Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


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Starting gardens: find sun, soil, water

2018-03-05PerennialGarden 1byBarbGorges

This perennial garden keeps expanding. The raised bed with the hail guard on top is where we grow the vegetables, the sunniest spot in front or back yard. Photo by Barb Gorges. 

By Barb Gorges

Is this the year you’ve decided you’ll spend more time on flowers and vegetables and make that boring expanse of lawn more colorful and edible? Here’s how to start.

Find the sun

Find where the sun shines on your yard and where the shadows are. This is the very first and most important step you must take. If you didn’t notice last year, you can estimate.

See where the shadows of currently leafless trees fall during the day. Find the sunny, south-facing side of your house.

For vegetables you want the sunniest location possible, at least 6 hours of full, summer sun. Do you have overgrown or dying trees and shrubs that need pruning or removal? However, a little shade by late afternoon keeps veggie leaves from temporarily wilting.

Keep vegetable gardens close to the house so it is easier to step out and pull the occasional weed and pick the ripe tomatoes.

Flowers aren’t as picky about sun because there are kinds suited to different light levels: sun, part sun, part shade and full shade. If you desire to grow a certain kind, google its light requirements.

Block the wind

In most residential neighborhoods there are enough obstacles, houses and landscaping, to blunt the wind. But if you are out on the prairie, you might want to put delicate plants in the lee of the barn or plant a windbreak first.

Get the dirt

Soil is anything a plant can stick a root into.

Good soil for vegetables (and other annuals) has lots of microorganisms that help feed the roots. Most vegetables are big feeders. They use lots of nutrients, so you’ll want to dig in compost the first year and then add layers of leaf/plant/kitchen compost mulch after that as needed. No need to dig again in future years.

If you use chemical fertilizer instead (unfortunately limiting good soil microbes), remember to follow the directions. Too much nitrogen gives you leaves and no fruit and too much of any fertilizer gives you sick or dead plants. And remember, Cheyenne has alkaline soils so do not add alkaline amendments like lime and wood ash.

Perennial plants rated for our zone 5 or colder (Zones 3 and 4), especially native plants, are really quite happy with whatever soil is available. If you are trying to grow flowers in the equivalent of pottery clay, gravel pit or sandbox, you might look for native species adapted to those kinds of soil. Or consider growing your plants in a raised bed or container you can fill with better soil.

Water carefully

Here in the West, water is a precious commodity so save money by not throwing it everywhere. If you have a sprinkler system, make sure it isn’t watering pavement.

The new era of home landscaping encourages us to replace our lawns with native perennials because they use less water. Native plants also provide food for birds, bees and butterflies, and habitat for beneficial insects. The Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities is installing a demonstration garden at its headquarters this spring.

But you will need to water a new perennial garden regularly until it gets established, and at other times, so figure out how far you want to lug the hose or stretch a drip irrigation system.

Once established, a native perennial garden not only takes less water than a lawn, but it doesn’t require the purchase of fertilizers, pesticides or gasoline for the mower. Your time can be spent admiring flowers instead of mowing. Although if you convert a large lawn to a meadow, you may want to mow it once a year.

Vegetables are water hogs. The fruits we harvest, especially tomatoes and cucumbers, are mostly water. Unless you like to contemplate life while watering by hand, check out drip irrigation. You can even put a timer on the system.

Sprinklers, on the other hand, waste a lot of water, especially when it evaporates in the heat and wind before it can get to the plants. If you abstain from watering between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., you’ll lose less to evaporation.

2018-03-05PerennialGarden 3byBarbGorges

It cost me $3000 to have the turf dug up for this garden…and the broken sewer pipe replaced. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Deleting lawn

While you can rent a rototiller to open up an area for planting, I prefer to use a sharp spade. I dig one clump of grass at a time, only about 8-10 inches deep, break and shake off as much soil as possible and put the remaining chunk in the compost bin—or fill in a hole in the remaining lawn.

It’s slow going, but I disturb fewer tree and shrub roots that underlay my entire yard. When I get tired of digging, that means I’ve reached the amount of new garden I have the energy to plant this year. I don’t want gardening to become a chore!

The plants and details

In the six years I’ve been interviewing local gardeners and writing monthly columns, I’ve accumulated a lot of information, from seed starting to native grass lawn alternatives to growing giant pumpkins and native perennials. Go to my website, https://cheyennegardengossip.wordpress.com, and on the right side of the page use the search function or scroll through the list of topics.

If you are using your phone, select “About” from the menu and find the search function and topics at the very bottom of the page.

2018-03-05Coneflower&beebyBarbGorges

I love this kind of garden visitor. Photo by Barb Gorges.

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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?

2016-8 Straw Bale Gardens cover

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.

 


Garden Site Preparation

Wide bed

Wide beds maximize limited garden space.

Published April 22, 2012 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Getting the dirt on garden prep: A green and growing garden in summer begins with preparation–now.”

The unusually warm and dry weather in March created perfect conditions for early digging in the garden, dry, thawed soil. Usually, early spring means wet or frozen soil and digging in wet soil will destroy the structure.

