Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


Keep a lookout for Emerald Ash Borer in Cheyenne

Emerald Ash Borer adult

The Emerald Ash Borer adult is 10-13mm long, or less than a half-inch. Photo by S. Ellis, USDA-APHIS.

Published March 16, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle: “What could this little bug do to this BIG tree? More than you might think. The emerald ash borer has been spotted in northern Colorado. Experts say there’s no need to panic here, but you should keep a close eye on your ash trees.”

By Barb Gorges

Last fall, an invasive menace to trees was found for the first time in the West: the emerald ash borer, in Boulder, Colo.

Green Ash leaf

Green Ash has a compound leaf, with 5 to 7 leaflets. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

If you own an ash tree in Cheyenne, the experts say hold off on taking action at this time, as there have been no reports of the beetle here. But keep an eye on it.

Don’t let any unscrupulous people talk you into treating your tree with pesticides without confirmation from local experts who have been trained to diagnose emerald ash borer. Become informed. And be sure that your tree is a true ash, and not a mountain ash, which is not related or affected.

Borer history

The emerald ash borer is native to China, Korea, Japan, Mongolian, the Russian Far East and Taiwan.

Michigan was the site of the first North America discovery in 2002. The original immigrants may have arrived unintentionally via wooden packing materials in shipments from Asia. Imported packing crates now have to be treated.

The invasion soon spread to the other Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces and the states adjacent to those.

Green Ash bark

Mature Green Ash trees have deeply furrowed bark. Photo by Barb Gorges.

There are 16 species of ash trees in the U. S., mostly in the eastern forests, and their loss is going to change ecosystems, maybe even extirpating two dozen species of butterflies.

A U.S. Forest Service expert estimates that 50 million ash trees have already been lost. Millions of dollars have already been spent in eastern and midwestern cities removing dying trees.

Ash has been popular as a street, park and yard tree across the country, as it is here, comprising 10 percent of Cheyenne’s trees, mostly green ash.

Borer biology

The emerald ash borer life cycle begins between mid-May and mid-August, when an adult lands on an ash tree and lays eggs. They aim for the upper parts of the tree so you may not catch a glimpse of the elegant, emerald carapace of the adult.

After a couple weeks, the eggs hatch and the emerging larvae tunnel into the tree, finding the area just under the bark where the tree’s water and food delivery systems are coursing.

If you peeled back the bark, you would see S-shaped galleries—tunnels chewed away by the larvae between August and October.

If the tunnels under the bark girdle a tree limb, the flow of water and nutrients is disrupted and that limb dies. In two to four years, the whole tree dies.

Emerald Ash Borer exit hole

An Emerald Ash Borer D-shaped exit hole shows where the adult tunneled out, to fly off to lay eggs on another ash tree. Photo by Gerald Wheeler, from USDA-APHIS.

During the winter, the larvae are dormant under the bark and then between May and June they emerge as adults, leaving 1/8-inch, D-shaped exit holes.

Why D-shaped? The larvae are D-shaped in cross-section, flat on the back and round on the underside.

What about Cheyenne?

Boulder is about a 90-mile drive from Cheyenne, but Boulder was 600 miles from the nearest emerald ash borer outbreak, in Kansas City, Mo. You would think with prevailing winds blowing in the opposite direction, this weak-flying insect, not finding continuous ash forest in between, would never make it to Colorado.

So it’s clear that EAB arrived in Boulder with help—probably inadvertently, such as travelling in a load of firewood.

Currently, Boulder is quarantined, so presumably infected wood will not be exported to Cheyenne.

On the other hand, experts now think the Boulder invasion began at least four years ago, so there is a possibility that it is already here in Cheyenne and no one has recognized it yet.

Keep in mind, there are several other insects which leave tree damage that could be mistaken for emerald ash borer.

To treat or not to treat

There is no vaccination for emerald ash borer. Do not apply pesticides to your ash tree without consulting our local experts (see adjacent box). Otherwise, you are wasting your money and needlessly killing beneficial insects and birds.

