Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


Apply to be a Habitat Hero

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

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

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

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Perennial fall flower color

2016-10-yampa-river-botanic-park-steamboat-springs-co-sept-8-2016-by-barb-gorges

Yampa River Botanic Park, Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Sept. 8, 2016. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Oct. 9, 2016, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Fall color for next year’s perennial flowerbeds.”

Find fall color for next year’s perennial flowerbeds (full version)

Text and photos by Barb Gorges

In September, I had the opportunity to visit three public gardens: Chanticleer near Wayne, Pennsylvania; Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Massachusetts; and Yampa River Botanic Park in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

What struck me was the colorful perennial flowers that were blooming in the fall. Of course, not everything that grows outside Philadelphia grows here in Cheyenne where we are two Plant Hardiness Zones colder, Zone 5.

We match the western Massachusetts mountains for zone, but they get four times our 15 inches of annual precipitation. Plus, they have acidic soils supporting those billowing mounds of hydrangeas I saw everywhere.

Even in Steamboat, only 700 feet higher in elevation, there are plants that require the protection of a thick layer of snow all winter which we don’t have.

So I decided to look around town, especially our own Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, to see what blooms late, for the benefit of bees and our own enjoyment.

Annual flowers are colorful right up to first frost, average date Sept. 20 (though in the last few years in some parts of town it may be as late as mid-October). But unless they self-seed, I can’t justify buying flats of annuals every spring to cover all my garden beds, nor have I the greenhouse to start my own. Instead I turn to perennials. Here are suggestions for you to add to your garden next spring. Or if we haven’t had a frost yet, find them on sale and plant them this fall.

2016-10-1-rudbeckia-by-barb-gorgesI’ve done well with black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia species. Their golden yellow petals and brown centers must have inspired the University of Wyoming’s selection of school colors. There are many varieties based on native species: short or tall, diminutive or gigantic flowers, mid-summer bloomers or later. Some bloom a long time—over a month. Some are better at coming back year after year.

2016-10-2-aster-by-barb-gorges            My other success has been the fall-blooming asters, Symphyotrichum species. One variety is a 2-foot-tall shrub of lavender-colored, 1-inch flowers. It’s come back every year for over 20 years, waiting until mid-September to bloom. But another, brighter purple aster in a sunnier spot started blooming three weeks earlier and is still blooming well. Perhaps it is a newer variety bred for a longer bloom time than the native plants.

I hesitate to give you actual variety names because nurseries so often move onto the next best thing. You might as well go for what’s available rather than mourn what you can’t find. However, if you are interested in native perennials, check sources like www.alplains.com.

2016-10-3-gaillardia-by-barb-gorges            Blanket flower, Gaillardia species, is another hard-working perennial native to North America. It can start blooming in early summer. Horticulturists have had a field day designing varieties with different color patterns. A member of the aster family, it has petals that can be plain yellow, yellow with bands of red, or nearly all red-orange with a little yellow trim. Some are short, some tall. The seed heads are prickly little balls. If you deadhead them when they are finished blooming, they will put out more flowers. If you don’t, they will drop seeds that will sprout next year, like many other easy-to-grow perennials.

2016-10-4-hollyhock-by-barb-gorges            I’ve noticed that some of my summer bloomers will bloom into fall if I water them enough. I have a bed with a row of hollyhocks growing along the back. It gets watered by a sprinkler head that does a good job at one end but hardly gets water to the other end. Thus, the hollyhocks on the dry end finished blooming a month before the hollyhocks on the wet end.

2016-10-5-salvia-by-barb-gorges            Perennials that bloom in early summer may start blooming again in early fall—perhaps they don’t like hot mid-summer temperatures. I’ve had ‘Hot Pink’ Salvia, Salvia gregii, come back into bloom this year.

Microclimates make a big difference as to when perennials bloom. Nettie Eakes, assistant education director at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens’ Paul Smith Children’s Village, said visitors are always telling her how the same flower in their yard is either behind or ahead.

The Children’s Village is lucky to be protected by high stone walls. On their north-facing sides, they provide shade and make a cool, slow-growing microclimate. On the south-facing sides, they absorb sunlight and make a warmer, faster-growing microclimate which can also extend the growing season.

2016-10-6-sneezeweed-by-barb-gorges            The most noticeable perennial I found blooming September 18 at the Children’s Village was sneezeweed, Helenium autumnale, a 6-foot-tall plant with multiple small sunflower-type flowers, each with yellow petals and ball-shaped yellow centers. Nettie said they increase by sending out underground stems, but are not very invasive. Helenium comes in many other variations and bloom times.

