Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


Vegetable growing advice

 

IMG_6356.JPG

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.

IMG_6357

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.

 

IMG_6354

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.

Advertisements


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.”

 


Vertical gardening

2016-11-vertical-farm-bright-agrotech-altitude-wall-2

Altitude Chophouse installed a Bright Agrotech Farm Wall to grow herbs for its restaurant and bar in Laramie, Wyoming, last summer. Photo courtesy Bright Agrotech.

Vertical gardening is growing into the wave of the future

By Barb Gorges

As we slip into the dark half of the year, we don’t have to say goodbye to growing our own fresh herbs, lettuces and other greens. There is an option for those of us without a greenhouse, hoop house or cold frame, even if we have limited natural light or limited space.

Think vertical. Think “Farm Wall.”

No more stooping over short little plants. No more weeds. No more intensive watering schedule.

Bright Agrotech, www.brightagrotech.com, a Laramie-based start-up, has been perfecting this system that maximizes production for every square foot. It works for farmers as well as hobbyists—indoors or out. The company now employs 30 people, many coming straight from the University of Wyoming.

As magical as this system sounds, it really works. Growers on every continent except Antarctica are using it. In 2015, the U.S. pavilion at the world’s fair in Milan, Italy, installed a demonstration Bright Agrotech ZipGrow Farm the size of a vertical football field, like a giant billboard full of leafy vegetables.

Locally, the system is being used at Cheyenne Central High School. There, agriculture teacher Ty Berry has his classroom’s system set up on a cart so he can take it places, including the state and county fairs last summer.

Elsewhere, Altitude Chophouse in Laramie grew edibles on an outside wall during the summer using this system.

How it works

The Farm Wall starts with towers. They will remind you of rain gutters upended, but they are made of food-grade white plastic which wraps around part of the open side, leaving a slot the length (or the height) of the tower for plants to sprout from. Towers come in 3 or 5-foot heights.

Bright Agrotech refers to these components as ZipGrow Towers. That’s because the growing medium can be “zipped” in and out of the towers.

The plants grow in a matrix made of curly fibers from recycled water bottles. They have a brown, protective silicone coating. Otherwise light would cause algae infestations in the originally clear material.

So how do you get the plant into the matrix material? Simple. It comes in two halves. You “zip” it out the end of the tower, spread the two halves just enough to place seedlings in between at regular intervals and “zip” it back into the tower. The plants spill out the lengthwise slot.

As you can imagine, the plastic matrix isn’t going to hold water well, so strips of wicking material are added with the plants.

The next step is to place the towers between the upper and lower horizontal gutters. The lower gutter is on the floor. The upper gutter can be slid onto a bracket on a wall (indoors or out).

2016-11-bright-agrotech-farm-wall-at-cheyenne-central-4-by-barb-gorges

An emitter keeps the tower below it watered. Photo by Barb Gorges.

What makes the Farm Wall water-smart is that it is a hydroponic system. Water constantly circulates. About once a week the water reservoir needs to be topped off. It looks like and is lined up with the other towers but has no growing slot. Water is poured into the top. At the bottom is a spigot that allows only a certain amount of water to sit in the lower gutter. A small submersible pump there sends the water up through a hose and across the top, inside the upper gutter. There’s an emitter above each tower, keeping it watered.

Without soil to provide essential nutrients, you must add them to the water yourself. What you add depends on what you are growing, which is where Bright Agrotech can give you advice. There are several commercial fertilizer mixes available, or maybe you’d like to try aquaponics, in which the water circulates through a tank of fish and picks up nutrients from the fish poop.

While on my tour in Laramie one unexpected thing I learned from my guide, marketing team member Amy Storey, is that the more growing cycles a unit of matrix material has been through, the better it gets. All the old roots and all the potting soil left behind by the seedlings enables good microorganisms to get established and start helping with their usual job, making it easier for plants to absorb nutrients.

One plus of the Farm Wall system: no pesticides are necessary, as long as good horticultural practices are maintained. And there are no weeds since you aren’t tilling the garden and causing weed seeds to sprout.

Considerations

There are several considerations with this system. The 5-foot high, four-tower package is $599 (free shipping). The two-tower, 3-foot high version is $369. There is also an 8-tower option. Beyond that size, you need to look at the commercial farm version.

You also need an electrical outlet for the water pump. While the commercial farming version needs to be hooked up to plumbing, the Farm Wall doesn’t. But you may want to install it where a few splashes of water won’t be a problem.

