Archive for September, 2009

I’ll say it: the Colorado Rockies are playing on the wrong type of grass.  As October knocks on the door and the regular season winds down, the boys of summer need something better, something to focus their resolve, something inspiring.  They need…

Buffalo grass. 

Before the turfies and sports field managers rise up in protest, let me explain:  I know that bluegrass, the turf of choice in Coors Field, is durable and perfect for the pounding baseball dishes out.  It recovers quickly, takes traffic, and looks darned good mowed to within an inch of its life.

Buffalo grass doesn’t.

 But these are desperate times; our team is a hair’s breadth away from winning – or losing – the wildcard slot in the playoffs.  Such times call for desperate measures, which is why Buchloë dactyloides (buffalo grass) is the answer.

 But not just any buffalo grass, what we need is Legacy, a northern variety that changes color in the fall before going dormant.  As the temperatures cool to nights below 40 degrees F, Legacy turns purple, just the thing needed to boost our Blake Street Bombers’ confidence. 

 Imagine the gasps of the crowd and the pride of the players as they see the field, mowed lilac-and-plum in a checkerboard pattern.  Any visiting team would be stunned by the sight, giving the Rockies an edge in the game.

 Should the Rockies insist on both durability as well as a beacon of hope, a compromise could be made by seeding buffalo grass in the shape of the logo into the outfield.  As fall moves in, the unveiling of the huge “CR” would become one of the wonders of the state.

Not all buffalo grass does this.  Southern types, bred to perform best where they grow year-round, don’t harden off for winter dormancy, which is what gives the northern varieties their color.  Instead, southern types such as 609 or Prairie are shocked by winter’s kiss, going from green to brown in an evening. 

These aren’t as hardy here in Colorado, and our turf specialist – Dr. Tony Koski of Colorado State University – doesn’t recommend using them here.  Look for the northerns for your lawn, he says, “they’re smart enough, so to speak, to go dormant for surviving winter nights.”  In his fact sheet on buffalo grass lawns, Koski recommends  Legacy, Prestige and Turffalo.

If you’re not into plummy tones in your landscape, good news: not all of them go purple.  Football fans will be thrilled to learn that they can have their lawn display their loyalty to the Denver Broncos by turning a striking orange just as the gridiron gladiators get their season underway.

Be aware that the intensity of the color depends on the care the grass receives in summer, primarily watering.  Most people don’t water buffalo grass, says Koski, so don’t get the rich fall colors that make this grass a beautiful addition to the yard. 

Yet buffalo grass doesn’t take traffic, so places where kids, dogs, and baseball players frequent should have a different turf.  If you plan to convert your lawn, remember the time to do this is mid-May or early June.

For now, with only five games left to clinch a playoff spot, we’ll have to put up with bluegrass to carpet the field, and dream of purple grass along with the pennant.

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Just because I didn’t have enough to do in fall, I planted hops.  Actually, I planted them for other reasons, but in the middle of vegetable harvest, having to harvest hops turned into a two-day marathon that left me scratched, itching, and sticky from lupulin.  Hops ready for harvest

Growing the plant is easy, but knowing when to harvest is a trick – I went to the Brewing Techniques website, to a wonderful article by Stephanie Montell, entitled Hops in the Backyard: From Planting to Harvest and the Hazards in Between.

Montell’s article is a great resource for rookie hops growers, providing solid advice for getting those cones from the vine.  But applied to a life like mine, well, the results were mixed.

“Determine the readiness for picking by feel and smell. If the cone is too green, it feels slightly damp to the touch and has a softness to its scales. If you squeeze the cone, it will stay compressed in your hand. A ready cone will feel papery and light.”  A light tweak told me mine were ready.

We had a wet storm bearing down on us, and, never picking hops before, I assessed the vines and thought I could squeeze it in before making supper.  An hour and a half later, my spouse wandered over to check on progress.  I’d only gleaned cones from one-third of one plant, so he asked the only part of me he could see – my head and shoulders were inside the vine mass – if he should get dinner rolling.