2016-10-7-giant-hummingbird-mint-by-barb-gorgesOver by the office door, three-foot tall giant hummingbirds mint, Agastache pallida ‘barberi’, does not have shout-out-loud color. But it is a nice contrast: silvery spikes of tiny purple flowers. And maybe it will attract a late hummingbird—or hummingbird moth.

2016-10-8-karl-foerster-grass-by-barb-gorgesAt the front entrance to the Children’s Village is ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass, Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’. It’s a go-to plant for landscape designers these days, but that’s because it looks so neat. Growing around four feet tall, it starts out green in summer. Then the seed heads ripen to a golden wheat color. Finally, the whole plant turns gold. It is tough enough to stand and provide color all winter before getting cut back in spring.

2016-10-9-russian-sage-by-barb-gorgesA wispy, shrubby perennial also favored by landscape designers in our area is Russian sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia. Each branch sprouts from ground level, with silvery leaves on the lower half and small blueish lavender flowers on the upper half of each stem. It likes sunny spots and will spread.

Chatting with my Laramie County Master Gardener friends, Steve Scott and Kathy Shreve, I also have this list of fall bloomers for you to think about planting next year:

2016-10-10-autumn-crocus-by-barb-gorgesAutumn crocus, Colchicum species. Corms are planted in July or August. The blossoms are much larger than spring crocus.

Blue sage, Salvia azuria, native to central and eastern North America.

2016-10-11-goldenrod-by-barb-gorgesGoldenrod, Solidago species, blooms are branches of tiny yellow flowers. Many are native to North America.

2016-10-12-joe-pye-weed-by-barb-gorgesJoe Pye weed, Eutrochium species, another North American native, sometime varieties are 5 feet tall, with panicles of purple-pink flowers.

2016-10-17-maxmillian-sunflower-by-barb-gorgesMaxmillian sunflower, Helianthus maximiliani, native to the Great Plains, 2 to 10 feet tall, branches with many yellow flowers.

2016-10-13-purple-coneflower-by-barb-gorgesPurple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, daisy-like, native to North America, many varieties, 1 to 4 feet tall.

Snakeweed, Gutierrezia species, a shrub with yellow flowers native to western North America.

2016-10-14-rabbitbrush-by-barb-gorgesRabbitbrush, Ericameria nauseousus, or Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus. Both are yellow-flowered shrubs. The native varieties grow on our drier prairies.

2016-10-15-autumn-joy-sedum-by-barb-gorges‘Autumn Joy’ sedum, Sedum telephium, is a stonecrop. The fleshy stems grow 1-2 feet tall, topped with bunches of tiny purple-pink blossoms. It can be found in the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens perennial bed.

2016-10-16-obediant-plant-by-barb-gorgesObedient plant, Physostegia virginiana, looks like a 2 to 4-foot-tall snapdragon with pale lavender-pink flowers. It is also at the Gardens.


Raised beds for better gardening

2016-6 Barb Sahl and raised bed w pavers - Barb GOrges

Barb Sahl made raised beds from concrete pavers and two by fours that are sturdy enough to sit on, saving her knees. Photo taken May 7 by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle May 29, 2016, “Got rabbits? Try raised bed gardening.”

By Barb Gorges

Rabbits made her do it.

Barb Sahl, a Laramie County Master Gardener, told me she was a ground-level vegetable gardener for the first nine years at her place on Cheyenne’s south side, but she switched to raised beds to keep the rabbits out of her garden.

There were other considerations too. Raised beds would help keep her dogs from running through the radishes and it was a way to deal with a persistent weed problem.

Sahl was also thinking about her aging knees, knowing her days of kneeling would end in the future.

With that in mind, she installed eight beds using a system of landscape pavers, then added five stock tanks.

2016-6a raised beds 2

Sahl’s dog patrols the vegetable garden in late August 2016.

Below you will find information about the history, types and benefits of raised beds in our area.

Genesis of the raised bed

The stereotypical vegetable garden has rows of vegetables. The bare ground between must be kept weeded.

An alternative is to grow vegetables like flowers, using wide beds, 2 to 4 feet wide (depending on how far you want to reach) and grow your plants more closely. This shades out the weeds and you never step into the wide beds, keeping the soil from getting compacted. The paths between beds can be mulched.

A wide bed can be planted at ground level, or with a bit of soil excavated from what will be the paths, made into a flat-topped mound. The soil in the mound will warm up earlier in spring, allowing earlier planting, though the plants themselves may still need protection from frost at night.

