Archive for March, 2009

For buried treasure later in summer – plant a spud.  Or several spuds.  Once our soil dries a little from the welcome snow, get your bed nice and fluffy, then pop in tubers of red, gold and blue.  potatoes


Start your potatoes from certified “seed pieces,” which are sections cut into one-and-one-half to two ounce chunks, containing at least one eye.  Certified guarantees they are disease-free.  If your certified potatoes come whole and you need to cut them into sections, wait a few days after slicing to allow the skin to toughen over the open wound.  In general, larger pieces grow bigger, most robust plants.


Do not use potatoes fro the grocery store.  These may house scab or other diseases which, though they aren’t harmful to us, can be big problems for the garden.


Fluffy soil means potatoes will push roots with plenty of tubers, so liberally amend your planting area with organic matter.  Then dig a furrow and pop your seed pieces every 10 inches along the row, covering the pieces with three inches of soil.  The secret to getting a bounty of spuds is to hill up the soil along the growing shoots of the young plant; potatoes will form all along this stalk.  As stems reach four inches tall, bury them in more soil, leaving the top inch of plant uncovered.  Repeat this several times, until the hill is as tall as you’d like. 


If you don’t have space in your beds for potatoes, try planting them in deep, large containers, clean, new garbage cans (drilled with drain holes), or wire mesh rings.  In each, fill the bottom  six inches deep with potting soil, plant seed pieces five inches apart just below the soil surface.  As the stems grow, cover with soil as described above until the plant reaches the top of the container.


Once you’ve finished hilling up your plants, mulch with straw to keep the soil cool and prevent sunburning of tubers. Feed potatoes every two to three weeks with liquid fertilizer, and keep the soil moist but not water logged.  If you want new potatoes – young, small tubers – harvest a few plants just after they bloom by digging with a garden fork.  Leave the rest to mature into August or September, then after the vines die, unearth your bounty.  Potato blossom

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There she is in all her glory: a queen rising from her winter bed ready to begin a new life, a new colony. She is strong, hungry, and looking for real estate in which to build her nest – probably under your porch, your patio, or in the rock walls of the raised garden.

Yellow jackets are beginning their year, and to save the village from bullies, the queen must die. In winter, only wasp queens survive, emerging when the weather warms in spring to begin colonization of our yards. She wakes up eager to feed and alone; by trapping her, you will prevent hundreds of her offspring from harassing your family in fall.

Put out your wasp traps now, filled with heptyl butyrate, or design your own with chunks of cantaloupe – all it takes is a 2-liter sized pop bottle. Cut the top off the bottle at the shoulders, turn it around and slide it into to the lower part of the bottle so the neck points inwards, and staple this together. Fill with a small amount of cantaloupe, and hang it away from your house.

Some wasps prefer protein, so make another trap and put a bit of lunch meat in it. polistes wasp

Another wasp that’s becoming active is the European Paper Wasp, Polistes dominulus. This builds open-faced nests up in the eaves, inside sheds, and in other spots located above ground. They aren’t aggressive, unless you get too close to the nest – then they may sting. Paper wasps look a lot like yellow jackets but aren’t attracted to traps at all. They’re predators, hunting the yard for soft-bodied insects. They, too, start the spring with a single queen per colony, so if they bother you, swat them.

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Reader Timothy sent a comment that poses a thoughtful question:  even though the White House vegetable garden is a good thing, is it being done in a way that sets a good example?  Timothy supports the concept of square-foot gardening, where plants are grown closely together and managed intensively.  By crowding the plants, they shade out weeds, waste less water, and provide a bigger bounty in smaller space. 

I’m a square foot gardener, so I agree with him – this is an environmentally friendly way to garden.  Sure, raised beds in Colorado use a bit more water – they heat up early, lose water quickly – but with mulch, soaker hoses, and a water timer, you will dramatically reduce the water you put on the garden, and it isn’t lost to evaporation.

