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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Soil Testing: Interpreting the Results

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Colorado State University soil testing results

Published May 25, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Did Barb’s soil pass the test? The results are in on a soil sample the columnist had analyzed by CSU.”

By Barb Gorges

The other day, my soil test results came in by email from Colorado State University’s Soil, Water and Plant Testing Laboratory.

As I opened the attachment, I felt a little trepidation, not unlike anticipating getting my cholesterol numbers from the health fair. Both tests document my progress in healthy living–or making healthy soil–within the limits of genetics–or bedrock.

pH balance

My front lawn’s pH was high at 7.4, but my vegetable garden was 7.2, within the preferred range of 6 to 7.2.

So I have alkaline soil—typical for this region. Most plants will still grow fine, except for acid-loving species. Because acidification treatments cost money and are not long lasting, we Westerners should instead take advantage of alkaline-loving plants.

Soil texture

Local gardeners often talk about Cheyenne’s clay soil texture so I was surprised my vegetable garden tested as sandy loam and the front yard as sandy clay loam.

“Loam” describes the perfect combination of sand, silt and clay particles for horticulture and agriculture: just enough sand for good drainage, just enough silt and clay to hold water and nutrients.

The modifier “sandy” means water will drain more quickly. This explains why I needed to water the veggies every morning last summer. With “clay” in the lawn’s soil texture description, it means it holds water well, but percolation is slower. That means when you water, apply it slowly.

Organic material

In my vegetable garden, organic material tested at 3.9 percent. This isn’t bad for an area that was first cultivated a year ago and amended with leaf compost.

The recommendation is to increase this category to 5 percent over the next two or three years by adding 2 to 3 inches of plant-based compost or 1 inch of animal-based compost in spring or fall, incorporating it into the top 6 to 8 inches of soil.

The front lawn, which I would love to convert to flower garden, came in at 4 percent. Though I can improve that, less may actually be better for native, drought-resistant plants I would choose.

Why organic matter?

Without it, soil would be nothing but weathered rock. Yes, you get many nutrients from minerals, but organic material feeds the soil microorganisms which feed your plants. The process also improves soil structure, which improves water permeability and absorption (think lower water bill). There can be as many as a billion microorganisms in a quarter teaspoon of topsoil. They are the real engines of plant growth.

Remember where organic material comes from? Plant and animal matter. It’s a cycle as old as life.

Fertilizer history

Sometime during the 20th century, chemists determined plants could grow with nutrients from chemically processed mineral salts.

Today, it is common knowledge that highly processed fertilizers don’t feed microorganisms the way organic (plant and animal-based) fertilizers do. And sometimes they leave behind a buildup of salty residue that is hard on plants.

Unfortunately, the big fertilizer companies have become so influential that it is not always easy to pursue what we now call organic gardening and farming—back to the future, as I think of it, since organic growers use Grandpa’s pre-chemical farming knowledge augmented by new discoveries about organic materials.

Fertilizers

The vegetation of natural landscapes is the result of perfect nutrient cycling. However, gardens and lawns are more intensively grown and the natural nutrient cycle often needs our help.

We have a tendency to over-fertilize, which pollutes groundwater and surface water with the excess, and wastes our money.

As I read labels on various bags and bottles, I realized perhaps the reason we over-fertilize because many of us have trouble understanding the labels. And so we calculate fertilizer amounts as best we can–and then throwing in a little extra for good luck.

Actually, we should err on the side of less. It’s surprising we don’t kill everything growing in our yards with our generosity.

I confess to being stingy. In the days I only grew perennial flowers, I never fertilized with anything other than decomposing leaf mulch. Mark uses Revive, an organic fertilizer, on our lawn.

But now, thanks to my soil test, I have actual numbers to strike a balance between stingy and overgenerous.

 N is for Nitrate (Nitrogen)

Both my lawn and vegetable garden were low in nitrogen. Nitrogen is one of the three major nutrients, the one responsible for stems and leaves. But if you put too much on in one year, it interferes with producing flower and fruit buds and the excess disappears before the next growing season.

 P is for Phosphorus

Surprisingly, in my vegetable garden, this came in high. But the lawn needs some. Phosphorus gives plants strong roots, resistance to disease and good fruit development.

 K is for Potassium

Again, the vegetable garden came in high, and the anaylsis recommends adding a bit to the front yard–if I convert it to flowers. Plants need potassium for successful blooming—for flowers and fruiting vegetables like tomatoes.

Other results

Electrical conductivity: In both areas of my yard, electrical conductivity was low, a good thing, meaning no salty, plant-killing soil.

Lime: Rated medium, OK for growing plants.

Why a local store sells lime is beyond me. With very, very few exceptions, adding lime to Wyoming soils will only increase alkalinity, perhaps to toxic levels.

Micronutrients: Zinc, iron, manganese, copper and boron are all necessary for healthy plants but, as in my yard, they are seldom deficient here.

