Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


Garden gifts: books, magazines, classes

2016-12-garden-mags-barb-gorgesPublished Dec. 4, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Holiday gifts for the gardener on your list.”

By Barb Gorges

I asked members of the Laramie County Master Gardeners for their top picks for gardening magazines and books to give you ideas for gifts for the gardeners you know.

Gardening conditions in Cheyenne are somewhat unique so advice from these publications must be taken with a bit of local knowledge:

1) We have alkaline soils so ignore advice to add lime and wood ash;

2) We are officially in USDA plant hardiness zone 5 but microclimates can be harsher or milder;

3) Our average annual precipitation is 15 inches. Even if you run your well dry, you can’t reproduce a wetter, more humid location, which some plants require, like somewhere else in Zone 5—say southern Iowa.

MAGAZINES

Most of the magazines recommended are available at local bookstores. Discounted multi-year subscriptions and back issues are available online.

We are lucky that Colorado’s gardening climate is close to Cheyenne’s, making our local choice The Colorado Gardener (www.ColoradoGardener.com, free at outlets, including the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, and online, or $18/5 issues/year delivered). It is a full-color, tabloid-style, 16-page newsmagazine. In addition to articles and a calendar of Front Range garden-related events, even the advertising is informative.

Another option is Rocky Mountain Gardening (www.RockyMountainGardening.com, $24/4 issues/year). Previously known as “Zone 4,” it covers Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. It was recommended by Catherine Wissner, horticulturist at the Laramie County Cooperative Extension office, and several other respondents. Topics in a recent issue included hellstrip gardening (the hot, dry strip along the curb) and frost blankets (written by a Smoot, Wyoming, gardener). Wyoming is well-represented in the news section.

Judy Kowrach was one of two people who endorsed Garden Gate (www.GardenGateMagazine.com, $20/6 issues/year). With no ads, it is full of tips, plant profiles and design ideas. Despite its Iowa origins, much of the information is applicable to Cheyenne. Even without a subscription, you can sign up online for its free eNotes.

Kim Parker and several others listed Fine Gardening (www.FineGardening.com, $29.95/6 issues/year). It does a splendid job of inciting people to commit acts of gardening. I like their warnings on which featured plants are officially classified as invasive in which state and their scientific plant name pronunciation guide. And their deep website full of free garden and plant information.

2016-12-garden-design            I couldn’t come up with an issue of Garden Design (www.GardenDesign.com, $45/4 issues/year), but looking at a preview copy online, it also is sumptuously photographed. Its price reflects the 148 ad-free pages per issue. And its website is also full of free information, even for non-subscribers.

Finally, Rodale’s Organic Life (www.RodalesOrganicLife.com, $15/6 issues/year) is the latest incarnation of Rodale’s Organic Gardening and Farming. In 1978, that publication printed my interview of a man who built a better bluebird house. These days, think of it as the organic version of Better Homes and Gardens—mostly lifestyle, little gardening.

BOOKS

2016-12-garden-primer-rodales-ultimate-encyclopedia            My primary garden book, recommended to me several years ago by Shane Smith, director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, is The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch (2008, Workman Publishing, 820 pages). Written by a gardener from the cold climate of Maine, it covers every aspect of organic home gardening in well-organized chapters, but with an index for quick consultation.

Another option is Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (2009, www.rodaleinc.com, 720 pages). Earlier editions have been on my shelf for years. It’s a tad more technical, but both this and The Garden Primer are good how-to guides and problem solvers.

2016-12-peterson-kaufman-insect-guides            Tava Collins recommended National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects and Spiders (1980, Alfred A. Knopf, $20) for help identifying garden friends and foes. Similar guides are available in the Kaufman and Peterson field guide series.

Collins also recommended three books written by Colorado gardeners: Rocky Mountain Gardener’s Handbook, John Cretti (2012, Cool Springs Press); Rocky Mountain Getting Started Garden Guide, John Cretti (2015, Cool Springs Press); and Cutting Edge Gardening in the Intermountain West, Marcia Tatroe (2007, Big Earth Publishing).

For special gardening techniques that will work in our area, these next two were recommended.

Marie Madison cited The Bountiful Container: Create Container Gardens of Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits and Edible Flowers by Maggie Stuckey and Rose Marie Nicholas McGee (2002, Workman Publishing).

Susan Carlson, who I interviewed a few months ago about straw bale gardening, apprised me of a new edition of her favorite book: Straw Bale Gardens Complete: All-New Information on Urban & Small Spaces, Organics, Saving Water – Make Your Own Bales With or Without Straw by Joel Karsten (2015, Cool Springs Press, $24.99).