If the bed is amended with compost or with soil brought in, fertility and drainage can be improved.

In 2012, I tried the mound method. I had few weeds and great results. The path around the bed was deep in tree leaves collected the previous fall. However, the edges of the mound had a tendency to erode after heavy rains.

Last summer my husband and I converted to what gardeners normally envision a raised bed to be, a contained mound.

Types of raised beds

Gardeners have been inventive at using whatever is at hand to make the walls of a raised bed: bales of straw (hay has too many seeds that will sprout), wood, rock, brick, concrete block, old stock tanks. Raised beds work for flowers as well as vegetables. Sahl even has her raspberries in one to keep them from spreading.

IMG_1866

Wood: Raised beds can be built to workbench-level (“elevated” beds) or the sides can be as low as a single 6-inch wooden board—though that won’t keep the rabbits out. However, Sahl soon realized plain wooden boards would decompose and she would have to replace them sooner than she’d like.

Thirty years ago, raised beds using old railroad ties were fashionable, but it was found that wood preservative chemicals from that era are toxic and can migrate into vegetable plants.

Currently, “ground contact pressure treated” wood has an environmentally friendlier preservative but there is still controversy.

If in doubt, use cedar or redwood. Either, though more expensive, should last a lifetime.

Raised bed kits often contain posts with brackets that hold wooden boards. Another version I’m trying this year, available locally, is steel plates 18 inches tall and bent 90 degrees which fit around the outside corners of the bed and screw into place.

2016-6 Plastic lumber raised bed - Barb Gorges

Plastic lumber raised bed.

2016-6 Plastic lumber raised bed detail - Barb Gorges

Galvanized steel bracket.

In another bed we built 15 years ago, using plastic dimensional lumber, the corners are held together by brackets on the inside. Surprisingly, the galvanized steel has not rusted out.

2016-6 Raised bed w pavers detail

This detail of Sahl’s raised bed system shows the brackets used to hold the concrete pavers upright, connecting them to the 2 x 4s along the bottom and the top. She will put drip irrigation (the black plastic hoses) back in when planting the beds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Pavers: Sahl used a system she found from Lee Valley Tools that starts with a frame of pressure treated two by fours outlining the shape of the bed. She made hers 2.5 feet wide by 8 feet long. Steel brackets attach to the frame and are designed to hold pre-cast concrete pavers upright. Sahl’s pavers are 16 inches square. More brackets along the top edge of the pavers attach to another frame of two by fours, making the structure strong enough to sit on. The brackets are ordered as a kit and the gardener buys the wood and pavers locally.

 

2016-6 Concrete block raised bed - Barb Gorges

Raised bed made with stacked concrete blocks. Photo by Barb Gorges.

2016-6 Converted trash can holder - Barb Gorges

An enclosure for trash cans has been converted to a raised bed. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Concrete block: Mark and I tried a concrete block raised bed for our vegetables last year, but we didn’t stack the blocks on boards like Sahl did her pavers. After this past winter’s freezing and thawing, the walls undulate. Also, for the nine months of the year nothing is growing in it, the bed looks just like a pile of ugly gray concrete—right in the middle of the view from our favorite window.

2016-6 Stock tank raised bed w raspberries

Sahl’s recycled stock tank helps contain the spread of her raspberry patch. Large holes in the bottom of the tank are necessary for good drainage. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Stock tanks: This style is simpler, but perhaps harder to find, prep and install.

Sahl uses this method and got the idea from a relative who uses rusted-out tanks in her garden.

Sahl found her own stock tanks on Craig’s list. We’re talking about the long, narrow ones made of galvanized steel. Sahl’s are 2 to 2.5 feet across by 6 or 8 feet long by about 2 feet deep. Since they weren’t rusted out on the bottom, she drilled lots of holes for drainage. If she were to do it again, she suggests just cutting out portions of the bottoms.

How to install a raised bed

Find a flat, sunny location within range of your hose or drip irrigation system.

Plan the bed’s width so you can reach the middle comfortably, and maximize the dimension of materials to be used. The shape can be square, rectangular or even L or U-shaped. Sahl left enough room between beds for her wheelbarrow.

Because Sahl has a weedy infestation of skeleton-leaf bursage, she chose to cover her site with weed barrier cloth and then covered that with bark mulch between the beds.

Under normal conditions, you would remove pre-existing vegetation as you would for any other garden, especially if you aren’t building your raised bed very high—you need to allow for root growth.