Trees suffering the early stages of an emerald ash borer infection have been successfully treated with injections in their trunks or in the soil using particular systemic pesticides, a much better option than spraying.

These pesticides travel throughout the tree, just under the bark where the emerald ash borer likes to feed. However, there are several reasons even these pesticides may not be a good option.

1—Injections are expensive, $250 per tree per year. And once the emerald ash borer is in your neighborhood, you’ll have to keep them up year after year.

2—Injections in the trunk mean punching holes. Any damage to bark increases a tree’s chances of becoming infected with other diseases, even if it survives emerald ash borer.

3—Ash trees with other health problems or growing in bad locations, such as under power lines, shouldn’t be considered candidates for preservation.

4—Scientists know that the active ingredients in these systemic pesticides, the neonicotinoids, are toxic to bees. Systemics injected into the ground under trees can travel to nearby flowering plants, making their pollen toxic, according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, http://www.xerces.org.

The emerald ash borer is however, susceptible to cold.

Rob Venette, a U.S. Forest Service research biologist interviewed in the Jan. 10 episode of National Public Radio’s “Science Friday,” reported that with only a few minutes at minus-20 degrees, 50 percent of the larvae overwintering may die.

The firewood problem

Firewood, and wood chips, from ash trees brought to Cheyenne could bring emerald ash borer. However, we should also consider what happens to trees cut down here.

The Cheyenne compost facility accepts wood up to 12 inches in diameter that they can chip, but larger logs may end up in the landfill, admitted the owner of one local tree service company licensed to prune and remove trees in Cheyenne. (It seems to me a place for local people to drop off and pick up oversized wood for firewood or carpentry could be set up somewhere.)

Mark McCoy, of Arbor Solutions, another licensed company said, “I have two local guys that do firewood that I give all my wood to. If it is diseased wood, they are supposed to keep it under plastic for a year before processing it.”

That would definitely be a help if there are any emerald ash borer s lurking in Cheyenne.

Lisa Olson, director of Cheyenne’s Urban Forestry Division, told me the trees the city removes are checked for invasive insects before they are picked up by a firewood company that won the bid to do so. Infected wood is buried in the landfill.

Plant replacements now…but not ash

The best advice I’ve heard is to take the savings from not treating your ash tree and plant a replacement nearby now, instead of waiting for its demise—but don’t plant another ash tree as your future source of shade, not only because it could fall victim, but nursery stock could be infected, especially if it is from back east.

There are alternative shade tree varieties recommended for Cheyenne by the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. Stop by or visit online, www.botanic.org. Click on “Gardening” and then “Garden Tips” and find the “Trees, Shrubs and Wildflowers” PDF.

Also check with the Cheyenne Urban Forestry Division and their website, www.cheyennetrees.com.

Meanwhile, stay vigilant and check for 1/8-inch, capital D-shaped holes this spring.

Where to go for help identifying insect damage

–Urban Forestry Division of the Cheyenne Parks and Recreation Department, 637-6428.

–Catherine Wissner, University of Wyoming Extension Horticulturist, 633-4383.

–Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, 637-6458

–Laramie County Conservation District, 772-2600

www.emeraldashborer.info.

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Rain Gardens

Cheyenne rain garden

The Historic Sunrise Rain Gardens Project is located at 2311 Reed Ave., Cheyenne, Wyoming. I’ll take another photo when it greens up.

Published Oct. 13, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Rain gardens solve problems: All of that runoff that surges into storm sewers—and sometimes basements—could be diverted into a basin for your garden’s benefit

By Barb Gorges

Rain garden. It brings to mind splashy flowers seen from under the protection of an umbrella.

It doesn’t sound like something that would be close to relevant in Cheyenne, unless we have regular repeats of our soggy September weather. Those 6.95 inches (second wettest month on record) wouldn’t be considered much in Ketchikan, Alaska, (153 inches annually) or even New York City (49 inches). But it is here, where the annual average is 15.90 inches.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could sock away moisture, even from brief cloudbursts? Wouldn’t it be nice if it didn’t just run down the street and back up the storm sewer? Or run into your basement?

