Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


Vegetable growing advice

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.


Get your turf ready for winter

Lawn

Laramie County Master Gardener Martha Mullikin enjoys her Cheyenne lawn in mid-September with her two dogs. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Sept. 21, 2014 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Get your turf ready for winter: Tips from a Cheyenne resident whose lawn is wedding-worthy

By Barb Gorges

Let’s talk about growing grass today—or what folks in the landscape business call turf—and what you need to do to prepare a conventional, Kentucky bluegrass lawn for winter.

I asked Martha Mullikin, a Laramie County Master Gardener, to describe her lawn maintenance schedule.

She has a large lawn, large for being located in the older part of town. It is where famous local architect William Dubois (1879-1953) once had a tennis court. It’s large enough to host large weddings and other parties—which Martha has.

Fertilize

Martha’s rule of thumb is to fertilize on the holidays, depending on weather: Easter, Memorial Day and the 4th of July. She uses fertilizer rated 10-10-10, the ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus to potassium. This is not a lot of fertilizer because, as she says, “the more you fertilize, the more you have to mow. All you’re doing is watering and mowing.”

And now that he’s retired, that work falls to her husband, David.

They use Ringer Lawn Restore more in the summer, she said, “because it puts (good) bacteria into the soil.”

It’s available locally. Without chemicals, it introduces microorganisms that break down organic materials in it to make nutrients available to plants.

“We don’t use the weed killer-fertilizer combinations because I compost grass clippings,” Martha said. Otherwise, if the clippings aren’t set aside for a year, the residual herbicide will kill flowers and vegetables in gardens treated with the compost.

After the final lawn mowing, she uses a “winterizer” fertilizer, one that is designed to be slow-release—you wouldn’t want a big hit of nitrogen to encourage the growth of tender little grass blades right before winter weather.

It is equally important to read the directions on the packaging and apply the right amount of fertilizer and make sure it doesn’t get washed into the street. Wasting fertilizer wastes your money and pollutes streams and groundwater—where someone—if not you—gets their drinking water.

In some patches of Martha’s lawn, she has white clover growing. Clover is a nitrogen fixer, acting like fertilizer, so if it were growing with your grass all over your lawn, you could reduce the amount of nitrogen you use.

Weeds

Martha usually digs dandelions and other weeds, seldom resorting to weed killer for persistent spots.

Every time the above-ground parts of a weed are removed, the weed’s ability to feed its roots through photosynthesis is lessened, eventually starving it, and hopefully killing it, just like cows do when they continually graze their favorite plants.

Dealing with weeds on an as-needed basis rather than broadcasting weed-killer over your whole lawn means you save money and might get a sweet surprise, such as little violets blooming in your turf.

Watering

Martha has a well for watering, but pumping it has a cost as does using our municipal water. So it makes sense to be as efficient as possible.

Using a sprinkler system like Martha’s means you can set it on a schedule. But that schedule needs adjusting based on how rainfall and summer heat affect how fast your lawn dries out. The length of time an individual zone runs depends on how hot and dry it is compared to the others.

What you want to do is soak the top 12 inches of your yard. This is where most of the tree and shrub roots are, and where the grass roots should be reaching. Lightly watering often will keep roots too close to the surface where they may dry out and die. Plus, wetting a lawn too often encourages diseases.

Catherine Wissner, University of Wyoming Extension horticulturist, suggests one last deep watering before the ground freezes to benefit turf as well as trees and shrubs.

Also plan to water your yard if we have any of those long, dry spells in winter when it is warm enough to set out a hose and sprinkler. But don’t forget to drain or blow out your sprinkler system before water in the pipes can freeze.

Remove leaves

Martha suggests using the lawn mower to pick up leaves with the grass catcher. “You have to get rid of those leaves or you will have snow mold,” she said.

Considering leaf mulch can be used to keep down weeds in the garden, you can see how detrimental it might be to a lawn. The snow mold, a fungus, breaks down the leaves—and your grass.

The nice part about using your lawn mower is that you will be mixing grass clippings with dead leaves—a desirable combination of green and brown materials for composting. Also, small bits of leaves decay, or compost, faster than whole leaves.

If you don’t have compost bins, use plastic leaf bags, leaving the tops open so moisture will be added by rain and snow. Or dig the chopped leaves into your annual flower or vegetable garden.

For protecting perennial flowers, I’ve found it’s better to use whole leaves that are curled and dried—but not cottonwood leaves that remain flat and form an impenetrable layer. After the killing frost, add a foot or so of the curly leaf mulch. In windy locations, keep it from blowing away by laying some wire fencing over or around it.

Mowing

With our long, snowless spells, the grass roots benefit from shading by the grass blades, just as in summer.

“David usually mows 3 inches high. The last mow is 3.5 – 4 inches (as high as the mower goes)—pretty high. You don’t want to shock it by cutting it very short,” Martha said.

Rather than a weekly affair throughout the growing season, mowing should be done as needed, so that no more than one-third of the height of the grass is removed at one time. Mowing is needed more frequently in spring to keep up with growth, less often by fall.

Aeration

Considering our lawns often get a lot of traffic, including walking back and forth to mow, the soil can get compacted, making it difficult for water and fertilizer to soak in. And all the healthy soil microorganisms need air too.           “I really do think aeration helps. We like to do it in the spring right before we fertilize. A lot of places recommend two times a year, but we never have,” Martha said.

So try renting one of those core aeration contraptions. Don’t worry about leaving the plugs on the soil surface if you do it in spring like Martha. They will soon break down.

If you have a thatch problem, core aeration is better than power raking.

The benefits of turf

Some people replace their lawns with rock and gravel, thinking it will cut back on maintenance.

However, dirt blows in on top, allowing weeds to grow, which require pulling or toxic weed killers. Then you have to sift out the dirt out every few years to keep it looking nice.

The advantage of a lawn is that all those growing grass plants add coolness and humidity to our homes’ hot, dry summer environments. And all vegetation, including the lawn, helps absorb sound.

Lawn maintenance can be a lot of work if you use too much fertilizer and water, making the lawn grow faster than necessary.

But there are types of turf, based on native grass species, which require far less maintenance and water. I plan to examine those options early in the spring. Let me know if you have any experience with them.