Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


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

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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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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.


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‘Bee’ thinking about beekeeping

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A honeybee examines a Black-eyed Susan. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 23, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “‘Bee’ thinking about beekeeping.”

By Barb Gorges

Have you thought about beekeeping?

Perhaps one of these reasons draws you:

–The historical romance of beekeeping—it’s been going on since before recorded history.

–You grow crops that would benefit from pollination by bees.

–You have lots of flowers and enjoy the idea of bees buzzing around.

–You like honey.

–You are thinking about going into business selling honey, beeswax and other hive products.

–Or maybe it just sounds like fun.

Either way, you probably have a lot of questions about the hobby. Forty-two folks came to last month’s two-hour presentation on beekeeping by Catherine Wissner, the Laramie County Extension horticulturist and an experienced beekeeper.

At the presentation, Wissner explained how, as hobbies go, keeping honeybees is affordable, beginning around $500 for two Langstroth hives and other essential equipment, plus $175 for the bees, per hive.

As a form of livestock, honeybees take comparatively little work, perhaps 30 hours the first year, for a two or three-hive bee yard, less later, Wissner said. They can often be left to their own devices a week at a time. But they also need someone who will keep them, that is, keep them alive and well. It’s not enough just to buy a “package” of bees and a queen and throw them in a ready-made hive.

Beekeepers inspect, keep records, control diseases, and provide forage, water, shelter, good sanitation and a stress-free hive.

Here’s what to consider before becoming a beekeeper.

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Kent (pictured) and Lara Shook planted 20 acres through the Conservation Reserve Program with a seed mix including flowers to help feed their bees on their place in eastern Laramie County, Wyoming. Bees in town have lots of flowers to pick from. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Location

Wissner said cities, including Cheyenne, are a great place to keep bees because so many people plant flowers that benefit both honey bees and native bees.

The countryside around here is a little tougher—there may not be enough nectar in a 1 to 1.5-mile radius to support your hives, so you will have to grow your own flowering plants. Whenever nectar is in short supply, the beekeeper must feed the bees sugar syrup. Instead of nectar, the bees convert white table sugar (other kinds are not clean enough) into honey.

The hive should be located preferably out of the wind, where it gets morning sun and afternoon shade. It needs an obstacle, like a fence, right in front of the exit, forcing departing bees on a trajectory up and over people. It helps if the hive is out of public view since bees make some people nervous.

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Most of the Shooks’ hives are next to an old container, out of the wind. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Regulation

The City of Cheyenne classifies bees as a nuisance, Wissner said, unless the hive is registered with the state. The Wyoming Department of Agriculture allows up to five hives to be registered for free (search “apiary” at their website), which takes care of most hobbyists, and it offers free consultation. It wants to keep honeybees healthy—sick bees in one hive can infect others nearby.

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The white box is the “super.” Bees are “bearding” on the outside, indicating that on this hot day, it is too hot inside the hive for so many bees. Perhaps it is time to transfer some bees to a new hive, say beekeepers Ken and Lara Shook. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Essential equipment

The Langstroth hive is most typical. It is a series of stacked wooden bottomless and topless boxes. The vertical panels within them, the frames, are where the bees build combs and deposit the nectar (in the “supers” boxes), or where the larvae pupate (the “hive body,” bigger boxes). The whole beehive is topped off with a “cover.” A stand is also necessary to get the hive off the ground and keep pests out. A minimum of two hives is recommended.

A smoker, a little pitcher full of burning materials, is used to blow smoke in the hive to lull the bees long enough to make inspections.

A hive tool, like a sharp ice scraper, helps beekeepers separate the parts of the hive after the bees have done their best to seal it all together.

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This retired hive is still getting a little action, Kent discovered, when he pulled out a frame to show where the combs are built and honey is stored. It’s old honey and combs and they have turned brown. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Medication

Research on colony collapse is ongoing. One contributor is the varroa mite. Wissner demonstrated how beekeepers determine when to treat for mites. It involves “sugar rolling” the bees.

Safety

You need to protect yourself from bee stings, thus you outfit yourself with the helmet, bee veil and thick, elbow-length gloves. I would go for the full white suit too. Bees equate black with predators.

Some varieties of honeybees are friendlier than others. The queen determines the mood of the hive and if the mood goes sour, you can remove the nasty queen and introduce a new one.

The beekeeper’s personality can affect the way the bees react. It would be good to find a mentor to show you how to move calmly around bees.

You will also want to have a sting kit handy. In our family, with a child who had had an allergic reaction to stinging insects, that was an epinephrine injector, or EpiPen. But for most of us, Benadryl is adequate.

Removing the stinger correctly helps too. Trying to grab it by the end often causes more toxin to be pumped into you. Scraping the stinger away with the edge of your library card or credit card will work better.

