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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Vertical gardening

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Altitude Chophouse installed a Bright Agrotech Farm Wall to grow herbs for its restaurant and bar in Laramie, Wyoming, last summer. Photo courtesy Bright Agrotech.

Vertical gardening is growing into the wave of the future

By Barb Gorges

As we slip into the dark half of the year, we don’t have to say goodbye to growing our own fresh herbs, lettuces and other greens. There is an option for those of us without a greenhouse, hoop house or cold frame, even if we have limited natural light or limited space.

Think vertical. Think “Farm Wall.”

No more stooping over short little plants. No more weeds. No more intensive watering schedule.

Bright Agrotech, www.brightagrotech.com, a Laramie-based start-up, has been perfecting this system that maximizes production for every square foot. It works for farmers as well as hobbyists—indoors or out. The company now employs 30 people, many coming straight from the University of Wyoming.

As magical as this system sounds, it really works. Growers on every continent except Antarctica are using it. In 2015, the U.S. pavilion at the world’s fair in Milan, Italy, installed a demonstration Bright Agrotech ZipGrow Farm the size of a vertical football field, like a giant billboard full of leafy vegetables.

Locally, the system is being used at Cheyenne Central High School. There, agriculture teacher Ty Berry has his classroom’s system set up on a cart so he can take it places, including the state and county fairs last summer.

Elsewhere, Altitude Chophouse in Laramie grew edibles on an outside wall during the summer using this system.

How it works

The Farm Wall starts with towers. They will remind you of rain gutters upended, but they are made of food-grade white plastic which wraps around part of the open side, leaving a slot the length (or the height) of the tower for plants to sprout from. Towers come in 3 or 5-foot heights.

Bright Agrotech refers to these components as ZipGrow Towers. That’s because the growing medium can be “zipped” in and out of the towers.

The plants grow in a matrix made of curly fibers from recycled water bottles. They have a brown, protective silicone coating. Otherwise light would cause algae infestations in the originally clear material.

So how do you get the plant into the matrix material? Simple. It comes in two halves. You “zip” it out the end of the tower, spread the two halves just enough to place seedlings in between at regular intervals and “zip” it back into the tower. The plants spill out the lengthwise slot.

As you can imagine, the plastic matrix isn’t going to hold water well, so strips of wicking material are added with the plants.

The next step is to place the towers between the upper and lower horizontal gutters. The lower gutter is on the floor. The upper gutter can be slid onto a bracket on a wall (indoors or out).

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An emitter keeps the tower below it watered. Photo by Barb Gorges.

What makes the Farm Wall water-smart is that it is a hydroponic system. Water constantly circulates. About once a week the water reservoir needs to be topped off. It looks like and is lined up with the other towers but has no growing slot. Water is poured into the top. At the bottom is a spigot that allows only a certain amount of water to sit in the lower gutter. A small submersible pump there sends the water up through a hose and across the top, inside the upper gutter. There’s an emitter above each tower, keeping it watered.

Without soil to provide essential nutrients, you must add them to the water yourself. What you add depends on what you are growing, which is where Bright Agrotech can give you advice. There are several commercial fertilizer mixes available, or maybe you’d like to try aquaponics, in which the water circulates through a tank of fish and picks up nutrients from the fish poop.

While on my tour in Laramie one unexpected thing I learned from my guide, marketing team member Amy Storey, is that the more growing cycles a unit of matrix material has been through, the better it gets. All the old roots and all the potting soil left behind by the seedlings enables good microorganisms to get established and start helping with their usual job, making it easier for plants to absorb nutrients.

One plus of the Farm Wall system: no pesticides are necessary, as long as good horticultural practices are maintained. And there are no weeds since you aren’t tilling the garden and causing weed seeds to sprout.

Considerations

There are several considerations with this system. The 5-foot high, four-tower package is $599 (free shipping). The two-tower, 3-foot high version is $369. There is also an 8-tower option. Beyond that size, you need to look at the commercial farm version.

You also need an electrical outlet for the water pump. While the commercial farming version needs to be hooked up to plumbing, the Farm Wall doesn’t. But you may want to install it where a few splashes of water won’t be a problem.

An electrical conductivity meter will help you know how you are doing with fertilization, though you might make do with nutrient package directions and your own observations.

You’ll need someplace warm to start seedlings under lights.

