Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


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Starting gardens: find sun, soil, water

2018-03-05PerennialGarden 1byBarbGorges

This perennial garden keeps expanding. The raised bed with the hail guard on top is where we grow the vegetables, the sunniest spot in front or back yard. Photo by Barb Gorges. 

By Barb Gorges

Is this the year you’ve decided you’ll spend more time on flowers and vegetables and make that boring expanse of lawn more colorful and edible? Here’s how to start.

Find the sun

Find where the sun shines on your yard and where the shadows are. This is the very first and most important step you must take. If you didn’t notice last year, you can estimate.

See where the shadows of currently leafless trees fall during the day. Find the sunny, south-facing side of your house.

For vegetables you want the sunniest location possible, at least 6 hours of full, summer sun. Do you have overgrown or dying trees and shrubs that need pruning or removal? However, a little shade by late afternoon keeps veggie leaves from temporarily wilting.

Keep vegetable gardens close to the house so it is easier to step out and pull the occasional weed and pick the ripe tomatoes.

Flowers aren’t as picky about sun because there are kinds suited to different light levels: sun, part sun, part shade and full shade. If you desire to grow a certain kind, google its light requirements.

Block the wind

In most residential neighborhoods there are enough obstacles, houses and landscaping, to blunt the wind. But if you are out on the prairie, you might want to put delicate plants in the lee of the barn or plant a windbreak first.

Get the dirt

Soil is anything a plant can stick a root into.

Good soil for vegetables (and other annuals) has lots of microorganisms that help feed the roots. Most vegetables are big feeders. They use lots of nutrients, so you’ll want to dig in compost the first year and then add layers of leaf/plant/kitchen compost mulch after that as needed. No need to dig again in future years.

If you use chemical fertilizer instead (unfortunately limiting good soil microbes), remember to follow the directions. Too much nitrogen gives you leaves and no fruit and too much of any fertilizer gives you sick or dead plants. And remember, Cheyenne has alkaline soils so do not add alkaline amendments like lime and wood ash.

Perennial plants rated for our zone 5 or colder (Zones 3 and 4), especially native plants, are really quite happy with whatever soil is available. If you are trying to grow flowers in the equivalent of pottery clay, gravel pit or sandbox, you might look for native species adapted to those kinds of soil. Or consider growing your plants in a raised bed or container you can fill with better soil.

Water carefully

Here in the West, water is a precious commodity so save money by not throwing it everywhere. If you have a sprinkler system, make sure it isn’t watering pavement.

The new era of home landscaping encourages us to replace our lawns with native perennials because they use less water. Native plants also provide food for birds, bees and butterflies, and habitat for beneficial insects. The Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities is installing a demonstration garden at its headquarters this spring.

But you will need to water a new perennial garden regularly until it gets established, and at other times, so figure out how far you want to lug the hose or stretch a drip irrigation system.

Once established, a native perennial garden not only takes less water than a lawn, but it doesn’t require the purchase of fertilizers, pesticides or gasoline for the mower. Your time can be spent admiring flowers instead of mowing. Although if you convert a large lawn to a meadow, you may want to mow it once a year.

Vegetables are water hogs. The fruits we harvest, especially tomatoes and cucumbers, are mostly water. Unless you like to contemplate life while watering by hand, check out drip irrigation. You can even put a timer on the system.

Sprinklers, on the other hand, waste a lot of water, especially when it evaporates in the heat and wind before it can get to the plants. If you abstain from watering between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., you’ll lose less to evaporation.

2018-03-05PerennialGarden 3byBarbGorges

It cost me $3000 to have the turf dug up for this garden…and the broken sewer pipe replaced. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Deleting lawn

While you can rent a rototiller to open up an area for planting, I prefer to use a sharp spade. I dig one clump of grass at a time, only about 8-10 inches deep, break and shake off as much soil as possible and put the remaining chunk in the compost bin—or fill in a hole in the remaining lawn.

It’s slow going, but I disturb fewer tree and shrub roots that underlay my entire yard. When I get tired of digging, that means I’ve reached the amount of new garden I have the energy to plant this year. I don’t want gardening to become a chore!

The plants and details

In the six years I’ve been interviewing local gardeners and writing monthly columns, I’ve accumulated a lot of information, from seed starting to native grass lawn alternatives to growing giant pumpkins and native perennials. Go to my website, https://cheyennegardengossip.wordpress.com, and on the right side of the page use the search function or scroll through the list of topics.

If you are using your phone, select “About” from the menu and find the search function and topics at the very bottom of the page.

2018-03-05Coneflower&beebyBarbGorges

I love this kind of garden visitor. Photo by Barb Gorges.

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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.