Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


The Mint Family

Photos courtesy of Jane and Robert Dorn. Hover over image for name of plant.

Skullcap, Scutellaria brittonii, 8 inches tall, native perennial found in rocky and gravelly places.

Coyote mint or mountain beebalm, Monardella odoratissima, 12 inches tall, prefers moist places in full sun.

Horsemint or purple beebalm, Monarda fistulosa, and cultivars, 2 feet tall, easily found in area nurseries. Transplants easily.

Giant (or anise) Hyssop, Agastache foeniculum (also called hummingbird mint),  3 feet tall, blooms July through September. Found for sale at nurseries.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Feb. 19, 2017

Introducing the mint family: from here, there and everywhere

By Barb Gorges

I was thinking a good winter pastime would be to research the mint family, Lamiaceae of which there are 7,500 species. I found tales of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Some mints were invited over to the New World because they were thought to be good garden plants, capable of providing medicinal uses, if not culinary flavor.

But some of them escaped the picket fences, becoming weeds that hang out on the dusty edges of civilization. Some poisoned livestock. Others just didn’t fit in the preferred landscape and have been periodically eradicated, especially the ones that insist on infiltrating the monoculture of lawn.

New World natives, while never originally confined to the cultivated garden, were valued for their medicinal know-how, but over time some recipes have been lost. They have been admired for their beauty and ability to thrive, each in its favorite wild place, providing sustenance to the local wildlife population. Only recently have we invited them into our cities and towns. But often we expect them to be made over into a showier version of themselves.

No matter where mints are from, they almost always share square stems and opposite leaves and they smell nice when you brush against them or crush their leaves.

Well-established garden mints

Immigrating people often take along their favorite plants from home. A surprising number of our favorite cooking herbs we grow in Cheyenne are mints that have travelled:

–Basil, Ocimum basilicum, traces its roots to India but is important to many cultures from Mexico to southeast Asia;

–Spearmint, Mentha spicata, Europe and Asia;

–Peppermint, Mentha x peperita, Europe and Middle East;

–Oregano, Origanum vulgare, Eurasia;

–Sweet marjoram, Origanum majorana, Middle East;

–Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, Mediterranean;

–Garden sage, Salvia officinalis, Mediterranean;

–Common thyme, Thymus vulgaris, Europe;

–Lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, Mediterranean;

–Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, Europe, Iran, Central Asia.

Garden mint turned weed

Horehound, Marrubium vulgare, is considered a medicinal herb, but has escaped cultivation. Originally from Europe, North Africa and Asia, it is now listed in the handbook, “Weeds of the West,” because it has invaded our native grasslands, including here in southeast Wyoming. Wherever there is a disturbance in the natural landscape, look for it. It’s considered a weed because it is unpalatable to livestock.

Robert Dorn, in his book, “Vascular Plants of Wyoming,” lists other weedy mints in our county:

–Creeping Charlie, Glechoma hederacea, Eurasia, common in lawns, attracts bees, has been used in beer and cheese making, but is toxic to cattle and horses;

–Dead nettle, Laminum amplexicaule, Eurasia and North Africa, problem in croplands and newly seeded lawns though one variety is considered good landscape ground cover;

–Motherwort, Leonurus cardiaca, Eurasia, an herbal remedy, introduced for bees, now invasive;

–Lanceleaf sage, Salvia reflexa, Eurasian ornamental, listed in “Weeds of the West” because it is poisonous to livestock when chopped into or mixed with other feed.

Exotic and native mints excel

But here’s a good mint that has become a naturalized in Laramie County and elsewhere in North America: catnip, Nepeta cataria. It is native to Eurasia and Africa. A hybrid, Nepeta x fassennii, known as garden catmint “Walker’s Low,” became the perennial plant of the year in 2007.

For every difficult mint, there are more mints that contribute positively to society. Here at the north end of the Front Range, and elsewhere in the drylands of the west, we are looking for plants for our gardens that don’t need much water. Some of those are natives and others from similar landscapes on the other side of the world.

Take Russian sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia, straight from the steppes of central Asia. It’s become extremely popular around here, plant it and forget it, but I don’t think anyone has taken advantage of its Old World reputation as a medicinal, or put the flowers in salad or crushed them for dye.

Water-frugal homeowners are replacing lawn with various creeping thymes, Thymus spp., and all of them hail from Europe, North Africa or Asia.