Speaking of lights, you’ll need some florescent grow lights set up vertically in front of the Farm Wall if it isn’t set up outside or in a greenhouse.

Obviously, root crops are not going to do well in such limited root space. So far, the most successful crops have been flowers, herbs, lettuces and other smallish greens.

At the University of Wyoming Extension, horticulturist Chris Hilgert experimented with strawberries, but hasn’t been successful—yet.

The possibilities

For growing small vegetables commercially, vertical farming is certainly more efficient than one layer of 6 to 12-inch high plants, especially in a greenhouse. Also, in an urban area, the cost of lighting and water pumping may be less than transporting produce from elsewhere.

In Jackson, where the town is isolated and the growing season very short, Vertical Harvest, www.verticalharvestjackson.com, grows for local restaurants, grocery stores and its own store in a 3-story glassed-in area on the side of a parking garage. On a tenth of an acre they grow the equivalent of 5 acres of conventionally farmed land through the winter.

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Ty Berry has this Farm Wall in his classroom at Cheyenne Central High School planted with herbs and flowers. It was about to be replanted with beans. Photo by Barb Gorges.

This semester Berry’s students are planting beans in their classroom Farm Wall. It was paid for by an educational grant he wrote. Bright Agrotech also provided curriculum ideas to maximize the educational possibilities.

I remember 25 years ago when Cheyenne parent-teacher organizations raised the funds to pay for computer labs for their schools. Now computers are part of the school district’s budget and every student seems to have what amounts to one in their back pocket.

Perhaps someday it will be completely normal for a wall of every school building to produce healthy food for school lunches. Unless kids are already packing Farm Wall salads from home.

Note: Laramie, at 7200 feet elevation, is in a hostile environment for growing vegetables, which may have been the inspiration for Bright Agrotech founder Nate Storey, a native of Cheyenne with a PhD from the University of Wyoming. But his version of vertical gardening is catching on worldwide.

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The Farm Wall installed by Altitude Chophouse becomes part of the landscaping in downtown Laramie, Wyoming. Photo courtesy Bright Agrotech.


Heirloom veggies for taste and variety

 

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Rusty Brinkman offers a variety of heirloom veggies at the Tuesday Farmers Market in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Sept. 4, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Local gardeners explore for taste, visual appeal”

By Barb Gorges

At the Laramie County Fair back in August, I was checking out the blue-ribbon vegetable winners and one name kept popping up over and over: Rusty Brinkman.

I met Brinkman and his partner Vally Gollogly last summer at a lunch they catered at their home just outside Cheyenne—a garden-to-table treat.

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Midsummer, Brinkman partially rolls back the cover of his hoop house. Chickens are on patrol, looking for insects. Photo by Barb Gorges.

This spring, Brinkman added a high tunnel and a half-dozen chickens. The greenhouse-like high tunnel will let him to grow vegetables that need a longer growing season than Cheyenne allows. The chickens keep the insect pest numbers down, but at the cost of a little pecking damage. They seem to like yellow vegetables so Brinkman has to throw a little vegetation over the yellow squashes to protect them.

His backyard garden is sizeable, but he also helps garden another 4,000 square feet over at his uncle’s, where he has a real greenhouse to get seedlings started in spring.

A couple years ago when he and Gollogly had an abundance of dill, they thought it would be fun to offer the excess at the Tuesday Farmers Market. Now they are regulars, under the Mooo’s Market banner. Gollogly specializes in prepping the flowers and herbs, Brinkman the veggies.

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Rusty Brinkman offers a variety of heirloom veggies at the Tuesday Farmers Market in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Their booth has a certain flair, a certain presentation. That might be because Brinkman’s day job is owner of Crow Creek Catering. As a chef, the Cheyenne native has plied his trade in Denver, New York and the Wyoming [correction: Colorado] governor’s mansion. He knows presentation is an important part of the dining experience.

So what does a chef grow in his garden? Brinkman is a proponent of organic methods so I’m not surprised he also gravitates to the heirlooms. Heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated. This means if you save the seeds, you can grow the same vegetables again next year. If you save the seeds from the best individual fruits and vegetables, you might end up with improved strains the next year. Over time, you will have varieties ideally suited to Cheyenne.

On the other hand, hybrid fruits and vegetables also produce seed, but plants grown from those seeds won’t grow true to the parent plant.

