Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


What I’ve learned as a Master Gardener

2018-08Garden tour-Barb Gorges

Outside Ft. Collins, Colorado, one woman, over 20 years, has created a garden refuge. Photo by Barb Gorges.



Published Aug. 12, 2018, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and at Wyoming Network News,

By Barb Gorges

This is my seventh season as a Laramie County Master Gardener (and Wyoming Tribune Eagle garden columnist). I know more now than when I finished the training because there’s always someone to talk to who knows more than me about any aspect of gardening.

I’ve interviewed many people, including other Master Gardeners, for previous columns which are archived at Here’s what I’ve learned:

Always evaluate gardening information. Where does that gardener garden? Is it a garden with a similar climate or microclimate, soil and growing season to mine? Will the treatment harm my soil?

There’s a difference between sticking stuff in dirt and growing plants with more mindfulness—and record-keeping.

You can grow many things in Cheyenne, but not all things. Just keep experimenting with the short-season veggies and consider building a greenhouse or high tunnel.

Cheyenne’s blooming season is longer than you think. In my garden some spring bulbs bloom in March. Some years the frost doesn’t finish the asters until the end of October.

Garden beauty is subjective but good garden design is practical:  put short plants in the front of beds, veggies by the kitchen door and don’t plant trees under power lines.

Every growing season is different. Not every year has powdery mildew, black spot or blossom end rot.

Know when to give up. Or try the plant in a different location. Or try a different variety.

Gardeners are generous. They share plant thinnings and seeds because they can’t bear to compost them.

Propagation from root divisions, cuttings and seeds is rewarding, especially when you share.

Never add lime, an alkaline substance, to Cheyenne’s already alkaline soils.

Gardeners like a challenge, even as extreme as planting acid-loving blueberries in buckets full of specially mixed acidic soil.

Soil is every gardener’s most valuable asset. Preserve its structure and microbiome by tilling and hoeing as little as possible and let mulch keep the weeds down.

Composting your discarded plant material in your own bin or pile saves you money on fertilizer and the cost of having the sanitation department haul it away.

Getting watering and mulching right is more important to plants than fertilizer.

Good pruning benefits trees and shrubs by making them look good and grow better.

Right plant in the right place—not all trees are growing in the right place.

Hail is a fact of life here. Protect tomatoes with hardware cloth screen overhead and grow skinny-leaved and skinny-petalled flowers.

Replacing your lawn with gravel is not less work in the future. It gets weedy. And gravel doesn’t shade the ground, which makes your yard hotter. You are better off with a low-growing ground cover.

Chemical pesticides are rarely necessary in the residential garden. You can pick off pests and remove diseased plant parts by hand.

Stressed plants (too much or too little water, too much fertilizer, too much or too little sun) attract disease and pests.

The sooner you pull a weed or cut it off at ground level, the less work it is later.

Always take care of weeds before they set seed.

Tending a garden is stress-reducing. Many of the gardeners I’ve interviewed have high stress jobs: lawyer, judge, law enforcement, social worker, doctor.

Gardening is good exercise. Even if you aren’t vigorously digging a new bed, just walking around pulling the occasional weed and deadheading the roses is better for you than sitting.

Gardeners see more bees, butterflies and birds—just more of nature.

Visiting botanic gardens when you travel makes for beautiful memories.

Reading to prepare for and dreaming about next year’s garden will get you through a long winter.

Want to start gardening or garden more intentionally and with more knowledge? Become a Laramie County Master Gardener. It’s not too early to find out about the next class. Call Catherine Wissner, Laramie County Extension horticulturist, 307-633-4383.

2018-08 Asters Snowy Range 7-18 Barb Gorges

Asters bloom and attract a bee in a natural rock garden July 18, 2018, in the Snowy Range in southeastern Wyoming at an elevation of 9,000 to 10,000 feet. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Winter damages evergreens

Pine branch

If the buds on the ends of pine branches are undamaged, new growth will help camouflage dead needles until they fall off. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published May 4, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Evergreens looking dull? If this winter has caused your pines to brown, don’t cut them down just yet.”

By Barb Gorges

Don’t touch those red needles just yet, cautions Lisa Olson, director of Cheyenne’s Urban Forestry Department.

Wait until June to see if your pines and junipers get new growth before deciding what to do, she adds.

This past winter, property owners noticed that the needles on the tips of pine and juniper branches turned reddish brown. The color indicates the needles (juniper leaves are technically called scales), are dead.

Cheyenne had warm weather later in the fall than usual, preventing some evergreens from getting the cues that they usually get from cooler temperatures to go into winter dormancy. When the temperatures suddenly dropped in November, the fresh growth froze and died.


Most upright junipers (background) were not affected by the sudden freeze last November the way Pfitzer juniper shrubs (foreground) were. Photo by Barb Gorges.

While pines and junipers were most likely to be damaged, exactly which ones were hit hardest seems to have been hit or miss. Upright junipers seem to have no damage while the spreading Pfitzer juniper shrubs were most often hit.