Horticulturists are always working on improvements and a catalogue like High Country Gardens shows examples. You’ll notice cultivars (cultivated varieties) with cute names. The improvements can be better cold tolerance, better drought tolerance, longer blooming and or bigger, brighter blooms. Some species are native to Turkey, like a type of lamb’s ear, Stachys lavandulifolius, or another from Arizona, another lamb’s ear, Stachys coccineus.

Wyoming natives

What I am more interested in meeting these days are the Wyoming natives, the plants that know how to get along with the native wildlife, including birds, bats, bees, butterflies, and other insects.

Looking again at Robert Dorn’s book, among the mints found in southeast Wyoming I saw:

–Dragonhead, Dracocephalum parviflorum;

–Drummond’s false pennyroyal, Hedeoma drummondii (used as a minty flavoring in Mexico);

–False dragonhead, Physostegia parviflora (related to obedient plant);

–Selfheal, Prunella vulgaris (a common lawn “weed” and Holarctic native—native to northern areas around the globe);

— Canada germander, Teucrium canadense.

Cultivated natives

These plants don’t show up in Dorn’s book he coauthored with his wife, Jane: “Growing Native Plants of the Rocky Mountain Area.” It could mean they aren’t showy enough or perhaps too difficult to grow. *

However, Dorn and Dorn mention these other Rocky Mountain mint cousins for our gardens:

–Giant (or anise) hyssop, Agastache foeniculum, also called hummingbird mint;

–Horsemint or purple beebalm, Monarda fistulosa;

–Coyote mint or mountain beebalm, Monardella odoratissima;

–Skullcap, Scutellaria brittonii.

Problem family members

Some gardeners have banned all mints from their gardens because they have heard they spread uncontrollably. That is true in my experience with the mentha species.

My chocolate mint, Mentha × piperita ‘Chocolate Mint,’ was well-behaved for 10-15 years until the summer I pruned back the big rosebush nearby and gave it more sun. It went ballistic. By fall I was ripping it out with my bare hands. Standard advice has been to keep crazy mints in pots so they can’t spread.

My lemon balm goes to seed before I notice and seedlings pop up the next year, but it never complains when I dig it up to share and make room for other plants.

Live and let live

The old-time culinary mints share my same raised bed and keep each other in check. Even the Russian sage hasn’t gotten out of hand as it would in a more open spot.

Maybe it’s time to try some of those new native cultivars and spice things up—and see what the bees think.

Note:

To see photos of these plants, search https://plants.usda.gov or Wikipedia, using the scientific names.

*To see Jane Dorn’s list of 25 native plants recommended for Cheyenne gardeners, and to purchase the digital version of “Growing Native Plants of the Rocky Mountain Area,” visit https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/habitat-hero/.


Match wits with weeds

Tyler with stirrup hoe

Tyler Mason, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens’ horticulturist, demonstrates use of the stirrup hoe in his wide beds in his plot at the community gardens. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 12, 2015 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s Journey section: “Can you weed out the weeds? Try these strategies to get your lawn and garden in tip-top shape.

By Barb Gorges

“A year of weeds leads to seven years of hoeing.” –Folk saying recounted in “Sustainable Horticulture for Wyoming,” University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service.

The penstemon in my perennial flower garden is creeping into the lawn. The grass is creeping into the flowers. Technically, that means both penstemon and grass are weeds—out-of-place plants.

Besides growing where they are unwanted, most weeds are aggressive, crowding out preferred plants and even reducing the productivity of vegetables. Often native to Europe or Asia, coming here accidentally or intentionally, they seem to outpace even native plants, excelling where ground is disturbed.

Unfortunately, weeds aren’t usually as edible as our vegetables or as beautiful as our flowers. But for a different outlook, check out “The Wild Wisdom of Weeds” by Katrina Blair, a Colorado gardener.

I recently visited with Tyler Mason about strategies for dealing with weeds. He is now the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens’ horticulturist. He practices integrated pest management, opting for the least toxic, but effective, methods to control weeds.

Thistle

Canada thistle may require several applications of appropriate herbicide to eradicate it. If you chose not to poison it, don’t let it flower and spread seeds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Know your adversaries

The two biggest weed pests in gardens here are field bindweed and Canada thistle. Both develop extensive roots. And any tactic that doesn’t remove or kill every little piece will increase their vigor.

Creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides), with stalks of multiple lavender bell-shaped flowers, runs a close third because it spreads too well.

Also on Tyler’s list: dandelion, curly dock, crabgrass, plantain, and common groundsel.

The book “Weeds of the West” is a great field guide to weeds in gardens, cropland and rangeland.

