Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming

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Should garden literature be in the fantasy section?

2018-12 GardenlandShould garden literature be listed in the “fantasy” section of the bookstore?

This column was published Dec. 23, 2018, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and also posted at Wyoming Network News:

By Barb Gorges

My book reviews have always been about books I like and recommend. Gardening books are some of my favorite winter reading and gift suggestions.

However, I was disappointed by “Gardenland,” by Jennifer Wren Atkinson. No color photos—only a dozen black and whites! It was described as a book about garden writing. Among other topics she discusses is how over the centuries it hasn’t always been about how-to, but how writers support our garden fantasies. We started dreaming about floriferous and bountiful gardens when industrial agriculture took away the romance of the family farm.

But this is an academic textbook, it turns out, written at 20th-grade level, compared to this column clocking in at 9th -grade level. We need a popular literature writer to interpret these very interesting ideas. The 17-page bibliography is a useful list of garden writers like my favorites, Michael Pollan and Eleanor Perenyi, and introduces many more.

2018-12 GardenlustFor those of us who want to be immersed in fantastical gardens, there is a new book, “GardenLust, a Botanical Tour of the World’s Best New Gardens,” by Christopher Woods. You can justify buying this 8.5 x 10.5-inch, 400 page, full-color, $40 extravaganza as it will give you inspiration for your own garden—if you have a million dollars to spend. At the very least it may count for your recommended daily dose of nature viewing.

You can preview the book at I haven’t decided if I want to order it or if I can wait for it to appear at a used book store. Will what’s new today look boring by then because everyone copied it, like Karl Foerster grass and Russian sage today? Maybe it’s best consumed fresh or at least when there’s a good discount.

2018-12New Organic GrowerAtkinson thinks books about vegetable gardening are not in the realm of fantasy garden books. She would be mostly wrong when it comes to Eliot Coleman. He’s come out with a photo-filled 30th anniversary edition of his book, The New Organic Grower, A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.”  He’s a successful year-round market vegetable grower…in Maine. If he can do it there, we can do it here.

Coleman does it without a lot of expensive machinery. He’s learned how to appeal to customers and how to handle seasonal employees and he passes that information along to the reader, and the nuts and bolts of growing.

Barbara Damrosch, Coleman’s wife, contributed a section about how she grows and sells cut flowers at their farm store as well.

Even if you aren’t planning to go into business, this is an engaging introduction to organic growing from a farmer happy to share his knowledge. You can just imagine Coleman jubilantly giving you a garden tour of Four Seasons Farm. Successful organic growing might not be as much of a fantasy as you think.

Seed catalogs have long been known to be fantasy literature. Those Burpee babies hold giant tomatoes in their outstretched little hands. It’s an old fisherman’s trick that uses perspective to make the fish, or tomato, in the foreground look huge in comparison to the person in the background.

As I become a plant nerd, I can get excited about catalogs with absolutely no pictures. However, the catalog that gets my vote for most beautiful is Botanical Interests Seed Catalog, 2019 Season. Their seed packets feature original botanical art. It makes me want to cut out the pictures and frame them—both flowers and vegetables.

Botanical Interests is a family-owned company in Broomfield, Colorado. Its seeds can be found nationwide and in our local, independent garden centers. Both the website,, and print catalog contain a wealth of information, as do their seed packets, printed inside and out.

For instance, in the catalog there is an article about the national movement for local cut flowers. In the last few decades, most cut flowers purchased at grocery stores and florists in the U.S. have been imported from South America, raising concerns about pesticide use and the carbon footprint of travel. Check out It’s like the slow food movement.

Here in Wyoming we need fantasy garden literature for the five or six months when nothing blooms outdoors. Besides the catalogs and coffee table books, don’t forget to look for garden shows on Netflix. Several are British and make a nice getaway.

Garden Season Extension: Hoop Houses

hoop house inside

Hoop house at the Paul Smith Children’s Village, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Cheyenne, Wyoming

Published Mar. 17, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Extend your garden season with a hoop house: A Cheyenne gardener shares tips on how to build a green-house like structure that will allow you to produce hundreds of pounds of veggies all year long.”

By Barb Gorges

Farmers and gardeners in cold regions have always looked for ways to preserve their harvest, from root cellars to pickling crocks to canning jars.

But what if it were possible to grow cold-hardy vegetables over the winter?

There are many Cheyenne gardeners extending the growing season using cheap and easily available building materials to build hoop houses, also known as high tunnels.

If you’ve ever thrown an old sheet over your tomato patch on a chilly night, you’ll understand how Maggie McKenzie took that idea several steps further.

If you’ve ever dreamed of becoming food self-sufficient, you’ll appreciate how Clair Schwan uses the hoop house concept to produce hundreds of pounds of produce.

And if you want to see an actual working model, you can visit the hoop house in the backyard of the Children’s Village at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens.

Several other season-extending tools exist, such as cold frames, bottomless boxes with clear glass or plastic lids, and low tunnels. But a hoop house is high enough to walk in, giving it that greenhouse feel, and typically heated with nothing more than sunlight.


hoop house outside

Outside of the hoop house at the Children’s Village

Hoop house location

Because hoop houses need to capture as many solar rays as possible, one long side faces south. Both Clair and the Children’s Village have shielded their north-facing lengths by locating their structures against existing windbreaks of trees or fences.

Having level ground to build on is important to the integrity and longevity of the structure, although as Clair says, “The plants don’t care in the least. They still grow like crazy and provide you a bounty the likes of which you won’t see in an outdoor garden.”

