Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


Native plant gardening for SE Wyoming

What we learned at the 6th Annual Cheyenne Habitat Hero Workshop

Published April 12, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle

By Barb Gorges

What we learned at the recent Cheyenne Habitat Hero workshop is there are three alternatives to standard landscaping (turf and foundation junipers).

Water-wise plantings

Western cities like Cheyenne and Ft. Collins are encouraging businesses and homeowners to install landscaping that takes less water than bluegrass lawns so that there will be enough water for their growing populations.

Many Wyoming native grasses, shrubs, trees and flowers fit this definition, as well as many plants from desert lands in the U.S. and other parts of the world. Plant Select features these kinds of plants for xeric gardens. The plants can be found at independent Colorado nurseries and by mail order from High Country Gardens, https://www.highcountrygardens.com/.

Pollinator-friendly/wildlife-friendly gardens

The drastic decline in native bees and butterflies has been in the news for years now. Choosing to grow flowering plants is a happy way to do something for the environment.

Native plants

However, not all flowering plants appeal to our native bees and butterflies. Douglas Tallamy, http://www.bringingnaturehome.net/, points out that native bees and butterflies are adapted to the plants native to their own area. Native insects need native plants so that they can become food for native birds.

There are different levels of native. If you are raising honeybees (natives of Europe), anything producing pollen will do, if it hasn’t been improved by horticulturists too much–double and triple-petal cultivars are often sterile–no pollen.

Plants native to distant parts of North America will not do much for most Wyoming native bees and butterflies and may require too much water for water-wise gardens.

Plants native to the western Great Plains–if they haven’t been domesticated too much, will provide what our native critters crave. Skip the ones that naturally grow in wet areas unless you have a natural wet area.

Finding the right species—see plant list—is still difficult. Ft. Collins Nursery (offering online ordering and curbside pickup this spring), https://fortcollinsnursery.com/, has the closest, large selection.

Maintaining native prairie

If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Laramie County Master Gardener Wanda Manley wants you to appreciate our native prairie—and treat it right if you are lucky enough to own a piece of it.

Don’t treat the prairie like a lawn. Frequent mowing creates more of a fire danger. Mowing March – July kills ground-nesting birds.

Keep an eye out for invasive plants and consider renovating your prairie. Consult with the Laramie County Conservation District, https://www.lccdnet.org/.

Don’t graze when the grass is actively growing. It’s cheaper to feed hay than to repair the damage.

Locate and design your native garden

Laramie County Extension horticulturist Catherine Wissner can give you a three-hour lecture on how to select a site for a new garden. If you are proposing a new vegetable or ornamental flower garden, you look at sun, slope, wind, soil, proximity to water source and kitchen.

However, if you are replacing water-hogging turf with natives, you have more options. There are native plants that like sun (like vegetables), others that prefer part sun and a few that need shade. There are some that like sandy soil and others that are fine with clay. Some like rocky soil.

And for pollinators, you want to strive to have something in bloom from late March to early October.

Figuring out which plants go where takes a little research. By next year the Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities hopes to have a plant finder database to help you match plants with your conditions.

Irrigation

You must water new plants the first year—even xeric species—to get them established. It’s possible to pick plants that need very little supplemental water after that—and maybe none at all.

But any irrigation that uses 50 percent less than what bluegrass turf requires is applauded by BOPU.

You might still have one bed of traditional flowers requiring frequent watering and other areas that are more xeric. If you don’t want to drag hoses around all summer, you can set up sprinkler systems and/or drip irrigation for differentiated zones.

Katie Collins, Ft. Collins Water-Wise Landscape program manager, who spoke about and demonstrated the technicalities, has information at https://www.fcgov.com/utilities/residential/conserve/water-efficiency/xeriscape.

Prepare for planting

At this point in the season, your best option for removing turf is with a shovel as soon as the most recent snow melts and the soil dries out a bit.

If you have really nice turf, you might be able to get someone to use a machine to strip it off and use it to repair damaged turf elsewhere—what we did for the BOPU Habitat Hero demonstration garden.

Rototilling is not an option—it leaves a lot of grass that will re-sprout. But a shovelful of turf can be broken up, the roots shaken out and composted elsewhere and the soil replaced.

If you have time, you can suffocate turf with 12 layers of newspaper or some cardboard over a few months (usually winter), explained Laramie County Master Gardener Maggie McKenzie. Herbicides are a terrible last resort.

If you are building a vegetable garden, you’ll want to amend the soil with lots of composted organic material but that isn’t necessary for native plants if you match them to your soil type.

Perennials from seed

Laramie County Master Gardener Michelle Bohanan supervised the winter sowing hands-on activity for all 105 workshop participants, https://cheyennegardengossip.wordpress.com/2016/03/21/winter-sowing/.

It’s too late now for that technique this year, but you can try direct sowing. Some catalogs specialize in prairie flowers, like https://www.prairiemoon.com/.

Picking and planting

Nurseries are not open for strolling this spring so Kathy Shreve’s advice on finding healthy plants changes to only accepting plants curbside fulfilling your order that are healthy and not rootbound or misshapen—especially trees and shrubs.

Plant so that the transition between stem and root is at surface level–not below it or above it. Loosen the roots–gently knock off some of the potting soil. For trees, see https://cheyennegardengossip.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/how-to-plant-a-tree-in-cheyenne-wyoming/.

Kathy reminded us that all plants, no matter how well-adapted, need to be watered for months when first planted. Not so much that they drown and don’t let them wilt.

Enjoy your garden often–it’s also an easy way to see if problems are developing.

Become a Habitat Hero

The goal is to be recognized as a Habitat Hero. Take pictures of your yard transformation during the growing season. See https://rockies.audubon.org/habitat-hero for information on applying as well as more on water-wise planting for birds and other wildlife.