An electrical conductivity meter will help you know how you are doing with fertilization, though you might make do with nutrient package directions and your own observations.

You’ll need someplace warm to start seedlings under lights.

Speaking of lights, you’ll need some florescent grow lights set up vertically in front of the Farm Wall if it isn’t set up outside or in a greenhouse.

Obviously, root crops are not going to do well in such limited root space. So far, the most successful crops have been flowers, herbs, lettuces and other smallish greens.

At the University of Wyoming Extension, horticulturist Chris Hilgert experimented with strawberries, but hasn’t been successful—yet.

The possibilities

For growing small vegetables commercially, vertical farming is certainly more efficient than one layer of 6 to 12-inch high plants, especially in a greenhouse. Also, in an urban area, the cost of lighting and water pumping may be less than transporting produce from elsewhere.

In Jackson, where the town is isolated and the growing season very short, Vertical Harvest, www.verticalharvestjackson.com, grows for local restaurants, grocery stores and its own store in a 3-story glassed-in area on the side of a parking garage. On a tenth of an acre they grow the equivalent of 5 acres of conventionally farmed land through the winter.

2016-11-bright-agrotech-farm-wall-at-cheyenne-central-1-by-barb-gorges

Ty Berry has this Farm Wall in his classroom at Cheyenne Central High School planted with herbs and flowers. It was about to be replanted with beans. Photo by Barb Gorges.

This semester Berry’s students are planting beans in their classroom Farm Wall. It was paid for by an educational grant he wrote. Bright Agrotech also provided curriculum ideas to maximize the educational possibilities.

I remember 25 years ago when Cheyenne parent-teacher organizations raised the funds to pay for computer labs for their schools. Now computers are part of the school district’s budget and every student seems to have what amounts to one in their back pocket.

Perhaps someday it will be completely normal for a wall of every school building to produce healthy food for school lunches. Unless kids are already packing Farm Wall salads from home.

Note: Laramie, at 7200 feet elevation, is in a hostile environment for growing vegetables, which may have been the inspiration for Bright Agrotech founder Nate Storey, a native of Cheyenne with a PhD from the University of Wyoming. But his version of vertical gardening is catching on worldwide.

2016-11-vertical-farm-bright-agrotech-altitude-wall-1

The Farm Wall installed by Altitude Chophouse becomes part of the landscaping in downtown Laramie, Wyoming. Photo courtesy Bright Agrotech.


Heirloom veggies for taste and variety

 

img_3763

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.

2016-9-rusty-brinkman-hoop-house-by-barb-gorges

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.

2016-9-rusty-brinkman-market-barb-gorges

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.

2016-9-rusty-brinkman-by-barb-gorges

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

2016-9-rusty-brinkman-beets-and-radishes-by-barb-gorges

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.

2016-9-rusty-brinkman-onions-by-barb-gorges

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)

 


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.

 


Dealing with garden pests

 

2016-06Antelope FE Warren AFB 3 by Barb Gorges

Pronghorn graze in winter on the lawns in front of historic residences at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Familiarly known as antelope, they can be garden pests. Photo by Barb Gorges. 

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle June 19, 2016, “How to keep pests out of your garden.”

By Barb Gorges

Summer in the garden looks so idyllic from afar—especially back last winter when you were dreaming about it. And then a couple weeks after the last frost, the annoying summer visitors show up, the garden pests.

I asked Catherine Wissner, University of Wyoming Extension horticulturist for Laramie County, what pests people call about most. Her top three are ants, yellowjacket wasps and weeds.

I dealt with weeds in a previous column, but I would like to address those pests and a few more with an eye to integrated pest management. By that I mean the minimum impact on human health, the environment and non-target organisms.

That includes growing the right plant in the right place, checking plants regularly, identifying pests correctly and trying physical and biological control methods before reaching for chemicals.

For more information, see the UW Extension publications at www.wyoextension.org/publications.

When it comes to garden pests, we humans, the big-brained species, should be able to outsmart even a hungry critter.

2016-06Ant colony - Barb Gorges

This might be a colony of pavement ants, which are similar to sugar ants. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Ants

Last summer we had little brown ants making themselves at home along the cracks in our patio. We followed Wissner’s suggestion to put a sugar substitute, aspartame (one brand is NutraSweet), on top of every mound. Between that and caulking the cracks, we cut down on the numbers. But will aspartame work on bigger ants?