Unless your building materials are ephemeral, temporary like straw bales, be sure to use a level to keep everything square and neat looking. Get corner posts set straight and boards horizontal.

How to fill a raised bed

Sahl wanted completely different soil for her beds than what was in her yard so she ordered a load that was a little sandier, with less clay. It’s important that it is good quality, she said, and not full of weed seeds. She has grown a wide variety of vegetables in the eight years since and is very happy with the results.

If you are growing vegetables, you may want to mix in a lot of compost like that available through Cheyenne’s compost facility. In future seasons you won’t have to till, just add a couple more inches of compost, perhaps in the form of the organic mulch you use on the surface—leaves and grass clippings, etc.

For flowers, be aware that hardy native perennials do best with less fertile soil.

Accessories

Sahl has made tomato cages from concrete mesh that fit her raised beds perfectly. She can wrap them in plastic to protect the plants from frost early in the season.

Raised beds also lend themselves to the addition of trellises, cold frame covers, mini-hoop houses, hail guards and drip irrigation systems. See previous columns on those subjects at www.CheyenneGardenGossip.wordpress.com.

Details of Sahl’s raised beds, late August 2016: (clockwise from top left) onions, cabbage, raspberries, tomato, carrots.

2016-6a Gorges raised bed in JulyGorges raised bed, July 2016.

 

 


Garden for bees

2016-4gaillardia - bumble bee - Barb Gorges

There are 4,000 species of bees native to North America and 46 of them are bumble bees. This bumble bee is collecting pollen from a gaillardia or blanketflower. Photo by Barb Gorges.

A version, “Bee aware: How to attract bees to your garden, keep them happy once they get there,” was published April 10, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

Bees are wildlife, though we tend to not to think of them in the same category as mice, raccoons and deer. They are however, much more beneficial for our gardens and crops.

We depend on honey bees and native bees to pollinate the flowers of crops to produce up to a third of the value of foods in our grocery carts including almonds, avocado, watermelon, squash, apples–most fruits and many vegetables.

Even crops that are considered self-pollinating, like soybeans, will increase production if pollinated by bees, said Catherine Wissner, University of Wyoming Extension horticulturist for Laramie County.

2016-4coneflower - honey bee worker - Barb Gorges

A honey bee worker collects pollen from purple coneflower. Honey bees are slimmer than native bumble bees. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Both the honey bee, from Europe, and our native bees are declining in numbers for several reasons, especially habitat loss. Like other wildlife, native bees lose out every time their diverse native habitat is converted to a weed-less, flower-less lawn, or paved over, or sprayed with pesticides. So what can we do to help them help us?

Wissner believes that if everyone offered blooming plants on their property, native bees could make a comeback, especially if native plants are used. They’d also improve our vegetable garden yields at the same time.

Native bees are more efficient pollinators because they will fly when it is cooler or cloudy. Honey bees want perfect weather.

Native bees are solitary and almost always friendly according to Wissner. Unlike honey bees, they don’t have big colonies to defend. Bumble bees especially are slow and inoffensive. But it doesn’t hurt to have an antihistamine like Benadryl in your gardening first aid kit, or epinephrine if you already know you are allergic to stinging insects.

Getting bees to your garden

Helping bees (and butterflies and other pollinating insects) can be done by planting flowers–natives especially. For years I thought them merely pretty faces to brighten my mood and the view, but now I see them as essential to the ecosystem.

In many ways, what I want in a flower garden is what the bees want as well: flowers that will bloom as early as possible and others that bloom right until first frost.

2016-4Milkweed - most likely female Bombus griseocolis - Barb Gorges

This bumble bee, most likely a Bombus griseocolis, is checking out milkweed. Notice the yellow pollen baskets on its hind legs. Photo by Barb Gorges.

I also want as many different kinds of flowers as I can get to grow in my yard and bees appreciate the variety. I focus on perennials because they are less expensive and less time-consuming than having to start from seed or buy annuals each year. Perennials just get bigger and bigger or spread seedlings each year, offering more and more flowers.

I love the simple, old-fashioned garden plants and the native wildflowers. Turns out bees like simple flowers too. The latest, greatest double or triple-petalled kind are too difficult for bees to navigate through. Bees need to collect pollen and nectar to eat or feed their young, inadvertently pollinating flowers as they move about.

As a lazy gardener, I grow plants close together to shade out the weeds and I don’t prune back the dead stuff until late spring. The old stems help hold leaf mulch in place and interrupt the wind enough to drop a protective blanket of snow for parts of the winter.

