Archive for November, 2009

  Braving the throngs of shoppers and endless hours out in the cold is fun for some, but not if you’re a poinsettia. On the single biggest day of sales for the colorful seasonal symbol, getting stationed by drafty doors and dragged out into parking lots means only one thing:  today is Black Friday.

Keep yours from becoming the ghost of Christmas present with a few tips for selection and care from Dr. Steven Newman, Greenhouse Crops Extension Specialist and Professor of Floriculture at Colorado State University:

 – Choose plants with branches held high, at an approximately 60-degree angle, instead of at right angles from the stem. Poinsettias have sensitive branches, which can be snapped off easily. Upright branches are far sturdier and less likely to be damaged by transportation or accidental brushing. 

 – Look for poinsettias with deep green leaves and completely colored bracts, which is what experts tell us is a sure sign of health. Bracts that are not fully colored will not continue to develop at home.

 – Avoid poinsettias that have been placed near the door to the store. The repeated draft of cold air is stressful for the plant. Look further in, where the conditions are warmer.

 – Cover the plant with boxes or a plastic bag to get them from the checkout to your car. Try to hustle them as quickly as possible through the parking lot, and pop them into the auto before you unload the rest of your purchases.

 – Driving them home in a chilly car wouldn’t hurt — they can take up to 45 minutes at temps between 50F and 60F.

 – Once home, put the poinsettia in bright, indirect light and water to keep evenly moist without water logging. If the container is wrapped with foil, remove it when watering to allow drainage. Don’t let your plant sit in standing water; discard the water that flows from under the pot.

 – Ideal temperatures for poinsettias are 60F to 80F, and they should be placed in protected areas away from drafts, cold and human or pet movement.  

– While in bloom, there’s no need for fertilization. But after the holidays, keep your poinsettia green and growing by applying a balanced all-purpose house plant fertilizer once per month.

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Stumped by gift ideas for gardeners this season?  Don’t let desperation for inspiration have you considering wrapping up a truck of manure.  Though nothing says “I love you” quite like a big ol’ pile of poo, this classic, simple gift won’t make the grade when handing out holiday treasures.   

Treat your gardener to a thoughtful gift, one sure to please without odiferous side effects.  Vegetable gardening is hot this year, and gifts to fit every budget are easy to find.  Try one of these for those with an edible garden:

The best gift doesn’t involve big purchases, just time and a willing hand.  A day spent in the garden with them might mean more than any bauble you could buy.  For a gift that they’ll cherish, build a cold frame for their tender spring seedlings using plans from Garden Gate magazine

Treat them to a shopping spree at local garden centers.  For those who assesses stem and leaf like the lines of a thoroughbred, a gift certificate is akin to a launching a kid into a candy shop.

Give good taste with herbs to flavor their food.  Delightful on a winter windowsill or long lasting in the garden, herbs for a kitchen garden can be given individually or in kits. 

If you want a prepackaged collection, check out the five-herb collection from High Country Gardens ($15.95). Their Herb Kit for Wine Lovers is designed for growing seasonings for creating the right dish to serve with wine.  If your gardener prefers tea, go with the Herbal Tea Pocket Garden instead. 

  Any gardener who’s turned up a shirttail to carry vegetables into the house will adore English style garden trugs, wooden baskets attractive enough to double as décor.  Sturdy, able to lift produce by the pound, myrtle wood trugs are handmade by Barber’s Baskets in Oregon ($49 small, $79 large). 

How-to books are indispensable; they distract us in winter months.  For vegetable growers, several tomes are go-to resources for big harvests or small space techniques. 

Small spaces don’t mean tiny gardens.  Grow big with Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space with Less Work ($19.99 Rodale).  Taking readers through his method of using every square-inch of your raised bed, gardeners learn techniques for making the most the vegetable patch.

Gardeners ready for huge harvests will love Eliot Coleman’s The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year Round Vegetable Production Using Deep Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses ($29.95, Chelsea Green publishing).  Coleman gives simple, clear steps for producing food in all four seasons.

Today’s post can be found in the Longmont Ledger.

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As you plan for the holiday season, take a moment to wrap up something special in the landscape. Don’t worry – it won’t take more than a few moments out of your busy schedule – yet wrapping a young tree to tuck it in for winter is an easy way to keep your sapling strong.  

Winter can be a rollercoaster of warm days and cold nights, wreaking havoc on young, thin barked trees not old enough to form protective, thicker bark. Sun hitting trunks on south and west sides warms the thin bark and cells underneath, causing them to lose their cold protection. As nighttime temperatures plunge, these cells freeze and burst, resulting in sunscald, an area that will be prone to disease in summer.

