Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


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Wyoming Heirloom Apples

2018-05 apple blossom-Barb Gorges.JPGWyoming heirloom apples making a comeback

Also published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle May 6, 2018, and at https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/wyoming-apple-project.

By Barb Gorges

Most people’s image of Wyoming doesn’t include apple orchards.

However, back in the homestead era, settlers brought young apple trees with them and planted them above stream banks. They provided important food in territory where there were no stores nearby. Not only do some apple varieties store well, but others were made into cider or vinegar which was used as medicine and food preservative.

An 1873 follow-up to the Homestead Act, the Timber Culture Act, gave homesteaders an additional 160 acres if they planted trees on 40 acres. Why not plant trees that provided food as well?

By 1880, entrepreneurs were planting orchards outside of Wyoming’s major towns. Ed Young planted 3000 apple trees near Lander, along with other fruit trees.

The Cheyenne Horticultural Station developed hardy Wyoming varieties during its years of operation, 1928-1974.

But by about the 1930s, modern apple storage methods, long distance trucking and grocery stores started to put an end to the golden age of Wyoming apple growing. Farmers turned to growing hay and grain.

Funny thing, those abandoned apple trees persisted, if they weren’t bulldozed. Some even continued to be taken care of. Many are now over 100 years old. With the interest in tasty local and sustainable food sources, Wyoming’s heirloom apples are being sought after.

Jonathan Magby, graduate student at the University of Wyoming, has for the last several years been helping botany professor Steve Miller on his quest to find,  identify and preserve those apples through the Wyoming Apple Project, https://www.wyomingappleproject.com/.

The way apple genetics work, an apple seed will never grow up to be the spitting image of its parent tree. Instead, orchardists propagate apples by taking small cuttings. Magby and Miller are thus able to preserve heirloom varieties by taking these scions and grafting them to other apple tree cultivars grown for their sturdy, Wyoming-hardy rootstock. They are being grown at experimental orchards outside Sheridan and Lander.

So far Magby has used DNA testing to identify 47 cultivars from old apple trees sampled around the state, though not all matched named cultivars.

The cultivar names are often descriptive, and they are often traceable back to Europe. There is evidence the Chinese grafted apples in 5000 BCE.

Wild apples have their roots in Kazakhstan, in Central Asia, which has landscape much like Wyoming’s, which has native crabapples.

If you are the typical home gardener, right about now you are wondering where you could squeeze in an apple tree or two—and really you need to have two so that apples will form—or at least make sure someone nearby has apple or crabapple trees.

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A page from the Wyoming Apple Project’s key.

Next, you are wondering, of the kinds of apples that survived 100-plus years here, which are the best.

Magby updated his website top 10 list for me when we talked:

*1. Wealthy

  1. Haralson
  2. Patten Greening

*4. Yellow Transparent

  1. Northwest Greening
  2. McMahan
  3. McIntosh
  4. Wolf River

*9. Whitney No. 20 Crabapple

*10. Duchess of Oldenburg

  1. Dolgo

Wait! That’s more than 10! The starred cultivars will do particularly well in Cheyenne as well as Florence Crab.

Each apple cultivar has its strengths and weaknesses, uses and flavors. When we lived in Miles City, Montana, in the 1980s, we had an old Yellow Transparent, a hardy Russian cultivar. Its fruit ripened to a pale yellow in August. It wouldn’t keep over the winter like some. In fact, it was practically apple sauce as soon as the apple departed the tree.

The next question you home gardeners will ask is the harder one, where to buy these apple trees?

Look for Scott Skogerboe, an heirloom apple propagator from Fort Collins, Colorado, who sells trees and shrubs at our farmers market. Ask for Wyoming’s heirlooms at our local nurseries. Hopefully, area nurseries will carry apple trees with rootstock suitable for Wyoming, or for your site if you are planting an orchard. Check the Wyoming Apple Project website for advice. Consult your extension agent.

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This old apple tree persists above Crow Creek west of Cheyenne, making use of a little bit of seepage. Photo by Barb Gorges.

