Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


Vegetable growing advice

 

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

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

 

By Barb Gorges

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

Timing

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

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

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

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

Location

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

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

Transplants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mulch

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

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

 

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Seed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Water

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

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

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

Bugs and weeds

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

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

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

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

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

Fertilizer

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

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

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

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

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

Trellis and cage

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

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

Add flowers

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

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Heirloom veggies for taste and variety

 

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Rusty Brinkman offers a variety of heirloom veggies at the Tuesday Farmers Market in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Sept. 4, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Local gardeners explore for taste, visual appeal”

By Barb Gorges

At the Laramie County Fair back in August, I was checking out the blue-ribbon vegetable winners and one name kept popping up over and over: Rusty Brinkman.

I met Brinkman and his partner Vally Gollogly last summer at a lunch they catered at their home just outside Cheyenne—a garden-to-table treat.

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Midsummer, Brinkman partially rolls back the cover of his hoop house. Chickens are on patrol, looking for insects. Photo by Barb Gorges.

This spring, Brinkman added a high tunnel and a half-dozen chickens. The greenhouse-like high tunnel will let him to grow vegetables that need a longer growing season than Cheyenne allows. The chickens keep the insect pest numbers down, but at the cost of a little pecking damage. They seem to like yellow vegetables so Brinkman has to throw a little vegetation over the yellow squashes to protect them.

His backyard garden is sizeable, but he also helps garden another 4,000 square feet over at his uncle’s, where he has a real greenhouse to get seedlings started in spring.

A couple years ago when he and Gollogly had an abundance of dill, they thought it would be fun to offer the excess at the Tuesday Farmers Market. Now they are regulars, under the Mooo’s Market banner. Gollogly specializes in prepping the flowers and herbs, Brinkman the veggies.

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Rusty Brinkman offers a variety of heirloom veggies at the Tuesday Farmers Market in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Their booth has a certain flair, a certain presentation. That might be because Brinkman’s day job is owner of Crow Creek Catering. As a chef, the Cheyenne native has plied his trade in Denver, New York and the Wyoming [correction: Colorado] governor’s mansion. He knows presentation is an important part of the dining experience.

So what does a chef grow in his garden? Brinkman is a proponent of organic methods so I’m not surprised he also gravitates to the heirlooms. Heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated. This means if you save the seeds, you can grow the same vegetables again next year. If you save the seeds from the best individual fruits and vegetables, you might end up with improved strains the next year. Over time, you will have varieties ideally suited to Cheyenne.

On the other hand, hybrid fruits and vegetables also produce seed, but plants grown from those seeds won’t grow true to the parent plant.

Brinkman is experimenting with seed saving, but otherwise his chief source is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, www.rareseeds. I have the 2015 catalog: 350 pages of delicious photos of vegetables and fruit from all over the world with exotic names and long descriptions.

For a gardener, it’s like being in a candy shop. But it is important to keep in mind our local climate and look for short-season veggies. Now that he is selling at the market, Brinkman also looks for varieties not sold at the grocery store.

There is so much to choose from. Offerings include purple tomatoes, oddly-shaped squash, a multitude of greens, pointy cabbage, red carrots. But in the end, they need to produce in Cheyenne and they have to pass the taste test–appealing to a gardener who cooks.

Brinkman shared with me a nine-page, single-spaced printout of his garden records for the past three years, organized by vegetable type, variety, heirloom status, year trialed, seed company, how many days to maturity, description. There are 360 entries to date, but some vegetables did not make the cut and were not planted a second year.

This scientific analysis is similar to Brinkman and Gollogly’s training in the science of food preparation. Cooking is one part art and a large part science. You need to understand how ingredients interact with each other. If you invent a good dish, you need to be able to reproduce it, just like scientific studies need to be replicable.

Vegetable gardening is also science, trying to produce the best crop each year.

Brinkman prepares new beds by smothering grass with cardboard or metal plates (he makes folk art from junk metal), then he rototills it. Once a bed is established though, he only uses a garden fork to loosen things in the spring and add compost.

His compost system is nearly keeping up with the garden’s needs and he fills in with more from the city compost facility.

But Brinkman also uses Espoma’s Plant-tone to add microbes and nutrients, and in the fall, he adds old cow manure.

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Brinkman hand-pulls weeds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Brinkman hand-pulls weeds, and hand-picks potato bugs early in the season. This was the first year for the chickens and he’s not sure how helpful they will be, but he said he also uses several other methods for pest control:

–Neem oil has worked very well for aphids.

