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.


Soil microbes better than rototilling

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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.

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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.

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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.”

 


Horticulture careers

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Paul Smith Children’s Village, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

A version published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Jan. 22, 2017, was headlined “Find your 1st (or 2nd) career in horticulture.

By Barb Gorges

Have you thought about a career in horticulture?

Last fall, the White House announced the “America the Bountiful Initiative” because the number of students currently studying agriculture is not meeting real world job demand. That in turn is causing potential vulnerability of the food supply which is a national security issue. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study in 2015 showed that 35,400 students graduated with ag-related degrees in a year, short of the 59,000 job openings.

Under the program, government agencies, universities and corporations are encouraged to offer incentives: fellowships, scholarships, traineeships and awards.

Sounds like promising career territory, so let’s look at the aspect of interest to gardeners: horticulture.

Horticulture is partly agriculture and although everyone seems to have a different definition of the distinction, horticulture seems to cover everything that’s not large field grain crops or livestock, but includes flowers and landscape plantings.

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Tyler Mason. Courtesy.

I decided to talk to Tyler Mason, the horticulturist at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, to get a better understanding of the field. His career so far exemplifies the possibilities both in educational routes and job opportunities.

Kids will always play in the dirt, but Mason turned that into gardening early on. By age 12 or 13, “I was landscaping for neighbors: mowing, weeding, mulching and planting shrubs. I didn’t think it was work,” he said. Later he began working at a neighborhood landscape nursery.

Mason studied agriculture at Purdue University. “Hort 101,” Mason said, “was the basics of growing plants, pinching, pruning, fertilization, botany.”

He took internships at a retail landscape nursery and scouting for pests for an agronomy company. Then he had an internship at the Purdue Horticulture Greenhouse Gardens (more of a public garden).

After he graduated, he was working in horticultural research at Purdue, but he wanted to work in public gardens and see more of the world. That’s how in 2012 he came to be the assistant education director at the Paul Smith Children’s Village, part of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens.

Not only was he teaching, Mason was also responsible for the gardening, with the help of volunteers. An affable man, he can inspire both people and plants to do their best. And he’s also full of energy.

In 2014, Mason signed up for a master’s program at Colorado State University through distance education. His thesis was on volunteer management and he finished within two years. During that time, he became the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens’ horticulturist that is responsible for everything that grows outside the conservatory—the planting and care of the whole nine acres of themed gardens located within Lions Park.

But now Mason is about to embark on a different tangent. This month he begins work on his doctorate. This time he will go to school fulltime at CSU. In four years he will become a doctor of horticulture. He will be studying specialty crops grown organically and sustainably.

Specialty crops, Mason said, are essentially all that produce you see at farmers markets minus grains (agronomy), wine grapes (viticulture) and fruits of orchards (pomology).

The Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Coalition has enlisted northern land grant universities like CSU in researching varieties that do well within the USDA’s specifications for organically grown food. Part of the evaluation is taste. There aren’t many fields of research where you get to eat your subjects.

Which of the many careers in horticulture is Mason looking at when he finishes? Perhaps he’ll be a university extension service vegetable specialist for a state, preferably in the Mountain West, who would consult with growers. Let’s hope he still has time for his own vegetable garden.

Educational routes

The green industry, as it calls itself, employs people with all levels of education and experience.

While Laramie County Community College does not offer a two-year degree in horticulture, it does offer an associate of science degree that includes courses required for a four-year degree at other schools.

Meanwhile, at the University of Wyoming, in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the Plant Sciences Department offers the “Bachelor of Science Degree in Agroecology.” That is the study of more sustainable agricultural practices.

Courses offered include landscape design, plant materials and their propagation, organic food production, turfgrass science and greenhouse design and maintenance.

Other courses, for plant protection, include agronomy, plant genetics, plant pathology and weed science.

CSU is a much larger university and offers more variety in the horticultural field through the College of Agricultural Sciences. It has the Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Department which itself has three areas of emphasis:

–Environmental Horticulture which includes everything to know for landscaping, including business, design, management, nursery and turf management.