Bees

A package of bees weighs about 3 pounds and includes about 10,000 bees, all workers (females) except for about 50 drones (males) responsible for fertilizing eggs. The queen comes in a separate package, corked with a piece of sugar candy. By the time the workers take several days to eat away at the sugar, they have adapted to her scent and won’t kill her when they finally meet her.

Schedule

This summer is a good time to visit a beekeeper. And it is a good time to build up your perennial flower garden as well as study beekeeping.

Spring is when new hives are set up and the beekeeping suppliers ship packages and queens.

Next summer the bees get established and make the honey they need to eat over the winter—there won’t be enough for you until the second year.

In the fall, about October or so, the bees retire to the hive. You can add sugar patties to make sure they have enough to eat. They keep each other warm, though additional hive insulation is welcome.

Spring can be tricky, fluctuating from sunny flower blooming to snarling snowstorm. It’s crucial to keep an eye on the hive’s food supply so the bees don’t die of starvation, said Wissner, “Bees are super-athletes—they need to eat every day.”

Honey, finally

By the second summer, you could have 60 pounds of honey to harvest.

Half the content of a beekeeping supply catalog features honey extracting equipment, jars of all descriptions (including the little honey bears), molds for beeswax candles and kits for honey wine or mead.

More information

Wissner is willing to answer your local beekeeping questions, 307-633-4480. She recommends these books:

–“The Backyard Beekeeper,” Kim Flottum,

–“Attracting Native Pollinators,” The Xerces Society Guide,

–“Beekeeping for Dummies,” Howland Blackiston,

–“First Lessons in Beekeeping,” Keith S. Delaplane.

Other resources include the American Beekeeping Federation, www.abf.net.

You can find a lot of information at www.dadant.com. Dadant & Sons, Inc., which has been in the beekeeping supply business for over 150 years.

Beekeeping equipment and advice is also available in Fort Collins, Colorado, at Copoco’s Honey, http://copocoshoney.com/.

The next Wyoming Bee College Conference, for all levels of beekeeping interest and experience, will be at Laramie County Community College Mar. 17-18, 2018.

Finally, you can call Lara Shook at the Southeastern Wyoming Beekeepers Association at 307-630-9058.

 

 


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.”

 


Iris farm shares beauty, growing tips

2017-04C & T Iris Patch 14 Barb Gorges

A visitor walks a corner of  C and T Iris Patch last June. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published April 30, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Iris farms, sharing beauty and growing tips

By Barb Gorges

There is an annual flower phenomena less than an hour south of Cheyenne, just east of Eaton, Colorado, from mid-May through early June. And after you find it, you might think you’d been to Eden.

It’s thanks to a tradition among iris farms to open to the public while the iris are blooming. Last year was my first visit to C and T Iris Patch’s acre of beauty, and it won’t be my last.

There is a gap between the spring bloom time and the best time to transplant iris—July into August—but Charlette Felte, of C and T Iris Patch, takes pity on spring visitors and allows them to take home select plants. I bought several and as per her instructions, cut the blooms and put them in a vase, then trimmed the leaves and planted the rhizomes (fat root-like appendages) in a sunny spot.

2017-04C & T Iris Patch, Charlette Felte, 58 Barb Gorges

Charlette Felte has a special patch of iris for spring visitors to buy from if they can’t wait for the traditional July-August transplanting season. Photo by Barb Gorges.

With 3,000-4,000 visitors, it’s good everyone doesn’t succumb to immediate gratification and can wait until orders are shipped in summer. If you can’t visit, the color photos in the online catalog are nearly as inspiring.

When Felte reached retirement age, she announced to her husband Tim that she wanted to move to the country to raise iris.” Fine,” he said, “find some land.” Two days later Felte had picked out a place.

Felte knew a lot about iris already. Growing up, her father would send her and her siblings down the street to help an elderly neighbor who had an iris garden.

“I thought they were the prettiest flowers,” Felte said.

Variations

C and T Iris Patch opened in 2000. It now carries 3,200 varieties of iris. The largest category is the bearded iris (the beard being the fuzzy patch on the falls—the petals that bend downwards). Within bearded iris there are classifications based on height.

[Here are the classes of bearded iris beginning with the earliest to bloom: Miniature Dwarf Bearded, Standard Dwarf Bearded, Intermediate Bearded, and then blooming at the same time as the Tall Bearded (mid-late spring), Border Bearded and Miniature Tall Bearded.]

If you are lucky, your iris may rebloom in the fall—when temperatures resemble those during the spring bloom. Some varieties are identified as rebloomers because they have a propensity for it, but it isn’t something to count on.

Now if you think all iris are blue or yellow, you really need to check out what’s available, either online or during bloom time. There’s also peach, orange, pink, brown, red and violet, and some are bi-colored, tri-colored, spotted, striped, and edged with accent colors. And for some reason, flower breeders are always trying for “black.”