Popular Southeast Wyoming Native Plants

It is nearly impossible to find “straight species” at nurseries—you’ll find horticulturally improved varieties instead. If the petals haven’t been doubled or the leaf color changed from solid green, they will probably work.

Shrubs

Buffaloberry

Chokecherry

Golden Currant

Red-twig Dogwood

Mountain Mahogany

American (Wild) Plum

Rabbitbrush

Silver Sage

Western Sandcherry

Serviceberry

Yucca

Perennial flowers

Beebalm, Monarda fistulosa

Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta

Rocky Mountain Columbine, Aquilegia caerula

Coneflower, Echinacea angustifolia

Prairie Coneflower, Ratibida columnifera

Gaillardia, Gaillardia aristata

Fleabane Daisy, Erigeron species

Gayfeather or Blazing Star, Liatris punctata

Harebells, Campanula rotundifolia

Milkweed, Asclepias speciosa

Rocky Mountain Penstemon, Penstemon strictus

Poppy Mallow, Callirhoe involucrate

Native Yarrow, Achillea millefolium


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Monarchs and Milkweeds

2019-02 Monarch - dead

Explore the mysteries of monarchs and milkweeds in your backyard

Published Feb. 17, 2019, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

Monarch butterflies are hard to find in Wyoming. This is partly because we have few people looking for them and because of the terrible decline in monarch numbers. I found a dead one last year. I hope this will be the year I see my first live one in my garden.

That one will be descended from a monarch that’s currently wintering in Mexico (not from the group west of the Rockies wintering in California).  It’s the only North American butterfly that must migrate because it can’t survive cold winters like other butterflies.

In spring the generation that wintered in Mexico produces the next generation while on its way north and that one begets another, and so on. After a few months, it may be the fourth generation we finally see here. There are several more generations produced over the summer and the final one makes it all the way back to Mexico in the fall.

Monarchs have been clobbered on both ends of their route. Mexico has established the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in the relatively small area they cluster. Here in North America, besides building on and paving over habitat, the problem has been planting herbicide-resistant crops and spraying them with herbicide to kill weeds—which also kills milkweed.

While monarchs feed on nectar from a variety of flowers, they only lay eggs, tiny white dots, on milkweed—it’s the only plant their caterpillars will eat. The good news is that there are about 100 species of milkweed found all along their migration routes. There are 13 species in Wyoming—and four right here in Laramie County.

If you want to join the effort to garden for monarchs, you want to grow our local native flowers. Of course, monarchs are not the only nectar-lovers that will enjoy them.

Two species, Asclepias viridiflora, green milkweed, and A. pumila, plains milkweed, are not seen commercially as seeds or plants. But the other two are quite popular.

2019-02 Asclepias speciosa

Asclepias speciosa, Showy Milkweed, photo by Barb Gorges

Asclepias speciosa, showy milkweed, a perennial, has large round balls of pink florets on stems 2 to 4 feet tall. Its vigorous rhizomes help it spread. I got a few plants from my neighbor who was digging them out of her lawn. But on the other hand, their taproots are sensitive and not all my transplants survived.

I’ve also collected seed from showy milkweed in the unmowed corner of the field where I walk the dog. Seeds are easy to grow if you leave them in the refrigerator for two months to cold stratify or use the winter sowing technique no later than March 1 (https://cheyennegardengossip.wordpress.com/2016/03/21/winter-sowing/).

Plant showy milkweed in full sun for maximum number of flowers. Water it regularly the first summer to get it started. Around the county I see it alongside roads where it gets extra water from runoff when it rains. It is not going to bloom much in a very dry location.

The other local milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, swamp milkweed, I haven’t grown myself yet. Master Gardener Michelle Bohanan assures me that despite its name, it doesn’t need a swamp. Like showy milkweed, it does best with a little more water than just rain to maximize blooms and nectar production. It grows 2-3 feet high, usually with pink flowers, though Michelle has a white variety.

Considering milkweed has been treated as a weed and grows unaided in weedy places, I wouldn’t worry much about fertilizers or compost.

If your showy milkweed gets ugly late in the season, don’t cut it back until there’s nothing left for caterpillars to eat. And even then, the dried plants are useful for catching snow—free winter watering. I cut them back in spring.

All the websites devoted to monarchs say avoid buying plants treated with systemic pesticides. The long-lasting neonicotinoids get in the nectar and poisons the butterfly—and other pollinators. Avoid these herbicide ingredients: Acetamiprid, Clothianidin, Dinotefuran, Imidacloprid, Nitenpyram, Thiacloprid and Thiamethoxam.

Butterflies are also looking for shelter from wind, for sun-warmed rocks and pavement to bask on and for places to puddle on damp sand to get a drink.

The great thing about growing a garden for monarchs is that it also works for bees and birds. But let’s not stop at the garden gate. How about encouraging native flowers along our roads, in corners of fields, in our parks? I’m excited to hear that Nettie Eakes, the head horticulturist at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, has plans for more perennials in city beds. Many natives, we hope.


MONARCH WEBSITES

Area milkweed seed sources with growing tips:

Beauty Beyond Belief Wildflower Seed, Boulder, Colorado, https://www.bbbseed.com/

Botanical Interests, Broomfield, Colorado, https://www.botanicalinterests.com/

Western Native Seed, Coaldale, Colorado, http://www.westernnativeseed.com/

Wind River Seed, Manderson, Wyoming, seemed to be out of stock, http://www.windriverseed.com

 

Monarch information

University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute, Monarchs and Milkweeds, https://www.wyobiodiversity.org

Monarch Joint Venture (government agencies, non-profits, academics), https://monarchjointventure.org