If you have an old apple tree that might be an heirloom, you can contact Miller, Fungi@uwyo.edu. Maggie McKenzie remembered the ancient apple trees on the place west of Cheyenne where she grew up and her family still lives. Magby was able to identify three out of four: Jeffries, Wealthy and McIntosh. Most importantly, McKenzie was inspired to get them some pruning love, helping to prolong their productive life.

For more information on caring for apple trees, see the Wyoming Apple Project website and articles from Barnyards and Backyards, http://www.uwyo.edu/barnbackyard.

Information for this column came from an interview with Jonathan Magby and other sources.

2018-05 Wyo apple trees-Barb Gorges

University of Wyoming grad student Jon Magby was able to identify the cultivars of three out of four of Maggie McKenzie’s family’s apple trees using DNA testing. Photo by Barb Gorges.

 

 

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Young worm farmers prepare for vegetable growing season

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Boys and Girls Club of Cheyenne worm farmers show off their worm compost bin. Photo by Barb Gorges

This column was also published at Wyoming Network News: https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/young-worm-farmers-prepare-for-vegetable-growing-season.

By Barb Gorges

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No squeamishness! Photo by Barb Gorges.

Have you ever seen a girl handle a worm without expressing squeamishness or a boy hold a worm without trying to scare a girl? I have.

Out at the Boys and Girls Club of Cheyenne there is a worm composting bin. The kids, self-proclaimed worm farmers, gave me a tour of their livestock the other day. Taking off the lid, they moved the partially composted material to one side with a hand-sized rake and didn’t hesitate to plunge their hands in to wrangle a red wiggler or two and bring them out for inspection.

After I’d been introduced to the worms and enlightened about their biology, the worms were carefully returned to the bin. The kids washed their hands and then dried them with paper towels.

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Two of the boys gently rake the kitchen scraps looking for the red wigglers. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Maggie McKenzie, a volunteer at the club who works under Carlos Gonzales, youth development professional, oversees the worm farm. She reminded the kids to throw the paper towels in the bin for the worms to process. The worm castings (worm poop) will go into the club’s garden outside as soon as it is warm enough. It will be great fertilizer for the vegetables which are grown organically—without chemicals.

Back three months ago, I witnessed McKenzie and two other Master Gardeners, Susie and John Heller, give this batch of compost its start.

Bins

Vermicomposting, composting with worms, is simple. You can build your own bin using a well-washed 5-gallon bucket that has a lid. John Heller said at home they have used the plastic buckets kitty litter comes in.

Punch holes 4 inches up from the bottom edge for aeration. Punch another few in the bottom for drainage of the worm urine. It’s valuable natural fertilizer you’ll also want to collect, according to http://www.wormfarmfacts.com.

The Hellers donated a fancy bin to the club. It comes in removable layers, like a layer cake. The worms start off in the lowest one and as compost is finished in that layer, bedding material and food is added to the next layer up. The worms migrate to it through its mesh bottom. This leaves the compost in the first layer to be harvested.

Bedding and food

The Hellers start with a sheet of black ink newspaper (no color) laid in the bottom of the bin. For bedding they shred or tear newspaper into 1-inch-wide strips, moisten it like a wrung-out sponge, and then crumple it into a 1-inch layer.

Next, 2 to 3 inches of food are placed on top. Kitchen scraps are best, but not meat, dairy or grease. Susie Heller said to think about what nutrients are needed in the garden. We have a lot of calcium in our soil, so leave out the egg shells. The smaller the scraps of food are, the faster the worms will digest them. The Hellers sometimes dice theirs.

A little sand is needed because worms, like chickens, have a crop and a little rough sand in their crop helps them break up and digest tough fibers.

Some things are too hard for worm digestion, like avocado pits. Seeds from tomatoes and other fruits pass through unscathed and will sprout. The worms are not fond of citrus fruits. A little goes a long way. However, the worms will eat Starbucks coffee filters and tea bags, said Susie Heller.

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Red wigglers are more active than earthworms, and make compost faster. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Worms

The Hellers added a pound of worms they ordered for about $6 from the Wyoming Worm Wrangler, wyowormwrangler@yahoo.com. Red wigglers, smaller and redder and more active than garden-variety earthworms, work best. The worms placed on top soon crawled below to get away from the light.