–Horticulture includes the horticultural version of business management, food crops, science, and therapy (requiring classes in counseling) as well as floriculture (flowers), viticulture (wine) and enology (wine making).

–Landscape architecture studies the relationship between design, nature and society.

Buried in the online catalog you will find the Organic Agriculture Interdisciplinary Minor, www.organic.colostate.edu, in which one studies organic food and fiber production, composting, diagnostics and treatment, microbiology for sustainable agriculture, organic soil fertilizers, crop development techniques and organic greenhouse production.

Horticultural careers

One doesn’t have to be a horticulturist to work in a horticultural business, though some knowledge of the discipline will help, and eventually rub off on you.

Consider the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. In addition to the horticulturists and the volunteers who grow the plants under their direction, the public garden has employees covering education, volunteer coordination, office management, community relations, and events management.

There are many categories of horticultural work. In which category will you find your first career, or maybe your second?

————

In December, at www.jobboard.hortjobs.com, there was this list of categories of horticultural positions:

Administration

Arboriculture (trees)

Botanical Gardens

Business Opportunities

Editorial/Media

Education

Environmental Projects

Environmental Restoration

Estate Gardeners

Floral

Fruit and Vegetable

Garden Center

Golf Course

Government, Federal, State and Local

Green Roof

Greenhouse

Grounds Management

Horticultural Science

Integrated Pest Management

Interiorscape (plants indoors)

Irrigation

Landscape

Lawn Care

Medicinals

Nursery

Recreation and Sports

Resort

Sales, Marketing, PR

Seasonal employment

Vegetation Management

Viticulture (grapes)

Zoos and Attractions


Perennial fall flower color

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Yampa River Botanic Park, Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Sept. 8, 2016. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Oct. 9, 2016, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Fall color for next year’s perennial flowerbeds.”

Find fall color for next year’s perennial flowerbeds (full version)

Text and photos by Barb Gorges

In September, I had the opportunity to visit three public gardens: Chanticleer near Wayne, Pennsylvania; Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Massachusetts; and Yampa River Botanic Park in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

What struck me was the colorful perennial flowers that were blooming in the fall. Of course, not everything that grows outside Philadelphia grows here in Cheyenne where we are two Plant Hardiness Zones colder, Zone 5.

We match the western Massachusetts mountains for zone, but they get four times our 15 inches of annual precipitation. Plus, they have acidic soils supporting those billowing mounds of hydrangeas I saw everywhere.

Even in Steamboat, only 700 feet higher in elevation, there are plants that require the protection of a thick layer of snow all winter which we don’t have.

So I decided to look around town, especially our own Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, to see what blooms late, for the benefit of bees and our own enjoyment.

Annual flowers are colorful right up to first frost, average date Sept. 20 (though in the last few years in some parts of town it may be as late as mid-October). But unless they self-seed, I can’t justify buying flats of annuals every spring to cover all my garden beds, nor have I the greenhouse to start my own. Instead I turn to perennials. Here are suggestions for you to add to your garden next spring. Or if we haven’t had a frost yet, find them on sale and plant them this fall.

2016-10-1-rudbeckia-by-barb-gorgesI’ve done well with black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia species. Their golden yellow petals and brown centers must have inspired the University of Wyoming’s selection of school colors. There are many varieties based on native species: short or tall, diminutive or gigantic flowers, mid-summer bloomers or later. Some bloom a long time—over a month. Some are better at coming back year after year.

2016-10-2-aster-by-barb-gorges            My other success has been the fall-blooming asters, Symphyotrichum species. One variety is a 2-foot-tall shrub of lavender-colored, 1-inch flowers. It’s come back every year for over 20 years, waiting until mid-September to bloom. But another, brighter purple aster in a sunnier spot started blooming three weeks earlier and is still blooming well. Perhaps it is a newer variety bred for a longer bloom time than the native plants.

I hesitate to give you actual variety names because nurseries so often move onto the next best thing. You might as well go for what’s available rather than mourn what you can’t find. However, if you are interested in native perennials, check sources like www.alplains.com.

