Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


Vegetable growing advice

 

IMG_6356.JPG

Laramie County Master Gardener Kathy Shreve prepares a trench for seeds in a raised bed set up with soaker hoses. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle June 4, 2017, “Time to get your garden growing.”

 

By Barb Gorges

I spent a recent evening in the garden with Kathy Shreve, Laramie County master gardener, reviewing what to know about local vegetable gardening. The topics mentioned here are covered in greater depth in the “gardening” section of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens website, http://botanic.org, which also has the link to the archive of my previous columns.

Timing

Wait until the end of May or later to transplant tender veggies like tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers or put them under a season-extending cover like a low tunnel. You can also plant them in containers you can scoot in and out of the garage.

However, Shreve started cabbage and onion plants indoors and planted them before the snow May 18-19 and they were fine. Some vegetables, like members of the cabbage family, don’t mind cold as much.

While peas, cabbage types, lettuces and other greens, can be planted earlier than the end of May, most vegetable seeds planted directly in the garden prefer warmer soil temperatures. Measure with a soil thermometer found at garden centers.

Shreve said we can plant as late as June 20. Plant fast growing crops as late as July if you want a fall harvest.

Location

Keep in mind the vegetable garden needs a minimum of six hours of sun per day, preferably morning sun.

IMG_6357

Shreve transplants cabbages she started indoors. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Transplants

Because of our short growing season, tomatoes and other tender vegetables are started indoors. Always look for the short season varieties of these plants. Shreve said she looks for 80 or fewer “days to maturity.”

If the plant was not outside when you bought it, it will need hardening off. Start with the plant in the shade for two or three hours and day by day increase the amount of sun and the length of exposure by a couple hours. Keep it well watered.

When transplanting, Shreve advises digging a hole for your plant, filling it with water, then letting it drain before planting.

To remove a plant from a plastic pot, turn it upside down with the stem between your forefinger and middle finger. Squeeze the pot to loosen the soil and shake it very, very gently.

If there are a lot of roots, you can gently tease them apart a bit before putting the plant in the hole.

Hold the plant by the root mass so that it will sit in the hole with the soil at the same level of the stem as it was in the pot. Fill soil in around the roots, then tamp the soil gently.

However, tomatoes can be planted deeper since any part of their stem that is underground will sprout roots, the more the better. In fact, Shreve said to pinch off all but three or four leaves and bury the bare stem.

Lastly, keep plants well-watered, not soggy, while they get established. Wait a couple weeks before adding fertilizer to avoid burning the plants.

Mulch

Shreve mulches with certified weed-free straw available at local feed stores, but grass clippings and last year’s leaves can also be used.

Placing mulch 2 to 3 inches deep keeps the soil from drying so fast, shades out weeds and keeps rain and overhead watering from spattering dirt onto plants, which may spread disease. It can also keep hail from bouncing and inflicting damage twice.

 

IMG_6354

Seed

Root crops, like carrots and beets, don’t transplant well, so you are better off starting them from seed.

While fresh is good, Shreve said she’s had luck with seed seven years old. But the germination rate isn’t going to be great. She might spread carrot seed a little more thickly if that was the case, and it’s easy to thin to the proper spacing (and the thinnings can be tasty).

Because Cheyenne is dry, Shreve plants in a little trench. That way, when moisture comes, it will collect down where the plants are.

Seed packets tell you how deep to plant. The rule of thumb is three to four times deeper than the breadth of the seed. Lay the seed in the bottom of the trench and sprinkle that much dirt on them. Then water well, but gently, so you don’t wash out the seeds. Keep the soil surface moist until the seeds germinate.

Lightly mulch when the seedlings are visible, adding more as the plants get bigger.

Mark rows with popsicle sticks or plastic knives left from picnics.

Water

Once plants are established, let the top 1-2 inches of soil dry out between waterings. Test by sticking your finger in the soil. Water deeply.

Shreve waters every other day using soaker hose and drip irrigation systems, except when it rains. She originally tested her system for 30 minutes to see if water made it to the root depth and decided on 40 minutes.

Water in the morning, or at least make sure leaves are dry before dark.

Bugs and weeds

Mulch should eliminate most of the need to weed. Shreve said to keep up with it—it’s easier to pluck weed seedlings than to have them establish deep roots and go to seed.

For bugs, Shreve said it is easy to Google “what insect is eating my cabbage,” or take the critter, or evidence, to the Laramie County Extension horticulturist, Catherine Wissner. Her office is now out at Laramie County Community College, fourth floor of the new Pathfinder Building.

Never use pesticides until you identify your problem, and then try the least toxic method first. Again, more is not better. Never apply more than the directions indicate.

Slugs—my nemesis—indicate a garden is too wet.

Shreve said to roll newspaper to make 1 to 2-inch-diameter tunnels. Place rolls around affected plants in the evening. By sunrise, the slugs will be inside the rolls to get away from the light and you can dispose of them, rolls and all.

Fertilizer

Never add wood ash or lime to our alkaline soils as those work only on eastern, acidic soils.

Shreve likes slow-release products which are less likely to burn the plants, as are the natural fertilizers. Additionally, compost tea is a good soil conditioner.

