Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


Transplanted NY gardener blooms in Cheyenne

 

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Sandra Cox’s vegetable garden did extremely well its first season. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Jan. 6, 2019, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Transplanted gardener helps local yard bloom.”

By Barb Gorges

There’s only one thing that beats Sandra Cox’s love of gardening: It’s love for her family.

In July 2017, she gave up gardening in the Hudson Valley of New York state to move to Cheyenne at the invitation of her son and his family. She left behind a newly planted orchard and everything she knew about gardening there to start over at her new home.

When Sandra arrived, no one had watered her new yard for some months, and our clay soil required a pick ax to plant the calla lilies she brought with her. But with care and mulch, by the end of the season, time to dig them back up, she was pleased to see a healthy population of earth worms.

Sandra’s garden in New York was in the same Zone 5 USDA growing zone (coldest temperature rating) as Cheyenne. But there are five major differences:

 

  1. Cheyenne has alkaline soils rather than acidic so adding lime or wood ash is a no-no.
  2. Cheyenne has a shorter growing season. Sandra’s learned she will have to start her peppers and eggplant indoors earlier and put them outside, with protection, earlier.
  3. Cheyenne has 12-15 inches of precipitation annually, one-third of New York’s. Watering is necessary much more often here. She’s thinking about installing an irrigation system.
  4. Cheyenne has hail. Although the tomato plants this summer made a comeback, the tomatoes themselves were scarred. Sandra’s planning to protect them with wire cages next year.
  5. Cheyenne has different soil—clay instead of sandy.

Although arriving mid-summer 2017, Sandra went to work establishing a vegetable garden. “I disturb the soil as little as possible to avoid disrupting the earthworms because they do all the work for you,” she explained.

Instead, she spread leaves over the abandoned lawn, laid down a layer of cardboard from the packing boxes from her move, then covered them with wood chips from the city compost facility. To keep the chips from blowing away, she laid wire fencing over them and pegged it down. She removed the fencing and planted directly into this mulch the next season.

Sandra researches the best varieties to plant in our climate. Her first fall, she planted grapes and an apple and a plum tree. Last spring, she planted pear, peach and sweet cherry trees. The cherries did very well.

In the north-facing front yard, Sandra’s planted shrubs for privacy and perennials for pollinators and pleasure. The city’s street tree planting program, Rooted in Cheyenne, came out and planted a burr oak and a linden. A huge spruce tree shades the house on hot summer afternoons.

One day last fall, she called and asked if we’d come harvest some kale and Swiss chard since she had too much. What an oasis of lush green! And her giant sunflowers were at least 12 feet high. A sunny yard helps, but much of her success can be attributed to her dedication to compost—she composts everything, and her chickens help break it down.

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Sandra’s chickens are an important part of her gardening. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Sandra hasn’t used fertilizer yet—other than fish emulsion and well-aged chicken manure. She’s planning to do a soil test this next year to see if she has any deficiencies, but her plants didn’t seem to show any signs.

Pests are not a problem so far. Sandra thinks it is only a matter of time before the pests catch up with her. Already she’s concerned about the big spruce tree being attacked by the ips beetle. It has killed other spruces in her neighborhood, she thinks. The city forester recommended winter watering—good for all her newly planted trees and shrubs, but also good for older trees for which drought stress makes them more susceptible to pests.

Unlike New York which normally has constant winter snow cover, Cheyenne has snowless weeks plus days when the temperatures are above freezing—good days for watering trees.

Sandra remembers that growing up on the family farm was a constant delight, from taking care of the goats to eating apples while high up in the branches to joining her parents and five siblings in the field after dinner to weed, joke around and enjoy each other’s company. Her siblings still enjoy gardening and farming, as does her son, who has a degree in horticulture. Her granddaughters have caught the family enthusiasm as well.

“Bloom where you’re planted” is an old axiom that doesn’t just mean, “make the best of a situation.” For Sandra, it means with a little studying up, she can joyfully grow a garden anywhere, even here.

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Sandra’s sunflowers are more than a story high. Fencing protects new trees and other plantings from the chickens. Photo by Barb Gorges.

 

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Hail Busters keep icy vandals away

Hail Buster demo

Pete Michael demonstrates how easy it is to remove a Hail Buster from one of his raised beds. When in use, the corner posts hold it above the foliage. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Aug. 17, 2014 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Garden Hail Busters: Keep icy vandals from destroying your plants”

By Barb Gorges

How bad was the hail damage in your garden this summer?