But the amount of damage seems not to be so much a factor of how exposed the shrubs were to cold wind as perhaps variety.

In one Cheyenne neighborhood there is a sheared hedge of Pfitzers made up of five individual shrubs. One is totally green, the next three are totally red, and the one on the other end is green with red tips.

A property owner’s first urge is to cut off the dead stuff. However, this would add insult to injury for pines.

The bud for new growth is at the tip of the branch. A bundle of new needles grows from it in what is referred to as “candling.” That’s because it makes the tree look like it has hundreds of pale green candles before the bundles open up.

Pine trees keep their needles for three to five years before shedding them, Olson said. So if you are patient, the new needles will “overgrow” the dead ones, which will eventually fall off.

There is no need to prune unless you have branches that need pruning for other reasons.

If a pine does not candle all over, it may not have enough new green growth to photosynthesize, to make new buds next fall. A year from now is when those results will show up.

Sheared junipers

Different varieties of sheared Pfitzer junipers, even in the same hedge, have had different reactions to the sudden drop in temperature back in November. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Junipers grow differently than pines. Buds aren’t just at the tips of branches, and if their buds weren’t killed by the cold, they also might be able to “overgrow” the dead needles with new growth.

The Pfitzers allowed to grow naturally have dead needles only on the tips of their branches—the newest growth from last year. Older needles are still green. So what happens to Pfitzers that have been sheared into tidy shapes? Many seem to be completely red. We’ll just have to wait and see if they survive.

But Olson says this might be a good year to consider replacing overgrown Pfitzers.

They are often used as foundation plantings but after a number of years they can grow 10 or 15 feet high and into odd shapes as their branches become deformed by the weight of heavy snow.

If you have one of these, you might consider not waiting to remove it and plant something fresh.

But otherwise, wait until June to see what grows before deciding what to prune.

“It’s amazing how trees can come back,” Olson said.

Personal communication from University of Wyoming botany professor emeritus Dennis Knight explains what happened in November in more detail:

“It’s quite a feat for any outdoor plant to tolerate everything that’s thrown at it, and often they don’t survive if one day it’s warm and the next day unusually cold.  If the transition extends over a few days, the plants become “hardened,” which means that the cells produce more sugar and that lowers the freezing point.

“Over the years in Wyoming, our native and ornamental plants have been selected in one way or another to have pretty short hardening periods, but mortality will occur.  The whole plant may not be killed, but if too many of the leaves and buds turn brown, the chances of survival are slim. The plant may look completely brown, but if the buds on the twigs or at the soil surface have not been frozen, there’s a good chance the plant will survive.  Learning from experience, horticulturalists tell us which plants are most likely to survive in our state and which ones are not.

“You mentioned the brown juniper leaves.  Keep in mind that most evergreen plants, like the conifers and junipers, will still have some brown leaves, usually most noticeable in the winter and spring.  The plants as a whole normally live much longer than individual leaves. “Evergreenness” is bestowed on some plants because they always have leaves that normally last at least one year before they fall off, and not all of the leaves fall off at the same time.

“Plants with mostly brown leaves after an abrupt freeze may appear a little thin during the following year, depending on how many of the buds were deactivated.  I hesitate to call them “killed” because the plant could be still very much alive.  Such plants produce new leaves using energy stored in the twigs and roots.”

Pruning Trees and Shrubs


Pruners: The no-brand-name ones made in Japan have lasted the longest.

Published Feb. 17, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Train a tree for the future: Winter is the perfect time to prune trees. But you’ll want to keep these tips in mind before you start snipping.”

By Barb Gorges

“Train up a tree in the way it should go; and when it is old, it will not depart from it.” –adapted proverb

Pruning a young tree may not be for the faint of heart.

I wasn’t sure Michael Smith wasn’t sucking in his breath as Catherine Wissner lopped off a nearly 1-inch-diameter, 4-foot long, competing leader on one of his cherished young aspen trees.

While making arrangements for Smith, photo editor for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, to take pictures of pruning techniques for this story, he volunteered the trees in his yard for a house call from Wissner, the horticulturist for the University of Wyoming Laramie County Extension. And he did have perfect examples of several situations requiring pruning.

Surprisingly, winter is the best time for pruning most trees.

“You can see their bones,” Wissner said.

You can see all their structural, health and safety problems.

Being a season for dormancy for trees as well as insects and diseases, those problems are less likely to spread through the fresh cuts. Also, if you need to hire an arborist, he or she may not be as busy.

Millions of wild trees are pruned by nature, but on your own property, you really don’t want to wait for the wind to do it for you, dropping a weak limb onto your car or onto your roof.

Arborists are trained to recognize a variety of situations, but there are a few that you can easily recognize and take care of while trees are young, which will save you (or the next homeowner) money and heartache a decade or two in the future.

But first, let’s talk about how to cut. There are three caveats.

pruning saw

Pruning saw with broken tip

How to cut

First, make sure your tools are sharp and sanitary.