But back to the question – how does the White House garden stack up?  They’re putting in raised beds – this is part of the press relase – and they’re going to manage the plot with organic methods (“plot” is used loosely here – 1,100 square feet is a mini farm).  But we don’t know if they’ll be square-foot planting.  Also, looking at the plan, it isn’t clear if the entire garden is in raised beds, or just a few.

And they may use organic methods, but Timothy’s right – since the USDA owns the term “Organic” and has strict guidelines on standards that must be met before you can claim your food is organic….well, perhaps the White House isn’t aware that you can’t claim this unless you’re certified.  And what a process certification is – the least of which is the meticulous record keeping, and the cost to growers for certification is shamefully high (seriously – perhaps the White House should go for certification, then they’ll see first hand what an unfair burden the cost is). 

Those are Timothy’s concerns. 

Here are mine:  first, this is a beginner’s vegetable garden.  Michelle Obama admits she’s never grown anything.  The sheer size of what they’re putting in is a rookie mistake:  it’s beyond huge and will take an army to tend.   Those of us without the benefit of staff have to keep our gardens manageable.  Still, for this to be more than a token effort it needed to be big, and I’m happy they’re doing it.

Second:  take a gander at the outfit she wore to begin the installation.  I’m all for our First Lady looking good – dear heavens she’s a beautiful woman and has an image to uphold.  But the bar this sets for a gardener like me is unattainable.  I don’t wear Gucci to garden – I wear mismatched socks, old, baggy shorts, and T-shirt that is stained with years of plant sap.  At any moment I will have twigs and leaves clinging to my hair.

Glance at my hands.  I don’t sport French nails, I sport scratches, callouses, and rough skin.   This comes from not wearing gloves, something the First Lady and I have in common.  But I don’t have to greet visiting dignitaries, where shaking hands that feel like rubbing sandpaper can spoil the goodwill.  If she’ll take a bit of advice, she’ll get good gloves.  May I recommend West County?  They have a new glove out made from recycled plastic water bottles. 

As an entomologist, I’m ecstatic that they’ve brought in beehives.  This will help pollinate the produce and provide first hand experience in caring for something that isn’t a human-based life form.  More people need to learn the value of insects and spiders. 

Finally, the beet issue.  I predicted a mini-scandal, a la broccoligate, and sure enough, it’s in full swing.  Check out the blog chatter at the NYT – it’s a scream.  Everyone I’ve polled on this has a different point, and I guess we should cut the President some slack.  After all, he deals with the good, the bad, and the ugly everyday; at least he should decide what’s on his plate.  But Mr. President, won’t you give beet tops a chance?

What do you think, readers?

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Sprained backs.  Tendonitis.  Forearms scratched with deep welts.  Slight moans as people lower themselves to a chair, and the soft hiss of breath as a thorn is removed.


Ahh….the sights and sounds of spring.  It’s a joy to be back in the garden, isn’t it?  Getting ready to grow is in full swing – even Michelle Obama’s in the mood, breaking ground for the White House vegetable garden on the south lawn.


Lucky her; she got to experience first-hand what many of us are going through as we cut ground for our first veggie patches (ok, mine was long ago, but I feel your pain – truly).  Minutes after bravely shoveling the turf, muscling it from the ground, she called “put down those cameras and grab a shovel!” to the on-looking press paparazzi. 


I admit I’ve become a White House voyeur, following the adventures of the Obamas as it relates to anything landscaping.  They’ve broken ground on their organic vegetable garden, a plot Michelle swears will be weeded by the entire family (note: even she admits that her mom may not weed.  Instead, First Grandma will supervise the family’s efforts).


The March 19 article in the New York Times outlines the motivations and fun surrounding the effort.  Of note is that the garden will be raised beds fertilized by, among other things, White House compost.


I had no idea the White House had a compost, but I suppose if one has a steady supply of manure it has to go somewhere.  How festive it must look with all that red tape in it. 


The plot is well planned by the twin efforts of Dale Haney, Grounds Superintendant, and Sam Kass, Assistant White House Chef, to be functional and nutritious.  See the plan for yourself – it reads like a map of Washington.