“Aspartame only works for the tiny sugar ants,” Wissner said. “For the bigger ants you can buy ant traps at the grocery store. They seem to work and there are no poisons for pets to get into.”

2016-06Western and Prairie Yellowjackets - Barb Gorges

These wasps, though yellow and black like many bees, have hard and shiny-looking exoskeletons compared to the furry honeybees and bumblebees. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Yellowjackets

Yellowjackets like the meat and sugary foods served at picnics and they can be aggressive in late summer. But Wissner notes their ill effects on the beneficial garden insects as well.

“All wasps are predacious and go after caterpillars, grasshoppers and sometimes spiders as a food source for their larvae. If you are trying to develop a butterfly garden, then they are a problem,” she said.

Wissner recommends yellowjacket traps sold at hardware stores, “The best one I found is a hexagonal green sticky trap that hangs. It also catches flies. Late April is the best time to put out traps (to catch the queens), but it’s not too late to put them out now.”

To picnic safely in our yard, we have used the yellow plastic traps with the refillable attractant (which is toxic to pets). We hang them out of reach and 20 feet away from pets, food and people. The brand we use has a wasp identification chart and so far we’ve caught prairie and western yellowjackets.

Keep Benadryl or similar antihistamine on hand if someone gets stung and starts to swell.

2016-06Aphid Wikipedia

Aphid, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Aphids

It’s hard to see tiny green (or other color) aphids, but easy to see the damage they cause sucking on plant leaves, making them curl or grow misshapen.

Prevention is the best cure for aphid and many other insect infestations. Wissner said, “They are a good indicator of plants and the soil system being off balance. Too much fertilizer and not enough water typically invites bugs.”

In other words, a stressed plant is a target for hungry insects, who, like wolves, go for the sick and weak, stressing them further.

Besides adjusting fertilizer and water amounts, you can knock aphids off with a stream of water. If the leaves are sticky with aphid “honeydew” you might want to prune them away before the stickiness attracts other insects and fungus. And you can try treating the leaves with neem oil.

Other insects

Some beneficial insects leave behind a bit of cosmetic damage. The leafcutter bee cuts little circles out of the edges of leaves for building its nest. It doesn’t usually hurt the plant and as Wissner said, “They are important in the garden and pollinate a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and flowers.”

2016-06Slug U of Cal IPM Prog

Slugs. Courtesy of the University of California Integrated Pest Management Program.

Slugs

It’s surprising to find slugs in Cheyenne, with average precipitation of only 15 inches a year. I didn’t have any until a few years ago.

I asked Wissner her favorite remedy for slugs. “Chickens,” she said.

If that isn’t an option, beer traps have worked well for me, especially in the vegetable garden. I’ve sunk a 6-ounce yogurt container in the ground and filled it half way with cheap beer (though I hear better beer works better). The slugs are attracted to the yeast, dive in and drown. The next morning, I remove the slugs by pouring out the traps into an old kitchen strainer held over a bowl and then pouring the beer back in the traps. I can reuse the beer several days.

For slugs in the flower garden it is easier to change the habitat—thinning out the vegetation and removing the leaf mulch for a while, giving the birds a chance to find any slugs I didn’t already pick off. “More air, less moisture,” said Wissner.

2016-06Rabbit Wikipedia

Rabbit foursomes are meeting in the middle of our street in broad daylight. Where are the neighborhood owls and foxes? Rabbit stew sounds good though hunting is not allowed in the city limits. Besides, as soon as you remove one rabbit, another one pops up. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Rabbits

Fencing is the best option, chicken wire about 2 to 3 feet high and buried about 6 inches deep to keep rabbits from digging under. Our backyard is completely walled in and our dog Sally is on patrol, so no problems there.

In the unfenced front yard, I apparently don’t grow any flowers that are lush and delicious, except for pansies and so I don’t grow those there anymore. Instead, the rabbits nibble our grass. One garden blogger suggested growing clover in your lawn, a rabbit favorite, as a distraction. It also provides nitrogen for lawns, a key nutrient.

My friend Florence Brown has particular plants she guards with the prunings from her rosebushes. The thorny mulch can keep rabbits away as well as dogs and cats.

 

2016-06Antelope FE Warren AFB 2 by Barb Gorges

While many plant catalogs will mark certain plants as deer resistant, they don’t mention whether they are also antelope resistant. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Deer and antelope

You might think deer and antelope are only a problem for the folks living on acreage outside of town, but it seems the antelope from F.E. Warren Air Force Base walk into the west side neighborhoods in late winter looking for snacks.