My husband, Mark, was anxious to dig out the stump of the spruce we had removed because it outgrew our yard. We never limbed it so the spruce’s skirts nicely shaded out the grass underneath. So after removing the stump and shallow roots, we have the perfect space for a new garden. It’s also good timing since I have a lot of seedlings started, as you know from reading last month’s column.

How do you select a site for your new garden? Consider these factors: light, water, size and, especially if you are planting vegetables, distance to the kitchen.

Light

A vegetable garden needs five or six hours of sun daily, preferably morning sun–not the scorching rays of summer afternoons. If you are growing flowers, you can choose varieties suited for just about any proportions of sun and shade.

Because our growing season is so short, you may not want to choose a site where the snow lingers, as it will take longer for the soil to warm.

Size

The size of my new garden was dictated by the footprint of the spruce. It’s 11 by 14 feet, manageable for a first effort at growing vegetables and annual flowers.

Distance to kitchen

If the vegetable garden (or any garden) isn’t close to the kitchen, it won’t get the daily inspection that leads to success, said Catherine Wissner, University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension horticulturist.

I may “neglect” standard garden practices such as rototilling and spraying weed killer, but I don’t neglect to enjoy visiting my perennial garden often, pinching the occasional bad bug or pulling a tender young weed.

Water

Distance to water is important—how far are you willing to drag the hose? Can you set up a drip irrigation system?

Revealing the dirt

You could kill grass using chemicals such as Roundup if you are extremely good at following directions. Another option is to stake clear plastic over the turf for a few weeks, allowing the intense heat of the sun to kill off the grass and weeds.

Digging up turf with a sharp spade takes less time, though it’s hard work. One advantage is it will keep you from making your garden too large in the first year. If you are careful, you can use the spade-sized chunks to fill in bare spots elsewhere, or knock the dirt off and compost the remains.

Fixing the dirt

Every gardener believes that his or her soil could stand improvement. I believe enough compost added over time can redeem almost every soil type.

Cheyenne’s default soil is clay-like, making it difficult for plant roots to grow and draw water. Local gardeners overcome this by digging in compost–partially decayed plant material–to a depth of about two feet. Mark did just that for our new garden, using the leaves from our trees that served as protective mulch for my perennials over the winter. Adding more to the top few inches every year eventually makes for loose and fluffy soil.

A word of advice: Check for underground utilities before digging in your yard. All it takes is a simple call to 811 (www.call811.com).

Compost is available commercially in bales. It’s also available from the City of Cheyenne’s compost facility at 3714 Windmill Road; hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m.).

A word of caution: Be sure the compost doesn’t contain residual herbicides. Using livestock manure in a vegetable garden is tricky. Unless it is composted at high, even heat, it could transmit pathogens, such as salmonella, to people consuming the crops. And it is possible to apply too much and burn plants.

My experience is that composted leaves and grass will improve soil structure—and encourage the soil microorganism community to flourish, acting as a low dose of fertilizer.

If your plants have failed to thrive in the past or you are curious about the fertility of your soil, you may have it analyzed by experts who can tell you what kinds of amendments might be needed, and how much.

Colorado State University has a soil testing lab. Call them at 970-491-5061 or visit www.soiltestinglab.colostate.edu. The routine test is around $30.

Remember, our soil here, with few exceptions, is alkaline, not acidic as it is back East, so don’t add wood ash and limestone.

Digging the dirt

If you do a good job of digging a new garden, you shouldn’t have to do it again. Obviously, perennial gardens don’t get rototilled every year. Mine receives a top dressing of leaf litter annually because I don’t sweep the soil surface clean (another instance of my gardening by “neglect”). Many perennials are native to less than perfect dirt anyway.

But what about my plan to grow annual flowers and vegetables from seed this year–and perhaps years to come? Will I have to convince Mark to dig as deeply again next spring, or get a rototiller?

I won’t, if I take the advice of Eliot Coleman, an organic market gardener in Maine and author of the book “Four-Season Harvest.” After the initial dig he amends only the top few inches each year. That way soil structure isn’t destroyed. Also, the less you disturb the soil, the fewer weed seeds sprout.

Wide bed method

Shane Smith, director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, is also a soil protectionist. He is a proponent of wide beds rather than planting vegetables in traditional rows. Plants are set in short cross rows or staggered, depending on the space they need.

Somewhat like establishing raised beds, minus the boards to contain the soil, each bed is as wide as you can comfortably reach, maybe 3 feet. A 2-foot-wide footpath between beds means you never walk on the beds themselves, preserving the fluffiness of their soil (roots need the air), and you never have to waste time and money improving the soil of the pathways. For more information, pick up a pamphlet at the Gardens or visit online at www.botanic.org.

Coming up

Next month, I’ll look into best practices for transplanting, direct sowing, and picking out plants at the nursery. If you need to transplant your starts into bigger pots, remember to hold them by their leaves only, to avoid crushing their stems—they can always grow a new leaf, but not a new stem.