Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


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Rocky gardening

2019-07 Shinn garden, Barb Gorges

The Shinn garden in Ft. Collins, Colorado, features several rock garden areas. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Rocky gardening featured in Rocky Mountain garden tour

By Barb Gorges

It’s always interesting to find out what is remarkable to visitors about your home or home garden.

In this case, the visitors were 83 garden bloggers/writers from 28 states, Washington, D.C., Canada and England. It was the 11th annual Garden Bloggers Fling, this year headquartered in Denver mid-June. I was the first blogger from Wyoming to ever participate, qualifying because my Wyoming Tribune Eagle garden columns are posted to www.CheyenneGardenGossip.wordpress.com.

Cheyenne gardening is a little tougher than down in the “lowlands” of the Colorado Front Range, but we have more in common with those gardeners than anyone else. I saw lots of plants we grow here. Then I’d hear other visitors say it was either too hot back home, or too wet, for them to grow them. It made me appreciate my favorite prairie and mountain plants more.

In the weeks afterward, several of the bloggers wrote posts noting how rocky the gardens we saw were. It’s the fashion here.

One private garden we visited was planted around an installation of 600 tons of beautiful sandstone rocks stacked as low walls, waterfall, pond, grotto and retaining walls for a daylighted basement. It was an amazing property—and it can be yours for the listed price of $4 million.

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The Maxwell garden in Boulder, Colorado, uses rock to create walls, waterfall, pool and grotto. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Looking through my photos from 21 stops over three days, I noticed how many rock gardens we saw, or crevice gardens—a subgenera.

I saw my first crevice garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens several years ago. I saw it again on this tour, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the one at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens now in extravagant bloom by the front doors of the conservatory. This is only the second year and it should be getting even more spectacular.

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The crevice garden at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens was in full bloom at the end of June. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Many of the rocky gardens on the tour featured cactuses and succulents, low-growing mats of creeping plants and neon bright delosperma, or ice plants.

The cool thing about rock gardens is that when rain (or snow) hits them, the water runs off the rock and into the crevices where the plant roots are. The plants essentially get more water than if they were planted in a normal garden. Jake Mares, the CBG’s outside horticulturist, expects that our crevice garden, once fully established, will be able to make it solely on naturally occurring precipitation—no irrigation at all.

Rocks as part of landscaping have been around a long time. Sometimes they are even naturally occurring. Often today rocks are stranded in a sea of gravel or wood mulch which is quickly invaded by weeds—whether there is weed-barrier cloth underneath or not. It would be so easy to plant a ground cover that crowds out weeds instead, I think.

Pea gravel is popular around here as mulch because it doesn’t blow away. And it shares some water-concentrating properties that the rocks in a rock garden have. Certainly, weeds have adapted to gravel roads whenever there isn’t enough traffic to keep them down.

But there are problems with pea gravel. It sinks into the dirt eventually. Someone in the future is going to cuss when they dig to grow vegetables. But also, when it hails, your plant leaves are caught between a rock and the hard ice. A softer mulch, leaves or even wood, absorbs the hailstone impact, even if a leaf is in between. It also keeps the hail from bouncing high and hitting leaves twice.

Old leaves and other organic mulch decompose and feed the soil, gravel does not.

In addition to bringing in rocks, several Denver-area gardeners featured on the tour created hypertufa pots (see how to make your own with cement, peat moss and perlite, https://www.marthastewart.com/268962/hypertufa-pots). Many featured collections of cactus, agave and succulents. All are fine outside year-round with winter-hardy plants.

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The Kelaidis garden in Denver is one of several to feature hypertufa containers. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Speaking of concrete, one of the most amazing structures I saw in a tour garden was an enormous, permanent, concrete-topped table. As if in a baronial hall, it was set for 12 for a Father’s Day celebration later. It was decorated with pots of branches hung with candles in glass globes. Down the center of the table was a trough where more candles floated. With steel table legs, it never has to be put away for the winter and never needs refinishing.

Next summer the Garden Bloggers Fling is in Madison, Wisconsin. My mother’s side of the family had a dairy farm there for over 100 years and I grew up nearby. I’ll get to see if Wisconsinites rock garden as much as we do.

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Two of the Garden Bloggers Fling participants examine the rock garden in the Boulder, Colorado, front yard of Linda Boley. Photo by Barb Gorges.

 

 

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Garden art

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Chihuly Garden and Glass in downtown Seattle displays glass art with a garden backdrop. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published June 16, 2019, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Try gardening with art.” 