The lid was placed firmly on top of the bin. It’s important to keep the worms in the dark, said Susie Heller. And if there isn’t at least a little light outside the bin 24 hours a day, the worms will come out to explore.

Temperature is important too. If it drops below 45 degrees F, the worms will go into hibernation. If it gets above 80 or 90 degrees F, the worms in the bin will die. In nature they can crawl deeper in the soil to stay cool, said Susie Heller.

Maintenance

McKenzie brings in a produce bag of kitchen scraps about every week to 10 days, “I usually add some paper at the same time —newspaper and paper towels—which helps keep odors down if I overload the worms.”

The worm bin should smell like clean dirt. If it gets a rotten smell, add more newspaper—or old brown tree leaves if you have them. McKenzie’s one worm failure though, was due to letting the bin dry out too much.

Harvest

If you use a one-bucket system, in three to six months you’ll have a bucket of worm castings to spread on your garden. At that point you’ll want to sort out the worms and save them for your next batch. Push all the worm-laden compost to one side and put fresh scraps on the other side. The worms will move to the greener pasture on their own in a few weeks. If all went well, they’ve been reproducing, laying little white eggs.

As the Boys and Girls Club kids will tell you, it’s fun to be a worm farmer. There’s nothing quite like the gentle, cool touch of a hard-working, compost-making, red wiggler when it gets a break from the bin to explore the palm of your hand.

2018-03WormsBoys&GirlsClubofCheyenne byBarbGorges 2    The Boys and Girls Club of Cheyenne gave permission to take and post these photos with this story. Red wiggler photo by Barb Gorges.

 


Apply to be a Habitat Hero

Habitat Hero logoThe Habitat Hero program recognizes people who have reduced the size of their water-loving lawns and planted native, water-smart plants that benefit birds, bees, butterflies (and bats) and other wildlife.

Audubon Rockies, the regional office of the National Audubon Society for Colorado and Wyoming, offers information about wildscaping and the application to become a Habitat Hero at   http://rockies.audubon.org/programs/habitat-hero-education.

The Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society and Laramie County Master Gardeners are already planning the 5th annual Cheyenne Habitat Hero workshop for spring 2019. To be notified about the details when they are available, sign up for the blog posts at https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/.


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Starting gardens: find sun, soil, water

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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.

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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.

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


Language of Flowers for Valentine’s Day

2018-02 Language of Flowers by Barb Gorges (2)

In the Language of Flowers, this arrangement of flower seed packets means Delight (Gaillardia and Columbine), Faithfulness (Echinacea–coneflower), Interest (Rudbeckia–Black-eyed Susan), Virtue (Mint–Bee Balm), Always cheerful (Coreopsis–Tickseed), and Petition–Please give me your answer (Penstemon). The potted fern translates as Sincerity. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Also published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Feb. 4, 2018, and at Wyoming Network News.

Language of Flowers provides many options for Valentine sentiments

By Barb Gorges

With the florists’ largest holiday approaching, I thought we should look at getting floral messages right.

The most well-known floral message is red roses for love. But red roses also make an environmentally unfriendly statement. An article at inhabitat.com, https://inhabitat.com/100-million-roses-for-valentines-day-emit-9000-metric-tons-of-co2/, last year explained that the red rose-growing industry uses a lot of water, energy and an enormous amount of pesticides, and then more energy to get the roses from South America, where most are grown, to the U.S.

Here’s an idea: a bouquet of colorful seed packets—and the promise to help prepare a garden bed or container later when gardening season arrives. You can find seeds at:

High Country Gardens, https://www.highcountrygardens.com/wildflower-seeds;

Johnny’s Selected Seeds, http://www.johnnyseeds.com/perennial-seeds-plants; and

Botanical Interests, of Colorado, https://www.botanicalinterests.com/.

There are hundreds of kinds of flowers that have sentiments attached to them, especially by the Victorians, famous for “The Language of Flowers.” They were very fond of sending each other floral messages and apparently every home had a floral dictionary on the shelf next to the Bible.