Brinkman is experimenting with seed saving, but otherwise his chief source is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, www.rareseeds. I have the 2015 catalog: 350 pages of delicious photos of vegetables and fruit from all over the world with exotic names and long descriptions.

For a gardener, it’s like being in a candy shop. But it is important to keep in mind our local climate and look for short-season veggies. Now that he is selling at the market, Brinkman also looks for varieties not sold at the grocery store.

There is so much to choose from. Offerings include purple tomatoes, oddly-shaped squash, a multitude of greens, pointy cabbage, red carrots. But in the end, they need to produce in Cheyenne and they have to pass the taste test–appealing to a gardener who cooks.

Brinkman shared with me a nine-page, single-spaced printout of his garden records for the past three years, organized by vegetable type, variety, heirloom status, year trialed, seed company, how many days to maturity, description. There are 360 entries to date, but some vegetables did not make the cut and were not planted a second year.

This scientific analysis is similar to Brinkman and Gollogly’s training in the science of food preparation. Cooking is one part art and a large part science. You need to understand how ingredients interact with each other. If you invent a good dish, you need to be able to reproduce it, just like scientific studies need to be replicable.

Vegetable gardening is also science, trying to produce the best crop each year.

Brinkman prepares new beds by smothering grass with cardboard or metal plates (he makes folk art from junk metal), then he rototills it. Once a bed is established though, he only uses a garden fork to loosen things in the spring and add compost.

His compost system is nearly keeping up with the garden’s needs and he fills in with more from the city compost facility.

But Brinkman also uses Espoma’s Plant-tone to add microbes and nutrients, and in the fall, he adds old cow manure.

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Brinkman hand-pulls weeds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Brinkman hand-pulls weeds, and hand-picks potato bugs early in the season. This was the first year for the chickens and he’s not sure how helpful they will be, but he said he also uses several other methods for pest control:

–Neem oil has worked very well for aphids.

–Releasing ladybugs and lacewings in the spring, also for aphid control, seems to be working.

–Using Bt (a friendly bacterium) for cabbage whites (butterflies) for the first time this year seems to help.

–Agribon, a light-weight, white polypropylene fabric spread over the carrots seems to be controlling the carrot rust fly.

To get an early start on the season, in late March or early April, Brinkman uses low tunnels, stretching plastic sheeting over hoops placed over his beds.

Much of the garden area is irrigated using drip tape (flattened plastic hose that has a series of small holes).

So what was planted in the Brinkman/Gollogly garden this year? Lots of varieties with delicious-sounding names. Brinkman will know soon which ones have performed well enough to make the cut next year. Here’s a sampling you might find at their booth at the farmers market next Tuesday. If customers aren’t quite ready for “Tronchuda”, a Portuguese variety of kale, no matter. Brinkman can take it home and turn into dinner, or prep it for the freezer.

Artichokes: Green Globe.

Beans: Mayflower, Greasy Grits, Dixie Speckled Butterpea, Golden Sunshine, California Blackeye Pea.

Beets: Crosby’s Egyptian

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Heirloom beets come in a variety of colors and shapes. Photo by Barb Gorges.

 

Broccoli: Purple Peacock, Romanesco Italia, Umpqua.

Cabbage: Aubervilliers, Bacalan de Rennes, Couer de Boeuf des Vertus, Cour di Bue.

Carrots: Amarillo, Dragon.

Celery: Giant Prague, Tendercrisp, Utah Tall.

Peppers (sweet): Antohi Romanian, Topepo Rosso.

Peppers (hot): NuMex Joe E. Parker.

Cucumber: Parisian Pickling.

Eggplant: Syrian Stuffing, Turkish Orange.

Kale: Dwarf Siberian, Nash’s Green, Nero di Toscana.

Lettuce: Crisp Mint, Little Gem, Baby Oakleaf.

Melon: Kazakh, Minnesota Midget.

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Heirloom onions. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Onion: Flat of Italy, Red of Florence.

Pea: Laxton’s Progress #9.

Squash: Kobocha winter

Tomato: Cherokee Purple, Large Barred Boar, Cream Sausage, Transparent, Glacier, Topaz, Woodle Orange.

Turnip: Boule D’or, Golden Globe, Mikado, Purple Top White Globe.

Zucchini: Midnight Lightning, Tatume (Mexican zucchini)

 


Straw bales conquer garden problems

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Laramie County Master Gardener Susan Carlson shows off peas growing in her straw bale garden. The spruce trees protect the garden from north wind and the shade cloth protects the delicate lettuce in the rest of the garden from too much sun. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Aug. 14, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Straw bales conquer many garden problems.”

