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.

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Grow Tomatoes in Cheyenne, Wyo.

silvery fir tree tomato

Silvery Fir Tree Tomato is a short-season heirloom variety I grew in 2013.

Published Sept. 16, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Learn a thing or two from Cheyenne’s own tomato guru.”

By Barb Gorges

I have seen the tomato forest, right here in the heart of Cheyenne, and I want to tell you about it.

Because my initial tomato gardening experience this summer has been essentially problem-free, I thought I should find someone to talk to who has much more tomato experience, for the benefit of any of us that need advice.

That is how I found myself immersed in Michelle Bohanan’s tomato forest, though perhaps “jungle” would be a better term since plants seemed to be climbing on each other to reach the best sunlight.

Heirloom queen of the plains

Michelle, a Laramie County Master Gardener, grew 40 varieties of heirloom tomatoes from seed this year, one plant of each, down from 70 varieties last year. Each plant gets its own over 5-foot tall, 16-inch-diameter cage formed from concrete reinforcing mesh—the kind with the wires welded about 6 inches apart—wide enough to reach through to pick fruit yet suitable for tucking in a straying branch.

The tomato plants are spaced about three feet apart in the main tomato patch in the side yard and tucked into other spaces as well. By the time I visited Aug. 22, some plants had shot up and spilled over their cages, summer squashes were climbing the outsides of others, winter squash filled the paths between, hiding basketball-sized fruit, and tassels of corn waved overhead.

Beans and parsnips added to the solid mass of dark green leafy textures. Flowers punctuated the vegetables and overflowed the flower beds.

This island of vegetative exuberance was only six or seven years ago a desert of pea gravel spread over native clay soil. Michelle has worked bag after bag of fall leaves into her beds, plus compost from her co-workers. She used to use a rototiller, but now that her beds are three bricks high, a multi-tined digging fork can do the job better. No additional fertilizer is necessary.

Heirloom growing

Michelle finds heirloom tomato diversity through the Sand Hill Preservation Center and Seed Savers Exchange, both out of Iowa, as well as groups of online seed exchangers.

About the end of February, beginning of March, she starts 10 seedlings of each variety. When they are big enough, she moves them to her plastic-wrapped back porch which is warmed by the sun, the dryer vent and heat escaping from a basement window. The excess plants she takes to the annual Master Gardeners’ plant sale in May.

She shares some of her harvest with her co-workers and cans whatever isn’t eaten fresh. Michelle hasn’t always been keen on eating tomatoes, but now that she has taste-tested so many varieties, she has found her favorites.

I was sent home with samples of five varieties, including one called “Absinthe” which has a peppery taste and stays green even when it is ripe.

Psyllid stuff

I was hoping someone with so much tomato growing experience could tell me what to do in case of insect pests and diseases, but Michelle has only one pest, psyllids, tiny little things that inject poison right into a tomato leaf, leaving parts of plants looking like a collection of brown and green rags, with fruit growing half its normal size.

Michelle learned by saving seed from afflicted plants that they do not grow more resistant in the next generation. Rather, the next generation is more likely to succumb to psyllids more quickly.

Less than 10 percent of her plants seem to be affected. Incredibly, the plants next to the afflicted ones can be completely untouched. Perhaps they attract more lacewings and ladybugs or whatever preys on psyllids.

Other tomato pests and diseases

Those of us who have read the standard tomato cultivation information worry about diseases in crowded conditions, such as powdery mildew on leaves, but using soaker hoses and Cheyenne’s normally breezy weather helps keep leaves dry and those types of diseases at bay in Michelle’s garden.

I attribute the success of my tomato patch (a fraction of Michelle’s, most plants growing no more than waist high) to growing in a virgin location, where tomatoes had never been planted before. I found only the occasional fruit gnawed or drilled with holes.

A few of my branches became leafless, maybe denuded by the tomato hornworm, but as a percentage of overall growth we’re talking a hundredth of a percent, certainly not something needing any kind of chemical warfare. Besides, I found out tomato hornworms are just one stage in the life of hawk moths, those hummingbird-sized hoverers that enjoy my tubular flowers.

What fueled my belated interest in tomato diseases and pests was rediscovering on our bookshelf “The Encyclopedia of Natural Insect and Disease Control” by Roger B. Yepsen, Jr., published in 1984 by Rodale Press. The color pictures are icky–all those chewing and sucking insects, all those viruses and funguses!

Prevention seems to be the best cure. Follow good cultivation practices: Grow well-watered and well-fed plants with plenty of fresh air and sunshine. Provide trap crops that divert predators or companion plants that ward off attacks.

Diversity seems to work in Michelle’s tomato patch the same way it does in wild nature. There are always varieties that resist problems more than others, or are better suited to a particular garden’s climate and micro-climate.

Rather than rotating tomatoes on a three year-cycle with other crops, Michelle achieves a rotation of tomato varieties.

Weeds?

Nearly the last thing I realized while touring Michelle’s garden was that there were no weeds in sight. She doesn’t have to weed. There aren’t any because her crops shade out everything else, though self-seeding cosmos have to be uprooted from the middle of the path to the rose garden.

Night bloomers

Michelle and I were still discussing finer points of tomato preservation when I realized twilight had deepened and the datura had quietly unfurled the evening’s choir of large white trumpets to broadcast thick perfume on the breeze.

Evening primrose, which holds its petals primly vertical all afternoon, was open flat out. The petals, forming landing pads for moths, would be discarded the next day. Nicotiana, also known as flowering tobacco, another night-bloomer, should have had perfume, however, it seemed to blend with the datura.