Again, more is not better. Shreve uses half of what is directed until she sees how the plants respond.

Over-fertilization of fruit-producing vegetables like tomatoes often keeps them from producing the flowers that become the fruit. Shreve said they need to be stressed a little bit because it gets them thinking about preservation of the species and producing seed, rather than just enjoying life and producing leaves.

“Just leaves” is OK if you are growing leafy vegetables like lettuce, kale, spinach and chard.

Trellis and cage

If you are growing vining vegetables, getting them off the ground means fruits stay cleaner and don’t rot, and they are easier to find and pick. Use old chain link gates, bed springs, or anything else—be creative.

Hog panels make sturdy tomato cages 5 feet high and 2.5 feet in diameter for larger, indeterminate varieties, with chicken wire over the top for hail protection. Otherwise, use jute twine to loosely tie the stem to a bamboo stake.

Add flowers

Adding annual flowers like alyssum, marigolds and sunflowers, or herbs including dill and oregano, attracts pollinators and beneficial insects to your garden.


Soil microbes better than rototilling

2017-05Lowenfels-Endomycorrhizal fungi

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.

2017-05 Lowenfels-Ectomycorryhizal fungi

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.

2017-05Lowenfels-Glomalin--green stain--coating with spores

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.”

 


Garden gifts: books, magazines, classes

2016-12-garden-mags-barb-gorgesPublished Dec. 4, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Holiday gifts for the gardener on your list.”

By Barb Gorges

I asked members of the Laramie County Master Gardeners for their top picks for gardening magazines and books to give you ideas for gifts for the gardeners you know.

Gardening conditions in Cheyenne are somewhat unique so advice from these publications must be taken with a bit of local knowledge:

1) We have alkaline soils so ignore advice to add lime and wood ash;

2) We are officially in USDA plant hardiness zone 5 but microclimates can be harsher or milder;

3) Our average annual precipitation is 15 inches. Even if you run your well dry, you can’t reproduce a wetter, more humid location, which some plants require, like somewhere else in Zone 5—say southern Iowa.

MAGAZINES

Most of the magazines recommended are available at local bookstores. Discounted multi-year subscriptions and back issues are available online.

We are lucky that Colorado’s gardening climate is close to Cheyenne’s, making our local choice The Colorado Gardener (www.ColoradoGardener.com, free at outlets, including the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, and online, or $18/5 issues/year delivered). It is a full-color, tabloid-style, 16-page newsmagazine. In addition to articles and a calendar of Front Range garden-related events, even the advertising is informative.

Another option is Rocky Mountain Gardening (www.RockyMountainGardening.com, $24/4 issues/year). Previously known as “Zone 4,” it covers Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. It was recommended by Catherine Wissner, horticulturist at the Laramie County Cooperative Extension office, and several other respondents. Topics in a recent issue included hellstrip gardening (the hot, dry strip along the curb) and frost blankets (written by a Smoot, Wyoming, gardener). Wyoming is well-represented in the news section.

Judy Kowrach was one of two people who endorsed Garden Gate (www.GardenGateMagazine.com, $20/6 issues/year). With no ads, it is full of tips, plant profiles and design ideas. Despite its Iowa origins, much of the information is applicable to Cheyenne. Even without a subscription, you can sign up online for its free eNotes.

Kim Parker and several others listed Fine Gardening (www.FineGardening.com, $29.95/6 issues/year). It does a splendid job of inciting people to commit acts of gardening. I like their warnings on which featured plants are officially classified as invasive in which state and their scientific plant name pronunciation guide. And their deep website full of free garden and plant information.

2016-12-garden-design            I couldn’t come up with an issue of Garden Design (www.GardenDesign.com, $45/4 issues/year), but looking at a preview copy online, it also is sumptuously photographed. Its price reflects the 148 ad-free pages per issue. And its website is also full of free information, even for non-subscribers.

Finally, Rodale’s Organic Life (www.RodalesOrganicLife.com, $15/6 issues/year) is the latest incarnation of Rodale’s Organic Gardening and Farming. In 1978, that publication printed my interview of a man who built a better bluebird house. These days, think of it as the organic version of Better Homes and Gardens—mostly lifestyle, little gardening.

BOOKS

2016-12-garden-primer-rodales-ultimate-encyclopedia            My primary garden book, recommended to me several years ago by Shane Smith, director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, is The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch (2008, Workman Publishing, 820 pages). Written by a gardener from the cold climate of Maine, it covers every aspect of organic home gardening in well-organized chapters, but with an index for quick consultation.

Another option is Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (2009, www.rodaleinc.com, 720 pages). Earlier editions have been on my shelf for years. It’s a tad more technical, but both this and The Garden Primer are good how-to guides and problem solvers.

2016-12-peterson-kaufman-insect-guides            Tava Collins recommended National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects and Spiders (1980, Alfred A. Knopf, $20) for help identifying garden friends and foes. Similar guides are available in the Kaufman and Peterson field guide series.