By Barb Gorges

Did the thought of the work involved in starting a vegetable garden keep you from having one this year? Did time for all that rototilling or digging in of compost never materialize? Or maybe you tried a garden in our clay soils and results were poor?

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Straw Bale Gardens, by Joel Karsten, Cool Springs Press.

Susan Carlson, a Laramie County Master Gardener, can recommend a solution: straw bale gardening. Her stepson, who lives in Minnesota, brought her the book by Minnesota native Joel Karsten describing his miraculous method.

This is the second season Carlson has used rectangular straw bales for vegetables and her results look good. She also included flowers.

The idea is that a straw bale is compost waiting to happen. Before the growing season begins, over a couple weeks, you add water and a little fertilizer—organic or inorganic—and it will activate an army of bacteria. The bacteria break down the straw, turning it into just what plants need. Plants can be inserted into the bale or seeds can be started in a little potting soil placed on top.

The bale is like a container or raised bed held together with baling twine. You can set it anywhere, even on a driveway. You don’t prepare the ground underneath.

And, depending on how clean the straw is, you will have few weeds, or wheat or oat sprouts, that can’t be easily removed by hand. You’ll have more sprouts if you accidently bought hay—which includes the heads of grain—instead of straw, which is just the stems.

Straw bales might also be the solution to vegetable plant diseases that persist in soil. Gardeners are always advised not to grow the same family of vegetables (especially the tomato-eggplant-pepper family) in the same spot more than once every three years. You can start a fresh bale each year, although Carlson managed to keep her bales intact for a second year.

Carlson studied Karsten’s book, “Straw Bale Gardens.” Here’s what she did:

First, obviously, she found straw bales.

I checked a local farm and ranch supply store and their regular bale, about 3 feet long and 60 pounds, runs about $7. Avoid the super-compressed bales.

A bale bought in the fall from a farmer should be cheaper than in the spring, after they’ve had to store them all winter. In fall, you can put your bale outside to weather.

If you’ve had problems with mice or voles, as Carlson has, lay chicken wire or hardware cloth down first. Cut a piece big enough to fold up and protect several inches of the sides of the bale.

2016-8 straw bale 2, set up, by Barb Gorges

Carlson’s straw bale garden consists of five bales forming a u-shape. They are planted with (from left) haricot vert green beans, cabbage, a tomato, lettuces, petunias and edible pod peas. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Lay out your bale prickliest side up, and so the sides wrapped with twine not against the ground. Carlson bought five bales and formed them into a u-shape to fit within an area fenced to keep out her dogs.

Because she planned to grow beans, Carlson made a trellis as well. She wedged two bales, lying end to end, between two 5-foot steel “T-post” fence posts (about $5 each) and then strung wire at about 10 and 20 inches above the bales. She can add more wire if the plants get taller. Karsten recommends 14-gauge electric fence wire (but you won’t be plugging it in).

On the ground inside the u-shape of bales (or between your rows), Carlson laid landscape fabric. You could use some other material to keep light from germinating weed seeds, like a layer of thick straw, cardboard, wood, wood mulch, etc.

Next, Carlson “conditioned” the bales, starting about two weeks before our last frost date, which is around May 22, though you can start a week earlier because the bales form a warm environment.

The first step here is to find cheap lawn fertilizer with at least 20 percent nitrogen content as Carlson did the first year. Do not use one that is slow-release or that contains herbicides.

You can also use organic fertilizers, like bone or feather meal, or very well-composted manure, but you need to use six times more than the amounts given for inorganic fertilizer. The second season, Carlson said, she is having good results using Happy Frog packaged organic fertilizer, but using much less since the bales were conditioned once already last year.

The conditioning regimen begins the first day with a half cup of inorganic fertilizer (or six times more organic) per bale sprinkled evenly all over the top and then watered in with your hose sprayer until all of it has moved into the bale and the bale is waterlogged, writes Karsten.

The next day you skip the fertilizer and water the bale again. Karsten suggests using water that’s been sitting out for a while so it isn’t as cold as it is straight out of the tap.

Days three through six you alternate between fertilizer-and-water days and water-only days.

Days seven through nine you water in a quarter cup of fertilizer per bale each day. The bales should be cooking by now and feel a little warmer on the outside.