After three hail storms decimated gardens in various parts of Cheyenne, I decided to look into how one man uses what he calls “Hail Busters.”

Pete Michael also busts bad guys for a living. As the Wyoming attorney general, he’s the state’s chief law enforcement officer.

As it turns out, he’s perfected a system for keeping hail behind bars. Well, bouncing off half-inch hardware cloth, anyway.

One popular hail protection device used around town is what I think of as the “duck and cover” method. At the sound of the first hailstone on the roof, you duck outside and cover your garden with a tarp or blanket, hopefully not getting injured yourself.

One variation is to install a series of poles in middle of the garden ahead of time so that the weight of the covering and the hail doesn’t flatten the plants.

Another variation is the one my husband, Mark used. He is growing all our tomatoes and most of our eggplants and peppers in containers this year. He runs out and drags them under the patio roof.

Shredded rhubarb leaf

Hail shredded this rhubarb leaf in minutes. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The problem is that you may not be home when hail hits. Or you may not be quick enough, or the tomatoes have gotten too big to lug around. Thus, in our garden we had scars on the tomato stems, shredded rhubarb leaves and a puddle of rose petals.

Low tunnel

The first contraption Pete showed me that he’d built was essentially a “low tunnel,” often used for season extension.

His is a 16-foot long portable wooden frame 3 feet wide that sits on the ground. Plastic tubing meant for circulating water in radiant floor heating makes 2-foot high hoops spanning the width at 18-inch intervals. The ends of the hoops fit into attached 6-inch lengths of electrical conduit pipe.

Low tunnel

A portable low tunnel saved one of Pete’s squash plantings from hail devastation. Sections of electrical conduit hold the ends of plastic tubing hoops. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The whole thing is like a covered wagon with white polyester floating row cover (he uses Agribon) stretched tight and kept in place with strips of lathe nailed over it around the wooden frame. The long loose ends are pulled together and staked out to keep the wind from lifting the frame.

Pete is growing fancy squash that profited from the extra heat of being covered. And it was protected from the hail July 13—though the cover material is now shot with holes.

Hail Busters

Pete is a serious vegetable grower. He says he’s tried growing just about every vegetable imaginable. His backyard is filled with raised beds 3 feet wide (same width as the hardware cloth comes) by either 6 or 8 feet long. Each has a hail busting wooden frame made with one-by-twos in the same dimensions as the raised bed. The frame is screened with the half-inch hardware cloth, wire screen with half-inch openings. It stops a lot of hail or at least slows it down so it is less damaging.

He built everything with salvaged lumber, but he did say having to buy a roll of the hardware cloth was a bit pricey.

I have seen other gardens built with screen roofs. The difference here is that the roofs, the Hail Busters, can be set at different heights depending on plant growth.

The tomato cages in one raised bed are sturdy enough that the screen lays on top of them.

In other beds, several stakes planted in the bed support the screen. When it’s time to tend the plants, the screen can be set aside.

A lot of hail comes sideways, but these beds are close together, offering some protection.

Multi-purpose

Hail protection turns out to be only one use for these screens.

Two raised beds become cold frames in the fall. Their screen tops, built with more substantial 2-by-4s, are hinged to the raised beds on one side, then covered with salvaged clear plastic. Pete finds much of his salvaged materials just from being observant.

Early in the growing season, when birds might otherwise steal the seeds he just planted, Pete can lay the regular screens directly on the raised bed frames.

When tender seedlings emerge, the screens keep the bunnies out. And when starting cool season lettuce in August, the screening itself, or some added floating row cover, can give them necessary shade.

In the fall, floating row cover—or blankets—are easily supported to protect vegetables on freezing nights, extending the growing season.

Flowers in hail

Growing vegetables under cover is one thing, but no one who admires flowers would want to look at them through Hail Busters unless they were growing a valuable crop for market or seed.

Pete does grow flowers, without cover, including a magnificent stretch of hollyhocks in the middle of a vegetable bed located between the sidewalk and street. They were a little worn looking from the hail two weeks before, as were the thick bunches of Shasta daisies growing around the house. The big beds of penstemons at the front gate had gone to seed.

His secret is to grow perennials. Annuals, which people plant at the beginning of the season and which are supposed to bloom continually until they die in the first frost, are easily wiped out by hail.