If you are cutting away diseased wood, be sure to disinfect tool blades after each cut. Wissner uses ¼ cup bleach to a gallon of water. Follow that up with a clear water rinse to keep the bleach from corroding the metal.

Hand pruners work for twigs and branches under 1 inch in diameter. Wissner prefers the bypass type (scissors-like) rather than the anvil type. A pruning saw is best for anything more than an inch. Bow saws are fine too, but can be hard to get into position without damaging nearby branches.



Keep in mind chainsaws are likely too big for the job when it comes to young trees. You could end up doing some serious damage.

Second, never remove more than 25 percent of the tree’s canopy in one year. Err on the side of less, rather than more pruning.

Third, cut in the best place. Every twig and branch emerges from a collar-like protrusion. Your job when removing them is to make sure that the collar is not damaged while you cut as close to it as you can. It is what will help the tree “cork over,” or grow bark over the wound, said Wissner. (No wound dressing is necessary on a fresh cut of any size— it’s been shown it only attracts insects and disease.)

On the other hand, she said, “You shouldn’t leave anything you can hang your hat on.”

When shortening a branch, cut at an angle just above the juncture with a bud, twig or side branch.

 No touching

The first rule of pruning is no touching. Look for branches that are rubbing on each other or are within a fraction of an inch apart and will rub in the wind.

“It’s like a school dance,” said Catherine, “and you are the chaperone. They aren’t allowed to touch.”

Branches that touch will rub each other’s bark away, leaving wounds that are easily infected by tree diseases and insects. You could eventually lose both branches.

Instead, you can determine which branch to keep: the one that is stronger and or contributes best to the shape you want the tree to grow in.

The no touching rule also applies to human structures. You don’t want branches rubbing on your house or fence—it’s bad for the tree and the object. Branches should be trimmed 4 feet above roofs so that there is plenty of clearance when they are snow-laden.

As for public safety, city ordinances require removing vegetation 8 feet above sidewalks and 14 feet above alleys and streets.

Only one leader

Everyone recognizes the pointy top of a spruce tree is its central growing point, which arborists refer to as the leader, but even most deciduous trees should have only one.

However, when I look at the 50-plus-year-old trees at my house, it’s easy to see that accidents caused the trees to produce multiple leaders.

One of Smith’s young aspens had the same problem. You could see the original, now dead leader pointing perfectly vertically to the sky, but on either side were two lateral branches now also pointing up, competing for the job.

Left to their own devices, the leaders use the tree’s valuable energy competing with each other. Only the healthiest, best looking one should stay. The tree will be happier, said Wissner, when it can devote its energy to just one leader.

Branches never grow up

The height of where a branch attaches to the trunk never changes as the tree ages, Wissner told us.

One of Smith’s aspens had lateral branches at about two feet above ground level. As the tree grows, they will only get bigger and begin to become obstacles while mowing the lawn. He could mulch around the tree, so mowing close wouldn’t be necessary. One thing for him to consider is that some branches might still be at the eye-level of his children playing in the yard.

On the other hand, spruce trees should be left to drape their branches to the ground (that much less lawn to worry about!). It helps if they are planted where their branches don’t interfere with human activity when they are at their mature spread of as much as 30 feet across.

Get the suckers

A tree may send up a sprout, or sucker, from the roots, or water sprouts on a main branch. They can grow as much as three or four feet in one year, with leaves larger than normal for the tree. These are a drain on the tree and increase its chances of acquiring disease, so they should be loped off immediately. They usually die back in a year or two anyway.


Even in winter, dead branches in a deciduous tree are pretty obvious. Compared to live young branches, the leaf buds aren’t plump, the skin looks desiccated and the branch is no longer as flexible.

If you are removing diseased wood, cut in healthy wood beyond the infection.

Volunteer trees

It will surprise people to know that there are a fair number of trees that plant themselves in Cheyenne.

The volunteers usually pick a microclimate with a bit of extra moisture or shade, like right next to your house foundation. Roots are stronger than concrete so you are best off removing those trees before you get attached to them. However, the trees damaging Smith’s fence–some kind of flowering plum–were probably planted too close.

Volunteers are usually softwood trees that don’t last long in Cheyenne anyway, such as silver maple, elm, boxelder, poplar and willow, and are the most likely to shed limbs during storms.

Seek expert advice

Trees add value to your home, but only if they are healthy and not threatening people or property. You can do a lot for them yourself with a hand pruner when they are young, but get more information if you have fruit trees and please call certified arborists for the big issues and big trees, especially if utility lines are involved.

The best information about our local trees and taking care of them is at, the Cheyenne Urban Forestry Division’s website. They have a list of licensed arborists. You can call them at 637-6428.

The Arbor Day Foundation website has a nifty animation of the finer points of pruning young trees, It is also available in print from the Urban Forestry Division.

And Catherine Wissner can be reached at 633-4383.