2016-10-3-gaillardia-by-barb-gorges            Blanket flower, Gaillardia species, is another hard-working perennial native to North America. It can start blooming in early summer. Horticulturists have had a field day designing varieties with different color patterns. A member of the aster family, it has petals that can be plain yellow, yellow with bands of red, or nearly all red-orange with a little yellow trim. Some are short, some tall. The seed heads are prickly little balls. If you deadhead them when they are finished blooming, they will put out more flowers. If you don’t, they will drop seeds that will sprout next year, like many other easy-to-grow perennials.

2016-10-4-hollyhock-by-barb-gorges            I’ve noticed that some of my summer bloomers will bloom into fall if I water them enough. I have a bed with a row of hollyhocks growing along the back. It gets watered by a sprinkler head that does a good job at one end but hardly gets water to the other end. Thus, the hollyhocks on the dry end finished blooming a month before the hollyhocks on the wet end.

2016-10-5-salvia-by-barb-gorges            Perennials that bloom in early summer may start blooming again in early fall—perhaps they don’t like hot mid-summer temperatures. I’ve had ‘Hot Pink’ Salvia, Salvia gregii, come back into bloom this year.

Microclimates make a big difference as to when perennials bloom. Nettie Eakes, assistant education director at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens’ Paul Smith Children’s Village, said visitors are always telling her how the same flower in their yard is either behind or ahead.

The Children’s Village is lucky to be protected by high stone walls. On their north-facing sides, they provide shade and make a cool, slow-growing microclimate. On the south-facing sides, they absorb sunlight and make a warmer, faster-growing microclimate which can also extend the growing season.

2016-10-6-sneezeweed-by-barb-gorges            The most noticeable perennial I found blooming September 18 at the Children’s Village was sneezeweed, Helenium autumnale, a 6-foot-tall plant with multiple small sunflower-type flowers, each with yellow petals and ball-shaped yellow centers. Nettie said they increase by sending out underground stems, but are not very invasive. Helenium comes in many other variations and bloom times.

2016-10-7-giant-hummingbird-mint-by-barb-gorgesOver by the office door, three-foot tall giant hummingbirds mint, Agastache pallida ‘barberi’, does not have shout-out-loud color. But it is a nice contrast: silvery spikes of tiny purple flowers. And maybe it will attract a late hummingbird—or hummingbird moth.

2016-10-8-karl-foerster-grass-by-barb-gorgesAt the front entrance to the Children’s Village is ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass, Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’. It’s a go-to plant for landscape designers these days, but that’s because it looks so neat. Growing around four feet tall, it starts out green in summer. Then the seed heads ripen to a golden wheat color. Finally, the whole plant turns gold. It is tough enough to stand and provide color all winter before getting cut back in spring.

2016-10-9-russian-sage-by-barb-gorgesA wispy, shrubby perennial also favored by landscape designers in our area is Russian sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia. Each branch sprouts from ground level, with silvery leaves on the lower half and small blueish lavender flowers on the upper half of each stem. It likes sunny spots and will spread.

Chatting with my Laramie County Master Gardener friends, Steve Scott and Kathy Shreve, I also have this list of fall bloomers for you to think about planting next year:

2016-10-10-autumn-crocus-by-barb-gorgesAutumn crocus, Colchicum species. Corms are planted in July or August. The blossoms are much larger than spring crocus.

Blue sage, Salvia azuria, native to central and eastern North America.

2016-10-11-goldenrod-by-barb-gorgesGoldenrod, Solidago species, blooms are branches of tiny yellow flowers. Many are native to North America.

2016-10-12-joe-pye-weed-by-barb-gorgesJoe Pye weed, Eutrochium species, another North American native, sometime varieties are 5 feet tall, with panicles of purple-pink flowers.

2016-10-17-maxmillian-sunflower-by-barb-gorgesMaxmillian sunflower, Helianthus maximiliani, native to the Great Plains, 2 to 10 feet tall, branches with many yellow flowers.

