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.

2019-07 Maxwell garden, Barb Gorges

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.

2019-07 Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Barb Gorges

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.

2019-07 Kelaidis garden, Barb Gorges

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.

2019-07 Boley garden, Barb Gorges

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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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.

2019-01 sandra cox chicken

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.


Ground covers

2017-8 Sweet Woodruff by Barb GorgesPublished Aug. 13, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Covers of Color, ground covers good for replacing grass or gravel, and feeding bees”

By Barb Gorges

Gardeners consider ground covers to be short plants that act as living mulch, suppressing weeds and preventing erosion.

Your bluegrass lawn is a ground cover. Because it is so popular, its growing needs are well known. You can easily find someone to grow and mow it for you. Even simpler is growing native grasses—less water and much less mowing [search “Buffalograss” at www.CheyenneGardenGossip.wordpress.com].

However, when I surveyed the Laramie County Master Gardeners for their favorite perennial ground covers, a variety of short, flowering plants were listed requiring various amounts of sun and water.

All have big advantages over mulches like gravel or wood chips. Established ground covers out-compete weeds. Rock and wood chip mulches, on the other hand, eventually fill with weeds. Plants keep the ground around themselves cooler. Rock mulch makes an area hotter. Plants recycle carbon dioxide and make oxygen. Rocks and woodchips don’t.

A blooming ground cover offers more for bees and butterflies than rock, wood or a plain lawn. You can combine plant species in a mosaic, or in what’s being called a tapestry lawn by researchers at the University of Reading in Britain.

And you are in luck, late summer is a great time to find perennial ground covers on sale at local garden centers.

Plant now, a month or two before winter weather sets in, and you should see most of your investment sprout in the spring.

How close together you plant depends on how big a hurry you are in to get an area to fill in.

When comparing hardiness ratings, keep in mind Cheyenne is rated Zone 5, but many local gardeners look for hardier varieties rated down to the colder Zone 4 and even Zone 3.

Stonecrop, Sedum hybridum, is recommended by Catherine Wissner. There are many varieties of these succulents, but this one is only 4 inches high. It produces yellow flowers in late spring and early summer. It needs full sun, low amounts of water (after establishment) and is rated Zone 4.

Birdseye Speedwell, Veronica filiformis, is another of Wissner’s choices. This Zone 3 speedwell is only 2 inches tall. Fast growing, in some climates it can invade turf. Small blue flowers with white centers bloom mid-spring.

2017-08 Turkish Veronica Mary Ann Kamla

Turkish Veronica, by Mary Ann Kamla

Turkish Veronica (or Speedwell), Veronica liwanensis, is one of three kinds of ground covers Martha Mullikin grows between flagstones. They all do well because they get the extra moisture running off the stone. This Zone 4 perennial becomes a blue-flowered carpet 1 to 3 inches tall in spring. It prefers sun with afternoon shade and a drier situation. Linnie Cough said hers blooms for two months. It is a Plant Select variety developed by the Denver Botanic Gardens and Colorado State University for thriving in western gardens.

Woolly Speedwell, Veronica pectinata, is a favorite of Susan Carlson. It is like Turkish Veronica, but the leaves are silvery instead of glossy. Both stay green over the winter.

Woolly Thyme, Thymus lanuginosus, and Lemon Thyme, Thymus citriodorus, are the other two forming mats over the flagstones at Mullikin’s. Both are good to Zone 4. Both like full sun and do well in xeric (dry) conditions. Lemon Thyme has the added benefit of being considered a culinary herb.

Red Creeping Thyme, Thymus praecox ‘Coccineus,’ listed by Tava Collins, is a red-flowering ground cover that doesn’t mind being stepped on a little. A Zone 4, it is drought tolerant once it has been established.

Mullikin is enamored with Dianthus ‘Tiny Rubies,’ Dianthus gratianopolitanus, which forms a 2-inch tall mat of leaves covered in pink flowers mid-spring to mid-summer. It prefers full sun and doesn’t mind the colder temperatures of Zone 3.

Barren Strawberries, Waldsteinia ternata, will remind you of strawberries, but the small yellow flowers (Mullikin has a variety with pink flowers) produce fruit considered inedible by people—no word on whether squirrels like them. A Zone 4, it likes full sun to part shade, and is somewhat drought tolerant.