But, he said, perennials bloom in waves—if you are strategic. Say your penstemons are at their peak when the hail comes and knocks off all their flowers (their stems tend to be tougher than your average annual). After the storm, you can decide whether they look bad enough to cut back, or if they just need a bit of trimming, leaving them with plenty of green to continue photosynthesizing, storing energy for next year.

But coming up behind the penstemons might be your daisies. At the time of the storm, their buds were small enough to be missed by the icy missiles.

And if you choose perennials with skinny leaves, they aren’t as much of a target for hail.

Pete also has a very nifty greenhouse with 5/16-inch glass touted to be hurricane resistant. He has lots of progressive ideas on organic gardening, which he admits he gets from his son, who with his wife, has a Community Supported Agriculture operation.

It’s the Hail Busters though, that keep hail away and give Pete peace of mind.

Scarred tomato stem

Though hail has scarred the stem of an unprotected tomato plant, two weeks later, a new shoot shows it is on its way to recovery. There may be time to grow a tomato before frost. Photo by Barb Gorges.


Garden Season Extension: Hoop Houses

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Hoop house at the Paul Smith Children’s Village, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Cheyenne, Wyoming

Published Mar. 17, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Extend your garden season with a hoop house: A Cheyenne gardener shares tips on how to build a green-house like structure that will allow you to produce hundreds of pounds of veggies all year long.”

By Barb Gorges

Farmers and gardeners in cold regions have always looked for ways to preserve their harvest, from root cellars to pickling crocks to canning jars.

But what if it were possible to grow cold-hardy vegetables over the winter?

There are many Cheyenne gardeners extending the growing season using cheap and easily available building materials to build hoop houses, also known as high tunnels.

If you’ve ever thrown an old sheet over your tomato patch on a chilly night, you’ll understand how Maggie McKenzie took that idea several steps further.

If you’ve ever dreamed of becoming food self-sufficient, you’ll appreciate how Clair Schwan uses the hoop house concept to produce hundreds of pounds of produce.

And if you want to see an actual working model, you can visit the hoop house in the backyard of the Children’s Village at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens.

Several other season-extending tools exist, such as cold frames, bottomless boxes with clear glass or plastic lids, and low tunnels. But a hoop house is high enough to walk in, giving it that greenhouse feel, and typically heated with nothing more than sunlight.

 

hoop house outside

Outside of the hoop house at the Children’s Village

Hoop house location

Because hoop houses need to capture as many solar rays as possible, one long side faces south. Both Clair and the Children’s Village have shielded their north-facing lengths by locating their structures against existing windbreaks of trees or fences.

Having level ground to build on is important to the integrity and longevity of the structure, although as Clair says, “The plants don’t care in the least. They still grow like crazy and provide you a bounty the likes of which you won’t see in an outdoor garden.”

 Hoop house structure

A hoop house is typically formed by bending plastic PVC pipe:

–Tap short lengths of rebar into the ground at measured intervals on either side of the area you wish to cover.

–Slip the end of a length of PVC over the rebar on one side, and slip the other end over the rebar on the opposite side.

–Then do the next set and the next and, ta-dah! –now you have something that looks like the ribs of the top of a pioneer’s Conestoga wagon.

That’s the basic method, but everyone does it differently.

Maggie started out bending 4 x 16-foot cattle panels for her tomato plants to climb, and then in the fall, she added half-inch PVC ribs to extend the width when she decided to enclose the space. She figures she spent about $400 for her 10 x 13 structure, half of that for the glazing, or covering.

The much larger structure at the Children’s Village, now under the management of Tyler Mason, assistant education director, was built last summer with 2-inch PVC pipes.

Clair used chain-link fence top rail pipe, which requires simple equipment to bend each length into the same arc.

Then there are purlins, boards that run the length of the hoop house–one on each side and one along the top, at a minimum—to keep the hoops stable.

Hoop house skin

Plastic sheeting from the hardware store isn’t going to stand up to Wyoming wind, much less the ultra-violet rays we have at 6,000 feet.

All three structures mentioned here use a translucent woven poly material treated for UV exposure.

hoop house plants

A little frost nipped, but plants are still alive after Arctic like temperatures.

