Archive for June, 2009

Every child needs a safe, friendly place to play.  But in a big city during a time of financial crunch, coming up with the means to put in a playground is not always easy.   

 Enter KaBOOM!, a non profit organization dedicated to building playgrounds across the United States – they want to bring play back to children.  What these folks do is simply amazing:  they organize and lead huge groups of volunteers and corporate sponsors in a one-day build-a-palooza that starts with an empty space and ends with a playground for kids in need. 

On this trip to San Francisco, I opted to be one of those volunteers, to lend a hand with the Cesar Chavez playground at Bret Harte Elementary, generously funded in part by California Volunteers.  Cities can be hard, grey spaces and this playground was adding in elements dear to any gardener’s heart:  a greenhouse classroom, raised bed planters for vegetables, and butterfly attracting plants near the open areas.  Greenhouse

And oh, yes, trees.  Meyer Lemons, which fruit year-round here, California buckeyes with their palmate leaves, and beautiful redbuds to shade the slides, climbing structures and twirling platforms the group installed.  But the children’s area was not all to be found at this build; this is the first inter-generational playground in the US, according to organizers, incorporating a senior walk, interactive garden and gathering areas.  mural

Security was tight at the event; we passed through metal detectors and showed our ID cards for entry.  But this was understandable – the 500 volunteers were being led by California’s First Lady, Maria Shriver, and Julie Rodriguez, granddaughter of Cesar Chavez and program director of the foundation in his honor

California First Lady Maria SchriverAs we worked painting walls, installing trees, pouring concrete footers and assembling jungle gyms, Ms. Shriver wandered the yard, offering encouragement and checking progress.  About 10 a.m. she left, after promising to return later in the day to check on our progress.  Ms. Rodriguez remained with us, working alongside groups.

Gardens were planted with impressive speed; the school was given a fresh look with gorgeous murals.  Brightly colored equipment was bolted together and out of a flat asphalt area the playground rose, inviting us to be kids again.

Then the SWAT team arrived, along with dozens of San Francisco’s finest-in-blue.  Police on foot, motorcycles, and horses surrounded us.  Murmurs had circulated about a special guest, but only when the rooftops became lookouts for serious-faced sentries did we believe.  First Lady Michelle Obama

The rumor was true.  When Ms. Shriver returned, she came with First Lady Michelle Obama.  Our First Lady spoke of the joy of gardening; how her first vegetable patch at the White House is thriving with all of the rain they’ve had.  She called on us to build more and with urgency, because the need for outdoor spaces – gardens and playgrounds – is critical.  Obesity is on the rise.  The numbers she cited were shocking:  30-percent of children in the US are obese, and the youngest – our little ones – are predicted to live shorter lives than we. 

Is this the legacy we want for our kids?  Our grandchildren?  These thoughts she gave us before she and Maria Shriver turned their hands to building slides and toys alongside us.  There we stood – 500 people from all walks of life and heritage, coated in mud, smeared with paint and sweat – in awe; content to watch two First Ladies roll up their sleeves and bolt things together.  But the Secret Service politely announced that they wanted us to get back to work.

So we did.  And we’ll continue to do just that, working in our communities to bring gardens and play back to kids.  Ask KaBOOM! to help you explore your options, or others in your area.

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Reader Betty sent in a note on an upcoming hands-on workshop that sounds fun.  If you’re planning to be in the Westcliff, Colorado area next weekend, June 27, consider enrolling in a class on building a sustainable greenhouse.  Offered by Penn and Cord Parmenter, here’s the ad they’re running for the class:

 From: Penn Parmenter, mtntop@wildblue.net

 Hi Mountain Gardeners!! 
What a spring!  I hope your gardens are flourishing – ours sure are.  Okay – here’s what’s going on.  June 27th – a week from Saturday – we  will be BUILDING A SUSTAINABLE GREENHOUSE IN ONE DAY.  I know!!  It’s a big project and we are hustling like crazy to be ready.  The cost  of the class is $35 per person unless you have taken our Sustainable 
Greenhouse Design class and then it is $25 per person.  The hours are  9am (Check-in starting at 8:30am), until 5 or 6 or?…  If you need  to spend the night there is National Forest everywhere and hotels in Westcliffe and Canon City.

You can bring a lawn chair and a notebook and watch or a tool-belt and help- depending on your wishes.  Please mark all of your tools with your name.  Battery operated tools will be helpful.  Bring a  sack lunch and clothes for all weather – including sturdy shoes.  You can read about the class on TeachStreet.com but here’s the direct  address:

If you sign up we will send directions to the site from every which way.  This class is the REAL DEAL – you will learn how to build this  greenhouse.  We call it – “The Little Greenhouse That Could”.  This thing will heat and cool itself year round – there is no ‘down’ time.  Plus, it works better than we can ever tell you – but we can show you.  There are no expensive solar panels to buy as this is all Passive Solar and we will be using about 90% recycled materials.   Anybody can have this!