Collins also recommended three books written by Colorado gardeners: Rocky Mountain Gardener’s Handbook, John Cretti (2012, Cool Springs Press); Rocky Mountain Getting Started Garden Guide, John Cretti (2015, Cool Springs Press); and Cutting Edge Gardening in the Intermountain West, Marcia Tatroe (2007, Big Earth Publishing).

For special gardening techniques that will work in our area, these next two were recommended.

Marie Madison cited The Bountiful Container: Create Container Gardens of Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits and Edible Flowers by Maggie Stuckey and Rose Marie Nicholas McGee (2002, Workman Publishing).

Susan Carlson, who I interviewed a few months ago about straw bale gardening, apprised me of a new edition of her favorite book: Straw Bale Gardens Complete: All-New Information on Urban & Small Spaces, Organics, Saving Water – Make Your Own Bales With or Without Straw by Joel Karsten (2015, Cool Springs Press, $24.99).

If your giftee’s interest is in growing native plants that attract pollinators or in identifying plants on the prairie, try these. Keep in mind the definition of “weeds” depends on the situation.

2016-12-weeds-of-the-west-rangeland-plants            Carlson listed Rangeland Plants: Wyoming Tough by Smith et. al. (2015, publication B-1265) It is a free download at www.wyoextension.org/publications or $8 at the Laramie County Extension office, 307-633-4383.

Richard Steele found Weeds of the West (Western Society of Weed Science, 2012, $34 at www.wsweedscience.org) to be particularly useful while manning the “Ask a Master Gardener” table at the farmers market this fall.

Collins mentioned the classic Meet the Natives: A Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, Trees and Shrubs: Bridging the Gap between Trail and Garden by M. Walter Pesman. It was revised by Denver Botanic Gardens staff in 2012 and republished by Big Earth Publishing.

2016-12-undaunted-garden            The author of one of my favorites, The Undaunted Garden: Planting for Weather-Resilient Beauty (2010, Fulcrum Publishing), Lauren Springer Ogden, is a firm believer in “the right plant in the right place” and is the originator of “hellstrip” gardening. Her photography is inspiring. She speaks often at garden events on the Front Range.

Her book would be a good accompaniment to the next two books, helping you to pick appropriate local plants to interpret their lessons. These books are about planet-friendly landscape gardening.

Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West (2015, Timber Press). This may be intended to introduce landscape designers to more natural, sustainable plantings. But you can apply the advice to your own yard, such as using groundcover plants instead of shredded bark mulch everywhere.

2016-12-garden-revolution-planting-in-a-post-wild            The other is Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher (2016, Timber Press). Proponents of the “right plant in the right place” too, the authors have designed this book to help you understand their premise: that with knowledge of your eco region and local habitat, you can plant a garden that will evolve over time with a minimal amount of assistance, i.e. chemicals and labor.

LECTURES AND CLASSES

One option: Give your favorite gardener tuition for the 10-week Master Gardener class beginning in January. For more information, call 307-633-4383.

Or give them tickets to the spring gardening lecture series Laramie County Master Gardeners is offering in conjunction with the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. Call 307-637-6458.


Straw bales conquer garden problems

2016-8 straw bale 1, Susan Carlson, by Barb Gorges

Laramie County Master Gardener Susan Carlson shows off peas growing in her straw bale garden. The spruce trees protect the garden from north wind and the shade cloth protects the delicate lettuce in the rest of the garden from too much sun. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Aug. 14, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Straw bales conquer many garden problems.”

By Barb Gorges

Did the thought of the work involved in starting a vegetable garden keep you from having one this year? Did time for all that rototilling or digging in of compost never materialize? Or maybe you tried a garden in our clay soils and results were poor?

2016-8 Straw Bale Gardens cover

Straw Bale Gardens, by Joel Karsten, Cool Springs Press.

Susan Carlson, a Laramie County Master Gardener, can recommend a solution: straw bale gardening. Her stepson, who lives in Minnesota, brought her the book by Minnesota native Joel Karsten describing his miraculous method.

This is the second season Carlson has used rectangular straw bales for vegetables and her results look good. She also included flowers.

The idea is that a straw bale is compost waiting to happen. Before the growing season begins, over a couple weeks, you add water and a little fertilizer—organic or inorganic—and it will activate an army of bacteria. The bacteria break down the straw, turning it into just what plants need. Plants can be inserted into the bale or seeds can be started in a little potting soil placed on top.

The bale is like a container or raised bed held together with baling twine. You can set it anywhere, even on a driveway. You don’t prepare the ground underneath.

And, depending on how clean the straw is, you will have few weeds, or wheat or oat sprouts, that can’t be easily removed by hand. You’ll have more sprouts if you accidently bought hay—which includes the heads of grain—instead of straw, which is just the stems.

Straw bales might also be the solution to vegetable plant diseases that persist in soil. Gardeners are always advised not to grow the same family of vegetables (especially the tomato-eggplant-pepper family) in the same spot more than once every three years. You can start a fresh bale each year, although Carlson managed to keep her bales intact for a second year.

Carlson studied Karsten’s book, “Straw Bale Gardens.” Here’s what she did:

First, obviously, she found straw bales.

I checked a local farm and ranch supply store and their regular bale, about 3 feet long and 60 pounds, runs about $7. Avoid the super-compressed bales.