On day 10, add a cup of 10-10-10 garden fertilizer. The numbers mean 10 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus and 10 percent potassium.

Next, lay out your soaker hoses on top of the bales if you are going to use drip irrigation as Carlson has.

On day 12, Carlson transplanted one cherry tomato plant directly into the bale, wedging it in. Smaller plants are easier to plant than large ones and will soon catch up.

“Bacteria are breaking down the inside of the bale and making this nice environment,” said Carlson.

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Carlson’s Haricot vert beans. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Mostly, Carlson wanted a salad garden and so she started everything else from seed: edible pod peas, Haricot vert beans (a type of tiny French green bean), lemon cucumbers, broccoli, spinach and various lettuces.

She packed a couple of inches of sterile potting soil (not garden soil) into the tops of the bales in which to plant the seeds. The warmth of the composting straw got them off to a good start.

She added shade cloth overhead to protect the lettuces from too much sun and started cutting romaine and butterhead lettuce by mid-June.

Carlson also used shade cloth on the west side fence to keep the wind from drying out the bales too quickly.

And there you have it, a vegetable garden—or a flower garden if you prefer—ready to grow. All you need to do then is to garden as you normally would: enough water, fertilizer once a month, and pull the occasional weed that may sprout, or pick off any little slugs or insects.

Maybe because of our dry western climate, Carlson was able to use her bales this second year. The bales shrank a little so she patched the gaps between bales with bits of chicken wire on the sides and filled them with potting soil.

One question is what to do with the old bales. They are great compost for conventional garden beds. Carlson reached into the side of one bale and showed me lovely black soil. If you don’t have any conventional garden beds to add it to, someone else would be happy to take the compost off your hands.

“This isn’t the prettiest thing,” Carlson says of her straw bale garden, “but when it starts growing, you don’t even look at the bales.”

2016-8 straw bale 3, detail, by Barb Gorges

While most straw bale gardeners start with fresh bales each spring, Carlson was able to use hers for a second season. She pulled away a little straw on the side of this bale and discovered it is full of rich compost. A soaker hose keeps the vegetables watered. The green steel fence post is part of the trellis system. Photo courtesy Barb Gorges.

 


Planting gardener partnerships

The Taylors

Jackie and Scott Taylor let their pregnant goats clean up last year’s high tunnel garden and fertilize for next year’s crops. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 18, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “How to plant a partnership. How do gardening duos work out what to grow and who will weed and water?”

By Barb Gorges

Last year, I relinquished our small vegetable garden plot my husband, Mark, so he could experiment with all the new information he was learning as a Laramie County Master Gardener intern.

I even refrained from harvesting any cute cherry tomatoes and popping them in my mouth when I walked by.

Well, almost.

This year, I want to grow vegetables again. This has me thinking about how gardeners work as partners. How do they split decisions and the maintenance? Before I learned to grow a tomato three years ago, it was easy: Mark grew our vegetables and I grew flowers.

I’ve interviewed people from four partnerships to see how they work.

Sisters

Jennifer Wolfe and her sister, Gina John, own the house, now 100 years old, in which they grew up. Because its location is close to the Capitol, they decided to turn it into office rental space. Because the city requires a landscape design for commercial properties, their gardening decisions are based on those requirements.

Jennifer, with her master gardener training, said they decided to make providing habitat for wildlife their objective, rather than waste money on lawn watering. So she and Gina have converted the space to mostly perennial flowers, with many of the plants contributed from their home gardens. You may have seen it on the Master Gardener Garden Walk in 2013.

Because her sister is still working, Jennifer is the primary gardener. Gina comes sometimes comes in the evenings to help and seems to be in charge of adding garden art.

Employees of the tenant, a health services company, appreciate the effort, often strolling the garden and opening windows to let the garden sounds and fragrances in.

The Taylors

Jackie and Scott Taylor were in business together for 30 years before they became serious gardeners. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Business partners

A quick perusal of the Laramie County Master Gardeners directory shows there are 15 sets of people who share the same last name and address. Presumably they are couples in which both take a serious interest in gardening.

One of these couples, Scott and Jackie Taylor, went so far as to take the advanced master gardener training recently.

They are cultivating a serious amount of space–15,000 square feet–including two high tunnels and an orchard, plus raising livestock, west of town, near Gilchrist Elementary. You may have seen some of their harvest for sale at the Tuesday and winter farmers markets.