So, call us, email us, sign up and then run home and build one for yourself!

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Miller Moths – those brown and white flying nuisances –  arrive toward the end of May, but this year their arrival was a bit delayed due to dry spring weather.  However, now that they’re here, the lil critters are lingering because the weather’s cool.  miller moth

 They pupate in the soils of eastern Colorado/western Kansas (as well as neighboring states of Nebraska and Wyoming), particularly in wheat or alfalfa fields.  The most common Miller moth is the adult form of army cutworms Euxoa auxiliaris

 Once they molt into winged adults, they migrate westward to the mountains, where there’s an abundance of flowers with nectar for food.  It’s also speculated that they are the victims of peter pan syndrome and don’t want to age; the only thing that staves this off are the cool temperatures found at higher elevations.

 The Front Range is in their flight path and if the weather’s right, they’ll hang out here with us.  You can tell that they’re in the area by the way birds – particularly swallows – work the intersections of roadways trying to scoop up flitting moths.  Look closely the next time you’re at an intersection (and the light is red) to see if you can find the little moth flying in panic just in front of the dipping, swooping bird.

 What determines the numbers of bugs in any given year will be the temperatures and moisture over winter, the pressure of pesticides in their staging grounds, and prevalent weather once they emerge.  Plus, rollercoaster temps that may warm up enough to signal the time for adult emergence will have moths literally freeze their bottoms off when the cold front moves through. 

 This kills a LOT of bugs, as do flocks of birds nearby – imagine popping out of your cocoon to say “Hello world!” and have a beak scoop you up to eat you. 

 Although they are irritating when they fly about our homes, you can have fun with them.  Jingling keys makes a noise that causes them to dive for cover, and they’ll land on any surface nearby.  This can provide hours of fun if you’re tied up at an airport or waiting in line at a bank; just jingle you keys when the moth is flying over a person to try and get the moth to land on or near that person.

 You don’t need to worry about controlling these insects – they’ll move on once the weather warms.  In the meantime, keep your screens closed and the porch light off to limit the numbers of moths attracted to your house.

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Had enough of severe storms, hail, and tornadoes?  If you think Mother Nature’s done with us, think again.  This series of wet weather has given rise to the scourge of outdoor activity:  mosquitoes.

I know, I know – those who live in places where mosquitoes are the size of Boeing 747s and routinely carry off small pets are thinking “wimps, grow a spine!”  But we’re not sissies in this semi-arid place, after all we deal with rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and bears.  Plant trays

Yet mosquitoes are a problem – the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment has announced that a trap captured a West Nile virus-positive Culex mosquito on June 5 in Fort Collins, Colorado.  For readers living outside of our state, this is significant because it’s three to five weeks earlier than most years. This virus is serious for humans, but not all mosquitoes carry it – only Culex species does. 

 A gardener’s yard is filled with opportunities for mosquitoes to lay their eggs, since we have pots, buckets, saucers, bird baths, ponds, wheelbarrows, and other accessories stacked around the yard.  If you look at the list many of the health agencies have on common breeding areas, gardeners’ yards appear to be mother ships for these insects.  buckets of standing water

But there is something you can do to reduce the problem of mosquitoes:  change bird bath water twice per week; dump out water that collects in the dish beneath pots; turn over unused pots, saucers, trays and buckets; and use Bt doughnuts to float in your ponds or water features.  Bt, short for Bacillus thuringiensis, is a natural way to kill off the mosquito larvae in your water.

To protect yourself while working in the garden, cover up or use a mosquito repellent that’s effective against West Nile Virus-carrying mosquitoes. Check with your local health department for suggested repellents.

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“Are we in Seattle?” came the question today when another round of severe storms pushed into the area.  “Reminds me of Boston,” was overheard yesterday after a week of nasty weather graced our skies.  And though the gardens love this wet weather, one thing we can all do without is the hail that’s been teaming up with it.

If your plants become victims of the savage skies, take heart: though it looks bad now, depending on the plant, its maturity, and time left in the season for recovery, all may not be lost.

At highest risk are vegetable root crops, such as potatoes or beets, whose destroyed leaves could mean the plant sends up new shoots, compromising quality of the crop. For leafy vegetables, be patient:  give them at least a week to recuperate after the storm, and if there’s no sign of life, replant.

Flowering annuals stripped of their leaves may not survive, and replanting now will ensure a good display later in summer.  Yes, it’s hard to pull up those babies, but a shredded stalk is not going to give your neighbors cause to envy your landscape.