A bale bought in the fall from a farmer should be cheaper than in the spring, after they’ve had to store them all winter. In fall, you can put your bale outside to weather.

If you’ve had problems with mice or voles, as Carlson has, lay chicken wire or hardware cloth down first. Cut a piece big enough to fold up and protect several inches of the sides of the bale.

2016-8 straw bale 2, set up, by Barb Gorges

Carlson’s straw bale garden consists of five bales forming a u-shape. They are planted with (from left) haricot vert green beans, cabbage, a tomato, lettuces, petunias and edible pod peas. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Lay out your bale prickliest side up, and so the sides wrapped with twine not against the ground. Carlson bought five bales and formed them into a u-shape to fit within an area fenced to keep out her dogs.

Because she planned to grow beans, Carlson made a trellis as well. She wedged two bales, lying end to end, between two 5-foot steel “T-post” fence posts (about $5 each) and then strung wire at about 10 and 20 inches above the bales. She can add more wire if the plants get taller. Karsten recommends 14-gauge electric fence wire (but you won’t be plugging it in).

On the ground inside the u-shape of bales (or between your rows), Carlson laid landscape fabric. You could use some other material to keep light from germinating weed seeds, like a layer of thick straw, cardboard, wood, wood mulch, etc.

Next, Carlson “conditioned” the bales, starting about two weeks before our last frost date, which is around May 22, though you can start a week earlier because the bales form a warm environment.

The first step here is to find cheap lawn fertilizer with at least 20 percent nitrogen content as Carlson did the first year. Do not use one that is slow-release or that contains herbicides.

You can also use organic fertilizers, like bone or feather meal, or very well-composted manure, but you need to use six times more than the amounts given for inorganic fertilizer. The second season, Carlson said, she is having good results using Happy Frog packaged organic fertilizer, but using much less since the bales were conditioned once already last year.

The conditioning regimen begins the first day with a half cup of inorganic fertilizer (or six times more organic) per bale sprinkled evenly all over the top and then watered in with your hose sprayer until all of it has moved into the bale and the bale is waterlogged, writes Karsten.

The next day you skip the fertilizer and water the bale again. Karsten suggests using water that’s been sitting out for a while so it isn’t as cold as it is straight out of the tap.

Days three through six you alternate between fertilizer-and-water days and water-only days.

Days seven through nine you water in a quarter cup of fertilizer per bale each day. The bales should be cooking by now and feel a little warmer on the outside.

On day 10, add a cup of 10-10-10 garden fertilizer. The numbers mean 10 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus and 10 percent potassium.

Next, lay out your soaker hoses on top of the bales if you are going to use drip irrigation as Carlson has.

On day 12, Carlson transplanted one cherry tomato plant directly into the bale, wedging it in. Smaller plants are easier to plant than large ones and will soon catch up.

“Bacteria are breaking down the inside of the bale and making this nice environment,” said Carlson.

2016-8 straw bale 4 beans by Barb Gorges

Carlson’s Haricot vert beans. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Mostly, Carlson wanted a salad garden and so she started everything else from seed: edible pod peas, Haricot vert beans (a type of tiny French green bean), lemon cucumbers, broccoli, spinach and various lettuces.

She packed a couple of inches of sterile potting soil (not garden soil) into the tops of the bales in which to plant the seeds. The warmth of the composting straw got them off to a good start.

She added shade cloth overhead to protect the lettuces from too much sun and started cutting romaine and butterhead lettuce by mid-June.

Carlson also used shade cloth on the west side fence to keep the wind from drying out the bales too quickly.

And there you have it, a vegetable garden—or a flower garden if you prefer—ready to grow. All you need to do then is to garden as you normally would: enough water, fertilizer once a month, and pull the occasional weed that may sprout, or pick off any little slugs or insects.

Maybe because of our dry western climate, Carlson was able to use her bales this second year. The bales shrank a little so she patched the gaps between bales with bits of chicken wire on the sides and filled them with potting soil.

One question is what to do with the old bales. They are great compost for conventional garden beds. Carlson reached into the side of one bale and showed me lovely black soil. If you don’t have any conventional garden beds to add it to, someone else would be happy to take the compost off your hands.

“This isn’t the prettiest thing,” Carlson says of her straw bale garden, “but when it starts growing, you don’t even look at the bales.”

2016-8 straw bale 3, detail, by Barb Gorges

While most straw bale gardeners start with fresh bales each spring, Carlson was able to use hers for a second season. She pulled away a little straw on the side of this bale and discovered it is full of rich compost. A soaker hose keeps the vegetables watered. The green steel fence post is part of the trellis system. Photo courtesy Barb Gorges.

 


Gardening with rocks

2016-7 rock 0 Wendy Douglass' garden Barb Gorges.JPG

The quintessential rock garden has colorful carpets of alpine flowers, like this spot in Laramie County Master Gardener Wendy Douglass’s garden. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 17, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Journey Section.

By Barb Gorges

Rock gardens became popular in the 1800s when tourists started visiting the Alps.

Travelers were enthralled by the tough but colorful plants growing on the rocky slopes and brought home alpine plant souvenirs.

