of fruit-producing vegetables like tomatoes often keeps them from producing the flowers that become the fruit. Shreve said they need to be stressed a little bit because it gets them thinking about preservation of the species and producing seed, rather than just enjoying life and producing leaves.

“Just leaves” is OK if you are growing leafy vegetables like lettuce, kale, spinach and chard.

Trellis and cage

If you are growing vining vegetables, getting them off the ground means fruits stay cleaner and don’t rot, and they are easier to find and pick. Use old chain link gates, bed springs, or anything else—be creative.

Hog panels make sturdy tomato cages 5 feet high and 2.5 feet in diameter for larger, indeterminate varieties, with chicken wire over the top for hail protection. Otherwise, use jute twine to loosely tie the stem to a bamboo stake.

Add flowers

Adding annual flowers like alyssum, marigolds and sunflowers, or herbs including dill and oregano, attracts pollinators and beneficial insects to your garden.


Straw bales conquer garden problems

2016-8 straw bale 1, Susan Carlson, by Barb Gorges

Laramie County Master Gardener Susan Carlson shows off peas growing in her straw bale garden. The spruce trees protect the garden from north wind and the shade cloth protects the delicate lettuce in the rest of the garden from too much sun. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Aug. 14, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Straw bales conquer many garden problems.”

By Barb Gorges

Did the thought of the work involved in starting a vegetable garden keep you from having one this year? Did time for all that rototilling or digging in of compost never materialize? Or maybe you tried a garden in our clay soils and results were poor?

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Straw Bale Gardens, by Joel Karsten, Cool Springs Press.

Susan Carlson, a Laramie County Master Gardener, can recommend a solution: straw bale gardening. Her stepson, who lives in Minnesota, brought her the book by Minnesota native Joel Karsten describing his miraculous method.

This is the second season Carlson has used rectangular straw bales for vegetables and her results look good. She also included flowers.

The idea is that a straw bale is compost waiting to happen. Before the growing season begins, over a couple weeks, you add water and a little fertilizer—organic or inorganic—and it will activate an army of bacteria. The bacteria break down the straw, turning it into just what plants need. Plants can be inserted into the bale or seeds can be started in a little potting soil placed on top.

The bale is like a container or raised bed held together with baling twine. You can set it anywhere, even on a driveway. You don’t prepare the ground underneath.

And, depending on how clean the straw is, you will have few weeds, or wheat or oat sprouts, that can’t be easily removed by hand. You’ll have more sprouts if you accidently bought hay—which includes the heads of grain—instead of straw, which is just the stems.

Straw bales might also be the solution to vegetable plant diseases that persist in soil. Gardeners are always advised not to grow the same family of vegetables (especially the tomato-eggplant-pepper family) in the same spot more than once every three years. You can start a fresh bale each year, although Carlson managed to keep her bales intact for a second year.

Carlson studied Karsten’s book, “Straw Bale Gardens.” Here’s what she did:

First, obviously, she found straw bales.

I checked a local farm and ranch supply store and their regular bale, about 3 feet long and 60 pounds, runs about $7. Avoid the super-compressed bales.

A bale bought in the fall from a farmer should be cheaper than in the spring, after they’ve had to store them all winter. In fall, you can put your bale outside to weather.

If you’ve had problems with mice or voles, as Carlson has, lay chicken wire or hardware cloth down first. Cut a piece big enough to fold up and protect several inches of the sides of the bale.

2016-8 straw bale 2, set up, by Barb Gorges

Carlson’s straw bale garden consists of five bales forming a u-shape. They are planted with (from left) haricot vert green beans, cabbage, a tomato, lettuces, petunias and edible pod peas. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Lay out your bale prickliest side up, and so the sides wrapped with twine not against the ground. Carlson bought five bales and formed them into a u-shape to fit within an area fenced to keep out her dogs.

Because she planned to grow beans, Carlson made a trellis as well. She wedged two bales, lying end to end, between two 5-foot steel “T-post” fence posts (about $5 each) and then strung wire at about 10 and 20 inches above the bales. She can add more wire if the plants get taller. Karsten recommends 14-gauge electric fence wire (but you won’t be plugging it in).

On the ground inside the u-shape of bales (or between your rows), Carlson laid landscape fabric. You could use some other material to keep light from germinating weed seeds, like a layer of thick straw, cardboard, wood, wood mulch, etc.

Next, Carlson “conditioned” the bales, starting about two weeks before our last frost date, which is around May 22, though you can start a week earlier because the bales form a warm environment.

The first step here is to find cheap lawn fertilizer with at least 20 percent nitrogen content as Carlson did the first year. Do not use one that is slow-release or that contains herbicides.

You can also use organic fertilizers, like bone or feather meal, or very well-composted manure, but you need to use six times more than the amounts given for inorganic fertilizer. The second season, Carlson said, she is having good results using Happy Frog packaged organic fertilizer, but using much less since the bales were conditioned once already last year.