2017-08 Periwinkle by Barb Gorges

Periwinkle, by Barb Gorges

Small-leaved Periwinkle, Vinca minor, Kathy Shreve said, “can take shade, and will grow under a limbed-up spruce tree if given enough water.” A Zone 4 less than 4 inches high, its periwinkle-blue flowers show up in May and early June. Mine, despite being in deepest shade, still plots to take over the world so I prune it when necessary.

Sweet Woodruff, Galium odorata, is another that does well in shade (it doesn’t like full sun), but I think mine would do better if I watered it more—it might reach the listed height of 6 to 12 inches. A Zone 4, its tiny white, fragrant flowers show up in May. Tava Collins said when it is stepped on or cut (or mowed), you may get the sweet smell of hay.

Hummingbird Trumpet, Epilobium canum ssp garrettii ‘Orange Carpet’ also goes by Zauschneria garrettii. Shreve reports it is a “great xeric ground cover, does not seed around indiscriminately, and hummingbirds really do love the orangey-red flowers. Also, it blooms in late July-August when most everything else has pooped out.” This is precisely when migrating hummingbirds passing through Cheyenne would appreciate it. A Zone 3, it is also a Plant Select variety.

2017-08 Soapwort Saponaria Mary Ann Kamla

Soapwort, by Mary Ann Kamla

Mary Ann Kamla recommended several plants including Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia, a Zone 3 with yellow flowers mid-summer. Mildly invasive, she keeps it contained with the edge of the patio.

Another that is doing well for Kamla is Soapwort, Saponaria officinalis. A Zone 3 with pink to white flowers, it appreciates water. Its leaves have historically been boiled to make a bubbly liquid soap.

Tava Collins is a fan of Spotted Deadnettle, Lamium maculatum. She grows two varieties: ‘Purple Dragon’ and ‘Pink Chablis,’ the names describing the flower colors. Hers bloom throughout the season, Collins said. The leaves are silvery with green edges. These varieties are Zone 4, but some others aren’t as cold hardy. Cutting back will encourage new blooms. The bumblebees love Lamium, Collins said.

2017-08 Spotted Deadnettle by Barb Gorges

Spotted Deadnettle, by Barb Gorges

Also on Collins’ list: Black Scallop Bugleweed, Ajuga reptens ‘Black Scallop.’  Ajugas are good ground covers in general. This one has leaves that look nearly black when grown in full sun. Early summer it has blue flower spikes. A Zone 3, it can be invasive in the garden.

Richard Steele simply grows clover instead of grass. It’s mowable, takes less water, he says, and it feeds his bees, which provide him with honey.

There are two ground covers I planted this year that Shane Smith, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens director, mentions in his garden tips at www.botanic.org. One is Creeping Phlox, Phlox subulata. A Zone 3, it should have no problem coming back next year, but since it prefers sunnier spots, I’ll see if it its pink and white flowers will develop in the shade.

The other is Snow-in-Summer, Cerastium tomentosum, another Zone 3, with silvery green leaves. Maybe next year it will give me more than one white flower. Patience, patience. Growing perennials is a long-term investment


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.


Soil microbes better than rototilling

2017-05Lowenfels-Endomycorrhizal fungi

Endomycorrhizal fungi spores are ready to grow into plant roots, carrying nutrients and moisture. Photo courtesy of Jeff Lowenfels.

Published May 7, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Soil microbes, no rototilling key to next generation of gardening”

By Barb Gorges

Twice in the space of a month this spring I heard rototilling renounced for the sake of keeping soil microbes healthy.

One speaker was Jeff Lowenfels, garden columnist and author from Alaska who spoke at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens/Laramie County Master Gardener spring lecture series. The other was Ron Godin, recently retired extension agronomist in western Colorado, speaking at the Wild West Gardening Conference in Cheyenne.

There are a billion microbes in a teaspoon of healthy soil. The interactions of the whole community of microbes is a giant web of who eats whom and who feeds whom.

Basically, decaying plant material feeds microbes and in turn, microbe “excrement” feeds plant roots.

Microbes include nematodes, bacteria, fungi and protozoa. There are some bad actors, but in general, everything balances and plants grow. For example, prairies and forests have self-sustaining soil microbial communities—no synthetic, chemical fertilizers or pesticides are required.