This strategy works well as Wissner said there are native bees, and other beneficial insects, that nest in the overwintering stems.

Find a place to plant with an eye for shelter, water and safety for bees

Reevaluate your current garden with an eye for enticing bees. Instead of another flat of exotic annuals this spring, could you plant native perennials?

Can you remove that half-dead juniper and replace it with a flowering shrub like red-twig dogwood?

2016-4potentilla - female Bombus bifarius - Barb Gorges

A bumble bee, a female Bombus bifarius, works over a potentilla flower. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Could you expand or add a new garden bed? Is it close to your outdoor water faucet? Is it where you can enjoy looking at it? Will it be out of the way of unofficial paths and yard activities? Is it a sunny spot? Many of the most popular plants for pollinators prefer sun.

Protecting bees from insecticides at all times is absolutely necessary—even those labelled “organic” can negatively affect bees or kill them.

Certain native bees like nesting in tubular spaces. You can drill holes ranging from ¼ to 3/4-inch diameter close together in a block of wood.

Bees need water. If you use a bird bath or dish, be sure to refresh it every few days to keep mosquitoes from breeding. Wissner uses a soaker hose on a timer and has seen the bees line up along its length, drinking.

Decide what to plant

Wissner has a rule of thumb when she visits a nursery—look for the plants buzzing with bees already.

Visiting nurseries is the easiest way to find perennials and there is a plethora of them along the Front Range from here south. However, you may have a hard time finding native plants recommended as nurseries are still learning about this gardening for pollinators movement.

The Audubon Rockies website, http://rockies.audubon.org, has a Habitat Hero program section. There you can find a list of resources and local sources for plants. The closer to home the source of the plant, the better—the better chance the plant will thrive in your garden.

Growing from seed is a possibility, but transplanting from the wild should be avoided unless you have the permission of the landowner and the site is about to be bulldozed anyway.

Be sure your selections are rated for our Zone 5 or colder, like Zones 3 and 4. Get at least three of a kind to plant together to make them more noticeable to passing bees.

Look at your overall plan to see if you have a variety of bloom times, flower colors and shapes, plant heights and leaf textures. Different kinds of flowers provide the bees different kinds of nutrients in their pollen.

A pollinator garden doesn’t need to be installed all at once. Half the fun is keeping a lookout for additions—who doesn’t enjoy an excuse to visit a flower-filled nursery?

About Bees:

Identification

The Xerces Society, www.xerces.org/pollinators-mountain-region/

Bug Guide, Iowa State University, www.bugguide.net

Bumble Bees of Western United States, search for the title at www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers

Favorite flowering shrubs

American Plum, Prunus americana

Golden Currant, Ribes aureum

Chokecherry, Prunus virginiana

Redosier Dogwood, Cornus sericea

Serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia

Woods Rose, Rosa woodsii

Rabbitbrush, Ericameria nauseosa

Favorite perennial flowers

Lewis flax, Linum lewisii

Beardtongue species, Penstemon spp.

Prairie Coneflower, Ratibida columnifera

Wild Beebalm, Monarda fistulosa

Common Yarrow, Achillea millefolium

Blanketflower, Gaillardia aristata

Dotted Gayfeather, Liatris punctata

Purple Coneflower, Echinacea angustifolia

Aster (fall-blooming), Symphyotrichum spp.

2016-4squash-honey bee worker - Barb Gorges

A honey bee worker climbs out of a female squash flower. Pollen grains still stick to it and will hopefully be transferred to another female squash flower, as they were to this blossom. Photo by Barb Gorges.


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.


Firewise: Preparing your home for wildfire season

Bob Lick's defensible space

Bob Lick keeps brush and native grass mowed next to his house in the forest west of Cheyenne, creating a defensible space in case of wildfire. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published May 31, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Take steps to become Firewise.”

By Barb Gorges

In the summer, when we smell smoke from the forest fires in Colorado and beyond, we might think we are safe here in Laramie County.

But several grassfires this winter and early spring should give us a heads up, whether we live within the city limits or “out in the county,” as people say around here.

It only takes an ignition source lightning, a burn pile, a cigarette ember), fuel (dry grass, resinous wood, anything flammable) and oxygen.

But there are things you can do with your house and landscape, especially if you live in what the firefighting community calls the wildland/urban interface, to reduce fuel, which can improve your chances of firefighters being able to defend your home.

