Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming

Heirloom veggies for taste and variety



Rusty Brinkman offers a variety of heirloom veggies at the Tuesday Farmers Market in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Sept. 4, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Local gardeners explore for taste, visual appeal”

By Barb Gorges

At the Laramie County Fair back in August, I was checking out the blue-ribbon vegetable winners and one name kept popping up over and over: Rusty Brinkman.

I met Brinkman and his partner Vally Gollogly last summer at a lunch they catered at their home just outside Cheyenne—a garden-to-table treat.


Midsummer, Brinkman partially rolls back the cover of his hoop house. Chickens are on patrol, looking for insects. Photo by Barb Gorges.

This spring, Brinkman added a high tunnel and a half-dozen chickens. The greenhouse-like high tunnel will let him to grow vegetables that need a longer growing season than Cheyenne allows. The chickens keep the insect pest numbers down, but at the cost of a little pecking damage. They seem to like yellow vegetables so Brinkman has to throw a little vegetation over the yellow squashes to protect them.

His backyard garden is sizeable, but he also helps garden another 4,000 square feet over at his uncle’s, where he has a real greenhouse to get seedlings started in spring.

A couple years ago when he and Gollogly had an abundance of dill, they thought it would be fun to offer the excess at the Tuesday Farmers Market. Now they are regulars, under the Mooo’s Market banner. Gollogly specializes in prepping the flowers and herbs, Brinkman the veggies.


Rusty Brinkman offers a variety of heirloom veggies at the Tuesday Farmers Market in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Their booth has a certain flair, a certain presentation. That might be because Brinkman’s day job is owner of Crow Creek Catering. As a chef, the Cheyenne native has plied his trade in Denver, New York and the Wyoming [correction: Colorado] governor’s mansion. He knows presentation is an important part of the dining experience.

So what does a chef grow in his garden? Brinkman is a proponent of organic methods so I’m not surprised he also gravitates to the heirlooms. Heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated. This means if you save the seeds, you can grow the same vegetables again next year. If you save the seeds from the best individual fruits and vegetables, you might end up with improved strains the next year. Over time, you will have varieties ideally suited to Cheyenne.

On the other hand, hybrid fruits and vegetables also produce seed, but plants grown from those seeds won’t grow true to the parent plant.

Brinkman is experimenting with seed saving, but otherwise his chief source is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, www.rareseeds. I have the 2015 catalog: 350 pages of delicious photos of vegetables and fruit from all over the world with exotic names and long descriptions.

For a gardener, it’s like being in a candy shop. But it is important to keep in mind our local climate and look for short-season veggies. Now that he is selling at the market, Brinkman also looks for varieties not sold at the grocery store.

There is so much to choose from. Offerings include purple tomatoes, oddly-shaped squash, a multitude of greens, pointy cabbage, red carrots. But in the end, they need to produce in Cheyenne and they have to pass the taste test–appealing to a gardener who cooks.

Brinkman shared with me a nine-page, single-spaced printout of his garden records for the past three years, organized by vegetable type, variety, heirloom status, year trialed, seed company, how many days to maturity, description. There are 360 entries to date, but some vegetables did not make the cut and were not planted a second year.

This scientific analysis is similar to Brinkman and Gollogly’s training in the science of food preparation. Cooking is one part art and a large part science. You need to understand how ingredients interact with each other. If you invent a good dish, you need to be able to reproduce it, just like scientific studies need to be replicable.

Vegetable gardening is also science, trying to produce the best crop each year.

Brinkman prepares new beds by smothering grass with cardboard or metal plates (he makes folk art from junk metal), then he rototills it. Once a bed is established though, he only uses a garden fork to loosen things in the spring and add compost.

His compost system is nearly keeping up with the garden’s needs and he fills in with more from the city compost facility.

But Brinkman also uses Espoma’s Plant-tone to add microbes and nutrients, and in the fall, he adds old cow manure.


Brinkman hand-pulls weeds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Brinkman hand-pulls weeds, and hand-picks potato bugs early in the season. This was the first year for the chickens and he’s not sure how helpful they will be, but he said he also uses several other methods for pest control:

–Neem oil has worked very well for aphids.

–Releasing ladybugs and lacewings in the spring, also for aphid control, seems to be working.

–Using Bt (a friendly bacterium) for cabbage whites (butterflies) for the first time this year seems to help.

–Agribon, a light-weight, white polypropylene fabric spread over the carrots seems to be controlling the carrot rust fly.

To get an early start on the season, in late March or early April, Brinkman uses low tunnels, stretching plastic sheeting over hoops placed over his beds.

Much of the garden area is irrigated using drip tape (flattened plastic hose that has a series of small holes).

So what was planted in the Brinkman/Gollogly garden this year? Lots of varieties with delicious-sounding names. Brinkman will know soon which ones have performed well enough to make the cut next year. Here’s a sampling you might find at their booth at the farmers market next Tuesday. If customers aren’t quite ready for “Tronchuda”, a Portuguese variety of kale, no matter. Brinkman can take it home and turn into dinner, or prep it for the freezer.

Artichokes: Green Globe.

Beans: Mayflower, Greasy Grits, Dixie Speckled Butterpea, Golden Sunshine, California Blackeye Pea.

Beets: Crosby’s Egyptian


Heirloom beets come in a variety of colors and shapes. Photo by Barb Gorges.


Broccoli: Purple Peacock, Romanesco Italia, Umpqua.

Cabbage: Aubervilliers, Bacalan de Rennes, Couer de Boeuf des Vertus, Cour di Bue.

Carrots: Amarillo, Dragon.

Celery: Giant Prague, Tendercrisp, Utah Tall.

Peppers (sweet): Antohi Romanian, Topepo Rosso.

Peppers (hot): NuMex Joe E. Parker.

Cucumber: Parisian Pickling.

Eggplant: Syrian Stuffing, Turkish Orange.

Kale: Dwarf Siberian, Nash’s Green, Nero di Toscana.

Lettuce: Crisp Mint, Little Gem, Baby Oakleaf.

Melon: Kazakh, Minnesota Midget.


Heirloom onions. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Onion: Flat of Italy, Red of Florence.

Pea: Laxton’s Progress #9.

Squash: Kobocha winter

Tomato: Cherokee Purple, Large Barred Boar, Cream Sausage, Transparent, Glacier, Topaz, Woodle Orange.

Turnip: Boule D’or, Golden Globe, Mikado, Purple Top White Globe.

Zucchini: Midnight Lightning, Tatume (Mexican zucchini)



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.