The names people dream up for each new hybrid are sometimes beautiful, “Come Away with Me,” “Kiss the Dawn,” “Mist on the Mountain.” Sometimes they make you laugh “All Reddy” (a red iris), “Awesome Blossom,” “Coming Up Roses,” “Darnfino,” “Get Over Yerself,” “Got Milk” (all white and ruffled). And some might be a bit naughty: “Sinister Desire,” “Sunrise Seduction,” “Hook Up.” Or named for someone, usually a woman, “Sarah Marie,” “Raspberry Rita,” “Evelyn’s Echo.”

As I was perusing the catalog this winter, I noticed that each description mentioned the date the hybrid was introduced. The fun of breeding new hybrids actually goes back centuries to the origins of these iris in Europe, North Africa and Asia. North America has wild iris, but they usually prefer swampy conditions.

In Felte’s catalog there are varieties from the 1930s: “Rhages,” “Wabash,” and “William Setchell,” and from 1912, “Romero,” and the oldest, from 1904, “Caprice.” Among other kinds of plants, the older varieties are not as disease resistant. However, Felte said that the older iris hybrids, especially from the 1950s through 1980s, are hardier. The newer, rufflier, lacier, frillier, don’t winter as well. Plus, they don’t have as much fragrance.

Iris photos taken at C and T Iris Patch by Barb Gorges.

Growing iris

Iris are not fussy plants. They prefer drier conditions (they will rot if they aren’t dry enough) so they fit with today’s water-smart gardens.

Felte also recommends her Wyoming customers not choose the tallest, the 40-inchers, because they take so long to bloom, and Cheyenne is already two weeks behind Eaton. The delay is probably due to a combination of Eaton being 1,200 feet lower, 45 miles south, and having sandier soils that warm up faster in spring.

Iris leaves grow in fan arrays. In July, when irises are normally dug up for transplanting, the fan is trimmed to a 6-inch tall diamond. Otherwise, leaves are not trimmed until the following spring.

The rhizomes are covered with an inch of soil, up to the point where the leaves turn from white to green. Felte recommends giving the transplants an inch of water the first time, and then about half an inch per week until mid-September. Deep watering is better than frequent shallow watering.

Felte recommends rabbit feed (pellet form) for fertilizer, which is high in phosphates and other nutrients iris need for good blooms. They need very little nitrogen. The best time to fertilize is mid-to-late March, and again in July for the reblooming varieties or plants newly divided. Felte warns on her website to never use manure.

Trim the flower stalks after blooming to keep the color of the bloom true next year. Trim dead leaves away after winter, Felte said.

In three or four years, your irises will have multiplied and need to be dug up and thinned to keep them blooming. You can either increase the size of your iris garden or give the excess fans to friends.

New hybrids

While bees will pollinate iris and cause seed pods to form, Felte recommends removing them. Unless you have controlled conditions, the seeds will not grow true to the parent plant.

I asked Felte if she has ever registered her own hybrids and she said no, it’s about a 10-year-long process. First, you must provide enough seed true to the hybrid for 75 growers around the country and overseas to grow it out. They keep records for four years and submit them to the American Iris Society which will decide if your hybrid is different enough from all the registered varieties. [Some of the larger iris farms, such as Schreiner’s Iris Garden in Oregon, contribute new hybrids annually.]

Area iris farms open this spring

C and T Iris Patch will be open to the public this year May 20 through June 11, 9 a.m. – 6 p.m., seven days a week, at 20524 WCR 76, Eaton, Colorado, at no charge. The website, www.candtirispatch.com, has extensive information about growing iris, and they are ready for online orders as are other Colorado iris farms:

In Boulder, Colorado, Longs Gardens will be open to the public now through June 11, seven days a week, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., at 3240 Broadway. See www.LongsGardens.com for more information.

In Denver, check the website for Iris4U Iris Garden, 2700 W. Amherst Avenue, for their public hours, www.iris4u.com.

2017-04C & T Iris Patch 6 Barb Gorges

C and T Iris Patch in Eaton, Colorado, grows a wide variety of bearded iris and allows the public to visit during the May-June blooming season. Photo by Barb Gorges.


Landscaping: When pros are cheaper than DIY

2017-03 landscape design

The juxtaposition of a new sewer cleanout (not a gas line as the flagging indicates) and the gutter downspout extension becomes an obstacle for crossing the front yard. Photo by Barb Gorges. 

Published April 2, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

In landscaping design, a pro’s help can be cheaper than DIY

By Barb Gorges

December is not a month for digging a new garden bed—even if there is no snow—Cheyenne’s clay soils are frozen solid.

However, if you pay someone $3000 to dig a 7-foot-deep trench to fix an ailing sewer pipe, you may end up with a 4-by-10-foot mound of freshly tilled earth. The neighbors stopping by with Christmas treats all wanted to know who we buried in our front yard.