 Hoop house structure

A hoop house is typically formed by bending plastic PVC pipe:

–Tap short lengths of rebar into the ground at measured intervals on either side of the area you wish to cover.

–Slip the end of a length of PVC over the rebar on one side, and slip the other end over the rebar on the opposite side.

–Then do the next set and the next and, ta-dah! –now you have something that looks like the ribs of the top of a pioneer’s Conestoga wagon.

That’s the basic method, but everyone does it differently.

Maggie started out bending 4 x 16-foot cattle panels for her tomato plants to climb, and then in the fall, she added half-inch PVC ribs to extend the width when she decided to enclose the space. She figures she spent about $400 for her 10 x 13 structure, half of that for the glazing, or covering.

The much larger structure at the Children’s Village, now under the management of Tyler Mason, assistant education director, was built last summer with 2-inch PVC pipes.

Clair used chain-link fence top rail pipe, which requires simple equipment to bend each length into the same arc.

Then there are purlins, boards that run the length of the hoop house–one on each side and one along the top, at a minimum—to keep the hoops stable.

Hoop house skin

Plastic sheeting from the hardware store isn’t going to stand up to Wyoming wind, much less the ultra-violet rays we have at 6,000 feet.

All three structures mentioned here use a translucent woven poly material treated for UV exposure.

hoop house plants

A little frost nipped, but plants are still alive after Arctic like temperatures.

Beds and covers

Inside the Children’s Village hoop house, 4-foot-wide raised beds on either side of a center aisle are outlined by stacked concrete blocks. Their upward-facing holes are filled with dirt, where Tyler expects to grow herbs. The south facing sides of the blocks are painted black to absorb more heat, warming the soil in the beds.

Maggie’s tomato patch was already located on a double-wide raised bed delineated quite squarely with boards and help from her husband Don, an engineer by training.

Clair too, has raised beds 2 feet high, made by stacking used power poles, although he needed to cover them so they didn’t leach poisonous wood preservatives.

On cold nights and cloudy winter days, the plants inside appreciate being covered by a floating row cover, a light, white, polyester fabric frequently used by commercial growers, often to protect crops from insects, but which Tyler said can add 3 to 4 degrees of warmth.


On March 1, Maggie’s “Little Hoop House on the Prairie,” was a toasty 70-plus degrees, while the outdoor temperature was 45 degrees, winds gusting to 45 mph.

Being scientifically inclined—a biologist by training–Maggie has installed four probes recording maximum and minimum temperatures of the air and soil, inside and outside.

The hoop house’s plastic skin has no insulation value to speak of. But a few simple tools can collect enough solar heat to keep the plants warm through the night.

Maggie uses dark-colored, covered, 5-gallon buckets filled with water. Tyler also uses water, storing it in a 55-gallon black drum, along with a collection of water-filled pop bottles that release a little heat when they freeze at night. Clair is retrofitting his operation with solar-warmed water that will circulate in pipes underground.


Hoop houses can get too hot and cook plants.

“If it is 65 degrees and sunny, it can equal 90 degrees when solar rays are trapped,” Tyler said.

The Children’s Village hoop house has plywood doors on either end. The top half of each can be opened for cross-ventilation. The bottom halves can be opened as well on very hot days, but Tyler warned that fencing needs to be set up to keep the rabbits out.

Instead of burying the bottom edges of the plastic skin, Maggie has wrapped the lengthwise edges around PVC pipe cut to length. This way she can roll up the sides in the summer. The advantage is that the plants are aerated from a variety of wind directions, decreasing occurrence of fungal diseases. And bees and other insects can easily fly in and pollinate the fruit and vegetable blossoms.


Eliot Coleman’s book, “Four-Season Harvest” explains how he manages his hoop houses in Maine, which lies in Zone 5, just like Cheyenne.

In late summer he sows cold-hardy greens such as spinach, kale, chard and broccoli. By the time they are nearly mature, the weather is so cool and the day is so short, the growing nearly stops. The plants are in suspended animation, waiting to be harvested as needed. By late winter, early spring, there is room to get an early start on summer crops.

Tyler plans a secondary use for the hoop house–harden off plants before putting them outside, besides raising vegetables to share with Children’s Village program participants.

Both Tyler and Maggie experimented with growing spinach this winter.

It was nice to see something green growing three weeks before winter’s end. I asked Maggie if she had the heart to pick her hard-won green leaves.

“How can I harvest those brave little spinach plants when they’ve weathered such hardship and survived?” she asked.

She might have been only half-joking.


The Children’s Village hoop house can be toured when the Children’s Village is open. Contact Tyler Mason, 637-6349,

Clair Schwan discusses his growing experience extensively on his website at

Maggie McKenzie is a Laramie County Master Gardener. Contact her through the Laramie County Cooperative Extension, 633-4383.

Two companies that carry the woven polyester sheeting recommended by interviewees are J & M Industries (Solarig High Tech Woven Plastic Sheeting),, and Northern Greenhouse Sales,

See the Wyoming Hoop House Info Network website at for building manuals, or contact University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service educator Jeff Edwards in Lingle, 307-837-2000,

If you are a farmer or market gardener interested in the Wyoming Department of Agriculture specialty crop season extension small grant program, contact Ted Craig, 777-6651,

And, if you live within Cheyenne city limits, to be on the safe side, get in touch with the city’s building department before you start putting up your hoop house—depending on the size and scale, you may need a permit. The building department is located on the second floor of the Cheyenne municipal Building, 2101 O’Neil Ave. Call 637-6265.