The conditioning regimen begins the first day with a half cup of inorganic fertilizer (or six times more organic) per bale sprinkled evenly all over the top and then watered in with your hose sprayer until all of it has moved into the bale and the bale is waterlogged, writes Karsten.

The next day you skip the fertilizer and water the bale again. Karsten suggests using water that’s been sitting out for a while so it isn’t as cold as it is straight out of the tap.

Days three through six you alternate between fertilizer-and-water days and water-only days.

Days seven through nine you water in a quarter cup of fertilizer per bale each day. The bales should be cooking by now and feel a little warmer on the outside.

On day 10, add a cup of 10-10-10 garden fertilizer. The numbers mean 10 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus and 10 percent potassium.

Next, lay out your soaker hoses on top of the bales if you are going to use drip irrigation as Carlson has.

On day 12, Carlson transplanted one cherry tomato plant directly into the bale, wedging it in. Smaller plants are easier to plant than large ones and will soon catch up.

“Bacteria are breaking down the inside of the bale and making this nice environment,” said Carlson.

2016-8 straw bale 4 beans by Barb Gorges

Carlson’s Haricot vert beans. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Mostly, Carlson wanted a salad garden and so she started everything else from seed: edible pod peas, Haricot vert beans (a type of tiny French green bean), lemon cucumbers, broccoli, spinach and various lettuces.

She packed a couple of inches of sterile potting soil (not garden soil) into the tops of the bales in which to plant the seeds. The warmth of the composting straw got them off to a good start.

She added shade cloth overhead to protect the lettuces from too much sun and started cutting romaine and butterhead lettuce by mid-June.

Carlson also used shade cloth on the west side fence to keep the wind from drying out the bales too quickly.

And there you have it, a vegetable garden—or a flower garden if you prefer—ready to grow. All you need to do then is to garden as you normally would: enough water, fertilizer once a month, and pull the occasional weed that may sprout, or pick off any little slugs or insects.

Maybe because of our dry western climate, Carlson was able to use her bales this second year. The bales shrank a little so she patched the gaps between bales with bits of chicken wire on the sides and filled them with potting soil.

One question is what to do with the old bales. They are great compost for conventional garden beds. Carlson reached into the side of one bale and showed me lovely black soil. If you don’t have any conventional garden beds to add it to, someone else would be happy to take the compost off your hands.

“This isn’t the prettiest thing,” Carlson says of her straw bale garden, “but when it starts growing, you don’t even look at the bales.”

2016-8 straw bale 3, detail, by Barb Gorges

While most straw bale gardeners start with fresh bales each spring, Carlson was able to use hers for a second season. She pulled away a little straw on the side of this bale and discovered it is full of rich compost. A soaker hose keeps the vegetables watered. The green steel fence post is part of the trellis system. Photo courtesy Barb Gorges.

 


Drip Irrigation; July Garden Report

drip irrigation filter

Drip irrigation filter.

drip irrigation timer

A drip irrigation timer is something we added later.

drip irrigation parts

Drip irrigation (from top left): punch gun, 1/4-inch tubing, emitters, loop stakes, 1/4-inch barbed couplings.

Published July 15, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Irrigate your garden: Setting up a drip system isn’t as complex or time-consuming as you might think, and your garden will thank you later.”

By Barb Gorges

A watched garden never grows, it seems. But go away for a week and the change is significant, thanks to our pet sitter’s help.

She must have a green thumb, and the new drip irrigation system made it easier for her to be successful.

Drip installation

Installing drip is easy enough. It only took two trips to the store—we forgot to buy an end cap—and two extra trips because the clerk accidently let us go home with underground sprinkler tubing, which does not work with drip emitters—it is too thick.

Actual installation, including 25 emitters at the ends of 25 spaghetti tubes, took about as long as driving round trip to the store four times—just over two hours.

It is best if the tubing and fittings are all from the same company, although you’ll use general plumbing materials to get from the typical ¾-inch-diameter home faucet to the recommended ½-inch-diameter drip tubing for home use.

To give you an idea of cost, here is my shopping list (in order of installation from the faucet):

$3 – Vacuum breaker (3/4-inch), a simple backflow preventer keeps water in the hose or drip tubing from getting sucked back into your household water supply.

$11 – Y-connector (3/4-inch), allows you to hook up the drip system and a hose at the same time and turn them on independently.

$5 – Water pressure regulator (3/4-inch), to prevent blowing up your drip tubing when you turn the water on.

$10 – Y-filter (3/4-inch). There are other types, but all keep sediment in the water from clogging emitters.

$6 – Length of PVC pipe, cement, converter to ½-inch tubing, etc. We had the PVC pipe extend to ground level and then attach to the drip tubing.

$0.80 – ½-inch elbow fitting. The tubing is so flexible we didn’t need more than one elbow. There are also T-fittings so that you can have the tubing branch off, down each row of vegetables or to each raised bed. The fittings are forced onto the ends of the tubing—no tool required.

$10 – ½-inch tubing, 100 feet, cuts easily with pruners

$1.50 – Bag of 10 ½-inch loop stakes to hold the tubing in place.