Beware of Trojan horses

Manure is great fertilizer, Tyler said, but not if it still has viable seeds when not thoroughly composted. Sometimes, weed seeds may come with plants you bring home.

Plantain

Plantain, native to Europe, is a shallow-rooted weed that likes bare, compacted soil, thus its nickname: “white man’s footprint.” One plant can produce 20,000 seeds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Don’t stir things up

There are hundreds of seeds lying dormant in the soil just waiting for a bit of sunlight. Tilling the vegetable patch brings them to the surface.

No-till gardening is becoming more popular. Once a bed is built, the soil and its micro-organisms are allowed to do their thing, improving soil structure and fertility. Amendments are added as top-dressing.

In the Botanic Gardens’ community garden Tyler is using wide-bed gardening in his plot this year instead of the traditional rows. Each bed is a berm about 6 inches high by 2 to 3 feet across, running the length of his garden. Access paths on either side are well-mulched with straw, reducing the area needing to be weeded.

By not stepping on the berm and compressing it, the soil holds more water.

“Be effective with your water,” Tyler said. Water right where you need it. Same with fertilizer–don’t broadcast it over the garden, otherwise the excess will feed the weeds.

Stirrup hoe

The stirrup hoe, pushed or dragged so that its sharp lower edge is barely under the soil surface, severs weed seedling roots. Because it disturbs so little soil, fewer new weeds will follow. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Get them early

If your garden has any bare soil, you are bound to see weed seedlings. Pull them right away. Even thistle and bindweed are easy to pull, roots and all, when they are less than 2 inches tall. To disrupt seedlings while you are in a standing position, use a stirrup hoe like Tyler does, pulling it through the top quarter-inch of soil to severe the roots.

How do you know which is a weed seedling and which is a vegetable seedling? Plant seeds in a pattern. Or give your garden an advantage over weeds by transplanting starts rather than direct seeding.

Keep them in the dark

Black plastic sheeting, with holes cut for inserting vegetables, is a way to mulch. Used with drip irrigation and soluble fertilizers, it can be pricey.

Weed barrier cloth is often used for landscape plantings. But it can make it harder for the roots of desired plants to get water and nutrients. Over time, dirt blows in on top and weeds sprout anyway.

Rock mulch is popular these days, but it doesn’t contribute nutrients the way a mulch of organic materials can, like bark.

Creeping bellflower

In Cheyenne, creeping bellflower is quickly taking on a reputation similar to bindweed. It spreads and is difficult to eradicate. Photo by Barb Gorges.

In flower and veggie gardens, Tyler recommends materials that compost quickly and can be turned under, like grass clippings, tree leaves, straw (not hay with seeds). Take care they are not from diseased plants. Also, make sure they were not sprayed recently with herbicides. Weeds that poke through are easier to pull because the soil surface has not been baked by the sun.

Another way to keep weed seeds in the dark is to grow more densely—keep the ground shaded. Maintaining a healthy lawn cut about 3 inches high will shade out weeds, Tyler said.

Behead them

It is amazing how many seeds one weed can produce. The master gardener manual says dandelions have 15,000 seeds per plant.

Don’t let weeds flower. If you don’t have time to remove them, deadhead them by hand or mower.

Hori hori knife

The hori hori knife, a Japanese garden tool readily available here, is good for removing bigger weeds. It has a sharp edge on one side and a serrated edge on the other. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Dig them out

Tyler is fond of the hori hori knife, a traditional Japanese garden tool that looks like a narrow, pointed hand trowel with a sawtooth edge on one side. This is a good tool for weeds that breach the mulch, are too big for the stirrup hoe, or that have roots about as deep as the hori hori is long.

Overgraze them

When I was a range management student, I learned that cattle prefer forbs (wildflowers) over grass. They will nibble these “ice cream plants” to death if left in a pasture too long. Conversely, they could be trained to eat weeds.

So if you have thistle and bindweed in your garden, keep removing the green leafy parts as often as you can and eventually the plants can very well starve to death. At least they won’t spread.

If you have an over-grazed pasture full of weeds, please consult the Laramie County Conservation District.

Bindweed

One of the most difficult weeds to kill, field bindweed grows bigger leaves in more fertile soil. Tyler Mason likes to isolate bindweed from non-target plants by coiling up the vines in a cup with a hole in the bottom, and then spraying it with an appropriate herbicide. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Poison the invincible

There might be a situation that justifies using herbicides. But first, you have to find the right one for your weed, so you must be able to identify it.