2016-10-13-purple-coneflower-by-barb-gorgesPurple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, daisy-like, native to North America, many varieties, 1 to 4 feet tall.

Snakeweed, Gutierrezia species, a shrub with yellow flowers native to western North America.

2016-10-14-rabbitbrush-by-barb-gorgesRabbitbrush, Ericameria nauseousus, or Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus. Both are yellow-flowered shrubs. The native varieties grow on our drier prairies.

2016-10-15-autumn-joy-sedum-by-barb-gorges‘Autumn Joy’ sedum, Sedum telephium, is a stonecrop. The fleshy stems grow 1-2 feet tall, topped with bunches of tiny purple-pink blossoms. It can be found in the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens perennial bed.

2016-10-16-obediant-plant-by-barb-gorgesObedient plant, Physostegia virginiana, looks like a 2 to 4-foot-tall snapdragon with pale lavender-pink flowers. It is also at the Gardens.


Composting can be simple

Compost bins

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

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

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

Styles of composting

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

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

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

Benefits of composting

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

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

–Compost has microorganisms that help plants absorb nutrients.

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

–Compost helps the soil hold water.

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

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

The science of composting

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

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

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

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

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

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

What not to compost

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

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

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

–No diseased plants.

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

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

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

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

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

Methods

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

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

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

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

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

Lasagna gardening

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

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

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

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

 

Hugelkultur

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

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

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

Resources

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

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

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

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

“Lasagna Gardening,” by Patricia Lanza.


Match wits with weeds

Tyler with stirrup hoe

Tyler Mason, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens’ horticulturist, demonstrates use of the stirrup hoe in his wide beds in his plot at the community gardens. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 12, 2015 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s Journey section: “Can you weed out the weeds? Try these strategies to get your lawn and garden in tip-top shape.

By Barb Gorges

“A year of weeds leads to seven years of hoeing.” –Folk saying recounted in “Sustainable Horticulture for Wyoming,” University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service.

The penstemon in my perennial flower garden is creeping into the lawn. The grass is creeping into the flowers. Technically, that means both penstemon and grass are weeds—out-of-place plants.

Besides growing where they are unwanted, most weeds are aggressive, crowding out preferred plants and even reducing the productivity of vegetables. Often native to Europe or Asia, coming here accidentally or intentionally, they seem to outpace even native plants, excelling where ground is disturbed.

Unfortunately, weeds aren’t usually as edible as our vegetables or as beautiful as our flowers. But for a different outlook, check out “The Wild Wisdom of Weeds” by Katrina Blair, a Colorado gardener.

I recently visited with Tyler Mason about strategies for dealing with weeds. He is now the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens’ horticulturist. He practices integrated pest management, opting for the least toxic, but effective, methods to control weeds.

Thistle

Canada thistle may require several applications of appropriate herbicide to eradicate it. If you chose not to poison it, don’t let it flower and spread seeds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Know your adversaries

The two biggest weed pests in gardens here are field bindweed and Canada thistle. Both develop extensive roots. And any tactic that doesn’t remove or kill every little piece will increase their vigor.

Creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides), with stalks of multiple lavender bell-shaped flowers, runs a close third because it spreads too well.

Also on Tyler’s list: dandelion, curly dock, crabgrass, plantain, and common groundsel.

The book “Weeds of the West” is a great field guide to weeds in gardens, cropland and rangeland.

Beware of Trojan horses

Manure is great fertilizer, Tyler said, but not if it still has viable seeds when not thoroughly composted. Sometimes, weed seeds may come with plants you bring home.

Plantain

Plantain, native to Europe, is a shallow-rooted weed that likes bare, compacted soil, thus its nickname: “white man’s footprint.” One plant can produce 20,000 seeds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Don’t stir things up

There are hundreds of seeds lying dormant in the soil just waiting for a bit of sunlight. Tilling the vegetable patch brings them to the surface.

No-till gardening is becoming more popular. Once a bed is built, the soil and its micro-organisms are allowed to do their thing, improving soil structure and fertility. Amendments are added as top-dressing.