If your giftee’s interest is in growing native plants that attract pollinators or in identifying plants on the prairie, try these. Keep in mind the definition of “weeds” depends on the situation.

2016-12-weeds-of-the-west-rangeland-plants            Carlson listed Rangeland Plants: Wyoming Tough by Smith et. al. (2015, publication B-1265) It is a free download at www.wyoextension.org/publications or $8 at the Laramie County Extension office, 307-633-4383.

Richard Steele found Weeds of the West (Western Society of Weed Science, 2012, $34 at www.wsweedscience.org) to be particularly useful while manning the “Ask a Master Gardener” table at the farmers market this fall.

Collins mentioned the classic Meet the Natives: A Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, Trees and Shrubs: Bridging the Gap between Trail and Garden by M. Walter Pesman. It was revised by Denver Botanic Gardens staff in 2012 and republished by Big Earth Publishing.

2016-12-undaunted-garden            The author of one of my favorites, The Undaunted Garden: Planting for Weather-Resilient Beauty (2010, Fulcrum Publishing), Lauren Springer Ogden, is a firm believer in “the right plant in the right place” and is the originator of “hellstrip” gardening. Her photography is inspiring. She speaks often at garden events on the Front Range.

Her book would be a good accompaniment to the next two books, helping you to pick appropriate local plants to interpret their lessons. These books are about planet-friendly landscape gardening.

Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West (2015, Timber Press). This may be intended to introduce landscape designers to more natural, sustainable plantings. But you can apply the advice to your own yard, such as using groundcover plants instead of shredded bark mulch everywhere.

2016-12-garden-revolution-planting-in-a-post-wild            The other is Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher (2016, Timber Press). Proponents of the “right plant in the right place” too, the authors have designed this book to help you understand their premise: that with knowledge of your eco region and local habitat, you can plant a garden that will evolve over time with a minimal amount of assistance, i.e. chemicals and labor.

LECTURES AND CLASSES

One option: Give your favorite gardener tuition for the 10-week Master Gardener class beginning in January. For more information, call 307-633-4383.

Or give them tickets to the spring gardening lecture series Laramie County Master Gardeners is offering in conjunction with the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. Call 307-637-6458.

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Straw bales conquer garden problems

2016-8 straw bale 1, Susan Carlson, by Barb Gorges

Laramie County Master Gardener Susan Carlson shows off peas growing in her straw bale garden. The spruce trees protect the garden from north wind and the shade cloth protects the delicate lettuce in the rest of the garden from too much sun. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Aug. 14, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Straw bales conquer many garden problems.”

By Barb Gorges

Did the thought of the work involved in starting a vegetable garden keep you from having one this year? Did time for all that rototilling or digging in of compost never materialize? Or maybe you tried a garden in our clay soils and results were poor?

2016-8 Straw Bale Gardens cover

Straw Bale Gardens, by Joel Karsten, Cool Springs Press.

Susan Carlson, a Laramie County Master Gardener, can recommend a solution: straw bale gardening. Her stepson, who lives in Minnesota, brought her the book by Minnesota native Joel Karsten describing his miraculous method.

This is the second season Carlson has used rectangular straw bales for vegetables and her results look good. She also included flowers.

The idea is that a straw bale is compost waiting to happen. Before the growing season begins, over a couple weeks, you add water and a little fertilizer—organic or inorganic—and it will activate an army of bacteria. The bacteria break down the straw, turning it into just what plants need. Plants can be inserted into the bale or seeds can be started in a little potting soil placed on top.

The bale is like a container or raised bed held together with baling twine. You can set it anywhere, even on a driveway. You don’t prepare the ground underneath.

And, depending on how clean the straw is, you will have few weeds, or wheat or oat sprouts, that can’t be easily removed by hand. You’ll have more sprouts if you accidently bought hay—which includes the heads of grain—instead of straw, which is just the stems.

Straw bales might also be the solution to vegetable plant diseases that persist in soil. Gardeners are always advised not to grow the same family of vegetables (especially the tomato-eggplant-pepper family) in the same spot more than once every three years. You can start a fresh bale each year, although Carlson managed to keep her bales intact for a second year.

Carlson studied Karsten’s book, “Straw Bale Gardens.” Here’s what she did:

First, obviously, she found straw bales.

I checked a local farm and ranch supply store and their regular bale, about 3 feet long and 60 pounds, runs about $7. Avoid the super-compressed bales.

A bale bought in the fall from a farmer should be cheaper than in the spring, after they’ve had to store them all winter. In fall, you can put your bale outside to weather.