By Barb Gorges

My husband Mark planted tomatoes June 1. But first he put up a hail guard. It’s a wooden frame covered in hardware cloth (wire screen) the same dimensions as the raised bed. It perches on top of 4-foot wooden posts planted in each corner https://cheyennegardengossip.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/hail-busters-keep-icy-vandals-away/.

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This hail guard was built to fit the raised bed. How might it be transformed into garden art? Photo by Barb Gorges.

Now that it and other hail guards are up around our yard every summer, I’m wondering if we shouldn’t make them more decorative. Perhaps paint them or carve the posts.

I’ve been musing on the subject of garden art since our trip to Seattle over Memorial Day weekend.

I visited Chihuly Garden and Glass in downtown Seattle, next to the Space Needle. It was a little disappointing after having seen the Chihuly display at the Denver Botanic Gardens a few years ago—the Seattle garden is small.

All that brilliantly-colored glass sculpture—I wonder is it hail-proof? If you go, avoid midday—the sunlight glares on the glass. Don’t look for extravagant flowers—the garden is primarily a setting for the glass, like velvet for a diamond.

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At Chihuly Garden and Glass, glass flames shoot out from a hill covered in black foliage. Photo by Barb Gorges.

There was a burned-black, grasslike, ground cover used to set off the brilliant fire of an explosion of orange and yellow glass flames. It is most likely Ophiopogon planiscapus, from Japan, known as “Black Mondo Grass” and probably the Nigrescens variety. It’s from the lily family and is evergreen (or everblack) in Zone 6 and warmer. Here in Zone 5 it would be an annual requiring a lot of water and acidic soil—neither of which we have.

Another garden we visited had a Wyoming connection. My sister and I were at a hardware store near Sea-Tac Airport, picking out a pot for a plant for Mark’s and my son and daughter-in-law when the garden department manager started a conversation with us.

He asked if we knew about the Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden only two miles away. He even got us a brochure. He’s on the board. Of course, we had to go. If you should ever have two hours to kill before returning your rental car at the Sea-Tac Airport, look it up at 13735 24th Ave. South, SeaTac, Washington.

It got its start in 1996 when a well-known, prize-winning local gardener’s garden was relocated there instead of being lost when the airport built another runway. We found Elda Behm’s Paradise Garden full of rhododendrons and azaleas just a bit past peak.

Another part of the garden is the Seike Japanese Garden, relocated in 2006. The Seike family, Japanese immigrants, began farming locally in 1929. During World War II, the family was sent to the Heart Mountain internment camp near Powell, Wyoming, and their farm was managed by a German-American family. After the war the Seikes were lucky enough to get their land back and open a nursery.

The garden was designed by Shintaro Okado, a garden designer from Hiroshima, and built in 1961. It was made in memory of one of the three Seike sons who fought in the war for the U.S. and was killed in France.

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The Seike Japanese Garden was relocated in 2006 to the Highline SeaTac Botanical Garden near the Sea-Tac airport (Seattle). Photo by Barb Gorges. 

Japanese gardens are meant to be intellectual and spiritual. In addition to a pleasing juxtaposition of water, hill, swale and path, each element, including bridges, stone lanterns, gate, represents something.

Each tree and shrub specimen stands out along a small stream and pond crossed by a curved bridge. Benches are positioned for perfectly balanced views.

I found the Japanese garden minimalism more appealing than the fanciful glass garden, even though normally my tastes run to floral abundance.

Abundance is what best describes gardens at McMenamins Anderson School in Bothell, Washington. It’s an old junior high school campus turned into a boutique hotel and restaurants. The garden manager, Riz Reyes, is an up and coming horticulturist who knows how to pack the plants in, even in the parking lot islands, making the cars appear to be just more garden art.

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Even the parking lot at McMenamins Anderson School, a boutique hotel in Bothell, Washington, is thickly planted. The hoops in the background are from wine barrels. The gardens are designed by Riz Reyes. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The Portland, Oregon-based McMenamins chain of pubs and hotels famous for repurposing old buildings is known for its somewhat primitive, locally inspired artistic style. It took me a minute to realize the spherical garden sculptures were made from metal hoops used to hold wine barrels together.

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Larger-than-life bronze rabbits by Dan Ostermiller are on display this summer at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. Photo by Barb Gorges.

In our own Cheyenne Botanic Gardens this summer, discover the bronze animal sculptures by Dan Ostermiller, Cheyenne native and Loveland, Colorado, sculptor. The giant rabbits are my favorite.

Is your garden art a bit of whimsy for visitors to discover—statue or found object? Or a carved tree trunk, special boulder or bronze bear? Make sure it’s either replaceable or repairable if it isn’t hail-proof.