Here are my favorite native perennials for Cheyenne and what the Language of Flowers has to say about them. Keep in mind there is often more than a single meaning for each. And yes, they do sound like the sentiments printed on candy hearts, often addressing the early stages of romance.

Columbine – Delight – I enjoy being in your company

Coneflower – Faithfulness – Fear not, I am true

Coreopsis – Always cheerful

Gaillardia – Delight – Being with you gives me great joy

Liatris (Gayfeather) – Joy – Your attention warms my heart

Mint (choose Monarda, beebalm) – Virtue

Penstemon – Petition – Please give me your answer

Rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan) – Interest – I would like to talk with you more

Yarrow – Everlasting love

Mid-February is the perfect time to plant those seeds using the winter sowing technique. Plant them in semi-covered containers left outdoors. See my previous column about it at https://cheyennegardengossip.wordpress.com/2016/03/21/winter-sowing/.

Many of the most romantic sentiments may require a trip to the nursery if you can’t find seeds. Here in Cheyenne you may have to make do with an IOU accompanied by pictures from catalogs until planting season in late May.

The following definitions are from the floral dictionary included in the novel, The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh.

Alyssum – Worth beyond beauty

Cactus (Opuntia) – Ardent love

Cosmos – Joy in love and life

Daylily – Coquetry

Dogwood – Love undiminished by adversity

Goldenrod – Careful encouragement

Lilac – First emotions of love

Morning glory – Coquetry

Nasturtium – Impetuous love

Pansy – Think of me

Peppermint – Warmth of feeling

Phlox – Our souls are united

Pink (Dianthus) – Pure love

Speedwell (Veronica) – Fidelity

Sweet William – Gallantry

If you want to plan for romance next spring, plant some bulbs next fall:

Crocus – Youthful gladness

Daffodil – New beginnings

Hyacinth, blue – Dedication – I shall devote my life to you

Hyacinth, white – Beauty

Jonquil – Desire

Tulip, red – Declaration of love

Vegetables, fruits and herbs can have good messages too, so you may want to include some of those seed packets:

Allium (onion) – Prosperity

Cabbage – Profit

Corn – Riches

Grapevine – Abundance

Oregano – Joy

Parsley – Festivity

Strawberry – Perfection

Wheat – Prosperity

Not all floral definitions express happy thoughts. Thistle, for example, means “Misanthropy” in one dictionary. Not surprisingly, bindweed and burdock translate as “Persistence” – most of us work hard trying to eradicate them.

But if you don’t like one definition, look for another. Peony means “Anger” in one book and “Contrition – Forgive my thoughtlessness” in another. In a third collection, peony stands for “Happy life, happy marriage.” Maybe the last two definitions are related after all.

The houseplant option recommends itself over cut roses that droop within a week, if you want something that will remind your true love of you for awhile (providing they have the palest of green thumbs):

Ivy – Fidelity

Orchid – Luxury – I shall make your life a sweet one

Maybe roses are still your best bet. Think about planting a bush that will last a long time. Rose growers in Cheyenne look to High Country Roses, http://www.highcountryroses.com/, in Colorado for hardy varieties. Each color has a meaning:

Burgundy – Unconscious beauty

Orange – Fascination

Pale peach – Modesty

Pink – Grace

Purple – Enchantment

Red – Love

White – A heart unacquainted with love

Yellow – Infidelity

Yikes! I like the old yellow climbing roses. Guess I better find a different dictionary.

Obviously, the recipient of your floral expression might be oblivious to or not speak the same floral language you do. Be sure to provide the definition you intend your flowers to speak.


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Modern botanic gardens: How does the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens compare?

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Cheyenne Botanic Gardens director Shane Smith addresses a crowd of more than 100 people at the opening of the Grand Conservatory in August 2017. To the left is Cheyenne, Wyoming, mayor, Marian Orr, in blue. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Modern botanic gardens: How does the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens compare?*** Click any of the smaller photos to see them full size.***

Also published at Wyoming Network News

By Barb Gorges

I’ve become a connoisseur of botanic gardens the last five years. Everywhere we travel I’ve found at least one. How does the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens compare, now that it has acquired a conservatory? What makes a modern botanic garden?