If you’ve had problems with mice or voles, as Carlson has, lay chicken wire or hardware cloth down first. Cut a piece big enough to fold up and protect several inches of the sides of the bale.

2016-8 straw bale 2, set up, by Barb Gorges

Carlson’s straw bale garden consists of five bales forming a u-shape. They are planted with (from left) haricot vert green beans, cabbage, a tomato, lettuces, petunias and edible pod peas. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Lay out your bale prickliest side up, and so the sides wrapped with twine not against the ground. Carlson bought five bales and formed them into a u-shape to fit within an area fenced to keep out her dogs.

Because she planned to grow beans, Carlson made a trellis as well. She wedged two bales, lying end to end, between two 5-foot steel “T-post” fence posts (about $5 each) and then strung wire at about 10 and 20 inches above the bales. She can add more wire if the plants get taller. Karsten recommends 14-gauge electric fence wire (but you won’t be plugging it in).

On the ground inside the u-shape of bales (or between your rows), Carlson laid landscape fabric. You could use some other material to keep light from germinating weed seeds, like a layer of thick straw, cardboard, wood, wood mulch, etc.

Next, Carlson “conditioned” the bales, starting about two weeks before our last frost date, which is around May 22, though you can start a week earlier because the bales form a warm environment.

The first step here is to find cheap lawn fertilizer with at least 20 percent nitrogen content as Carlson did the first year. Do not use one that is slow-release or that contains herbicides.

You can also use organic fertilizers, like bone or feather meal, or very well-composted manure, but you need to use six times more than the amounts given for inorganic fertilizer. The second season, Carlson said, she is having good results using Happy Frog packaged organic fertilizer, but using much less since the bales were conditioned once already last year.

The conditioning regimen begins the first day with a half cup of inorganic fertilizer (or six times more organic) per bale sprinkled evenly all over the top and then watered in with your hose sprayer until all of it has moved into the bale and the bale is waterlogged, writes Karsten.

The next day you skip the fertilizer and water the bale again. Karsten suggests using water that’s been sitting out for a while so it isn’t as cold as it is straight out of the tap.

Days three through six you alternate between fertilizer-and-water days and water-only days.

Days seven through nine you water in a quarter cup of fertilizer per bale each day. The bales should be cooking by now and feel a little warmer on the outside.

On day 10, add a cup of 10-10-10 garden fertilizer. The numbers mean 10 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus and 10 percent potassium.

Next, lay out your soaker hoses on top of the bales if you are going to use drip irrigation as Carlson has.

On day 12, Carlson transplanted one cherry tomato plant directly into the bale, wedging it in. Smaller plants are easier to plant than large ones and will soon catch up.

“Bacteria are breaking down the inside of the bale and making this nice environment,” said Carlson.

2016-8 straw bale 4 beans by Barb Gorges

Carlson’s Haricot vert beans. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Mostly, Carlson wanted a salad garden and so she started everything else from seed: edible pod peas, Haricot vert beans (a type of tiny French green bean), lemon cucumbers, broccoli, spinach and various lettuces.

She packed a couple of inches of sterile potting soil (not garden soil) into the tops of the bales in which to plant the seeds. The warmth of the composting straw got them off to a good start.

She added shade cloth overhead to protect the lettuces from too much sun and started cutting romaine and butterhead lettuce by mid-June.

Carlson also used shade cloth on the west side fence to keep the wind from drying out the bales too quickly.

And there you have it, a vegetable garden—or a flower garden if you prefer—ready to grow. All you need to do then is to garden as you normally would: enough water, fertilizer once a month, and pull the occasional weed that may sprout, or pick off any little slugs or insects.

Maybe because of our dry western climate, Carlson was able to use her bales this second year. The bales shrank a little so she patched the gaps between bales with bits of chicken wire on the sides and filled them with potting soil.

One question is what to do with the old bales. They are great compost for conventional garden beds. Carlson reached into the side of one bale and showed me lovely black soil. If you don’t have any conventional garden beds to add it to, someone else would be happy to take the compost off your hands.

“This isn’t the prettiest thing,” Carlson says of her straw bale garden, “but when it starts growing, you don’t even look at the bales.”

2016-8 straw bale 3, detail, by Barb Gorges

While most straw bale gardeners start with fresh bales each spring, Carlson was able to use hers for a second season. She pulled away a little straw on the side of this bale and discovered it is full of rich compost. A soaker hose keeps the vegetables watered. The green steel fence post is part of the trellis system. Photo courtesy Barb Gorges.