In the Botanic Gardens’ community garden Tyler is using wide-bed gardening in his plot this year instead of the traditional rows. Each bed is a berm about 6 inches high by 2 to 3 feet across, running the length of his garden. Access paths on either side are well-mulched with straw, reducing the area needing to be weeded.

By not stepping on the berm and compressing it, the soil holds more water.

“Be effective with your water,” Tyler said. Water right where you need it. Same with fertilizer–don’t broadcast it over the garden, otherwise the excess will feed the weeds.

Stirrup hoe

The stirrup hoe, pushed or dragged so that its sharp lower edge is barely under the soil surface, severs weed seedling roots. Because it disturbs so little soil, fewer new weeds will follow. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Get them early

If your garden has any bare soil, you are bound to see weed seedlings. Pull them right away. Even thistle and bindweed are easy to pull, roots and all, when they are less than 2 inches tall. To disrupt seedlings while you are in a standing position, use a stirrup hoe like Tyler does, pulling it through the top quarter-inch of soil to severe the roots.

How do you know which is a weed seedling and which is a vegetable seedling? Plant seeds in a pattern. Or give your garden an advantage over weeds by transplanting starts rather than direct seeding.

Keep them in the dark

Black plastic sheeting, with holes cut for inserting vegetables, is a way to mulch. Used with drip irrigation and soluble fertilizers, it can be pricey.

Weed barrier cloth is often used for landscape plantings. But it can make it harder for the roots of desired plants to get water and nutrients. Over time, dirt blows in on top and weeds sprout anyway.

Rock mulch is popular these days, but it doesn’t contribute nutrients the way a mulch of organic materials can, like bark.

Creeping bellflower

In Cheyenne, creeping bellflower is quickly taking on a reputation similar to bindweed. It spreads and is difficult to eradicate. Photo by Barb Gorges.

In flower and veggie gardens, Tyler recommends materials that compost quickly and can be turned under, like grass clippings, tree leaves, straw (not hay with seeds). Take care they are not from diseased plants. Also, make sure they were not sprayed recently with herbicides. Weeds that poke through are easier to pull because the soil surface has not been baked by the sun.

Another way to keep weed seeds in the dark is to grow more densely—keep the ground shaded. Maintaining a healthy lawn cut about 3 inches high will shade out weeds, Tyler said.

Behead them

It is amazing how many seeds one weed can produce. The master gardener manual says dandelions have 15,000 seeds per plant.

Don’t let weeds flower. If you don’t have time to remove them, deadhead them by hand or mower.

Hori hori knife

The hori hori knife, a Japanese garden tool readily available here, is good for removing bigger weeds. It has a sharp edge on one side and a serrated edge on the other. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Dig them out

Tyler is fond of the hori hori knife, a traditional Japanese garden tool that looks like a narrow, pointed hand trowel with a sawtooth edge on one side. This is a good tool for weeds that breach the mulch, are too big for the stirrup hoe, or that have roots about as deep as the hori hori is long.

Overgraze them

When I was a range management student, I learned that cattle prefer forbs (wildflowers) over grass. They will nibble these “ice cream plants” to death if left in a pasture too long. Conversely, they could be trained to eat weeds.

So if you have thistle and bindweed in your garden, keep removing the green leafy parts as often as you can and eventually the plants can very well starve to death. At least they won’t spread.

If you have an over-grazed pasture full of weeds, please consult the Laramie County Conservation District.

Bindweed

One of the most difficult weeds to kill, field bindweed grows bigger leaves in more fertile soil. Tyler Mason likes to isolate bindweed from non-target plants by coiling up the vines in a cup with a hole in the bottom, and then spraying it with an appropriate herbicide. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Poison the invincible

There might be a situation that justifies using herbicides. But first, you have to find the right one for your weed, so you must be able to identify it.

Then you must follow the directions exactly as to formula strength, timing and weather conditions. Keep in mind that some herbicides will volatize—turn to toxic gases—when temperatures are more than 85 degrees F and then will blow onto non-target plants, the neighbors, your pets or yourself, Tyler said. He doesn’t recommend broadcast spraying or using feed and weed products. It can lead to toxic runoff which pollutes surface and ground water. Spot treat instead.