The roots of botanic gardens come from ancient royalty, like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and medieval monastery gardens for study and propagation of medicinal plants. The roots of major botanic gardens today are similar, often former estates of the wealthy or associated with universities, but also built, like ours, with community support.

The American Public Gardens Association, of which the CBG is a member, requires members are:

–Open to the public at least part-time

–Have aesthetic display, educational display and/or site research

–Maintain plant records

–Have one professional staff member, paid or unpaid

–Provide visitors ways to identify plants via labels, maps, etc.

The association’s definition doesn’t say it, but refreshing the public’s soul is an important outcome.

The six gardens I visited last fall fit the definition in very different ways, but have much in common with each other and our local botanic gardens.

Longwood Gardens water garden, fountain display and conservatory. Photos by Barb Gorges.

Longwood Gardens, https://longwoodgardens.org, outside Philadelphia, was Pierre du Pont’s personal garden started in 1907 with a 600-foot flower bed. Today it has 1,083 acres, including the 4-acre conservatory of plant exhibits, 1,300 employees and volunteers, and 1.5 million visitors annually. Longwood has all the additional components of a modern botanic garden: special events including concerts and classes; volunteer, internship and membership programs; and plant research and conservation work.

Modern gardens also have sustainability programs. Longwood has a 10-acre solar field and composting and integrated pest management programs although the Flower Walk beds were bordered by little white signs: “Danger, Pesticides! Keep Out.” It might be expected of a garden founded by a past president of the duPont chemical company.

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The walk to the front entrance of the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens is lined with flowers from the Proven Winners trials. Photo by Barb Gorges.

On a much smaller scale, the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, https://www.buffalogardens.com/, is set in a city park, as is our own Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. Inside the graceful glass domes of its Victorian-era conservatory, the theme is recreating habitats from around the world which share the degree of longitude passing through Buffalo, New York.

The garden was opened in 1900 by horticulturally-minded citizens, including Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of New York City’s Central Park. Its magazine advertises educational, volunteer and membership opportunities.

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The herb garden at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, is divided into 17 sections including teas, dyes, food, medicinal, spiritual, and even literary references. The walls are made from local rock. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The Cornell Botanic Gardens, www.cornellbotanicgardens.com, part of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, comes from academic roots, but it also qualifies as aesthetically pleasing. It too has members, volunteers and a calendar of cultural and educational events.

Educational components include:

–The bioswale garden absorbing and purifying water from the parking lot.

–The visitor center’s green roof covered in succulents (the CBG also has a green roof).

–The Climate Change Garden comparing growth on otherwise identical hot and cool plots.

–And like our botanic gardens, a website full of information.

Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens rose garden (left) and butterfly habitat and pavilion (right). Photos by Barb Gorges.

However, in Ontario, Canada, the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens, https://www.niagaraparks.com/visit/nature-garden/botanical-gardens-2, is more of a tourist attraction. It has the aesthetics and plant labels, but I found no membership or volunteer information. It is home to the Niagara Parks School of Horticulture, where students sign up for a 36-month regimen of labor and coursework.

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve includes woodland, meadow and wetland habitat, attracting birds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

A better example of a modern botanic garden was Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve https://bhwp.org/, near New Hope, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1934 at the junction of woods, meadows and wetlands, it offers a nursery full of native plants for sale and advertises membership, volunteer and educational programs.

Churchville Nature Center has a wildlife garden demonstrating how to landscape for wildlife: shrubs, trees, flowers and water features. Wild turkeys dropped by. Photo by Barb Gorges.

My favorite garden this trip was the wildlife garden at the Churchville Nature Center, https://www.churchvillenaturecenter.org, outside Philadelphia. Even though the center is municipally-owned like the CBG, there are, like our botanic gardens, membership, volunteer and educational opportunities.

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Inside the Cheyenne Botanic Garden’s new Grand Conservatory tropical plants flourish. The building also includes offices, two classrooms, an orangery and gift shop. The original greenhouse is being remodeled and will continue to provide bedding plants for the city.  Photo by Barb Gorges.