But when European farmers landed in the New World, they opened things up with the plow and have continued to plow ever since. Regular plowing (or hoeing or rototilling) disrupts the soil microbes. They can’t do their jobs. Farmers repaired damage somewhat with applications of manure and compost. But then came the 20th century’s inventive use of nerve gas left over from World War I as insecticide, and leftover nitrogen-based bomb-making materials from World War II became the perfect fertilizer.

Except that it wasn’t healthy for the microbes.

2017-05 Lowenfels-Ectomycorryhizal fungi

Ectomycorrhizal fungi grow close to the surface of roots and grow webs around them carrying water and nutrients. Photo courtesy of Jeff Lowenfels.

Synthetic fertilizers starve the microbes in a way and pesticides kill off beneficial organisms, causing the need for a never-ending cycle of synthetic fertilizer and pesticide application. This was great if you owned stock in the large chemical companies, but bad when you understand the side effects including health issues animals and humans—especially farmers, because the chemicals get into drinking water and food.

 

Lowenfels happily dispensed advice on garden chemicals for years until someone sent him two electron microscope photos, one of a fungus that had trapped a root-eating nematode, and the other of a nematode happily chomping a tomato root unimpeded.

In the first photo, the plant was secreting a substance that attracted the fungus, which in turn attacked the nematode. In the second photo, the fungus was missing due to the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

After his conversion, Lowenfels wrote three books. He said the essential one is “Teaming with Microbes, The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web,” coauthored with Wayne Lewis. You’ll notice the play on words in the title–healthy soil is teeming with microbes, and you’ll be teaming with them.

Put away the rototiller

First, put away your rototiller. It’s still handy if you are turning your lawn into a pollinator garden, but otherwise, annual rototilling is detrimental to the soil microbe community. Godin said this advice translates to farming as well.

It will take time to undo the cultural tradition of breaking soil down into a fine, clump-less and smooth expanse of dirt. But there are two reasons for disturbing the soil as little as possible, even in a vegetable garden.

First, every time you dig into soil, you bring up weed seeds, most of which require light to germinate. You just made more work for yourself. Cut weeds off at the soil surface rather than digging them.

Second, microbes feeding your plants and fending off bad stuff can’t function if you break them up. Keeping them intact means less work for you, less fertilizer spreading, less watering since healthy soil holds water better. Pesticides are a last resort for serious problems. Re-inoculate your soil with microbes soon after.

In windy Cheyenne, there’s also a third benefit to not tilling your soil into fine dust: microbes “glue” things together and the resulting clumpy soil doesn’t blow away.

2017-05Lowenfels-Glomalin--green stain--coating with spores

In this electron microscopic view, Glomalin, stained green and coated with spores, is produced by a group of common soil fungi. It coats soil particles like super glue, sticking them together in clumps. Photo courtesy of Jeff Lowenfels.

To plant seeds or transplants, make an opening just large enough. The roots will find their way without the soil being “fluffed.” Healthy soil has lots of air spaces already. Then mulch.

 

Godin’s rule is 100 percent cover, 100 percent of the time. Cover for large gardens or farms could be annual cover crops later mowed to form mulch. In small gardens use leaves, grass clippings and compost.

Replace chemical fertilizers

In the years chemical fertilizers have been around, studies show fruits and vegetables have dropped in nutritional value. It’s due to the missing micronutrients soil microbes used to pull from decomposing plant material and mineral soils. Synthetic fertilizer is incomplete.

Traditional organic gardening recommends digging compost into the soil, but  Lowenfels says digging breaks up the soil community. Better to side-dress plants, leaving the compost (or mulch) on the soil surface where microbes will get at it and break it down. It works on the prairie and in the forest—there’s no 100-year-old pile of dead grass, leaves or pine needles.

Lowenfels said there are three different groups of plants in your yard. Perennial flowers, shrubs and trees want their nitrogen in the form provided by fungally dominated soils. The compost that promotes this is the brown stuff (mixed with a little green): dry leaves, bark, wood chips, twigs, branches—like the forest floor.

Annuals, including vegetables, prefer their nitrogen produced by bacterially dominated soil. This is green stuff (with a little brown), grass clippings, freshly picked weeds (without seeds) and fruit and vegetable kitchen scraps.

The prairie, like your lawn, falls in between. It appreciates finely shredded brown fall leaves and thin layers of green grass clippings.