Exceeding herbicide label recommendations is another problem. It can burn the top of the plant, not allowing the plant to transfer the toxin to its roots—and so it re-sprouts instead of dying.

Finally, be sure to deadhead weeds before spraying so that bees and butterflies won’t be poisoned by poisoned flowers, Tyler said.

Draw the line

I heard that a concrete curb poured around the edge of a flower bed can be breached by grass.

I’m trying this solution, edging a bed with flagstones flush with the lawn. The lawnmower can run two wheels along them and no string trimming is necessary. However, in the spring, or whenever grass shows up between the stones, I can upend them and take a shovel to the white root-like grass stems, known as stolons, and cut them back.

Another advantage over concrete curbing: I can change the size and shape of my flower beds whenever I like.

Gardening is about discrimination, discouraging some plants and favoring others. Vigilance is important. But is there a gardener who doesn’t enjoy an excuse to spend time out in the garden?


Give your garden winter interest

Boy in backyard

I’m not sure what our son Bryan had in mind when he ventured forth with his toy shovel–digging to plant something, or digging to escape?

Published Dec. 21, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Give your garden winter interest.”

By Barb Gorges

“Winter interest” is a term you can Google. You’ll get sites wanting to sell you plants that flower in winter—in Zone 10, in Florida. Or maybe you’ll find Minnesota garden columnist Evelyn Hadden’s viewpoint that winter interest is anything that pokes up through the snow.

Cheyenne isn’t the tropics or the snow-covered north. Though we have at least seven months between the first hard frost of fall and the last in spring, we can be snow-free much of the time.

Winter interest is about the view from your window, rather than the summer experience of being in the garden. It’s about enjoying more subtle textures, such as different kinds of bark; and shapes. It’s about the sculptural qualities of branches. It’s about color, of which there is more than you might think.

Although our house was already 25 years old when we moved in, the winter view of the backyard was bleak: a flat lawn, clothesline poles, two big tree trunks, and all walled in by pink concrete block. Sending the kids out to play reminded me of sending them into a prison yard. It’s improved now with various plantings, but maybe it could be more interesting.

Spruce shrub

The spruce hedge at the entrance to the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens tapers towards the top so lower branches won’t be shaded and die. In the background is the columnar-shaped Woodward Juniper. Photo by Barb Gorges.

In early December, on what he calls a 50-50 day, 50 degree temperature and 50 mph wind, Shane Smith, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens director, and I discussed winter interest and took a tour of the gardens looking for it.

Conifers

The backbone of any Cheyenne garden is the evergreens, providing a backdrop and wind protection. At the entrance to the gardens’ greenhouse, a thick blue spruce hedge about 8 feet high blocks the view of the parking lot.

It started as a row of young, normal spruce trees planted 3 to 4 feet apart, but it’s pruned every year, forming an impenetrable wall. It’s important, Shane pointed out, that the hedge taper, becoming narrower towards the top. Otherwise, the lower branches are shaded, don’t get enough sun and die off.

Besides the typical Christmas-tree shapes, we saw a weeping variety of spruce, developed from trees that are naturally prostrate but can be trained to reach a certain height before cascading.

Junipers perform several functions. Low-growing varieties become ground covers, but Shane said to skip the really low kinds, only 6 inches tall, because they allow weeds to grow up through them.

Another, the Woodward juniper, developed at the old Cheyenne horticulture station, grows tall and narrow, providing a columnar shape that doesn’t take up much ground, and it’s a brighter green than some of the other, shrubbier junipers.

Rabbitbrush

Rabbitbrush is a native adapted to Wyoming’s dry climate. More moisture than regular rainfall will kill it.

One of our native shrubs can provide dried flowers. Rabbitbrush blooms yellow in the fall and the feathery,

pale-colored seed heads persist. The leaves are evergreen. Different varieties can range from a yellow green to a silvery color. You can also check out sagebrush, the epitome of Wyoming’s open spaces, which has silvery leaves year round, plus that quintessential Western smell when you brush against it.