Nancy Loomis—who co-owns Antiques Central with her sister, Pam Loomis—was having problems with storm water getting into the basement of the store at 2311 Reed Ave. A few years ago, she read a magazine article describing rain gardens. She learned they are a way to capture snowmelt and rainstorm runoff from impermeable surfaces, like roofs and pavement. These gardens hold the water temporarily so it can percolate into the ground. This recharges the groundwater, even more effectively than your basic lawn.

The city of Cheyenne has done something similar, creating basins for runoff, sometimes known as bioswales if they are designed to filter silt and pollutants. The one between Warren and Central avenues at Pershing Boulevard, called Pando’s Pond, is the most noticeable. But no one is calling it a rain garden.

A rain garden is small, less than 300 square feet. It takes advantage of the additional moisture it receives to grow a variety of blooming plants, usually without the aid of additional irrigation—even here.

Have you ever noticed, while driving two-lane highways in Wyoming, how much greener the grass is near the shoulders of the road compared to as little as 10 or 15 feet away? Runoff from the pavement provides that much more moisture.

Nancy’s problem is that rainstorms and snowmelt cause her street to flood and back up into a loading ramp sloping below grade level, leading into the basement. Some of that water was coming from the roof of her building.

Digging

So Nancy dug her first rain garden, about 10 feet out from the building. Its size is based on a calculation of the size of the section of roof at one downspout, the infiltration rate of the soil and the amount of water in an average Cheyenne rainstorm. To it, she later connected a second garden.

Not only did she need to dig a 10-inch deep basin, but she had a mound of dirt to remove also. She admits it was a little crazy to be doing it by hand, hauling 5-gallon buckets away to the city compost facility, but she found some interesting historical objects and a nice block of granite. She learned much about her dirt she wouldn’t have if someone else had done it with heavy equipment.

Planting

Plants for the rain garden need to be chosen from three categories, beginning with those that would be planted on the flat bottom that could have their “feet” wet for up to three days (longer would breed mosquitoes), though ideally it would only be for 24 hours. Even during the worst of the September storms, Nancy’s rain gardens drained in three to four hours.

For the lowest level, Nancy chose Saskatoon serviceberry, “Blue Creek” and “Dappled” willows, currant, Joe-Pye weed, Siberian iris, hardy pampas grass, spiderwort and Japanese iris.

On the lower sides of the basins are plants that enjoy extra moisture but not a soaking: roses, butterfly bush, daylilies, tall garden phlox, daisy, columbine, cranesbill, summer onion, Jupiter’s beard, bee balm, Maltese cross, candy tuft, hardy hibiscus and asters.

On the uppermost sides, and the top of the berm, are the plants that prefer more xeric conditions: Russian sage, Oriental poppy, agastache, salvia, cat mint, and aster. She chose cultivars that suit our cold hardiness Zone 5, often selecting for colder Zone 3 or 4.

Nancy did irrigate her new plantings, but by the second season, they were on their own. Some plants are self-seeding or self-generating, growing into areas where the moisture level suits them.

Across the front of the building another garden gets watered by shovel—snow shovel, that is. The extra moisture from clearing the sidewalk by dumping the snow onto the garden means it doesn’t need irrigation, even as late as mid-August, when I visited.

DEQ grants

Nancy was able to get a grant through the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality to make this a demonstration rain garden. If you visit, you can pick up a flyer from a box which explains how the Historic Sunrise Rain Gardens Project (the building originally housed the Sunrise Creamery) was built and gives a list of resources and suitable plants.

While DEQ grants are available for non-point source pollution projects (roofs and roads are dirty and rain gardens can provide filtering to clean up the water before it hits the aquifer), those grants are designed primarily for bigger projects than what the typical homeowner needs.