Transplanted NY gardener blooms in Cheyenne

 

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Sandra Cox’s vegetable garden did extremely well its first season. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Jan. 6, 2019, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Transplanted gardener helps local yard bloom.”

By Barb Gorges

There’s only one thing that beats Sandra Cox’s love of gardening: It’s love for her family.

In July 2017, she gave up gardening in the Hudson Valley of New York state to move to Cheyenne at the invitation of her son and his family. She left behind a newly planted orchard and everything she knew about gardening there to start over at her new home.

When Sandra arrived, no one had watered her new yard for some months, and our clay soil required a pick ax to plant the calla lilies she brought with her. But with care and mulch, by the end of the season, time to dig them back up, she was pleased to see a healthy population of earth worms.

Sandra’s garden in New York was in the same Zone 5 USDA growing zone (coldest temperature rating) as Cheyenne. But there are five major differences:

 

  1. Cheyenne has alkaline soils rather than acidic so adding lime or wood ash is a no-no.
  2. Cheyenne has a shorter growing season. Sandra’s learned she will have to start her peppers and eggplant indoors earlier and put them outside, with protection, earlier.
  3. Cheyenne has 12-15 inches of precipitation annually, one-third of New York’s. Watering is necessary much more often here. She’s thinking about installing an irrigation system.
  4. Cheyenne has hail. Although the tomato plants this summer made a comeback, the tomatoes themselves were scarred. Sandra’s planning to protect them with wire cages next year.
  5. Cheyenne has different soil—clay instead of sandy.

Although arriving mid-summer 2017, Sandra went to work establishing a vegetable garden. “I disturb the soil as little as possible to avoid disrupting the earthworms because they do all the work for you,” she explained.

Instead, she spread leaves over the abandoned lawn, laid down a layer of cardboard from the packing boxes from her move, then covered them with wood chips from the city compost facility. To keep the chips from blowing away, she laid wire fencing over them and pegged it down. She removed the fencing and planted directly into this mulch the next season.

Sandra researches the best varieties to plant in our climate. Her first fall, she planted grapes and an apple and a plum tree. Last spring, she planted pear, peach and sweet cherry trees. The cherries did very well.

In the north-facing front yard, Sandra’s planted shrubs for privacy and perennials for pollinators and pleasure. The city’s street tree planting program, Rooted in Cheyenne, came out and planted a burr oak and a linden. A huge spruce tree shades the house on hot summer afternoons.

One day last fall, she called and asked if we’d come harvest some kale and Swiss chard since she had too much. What an oasis of lush green! And her giant sunflowers were at least 12 feet high. A sunny yard helps, but much of her success can be attributed to her dedication to compost—she composts everything, and her chickens help break it down.

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Sandra’s chickens are an important part of her gardening. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Sandra hasn’t used fertilizer yet—other than fish emulsion and well-aged chicken manure. She’s planning to do a soil test this next year to see if she has any deficiencies, but her plants didn’t seem to show any signs.

Pests are not a problem so far. Sandra thinks it is only a matter of time before the pests catch up with her. Already she’s concerned about the big spruce tree being attacked by the ips beetle. It has killed other spruces in her neighborhood, she thinks. The city forester recommended winter watering—good for all her newly planted trees and shrubs, but also good for older trees for which drought stress makes them more susceptible to pests.

Unlike New York which normally has constant winter snow cover, Cheyenne has snowless weeks plus days when the temperatures are above freezing—good days for watering trees.

Sandra remembers that growing up on the family farm was a constant delight, from taking care of the goats to eating apples while high up in the branches to joining her parents and five siblings in the field after dinner to weed, joke around and enjoy each other’s company. Her siblings still enjoy gardening and farming, as does her son, who has a degree in horticulture. Her granddaughters have caught the family enthusiasm as well.

“Bloom where you’re planted” is an old axiom that doesn’t just mean, “make the best of a situation.” For Sandra, it means with a little studying up, she can joyfully grow a garden anywhere, even here.

2019-01 sandra cox garden

Sandra’s sunflowers are more than a story high. Fencing protects new trees and other plantings from the chickens. Photo by Barb Gorges.

 


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What I’ve learned as a Master Gardener

2018-08Garden tour-Barb Gorges

Outside Ft. Collins, Colorado, one woman, over 20 years, has created a garden refuge. Photo by Barb Gorges.

 

 

Published Aug. 12, 2018, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and at Wyoming Network News, https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/garden-gossip-what-ive-learned-as-a-master-gardener.