However, both of these natives need to be planted where they won’t be irrigated. More moisture than our natural precipitation can actually kill them.

Deciduous trees and shrubs

It’s easy to think bare branches will be just black silhouettes. But with our abundant, sunny winter days, there is more to see, from gnarly cottonwood to smooth redtwig dogwood. Shane said to keep in mind that for dogwood and other shrubs with colorful bark, only the younger wood will show much color, so it is important to prune part back, close to ground level, every few years to encourage new growth.

Maybe you can choose trees and shrubs with fruit, red rosehips on rose bushes, orange berries on mountain ash, crab apples that cling after the leaves fall away—though how long they last will depend on how hungry the squirrels and birds are.

Karl Foerster grass

“Karl Foerster” is an ornamental type of reed grass. There are several varieties. This one grows 2 feet tall. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Other plants Shane recommended, some of which are growing at the gardens, are ephedra, with its weird bunches of long, match-stick-like twigs; mahonia, which reminds one of holly; mountain mahogany and various hawthorne trees.

Grasses

Ornamental grasses have become part of the professionally designed landscape, including the entrance to the Laramie County Library and many local businesses.

They dry to a nice tawny brown. Unlike other, stronger vegetation, they require only the lightest of breezes to accent the view with motion.

One kind Shane pointed out at the gardens is a variety of Karl Foerster grass growing in a 2-foot tall clump with feathery seed heads.

Another, blue oat grass, resembles a fountain of thin, bluish-green and silver strands which looks good as a lone specimen or as a herd of small, shaggy beasts. Shane said if you have a protected, south-facing exposure, there are other grasses you might try.

 

Blue oat grass

Blue oat grass has a fountain-like look. This specimen measures about 2 feet across. Photo by Barb Gorges.

If, at some point, the grasses are smashed by snow or it’s closing in on spring green-up, it’s time to cut back the tall grasses. Rather than clipping them, Shane simply grabs a bunch and saws through near the base with a small, folding pruning saw.

Perennials and annuals

Vegetable gardens are rather hopeless looking in winter. A good gardener cleans out all that stuff that turns slimy with the first frost. But maybe you left the sunflowers for the birds.

Some perennial herbs have winter color: silvery-looking sage (the cooking kind) and purple-y oregano. And some even stay green.

In the perennial flower bed there are lots of plants that don’t need to be cut back right away. Black-eyed susans, yarrow, and asters have interesting dry flower heads. In my garden, hollyhocks and mullein have big stalks that attract downy woodpeckers.

At the gardens, Shane and I found a clump of golden stalks with dried purple flowers, some kind of ornamental onion. And there was a sedum that had dried nicely.

But there will come a time when some of these dried points of interest break down and you will want to remove them.

Bulbs

Next fall, before heavy frost, get some of those early spring bulbs planted, even if it is just a handful here and there. Finding a crocus in March makes two more months of snow potential much easier to bear.

Ground cover

We still have bluegrass lawn at our house. Where the wind doesn’t blow off the occasional snowfall right away, it gets moisture and looks quite presentable. Native grasses look nice too.

Vinca, a vining ground cover, stays green, as do the leaves of some other low-growing perennials.

Use organic materials as mulch to cover bare spots around trees or in gardens. It’s good for the soil as it decomposes, and it can be interesting to look at, whether it is dried leaves or bark, natural or dyed color. Shane likes the look of pine needle mulch. He’s found if it’s ground up a bit, it doesn’t blow away.

Garden embellishments

Nothing says calendar page photo like snow gathering on a garden bench, wagon wheel or split rail fence. My favorite embellishment is a bird feeder or two, attracting bird color and movement and, even through window glass, cheerful bird sounds.

Junipers

Three varieties of juniper contrast with each other in color as well as growth habit: shrubby, ground cover and upright. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Resources

Go to the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens’ website, www.botanic.org, to the Gardening Tips section, where you will find lists of plants that grow well here.