Brew compost tea

Compost tea, compost soaked in water, is another way to inoculate your garden with microbes and feed them too. If compost and compost tea smell ugly, that’s anaerobic activity. You need aerobic activity—more air.

Lowenfels gives directions for making a bucket into “a simple actively aerated compost tea brewer using aquarium pumps and air stones.” Fertilizing your plants, and yes, your houseplants too, is as easy as watering them.

While chemical companies made their fortunes keeping our soils addicted to their products, new companies are offering to aid us in bringing our soils back to health. They are building better compost tea brewers. Labs can estimate your microbe population. Our local independent garden centers will sell you mycorrhizal fungi in powdered form you mix with water.

This new era of catering to microbes has gone mainstream. Lowenfels reported that at the 2016 Garden Writers of America conference, none of the tradeshow vendors was pushing synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

For the last 35 years, my husband, Mark, and I have cared for our lawn and garden without a rototiller or synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. We mulch the garden and use natural lawn fertilizers. I look forward to adapting Lowenfels’ ideas to step it up.

[If you are also adapting to the new era in gardening, let me know how it is going. Contact me at bgorges2 at gmail.com.]

More information:

Besides “Teaming with Microbes,” his first book, Lowenfels has also authored:

–“Teaming with Nutrients, The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrition”

–“Teaming with Fungi, The Organic Grower’s Guide to Mycorrhizae.”

 


Composting can be simple

Compost bins

These composting bins built by Don McKenzie of Cheyenne are crafted with a few extra features, such as handholds on the front boards to aid in sliding them up and out when the time comes for turning or removing finished compost. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Aug. 2, 2015 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s Journey section, “Don’t be afraid to compost. Put your food waste and yard waste to work; composting is easier than you might think. ”

By Barb Gorges

“Compost, 3. A mixture of various ingredients for fertilizing or enriching land.” (This definition first recorded in print in 1258 A.D.)—The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

It wasn’t long after agriculture was invented, I’m sure, that someone began talking about composting. Maybe it even predated agriculture, and someone simply noticed the plants growing next to refuse piles were larger than the rest.

Today, composting methods can vary, but they ultimately accomplish the same thing: provide a nutrient dense soil for your plants.

Styles of composting

There are the free-form methods of composting where, like jazz, we are inspired to experiment with what’s available. Whatever goes into the piles, eventually decays.

Then there are the methods requiring careful construction, like classical music: a particular size and construction of bin, proper proportions of green and brown materials, and a certain amount of moisture and manipulation to maximize the speed of decomposition.

And of course, rather than make their own music, many folks opt for the radio, sending yard waste to the city’s compost facility. And, hopefully, everyone is also picking up finished compost to use in their gardens.

Benefits of composting

Whatever kind of composting you choose, keep in mind the benefits of applying composted material to your yard:

–Compost provides nutrients, same as chemical fertilizers, plus more micronutrients.

–Compost has microorganisms that help plants absorb nutrients.

–Compost releases nutrients slowly so that plant growth is healthier.

–Compost helps the soil hold water.

–Composting by using leaves and grass clippings as mulch means you don’t have to buy other mulching materials. (If your yard doesn’t produce enough stuff to compost, visit the city compost facility or ask neighbors.)

At the most primitive level, composting can be accomplished with tools you already have for yard and garden maintenance, and with not much more effort than disposing of yard waste.

The science of composting

Over time, Mother Nature rots nearly every once-living thing. Still, there are a few principles to keep in mind for best results.

Several sources say the optimal size of a pile is a cubic yard, 3 x 3 x 3 feet. Using some kind of container–a bin, trash can or fencing–holds it together.

Composting requires the right amount of moisture. With our dry climate, you may need to add water sometimes.

Composting requires oxygen, or you may begin to get the odor of anaerobic decomposition. Holes in the side of the bin or wire mesh sides help. So does turning the pile, so that the stuff in the center trades places with the outer part.

Introducing good microbes speeds the process and is as easy as adding a little dirt—even soil clinging to weed roots may be enough.

Mixing green stuff, like grass clippings, with brown stuff, like dried leaves, with the addition of regular turning, can make the compost “cook” hot, possibly hot enough to kill weed seeds and diseases. But like me and my husband, most folks I talked to don’t manage their compost at that level–not enough to reach that sanitizing heat level.