–Releasing ladybugs and lacewings in the spring, also for aphid control, seems to be working.

–Using Bt (a friendly bacterium) for cabbage whites (butterflies) for the first time this year seems to help.

–Agribon, a light-weight, white polypropylene fabric spread over the carrots seems to be controlling the carrot rust fly.

To get an early start on the season, in late March or early April, Brinkman uses low tunnels, stretching plastic sheeting over hoops placed over his beds.

Much of the garden area is irrigated using drip tape (flattened plastic hose that has a series of small holes).

So what was planted in the Brinkman/Gollogly garden this year? Lots of varieties with delicious-sounding names. Brinkman will know soon which ones have performed well enough to make the cut next year. Here’s a sampling you might find at their booth at the farmers market next Tuesday. If customers aren’t quite ready for “Tronchuda”, a Portuguese variety of kale, no matter. Brinkman can take it home and turn into dinner, or prep it for the freezer.

Artichokes: Green Globe.

Beans: Mayflower, Greasy Grits, Dixie Speckled Butterpea, Golden Sunshine, California Blackeye Pea.

Beets: Crosby’s Egyptian

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Heirloom beets come in a variety of colors and shapes. Photo by Barb Gorges.

 

Broccoli: Purple Peacock, Romanesco Italia, Umpqua.

Cabbage: Aubervilliers, Bacalan de Rennes, Couer de Boeuf des Vertus, Cour di Bue.

Carrots: Amarillo, Dragon.

Celery: Giant Prague, Tendercrisp, Utah Tall.

Peppers (sweet): Antohi Romanian, Topepo Rosso.

Peppers (hot): NuMex Joe E. Parker.

Cucumber: Parisian Pickling.

Eggplant: Syrian Stuffing, Turkish Orange.

Kale: Dwarf Siberian, Nash’s Green, Nero di Toscana.

Lettuce: Crisp Mint, Little Gem, Baby Oakleaf.

Melon: Kazakh, Minnesota Midget.

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Heirloom onions. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Onion: Flat of Italy, Red of Florence.

Pea: Laxton’s Progress #9.

Squash: Kobocha winter

Tomato: Cherokee Purple, Large Barred Boar, Cream Sausage, Transparent, Glacier, Topaz, Woodle Orange.

Turnip: Boule D’or, Golden Globe, Mikado, Purple Top White Globe.

Zucchini: Midnight Lightning, Tatume (Mexican zucchini)

 


Winter sowing

 

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Laramie County Master Gardener Michelle Bohanan displays one of the milk jugs she uses for winter sowing.

Published Mar. 6, 2016, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Winter sowing starts garden at perfect time.”

By Barb Gorges

When I asked her for tips on starting perennial seeds this spring, Laramie County master gardener Michelle Bohanan said, “winter sowing.” I soon discovered it is an increasingly popular concept and practice.

Winter sowing is what our native and other temperate zone plants do naturally. After they set seed, the flowers and fruits dry. Within months or years, they either shatter and release the seeds, a messy bird picks at them, or the wind blows them. You might shred a few dried flower heads yourself from time to time.

The seeds eventually come in contact with the ground where they are subjected to moisture and cold. That, and the cycles of freezing and thawing, eventually break the seed coat which is necessary if it is tougher than the strength of the seedling.

Surprisingly, many seeds require light to germinate. Day length, or cumulative solar warmth, tells them when it is safe to sprout.

With our occasional spring snowstorms, it’s good that not all seeds, even of the same variety or species, require the same exact amount of light and heat. If the first up are frozen out, the slower germinating fill in behind.

Of course, the plants that have winter sowing down to a fine art are the weeds.

The problem with merely sprinkling seed over your flower bed is that seed is expensive and you don’t know how hungry your local birds and mice are going to be.

It occurred to New York state gardener Trudi Davidoff to safeguard her winter sowing by seeding in shallow, covered containers she set out in her garden. In spring, there was no need to harden off the seedlings since they were already acclimated to the outdoors. She merely transferred them into her garden. Another benefit? No need for grow lights or heat mats. She’s been spreading the word since.

 

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Cut the milk jug just below the handle, forming a pot 4 inches deep, and a separate cover. Photo by Barb Gorges.

How to winter sow

 

I visited Bohanan on a nasty day in January with half a foot of snow on the ground. I brought along a translucent plastic gallon milk jug and a little packet of alpine aster seed I’d received in a seed exchange.