Then you must follow the directions exactly as to formula strength, timing and weather conditions. Keep in mind that some herbicides will volatize—turn to toxic gases—when temperatures are more than 85 degrees F and then will blow onto non-target plants, the neighbors, your pets or yourself, Tyler said. He doesn’t recommend broadcast spraying or using feed and weed products. It can lead to toxic runoff which pollutes surface and ground water. Spot treat instead.

Exceeding herbicide label recommendations is another problem. It can burn the top of the plant, not allowing the plant to transfer the toxin to its roots—and so it re-sprouts instead of dying.

Finally, be sure to deadhead weeds before spraying so that bees and butterflies won’t be poisoned by poisoned flowers, Tyler said.

Draw the line

I heard that a concrete curb poured around the edge of a flower bed can be breached by grass.

I’m trying this solution, edging a bed with flagstones flush with the lawn. The lawnmower can run two wheels along them and no string trimming is necessary. However, in the spring, or whenever grass shows up between the stones, I can upend them and take a shovel to the white root-like grass stems, known as stolons, and cut them back.

Another advantage over concrete curbing: I can change the size and shape of my flower beds whenever I like.

Gardening is about discrimination, discouraging some plants and favoring others. Vigilance is important. But is there a gardener who doesn’t enjoy an excuse to spend time out in the garden?


Keeping Garden Records

veggies

Some of my veggie harvest variety: green beans, cherry tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and summer squash.

Published Sept. 15, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Be a happy gardener: It starts by keeping records of the successes and failures of your bounty. Gardener Barb Gorges shows you how with her own personal notes.”

By Barb Gorges

It’s surprising what I will forget a few months from now as I page through seed catalogs or shop at garden centers.

Now is the best time to make notes and analyze this year’s successes and failures. Before doing so, I took a quick look at what two other gardeners do.

Along with her garden journal notating weather and garden improvements, Wendy Douglass, master gardener in Cheyenne, has a method for tracking her new perennials. She makes a 5×7-inch card for each, attaching the tag from the nursery, recording where the plant was bought, the date and location planted and any helpful horticultural notes.

Wendy also marks each new plant with a palm-sized, flattish rock on which she writes the plant’s name and date planted using oil-based Sharpie markers. In spring, these rocks may become little gravestones for plants that don’t make it through the winter, but at least they aren’t forgotten. And their cards are moved to the “Deceased” file.

Catherine Wissner, University of Wyoming Laramie County Extension horticulturalist, tracks the productivity of the vegetables growing in her high tunnel greenhouse by weighing nearly everything. She jots notes in the field all season long, and during the winter, she adds them to a simple record-keeping system she has devised using Excel.

calendar record

My harvest and bloom records are kept on a calendar during the growing season.

I like the Excel idea because it is easy to insert new information and add pages. My computer is better organized than the binders I have tried to use in the past. Plus, I can insert digital photos.

Here are notes for my vegetable garden. Almost all were plants I grew from seed and transplanted or direct seeded between May 24-27. “Maturity” means number of days between transplanting or direct seeding in the garden until the first fruit is harvested—according to the seed companies.

Under “Harvested” are my actual days to maturity as well as the numbers and weights of fruits harvested as of Sept. 8.

It wasn’t a large garden, but it provided enough fresh produce for two, plus guests, for over six weeks.

Beans, bush

“Bountiful,” Pinetree Garden Seed. Direct seeded about 12 plants. Maturity: 46 days. Harvested: 64-107 days, 1 lb. Despite being classified as “bush,” they need a trellis to better protect them from slugs. I removed all but two plants after the initial damage.

 

Beets

Beets, Early Wonder

Beets

“Early Wonder,” heirloom, PGS. Direct seeded 3 by 4 foot area. Maturity: 50 days. Harvested: 60-90 days, 1.3 lbs. plus very edible greens. Remember to thin so the beets get bigger.

Cabbage

Both could have used floating row cover to protect them from cabbage butterfly caterpillars–cabbage worms. There was too much shade after the tomatoes grew up.

—–“Pak Choy,” Bounty Beyond Belief. Transplanted 6. Maturity: 45-60 days. Harvested a few leaves before the plants bolted in June, then other leaves were eaten by pests.

—–“Red Express,” Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Transplanted 6. Maturity: 63 days. Harvested: 60 days, 2 ounces—no heads really developed and most of the leaves were holey.

Carrots

“Parisian,” heirloom, PGS. Direct seeded 2 by 3 foot area. Maturity: 55 days. Harvested: 60 days, 2 oz. Have taken only samples so far and will harvest the rest after frost. For all the work and water, I want bigger carrots next time, though these are cute little round things.