Our own Cheyenne Botanic Gardens compares well with all these gardens: we have an informative website for local gardeners, https://www.botanic.org/, and educational programming including a strong children’s program. The CBG has free admission, even now with the brand-new conservatory, because its city parks-funded budget is augmented by strong membership and volunteer programs.

One unique aspect of the CBG’s mission I didn’t see at any of the gardens I visited is the commitment to service and therapy: “Provides meaningful opportunities for seniors, handicapped and youth-at-risk volunteers who are essential in growing the Gardens.”

With the new conservatory building that opened last summer, the CBG can do even more to fulfill its mission. And you can help. I’ll let you in on two secrets.

One is that if you become a member, there is a reciprocity agreement that allows you to visit many other gardens for free, including the Denver Botanic Gardens. Of course, I spend my savings in the gift shops.

The second secret is that being a garden volunteer is fun. It is something you can’t easily enjoy at faraway gardens, but you can right here at home.


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Bulb forcing brings spring indoors mid-winter

2017-10 Bulb forcing 1

This classic bulb-forcing vase holds a hyacinth bulb. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Oct. 15, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “An indoor spring…during the winter.”

By Barb Gorges

It’s the season for buying spring-blooming bulbs. But not all of them need to go in the garden—at least not right away. Some of them can be kept back for forcing.

Bulb forcing allows you to enjoy crocus, the small iris, hyacinth, daffodils and even tulips indoors earlier than they bloom outside. Think of them as a deep winter gift to yourself, or for someone else.

Cheyenne Botanic Gardens director Shane Smith recently gave me background on the practice and a few tips.

The science and history

Smith said the trick is to use bulbs from temperate climates that need winter—such as the bulbs we plant in our gardens for spring bloom. They can get by with a shorter winter, or artificial cooling period, to bloom. Bulb growers in Europe started taking advantage of this about 300 years ago, as relayed by Patricia Coccoris of Holland in her book, “The Curious History of the Bulb Vase.”

The timing

Buy spring-blooming bulbs now. Bulbs ordered from catalogs begin shipping here around the beginning of October because bulbs normally need to be planted outdoors when the soil cools, but before it freezes in December.

For bulb forcing, figure 12 weeks minimum of “cool treatment,” however tulips need 13 weeks or more. Once the minimum is met, you can stagger when you start warming up the bulbs. You can aim for specific bloom times during our cabin fever months, January through March, or maybe even later into spring when we get those depressingly late, tulip-breaking snow storms.

The best bulbs

Smith said he used to tell people to buy the premium-sized bulbs for forcing, but now he thinks he gets more bloom for his buck with the smaller grades of bulbs. Premium hyacinth bulbs go for more than a dollar apiece in the John Scheepers catalog, but you might find smaller bargain bulbs and have more, if only medium-sized blooms, for the same amount.

Smith said some varieties of bulbs are easier to force and bulb catalogs often will mention which ones. Varieties seem to go in and out of vogue so don’t be surprised if Smith’s are hard to find.

Hyacinth is the classic forcing bulb, growing 10-12 inches tall. Each stalk is covered in tiny florets. Smith looks for Pink Pearl, Queen of the Pinks, White Pearl, L’Innocence (white), Blue Jacket, Delft Blue and Blue Giant.

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Crocus-sized bulb-forcing vases are harder to find. Photo by Barb Gorges.

All varieties of crocus force well. Smith’s favorite varieties are Remembrance (purple), Blue Ribbon, Giant Yellow and Jeanne d’Arc (white). Only 4-5 inches tall, they are usually planted as a mass.

Iris reticulata, though related to the summer-blooming bearded iris, grows only 4-6 inches high. Recommended for rock gardens, mine bloomed outside at the end of last February, but it would be nice not to have to brave winter winds to enjoy it. Smith said all the varieties force well. Scheepers lists eight ranging in color from white to blue to deep purple, all marked with a bit of yellow.

Almost any daffodil (narcissus) will work well for forcing, said Smith. The popular Paperwhite narcissus, however, is a tropical bulb, so it doesn’t need cooling.

Tulips, said Smith, are the hardest to force. They need the longest cooling time, minimum 13 weeks. They also may get floppy and need staking. Look for the earliest varieties, those that would otherwise bloom outdoors here (winter-hardiness zone 5) in April.

