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.

 


Dealing with garden pests

 

2016-06Antelope FE Warren AFB 3 by Barb Gorges

Pronghorn graze in winter on the lawns in front of historic residences at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Familiarly known as antelope, they can be garden pests. Photo by Barb Gorges. 

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle June 19, 2016, “How to keep pests out of your garden.”

By Barb Gorges

Summer in the garden looks so idyllic from afar—especially back last winter when you were dreaming about it. And then a couple weeks after the last frost, the annoying summer visitors show up, the garden pests.

I asked Catherine Wissner, University of Wyoming Extension horticulturist for Laramie County, what pests people call about most. Her top three are ants, yellowjacket wasps and weeds.

I dealt with weeds in a previous column, but I would like to address those pests and a few more with an eye to integrated pest management. By that I mean the minimum impact on human health, the environment and non-target organisms.

That includes growing the right plant in the right place, checking plants regularly, identifying pests correctly and trying physical and biological control methods before reaching for chemicals.

For more information, see the UW Extension publications at www.wyoextension.org/publications.

When it comes to garden pests, we humans, the big-brained species, should be able to outsmart even a hungry critter.

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This might be a colony of pavement ants, which are similar to sugar ants. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Ants

Last summer we had little brown ants making themselves at home along the cracks in our patio. We followed Wissner’s suggestion to put a sugar substitute, aspartame (one brand is NutraSweet), on top of every mound. Between that and caulking the cracks, we cut down on the numbers. But will aspartame work on bigger ants?

“Aspartame only works for the tiny sugar ants,” Wissner said. “For the bigger ants you can buy ant traps at the grocery store. They seem to work and there are no poisons for pets to get into.”

2016-06Western and Prairie Yellowjackets - Barb Gorges

These wasps, though yellow and black like many bees, have hard and shiny-looking exoskeletons compared to the furry honeybees and bumblebees. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Yellowjackets

Yellowjackets like the meat and sugary foods served at picnics and they can be aggressive in late summer. But Wissner notes their ill effects on the beneficial garden insects as well.

“All wasps are predacious and go after caterpillars, grasshoppers and sometimes spiders as a food source for their larvae. If you are trying to develop a butterfly garden, then they are a problem,” she said.

Wissner recommends yellowjacket traps sold at hardware stores, “The best one I found is a hexagonal green sticky trap that hangs. It also catches flies. Late April is the best time to put out traps (to catch the queens), but it’s not too late to put them out now.”

To picnic safely in our yard, we have used the yellow plastic traps with the refillable attractant (which is toxic to pets). We hang them out of reach and 20 feet away from pets, food and people. The brand we use has a wasp identification chart and so far we’ve caught prairie and western yellowjackets.

Keep Benadryl or similar antihistamine on hand if someone gets stung and starts to swell.

2016-06Aphid Wikipedia

Aphid, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Aphids

It’s hard to see tiny green (or other color) aphids, but easy to see the damage they cause sucking on plant leaves, making them curl or grow misshapen.

Prevention is the best cure for aphid and many other insect infestations. Wissner said, “They are a good indicator of plants and the soil system being off balance. Too much fertilizer and not enough water typically invites bugs.”

In other words, a stressed plant is a target for hungry insects, who, like wolves, go for the sick and weak, stressing them further.

Besides adjusting fertilizer and water amounts, you can knock aphids off with a stream of water. If the leaves are sticky with aphid “honeydew” you might want to prune them away before the stickiness attracts other insects and fungus. And you can try treating the leaves with neem oil.

Other insects

Some beneficial insects leave behind a bit of cosmetic damage. The leafcutter bee cuts little circles out of the edges of leaves for building its nest. It doesn’t usually hurt the plant and as Wissner said, “They are important in the garden and pollinate a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and flowers.”

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Slugs. Courtesy of the University of California Integrated Pest Management Program.

Slugs

It’s surprising to find slugs in Cheyenne, with average precipitation of only 15 inches a year. I didn’t have any until a few years ago.

I asked Wissner her favorite remedy for slugs. “Chickens,” she said.

If that isn’t an option, beer traps have worked well for me, especially in the vegetable garden. I’ve sunk a 6-ounce yogurt container in the ground and filled it half way with cheap beer (though I hear better beer works better). The slugs are attracted to the yeast, dive in and drown. The next morning, I remove the slugs by pouring out the traps into an old kitchen strainer held over a bowl and then pouring the beer back in the traps. I can reuse the beer several days.

For slugs in the flower garden it is easier to change the habitat—thinning out the vegetation and removing the leaf mulch for a while, giving the birds a chance to find any slugs I didn’t already pick off. “More air, less moisture,” said Wissner.

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Rabbit foursomes are meeting in the middle of our street in broad daylight. Where are the neighborhood owls and foxes? Rabbit stew sounds good though hunting is not allowed in the city limits. Besides, as soon as you remove one rabbit, another one pops up. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Rabbits

Fencing is the best option, chicken wire about 2 to 3 feet high and buried about 6 inches deep to keep rabbits from digging under. Our backyard is completely walled in and our dog Sally is on patrol, so no problems there.

In the unfenced front yard, I apparently don’t grow any flowers that are lush and delicious, except for pansies and so I don’t grow those there anymore. Instead, the rabbits nibble our grass. One garden blogger suggested growing clover in your lawn, a rabbit favorite, as a distraction. It also provides nitrogen for lawns, a key nutrient.

My friend Florence Brown has particular plants she guards with the prunings from her rosebushes. The thorny mulch can keep rabbits away as well as dogs and cats.

 

2016-06Antelope FE Warren AFB 2 by Barb Gorges

While many plant catalogs will mark certain plants as deer resistant, they don’t mention whether they are also antelope resistant. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Deer and antelope

You might think deer and antelope are only a problem for the folks living on acreage outside of town, but it seems the antelope from F.E. Warren Air Force Base walk into the west side neighborhoods in late winter looking for snacks.

Both deer and antelope are browsers, fond of shrubbery, but they will occasionally pick off less woody plants. While many plant catalogs will mark certain plants as deer resistant, that isn’t a guarantee they won’t get eaten.

Various substances are recommended as repellents, but need to be reapplied frequently and after rain. Or you can build a cage to protect an important plant.

2016-06Caged rosebush by Barb Gorges

A cage protects a rosebush in Wendy Douglass’s garden outside Cheyenne. Photo by Barb Gorges.

There’s only one solution for growing vegetables in deer-filled neighborhoods, Wissner said, “Tall double fencing.” The idea behind a fence inside a fence is that deer are hesitant to jump a fence into a space if there isn’t enough room to take a running jump back out. For particulars, talk to Wissner, 307-633-4383.

 

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Fruit is a large part of the American Robin’s diet. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Birds

While Mark and I invite birds to our yard for the many benefits they provide, if we wanted to harvest our chokecherries, or grow other fruit, we would need to put up netting at the right time—before the fruit begins ripening (birds like it greener than we do). But also, Wissner said, “It needs to be monitored several times a day as birds have a tendency to get tangled up in the netting.”

 

Addendum: Ground squirrels, pocket gophers and prairie dogs are a menace to rural gardens. Try protecting trees and other plants with chicken wire and repellents. For information about traps and poisons, consult your Extension office or your county conservation district. For the Laramie County Conservation District, call Rex Lockman, 307-772-2600.

2016-06Pocket-Gopher - Wikipedia

   Pocket gopher. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.