The juxtaposition of the new sewer cleanouts and our rain gutter downspouts presented obstacles for me as well as our mail and newspaper carriers, which got me to thinking about getting professional advice this spring.

When is it time to call a landscape architect? I asked David Ohde, of Ohde & Associates, who is licensed to practice in Wyoming and has been in business in Cheyenne since 1984.

Ohde said when you should call a landscape architect is for serious issues like drainage, steep slopes, erosion, stabilization and meeting regulations like Cheyenne’s Unified Development Code.

“We design outside spaces, not just plant trees and shrubs,” Ohde said.

Landscape architects deal with irrigation, grading, retaining walls, patios, outdoor kitchens as well as plant materials, however most of Ohde’s own business is commercial and institutional, rather than residential.

There is a limit to what licensed landscape architects in Wyoming can do. For instance, they can only design retaining walls up to 3 feet high without consulting a structural engineer.

Ohde knows when to call the experts for other situations as well. He said you can hire a landscape architect to do a verbal consultation at an hourly rate. You can also go further and contract for a design that specifies dimensions, plant species and other materials, complete with sketches and cost estimates.

You, the client, own the plans and can do the installation yourself or hire a contractor. You can hire the landscape architect to oversee the progress of the installation to make sure plans are being followed.

Perhaps the client wants to screen a view, or frame a view. Ohde can lay out the options, plant, trellis or wall, that are appropriate for the spot, based on whether it is in shade, sun or wind. If it’s a planting, does the client prefer something that grows slowly and needs little maintenance, or do they like yardwork?

Besides the nuts and bolts, landscape architects are creative. They interview their clients to find out what ideas they have already, how they might like to use their property, what their budget is, how much maintenance they want to do. They consider the architecture of the house and solve problems. Then they roll that all together into something functional and aesthetically pleasing.

(It is important to recognize whether a landscape architect has a trademark style, and if it matches your style. A minimalist designer fond of Asian aesthetics is going to be hard-pressed to make a would-be English-style cottage gardener happy.)

Be sure a landscape architect you hire is familiar with Cheyenne’s climate. Wyoming licensure is required for out-of-state landscape architects, but it is not necessary for working on single family residences (Note: an exemption is required).

If this sounds pricey for the average homeowner, you are right. (It is no wonder over half of the licensed landscape architects in Wyoming are in Jackson, in the county with the highest average income levels in the state.) However, without professional advice, Ohde points out that landscaping mistakes can be expensive, for instance, a patio installed without regard to drainage might cause flood damage.

The cost of hiring a landscape architect should be looked at, Ohde said, as “deriving benefit from professional service that has long-lasting benefits for the spaces we live with for years.”

If you don’t have a tricky landscape situation and you can’t afford Monet fine art-type prices and you’d still like some creative ideas, look for a garden designer.

Garden designers are not licensed in Wyoming. They range from the self-taught to the well-educated.

Sometimes they are independent and you can see a gallery of their work at their website. Often however, they work for a nursery or a landscape contractor.

Years ago, a local nursery sent out an employee to our house who measured our yard and drew up a plan for us at no cost. We bought the recommended trees and shrubs at that nursery.

For my current dilemma, a friend recommended Tyler Moore of Capital City Landscaping. He and his dad, Dan Moore, started the business in 2004. Tyler and his wife, Alicia, are now in charge of “creating your new piece of paradise.”

Tyler and his crew, like most landscape companies in town, can tackle just about anything, including the blank slate left by new construction. Tyler was in construction and carpentry earlier in his career and he likes building decks and pergolas (gazebos). He takes classes in the winter, learning about the latest trends in landscaping.

Tyler is also creative and pointed out that I could solve part of my obstacle problem if the downspout extensions were changed out for underground pipes that lead to a pop-up drain far from the house’s foundation.

What do his clients want? Often, low maintenance yards. But not always.

One eccentric, long-time client had Moore build multiple terraces with garden beds he filled with his plant collections. Later he added a faux mine shaft to feature an old ore car he found, and he had a windmill plumbed to provide water to wildlife, whether or not it was windy. (I was lucky enough to visit that wonderful garden, and gardener, a few years ago.)

Just as we don’t have to consult an architect or interior designer before remodeling the bathroom, we don’t have to consult a landscape architect or garden designer before planting a bush. However, if you want new ideas, a new perspective (and stay out of trouble on drainage and other serious issues), ask an expert.

Then the success of a project requires an expert who can imagine what the client doesn’t know about his profession and who makes the effort to explain things. And it takes a client who is open to ideas and bothers to check in frequently while the work is underway, avoiding expensive miscommunication. Over the years, I’ve learned the success of building and remodeling projects requires good communication.

Landscaping is the same.