Recommended fertilizers

All processed fertilizers, whether they are chemically manufactured or lightly processed organic—meaning carbon-based, not necessarily organic as in growing method—have their N-P-K percentages listed on the label. The plants don’t care where these nutrients come from. But organic-based fertilizers release nutrients more slowly, provide some of that all important organic material, and they are safer around children and pets.

Needing just nitrogen for the vegetable garden, the soil test results recommended urea or ammonium sulfate, or one of three more organic choices: blood meal, corn gluten meal or alfalfa meal pellets—for that final item, think rabbit food.

The lawn needs three times as much nitrogen and phosphorus, by weight, as it does potassium. None of the “balanced” fertilizers containing all three really came close to these proportions, so I also looked at the individual recommendations for phosphorus and potassium. For phosphorus it was either bone meal (organic) or triplesuperphosphate (chemical). For potassium, potassium chloride or composted manure.

Shopping

Chemical fertilizers are available at garden centers all around town. Some of the organics are common as well, such as bone meal. Grant Farms has a good selection of fertilizers from organic materials.

For corn gluten, cottonseed meal and alfalfa pellets, check A & C Feed.

Calculations

My soil test result sheets explained how to figure out how much of the unconventional fertilizers I needed—after all, alfalfa pellets don’t come with nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium analysis.

Note: Here’s the formula cited by CSU’s lab, using nitrogen as the example: “…take the amount of N needed (my soil test results recommended 0.3 lbs. per 100 square feet) and divide by the % N in the fertilizer. For example, if your fertilizer contains 30% N, take 0.30 lbs (N needed) divided by 0.30 (N in the fertilizer) to get 1 lb of the 30% N fertilizer that is needed to apply per 100 sq. ft. For rates per 1000 sq. ft. multiply the quantities by 10.”

Essentially, for my 100 square foot garden I only need a pound of 30 percent nitrogen fertilizer—15 pounds of alfalfa pellets that will provide organic material as well. Perhaps my leaf compost can substitute for some of that.

Spreading

I think I can spread fertilizer over my tiny garden evenly by hand before digging it in, but the lawn, if I don’t convert it to garden this year, needs one of those spreaders for which you can adjust the rate.

On the other hand, a mature lawn doesn’t need fertilizing until late summer, so I can put that off for now. But when we mow we should start leaving our clippings on the lawn to decompose. They will not become thatch—other issues cause thatch build-up.

 The next test

In four or five years we can do another soil test and see how we’ve progressed toward our goals.

Caveats

Always read fertilizer directions thoroughly—and follow them for best results, and for your own health.

Think twice about using manure. If it’s fresh, it may burn plants. Avoid pig, dog or cat manure because their diseases can last years in soil and travel via vegetables to humans. And if manure from herbivores isn’t composted at high enough temperatures, it may carry viable weed seeds.

Be aware of how much salt comes with the fertilizer of your choice.

Organic materials from your own yard—unless sprayed with pesticides or diseased—are not yard waste. They’re treasure.

There are many fertilizer sources I haven’t discussed that are worth looking into, such as fish emulsion and cover crops that become green manure, among others.

 Resources

If you have questions on how to improve soil, it may be worth consulting an expert, especially at one of the local agencies that offer free advice.

You can also find out from them how to get your soil tested.

Also, check their websites or offices for bulletins with garden advice tailored to our area.

 Free Local Gardening Advice

**Laramie County Conservation District, 11221 U.S. Hwy 30, 772-2600, http://www.lccdnet.org.

**Laramie County Cooperative Extension, 310 W. 19th, 1st Floor, 633-4383, http://www.wyomingextension.org/publications/.

**Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, 710 S. Lions Park Dr., 637-6458, http://botanic.org/ (gardening advice specifically for Cheyenne).


Garden Maintenance: Watering, Weeding, Mulching and Fertilizing

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Fish emulsion fertilizer and time-release fertilizer

Published June 17, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Garden-sitting: Getting the veggies you want takes work, patience and water.”

My season-long experiment to raise “Gold Nugget” yellow cherry tomatoes and cosmos from seed has cleared a major hurdle: transplanting.

When moved to its outdoor spot, the cosmos never even wilted a leaf.

One tomato with a damaged stem is growing fine. I’d made a little trench to lay it in and buried it completely, except for the top tuft of leaves.

Along with the tomatoes and cosmos, heliotrope, strawflower, eggplant, red cherry tomatoes, squash, pumpkin and gourds–the rest of my seed starting efforts—are growing in my garden. Now the plants and I have settled in for three months of watering, weeding and waiting.

Watering

The first thing I noticed after transplanting is that my vegetable garden layout doesn’t make for easy hose watering. I have to admit my wide bed design was influenced by the photo my son, Jeffrey, sent of his and his housemates’ garden. But I would imagine in Seattle, they seldom irrigate.

While my perennial gardens have done just fine over the years being next to the lawn sprinkler system, I’ve discovered the closest sprinkler head doesn’t reach the back of the vegetable garden.