There are a variety of other, more difficult spring-blooming bulbs to experiment with: snowdrops, grape hyacinth (muscari) and squill (scilla).

Bulb-forcing vases

Bulb-forcing vases are not easy to find this fall. Your best bet is Amazon or eBay. These vases, usually glass, are pinched near the top, providing a cup for the bulb to sit suspended so that only its base touches the water. You watch as the roots grow to fill the rest of the vase and the flower stem sprouts. For this forcing method, you can cool just the bulbs in your refrigerator for the recommended time. Be sure hyacinth bulbs don’t touch produce.

If you are lucky enough to find a bulb forcing vase, remember to change the water regularly.

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These hyacinth bulbs have been potted up and will be set in a 2-foot deep trench in the vegetable garden and mulched with straw or pine needles for their 12-week “cool treatment.”  Small bulbs, like crocus, need a half inch of soil covering them. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Potted bulbs

Smith pots his bulbs. Without a cellar between 35 and 45 degrees, he instead buries the pots in a 2-foot-deep trench in his vegetable garden. He then backfills the trench with straw or pine needles. The mulch allows moisture to percolate down, whether the bulbs are watered by hand or by snow, and allows in air.

Pots can be plastic or clay. However, if you have a fancy one, you may want to use it as a cache pot in which you insert the utilitarian pot that was buried.

Put only one type of bulb in a pot because different types sprout at different rates.

The depth of the pot should allow 2 inches or more of potting soil under the bulb with the bulb tip just a little below the rim of the pot.

Smith said regular packaged potting soil will do. Potting soil can be very dry, so mix it with water in an old dishpan or bucket before spooning it into the pot as the layer that will be under the bulbs. Then set the bulbs on top, right side up. The root end can have bits of root left and the shoot end is usually pointier.

You can pack the bulbs in, nearly shoulder to shoulder, leaving just a little space between them. Then fill in with more potting soil. Smith said the top third of the bulb can be left exposed, but crocus and iris bulbs need to be covered a half inch deep.

Label the pot so you remember what’s in it—especially if you do more than one kind. Mark where you bury the pot. And mark your calendar for when to bring the pot in.

Chill out

While the potted bulbs are chilling in the dark, make sure the soil doesn’t dry out. You may need to lift the mulch and water once a month if it’s a dry winter.

Coming in from the cold

When you bring a pot in, Smith recommends putting it in a dim room at 60 degrees or cooler until the shoots are a few inches tall. Then move it to a bright window and 65 degrees. “Buried to blooming” may take two weeks. Turn pots every day to keep plants growing straight.

Flowers can last a week or two. Once in bloom, you can prolong it by setting the pot farther from the window and keeping the room’s temperature at 65 degrees.

Afterward

The advantage to planting forced bulbs in potting soil is that you can give them a second life. Cut back the spent flowers and keep watering until the leaves turn yellow. Plant the bulbs out in the garden when the soil thaws, where they might bloom again in two years.

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Update March 1, 2018:

The bulbs for the vases were left in the refrigerator for a couple of months to cool and taken out in early January.

Also in early January I brought in the pot of hyacinth and the pot of crocus that were buried in the vegetable garden and covered with a foot of leaf mulch.

The bulbs in vases didn’t do well. They couldn’t seem to grow enough roots. That hyacinth stalk of flowers was about 15 percent the size of the ones in the pot.

I felt sorry for the crocus bulbs in the tiny vases and soon planted them in dirt where they were much happier. That proves you could cool your bulbs in the fridge and then plant them in soil, without wintering them in the garden. But the pot of crocus that did spend two months buried did very well. Interestingly, the yellow crocus bloomed before any of the shades of purple.

I would force bulbs again. If I plant the hyacinth bulbs individually, they would be easier to share with friends, or I could stagger the dates I bring them indoors, prolonging the season of sweet-smelling flowers.

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Iris reticulata bulbs were forced to bloom indoors one spring, then replanted outside in the garden in early summer where they bloomed the next spring. Photo by Barb Gorges.