Planning

But the Laramie County Conservation District can help you plan your rain garden: figuring best location, ratio of roof to depth and size of the depression, cost of excavation, need for gravel filter layer, location of overflow outlet, etc. Water specialist Matt Ley is the person you want to talk to.

Twenty years ago, I discovered county officials were interested in what it took to move flood waters out of the county as fast as possible, even if it meant channelizing our two local creeks within the city. The idea of capturing the moisture has slowly taken over. Matt would like to see vegetation added to our municipal basins to add an additional layer of filtration. Wouldn’t it be fun if what currently looks like giant soccer fields on East Lincolnway turned into gardens, even bird habitat?

Nancy said planning was the most time-consuming aspect of the project. The actual digging and planting only took a couple of weekends.

Flooding from the street is still a problem at her corner. A neighboring business recently paved its gravel parking lot, creating more runoff. Perhaps when the day comes when flooding also affects neighboring businesses, the owners can come over to find out what Nancy’s rain gardens are all about: the beauty of utility.

Rain garden resources

Historic Sunrise Rain Gardens Project, educational demonstration, 2311 Reed Ave.

Matt Ley, water specialist, Laramie County Conservation District, 772-2600.

Rain Garden Design Site and Selection Guide, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, an interactive guide, http://www.extension.unl.edu/web/extension/publicationsandapps.


Soil Testing: Interpreting the Results

soil test results

Colorado State University soil testing results

Published May 25, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Did Barb’s soil pass the test? The results are in on a soil sample the columnist had analyzed by CSU.”

By Barb Gorges

The other day, my soil test results came in by email from Colorado State University’s Soil, Water and Plant Testing Laboratory.

As I opened the attachment, I felt a little trepidation, not unlike anticipating getting my cholesterol numbers from the health fair. Both tests document my progress in healthy living–or making healthy soil–within the limits of genetics–or bedrock.

pH balance

My front lawn’s pH was high at 7.4, but my vegetable garden was 7.2, within the preferred range of 6 to 7.2.

So I have alkaline soil—typical for this region. Most plants will still grow fine, except for acid-loving species. Because acidification treatments cost money and are not long lasting, we Westerners should instead take advantage of alkaline-loving plants.

Soil texture

Local gardeners often talk about Cheyenne’s clay soil texture so I was surprised my vegetable garden tested as sandy loam and the front yard as sandy clay loam.

“Loam” describes the perfect combination of sand, silt and clay particles for horticulture and agriculture: just enough sand for good drainage, just enough silt and clay to hold water and nutrients.

The modifier “sandy” means water will drain more quickly. This explains why I needed to water the veggies every morning last summer. With “clay” in the lawn’s soil texture description, it means it holds water well, but percolation is slower. That means when you water, apply it slowly.

Organic material

In my vegetable garden, organic material tested at 3.9 percent. This isn’t bad for an area that was first cultivated a year ago and amended with leaf compost.

The recommendation is to increase this category to 5 percent over the next two or three years by adding 2 to 3 inches of plant-based compost or 1 inch of animal-based compost in spring or fall, incorporating it into the top 6 to 8 inches of soil.

The front lawn, which I would love to convert to flower garden, came in at 4 percent. Though I can improve that, less may actually be better for native, drought-resistant plants I would choose.

Why organic matter?

Without it, soil would be nothing but weathered rock. Yes, you get many nutrients from minerals, but organic material feeds the soil microorganisms which feed your plants. The process also improves soil structure, which improves water permeability and absorption (think lower water bill). There can be as many as a billion microorganisms in a quarter teaspoon of topsoil. They are the real engines of plant growth.

Remember where organic material comes from? Plant and animal matter. It’s a cycle as old as life.

Fertilizer history

Sometime during the 20th century, chemists determined plants could grow with nutrients from chemically processed mineral salts.

Today, it is common knowledge that highly processed fertilizers don’t feed microorganisms the way organic (plant and animal-based) fertilizers do. And sometimes they leave behind a buildup of salty residue that is hard on plants.