It took a few decades to figure out alpine plants need gritty soil, rock and a cool climate to grow successfully. True alpine plants don’t need inches of compost or fertilizer.

Today’s rock gardens aren’t limited to cushions of small plants like the ones we see in our nearby mountains. There are plenty of other kinds of naturally rocky places to emulate.

Master gardener Wendy Douglass takes her cues from the nearby mountains and the prairie surrounding her rural Laramie County home.

The following is a tour of different rock garden styles and options seen through the lens of Douglass’ garden.

2016-7 rock 1 Wendy Douglass, mountain Barb Gorges

Wendy Douglass enjoys her mountain-style rock garden. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Mountain

In her backyard, Douglass has a conventional rock garden, emulating a group of rocks on a mountain side. On one side of it is a small waterfall that flows via recirculating water pump. On the other side, rocks have been arranged informally, leaving pockets to fill with soil and plants.

But since her yard doesn’t get as much water as the mountains, Douglass has arranged drip irrigation soaker hose throughout.

Another secret is that the base of the natural-looking pile of rocks started out as a pile of concrete blocks. No sense wasting purchased landscape rocks where they can’t be seen.

2016-7 rock 2 patio Barb Gorges

Johnny-jump-ups are welcome between the flagstones. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Patio

Normally, when laying a flagstone patio, one tries to get the stones to fit as closely as possible. But not if you are planning to plant it. Tough little plants were blooming in Douglass’s patio when I visited in June. They enjoy the sandy soil in the cracks. When it rains, the water pours off the flagstones and into the cracks, giving the plants more moisture than they would get in an ordinary garden setting.

2016-7 rock 3 prairie Barb Gorges

Rocks, gravel, daisies and penstemon are part of Wendy Douglass’s prairie-style rock garden. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Prairie-style

At the front of Douglass’s house is a dooryard, or more pretentiously, a courtyard, protected on the west side by the garage and on the north side by a low wall. Much of it is planted as a prairie rock garden.

The topsoil Douglass brought in has been eroded by the wind over the last dozen years, leaving a gravelly surface like the real prairie. In fact, among serious rock gardeners, this might begin to qualify as a “scree garden” – emulating those mounds of gravel below the rock faces in the mountains.

Douglas has placed a few rocks among the plants, just as they might show up on the prairie—in fact, many come from elsewhere on the property.

However, this is a garden and so it is a souped-up version of the prairie—more flowers and the grasses tend to be ornamental. Plus, many prairie plants are much taller than the diminutive alpine plants of the traditional rock garden.

And it harbors another secret—an artificial boulder. Douglass and her husband experimented with a technique taught by an Australian company that starts with a pile of rubble covered with a concrete mix and then artfully finished with colored mortar dabbed on by brush.

2016-7 rock 4 hypertufa trough Barb Gorges

Hypertufa containers are fun to make yourself, in whatever shape you choose. This one is in the Denver Botanic Gardens’ rock garden. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Trough

Similar to fake boulder-building, you can make hypertufa (lighter than concrete) troughs to display a particular collection of small rock garden plants. Multiple internet sites have directions.

2016-7 rock 5 Zen Barb Gorges

Wendy Douglass was inspired by Japanese and Chinese concepts of rock gardens for this spiral. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Zen

Rock gardening took off in Europe and America in the 1920s and, based on the number of rocks installed by landscapers in local front yards, it continues to inspire people today. However, the Chinese and Japanese beat us to it by 1000 years at least.

But those gardens are more about emphasizing unusual rocks, not so much about plants. Douglass has what she calls her Zen garden, a tiny area protected by the house. The plants there can be pruned and shaped by Douglass, rather than the wind and the deer. Small rocks form a swirl on the ground. Sand can be raked in patterns as an act of meditation.

Nearby inspiration for your own garden

There are two fantastic resources close by, public rock gardens, where the plants all have nametags.

2016-7 rock 6 DBG shade Barb Gorges

The Denver Botanic Gardens’ rock garden includes a shady section. Below, the garden is a mosaic of plants from rocky places all over the world. Photos by Barb Gorges.

The first is the Rock Alpine Garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Designed by Panayoti Kelaidis and established in 1980, it is anchored by real boulders and every pocket is stuffed with plants from rocky habitats around the world.

On the left is part of the well-established crevice garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens. On the right is another, newly established for the future steppe garden. Photos by Barb Gorges.

The newest form of rock gardening is here too, crevice gardening, installed by Mike Kintgen, the current curator. You know how freezing and thawing will cause rock to crack along parallel faults? These cracks, or crevices, can be simulated by laying flattish rocks on edge, stacked against each other. Gritty soil placed in the cracks is just perfect for rock plants. Their roots are protected while they spread mats of colorful flowers.

2016-7 rock 7 Gardens on Spring Creek Barb Gorges

The rock garden at the Gardens on Spring Creek feature varieties of columbine in early June. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Closer to home is the Gardens on Spring Creek in Fort Collins, Colorado. Installation began there about eight years ago. Arrangements of locally quarried rock display a colorful assortment of heat-tolerant perennials that would do well here in Cheyenne.