Sapling fruit trees are vulnerable to sunscald, as well as lindens, honeylocusts, ashes, oaks, maples, and willows. Protect them for the first two to three years they’re in your landscape by wrapping them with tree wrap in before Thanksgiving. Mark your calendar to remove the wrap around April 15. 

Wrap from the ground upward, overlapping each layer over the lower one by one-half-inch until you reach the lowest branch. Use tape to hold the wrap in place, making sure the tape doesn’t stick to the trunk.

How much wrap do you need?  Jeff Dinslage from Nature Hills Nursery in Omaha, Nebraska, helped me with the answer. 

“If we use Crinkle Paper tree wrap as our example, it’s four inches wide.  A two-inch diameter tree has a circumference of about six and a quarter inches.  If  you figure on one inch of overlap each time you go round the tree, you have an effective width of  three inches per wrap.  That is four wraps every foot.   A five- foot tree will take 20 wraps around the trunk, for a total of about 10.5 feet of wrap per tree.

“To secure the wrap, turn it back into itself or tie with jute twine.  What kind of twine can you use to tie up the tree wrap?  Any bio-degradable twine should work.”

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There’s a squirrel in my yard that’s seen too much of the Food Network, turning into a four-footed foodie with kleptomaniac urges.  We discovered this as odd things began happening, such as our tomatoes getting stolen.  This isn’t so unusual; after all, squirrels like love apples as much as humans do. 

 Then my spouse called me out to the yard, and I knew we had a problem.  There, deposited on a landscaping timber at least 20 feet from the garden, was a huge beefsteak tomato, partially gnawed and discarded.  “What kind of a squirrel could lift that, much less carry it this far?” my spouse whispered, alarmed.

“Just look at the size of that tomato, it has to weigh at least two pounds,” he said, eyes scanning the fence line for a Godzilla-sized squirrel, “I wouldn’t want to meet that animal on a dark night.”  Worry tickled my mind as, for the next month, we discovered tomatoes strewn through the yard like eggs at Easter.

Had the problem stopped there things would have been fine; there were plenty of tomatoes to share.  But as the summer wore on the squash and melons fell victim to the rodent’s desire. Apparently the animal couldn’t tell when the fruits were ripe, so it nibbled on each and every one to see if it was ready – none escaped this dental delving.

As the fruits grew they became battle scarred; skin closing over the early wounds.  We convinced ourselves that eating squirrel-chomped squash was ok, if you didn’t look at the tooth marks on the rind. 

 The search for squirrel control turned up suggestions for repellants, with either hot pepper or predator urine.  Both need to be reapplied after every rain or irrigation, and hot pepper might cause the fuzzy thief pain; I didn’t want to hurt the critter or commit to such a time-intensive means for control.  We tried to wait it out, but things turned ugly.

 The pumpkins were the hardest hit, possibly due to their growing in a different spot of the yard where they weren’t disturbed.  Joy turned to horror when harvesting the first to ripen – it had been attacked from behind.  Savaged beyond repair, the gourd had been completely hollowed out, as if the squirrel planned to use it for a diorama.

Protection was needed and I opted for the second type of squirrel control: cages of small mesh wire.  These worked well, the one-inch mesh keeping the pumpkins whole.  I grew complacent, believing the squirrel was thwarted.  But the lull was just the rodent changing gears, popping up where I least expected it:  in the garlic. 

 Squirrels are known for their love bulbs.  To protect them, we lay chicken wire on the ground under the mulch so the marauding mammals can’t dig them up.  Squirrels and their ilk aren’t supposed to like garlic or any of the allium clan; this is why they’re recommended for areas where rodents are a problem.

Chicken wire works in a bulb bed, but on a raised bed where other edible plants need room meant getting new ideas about management.  I turned to the experts whose suggestion was:  “place crushed garlic in the area to repel squirrels”. 

How helpful.  We have a bushy-tailed Ratatouille pulling up garlic like it’s cooking an Italian meal, and the experts want me to peel and crush the cloves for it.  Instead, I’m back to chicken wire, but temporarily.  Stapled over the top of the bed walls, it will keep the thief from the garlic over winter, and be easy to remove in spring, when planting season – and round two of our struggle – continues.

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If you’ve been in Colorado in the past few years, you’ve probably heard about the devastation of our forest by the mountain pine beetle (Dendrochtonus ponderosae).  This small bark beetle is big trouble for our conifers, killing millions of pines over 1,900,000 acres.  

Feeding under the bark of our native pines, the beetle – and its hitchhiking companion, blue stain fungus – cut off the water transports of the tree, killing it within a year.  Some areas of our forest have suffered huge losses, changing the face of the area; what once was a conifer forest is now a sunny glade with few or no trees.

Young trees will spring up in these areas, but like a recovery after fire, the ecosystem of that location is altered for generations.  Dead, brittle trees left standing pose a risk from falling, or worse, fire.  