Beds and covers

Inside the Children’s Village hoop house, 4-foot-wide raised beds on either side of a center aisle are outlined by stacked concrete blocks. Their upward-facing holes are filled with dirt, where Tyler expects to grow herbs. The south facing sides of the blocks are painted black to absorb more heat, warming the soil in the beds.

Maggie’s tomato patch was already located on a double-wide raised bed delineated quite squarely with boards and help from her husband Don, an engineer by training.

Clair too, has raised beds 2 feet high, made by stacking used power poles, although he needed to cover them so they didn’t leach poisonous wood preservatives.

On cold nights and cloudy winter days, the plants inside appreciate being covered by a floating row cover, a light, white, polyester fabric frequently used by commercial growers, often to protect crops from insects, but which Tyler said can add 3 to 4 degrees of warmth.

Heating

On March 1, Maggie’s “Little Hoop House on the Prairie,” was a toasty 70-plus degrees, while the outdoor temperature was 45 degrees, winds gusting to 45 mph.

Being scientifically inclined—a biologist by training–Maggie has installed four probes recording maximum and minimum temperatures of the air and soil, inside and outside.

The hoop house’s plastic skin has no insulation value to speak of. But a few simple tools can collect enough solar heat to keep the plants warm through the night.

Maggie uses dark-colored, covered, 5-gallon buckets filled with water. Tyler also uses water, storing it in a 55-gallon black drum, along with a collection of water-filled pop bottles that release a little heat when they freeze at night. Clair is retrofitting his operation with solar-warmed water that will circulate in pipes underground.

 Cooling

Hoop houses can get too hot and cook plants.

“If it is 65 degrees and sunny, it can equal 90 degrees when solar rays are trapped,” Tyler said.

The Children’s Village hoop house has plywood doors on either end. The top half of each can be opened for cross-ventilation. The bottom halves can be opened as well on very hot days, but Tyler warned that fencing needs to be set up to keep the rabbits out.

Instead of burying the bottom edges of the plastic skin, Maggie has wrapped the lengthwise edges around PVC pipe cut to length. This way she can roll up the sides in the summer. The advantage is that the plants are aerated from a variety of wind directions, decreasing occurrence of fungal diseases. And bees and other insects can easily fly in and pollinate the fruit and vegetable blossoms.

 Growing

Eliot Coleman’s book, “Four-Season Harvest” explains how he manages his hoop houses in Maine, which lies in Zone 5, just like Cheyenne.

In late summer he sows cold-hardy greens such as spinach, kale, chard and broccoli. By the time they are nearly mature, the weather is so cool and the day is so short, the growing nearly stops. The plants are in suspended animation, waiting to be harvested as needed. By late winter, early spring, there is room to get an early start on summer crops.

Tyler plans a secondary use for the hoop house–harden off plants before putting them outside, besides raising vegetables to share with Children’s Village program participants.

Both Tyler and Maggie experimented with growing spinach this winter.

It was nice to see something green growing three weeks before winter’s end. I asked Maggie if she had the heart to pick her hard-won green leaves.

“How can I harvest those brave little spinach plants when they’ve weathered such hardship and survived?” she asked.

She might have been only half-joking.

 Resources

The Children’s Village hoop house can be toured when the Children’s Village is open. Contact Tyler Mason, 637-6349, tyler@botanic.org.

Clair Schwan discusses his growing experience extensively on his website at http://www.frugal-living-freedom.com/build-your-own-greenhouse.html.

Maggie McKenzie is a Laramie County Master Gardener. Contact her through the Laramie County Cooperative Extension, 633-4383.

Two companies that carry the woven polyester sheeting recommended by interviewees are J & M Industries (Solarig High Tech Woven Plastic Sheeting), www.jm-ind.com, and Northern Greenhouse Sales, www.NorthernGreenhouse.com.

See the Wyoming Hoop House Info Network website at http://www.wyomingextension.org/whhin for building manuals, or contact University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service educator Jeff Edwards in Lingle, 307-837-2000, jedward4@uwyo.edu.

If you are a farmer or market gardener interested in the Wyoming Department of Agriculture specialty crop season extension small grant program, contact Ted Craig, 777-6651, tcraig@state.wy.us.

And, if you live within Cheyenne city limits, to be on the safe side, get in touch with the city’s building department before you start putting up your hoop house—depending on the size and scale, you may need a permit. The building department is located on the second floor of the Cheyenne municipal Building, 2101 O’Neil Ave. Call 637-6265.