There’s also the accepted wisdom that you should keep water off the tomato leaves to reduce spotting and rotting. (Good thing it doesn’t rain much here.) Plus, I would expect the pet sitter will charge double if she has to haul the hose around the yard whenever we are away.

All spring, I’ve been attending lectures sponsored by the Laramie County Master Gardeners and reading books by gardeners from Colorado’s Front Range. The advice is always the same: drip irrigation. Besides, it can use 30-50 percent less water than sprinklers. Turns out even the Seattle garden is set up for drip.

This is the method in which you lay out plastic tubing with little holes lining up with the plants which lets water soak into the ground rather than spray into the air with much of it blowing away.

When I look at the vast expanses of bare ground between vegetable plants—which will presumably be filled as the plants grow, it makes sense not to waste water on unplanted ground—it would benefit only weed seeds.

My plan is to check out what drip irrigation systems are available locally and compare them to my notes. You can read similar notes at http://www.ext.colostate.edu/PUBS/Garden/04702.html.

I’ll need a fitting that splits the water at my backyard faucet so that I can continue to use the hose when I need it. I’ll also need a backflow preventer, filter and pressure regulator.

Then there’s the ½-inch or ¾-inch flexible plastic tubing to take the water along the edge of the lawn out to the vegetables. For each plant I’ll plug in short pieces of micro-tubing with an emitter on the end—that gives me the flexibility to change things next year.

The hard part is figuring out how long to run the water to get an adequate amount to each plant. If spells of drying winds or heavy rainstorms don’t have to be taken into account, a battery-operated timer can be inserted.

The pet sitter would like that.

But, you ask, who wants to see black plastic tubes all over their garden? The answer is covering them with mulch, which is also the answer to weeds.

Weeds

In 30 years of gardening, here and southeast Montana, my worst weeds were the unwanted aspen sprouts in the lawn after we cut down the trees. The best control was pulling them for two summers. They disappeared after that. No poison required.

My perennial beds, about 200 square feet total, are converted lawn. Other than grass invading the edges, they have never had more than the occasional thistle or bindweed seedling, maybe a sprouting chokecherry pit deposited by a passing bird. And that’s the key—catch weeds while they are small.

Go out to admire your garden often and the interlopers will be easy to spot. Also, it’s easy to pull weeds out of healthy soil high in organic matter. In a small garden, forget the hoe—it just brings more weed seeds to the surface to sprout.

But on the other hand, if you see a weed you don’t recognize in your flower garden, let it grow. I had one turn out to be an unusual pink columbine. It’s happy in that shady corner and growing better than other plants I tried there over the years.

Check your unknown plant against Wyoming’s official noxious weeds list. Visit http://plants.usda.gov and click on the Invasive and Noxious Weeds link to find Wyoming’s list with links to photos of the species. The site also has a plant identification key. If you have a real weed, don’t poison it; just pull as much of it as you can before its roots develop. Definitely get it before it goes to seed.

Mulch

My front yard perennials grow so closely together they nearly completely shade out weeds. In other areas I depend on mulch.

I use last year’s leaves and grass clippings a couple inches deep—after the self-seeding seedlings get established in the spring. Mulch in my new vegetable garden is also cutting down on the erosion of the edges of the wide beds.

Be sure your lawn hasn’t recently had weed killer applied before using your clippings or they will kill your plants. Over the course of the growing season, as the mulch breaks down, you’ll have to add to it. Straw and pine needles are also recommended by experienced gardeners here.

I am not fond of sheets of plastic or weed barrier cloth covered by rock or bark mulch around landscape plantings. I worked on a college grounds crew one summer and discovered the weeds punctured the plastic. All kinds of dirt and detritus, including weed seeds, blew in around the rocks.

If you like rocks, make a rock garden. It will be less labor intensive than redoing rock mulch every year to keep it looking nice. Plus, vegetation cools the local environment in summer.

Plant-based mulch does several things besides shading out weeds. It eventually composts and fertilizes the soil. It also:

–Slows evaporation of soil moisture (saving money on watering);

–Keeps beneficial organisms and earthworms cool and happy;

–Keeps the soil surface from forming a crust that can repel water;

–Keeps plants from getting splattered with mud during hard rain; and

–Keeps dry soil from blowing—though you may have to figure out how to keep the mulch itself from blowing away.

If you find slugs under your mulch, maybe you need to water less often. Remove some of the mulch for awhile to let things dry out.

For pros and cons of different kinds of mulch, pick up the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens’ tip sheet on mulching or find it at www.botanic.org.

Fertilizer

For perennials, I’ve never added fertilizer other than mulch that eventually composts, but my kinds of perennials are closely related to native wildflowers and are not classified as “heavy feeders.” I am, however, feeding my vegetables and annual flowers liquid fish emulsion as prescribed by the package directions.

There are also compost “tea” recipes you might like to brew. See http://www.beginner-gardening.com/compost-tea.html.

Next month, I’ll let you know how the drip irrigation installation went. Please send me your most common Cheyenne lawn and garden problems and I’ll look for solutions. Also, tell me what you do to protect your garden from hail.