Firewise Community sign

The community of Granite Springs Retreat in Wyoming is now a designated Firewise Community. The sign informs wildland firefighters that residents have taken action to make firefighting easier and safer. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Firewise Communities

Betsey Nickerson is the Laramie County coordinator for Firewise, a national program that works through the Wyoming State Forestry Division to help property owners, especially in forested areas, assess their fire risks and develop mitigation plans. Sometimes funding can be found to implement the plans.

The Firewise Communities program, in which a town or a group, like a homeowners association, works together, is most effective.

Bob Lick of Granite Springs Retreat, a development in the ponderosa forest 25 miles west of Cheyenne, attended one of Betsey’s talks about three years ago and realized his homeowners association needed to get onboard immediately.

This is the second year since it qualified as one of more than 1,000 Firewise communities nationwide. This Firewise committee educates neighbors and takes actions such as thinning pines along access roads and establishing one location where everyone can bring their tree prunings for safe burning.

On a rainy day in early May, as I visited Bob and his neighbors, it was hard to remember the approaching hot, dry and windy summer days ahead. Ironically, a wet spring means grasses will grow tall and lush. But when cured brown by mid-summer, they will provide perfect tinder.

The less flammable house

The Firewise website, http://firewise.org, has recommendations for the least flammable roof, wall, widow and vent materials.

Decks and fences attached to the house are considered part of the house. Bob and Marty Gill, another Granite Springs Retreat resident, have both used plastic lumber for their attached decks, which will melt in a fire, rather than burn.

Wooden fences need to be separated from the house with something that is not flammable, such as a metal gate or a brick pillar.

When there’s threat of fire, homeowners should remove straw welcome mats, patio cushions and other flammables.

The first 5 feet

The good news is that landscaping with rock is in fashion these days. Bob is in the middle of arranging a 5-foot-wide border of rock along the edge of his deck. Around the rest of the house is gravel, including his driveway, and more underneath the deck, to make sure nothing can grow, dry out and provide a rogue ember with tinder.

Barb and Milt Werner have built a terraced stone patio against one side of their log house that does double duty as a firebreak.

The three homes have hardly any foundation plantings. But with a beautiful natural setting, why bother?

Here in the city or out on the prairie, foundation plantings seem more aesthetically necessary.

Even though I live only 200 feet away from a fire hydrant, Betsey thinks I should remove the junipers that grow against my house. More than any of the other evergreens, junipers are about as flammable as a can of gasoline, she keeps reminding me.

Also consider the pine trees that lean over people’s homes, shedding needles on the roof and in the gutters. Talk about good tinder.

Deciduous plants are much less flammable than evergreens. The list of less flammable plants on Natrona County’s Firewise website is a roll call of native species found in mountain meadows. They are becoming more available through local nurseries.

A Firewise demonstration garden planned by Betsey and Laramie County Master Gardeners is being installed this summer at the Curt Gowdy State Park visitor center to show there are lots of aesthetically pleasing flowering plants that are fire resistant.

Barb Werner

Barb Werner and her husband Milt keep their pines limbed up, removing lower limbs to the recommended height to avoid ground fires from “laddering” up the trees and crowning. She also removes pine needles and cones within her defensible space. The wet day in early May belies the hot, dry summer days to come. Photo by Barb Gorges.

30 feet out

When firefighters refer to “defensible space” around a home, homeowners get a vision of moonscape. True, you wouldn’t want your propane tank here, or the cute shed with the wood shake shingles, or your wood pile.

Trees are fine, in small, isolated islands, not in a continuous mass like a windbreak. Short shrubs, mowed grass, and gravel paths between flower beds can make a charming, fire-resistant landscape.

Even pine trees can be acceptable if they aren’t too close together. One secret Bob learned is that you can remove one pine in a clump of three, for instance, to allow the other two to take up more water, making them more fire resistant.

Also, limbing a pine tree—removing the lower branches—keeps a ground fire from laddering. That is, using branches, fire can easily make its way up the tree to reach the crown. Here, the flames catch more air and wind, billow out and throw fire-brands at nearby roofs and trees.

The recommendation is to remove evergreen limbs up to 6 to 8 feet above ground level. However, the pine trees near Barb and Milt’s house are hardly 12 feet tall so they use the other rule: remove no more limbs than those in the first third of the tree’s height.

One unexpected benefit is that more grass grew under the trees, Barb said.

While her gardening is limited to half a dozen containers well-fenced to keep deer out, Barb does put a lot of effort into raking up pinecones and excess pine needles that could be fuel for a stray ember.

30-100 feet out

Those in neighborhoods with less than 100 feet between their house and property boundary realize the need to work with their neighbors.