Mumbling about giving up for the evening soon, I wriggled upwards to grasp a few more cones from the back.  “Do you need a headlamp?” he offered, and I knew that I’d need to return another day to finish.  Yellow Lupulin on hop

“If your hands quickly take up the smell and are slightly sticky due to the yellow powdery lupulin, that cone is ready for harvest.”  This advice is excellent, and very accurate.  At the beginning, I worried about not having sticky hands after handling a few hops; after a half-hour, my hands were pleasantly gummy and my spouse thought my new perfume very appealing.  Huge cone

But hops are a spiny vine, and my arms were getting badly scratched; I had to wear long sleeves to a florist event the next day just to cover the signs of those spines.  The next time I sallied out to finish picking – giving myself an entire day to get it done – I swaddled myself in long sleeves and sweats to protect my skin.

Once the plants were stripped, it was time to turn my attention to curing them for storage.

“The cones must be properly dried to optimize their qualities during storage. Although hops can be used fresh, the results will be unpredictable. Hops are 70% moisture when ripe, but only 10% when dried to the equivalent of commercial hops,” Montell instructed, “This can be done in a food dehydrator, homemade hop dryer, or well-vented oven.”

Hops harvest Staring at the two bushels of cones, I reflected on the size of the oven needed to dry these down.  The dehydrator was out – it couldn’t keep up with the tomatoes, much less enough hops to open my own brewpub.  Lacking any other options, I went low-tech, spreading the cones in a single layer to dry in the sheds.  The plural is deliberate here – I had enough hops to cover all available flat surfaces in two sheds.

“They are ready for storage when springy to the touch and the lupulin powder easily falls out. Another indicator is when the central stem breaks rather than bends. The stem takes much longer to dry than the petals, so you will know when the cones are ready for storage. This should take approximately three days.”  A week later and I’m still checking for dryness; my system is a bit slow.  But they’re getting close and I’ll bag and freeze them until my homebrewing friends make a few batches.

Or a few hundred batches, considering the amount I harvested.

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If you, like me, were gullible enough to believe the weather prediction that snow was on the way, you might have a lot of produce sitting on the counter.  In a panic to save the harvest, stripping the plants seemed like a good idea at the time.

But the snow never came to the lower elevations and now, working around the heaped piles of produce on the counter, you can’t help but feel a little silly for panicking. 

First you try nonchalance, acting as if you never see your counter anyway.  You make coffee, build a sandwich, and rattle about the kitchen without really making eye contact with the mountain of fruit.

Then you pull one or two items from the mound, feeling good about using them in dinner.  “I’m making progress!” you think, blithely ignoring the avalanche of food cascading across the kitchen.

Finally you face the harvest, overwhelmed by the thought that if you don’t spend the next few days preserving that bounty, you – not the snow – will be the downfall of the season.  Approach that pile with a plan, and you’ll be enjoying the fruits of your labor all winter long.

flame roasting Roast, then freeze those peppers.  If you have a lot of peppers, consider taking them to a farm stand where they have a roaster.  For a small fee many places will give your peppers a spin.  True, cooking shows may demonstrate the technique of laying a giant pepper on a gas stove top burner, crisping the skin one side at a time.  But there isn’t one pepper in the pile, there are 30, and you’d like to have a life at some point during the weekend.

If you’d like to do it yourself, fire up the grill, wash the peppers and pat them dry.  Put as many on the grill as it will hold, set the heat up medium high, and watch those peppers.  Turn them every minute or so until the skin is mostly charred.  Pull the peppers from the grill with tongs and pop them in a paper bag, curling the top over to let them steam.  blackened peppers

Let the peppers sit for 15 minutes, then pull them from the bag (use plastic food gloves to protect your hands), separate the chilies into individual freezer bags in the amount you use for recipes, and freeze.  When you thaw the chilies, the skin can be removed at that time.

Ripe melons can be diced and frozen.  Cut open and remove seeds, cut off the rind, then slice the melon meat into one-inch chunks.  Lay the chunks in a single layer on a cookie sheet and freeze.  Once frozen, put the melon pieces into a freezer bag for storage.

Dehydrate summer squash for use in stews during winter.  Wash and pat dry the squash, cut into one-quarter inch thick slices.  Follow directions on the dehydrator for drying.

Eggplant can be frozen if you peel, slice and blanch it in boiling water with ½ cup of lemon juice to one gallon of water.  After the slices cool you can pop them in the freezer, but the texture may be a bit soft when you thaw it.  I’m not sure eggplant can stand to be more slimy – I think I’ll just roast mine, scoop it out and make baba ghanoush out of it.