What not to compost

We are primarily discussing composting yard and garden waste and so everything is a candidate. However, we should talk about a few exceptions:

–No seeds of weeds. Add weeds to compost before they go to seed.

–No weeds that sprout easily from little segments of roots, like bindweed and creeping bellflower. (Creeping bellflower has lavender bell-shaped flowers, and is common in Cheyenne.)

–No diseased plants.

–No woody stuff unless it is chipped into small pieces. If it doesn’t decompose in one batch, sift it out and add it to the next, or put it under your shrubs and trees as mulch.

–Nothing that has been treated with herbicides within two months. Same goes for pesticides, especially if it is intended for the vegetable garden.

Manure is a more complicated subject. It has to be from a grazing animal—not from cats, dogs or people. It could be full of seeds. It could be full of salts, which our soils do not need. It could be full of medications. It could be too hot—too strong—and burn your plants if it hasn’t aged enough.

Composting kitchen waste is something I’ve never been able to get my family interested in. But what I’ve learned is you want to stick to plant materials. No meat, no dairy, no grease, no oils, no salt, no processed food with unpronounceable ingredients. Maybe eggshells. To be safe, just stick to fruits and vegetables—including coffee grounds.

And no wood ash. Gardening books written by easterners forget that places like Cheyenne already have alkaline soils and wood ash will make it worse.

Methods

Years ago, Mark and I bought a system that is essentially a sheet of heavy green plastic with several stakes that fit into any of multiple slots in the sides to form it into a barrel shape 3 feet high and 8 feet around (2.5-foot diameter). We throw stuff in and when we need some compost, perhaps months later in the spring, we dig out the stuff at the bottom.

We have four large trees that shed plenty of crispy curled brown leaves in the fall. Some of those we layer in the vegetable garden after frost to decompose. Some I use in the perennial flower bed for winter insulation—thinning them out in the spring if necessary.

The rest we bag up to keep them from blowing away, saving them for spring. Then, we dig more of them into the vegetable garden, use them as mulch or add them to the bin between layers of lawn clippings—though clippings are often used as mulch as well.

I recently visited Laramie County master gardener Maggie McKenzie to see what she is experimenting with these days.

Her husband, Don, built a nice three-bin system, much like the one you can see next to the green shed at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. One bin is for collecting, one for cooking and one is available for spreading.

Lasagna gardening

Hugelkultur, a European gardening method in which compostable materials are layered over logs and wood debris, is catching on in the U.S. Maggie McKenzie established this bed last year and her husband, Don, decided to add the retaining wall. Photo by Barb Gorges.

She is also having success with “lasagna gardening.” To start a new garden bed, lay down a thick layer of wet newspapers (The Wyoming Tribune Eagle is printed with soy-based ink and is safe to use) or wet cardboard.

Top that with a 2-to-3 inch layer of peat, then a 4-to-8-inch layer of yard waste, then more peat, then more yard waste, until you have built up 18 to24 inches. As it ages, it will shrink. Letting it overwinter is best.

Maggie’s lasagna is for vegetables and is set up inside a raised bed frame, which keeps the wind from taking it apart. For annual upkeep, just add more layers. It is supposed to be ideal for starting and maintaining any kind of garden.

 

Hugelkultur

(Hugelkultur) Hugelkultur, a European gardening method in which compostable materials are layered over logs and wood debris, is catching on in the U.S. Maggie McKenzie established this bed last year and her husband, Don, decided to add the retaining wall. Photo by Barb Gorges

Maggie is also trying a variation of lasagna gardening that includes logs and other woody debris. Known as a hugelkultur bed, the woody layer is placed on top of the wet newspaper or cardboard.

The decomposing wood provides a steady supply of nutrients and holds moisture. Don finished the mounds nicely with retaining walls of sandstone.

Resources

Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, http://www.botanic.org. Look for the brochure on composting under “Gardening Tips.”

University of Wyoming Extension Department, http://www.wyoextension.org/publications. Search for “composting.”

“Organic Gardener’s Companion, Growing Vegetables in the West,” by Jane Schellenberger, editor of the “Colorado Gardener,” www.ColoradoGardener.com.

“The Colorado Gardener’s Companion,” by Jodi Torpey of Denver.

“Lasagna Gardening,” by Patricia Lanza.