2016-7 rock 8 Snowies 2 Barb Gorges2016-7 rock 8 Snowies 3 Barb Gorges

A tiny species of chickweed (top) forms a carpet and columbine (above) gets a toehold in a rock pile in the Snowy Range. Photo by Barb Gorges.

My favorite rock gardens are tended by Mother Nature, up on the Snowy Range, especially along the trail that begins at Lewis Lake. The plants aren’t labelled, but at the Forest Service visitor center above Centennial you might find a copy of a book published by the University of Wyoming Extension, “Plants with Altitude.” It identifies high elevation plants that adapt well to gardens and that can often be found at local nurseries.

A word about collecting rocks and plants

Do not take home rocks you find out in the country without permission from the private landowners or permits from the public land managers.

It is illegal to remove anything from a national park—rock, plant or animal, dead or alive. Period. Wyoming’s state parks also do not allow the removal of rock.

Our closest forest, Medicine Bow – Routt National Forest, no longer makes permits available for removing landscape rock for home use.

The Bureau of Land Management’s Rawlins Field Office, which includes southeast Wyoming, allows rock collecting for personal use with stipulations. Only collect along roads and trails, only by hand (no heavy equipment or explosives) and only less than a pickup load. Otherwise, a contract is necessary.

Check local landscapers and rock companies to find out where they obtained their rocks, especially moss rock—the kind that has moss and lichens growing on it. It should have been bought from private landowners or bought via permit from public land. Quarried stone is less likely to have a shady past.

As for collecting plants, cross public lands off your list. Consider private lands only with landowner permission. But usually, the domesticated relatives found at local nurseries transplant better than wild plants. Check the North American Rock Garden Society website for specialty catalogs for rock garden plants.

Resources mentioned

–Denver Botanic Gardens, www.botanicgardens.org.

–Gardens on Spring Creek, http://www.fcgov.com/gardens.

www.ArtificialRock.com.au

–North American Rock Garden Society, www.nargs.org: illustrated plant list, beginner instructions, recommended resources.

–“Plants with Altitude” by Fluet, Thompson, Tuthill and Marsicek, available through the University of Wyoming Extension.

2016-7 rock 8 Snowies 1 Barb Gorges

The natural, alpine rock garden, mid-July: This one is located at 10,000 feet elevation in the Snowy Range in the Medicine Bow National Forest, west of Laramie, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.


Garden tools

2016-5-Kathy Shreve's tiling or trenching spade by Barb Gorges

Kathy Shreve’s tiling, or trenching, shovel works well for inserting new plants in her perennial bed. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle May 1, 2016, “Must-have garden gear.”

By Barb Gorges

Gardening smart and using the best tools for you and your garden situation means gardening can be less of a chore and more fun, leaving you with time to enjoy your results.

With that in mind, I decided to survey the Laramie County Master Gardeners to find out which tools they consider essential for gardening. I also looked into best garden tool maintenance practices.

Like a good scientist, I checked the literature online and had my own hypothesis on what would surface in the top of the list: tools for digging, cutting, watering, hauling and composting.

Surprisingly, only one person listed a power tool, a rototiller for tilling vegetable beds.

Apparently, most of the Master Gardeners that responded have gardens small enough to use only hand tools, just love gardening by hand, or are in the no-till or minimal till camp.

[Soil science shows that over time the tradition of tilling every year, turning over the top inches of soil, whether by machine or shovel, breaks down soil structure. This disturbs the microbiome community that stores water and provides nutrients to plants. Tilling also exposes weed seeds to light and germination, mandating the use of a hoe or more tilling later.

No-till methods use plant-based mulch as a way to suppress weeds and add nutrients to the soil gradually. The soil is disturbed as little as possible when flowers and vegetables are seeded or transplanted.]

The following is the result of the tools members suggested as we head into the new season.

2016-5-Wanda Manley's hori hori by Barb Gorges

Wanda Manley displays her hori hori. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Hori hori

Outside of the lone rototiller, all the other favorite tools mentioned were split evenly between digging and cutting.

One tool does both: the hori hori.

A Japanese tool, the hori hori is “a cross between a knife and a trowel and I use it for everything,” wrote Salli Halpern.

Wanda Manley said, “This is my ‘go to’ tool…great for fluffing soil, transplanting, making furrows, etc. Does not rust.”

Rosalind Schliske said, “In the last couple of years, my new favorite garden tool is a soil knife.” The “knife” she mentions seems to be a modern hori hori, with a composite handle instead of wood.

The hori hori’s 7-inch cutting blade, serrated on one side, is formed into a shallow length-wise v-shape. It can be used to cut and scoop out a small planting hole and makes a fabulous weed remover.

2016-5-Susan Jones's Corona Egrip Hand Weeder by Barb Gorges

Susan Jones likes her Corona Egrip Weeder. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Susan Jones swears by a hand weeder sold under the Corona brand. It also has a serrated edge, but a molded plastic, more ergonomic handle and a v-shaped tip that helps pop out weeds with taproots like dandelions.