This delightful middle eastern-style dip is perfect with pita slices; Tyler Florence and JoAnn Cianciulli of the Food Network have a recipe that sounds worth the time, garnished with pistachios for extra flavor.

Time to get in the kitchen.

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Be careful what you wish for.  In a grump after spending all day Sunday processing tomatoes (dehydrating, saucing, freezing), I blurted out “C’mon frost!”

Frost may not show up but his cousin, snow, is predicted for the Denver area tonight after midnight.  Rain mixed with snow and accumulations up to one-inch are expected, so pick your produce before dark.  If your winter squash, melons and pumpkins aren’t ripe, tent the patch with a cover of PLASTIC, not blankets.

If you plan on trying to tent your tomatoes, keep in mind that those which have started to color can take the cold temps under cover, but immature green tomatoes will stop development and never ripen.  Pick these today and enjoy them fried. 

Cover your tender plants,  being sure that the covering does not touch the plant and extends completely to the ground.  The warmth of the soil will fill the covering like a tent, keeping temperatures just above freezing.  Cloth coverings won’t work because of the rainy conditions before the snow, so plastic is preferred.  Remove the coverings in the morning to allow the soil to warm again.

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Gardeners, if you have tropical plants in containers or houseplants you grew on the patio, now is the time to bring those in for the night.  Temperatures are predicted to be 38 to 40 degrees tonight, far colder than those plants will tolerate.

The week long forecast looks to be a bit colder at night, depending on whom you believe, so toss a blanket and plastic sheet over any garden plants you’d like to save.  Remember, the warmth from the soil is what keeps the plants from freezing, so drape your cover all the way to the ground, anchoring it along the bottom so it doesn’t blow off.

If we continue to get rain squalls, blankets alone are not a good choice; once wet they no longer protect the plant.  Plastic over the blankets will work well.

Remember to remove these covers in the morning – it gets hot under the blankets and roasts those plants during the day.

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Yesterday at the Colorado Fall Home Show in Denver, the Floral Association of the Rockies held an event that pitted three talented designers in a competition to see who had what it takes to wear the Iron Fist Florist crown.   Battling petal to petal, the three gladiators had one hour to create a design using three ingredients kept secret until the start of the competition:  small pumpkins, horsetail reed, and toothpicks.  Selecting material at start of event

From the opening rush to get supplies to the final presentation, the audience was enthralled by the arrangements as they took shape.  Speculating on what the designers had in mind, the crowd was wowed by all three creations.  Designers let their imaginations run wild, and here is a small photo essay to show you the results.

The contestants:  Franklin Mera

Franklin Mera of Artistic Flowers and Gifts; Cindy Anderson, AIFD (freelance designer); and Susan Carr, AIFD,  of Trim International Floral School, LTDCindy Anderson AIFD Susie Carr AIFD

Franklin working Susie workingCindy working Cindy finished Susie finishedFranklin finished

After the hour was up and judges conferred, Susie’s design was first place, Cindy’s was second and Franklin’s was third.  All of the designs were auctioned off, and proceeds went to FAR for education.

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If you’ve been thinking about adding some spring color to your landscape but want a splash of drama, clear your calendar and head on out to the Denver Botanic Gardens’ Fall Bulb Sale tomorrow, Saturday, September 19, starting at 9 a.m. (members get to shop early, at 8 a.m.).  Over 18,000 bulbs will be for sale, plus other plants, including pansies. Bulbs for spring color

Everybody loves pansies.  Their bright, cheerful faces bloom through fall; the hardy ones might hang on through the following summer.  They’re edible, although you don’t want to nibble on any at the sale – often plants from the greenhouse have something other than fresh air sprayed on them.

Check out the specially prepared gifts you can buy for loved ones, or browse through the selection of plants for fall planting offered at the sale.  Once you’ve gotten your goodies, remember these tips for bulb success:

–  Plant bulbs when soil temperatures are cool – 55 to 58 degrees.

–  Dig holes four times the height of the bulb, and place bulbs tips up.

–  There’s no need to fertilize at planting, instead, fertilize in spring when shoots first show.

–  Add four inches of mulch to buffer soil temperatures.