Cucumbers

Grown under and over wood lathe A-frame trellis, barely affected by hail.

—–“Spacemaster,” PGS. Direct seeded and only one plant sprouted. Maturity: 59 days. Harvested: 85 days onward, 3 fruits, 0.75 lb. Many flowers, but they didn’t seem to get pollinated. Not very tasty.

—–“Muchmore,” from Kathy Shreve. Transplanted 1. Maturity: 54 days. Harvested: 74 days onward, 19 fruits, 4.4 lbs. so far. Tasty.

—“Sweeter Yet,” from Kathy Shreve. Transplanted 1. Maturity: 48 days. Harvested: 60 days onward, 5 fruits, 2 lbs. Also tasty.

Eggplant

Used containers on the hot and sunny patio, with potting soil amended with leaf compost. Hail slowed flowering. Expect only a few more fruits before frost.

—–“Orient Express” hybrid, JSS. Transplanted 3 in containers. Maturity: 58 days. Harvested: 60 days onward, 13 fruits, 2.3 lbs.

—–“Fairy Tale,” trade with friend. Transplanted 1. Maturity: 50 days. Harvested: 65 days onward, 25 fruits, 2 lbs. Very pretty purple and white streaks.

Peppers, sweet

“Lunch Box Red,” JSS. Transplanted 6 into containers. Maturity: 55 days green, 75 for red. Harvested: 60 days green, 90 days red, 35 fruits, 0.75 lbs., another 51 ripening. Plants in the bigger containers were much more productive.

Pumpkin

“Cinderella,” also known as “Rouge vif d’Etampes,” from seed saved from purchased pumpkin. Transplanted 1. Maturity: 110 days. Harvested:  107 days, 1 pumpkin, 18 lbs. A second, much smaller pumpkin succumbed to a fungus before it could mature.

 Squash, Summer

“Yellow Crookneck,” heirloom, PGS. Transplanted  1. Maturity: 42 days. Harvested: 70 days onward, 22 fruits, 6.5 lbs. so far.

Squash, Winter

“Australian Blue,” from seed saved from purchased squash. Transplanted 1. Maturity: 110-120 days. Male and female flowers didn’t seem to bloom at the same time. A fruit began forming mid-August and probably won’t ripen before frost.

tomatoes

Tomatoes from my garden.

Tomatoes

Started three of the four from seed and planted 1 each in containers with potting soil amended with leaf compost. Needed fish emulsion fertilizer every week or two.

—–“Gold Nugget” yellow cherry, determinate, PGS. Maturity: 55 days. Harvested: 60 days onward, 137 fruits, 3 lbs. so far.

—–“Large Red Cherry,” indeterminate, American Seed.  Maturity: 55-60 days. Harvested: 70 days onward, 65 fruit, 3 lbs. so far.  A substantial cage would work better than tying it to a stake.

—–“Silvery Fir Tree” heirloom, determinate, from Master Gardener sale. Maturity: 58 days. Harvested: 75 days onward, 41 fruit, 8.5 lbs. so far. Tastes fine.

—-“Early Girl” hybrid, indeterminate, Ferry-Morse. Maturity: 52 days. Harvested: 83 days onward, 23 fruit, 7.5 lbs. so far. Needs substantial cage for support. Luckily, tomatoes were hard and green at the time of the hail storms and only sustained a few scars.

Pests and diseases

Slugs got most of the beans and infested the cucumbers and squash, but daily examination, beer traps and watering less cut them down from 36 on the worst day to only a few each day.

Other problems, such as the fungus on the pumpkin, powdery mildew on the squash leaves, leaf miners on the beet leaves, and cabbage worms on the cabbage, will all benefit from crop rotation. With my garden only measuring 14 by 14 feet, too small to rotate within, I’m thinking about next year planting kinds of vegetables I haven’t tried at all yet: Maybe corn or alfalfa, or maybe more containers in a different part of the yard.

I also think damage from hail made my plants more susceptible to disease and pests.

Weeds

I had no weeds, unless you count the cherry tomato that popped up among the beets, or the sunflowers planted by the birds, which attracted bees.

My leaf mulch and intensive style of gardening prevents weeds, though I have to be more careful not to provide damp and shady slug habitat.

Final analysis

Having harvested 60 pounds of produce as of Sept. 8 from my shady garden, with maybe another 10 pounds of tomatoes still ripening, and given the two hail storms, I’m happy with my production. I’ll continue to keep a lookout for more short-season vegetable varieties.

What was your experience this summer? What advice do you have for a novice vegetable gardener like me? Shot me an email.