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Archive for January, 2010

Gazing at the frozen tundra our yards have become, the thought of getting your hands in soil may seem a distant dream.  The snow is receding at a glacial pace, and you wouldn’t be surprised to find a walrus sunning itself on the ice floes still in the streets.

Seed catalogs help, but to ready yourself for the upcoming season, dig into seminars that will make you eager for spring.  At the seventh annual High Plains Landscape Workshop, February 27 at the Fort Collins Senior Center, you’ll learn tips for making your garden big in style but small on needs, using less water, fertilizer, or pesticides.  A fundraiser for the Gardens on Spring Creek, the event gets down to earth about real-world gardening.

“One day I was standing at the Home Depot, watching people load their cars with all of the plants they’d purchased,” says author Marcia Tatroe, keynote speaker for the event. “I knew most would take these home and cluster-bomb the yard with them, putting them in based on how they look now, not after they’ve grown.” 

Ignoring plant tag information on how much water and room the plants need, or mixing them together with bluegrass is often why they fail, she says, and why Colorado gets a bad rap on gardening. This doesn’t have to happen to you – develop an understanding of your yard and the conditions on the ground, and your flowers, grasses, and perennials will be the envy of the neighborhood.  

Her talk “Design and Evolution of a Garden” helps people think of their landscape in zones, including the differing soils or micro- and macroclimates that can be used to the garden’s advantage. Customizing each area for how it will be used and choosing the right plant combinations comes later in the process. 

But if the thought of learning about design makes your palms sweat with nerves, relax. Tatroe, who’s spent 22 years gardening on the Front Range, isn’t a dirt-covered diva demanding perfection. “There’s not one right way to do anything, and no one doesn’t make mistakes, especially in your own yard. This is how we learn. I want to help people look at their own property and realize they have choices; they need to learn what works for them.”

In addition to the keynote seminar, attendees can choose two other seminars for the day: Hardy Succulents by Gwen Kelaidis, Plants We Need to Use More by Tom Throgmorton, or Cultivating a Sustainable Kitchen Garden by Susan Tweit.

“This is a chance to see top-notch speakers give great insight into new garden ideas,” says Throgmorton, a garden consultant who provides commentary on KUNC radio Saturdays at 7:20 and 9:20 a.m. He’ll be speaking on using lesser-known plants that are better adapted to our region.

Native plants are a good substitute for imports that can become thugs here in Colorado. “Russian sage, for example, is invasive, so try lead plant for that late season blue hue,” he says. But if you’re going to use natives, be sure to put them in the right place. Care of the plants will be included in his virtual tour of good choices.

The popular event includes lunch and a chance to talk with other gardeners who revel in early season planning for beautiful landscapes. Registration is $35, including lunch; $40 after February 17. Workshop information and registration materials are available at fcgov.com/highplains or by calling the Gardens on Spring Creek at 970-416-2486.

If you go:

What: Seventh annual High Plains Landscape Workshop

When: Saturday, February 27, 8:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.

Where: the Fort Collins Senior Center, 1200 Raintree Drive, Fort Collins.

Benefits: The Gardens on Spring Creek, Fort Collins.

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 If you think cleaning out the refrigerator is a scary task, wait until you see what waits for you out under the snow. Months after the first big dump, the white stuff continues to linger on the lawn, especially in shady, north-facing areas.

As a result, many Front Range lawns might see gray snow mold (Typhula incarnata), or its cousin, speckled snow mold (Typhula ishikariensis), cold-loving fungi that thrive in dark, damp conditions. When temperatures hover around freezing under snow cover lasting 40 to 60 days or longer, the fungus multiplies and spreads, feeding on the helpless leaves of grass. As the snow slowly melts, moldy patches appear, giving our lawns an unsavory just-spent-a-month-in-the-fridge look. Of the two fungi, speckled snow mold is the one producing the fuzzy growth on the grass; gray snow mold simply turns the blades brown.

Three types of snow mold can attack lawns after extended periods of snow cover, but none causes permanent damage.   Not all lawns are getting moldy under the snow; only those that had this problem the last time we had extended snow cover.

“The way this fungus survives year to year is through sclerotia, small, hardened brown-to-black balls that wait in the lawn until the next time we have a snow that sticks around,” says Tamla Blunt, Plant Diagnostician with Colorado State University Plant Diagnostic Clinic in Fort Collins. “They look like pepper, so when you see grey moldy stuff growing on the lawn, check it to see if it looks like someone sprinkled pepper on it.”