By Barb Gorges

This is my seventh season as a Laramie County Master Gardener (and Wyoming Tribune Eagle garden columnist). I know more now than when I finished the training because there’s always someone to talk to who knows more than me about any aspect of gardening.

I’ve interviewed many people, including other Master Gardeners, for previous columns which are archived at https://cheyennegardengossip.wordpress.com/. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Always evaluate gardening information. Where does that gardener garden? Is it a garden with a similar climate or microclimate, soil and growing season to mine? Will the treatment harm my soil?

There’s a difference between sticking stuff in dirt and growing plants with more mindfulness—and record-keeping.

You can grow many things in Cheyenne, but not all things. Just keep experimenting with the short-season veggies and consider building a greenhouse or high tunnel.

Cheyenne’s blooming season is longer than you think. In my garden some spring bulbs bloom in March. Some years the frost doesn’t finish the asters until the end of October.

Garden beauty is subjective but good garden design is practical:  put short plants in the front of beds, veggies by the kitchen door and don’t plant trees under power lines.

Every growing season is different. Not every year has powdery mildew, black spot or blossom end rot.

Know when to give up. Or try the plant in a different location. Or try a different variety.

Gardeners are generous. They share plant thinnings and seeds because they can’t bear to compost them.

Propagation from root divisions, cuttings and seeds is rewarding, especially when you share.

Never add lime, an alkaline substance, to Cheyenne’s already alkaline soils.

Gardeners like a challenge, even as extreme as planting acid-loving blueberries in buckets full of specially mixed acidic soil.

Soil is every gardener’s most valuable asset. Preserve its structure and microbiome by tilling and hoeing as little as possible and let mulch keep the weeds down.

Composting your discarded plant material in your own bin or pile saves you money on fertilizer and the cost of having the sanitation department haul it away.

Getting watering and mulching right is more important to plants than fertilizer.

Good pruning benefits trees and shrubs by making them look good and grow better.

Right plant in the right place—not all trees are growing in the right place.

Hail is a fact of life here. Protect tomatoes with hardware cloth screen overhead and grow skinny-leaved and skinny-petalled flowers.

Replacing your lawn with gravel is not less work in the future. It gets weedy. And gravel doesn’t shade the ground, which makes your yard hotter. You are better off with a low-growing ground cover.

Chemical pesticides are rarely necessary in the residential garden. You can pick off pests and remove diseased plant parts by hand.

Stressed plants (too much or too little water, too much fertilizer, too much or too little sun) attract disease and pests.

The sooner you pull a weed or cut it off at ground level, the less work it is later.

Always take care of weeds before they set seed.

Tending a garden is stress-reducing. Many of the gardeners I’ve interviewed have high stress jobs: lawyer, judge, law enforcement, social worker, doctor.

Gardening is good exercise. Even if you aren’t vigorously digging a new bed, just walking around pulling the occasional weed and deadheading the roses is better for you than sitting.

Gardeners see more bees, butterflies and birds—just more of nature.

Visiting botanic gardens when you travel makes for beautiful memories.

Reading to prepare for and dreaming about next year’s garden will get you through a long winter.

Want to start gardening or garden more intentionally and with more knowledge? Become a Laramie County Master Gardener. It’s not too early to find out about the next class. Call Catherine Wissner, Laramie County Extension horticulturist, 307-633-4383.

2018-08 Asters Snowy Range 7-18 Barb Gorges

Asters bloom and attract a bee in a natural rock garden July 18, 2018, in the Snowy Range in southeastern Wyoming at an elevation of 9,000 to 10,000 feet. Photo by Barb Gorges.


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.


Hail Busters keep icy vandals away

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Pete Michael demonstrates how easy it is to remove a Hail Buster from one of his raised beds. When in use, the corner posts hold it above the foliage. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Aug. 17, 2014 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Garden Hail Busters: Keep icy vandals from destroying your plants”

By Barb Gorges

How bad was the hail damage in your garden this summer?

After three hail storms decimated gardens in various parts of Cheyenne, I decided to look into how one man uses what he calls “Hail Busters.”

Pete Michael also busts bad guys for a living. As the Wyoming attorney general, he’s the state’s chief law enforcement officer.

As it turns out, he’s perfected a system for keeping hail behind bars. Well, bouncing off half-inch hardware cloth, anyway.

One popular hail protection device used around town is what I think of as the “duck and cover” method. At the sound of the first hailstone on the roof, you duck outside and cover your garden with a tarp or blanket, hopefully not getting injured yourself.

One variation is to install a series of poles in middle of the garden ahead of time so that the weight of the covering and the hail doesn’t flatten the plants.