Both deer and antelope are browsers, fond of shrubbery, but they will occasionally pick off less woody plants. While many plant catalogs will mark certain plants as deer resistant, that isn’t a guarantee they won’t get eaten.

Various substances are recommended as repellents, but need to be reapplied frequently and after rain. Or you can build a cage to protect an important plant.

2016-06Caged rosebush by Barb Gorges

A cage protects a rosebush in Wendy Douglass’s garden outside Cheyenne. Photo by Barb Gorges.

There’s only one solution for growing vegetables in deer-filled neighborhoods, Wissner said, “Tall double fencing.” The idea behind a fence inside a fence is that deer are hesitant to jump a fence into a space if there isn’t enough room to take a running jump back out. For particulars, talk to Wissner, 307-633-4383.

 

2016-06American_robin USFWS

Fruit is a large part of the American Robin’s diet. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Birds

While Mark and I invite birds to our yard for the many benefits they provide, if we wanted to harvest our chokecherries, or grow other fruit, we would need to put up netting at the right time—before the fruit begins ripening (birds like it greener than we do). But also, Wissner said, “It needs to be monitored several times a day as birds have a tendency to get tangled up in the netting.”

 

Addendum: Ground squirrels, pocket gophers and prairie dogs are a menace to rural gardens. Try protecting trees and other plants with chicken wire and repellents. For information about traps and poisons, consult your Extension office or your county conservation district. For the Laramie County Conservation District, call Rex Lockman, 307-772-2600.

2016-06Pocket-Gopher - Wikipedia

   Pocket gopher. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

 


Raised beds for better gardening

2016-6 Barb Sahl and raised bed w pavers - Barb GOrges

Barb Sahl made raised beds from concrete pavers and two by fours that are sturdy enough to sit on, saving her knees. Photo taken May 7 by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle May 29, 2016, “Got rabbits? Try raised bed gardening.”

By Barb Gorges

Rabbits made her do it.

Barb Sahl, a Laramie County Master Gardener, told me she was a ground-level vegetable gardener for the first nine years at her place on Cheyenne’s south side, but she switched to raised beds to keep the rabbits out of her garden.

There were other considerations too. Raised beds would help keep her dogs from running through the radishes and it was a way to deal with a persistent weed problem.

Sahl was also thinking about her aging knees, knowing her days of kneeling would end in the future.

With that in mind, she installed eight beds using a system of landscape pavers, then added five stock tanks.

2016-6a raised beds 2

Sahl’s dog patrols the vegetable garden in late August 2016.

Below you will find information about the history, types and benefits of raised beds in our area.

Genesis of the raised bed

The stereotypical vegetable garden has rows of vegetables. The bare ground between must be kept weeded.

An alternative is to grow vegetables like flowers, using wide beds, 2 to 4 feet wide (depending on how far you want to reach) and grow your plants more closely. This shades out the weeds and you never step into the wide beds, keeping the soil from getting compacted. The paths between beds can be mulched.

A wide bed can be planted at ground level, or with a bit of soil excavated from what will be the paths, made into a flat-topped mound. The soil in the mound will warm up earlier in spring, allowing earlier planting, though the plants themselves may still need protection from frost at night.

If the bed is amended with compost or with soil brought in, fertility and drainage can be improved.

In 2012, I tried the mound method. I had few weeds and great results. The path around the bed was deep in tree leaves collected the previous fall. However, the edges of the mound had a tendency to erode after heavy rains.

Last summer my husband and I converted to what gardeners normally envision a raised bed to be, a contained mound.

Types of raised beds

Gardeners have been inventive at using whatever is at hand to make the walls of a raised bed: bales of straw (hay has too many seeds that will sprout), wood, rock, brick, concrete block, old stock tanks. Raised beds work for flowers as well as vegetables. Sahl even has her raspberries in one to keep them from spreading.

IMG_1866

Wood: Raised beds can be built to workbench-level (“elevated” beds) or the sides can be as low as a single 6-inch wooden board—though that won’t keep the rabbits out. However, Sahl soon realized plain wooden boards would decompose and she would have to replace them sooner than she’d like.

Thirty years ago, raised beds using old railroad ties were fashionable, but it was found that wood preservative chemicals from that era are toxic and can migrate into vegetable plants.

Currently, “ground contact pressure treated” wood has an environmentally friendlier preservative but there is still controversy.

If in doubt, use cedar or redwood. Either, though more expensive, should last a lifetime.