Shovels

Only Kathy Shreve and Mike Heath mentioned shovels on their lists. Shreve finds a tiling, or trenching shovel to be most useful. The flat-edged, straight and narrow blade is just right for inserting new plants into her established perennial beds. The weight of the wooden handle adds to its heft, she said, giving her a little extra oomph as she digs in.

Shovels and spades (the distinction between them is not clear) come in a wide variety of blade and handle options. It takes some experience to match one with what fits your hands, height, strength and type of digging you need to do. The same is true of hand trowels or hand spades. In our clay-type soils, go for better quality tools that won’t snap as soon as you encounter a tough situation.

2016-5-Wanda Manley's Felco pruners by Barb Gorges

Felco pruners are made to last, with proper maintenance. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Pruners

One favorite cutting tool was mentioned by both Shreve and Manley by brand name: Felco hand pruners. I finally have a pair myself, after years of being frustrated by cheaper pruners falling apart. Plus, Felco has replaceable parts and accessories available at area garden centers.

Felco pruners are bypass-type cutting tools, meaning the two halves slide by each other as they cut, like scissors, rather than the anvil-type, where one side is a blade and the other side is a flat surface.

Hand pruners might not be the best at snipping chives—you’d want a scissors for that, but they do work fine for cutting flowers and are tough enough for cutting pumpkins off the vine, not to mention doing a little tree and shrub pruning.

2016-5-Bud Davis's Garrett Wade anvil loppers by Barb Gorges

Anvil-type racheting loppers from Garret-Wade are a favorite with Bud Davis. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Loppers

Once your trees and shrubs get beyond hand pruner size, it’s time to look for loppers.

Both Bud Davis and Shreve swear by their ratcheting loppers, which can handle more than my regular pair, rated only for a maximum branch diameter of 1.25 inches. Shreve prefers the Fiskars brand while Davis got both of his pairs, a bypass for green wood and an anvil-type for dead wood, from Garrett-Wade. His loppers even have telescoping handles to help reach farther or get more leverage.

2016-5-Jim Stallard shovel  sharpening by Barb Gorges

Jim Stallard puts a professional edge on a shovel. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Maintenance

No matter what digging and cutting tools you invest in, maintaining them will save you time, money and effort.

Jim Stallard has been in the seasonal tool sharpening business for 16 years. This year he is at Fort Collins Nursery on Fridays and JAX on Saturdays, both in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Stallard has seen it all, including dirt left on metal long enough that the moisture from it caused rust. He uses a wire brush to clean off dirt before putting away tools. More of us need to think about providing a convenient place to store tools out of the weather—and then train ourselves to put our tools away.

Stallard uses silicone spray lubricant on the metal parts of tools—it’s especially nice on the blades of pruners and loppers because it doesn’t cause them to bind up or rust the way some products do.

Keeping tools sharp—even the blades on shovels and hand spades—makes gardening work easier. You can check online for tips on how to do it yourself, but there is nothing like letting a professional like Stallard put a fresh edge on a tool at the beginning of the season. He’s got the power equipment and the experience to put the right angle on your blade for just a few bucks.

The other essentials

One can make do with old buckets and wheelbarrows for hauling, and make compost with just a simple pile of plant debris. Watering can be as complex as drip irrigation (see www.CheyenneGardenGossip.wordpress.com for a previous column) or as simple as a hose. I was hoping someone could recommend a hose that never kinks. That would indeed be a tool that makes the work easier.

However, it was Master Gardener intern Richard Steele, who said, “The best tool…is having access to the knowledge of the Master Gardeners.” With that in mind, feel free to call the Laramie County Cooperative Extension office with your garden questions at 307-633-4383.


Winter sowing

 

Winter sown seeds 3 - Michelle Bohanan - by Barb Gorges

Laramie County Master Gardener Michelle Bohanan displays one of the milk jugs she uses for winter sowing.

Published Mar. 6, 2016, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Winter sowing starts garden at perfect time.”

By Barb Gorges

When I asked her for tips on starting perennial seeds this spring, Laramie County master gardener Michelle Bohanan said, “winter sowing.” I soon discovered it is an increasingly popular concept and practice.

Winter sowing is what our native and other temperate zone plants do naturally. After they set seed, the flowers and fruits dry. Within months or years, they either shatter and release the seeds, a messy bird picks at them, or the wind blows them. You might shred a few dried flower heads yourself from time to time.

The seeds eventually come in contact with the ground where they are subjected to moisture and cold. That, and the cycles of freezing and thawing, eventually break the seed coat which is necessary if it is tougher than the strength of the seedling.

Surprisingly, many seeds require light to germinate. Day length, or cumulative solar warmth, tells them when it is safe to sprout.

With our occasional spring snowstorms, it’s good that not all seeds, even of the same variety or species, require the same exact amount of light and heat. If the first up are frozen out, the slower germinating fill in behind.

Of course, the plants that have winter sowing down to a fine art are the weeds.

The problem with merely sprinkling seed over your flower bed is that seed is expensive and you don’t know how hungry your local birds and mice are going to be.

It occurred to New York state gardener Trudi Davidoff to safeguard her winter sowing by seeding in shallow, covered containers she set out in her garden. In spring, there was no need to harden off the seedlings since they were already acclimated to the outdoors. She merely transferred them into her garden. Another benefit? No need for grow lights or heat mats. She’s been spreading the word since.