But if there’re a few bits left on the stem and you’re feeling nurturing, clean them up and a give them a light application of fertilizer.  They might recover.

Severely shredded leaves on smaller perennials should be cut back to the ground.  If the leaves aren’t too damaged, leave the foliage alone.  Bleeding hearts and other perennials with soft stems that look reasonably unharmed should be cut back part way. Generally they’ll sprout new leaves along the stem at the junction between the old leaves and the stem.

 With well-established perennials, work fertilizer in around damaged plants to give them a boost for recovery.

Perennials with firm stalks should be cut partially back. If they don’t sprout new leaves on existing stems, look for new stems pushing up from their roots.  At this time, cut down the older stalks that were left standing after the storm.

Trees and shrubs will push new leaves if they’ve been healthy this spring, so just rake up and compost and plant parts that fall to the ground.  Examine your woody plants for wounds in the bark or torn limbs; clean up the wound site with a sharp knife and let the plant heal itself.  But if the wounds are severe, treat them with a fungicide to prevent canker diseases within 24 hours.

With this unsettled weather, lightning, hail and tornadoes are a bigger worry than protecting your plants.  Once the heavy storm sets in, TAKE SHELTER.  Don’t make yourself an entry for the Darwin Awards by putting your plant before your life.

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Being on vacation is a chance to get away, see new sights, and act like an idiot without being recognized.  I love going to new places and so, slapping our adventurer’s hats on, my spouse and I took off for Santa Fe.  Blue door

 For those who haven’t been, this is a lovely city.  For me, the adobe buildings and brightly colored doors and windows were a treat made more exotic by the bloom of familiar plants in the gardens below the houses.  We share many plants with the southwest since we’re a high dry place too, and it was nice to see familiar faces amongst the stucco city.  Silver lace vine

 See new sights:  This is the home of High Country Gardens, a source for xeric and native plants perfect for the Rocky Mountain region.  In their demonstration gardens early bloomers were booming; sage, poppies, roses and columbines wound through each others’ leaves, the textures and colors heart-stopping in their simple beauty.  Poppy sage rose

Visitors spoke to each other in grunts, “ooo!  oo!” the most frequently heard comment.  Get down there if you haven’t visited.  You’ll find the garden center filled with benches of low water plants, nurseries packed with vines, shrubs and trees for the high desert, and… Big honkin' bumblebee

 …the biggest bumblebee I have ever seen.  It flew through the groundcover greenhouse like a C130, the drone of its passing a low hum that shook nearby petals.  We gave chase, although carefully:  she may be mellow, but only an idiot bum rushes a bug with a stinger.

Act like an idiot:  Throughout the city, trucks parked, advertising pinõn seeds for a mere $12 per bag.  Remembering the pecan harvests of Texas, we stopped, intent on picking up some for pestos, salads, and other culinary dishes.  Seeing the sandwich-sized baggies of brown, bean-like nuts, we wondered:  this is all you get for twelve bucks?  Where’re the blonde, oily, savory nutlings you get at the grocers?

 This is pinõn in their natural form, we were assured, albeit roasted.  You crack and open them like a sunflower seed, with a nip from your front teeth.  “Cool,” I thought and bought a bag, my mind filled with visions of how many dishes I could make from the baggie.

 But the vendor didn’t lie.  These seeds are individually encased in a hull that must be broken by biting, and the task of getting enough for a spoonful, much less a recipe worth, takes all day.  Squirrels find the pinõn a delicacy to be savored, mostly because it takes them a good while to open the thing.  Pinon seeds

 To shell enough for a meal, I’ll need to start early in the day, say when I arrive for work, nipping and opening nuts all day in order to have the quarter-cup my pesto calls for.  Staff meetings can be a community effort to husk my seeds for supper.

 Still, heading home, north from the city bathed in sun and draped in blooms, the car smelling of hyssop and mums from High Country Gardens, those pinons were fun to nibble.  Keep cracking those hulls, and we’ll be feasting next week.

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Today’s blog post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch. 

Crop To Cuisine

Across the country, vegetables plants are all the rage.   There’s an air of optimism with putting these in the ground, in what the media is touting as a return to victory gardens.    But the name “victory garden” is a puzzler here in Colorado; after all, we’ve long known that anytime we even get a plant to grow it’s a triumph worth celebrating.

 Every season, we battle drought, concrete soils and hurricane force winds; then summer arrives and things warm up; the heat bringing worse foes:  weeds and bugs.  With this, new gardeners can get discouraged. weeds popping up in garden

 There’s no resting on the laurels of a newly planted bed; once the irrigation starts weeds pop up, unfurling leaves and colonizing areas faster than you can pick them.  That blush of green you see isn’t a young lettuce bed; its purslane or Kochia, getting settled into your ground.