Raised bed kits often contain posts with brackets that hold wooden boards. Another version I’m trying this year, available locally, is steel plates 18 inches tall and bent 90 degrees which fit around the outside corners of the bed and screw into place.

2016-6 Plastic lumber raised bed - Barb Gorges

Plastic lumber raised bed.

2016-6 Plastic lumber raised bed detail - Barb Gorges

Galvanized steel bracket.

In another bed we built 15 years ago, using plastic dimensional lumber, the corners are held together by brackets on the inside. Surprisingly, the galvanized steel has not rusted out.

2016-6 Raised bed w pavers detail

This detail of Sahl’s raised bed system shows the brackets used to hold the concrete pavers upright, connecting them to the 2 x 4s along the bottom and the top. She will put drip irrigation (the black plastic hoses) back in when planting the beds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Pavers: Sahl used a system she found from Lee Valley Tools that starts with a frame of pressure treated two by fours outlining the shape of the bed. She made hers 2.5 feet wide by 8 feet long. Steel brackets attach to the frame and are designed to hold pre-cast concrete pavers upright. Sahl’s pavers are 16 inches square. More brackets along the top edge of the pavers attach to another frame of two by fours, making the structure strong enough to sit on. The brackets are ordered as a kit and the gardener buys the wood and pavers locally.

 

2016-6 Concrete block raised bed - Barb Gorges

Raised bed made with stacked concrete blocks. Photo by Barb Gorges.

2016-6 Converted trash can holder - Barb Gorges

An enclosure for trash cans has been converted to a raised bed. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Concrete block: Mark and I tried a concrete block raised bed for our vegetables last year, but we didn’t stack the blocks on boards like Sahl did her pavers. After this past winter’s freezing and thawing, the walls undulate. Also, for the nine months of the year nothing is growing in it, the bed looks just like a pile of ugly gray concrete—right in the middle of the view from our favorite window.

2016-6 Stock tank raised bed w raspberries

Sahl’s recycled stock tank helps contain the spread of her raspberry patch. Large holes in the bottom of the tank are necessary for good drainage. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Stock tanks: This style is simpler, but perhaps harder to find, prep and install.

Sahl uses this method and got the idea from a relative who uses rusted-out tanks in her garden.

Sahl found her own stock tanks on Craig’s list. We’re talking about the long, narrow ones made of galvanized steel. Sahl’s are 2 to 2.5 feet across by 6 or 8 feet long by about 2 feet deep. Since they weren’t rusted out on the bottom, she drilled lots of holes for drainage. If she were to do it again, she suggests just cutting out portions of the bottoms.

How to install a raised bed

Find a flat, sunny location within range of your hose or drip irrigation system.

Plan the bed’s width so you can reach the middle comfortably, and maximize the dimension of materials to be used. The shape can be square, rectangular or even L or U-shaped. Sahl left enough room between beds for her wheelbarrow.

Because Sahl has a weedy infestation of skeleton-leaf bursage, she chose to cover her site with weed barrier cloth and then covered that with bark mulch between the beds.

Under normal conditions, you would remove pre-existing vegetation as you would for any other garden, especially if you aren’t building your raised bed very high—you need to allow for root growth.

Unless your building materials are ephemeral, temporary like straw bales, be sure to use a level to keep everything square and neat looking. Get corner posts set straight and boards horizontal.

How to fill a raised bed

Sahl wanted completely different soil for her beds than what was in her yard so she ordered a load that was a little sandier, with less clay. It’s important that it is good quality, she said, and not full of weed seeds. She has grown a wide variety of vegetables in the eight years since and is very happy with the results.

If you are growing vegetables, you may want to mix in a lot of compost like that available through Cheyenne’s compost facility. In future seasons you won’t have to till, just add a couple more inches of compost, perhaps in the form of the organic mulch you use on the surface—leaves and grass clippings, etc.

For flowers, be aware that hardy native perennials do best with less fertile soil.

Accessories

Sahl has made tomato cages from concrete mesh that fit her raised beds perfectly. She can wrap them in plastic to protect the plants from frost early in the season.

Raised beds also lend themselves to the addition of trellises, cold frame covers, mini-hoop houses, hail guards and drip irrigation systems. See previous columns on those subjects at www.CheyenneGardenGossip.wordpress.com.

Details of Sahl’s raised beds, late August 2016: (clockwise from top left) onions, cabbage, raspberries, tomato, carrots.

2016-6a Gorges raised bed in JulyGorges raised bed, July 2016.