If you think the problem is limited to our native forests, think again.  Hits on trees by the mountain pine beetle are being found in cities up and down the Front Range, thanks to a wind event that picked up a cloud of flying beetles and blew them, like Dorothy and Toto, miles from the forest.

Unfazed by the change in locale, the bugs began exploring their options, assessing urban trees as a buffet of exotic dishes.  And these critters like some of them, especially Scotch and Austrian pines.  Fortunately, these trees have access to a little more moisture and are a bit more successful at pitching out the invading bugs (where sap flow captures and pushes the bug out of the tree).

There’s not much we can do, but there is something, and it’s outlined in a nifty new publication called “A Northern Front Range Landowner Guide to Living With Bark Beetles.”  Free, this 12-page tabloid paper is a wonderful compilation of information on the beetles, their life cycle, preventive spray, pheromone pouches, wildfire prevention and other tips for managing your trees.

Simply put, this is a must-have information sheet for every homeowner with property in our forest. 

 Contact your local Colorado State University Extension office to pick up your free copy, or if you live outside the state, put your request here as a comment (with your email address) and I’ll email the PDF to you.

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Amaryllis Samba

Amaryllis Samba, courtesy of White Flower Farm

Want your gifts to be memorable this year, but not break your budget to give them?   Go big and bold by giving  Amaryllis, a bodacious bloomer that’s sure to please. Easy to grow, they’re practically foolproof, having all they need to thrive carried inside the bulb. 

You don’t need an advanced degree or greenhouse to grow them, all you do is give them a pot, some soil and a place to grow to have huge plants as the holidays draw near.  Start them now – they’ll be ready to bloom in eight to ten weeks, just after you give them away.

Available in doubles, pinwheels, or trumpets, there’s an Amaryllis for every decor.  Dutch (Hippeastrum spp.) are the large, trumpet-shaped flowers easily found in local stores.  These tried and true beauties are ideal for beginners who want to try keeping the bulb going year after year. 

 Look for bestseller Apple Blossom, a delicate china-white blushed with pink, or Amigo in deep, rich, carmine.  For an elegant touch, try Samba, with red petals outlined in a pencil-thin trail of white.

Miniature Amaryllis come in smaller bulbs, but produce more blooms. They typically cost more, but if you have a gardener who’s hard to please, the Cybisters (Hippeastrum cybister) have a wispy look with slender, delicate petals and long pollen-holding sepals.  Give them one of these unusual varieties, or go with the over-the-top blossoms of the double bloomers.  

Amaryllis bulbs come loose or in kits with a small pot and a little soil.  When shopping, avoid bulbs with half-grown sprouts; those trying to fight their way out of the box have lost their quality.  Larger bulbs have more flower stalks, and bulb suppliers are required to list bulb size on the label. Bulbs under 10 1/4 inches usually produce only one stalk.

 Amaryllis sprout

  To grow them as gifts:

Soak the roots in lukewarm water for an hour. Select a pot two to three inches wider than the bulb. Fill halfway with potting soil, place the bulb in the center and add a little more soil around the bulb. Plant them so that the top half of the bulb is left above the soil.

Water once and wait for sprouting to begin before watering again, unless the soil completely dries out.  During growth, keep the soil evenly moist by dampening the soil – take care not to pour water onto the bulb itself.

Once the bulbs sprouts, place it in a cool room in bright, indirect light, and hold off on fertilizing. Tie floppy stalks to thin supports slid into the soil next to the bulb to keep them from toppling.

Choose a warmer day for gift giving, since you don’t want the flower to go into shock.  Protect them in a gift bag that is tall enough to close over the top of the flowers, then go from your house to their new home as quickly as possible.

Today’s post can also be found in the Longmont Ledger.  Dear FCC:  suggestions contained in today’s post are provided without compensation or gifts by any of the offering retailers.  I just like these plants.

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Jodi Torpey is at it again, and this time she’s giving away a CobraHead.  In her blog Westerngardeners, Jodi is searching for those heartwarming stories of the season: “what lesson did you learn this year?”  All you do is post a comment on Westerngardeners about what you learned, and you’re entered to win this handy gardening tool.

But you have to act swiftly – the deadline for entries is today, November 6, by 5 pm mountain time. 

A local author and blogger, Jodi’s site is a wealth of information helpful to people like us – those who garden in the challenging west.  Yet readers across the country appreciate her tips and musings, making her blog a rich collection of gardeners from every zone and lifestyle.

When reading her post on this contest, be sure to dig into the comments others have shared.  So far several are helpful reading; others have made me laugh.  I can relate to the person with the rabbit issue, as I’m battling squirrels in my garden.  You might find a connection to some of the other gardeners who’ve posted their lessons.