 

Winter sown seeds 1 by Barb Gorges

Cut the milk jug just below the handle, forming a pot 4 inches deep, and a separate cover. Photo by Barb Gorges.

How to winter sow

 

I visited Bohanan on a nasty day in January with half a foot of snow on the ground. I brought along a translucent plastic gallon milk jug and a little packet of alpine aster seed I’d received in a seed exchange.

With a pair of heavy-duty scissors, Bohanan punctured the jug just below the handle and cut all the way around, creating a 4-inch high pot and a separate cover. She put in about 3 inches of her favorite commercial potting soil, already moistened.

Next, she spilled a couple dozen seeds onto a plastic container lid and with a toothpick, sorted through them, kicking out any unfertilized seeds. They look lighter because they don’t have the germ of the seed needed for germination.

Winter sown seeds 2 by Barb Gorges

Seeds that require light to germinate are placed touching the surface of the potting soil. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Like many small seeds, these require light, so Bohanan gently pressed 16 into the soil but didn’t bury them. Then she forced the upper half of the milk jug, upright, into the bottom half to protect the seeds, leaving off the jug’s cap.

 

In other, wetter climates, the top and bottom can be slashed to allow snow and rain to water the seeds and then drain, but in our drier climate, Bohanan has had, over seven years, good results without making additional openings.

However, I found I had to puncture the bottoms after the snow on top of my jugs began to melt.

On the Internet, a search for “winter sowing” shows many kinds of recycled containers. The bottom needs to be at least 3 inches deep for the soil and the top needs to clear the soil surface by at least 2 inches. The top also needs to be clear or translucent. You provide adequate ventilation and drainage openings as needed.

On the jug in permanent marker Bohanan wrote the name, source and number of seeds and the date of planting.

Winter sown seeds 4 by Barb Gorges

The planted milk jugs can be safely left out in the cold and snow. The seeds will sprout in the spring. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Back at home, I put the milk jug in a snowdrift on the northeast side of our back fence. While I wait for spring, I’ll empty more milk jugs and try planting more seeds.

 

Bohanan already had 35 jugs going and figured she was only 25 percent of the way through her winter sowing plans.

This technique is easier than my experience last year sprouting orange butterfly weed—a type of milkweed. I had to leave the seeds, planted in moist potting soil and covered with plastic, in my refrigerator for 6 weeks to achieve “stratification,” the term for this cold treatment.  Other seeds need scarification, scratching a break in the seed coat, and this winter sowing method can help.

Maintenance

While seeds left lying on the ground require no help from us, ones in containers do.

Bohanan’s milk jugs have the opening at the top, plus the gaps where the upper part of the jug is pressed into the bottom, that allow for some snow and rain to seep in and some heat to escape when it warms up in the spring. She forgoes slits in the bottom because she puts some jugs in her unheated sunroom and would rather not have them leak on the floor.

However, she does check her jugs regularly to make sure they don’t dry out, especially the ones under cover of her hoop house. She can tell by the lighter color of the soil (although this doesn’t work for all potting soils), or she can lift the jug and tell by the weight if it needs watering.

Knowing how much water to add might be a trick, and if you think you might be prone to overwatering, you should probably add bottom drainage openings.

When the weather gets warm, to keep seedlings from baking, it is necessary to pull the top off and prop it on the bottom diagonally or even remove it entirely during the day.

Timing and location

All of this still sounds easier and cheaper than setting up lights or buying starts next spring. With our last frost nearly three months away, there is enough time to accommodate even seeds that need 8 weeks of cold.

But figuring out where to put your jugs is also important. Placed along the south-facing wall of your house may cause some seedlings to sprout too soon. Along a north-facing wall may delay them. But the mini-greenhouses are easy to move. Just experiment.

What to grow

Try native perennials from our northern temperate climate, Zone 5 or colder, especially if you are turning your lawn into bird, butterfly and bee-friendly habitat. Popular flowers include varieties of penstemon, coreopsis, milkweed and gaillardia.

Try cold-tolerant vegetables from the cabbage family, herbs and flowering annuals, but probably not slow-starting annuals like petunias. It would take all summer for them to finally bloom.

The seeds of tropical plants, like tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, may also get started too late to produce before first fall frost. Instead, see tomato growing advice archived at www.CheyenneGardenGossip.wordpress.com.

Resources

Winter Sown, www.wintersown.org: Trudi Davidoff’s site.

Dave’s Garden, http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/ws: Gardeners all over the country have recorded their success winter sowing a variety of plants, but be aware of what zone they report from.

Alplains, http://www.alplains.com/: This catalog specializes in native plant seeds and has essential propagation information. However, use the following website to translate the Latin names.

The Missouri Botanic Garden’s Plant Finder, http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/plantfinder/: This is one of Bohanan’s favorite sources of information.

Typical native perennials for the Cheyenne, Wyoming area: Blanketflower, Gaillardia spp.; Gayfeather, Liatris punctata; Tickseed, Coreopsis spp.; Beardtongue, Penstemon spp.; Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia spp. All photos by Barb Gorges.