My buddy blogger Carl at Front Range Food Gardener was impressed by the claim that 55 varieties of vegetable will be gown.  For you novice gardeners – don’t try this at home.  Gardening is a hobby; what they’re planning takes staffing.


Yet, somewhere in the excitement of installing the vegetable garden, a tell-tale slip occurred, when someone admitted that there will be no beets in this garden, because the President doesn’t like them.  Oh, sure, I am fully behind growing what you like to eat – after all, it’s a core tenant of having the garden – but in the case of the most influential man in the nation, well…this may cause scandal.  Need I remind you of broccoligate with Pres. H.W. Bush?


Stay tuned for more updates on the adventures of the First Garden.

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This is one dangerous time of year.  With things waking up quickly and warm days beckoning, it’s time to get out and tame the most savage beasts in the garden: ornamental grasses.  Oh, sure, roses can be cruel – cutting them back leaves my arms so scratched I look like a catfight gone bad and more than once, sitting to rest, I end up jumping and shimmying around, trying to find the thorn caught in my jeans.big grass


But at least their canes stay in one piece when I clip them; cut grasses down and they shatter, their blades going everywhere.  This is not fun.  Their leaves are serrate – “toothed” in the perky lingo of catalogs -and in the real world, this means razor-edged and ready to slice your hand open.


Fortunately I have friends in the Green Industry, the business devoted to caring for plants.  They’ve given me the secret to trimming big grasses without a trip to the emergency room.  All you need to do is wear long sleeves and gloves, then grab pruners or hedge clippers, and ….bungee cords.



Go out and look that grass in the eye.  Shake out the bungee cord and wrap it around the bunch, up where it lifts the leaves high, so that it looks like a sheaf of wheat.  bungee the grass


Hold leaves high





Prune large grasses off six inches from the soil, smaller grasses off at four inches high.  Hand pruners work on small-to-medium sized stalks; if you have really BIG grass, such as the large Miscanthus or Pampas, hedge trimmers do a great job.  Wear eye protection.


clip grass

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True confession time:  when I started my first vegetable garden, it frightened me.  Yes, I felt good growing and tending; I read all the magazines I could for advice.  But when the time came to harvest the first peppers I’d ever grown, I faltered, afraid to eat them. 


I was young, inexperienced, and did the only thing I could think of to see if it was safe:  I fed it to my spouse.  No, I don’t have a desire to see him expire.  But he can eat darn near anything; he’s practically a goat.  So I served him and waited, and once it was clear he wasn’t clutching his stomach and keeling over, I figured my first harvest was a success.


Since then I’ve become addicted to vegetable gardening, so much so it’s an obsession.  But I won’t seek therapy because I have plenty of company in this madness; chances are any therapist I’d see would pull out photos of their garden and offer to swap seeds.


Despite the anxiety of that first garden the season was magical, and if you’re ready to try growing your own, start off right and relax.  The food you’ll grow will taste better and be more nutritious, but keep a spouse or friend around, just in case.


Look around your yard and choose a site that gets eight hours of sunlight or more per day.  If the area was lawn, you’ll need to cut the grass, root and all, from the ground.  Sod cutters are excellent for this, but if you don’t have one, a shovel will do.


Dig or till the area, adding in compost or aged manure (see previous post) spread six to eight inches thick along the surface.  Vegetable roots grow deep; you’ll need to dig down at least 12 inches.  After that, go pass out on the couch, waiting a week for your body to stop screaming that it’s the Armageddon.


Once you can move again, lay out soaker hoses along the rows you plan to plant.  Soaker hoses keep the water where the plants need it – on the soil.  Sprinklers waste water by evaporation and soak leaves, spreading disease.


Then plant – now is the right time to pop in peas, lettuce, spinach, onions, leeks, radishes, beets, or other cool season crops.