Whatever your experience is this season, send Jodi a note today.


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

Crop To Cuisine

I know fall is here because when the weather cools, a quiet invasion by boxelder bugs takes place. In a bizarre insect version of the swallows returning to Capistrano, these annoying insects flock to my house in a single-minded desire to turn my home into a haven for the winter.  Once here, they move in and commence their winter pastime of driving me crazy.  Boxelder bug

Having a few buggy visitors drop in is one thing, but boxelder bugs take possession of the house, then invite all their friends by laying an attracting pheromone on the outside walls.  So powerful is this scent that it draws every boxelder bug in the neighborhood to the home for the next two years.

My house becomes a center for the medium-sized black bug with red chevrons on their backs, which come in to take shelter from the cold.  At first glance they don’t seem so bad; after all, they spend winter in a state of insect hibernation, called diapause, where they don’t eat or reproduce.

But they do stroll around, especially when I’m hosting a dinner party or my mother comes to visit.  I daren’t turn my back for moment, because when I do, guests are treated to a pop-eyed sleep-walker landing in their lap or taking a turn around the table.  No amount of explaining that it’s not a cockroach can erase their looks of horror.

The good news is they’re harmless; the bad news, my reputation as a housekeeper takes a beating.

This is where the shop-vac enters the conflict.  Defending the home by vacuuming them off the side of the house before they come inside reduces their numbers to a manageable level.  But must be repeated frequently while the bugs are moving in, and the neighbors worry for my sanity when I start dashing about, jabbing the vacuum hose randomly at the house. 

Another approach suggests mixing laundry detergent with water to hose the bugs off the house.  This has a lot of appeal.  Not only will the soapy water kill them, my reputation as a questionable housekeeper will get a boost once I’ve texted pictures to my guests of me laundering the house. 

Super soaker water toys are a handy way to spray the soap too, since their stream can reach higher up on the house.  Plus, kids love lending a hand with the target practice.  The soapy water must hit the bug to be effective, so if you want to try this, line up the little ones, hand them their ‘soaker of choice, and keep the recharges coming.

But if you try the laundry soap and water, be warned: it can kill plants at the foundation if it sprays on them.  Cover those plantings with plastic before turning the kids loose on the house.

Once the bugs are indoors, the choices for control are vacuums, tissues, shoes, or common household cleaners.   Because the bugs trickle in over the span of a month or more, insecticide sprays or bombs are no more than temporary relief and it will only be risky for humans and pets in the home. 

If you must spray something, even if only for the emotional gratification, common household cleaners are good at stopping the bugs.  It has to hit them, though – it has no residual effect once dried.  And take my word for it, too often these cleaners can stain furniture or leave unsightly bleached spots, so be careful what you aim at.

The most permanent method of controlling boxelder bugs, which feed on the seeds of the boxelder tree, is to remove the female boxelder in the area.  This, however, is impractical unless one can get all the neighbors in a mile radius to comply, and maintain a posse to patrol the de-boxeldered zone to remove volunteers that spring up. 

Until that day, keeping weather-stripping around doors and windows sealed, plus having a shop-vac and the will to use it will go a long way to reducing boxelder bug stress on you.

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Australian researchers from Queensland University announced that the smell of freshly mown grass sooths stressed out rats and mice.  After a hard day running the wheel, one waft of the just clipped green sent the rodents into Zen-like states, improving their memory while lowering their anxiety. 

The problem is, none of those squeakers ever had to deal with an actual lawn.  After a summer of clipping, edging, raking, and watering, the last thing the lawn evokes is a calming sense of stress release.  That thin, sluggishly growing diva gets your blood pressure climbing, and a flamethrower starts looking like a serious option for better lawn care.

Give it – and yourself – a break by giving that grass a late season application of fertilizer.  The boost grass gets from the extra nitrogen will have it making and storing food for the winter, then using it for powerful growth in spring.  This simple act will have you complimenting, rather than cursing, your yard.

As long as your grass is green, the last shot of fertilizer can be put down in the first part of November.  This keeps the grass photosynthesizing as it heads into winter, storing the food it makes in its roots.  Once spring warms the turf, it greens up, becomes lush and dense, but doesn’t grow so quickly you need to mow often.

Any lawn fertilizer will do; you don’t have to choose a product labeled as winterizer.  The nitrogen is what’s important, so use up any fertilizer left from the summer.

While you’re feeling the lawn love, take time to put your mower to bed.  Disconnect the spark plug wire from the spark plug before starting, so you can drain the gas from the gas tank without risking fire from an unplanned spark. 

If you prefer to leave the gas in the mower tank, add a fuel stabilizer to prevent corrosion and keep the fuel fresh.  Replace the spark plug in your mower, change the air filter and oil, and your job is done.

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