But the olfactory signals were doing their job, bringing in moths to do the pollination.

And then I caught sight of something else much larger flying overhead, a great horned owl. What a great finish for an evening visit to a special garden.

 Barb’s garden report

Here are the production figures as of Sept. 12:

Eggplants (three plants) – 13

Yellow cherry tomato (seven plants) – 1246

Red cherry tomato (two plants) – 219

Cinderella squash (one plant) – 3 on the vine

Jack-Be-Little gourds (one plant)  – 4 (this is different from last month’s squash count as there was some confusion over which little yellow things were which).


Starting from Seed: Choosing the Right Seed

Short season seeds

Some short growing-season vegetable choices for Cheyenne

Published Feb. 26, 2012 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “From scratch: A beginning gardener shares her experiences gained from taking the first steps in growing indoor tomato plants from seed.”

By Barb Gorges

Can I call myself a gardener if I buy blooming bedding plants and keep them alive until frost?

Possibly. But my real test is whether I can start something from seed indoors, which I haven’t done in 20 years. And, even though it’s February, now is not too early to start thinking about that.

My inspiration is the pep talk Kathy Shreve and Barb Sahl gave the Master Gardeners’ class recently. It looks so simple: florescent shop light, sterile seed-starting medium and pots, proper watering, a little air circulation and fresh seed.

Seed. There’s the sticky spot. Some plants I like don’t do well in Cheyenne or would need more sun than my shady yard offers.

This is my experiment for the coming growing season: raise from seed at least one easy annual flower and a fast tomato.

Why all the bother? Because just as I can bake my own bread, even though it’s much easier to buy a loaf at the bakery, I want to see if I can grow from scratch.

Seeds

There are several seed companies out there that cater to our unique gardening needs.

For starters, I was already familiar with Maine’s Pinetree Garden Seeds. This company offers a reasonable climate match. I ordered from them years ago and Shreve does today. Visit www.superseeds.com or call 207-926-3400.

Shane Smith, director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, mentioned three seed catalogs recently that match other aspects of our challenging growing conditions.

For high altitude, try Seeds Trust, located in Littleton, Colo., www.seedstrust.com, or call 720-335-3436.

For drought-hardy plants, High Country Gardens in Santa Fe, N.M., offers recommendations on xeric gardening, as well as plants and seeds. Visit www.HighCountryGardens.com, or call 800-925-9387.

For a comprehensive flower and vegetable catalog, check Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which is another Maine company. Visit www.johnnyseeds.com or call 877-564-6697.

You can also check local garden centers, but do read the seed packets carefully.

Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone specializes in plant varieties that are hail and wind resistant.

Planting strategy

For my summer project, Wissner recommended I start with a cherry tomato plant. The fastest tomato I could find, maturing in 55 days, is called Gold Nugget, which produces yellow cherry tomatoes.

Local gardeners who want to grow tomatoes might want to look for tomatoes that mature in 55 to 60 days, she said. This means with luck, you’ll harvest your first tomato 69 to 80 days after May 25–that is, between Aug. 2 and 13. The average first frost date looms barely more than a month later, about Sept. 20.

Why all the extra time? Vegetable seed packets and catalogs will tell you how many days it takes for seeds to germinate and how long until harvest time. In reality, you need to extend those time frames by many days, Wissner said.

When Wissner starts vegetables indoors, she first adds another 14-20 days after germination to allow plants to grow to transplant size.

She then adds another 14 to 20 days after transplanting outdoors. That accounts for transplant shock. At that point, she can start counting the stated days to maturity.

For my annual flower, Wissner recommends cosmos, which produces brightly colored flowers.

The cosmos I’ve chosen, a dwarf variety in a mix of colors, germinates in seven to 10 days. Maturity is at least 75 days for some cosmos varieties so if I want flowering plants to put out in May, seeding indoors the first of March might not be too soon to start. But since even dwarf cosmos could be 2 feet tall at flowering, they’d get too big for my set-up, so I’ll wait a bit.

And both the flowers and the tomato will need “full sun,” –at least 6 hours per day. I’ll have to think about where to fit them in my shady yard, or which tree to cut.

It’s easy to see why buying well-developed plants from the nurseries is so popular when, for instance, some varieties of tomatoes are rated at 120 days to maturity, the number of days after seed germination before the first fruit can be harvested.

Next month I’ll prepare my seed-starting equipment. Digging in the garden is still months away, even if wind keeps evaporating the snow.

Climate

The first hurdle to choosing plants that will thrive in your yard is understanding the climate.

The newly revised USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map (http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov) shows Cheyenne in Zone 5b, meaning our maximum cold temperatures are -15 to -10 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of our 6000-foot elevation and northern latitude, we also have a short growing season.

Cheyenne’s average first frost-free date is May 25—that’s considered a safe time to get your plants in the ground.

After that, the growing season is only 90 to 110 days long, according to Catherine Wissner, University of Wyoming Laramie County Extension Service Horticulturist.

You can see why season extenders like Wall O’ Water, hoop houses or high tunnels— modern, light-weight greenhouses—are popular here. They can push the planting date earlier by weeks.

Note: Using Catherine’s formula and the catalog information, I figure I’ll need to plant the seeds four to six weeks before May 25, in early April. If I decide to try Wall O’ Water, giving each plant its own little protective, water-filled, plastic walls so that I can transplant them earlier, I will have to start seeds earlier.