$10 – Punch gun, makes the right size holes in the ½-inch tubing to fit the emitters or barbed couplings attaching the ¼-inch tubing.

$2 – Bag of 25 ¼-inch barbed couplings to pop into the holes in the ½-inch tubing to connect the ¼-inch-diameter tubing. Each hole corresponds to a plant you want to water. These barbs are not needed if you run your ½-inch tubing right next to each plant and put an emitter in each hole.

$7 – ¼-inch tubing, 100 feet, cuts easily with pruners. I used plain tubing, but there’s also tubing with holes every so many inches, or tubing of a porous material—soaker tubing.

$4 – Bag of 10 emitters, either 1 gallon per hour or 2, to pop into the holes on the ½-inch tubing. Or, if you use plain ¼-inch tubing extensions, you pop them into the ends of those tubes. You can also install little sprinklers that spray instead of emitters which only drip, but that defeats the idea of saving water by keeping it from becoming airborne and evaporating. See box for gallons per hour calculations.

$2 – Bag of “goof plugs” in case you have punched a hole you don’t want and need to plug it.

$1.50 – Bag of 10 ¼-inch loop stakes for holding the ¼-inch tubing in place.

$1 – end cap, ½-inch. If you don’t have this on the far end of your ½-inch tubing, you just have a holey hose!

We already had some Teflon tape and a wrench for all the plumbing connections so I didn’t count them.

Because I set up my system for 25 plants, I had to buy multiple packages of emitters, barbs and loop stakes. My total was $90. But remember, I’m saving water.

Best estimates are that the plastic components could last as long as four years, especially if I keep the tubing covered in mulch, out of the sunlight that could deteriorate it.

Is it worth it? Yes. Our pet sitter was successful in keeping our vegetables alive during 90 to 100-degree days by just turning on and off the water. We could put a timer on if we had no pet sitter.

Drip in the perennial desert

While I was away, I did a spot of gardening at my mother’s in Albuquerque, in the New Mexico desert. In her neighborhood, migrant Midwesterners have planted a lot of trees and lawns, though there are a lot of natives such as agave and yucca.

Mom has no lawn. Instead, she has a huge perennial garden on drip irrigation. Because the plants aren’t in neat rows like vegetables, she uses ¼-inch soaker tubing attached to the main tubing and winds it around the plants.

Mom grows xeric (needing less water) varieties of some of our favorite perennial flowers from our Midwestern childhoods, including roses, though sometimes, she says, it seems like she’s growing annual roses.

Snails are a big problem. They come out after rain or watering and devour tender plants. They are over an inch in diameter. Maybe if you feed them expensive plants like roses, you could sell them to expensive restaurants as escargot.

July Garden report   

I gave up on the nasturtium seeds I planted (yes, I soaked them 24 hours first) after three weeks and replaced the three inches of mulch, but when I came home I found they had popped through at last. Other than tree seedlings which I pull, and random sunflowers which I let grow, there are no weeds in the vegetable garden, thanks to the dried leaf mulch over-laid with grass clippings each week.

It’s now easy to see I’m growing two types of tomatoes, even though both are cherries. The red cherry tomatoes are indeterminate, never ending their growth. The clue was seed packet directions to plant them 3 feet apart. The plants were three feet tall by the end of June and needed tying to the trellis. They will continue to grow all season, producing tomatoes as they go. Wonder of wonders, I could see little green fruits June 25, one month after transplanting.

The yellow cherry tomatoes, “Gold Nugget” variety, didn’t say they were determinate, but the seed packet said to plant them one per square foot. They are only half as tall as the reds and apparently they will produce their crop all at once, even though they already had flowers developing by mid-June.

The cosmos I started from seed got their first blooms mid-June, however the strawflowers and heliotropes are still meditating.

Out among the perennials, the perennial bachelor buttons (Centaurea montana), painted daisies, and columbine are finished, the penstemons almost. Shasta daisy, black-eyed Susan, bee balm and gaillardia are filling in. The agastache planted late last summer should bloom for the hummingbirds which usually come through mid-July to early August.

The herbs: oregano, basil, lavender, rosemary, sage (culinary, that is—not sagebrush), thyme and lemon balm, don’t have showy flowers but the rubbed leaves smell good and sometimes Mark cooks with them.

It will be a little while yet before we can cook with the vegetables from the garden.

Note: I’m interested in hearing from more readers about how to deal with hail.

BOX

Gallons per hour calculations

Which emitters you chose, 1 or 2 gallons per hour, depends on how much water pressure you have, how quickly your ground soaks up water and how long you want to leave the system on during each watering. You can mix them in the same system if some plants need more water than others.

If your faucet flows at 100 gallons per hour, you could, theoretically, use up to 100 1-gallon or 50 2-gallon per hour emitters.

How much water does your faucet produce per hour? Figure out how long it takes for it to fill a 1-gallon container. Take that amount of time and divide it into the number of seconds in an hour. If it takes 10 seconds to fill, divide 10 into 3600 seconds in an hour and you have the rate of 360 gallons per hour.