The peppery-appearing sclerotia are tiny, says Blunt, so get up close and personal to see if your mold is covered with them. If the snow melts off, leaving brown patches without fuzz, suspect gray snow mold. As the lawn dries out, the fungus stops, leaving the turf to turn a light tan which fades to off-white. But if your lawn is growing more than grass, don’t panic.

“It’s really just a curiosity, not a problem for the lawn,” said Dr. Tony Koski, Turf Specialist with Colorado State University Extension.  Snow mold, though it kills the grass blades, rarely kills the crown and your lawn should grow back healthy this spring.

But before spring arrives, give your grass an assist in getting rid of its fungal fuzz. Rake the grass, fluffing the blades and exposing the area to air and sunlight. In spring, give it a light application of nitrogen to boost its growth, especially if no winterizer fertilizer was put down last fall.

A third frigid fungus, pink snow mold (Microdochium nivale), appears later in spring when the weather is unsettled. The frosty nights and warm days with fog or irrigation are perfect for this disease. Pink snow mold first appears as water-soaked spots, rapidly growing to a foot or more in diameter with the pinkish border along outside edge. The spots often have a frogeye center of green, turning reddish brown to tan.

Treat pink snow mold as you would the others, and your lawn will rebound just in time for summer.

This post previously appeared in the Longmont Ledger.

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Like many people obsessed by their hobbies, gardeners aren’t good at recognizing when they’ve crossed the line from making polite small talk to giving too much information.  At parties, an innocent question on what could be troubling houseplants gets them fired up and, waxing eloquent on the gestation of a fungus gnat, people think they need a life or are a complete lunatic.  Either way, they end up alone talking to the plant.

Gardeners, if you want people to talk to, take some advice: people are willing to listen to you explain that a houseplant’s lower leaves yellow and drop from over-watering.  Or that leaves dry up and fall off or wilt when under-watered.   

But describe plants wilting from being too wet because roots need air as well as water leads to trouble.  Gardeners know that the pot’s surface soil is usually dry, and that this involves pushing a finger into the soil deep enough to check – up to a knuckle or two. 

 Passionately insisting that people need to give regular plant proctologic exams is a sure-fire way to get them to think you’re nuts.  It’s worth it, though.  Over-watering is the number one killer of houseplants.

 A few plants react differently from over-watering, such as Scheffleras.  Their leaves become soft or develop black spots.  Others, like Jades, will get leaf drop or spots from under-watering.  Checking the soil is the best way to tell if a plant needs watering.

 Gardeners are safe talking about the weather, not discussing the affects of salts.  Leaves yellow, often from the tips or edges in, when there is too much salt from soft (salty) water or fertilizer.  Admonishing people to follow fertilizer directions because plants don’t benefit from a power drink, and they’ll start wishing they had one.

When giving advice, give it cheerfully:  if the tip burn is from salty house water, the only solution is to give the plant bottled water.  Be prepared to be labeled a lunatic; only gardeners understand some plants prefer Evian.

 Never talk bugs.  Alarm sets in when encouraging people to recognize the damage bugs do, such as making leaves a mottled yellow, leaving spider webs or sticky droplets.  The sap feeders (spider mites, mealybugs, brown scale, and whiteflies) do this, and good control means looking closely to identify the bugs. 

 A light but firm hand propelling people toward the bugs causes full-scale panic.  Hosts start wondering why they invite gardeners.  Try to soothe things by discussing control.  Depending on the bug, repeated showering of the plant (spider mites), dabbing with alcohol (mealybugs and brown scale), rubbing them off (brown scale), or vacuuming them up (whitefly) is effective.

Fungus gnats, the bugs that fly slowly about homes in winter, lay eggs in overly moist soil.  One control for them is allowing the soil to dry slightly between watering.  Another is placing a raw potato slice on the soil, which gnat larvae love, and after a few days they swarm it.  Pick this up, throw it away, and replace with a fresh slice.  

 After this advice there’s usually no one left nearby except other gardeners.   Simply smile and tell them that the host can use Gnatrol, a natural product to get rid of fungus gnats while watering.  Gardeners will nod at this wisdom, knowing it’s not as much fun as the potato slice.

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As the cold recedes from the orange groves and Floridians thaw, the country begins to assess the damage done by freezing weather in the sunshine state.  Though concern is high for the future of fruit, the real blow delivered by the cold snap was to the egos of states far, far away.