 Plucking and pulling every day seems like an endless task, so give yourself a break and put down mulch in that vegetable patch.  A quick, easy way is to clean your bed, put out your soaker hoses, then lay two sheets of newspaper down over the soil (black and white pages only, not color).  Top this with three to four inches of straw or grass clippings.

 This simple mulch is very effective in keeping weeds down, since seeds don’t sprout and grow up from under it.  You’ll still get some weeds, though, since any seeds blowing into the area can germinate and root down through the mulch.   straw mulch

 In addition to keeping weeds to a bearable level, mulching over soaker hoses is water thrifty – it helps retain moisture in the ground for plants to take up, and reduces how often you need to water.

 Once the mulch is down, check under it before you water, to get an idea of how long it takes to dry a bit under the covering.  Then pull up a lawn chair, pour a lemonade, relax, and wonder what the heck those small dots are savaging your prize seedlings.

 Flea beetles.  Just the thought sends shudders through a gardener’s world, because they herald the first true battles of the season, where the winner takes all.  Just remember – this is YOUR victory garden, not theirs.

Western Cabbage flea beetleMost of the flea beetles plaguing our plants spend the first part of their lives below ground, though some can develop on the leaves.  Beginning with the eggs laid in cracks of the soil, after hatch the wormlike larvae grow, dining on tender roots.  Typically this isn’t the problem stage – it’s the adults you need to worry about.

These small, shiny beasts with jumbo sized hind legs are voracious feeders that leap out of the way of danger.  Even your shadow sends them scattering for cover. Gnawing small, circular holes into leaves – called shotholes – their attacks can result in seedlings being stunted or killed.  Many of our vegetables and ornamentals are at risk – potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce – everything is fair game to them. 

This assault on your garden must be met swiftly, unless you enjoy seeing the look of horror guests get as you parade them through your shredded stalks.  Options for flea beetle control vary, but before you break out the serious chemicals, try a few earth friendly ideas like floating row covers popularly called ‘Remay’. 

 This light cloth tented over your plants keep bugs at bay, but you’ll have to lift it to allow pollinators to get at the blooms.

 Radishes planted as trap crops around your garden work well, particularly for attracting one of the types we have here, the Western Cabbage Flea Beetle.  Plant them close together in a border or the insects will keep flying further until they find your prized crop. 

 Yellow or white sticky traps may work, although they must be placed so closely together it will be hard to move around your garden.  Anyone who’s worked with these gooey glue boards knows that they capture anything that comes into contact with them:  dirt, bugs, leaves, and small toddlers.  They get disgusting quickly.

Diatomaceous earth is great as an irritant to repel the beetles.  Made from crushed fossilized sea creatures, diatomaceous earth is a powder that, sprinkled on the plant, causes discomfort to the beetle’s exoskeleton.  Like a scratchy sweater, it irritates the flea beetles and they move on, into the neighbor’s yard.  You have to keep applying the dust, though, after every rain.

One of my favorites is vacuuming off the beetles – I love how the sight of this stops traffic on my street.  Like a deranged June Cleaver who can’t stand the sight of a dirty garden, I’ll toss on a set of pearls and march forth, vacuum cleaner in tow. 

Years of experience have taught me that the household vacuum is best for this task; shopvacs won’t do.  These bugs are little – you only need a gentle pull to get them off the plant.  A machine capable of pulling up nails is too big; one slip with that type of suction and in a pppttthhhp!  your seedling is a distant memory.  You’re left with shredded parts clinging to the hose end and a bunch of flea beetles, bowing down before you, in awe of your sheer destructive power.

 No, a dirt devil is the perfect size and if you move with finesse, you’ll get a bagful of beetles in no time.  Point the nozzle at an angle to the leaf so you don’t draw up the plant instead of the bugs.  Be prepared to repeat this several times per week – there’s plenty more beetles out there willing to reinvade you garden after you and your vacuum leave.

 One note:  if you do vaccum your bugs, you have to empty the bag.  This is not for the squeamish – take the vacuum away from your garden, open the bag cover, and grasp the neck of the bag near the entrance from the machine.  Pinch this shut as you remove the bag, tie off the end and dispose of it.

 If you’re not in the mood for light housework in the garden, try Neem.  Made from extract from the neem tree, this helps gardeners keep flea beetles under control.  It’s available as a spray at your local garden centers.

 With each challenge you’ll find more to celebrate once your harvest get rolling.  If   you’ve got a brand new garden, one where food has never been grown before, log onto Grow Local’s 2,009 gardens in 2009 website to register your plot and take the grow local pledge.  This project is devoted to bringing people closer to the earth and the food it provides.

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