But don’t think this is the end of the season at the Gardens.  Check out the schedule of classes for fall, and you’ll discover gems such as Growing a Garden Blog with fellow writer Jodi Torpey on October 3 at 10 a.m.  You may remember her from a previous post when she ran that wacky vegetable contest. 

I’ve know her for a few years and if you’re thinking of getting a blog going, she’s a great writer to learn from.  Heck, she’s teaching me to Twitter!  Follow us both for your garden updates at  http://twitter.com/gardeningafter5 or http://twitter.com/Westerngardener.  You can follow her blog at WesternGardeners.com.

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Every year when fall creeps in around the garden, harvest is at its peak.  But not all who glean the garden are popping things into freezers or canning jars.

Some are taking it back to the queen, where she waits, grumpy from heat and exhausted from a summer spent laying eggs, surrounded by a court less tolerant and quicker to anger.  Yes, fall is the season when wasps make their presence known, and this year is no exception.

A simple explanation is that yellow jackets are more noticeable in fall because there are more of them.  Each winter only fertilized queens survive, hiding in nooks or crannies of the landscape, while abandoned nests wither and die.  In spring young queens emerge to start a new colony.

Although adults prefer a high carbohydrate diet of fruit or nectar, the larvae like meat.  This the adults scavenge, bringing back insects, earthworms, or chunks of the hamburger they raided from your picnic.  Once at the nest, the adults lovingly chew the food to make life easier for the young, something any parent can relate to when thinking of the lengths they go to just to get their kids to eat.

In return the parents are treated to a sweet material produced by the young as a thank you.  Over the summer this arraignment works – the adults feed the young, and the young feed the adults.  But in fall, the queen lays fewer eggs, resulting in fewer young.  This puts the colony on a diet and, ravenous for sugar, the adults aggressively work our yards, searching for any and all sweets.

By the time we notice that wasps are a problem, the colony has grown to huge proportions, easily housing 200 or more tightly wound, half-starved, heavily armed denizens who want sugar and want it now.

Picnics, fruit trees and garbage attract notice; an open soda becomes a mob scene.  Their rage at being thwarted in a sugar fix is a lot like the reaction to someone trying to cut in line at the Starbucks at 7:30 a.m. – extreme, with repeated stinging to drive off those who get in the way. 

Nothing is safe from their wrath in fall, and if you’re unlucky enough to be allergic to their venom, you need a plan to get rid of these insects.  Normally, when it comes to human-insect interaction, I counsel understanding.

Forget that.

 These bugs are a problem, and the best way to fix it is to find the nest and destroy it.  This is not an easy feat:  yellow jackets are a ground dwelling wasp, making it difficult to find them.  Once you have, destroying it isn’t easy – very often the colony lives quite a ways from the entrance, and sprays may not reach them.

Lure them to a trap baited with heptyl butyrate, which is similar to sugar water.  These brightly colored plastic tubes entice yellow jackets, but not honey bees, with the sweet drink they crave.  But place it away from spots where you picnic – no point in reliving that Starbucks incident.

If there are a lot of wasps flying around a tree, check the leaves and young shoots for honeydew producing insects, such as aphids or scale.  The honeydew – sugary waste excreted by sap-sucking bugs – is what the wasps are after, which shows you the horrors of a sugar addiction gone wild. 

A strong jet of water will knock aphids off of the leaves, but if the tree is heavily infested with scale a stronger approach is needed, such as applications of dormant oil during winter.

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If you’ve been following this blog, you might know that I have a passion for tomatoes.  One that borders on obsession and yes, today’s post is yet another ode to the love apple.  Rating flavor

We had a tomato workshop last Friday, one that brought 45 Colorado Master Gardeners out to Loveland to learn fall tips for growing and harvesting, plus a bit on how to preserve them. Politely the crowd listened to the history, varieties and uses of the tasty fruit, but throughout the two-hour lesson, their attention was somewhere else.

It was on the tables of tomatoes just to the south, filled end to end Tasting tablewith 52 varieties of lovely love apples waiting quietly for tasting.  They were shiny.  They were juicy.  And when the crowd was finally given permission to go forth and stuff themselves, a few of the contenders rose to the top as favorites amongst the crew.

Everyone was asked to rate the tomatoes on taste, texture, color, and any other criteria that mattered to the person sampling.