Up until now, we thought we had pest problems.  But one look at the iguanas dropping from the trees and our problems seem paltry in comparison.  After all, it’s hard to get pity for a plague of fungus gnats when others are contending with a rain of giant, cold-stunned lizards.   As temperatures plummeted below 40 degrees, the lizards grew comatose, losing their grip on branches.

Yet a pest is a pest, be it large or small, and there’s no need to feel inadequate if what’s bugging you is smaller and less impressive than your neighbor’s.  A closer look at both of these beasts reveals the threats they both pose to our peace of mind.

The Green iguana (Iguana iguana), the Mexican spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura pectinata), and black spiny-tailed iguana (C. similis) in Florida are invasive, non-native animals that escaped from captivity or were released into the wild by people who didn’t want to care for them anymore.  Like any tourist who spends time in the warmth and sun of this subtropical state they thrived, finding mates, raising families, and settling into the landscape.

Fungus gnats (Bradysia species) in Colorado are native insects that are released into the home when people bring potted plants indoors.  Basking in the temperature-controlled climate of a house, fungus gnats breed, fly about, and make themselves comfortable in houseplant soil.

As large plant eaters, iguanas pose problems for landscape plants, gnawing on trees, shrubs, and ornamentals like it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet.   After their meals, they enjoy lazing in the sun on sidewalk, stone walls, and other flat stone surfaces, where their droppings collect in an unsightly, smelling mess.

Fungus gnats are dainty eaters, preferring to dine on soft algae, fungi or decomposing plant parts in houseplant soil.  Occasionally they nibble plant roots, but are rarely problems for plant health.  Egg to adult takes a mere three weeks, at which point the adults fly free from the soil and spend a week (or 10 days) looking for love, laying eggs, and driving homeowners crazy.

As iguanas have become entrenched in Florida, alarm has risen over their increasing numbers and damage to yards.  But control is difficult.  These lizards bite and scratch to defend themselves, but it’s their tail you have to watch:  a blow from this mighty muscle is a slap you’ll never forget.

Here’s where fungus gnats measure up to their larger competitor.   Flying lazily about the room, the gnats seem drawn to human faces, setting the people to flailing their arms to drive off the insect.  Often the attempts at swattage end in tragedy, when an innocent bystander – family member, friend or pet – is smacked by the wildly waving hands.

Exclusion with strong screens may keep iguanas at bay and using plants they don’t like to eat will have them looking elsewhere for fodder.  Experts recommend accessorizing trees with sheet metal to stop iguanas from climbing, cementing in their burrows, or encouraging beneficial predators like raccoons, vultures, or feral pigs.  Of note is that experts draw the line at shooting iguanas, since discharging firearms in areas where people live is frowned upon.  Slingshots are encouraged as a harassment tool, provided you’re careful to have a solid backstop.

Fungus gnats can be a mighty big problem to overcome.  But because they are a bigger problem in homes where houseplants are overwatered, try allowing the soil to dry between watering.  In general, the gnats live in the top two inches of soil; letting the soil dry in this area kills eggs and larvae. 

There are several pesticides with pyrethroids available for those who would like a stronger control.  Look for those that are persistent, active for several days after application.  Or, if you prefer, Bacillus thuringiensis strain israelensis (Bti) is helpful when applied as a soil drench when you water.  But Bt is tough to find as a homeowner.  Try searching for Gnatrol or Knock Out Gnats.

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What a year 2009 was for gardening.  The too-dry spring was merely an overture to a season of wild weather that had us ducking hailstones, celebrating rain, and growing great greens.  Before launching into another season of planting, here’s a quick look at some of the top stories in gardening for 2009:

5.  Denver Botanic Gardens upgrade.  Staying open throughout season one of a multi-year construction project wasn’t easy for the Botanic Gardens, which added a much-needed three-level parking garage at their York Street location in Denver.  During building, parking was squeezed into a tiny dirt lot on the north end of the grounds; if your car couldn’t steer with the agility of a ballerina, you stayed away.

Anticipation grows as work on the new 15,000 square-foot greenhouse and three-acre Mordecai Children’s Garden gets under way.  Plans for these expanded areas include classes and interactive experiences to delight the public.