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Fellow blogger Susan of Digging In sent along a question from a “mysterious reader” on dung, which gives me the opportunity to muse on the merits of manures:


Good soil is critical to successful growing, and gardeners often have entrenched feelings about the best type of material to plow under when preparing for planting.


Naturally, manures float to the top of any discussion on amendments.  In spring, when gardeners ask which dung to use, I find myself waxing poetic on manure age, crumble-ability, and animal source as if it were a fine wine. 


But answering the question “Which doo will do?” is not easily done (although the obsessed gardener will keep track of manure’s success and failures from year to year). 


Horse is always an option, but can be high in weed seed.  I’m no veterinarian, but I’ve been told that a horse will pass what it’s eaten through it’s system every 45 minutes, leaving no time for weed seeds to be, um, processed.  If the horse is on good pasture – one without many weeds – or is fed with certified hay, the problem of seeds is eliminated and gardeners can happily shovel it all over their garden. 


In some cases cattle manure could be high in salts, particularly if it came from animals confined to feedlots.  If you need enough to buy by the truckload, ask for an analysis of nutrients from the landscape supply company, including salts.  But note:  many places don’t spend time analyzing manure and asking for a detailed analysis of their poop may get you thrown off the property. 


Options expand if the amount you need is small enough:  sheep, llama, rabbit, even designer types such as “Zoo Doo”.  Rabbits produce a great manure – high in nitrogen but won’t harm or ‘burn’ plants with salt.  However, their poo pellets should be separated from wood bedding chips before tilling into the garden (wood chips tie up nitrogen while decomposing, keeping it from plants). 


When planning to amend your soil, any herbivore’s doo will do, as long as it is aged before applying it to the garden.  All animals carry eColi in their waste that can be splashed up onto plants during rain or irrigation, so use manure aged six months or longer. 


As for the relative benefits or drawbacks of which dung is best, well, that would be decided by personal choice, quantity desired, ready access, and a way to collect it that is borderline rational. 


A friend of mine tells me she and her garden buddy get their manure from horses, taking totes over to the stables to collect it.  This gives me visions of festively colored designer totes, held hopefully up to the business end of the horse, those gardeners pleading in their best Oliver Twist voices “please, horse, may I have more?”


Another buddy tells of asking her daughter to bring up a suitcase of bat guano on her flight from Phoenix for spring break.  Imagine the ruckus this would kick up at the security station should she need to have her bag searched.  The daughter politely declined, then immediately contacted the rest of the family to discuss having their mother committed.


Yet another gardener called to ask me the best way to transport the moose droppings she planned to collect on an RV trip through Alaska, concerned over keeping it fresh.  After gently explaining that the bags would build up methane gas and customs might take issue with an RV of potentially explosive poop, she decided to buy local.




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Everybody loves a young fruit tree, but for those of us who are a bit more matronly, keeping in shape can be a challenge.  Taking your tree from an shocking mess to full fruited glory isn’t hard, it just takes time.  But hey – what’s a few years of your life when it’s for a tree? old apple tree


Before you get started, be aware that this will take three to four years, depending on the condition of the tree.  Since this is no small task and many dwarf trees would give you fruit in three years, ask yourself if renovating the old one is worth it, or if planting a new one is better. 


Apple and pear trees are most easily renovated. Cherries also, but with less success. Peaches and nectarines don’t renovate well.


New is not always better – I love those old trees.  Their bark is corky, their form funky; those branches have stood through history, good and bad.  Maybe the old gal has luscious, old-fashioned fruit, or sentimental value.  Whatever your reasons, take our time with your tree, and follow these simple steps.


Let there be light:  clear away any competing trees and brush, to get rid of shade. But if the tree’s in a shady spot, cut out competing plants over two years to reduce stress from too much sun all at once.


Body check:  look for soundness.  Are the trunk and main limbs healthy enough to bear the weight of fruit?  Is it diseased?  Examine the trunk and ends of the major branches. They should be reasonably solid, with little deadwood. Don’t worry if parts of the trunk and main limbs are nonfunctioning – they give strength to the tree.