Unfortunately, the big fertilizer companies have become so influential that it is not always easy to pursue what we now call organic gardening and farming—back to the future, as I think of it, since organic growers use Grandpa’s pre-chemical farming knowledge augmented by new discoveries about organic materials.

Fertilizers

The vegetation of natural landscapes is the result of perfect nutrient cycling. However, gardens and lawns are more intensively grown and the natural nutrient cycle often needs our help.

We have a tendency to over-fertilize, which pollutes groundwater and surface water with the excess, and wastes our money.

As I read labels on various bags and bottles, I realized perhaps the reason we over-fertilize because many of us have trouble understanding the labels. And so we calculate fertilizer amounts as best we can–and then throwing in a little extra for good luck.

Actually, we should err on the side of less. It’s surprising we don’t kill everything growing in our yards with our generosity.

I confess to being stingy. In the days I only grew perennial flowers, I never fertilized with anything other than decomposing leaf mulch. Mark uses Revive, an organic fertilizer, on our lawn.

But now, thanks to my soil test, I have actual numbers to strike a balance between stingy and overgenerous.

 N is for Nitrate (Nitrogen)

Both my lawn and vegetable garden were low in nitrogen. Nitrogen is one of the three major nutrients, the one responsible for stems and leaves. But if you put too much on in one year, it interferes with producing flower and fruit buds and the excess disappears before the next growing season.

 P is for Phosphorus

Surprisingly, in my vegetable garden, this came in high. But the lawn needs some. Phosphorus gives plants strong roots, resistance to disease and good fruit development.

 K is for Potassium

Again, the vegetable garden came in high, and the anaylsis recommends adding a bit to the front yard–if I convert it to flowers. Plants need potassium for successful blooming—for flowers and fruiting vegetables like tomatoes.

Other results

Electrical conductivity: In both areas of my yard, electrical conductivity was low, a good thing, meaning no salty, plant-killing soil.

Lime: Rated medium, OK for growing plants.

Why a local store sells lime is beyond me. With very, very few exceptions, adding lime to Wyoming soils will only increase alkalinity, perhaps to toxic levels.

Micronutrients: Zinc, iron, manganese, copper and boron are all necessary for healthy plants but, as in my yard, they are seldom deficient here.

Recommended fertilizers

All processed fertilizers, whether they are chemically manufactured or lightly processed organic—meaning carbon-based, not necessarily organic as in growing method—have their N-P-K percentages listed on the label. The plants don’t care where these nutrients come from. But organic-based fertilizers release nutrients more slowly, provide some of that all important organic material, and they are safer around children and pets.

Needing just nitrogen for the vegetable garden, the soil test results recommended urea or ammonium sulfate, or one of three more organic choices: blood meal, corn gluten meal or alfalfa meal pellets—for that final item, think rabbit food.

The lawn needs three times as much nitrogen and phosphorus, by weight, as it does potassium. None of the “balanced” fertilizers containing all three really came close to these proportions, so I also looked at the individual recommendations for phosphorus and potassium. For phosphorus it was either bone meal (organic) or triplesuperphosphate (chemical). For potassium, potassium chloride or composted manure.

Shopping

Chemical fertilizers are available at garden centers all around town. Some of the organics are common as well, such as bone meal. Grant Farms has a good selection of fertilizers from organic materials.

For corn gluten, cottonseed meal and alfalfa pellets, check A & C Feed.

Calculations

My soil test result sheets explained how to figure out how much of the unconventional fertilizers I needed—after all, alfalfa pellets don’t come with nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium analysis.

Note: Here’s the formula cited by CSU’s lab, using nitrogen as the example: “…take the amount of N needed (my soil test results recommended 0.3 lbs. per 100 square feet) and divide by the % N in the fertilizer. For example, if your fertilizer contains 30% N, take 0.30 lbs (N needed) divided by 0.30 (N in the fertilizer) to get 1 lb of the 30% N fertilizer that is needed to apply per 100 sq. ft. For rates per 1000 sq. ft. multiply the quantities by 10.”