 We tasted blindly – the varieties weren’t identified – then voted on our favorites in each of the four classes:  cherry, salad slicers, pasting/canning, and beefsteak.  Two of the top vote getters are no surprise; these tomatoes sweep the competition whenever they compete.  Brandywine and Amish Paste are truly tops in their class.  Aunt Ruby's Green

Others delighted everyone who tried them, such as Aunt Ruby’s Green, a slicer with a bright, green flavor.  Here’s the list of top three in each group, in case you’d like to grow them next year. 

If you do, or if you have a tomato you think is tasty, we’ll hold this workshop again next fall, and let anyone who’s interested take part (this was the first time we did this, so tried it out on our MGs).


 First – Amish Paste

Second – La Roma II

Third (tie) – Grushovka and Goldman’s Italian American

 Cherry Tomatoes:  Green Doctors

 First – Green Doctors

Second – Sungold

Third – Sugar snack

Salad slicers:

 First – Aunt Ruby’s Green

Second – Rose De Berne

Third – Black Zebra


 First – Brandywine

Second – Gold Medal

Third – Aunt Ginny’s Purple

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Reader Jeff of Nature Hills Nursery waxed eloquent in his comment on the post Harvest Frenzy, and I’d like to follow up on a topic he mentioned:  getting your family to love squash.   Lakota squash

Ok, we’ve all been there.  After all, we were rookies once and planted a few extra seeds because they look so danged small in that cute little hill.  Then they grew.  And grew.  Then they set fruit and the circus began.

Squash for dinner, squash for lunch.  Squash in breads, muffins, pies, relishes, soups, ratatouille, and casseroles.  Year after year, memories of the “zucchini incident” are shared at family gatherings until you swear that when the day comes for them to inscribe your tombstone, they’ll write “Here lies a gardener, squashed in her prime.”

Were it only the zucchinis and crooknecks we might be ok, riding out the season of plenty until frost kills the plant.  But no, the cucurbit family is large, and when you’re an inquisitive gardener you eventually expand your horizons, and plant winter squash. 

young Spaghetti squashPerhaps it starts with a pumpkin, the orange globe that brings a smile each fall.  Then it could be an acorn or two, or possibly a buttercup, to go with a savory pork roast.  Eventually you try spaghetti squash, delightful with a bit of pesto (oh, yes, readers. If you try nothing else this fall, try that).  Finally, you branch out into the butternuts and delicatas, with sweet potato flavor that’s perfect mashed with a dab of butter, brown sugar and nutmeg.  A pod of young Hubbards

Then you’re hooked, and growing the mammoths:  Hubbards and Banana squash that top out at 25 to 30 pounds.  These don’t grace your counter; they beach themselves on it.  Once roasted their flesh can be frozen into recipe-sized amounts and feed you until spring.

If you’re growing winter squash, fall’s the time to gather your harvest.  Speed ripening by cutting back the water to the plant, but do this slowly over a few weeks so you don’t interrupt growth of young squash.  Pluck blossoms from the plant about mid-month to allow the plant to pump energy into the larger ones on the vine, and use the blossoms stuffed, fried, or sautéed for pasta.

Harvest your winter squash when the skin toughens and isn’t dented by pressure from a fingernail.  But before this Look for stem dryinghappens the skin is tender, so avoid wounding your fruit with a clumsy nail slash by watching for other signs of maturity, such as the stem drying out or the rind turning a deep color (some exceptions apply).

Cut the squash from the vine carefully, leaving at least two-and-a-half inches of stem attached to the fruit.  If you’re growing petite squash and don’t have that much stem, do the best you can and don’t worry.  The important part is to keep from snapping the stem from the squash or bruising the fruit in harvest.

And let’s talk about powdery mildew, a white fungal disease that attacks squash, killing back the plants. In fall, our plants look coated with frost because the mildew is so bad, primarily on the old foliage.  You might have noticed that you can see more of the squash as the leaves die off from powdery mildew.  Clearing out the dead leaves just leads to a sneeze-attack if you have allergies.  Powdery mildew on squash leaves

You might try potassium bicarbonate, Neem or Horticultural oil to keep the mildew down.  For more on powdery mildew, check out the Front Range Food Gardener blog.

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