In business together in Laramie for 30 years previously, they have learned how to disagree, come to a decision, and still be friends.

“We start with seeds, look at plot space, and it’s invariably a big discussion and I want more than there is room for and Scott reins me in,” said Jackie.

When it comes to the chores, Scott said, “I do the fencing and digging and bed prepping. Jackie does the seedlings.”

This is a fairly typical division of labor—one person is more attuned to the details of nurturing delicate plants.

Scott is also in charge of watering, with the help of timers, “I’ve got things on a rotation in my own mind.”

But Jackie, after weeding, will report on potential moisture level problems. And while the vegetables are a joint venture, “He’s more interested in the fruit trees and I’m more interested in the flowers,” said Jackie.

They’ve been married 44 years, “going on 70,” one of them said.

Scott’s advice, “Learn to laugh. You have to resolve conflicts, like over row spacing. You have to be able to talk it out and get on.”

There is a benefit.

“It’s nice to enjoy the fruits of our labors together,” Jackie said.

Family style

Riley Elliot digs gardening.

At a young age he was using his toy truck to move dirt in his mother’s garden. Now he, at age 11, and his mom, Carolyn, are newly fledged master gardeners.

You might run into Riley at the Paul Smith Children’s Village where he volunteers. It was when he and his mom visited in 2011, shortly after moving to Cheyenne, that director Aaron Sommers began encouraging Riley’s interest in gardening.

Last year, at home, out on the prairie west of town, his dad Reagan helped Riley build raised beds out of old shipping pallets and fence the deer out.

Riley grows vegetables he promises to eat, such as peas.

“Last year, my first year gardening, I grew peanuts, popcorn and pumpkins,” he said. “Peas do real well and the popcorn did real well, and probably the peanuts (if the chickens hadn’t uprooted them while searching for grubs), but the sweet potatoes need more sand.”

He and Carolyn have big plans for this year, hoping to do better.

“We are just starting to do some flowers,” said Carolyn.

Since there wasn’t time to install the automatic watering system, Riley helped out with hauling hoses.

“We really didn’t have to weed that much,” he said, because raised beds aren’t very weedy.

While Riley believes in eating what he grows, he only wants to eat some of what’s in his mom’s vegetable patch. When the deer got her cabbage and Brussel sprouts, Carolyn said his reaction was, “I wish I could find Bambi and pat him on the head.”

 

Botanists

Jane Dorn spent years holding down the fort, garden-wise, while her husband, Robert, spent summers out in the field working as a professional botanist.

Not that he wasn’t interested in what was growing and helping with the gardening—he’d worked in his uncle’s greenhouse when he was growing up.

When Jane retired, the couple left Cheyenne and built a cozy house on acreage outside Lingle. Recently, they built a greenhouse over their vegetable patch. It has become Robert’s domain for experimenting with vegetable growing. He has begun to keep extensive records, the scientist in him unable to be suppressed.

Now, when planning this year’s garden, Jane and Robert discuss the veggies: what has done well, what seeds are left over, what new varieties in the seed catalogs sound like they might do well.

“We plant multiple varieties because some work better one year than another,” said Jane.

They also discuss Jane’s native plant prospects. “I’m trying to grow native wildflowers,” Jane said. Robert helped her build a rabbit-proof fence.

She and Robert are co-authors of “Growing Native Plants of the Rocky Mountain Area.” Jane will be speaking about growing natives at the Habitat Hero workshop March 28 sponsored by Laramie County Master Gardeners, Cheyenne Audubon and other organizations.

Discerning what the native plant catalogs are offering, whether they are new improved varieties, or just renamed originals, and whether they will grow at their homestead makes use of Jane and Robert’s lifetime of expertise.

While they have affinities for certain parts of the garden, Jane explained, “You don’t want to get yourself in a situation where one of you doesn’t know how to operate the rest.”

Both Jane and Robert weed, though with raised beds there is not much to do. While Robert has drawn up the watering schedule for the drip irrigation system, Jane can also run it. Jane seems to have a knack for harvesting beans, and Robert takes great joy in bringing greens in from the greenhouse every night for dinner–all winter long.

The Taylors

Scott and Jackie Taylor depend on two high tunnels to raise vegetables in southeastern Wyoming for local farmers markets. Photo by Barb Gorges.


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.