Essentially, for my 100 square foot garden I only need a pound of 30 percent nitrogen fertilizer—15 pounds of alfalfa pellets that will provide organic material as well. Perhaps my leaf compost can substitute for some of that.

Spreading

I think I can spread fertilizer over my tiny garden evenly by hand before digging it in, but the lawn, if I don’t convert it to garden this year, needs one of those spreaders for which you can adjust the rate.

On the other hand, a mature lawn doesn’t need fertilizing until late summer, so I can put that off for now. But when we mow we should start leaving our clippings on the lawn to decompose. They will not become thatch—other issues cause thatch build-up.

 The next test

In four or five years we can do another soil test and see how we’ve progressed toward our goals.

Caveats

Always read fertilizer directions thoroughly—and follow them for best results, and for your own health.

Think twice about using manure. If it’s fresh, it may burn plants. Avoid pig, dog or cat manure because their diseases can last years in soil and travel via vegetables to humans. And if manure from herbivores isn’t composted at high enough temperatures, it may carry viable weed seeds.

Be aware of how much salt comes with the fertilizer of your choice.

Organic materials from your own yard—unless sprayed with pesticides or diseased—are not yard waste. They’re treasure.

There are many fertilizer sources I haven’t discussed that are worth looking into, such as fish emulsion and cover crops that become green manure, among others.

 Resources

If you have questions on how to improve soil, it may be worth consulting an expert, especially at one of the local agencies that offer free advice.

You can also find out from them how to get your soil tested.

Also, check their websites or offices for bulletins with garden advice tailored to our area.

 Free Local Gardening Advice

**Laramie County Conservation District, 11221 U.S. Hwy 30, 772-2600, http://www.lccdnet.org.

**Laramie County Cooperative Extension, 310 W. 19th, 1st Floor, 633-4383, http://www.wyomingextension.org/publications/.

**Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, 710 S. Lions Park Dr., 637-6458, http://botanic.org/ (gardening advice specifically for Cheyenne).


Soil Testing: Preparing the Samples

soil test application

Colorado State University’s soil testing application and instructions

Published April 21, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Get the dirt on soil: Maximize your lawn and garden success by finding the exact concoction of nutrients they need—with a little help from CSU.”

By Barb Gorges

You might be used to putting fertilizer on your lawn and in your garden.

But do you really know what nutrients they need and how much?

Yes, the major nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the three big numbers you see on fertilizer bags, are important.

But the balance may not be right for your soil. You could be adding too much of a good thing.

Besides the fact that you might be wasting your money, consider the bigger picture.

If the concoction of fertilizer has more nitrogen than your lawn needs, the excess washes into the ground water, polluting someone’s future drinking water.

Excess phosphorus washes into local streams and ponds causing algal blooms, possibly suffocating other aquatic life.

Unlike your plants’ other needs of water and light, it’s not always obvious when your plants need more or less food. In extreme cases, you’ll see yellowed leaves or stunted growth in malnourished plants.

And too much nitrogen, for example, could spur the plant into producing an overabundance of leaves but no blossoms—no flowers, no fruit.

To get ahead of these issues before the growing season, you may want to test your soil.

Luckily, sampling is fairly easy. Unlike my Soils 101 class back in college, I don’t have to dig a 5-foot pit to find out what my soil is made of. This time, I only had to send in samples from the top 6 inches of the areas I wanted the lab to examine.

What a soil test tells you

Soil texture will tell you something about its fertility.

Is your soil sandy? If so, water (and dissolved nutrients) will percolate through it quickly.

Is your soil clayey like so much of Cheyenne’s? Water moves through it slowly. The lab can recommend how much water and what rate you should apply it to your garden or lawn.

Testing for electrical conductivity sounds odd, but that’s the way to find out how salty your soil is, which can affect the availability of nutrients to plants. Some soils are naturally salty, but often here they become that way because too much fertilizer has been added over time, or the irrigation water is salty–comparatively speaking.