Another variation is the one my husband, Mark used. He is growing all our tomatoes and most of our eggplants and peppers in containers this year. He runs out and drags them under the patio roof.

Shredded rhubarb leaf

Hail shredded this rhubarb leaf in minutes. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The problem is that you may not be home when hail hits. Or you may not be quick enough, or the tomatoes have gotten too big to lug around. Thus, in our garden we had scars on the tomato stems, shredded rhubarb leaves and a puddle of rose petals.

Low tunnel

The first contraption Pete showed me that he’d built was essentially a “low tunnel,” often used for season extension.

His is a 16-foot long portable wooden frame 3 feet wide that sits on the ground. Plastic tubing meant for circulating water in radiant floor heating makes 2-foot high hoops spanning the width at 18-inch intervals. The ends of the hoops fit into attached 6-inch lengths of electrical conduit pipe.

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A portable low tunnel saved one of Pete’s squash plantings from hail devastation. Sections of electrical conduit hold the ends of plastic tubing hoops. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The whole thing is like a covered wagon with white polyester floating row cover (he uses Agribon) stretched tight and kept in place with strips of lathe nailed over it around the wooden frame. The long loose ends are pulled together and staked out to keep the wind from lifting the frame.

Pete is growing fancy squash that profited from the extra heat of being covered. And it was protected from the hail July 13—though the cover material is now shot with holes.

Hail Busters

Pete is a serious vegetable grower. He says he’s tried growing just about every vegetable imaginable. His backyard is filled with raised beds 3 feet wide (same width as the hardware cloth comes) by either 6 or 8 feet long. Each has a hail busting wooden frame made with one-by-twos in the same dimensions as the raised bed. The frame is screened with the half-inch hardware cloth, wire screen with half-inch openings. It stops a lot of hail or at least slows it down so it is less damaging.

He built everything with salvaged lumber, but he did say having to buy a roll of the hardware cloth was a bit pricey.

I have seen other gardens built with screen roofs. The difference here is that the roofs, the Hail Busters, can be set at different heights depending on plant growth.

The tomato cages in one raised bed are sturdy enough that the screen lays on top of them.

In other beds, several stakes planted in the bed support the screen. When it’s time to tend the plants, the screen can be set aside.

A lot of hail comes sideways, but these beds are close together, offering some protection.

Multi-purpose

Hail protection turns out to be only one use for these screens.

Two raised beds become cold frames in the fall. Their screen tops, built with more substantial 2-by-4s, are hinged to the raised beds on one side, then covered with salvaged clear plastic. Pete finds much of his salvaged materials just from being observant.

Early in the growing season, when birds might otherwise steal the seeds he just planted, Pete can lay the regular screens directly on the raised bed frames.

When tender seedlings emerge, the screens keep the bunnies out. And when starting cool season lettuce in August, the screening itself, or some added floating row cover, can give them necessary shade.

In the fall, floating row cover—or blankets—are easily supported to protect vegetables on freezing nights, extending the growing season.

Flowers in hail

Growing vegetables under cover is one thing, but no one who admires flowers would want to look at them through Hail Busters unless they were growing a valuable crop for market or seed.

Pete does grow flowers, without cover, including a magnificent stretch of hollyhocks in the middle of a vegetable bed located between the sidewalk and street. They were a little worn looking from the hail two weeks before, as were the thick bunches of Shasta daisies growing around the house. The big beds of penstemons at the front gate had gone to seed.

His secret is to grow perennials. Annuals, which people plant at the beginning of the season and which are supposed to bloom continually until they die in the first frost, are easily wiped out by hail.

But, he said, perennials bloom in waves—if you are strategic. Say your penstemons are at their peak when the hail comes and knocks off all their flowers (their stems tend to be tougher than your average annual). After the storm, you can decide whether they look bad enough to cut back, or if they just need a bit of trimming, leaving them with plenty of green to continue photosynthesizing, storing energy for next year.

But coming up behind the penstemons might be your daisies. At the time of the storm, their buds were small enough to be missed by the icy missiles.

And if you choose perennials with skinny leaves, they aren’t as much of a target for hail.

Pete also has a very nifty greenhouse with 5/16-inch glass touted to be hurricane resistant. He has lots of progressive ideas on organic gardening, which he admits he gets from his son, who with his wife, has a Community Supported Agriculture operation.

It’s the Hail Busters though, that keep hail away and give Pete peace of mind.

Scarred tomato stem

Though hail has scarred the stem of an unprotected tomato plant, two weeks later, a new shoot shows it is on its way to recovery. There may be time to grow a tomato before frost. Photo by Barb Gorges.