But if they’re hollow, saving that tree is an exercise in futility. Then get pruning:


Step 1:  prune out all broken and dead branches and cut away the sucker growth around the bottom of the trunk. sucker at base


Step 2:  decide how big you want the tree to be. Realize, however, that you can never make a giant tree into a dwarf no matter how much you chop – you are not Edward Scissorhands. Old trees can be maintained at 10 to 16 feet (semi dwarf) and 16 to 20 feet tall (standards).


Trees that haven’t been pruned in a long time should NOT be reduced to the desired height in a single pruning. To prevent rampant growth and damaging sunburn, reduce height over three years by removing no more than one-third of the tree in one season.


After you decide on the desired height and limb spread, look at the major branches to determine where they could be cut to bring the tree into that shape.  Reduce tree size by cutting back branches to those growing more horizontal to the ground, thinning out excessive branches, or those that cross or rub against others.


Flag your choices for removal with colored plastic, then step back and look at your choices, imagining how those cuts will effect the tree.  Once you begin pruning step back after every branch removal to assess how it looks, adjusting other choices to keep the tree in balance.


Note:  do not apply nitrogen after the initial heavy cutting.


During the summer after the first pruning, the tree will produce water spouts (rapidly growing vegetative shoots that develop around pruning cuts).  Remove them, but the way you do this is important:  pull the shoot off the trunk in mid-June when they’re 10 to 12 inches long. Do this throughout the season. The shoots can be pulled off safely as long as their bases remain tender and green. Stop when the base of the shoot becomes woody and does not easily pull off.


In the next winter, cut back another group of older branches to those growing more horizontally, keeping to one-third of the original numer to be removed.  Then thin out the bearing wood. Look for 1- to 4-year-old spurs – the buds where fruit is produced. The best fruit grows on spurs that are 2 to 3 years old. Thin spurs older than this, or cut them back by half.old spurs


In the third winter, remove the final branches to horizontal limbs.

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Ok, everybody just stay calm.  Yes, the weather is warm.  Yes, the trees are in bud swell.  The bulbs are up, some are blooming, weedy grasses are greening, a few pines are beginning to candle, the pussy willows are pussying, bees are buzzing…Jumping spider with fly

 Of course, the wind is blowing, we’re setting record high temps, and snow is predicted for Tuesday.  In short, it’s springtime on the Front Range. 

There’s nothing we can do about it, but there are things we should NOT do because of this. 


1) Water your trees, but not in the evening.  We still have rollercoaster temps that take us from warm to frozen in the blink of an eye, and if water is on the surface of the soil, that freezing could damage roots severely.  Water during the warmest part of the day.


2) Don’t remove the mulch from around your perennials.  Though they may be pushing growth up above it, their crown is still not hardened off; that tender growth could be killed by one cold snap.





3) If you have grapes, back away from the pruners.  Just walk away.  Pruning grapes is a stimulus for growth, and if that bud breaks your chances for a good fruit crop this year are in the hands of Mother Nature.  Since she’s feeling fickle this spring, those buds could freeze off.  Oh, sure, they’ll try again – after all, grapes have a three-in-one bud that will try and try again – but with each bud break the amount of fruit you get bottoms out.


4) Keep your hands off the sprinkler system.  The ground is not as warm as you think, and turning on your system just risks getting a frozen pipe.


If you must get out and garden, here are a few things you can do:


Apply pre-emergent weed killer to your lawn, if it needs it.  Corn Gluten is an excellent, organic way to keep those weed seeds from sprouting, but if you use it, remember that it fertilizes a little too, so reduce the amount of nitrogen you put on next month.


Spray dormant oil on trees and shrubs with aphid or scale problems.  Some of the woodies are plagued by aphids, such as ash, plum, honeysuckle or roses.  Aphids – a small, soft bodied sap sucker which can curl leave and make gardeners crazy – lay their eggs up against the leaf bud for the winter.  Smother those youngsters with oil now, before the eggs hatch.


Prune fruit trees and other trees.







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