With a pair of heavy-duty scissors, Bohanan punctured the jug just below the handle and cut all the way around, creating a 4-inch high pot and a separate cover. She put in about 3 inches of her favorite commercial potting soil, already moistened.

Next, she spilled a couple dozen seeds onto a plastic container lid and with a toothpick, sorted through them, kicking out any unfertilized seeds. They look lighter because they don’t have the germ of the seed needed for germination.

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Seeds that require light to germinate are placed touching the surface of the potting soil. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Like many small seeds, these require light, so Bohanan gently pressed 16 into the soil but didn’t bury them. Then she forced the upper half of the milk jug, upright, into the bottom half to protect the seeds, leaving off the jug’s cap.

 

In other, wetter climates, the top and bottom can be slashed to allow snow and rain to water the seeds and then drain, but in our drier climate, Bohanan has had, over seven years, good results without making additional openings.

However, I found I had to puncture the bottoms after the snow on top of my jugs began to melt.

On the Internet, a search for “winter sowing” shows many kinds of recycled containers. The bottom needs to be at least 3 inches deep for the soil and the top needs to clear the soil surface by at least 2 inches. The top also needs to be clear or translucent. You provide adequate ventilation and drainage openings as needed.

On the jug in permanent marker Bohanan wrote the name, source and number of seeds and the date of planting.

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The planted milk jugs can be safely left out in the cold and snow. The seeds will sprout in the spring. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Back at home, I put the milk jug in a snowdrift on the northeast side of our back fence. While I wait for spring, I’ll empty more milk jugs and try planting more seeds.

 

Bohanan already had 35 jugs going and figured she was only 25 percent of the way through her winter sowing plans.

This technique is easier than my experience last year sprouting orange butterfly weed—a type of milkweed. I had to leave the seeds, planted in moist potting soil and covered with plastic, in my refrigerator for 6 weeks to achieve “stratification,” the term for this cold treatment.  Other seeds need scarification, scratching a break in the seed coat, and this winter sowing method can help.

Maintenance

While seeds left lying on the ground require no help from us, ones in containers do.

Bohanan’s milk jugs have the opening at the top, plus the gaps where the upper part of the jug is pressed into the bottom, that allow for some snow and rain to seep in and some heat to escape when it warms up in the spring. She forgoes slits in the bottom because she puts some jugs in her unheated sunroom and would rather not have them leak on the floor.

However, she does check her jugs regularly to make sure they don’t dry out, especially the ones under cover of her hoop house. She can tell by the lighter color of the soil (although this doesn’t work for all potting soils), or she can lift the jug and tell by the weight if it needs watering.

Knowing how much water to add might be a trick, and if you think you might be prone to overwatering, you should probably add bottom drainage openings.

When the weather gets warm, to keep seedlings from baking, it is necessary to pull the top off and prop it on the bottom diagonally or even remove it entirely during the day.

Timing and location

All of this still sounds easier and cheaper than setting up lights or buying starts next spring. With our last frost nearly three months away, there is enough time to accommodate even seeds that need 8 weeks of cold.

But figuring out where to put your jugs is also important. Placed along the south-facing wall of your house may cause some seedlings to sprout too soon. Along a north-facing wall may delay them. But the mini-greenhouses are easy to move. Just experiment.

What to grow

Try native perennials from our northern temperate climate, Zone 5 or colder, especially if you are turning your lawn into bird, butterfly and bee-friendly habitat. Popular flowers include varieties of penstemon, coreopsis, milkweed and gaillardia.

Try cold-tolerant vegetables from the cabbage family, herbs and flowering annuals, but probably not slow-starting annuals like petunias. It would take all summer for them to finally bloom.

The seeds of tropical plants, like tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, may also get started too late to produce before first fall frost. Instead, see tomato growing advice archived at www.CheyenneGardenGossip.wordpress.com.

Resources

Winter Sown, www.wintersown.org: Trudi Davidoff’s site.

Dave’s Garden, http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/ws: Gardeners all over the country have recorded their success winter sowing a variety of plants, but be aware of what zone they report from.

Alplains, http://www.alplains.com/: This catalog specializes in native plant seeds and has essential propagation information. However, use the following website to translate the Latin names.

The Missouri Botanic Garden’s Plant Finder, http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/plantfinder/: This is one of Bohanan’s favorite sources of information.

Typical native perennials for the Cheyenne, Wyoming area: Blanketflower, Gaillardia spp.; Gayfeather, Liatris punctata; Tickseed, Coreopsis spp.; Beardtongue, Penstemon spp.; Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia spp. All photos by Barb Gorges.