4.  Rain barrel water collection signed into law.  In April, Governor Ritter signed SB80, which allows rainwater to be collected from roofs of 3,000 square feet or smaller beginning July 1.  But not everyone can reap the rain harvest; only those whose residences aren’t connected to a municipal water system or a water supplier are allowed to capture it; you must have a well permit.

Though this doesn’t benefit gardens now (in addition to having a home with a well, the permit for using the water must be for domestic purposes), gardeners are watching this easing of water law closely, waiting for the day we’ll be able to capture rain for our plants.  Read more of the new law at the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

3.  Nasty weather had many of us believing it was gardening Armageddon, with June hail wreaking havoc, July tornados tossing trees, and October pumpkins freezing in the fields.  The only thing lacking was a plague of grasshoppers, but that was probably because Mother Nature felt sorry for us.  On the plus side…

2.  Rain and cooler weather made 2009 a delightful year. Gardens had an easier season for growing, cool season greens thrived, and lawn stress from a hot, dry summer failed to show.  Savvy green thumbs reduced their irrigation during this wet summer, saving water and reducing water bills.  

For a vegetable gardener like me, the number one story of the year:

1.  Growing your own food got hip.  Turning years of retail sales upside down, food gardens finally gained the spotlight with a bit of help from First Lady Michelle Obama planting a White House vegetable garden.  Harvesting over 1,000 pounds of produce in its first season, the White House proves that with a little compost and a will to till, any backyard can be turned into a bounty for the kitchen.

 These were stories that made my top list; you might have stories of your own – add them here!

This story first appeared in the Longmont Ledger.

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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

When the season winds down, gardeners look around at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the past year.  Good things are celebrated; we nod smugly over a plant that thrived or a trellis that actually held something up.  The bad is ruthlessly rouged from the garden, pulled before it can reproduce. 

 But the ugly is somewhere in between, and most gardeners rarely wait until the end of the year to make promises for change next season.  In my garden the choice for New Year’s resolutions is vast, but I’ve narrowed it down to the top 10:

 1.  I won’t believe everything the seed catalog tells me.  The people who write up the description for seeds are very good at their job; they make each and every one sound so wonderful I can’t live without it.   For the gullible gardener this leads to catastrophe or, at least, an empty bank account.

  2.  I will not start more plants than can fit on the grow shelves.  This past year the explosive growth of my seedlings was alarming, forcing my spouse to construct adjustable shelving out of two-by-fours and a few bricks.  Since I start seeds in my home, not a greenhouse, this interior décor was a bit too rustic for our taste.

 3.  I will seek out other tomato lovers and start a fruit swap instead of growing a gazillion plants in my garden.  Let’s face it: every variety is intriguing to an avowed tomato-geek.  And with thousands of types, the problem is space.  Surely there are other tomato aficionados who would like to try more varieties but don’t have the space to grow them.

4.  I will succession sow stir fry greens from spring through fall.  Building on this year’s success in boosting our diet with vitamin-packed vegetables, I’ll hang a shade cloth over one bed and keep the crisp greens thriving through summer.  Red Russian kale and tangy Tatsoi should look beautiful together in the wok.

5.  Search for and try new recipes for cooking with stir fry greens, because flavored olive oil and cheese are only good the first twelve times greens are served.

6.  Increase the size of the herb garden.  One trip to the grocers to see the high price of herbs is all it takes for me to plan on adding more seasonings to the plot.  

7.  Visit Colorado’s outstanding public gardens.  Hudson Gardens, the Denver Botanic Gardens, the gardens at Kendrick Lake, or the Betty Ford Alpine garden are a few of our botanical treasures that should be visited often.  When you need a break, a day spent strolling their paths is inspirational.

 8.  I will not judge my garden against others, particularly if those others are famous “garden gurus.”  While they might have an army to keep their gardens neat and tidy, I don’t.  Every garden is as unique as a fingerprint; mine just looks like a crime scene.

9.  I have a landscape plan, now I’ll use it.  But renovating a landscape is a work of love and patience; it takes time to do it well.  Phasing in a good plan over a few years is one way to upgrade without breaking the budget.

10.  I will weed my perennial beds, giving them as much time and attention as the vegetable garden.  This resolution is a golden oldie; a little lie I tell myself every year. 

One thing I won’t do is renovate the back lawn.  I love the checkerboard of grasses back there, where buffalo grass, bluegrass, and tall fescue duke it out, because the entertainment value is too great.  The stunned silence of friends as they gaze upon my turf train wreck is amusing.

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