Out on the prairie, after the ground-nesting birds have fledged in late June to early July and the taller grasses begin to turn brown, it may be time to mow this zone.

Homeowners in the forest may have grass to mow there also, as well as trees and shrubs to manage as in the 5-30-foot zone.

Maintenance

Once you’ve had your property assessed for wildfire risk, and you spent the next few years completing all the recommended mitigation, you still have to keep up with maintenance. Check for leaves and needles in gutters, debris under the deck, dead wood, vegetation growth, and clutter.

Just chant the Firewise mantra: “clean, lean and green.”

Access road improvements

The homeowners’ association has worked to make the roads more passable and safer for wildland firefighters by removing, thinning and limbing trees along access roads. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Insurance

Short of moving downtown, following Firewise principles is the best insurance against the increasing risk of wildfires during hotter and drier summers, and even dry winters.

Would using Firewise make a difference in home insurance policies? Betsey said she hasn’t heard of anyone receiving a discount, though it might help prevent loss of insurance.

But it should make for more restful nights for the increasing numbers of homeowners who take fire preparedness into their own hands.

Resources

Betsey Nickerson, 637-4912, 421-8012 cell

University of Wyoming Extension, “Living with Wildlfire in Wyoming,” http://www.uwyo.edu/barnbackyard/_files/documents/resources/wildfire2013/wildfire_web.pdf

Firewise Natrona County, plant list, http://www.firewisewyoming.com/

Colorado State University Extension, Firewise Plant Materials, http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/natres/06305.html

National Fire Protection Association, Firewise Communities, http://firewise.org


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Wildscaping: bringing nature home

Allium

Allium flowers attract a bee. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published May 3, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bringing nature home with wildscaping.”

By Barb Gorges

The idea of wildscaping, landscaping your yard for the benefit of wildlife, has been around for a long time.

But there is a new spin on it. Here, the emphasis is on using native plants to provide shelter and food for wildlife.

Why native?

Let’s say you plant a shrub that is native to another continent–an alien. It may produce berries our birds will eat, but it did not evolve with our local insects, entomologist Douglas Tallamy explains in his book, “Bringing Nature Home, How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.”

Our native herbivorous insects usually find the alien leaves to be inedible. And that is exactly why aliens are so popular with gardeners.

But, Tallamy writes, if you fill your yard with insect-edible native plants, there will be plenty of insects for birds to feed their young and your yard would be contributing to the health of the greater landscape—and indirectly, human health.

Don’t worry, in a healthy habitat, your plants won’t be leafless.

So a stand of native trees and shrubs supporting native insects could produce more birds than say, a stand of Russian olive trees, an invasive exotic in Wyoming that has crowded out native species in many places. In fact, land managers are now working to eradicate it.

Beebalm

Beebalm (Monarda). Hummingbirds are also attracted to these tubular-shaped flowers in the mint family. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Gardeners can also choose native plants that will provide nectar and pollen for butterflies and bees. That’s important, as both are suffering declining populations.

Our natives are better adapted to our location, plant biologist and author Susan Tweit told the 100 people who took part at the Habitat Hero workshop in Cheyenne in March, organized by Laramie County Master Gardeners and the Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society. Native plants are also more resistant to our weather extremes.

And in our area, they often require less water than aliens, and little or no fertilizer, she added.

Designing wildscapes

Tweit also discussed landscape design, another of her specialties.

Landscape design is about pleasing combinations of color, form and texture at each season. Wildscaping considers appearance along with providing habitat functions.

The mingling of layers, from trees to shrubs to ground cover, besides aesthetic appeal, provides shelter, or cover, and foraging areas for a variety of species that may each prefer different heights and micro-habitats.

Tweit cautioned that “going native” does not mean a weedy-looking patch. You can still choose formal, cottage style, meadow, or minimalist. Simply fill the space with natives.

How to transition

People moving into a newly-built house usually get to work with a blank canvas. But where do you put native plants in an established yard?

The trick is to keep your high maintenance, water-loving conventional aliens, if you still want them, in one area of your yard. Don’t mix these with native plants, as too much water can be deadly.

Blanketflower

Blanketflower (Gaillardia). Photo by Barb Gorges.

You can gradually replace your alien trees and shrubs with natives. Replace alien annuals (like petunias) with native perennials. Widen your flower borders. And one year at a time, replace sections of your Kentucky bluegrass turf, which is another alien species.

Tweit said her method for converting lawn is to smother it with layers of newspaper held down with rocks.