Knowing a soil’s pH will help you understand how easily some nutrients can be taken up by plants. It will also tell you what plants may not grow well.

The Cheyenne area typically has alkaline soil. That is why soil amendment advice for the acidic soils of the eastern U.S., such as adding lime or wood ash, can be counterproductive here. Acid-loving plants, such as blueberries and rhododendron, will not grow here unless you plant them in a container in which you can acidify the soil.

The percentage of organic matter in your soil should match your garden plans. It is possible to add too much compost or manure for the plants you want to grow.

Get a soil-testing kit

Home testing kits sold in stores are not usually designed for our alkaline soils and also, the information will not be precise enough.

Colorado State University’s Soil, Water and Plant Testing Laboratory in Fort Collins is one of the few remaining labs of this kind at land grant universities. Being in our neighborhood, the folks at the CSU lab will understand our soils better than those farther away.

The standard test costs $31. See the accompanying information on how to get a sampling bottle, directions and submission form.

Follow the directions

Whatever lab you use, follow their directions.

CSU’s indicated that to get a balanced sample, I needed to collect the same amount of soil at each level—I needed to dig a perfect cylinder 6 inches deep. And dig one of these perfect cylinders 5 to 15 times in random places in my garden or lawn.

How do you get a cylinder of soil? The right tool for the job is a soil probe.

I went out to the Laramie County Conservation District office and asked Jim Cochran, district manager, if he had one I could borrow. He did. And you can borrow one, too.

A soil probe is a nifty little tool, a stainless steel pipe about an inch in diameter and three or four feet long, with a crossbar handle. You punch it into the ground 6 inches and pull out your sample, which you then dump out the side vent.

Well, almost. In my vegetable garden I had trouble keeping the soil in the tube until I was ready to dump it in my plastic dishpan. Maybe the soil needed to be just a little moister. I also tried twirling the probe to keep in the dirt.

Twirling didn’t get me more than an inch into one spot in my front lawn, even after making sure I was between blades of grass. I hit solid clay near the house—probably left by the builders 50 years ago. I had to get husband Mark to help. And then, I needed a sharp tool to dig the clay out of the probe.

I decided to sample both the vegetable garden and the front lawn areas. I took enough sub-samples of the lawn to make two cups’ worth and then mixed them together in a dishpan, doing the same in a separate dishpan for the vegetable garden sub-samples.

The directions said to break up clods and remove organic matter. I picked out as many roots as I could, and a few worms. I spread the dirt (excuse me, soil) out in the bottom of the pans and by the next day both samples were dry enough. Don’t use the oven—it will stink up the house and distort your nitrogen readings.

An important part of the testing is filling out the paperwork. The lab wants to know what’s been growing in the tested area, what fertilizers have been used and how much it is irrigated, so they can understand any anomalies they find. They also want to know what you plan to grow so they can make recommendations.

There is no good or bad soil. It just depends on what you want to grow and whether your soil currently is capable.

In a way, my perennial flower bed performs its own suitability exam. I plant a new type of perennial and if it doesn’t thrive–which could be due to incompatible amounts of light and water as well as incompatible soil–I know I should remember that experience and try something else the next year.

But now that I’m growing vegetables, which can deplete the soil, and we have a lawn that isn’t quite thick enough to shade out the dandelions, I’m curious to see what a soil test can tell me.

In next month’s column we’ll look at the soil testing results and find out what they mean.

 Where to get a CSU soil sampling bottle, directions and submission form

**Laramie County Conservation District, 11221 U.S. Hwy 30 (nearly 10 miles east of downtown, west of I-80 Exit 370), 772-2600.

**Laramie County Cooperative Extension, 310 W. 19th, 1st Floor, 633-4383.

**www.soiltestinglab.colostate.edu (put soil sample in Zip-loc-type bag and print and fill out the submission form)

**Soil, Water and Plant Testing Laboratory, Ft. Collins, Colo., 970-491-5061.