She doesn’t recommend killing turf with black plastic. That method collects heat and cooks the grass, but it also kills important soil organisms. As a last resort, use Roundup, the least offensive herbicide. Follow directions.

At our house, when expanding flower beds, we cut clumps of turf with a sharp spade and either turn each piece upside down in place, or shake off the dirt and take the roots elsewhere to compost.

Think about naturalizing remaining lawn with small, spring-flowering bulbs, like species tulips. They provide pollen for bees when little else is blooming so early in the season. By the time the grass needs mowing, their vegetation will have died back.

Water

Water is part of the complete wildlife habitat. If you don’t have a pond or flowing water on your property, you can use a recirculating water pump in imaginative ways.

Or a valuable low-tech solution Susan mentioned is water in an upside down garbage can lid embedded in the ground, with rock perches around and in it. You can include a product called a mosquito dunk, which releases a bacteria in the water that is toxic only to mosquito larvae.

You may also try a patch of wet sand to attract butterflies.

Black-eyed Susan

This Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) attracted a bee before its petals fully opened. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Native plant lists

Without being a field botanist, how will you know which plants are native to our area?

One resource is the book “Growing Native Plants of the Rocky Mountain Area,” co-authored by Jane and Robert Dorn of Lingle. Jane was also a presenter at the workshop. It features an illustrated selection of 500 plants, their favorite kinds of habitat and tips on growing them.

Hard copies are available through www.lulu.com. Cheaper, digital copies will be available soon through Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, http://home.lonetree.com/audubon/.

Meanwhile, the chapter website has the Dorn’s list of 114 native species specifically recommended for our high plains.

Also at the website is a link to “Wyoming Wildscape, How to Design, Plant and Maintain Landscaping to Benefit People and Wildlife.”

It is a jointly sponsored publication of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Bureau of Land Management, Audubon Rockies and Wyoming Partners in Flight.

This publication gets into the nitty-gritty of sustainable gardening practices and also has a plant list.

Finding natives

Native plants, by definition, are the plants that evolved in the local area. But local nurseries are only beginning to catch on to the value of natives.

It is cheaper to start your new wildscape from seed, of course, and there is a lot more variety available that way. Do not dig up native plants in the wild unless the site is about to be bulldozed, and only with permission.

The good news is, savvy nurseries and seed catalogs have more and more natives available. But be sure to read carefully as not every plant offered is suited to Zone 5, our USDA plant growing zone, though Zone 4 seems more appropriate.

Horticulturally improved varieties of native plants—selected for brighter colors, bigger flowers or longer bloom times—can be OK, Tallamy says. They are close enough to the original natives to function in the same way.

When shopping, avoid plants treated with neonicotinoids, types of systemic pesticides that poison bees when they collect pollen from treated plants. For more information, see the Xerces Society website, http://www.xerces.org.

How to become a Habitat Hero

Audubon Rockies wants to recognize everyone who strives to make their yard more wildlife friendly. Check www.HabHero.org to find out how to nominate your yard this summer.

A few native plants for the Cheyenne Area

Courtesy of Jane and Robert Dorn

Trees

Colorado Blue Spruce, Pinyon Pine, Rocky Mountain Juniper, Bigtooth Maple, Boxelder, Common Hackberry, Lanceleaf Cottonwood

Shrubs

Rocky Mountain Maple, Western Serviceberry, Western Chokecherry, Silver Sagebrush, Redosier Dogwood

Perennial and Annual Flowers

Western Columbine, Orange Butterflyweed, Winecups, Purple Beeplant (Cleome), Purple Coneflower, Common Blanketflower, Annual Sunflower, Prairie Blazingstar, Wild Bergamot (Monarda), Penstemon (many kinds), Black-eyed Susan

Grasses

Indian Ricegrass, Big Bluestem, Buffalograss, Basin Wildrye, Bluebunch Wheatgrass, Switchgrass

Where to shop

Try local nurseries and garden centers and then look for native plants through these regional sources.

http://alplains.com, www.applewoodseed.com, www.avseeds.com, www.bathgardencenter, www.bbbseed.com, www.fortcollinsnursery.com, www.highcountrygardens.com, www.wyomingplantcompany.com

More info

Douglas Tallamy, author of “Bringing Nature Home, How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants” – www.bringingnaturehome.net

Susan Tweit – www.SusanJTweit.com

Susan J. Tweit photo

In close proximity to Susan Tweit’s house, this bed of native plants is arranged more formally, with cobbles providing additional texture and mulch. Courtesy/Susan J. Tweit.

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