Archive for March, 2010

Here’s an entry from the horticulture police files:

How much convenience shopping do we need?

 Who actually heads down to the local warehouse grocery to pick up a set of radials and a six-pack of trees?  I really shouldn’t be surprised; after all, this store sells everything from diapers and baby formula to caskets and cremation urns, so it must be logical to expect people to impulse purchase a plant that can live to 100 years or longer.

But when did Bridgestone get into the nursery business?  They aren’t rubber trees – I checked.  They’re fruit trees, poor things, bagged bare-root for sale at pennies on the pound.

You be the judge – do we really need to offer trees where we can buy sausage and auto parts?

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If those shrubs you planted when you moved in years ago have gotten big enough to require a new ZIP code, the time has come to consider pruning.  With a little care and contemplation, the haircut you give them will leave them looking fresh, rejuvenated, and ready to burst forth with blooms year after year.

 Timing is everything if you want to keep flowering shrubs looking great, so mark your calendars for getting out the pruners.  Then take a few moments to plan your approach, keeping your snips to a minimum – removing no more than one-third of the shrub each season. 

Shrubs that flower in spring form their blooms during the previous summer.  To keep the show dazzling year after year, hold off on pruning until just after flowering is finished in early summer.  In the two weeks that follow blossoming, reshape your plant.

Most shrubs need a light trim to keep them contained, so make each snip count by focusing on those branches that are long and leggy.  Though this takes time, prune off branches one by one, sculpting the plant into a natural looking shape. 

 Make cuts one-quarter inch above a bud to force branching to fill in leggy bottoms and new growth that blooms more freely.  Broom plants should not be cut heavily; remove only one-third of the branch tip, taking care to avoid cutting into old wood.

Planted where they can ramble, junipers don’t need much pruning.  But if you’ve got one near a sidewalk or drive that’s starting to take over, give it a custom haircut to leave it looking natural and well behaved.

Prune anytime except in late summer, when the clipping stimulates new growth that won’t harden off in time for winter.  Avoid cutting the plant in sub-zero temperatures in winter.

Junipers put on new growth from the tips; if your plant is severely overgrown, a hard prune into bare wood will leave a bald spot.  Choose your cuts carefully, and head back each branch to an actively growing, upward facing side shoot.  This will encourage the plant to fill in.

The creamy white interior wood of juniper is very obvious against the dark mass of needles.  Keep those stubs unobtrusive by angling your cuts downward, so the white won’t show.

Tools for the job:

– For shoots less than one-half inch thick, use bypass pruners for a clean cut instead of anvil pruners, which crush the wood.

– Loppers are used for stems up to 1 ½ inches in size.

– Saws should be used on any branch thicker than 1 ½ inches.

This post previously appeared in the Longmont Ledger.

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Shear madness

  I took a few weeks off to watch spring training baseball, a trip to the southwest that was supposed to be relaxing and invigorating.  But though the sunsets were gorgeous and the people friendly, my agitation grew.

To a plant person like me, all was not right with the boys of summer when right outside their door one of the worst abuses in plantdom was occurring.  The shrubbery was under attack, and despite my best efforts to stop passersby with cries of “Oh wow – what is THAT?” and “What is WRONG with this scene?” no one threw more than a pitying glance my way. 

Over shearing leads to branch death

These plants were practically bald, and as I looked further along the streets and shopping malls, it dawned on me that the people around me weren’t alarmed because this is how all of the plants looked – sheared to within an inch of their lives.

 Why, I wondered, would anyone prune a plant this hard?  Did they get a new hedge clipper and go nuts trying it out?  Some of the shrubs along the roadway looked like the pruning was a drive-by job, with one person with a buzz-saw leaning out from the truck to chop the plants as they drove down the street.

Worried that they might not have a plant expert in the state, I searched on line, but the Arizona Master Gardener manual popped up and is an excellent resource for guidelines on how to properly prune a shrub.  Thinning, they caution, is not done with hedge shears.

They offer advice and helpful diagrams on how to thin the shrub by cutting back some of the branches to a younger side shoot.  This opens up the interior of the plant to sunlight and promotes better growth.  If the plant needs renewal they offer tips on removing few older branches to at or near the ground over a few years, letting the younger stems take charge.

 Never do they mention such severe haircuts that left some plants begging to borrow a hat.  Check this great resource out for yourselves before you pick up those pruners. 

I'm not sure this is the look they had in mind.

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Spring is such a tease.  Here we are, on the cusp of early season planting, when Mother Nature sends a warm front our way.  She’s wooing us with warmth, sweet-talking us into planning our weekend around the garden.  Along the Front Range in Colorado, gardeners are gathering their gear in anticipation of a day in the sunshine; we’ve lined up our seeds, trowels and kneepads near the door.

But what Mother giveth, she can taketh away, and one look at that weather forecast better have you making alternate plans for a wet, muddy weekend.  Set aside your shovels and head out to the Denver Home Show, March 19-21, at the National Western Complex in Denver.  You’ll find plenty of ideas and tips on improving your home, inside and out.

From their press release, show highlights include:

 Up your Home’s Curb Appeal!

Add the “wow factor” to your home’s front yard with hot tips from HGTV’s Curb Appeal host, Sasha Andreev.  On Saturday and Sunday, the HGTV star will take to the main stage to share invaluable lessons and techniques he’s learned from working with the designers, architects, painters, and landscapers on Curb Appeal.  Saturday’s interactive presentations are at 1pm and 4pm; Sunday at 12pm and 3pm; each will last 45-minutes. Let’s face it, who’s house can’t use a little extra “wow curb appeal” in today’s real estate market!

 **Blogger’s note:  I had a chance to chat with Sasha for an upcoming article for the Denver Post, and want to encourage readers to check out his presentation.  This charming, funny man is sure to give you the inspiration to assess your home’s landscaping in a whole new way.

Turn your House Green without Breaking the Bank

Boulder’s Wynn Waggoner, of Wynn Interiors and Intuitive Design will be showcasing 1,500 square feet of new designs, materials and ideas, with the help of an entire collection of local industry professionals needed to bring a homeowner’s remodeling dreams to completion. Special attention has been given to environmentally friendly options.  The idea is to show how even little changes, like using environmentally friendly caulk, paint, glue, and reclaimed wood,  and recycled products can contribute to our health and to the planet.

 “Spring Time in the Rockies By Day and Night”

Visitors are sure to catch spring fever as they stroll through the six fabulous feature gardens, designed and created by Colorado’s top landscape designers. Discover the latest in eco-friendly garden ideas, such as pondless water features that use only 10-gallons of water. Visitors will also have a chance to experience the magic of the gardens’ nightscapes, as the lights are brought down every hour for ten minute intervals.  The water features with flames should be especially dramatic when “night falls on the garden showroom.”

Show Dates and Hours: March 19th: 10-9pm; March 20th: 10-8pm; March 21st:  10-5pm

Tickets: $7.00 discount tickets online; $10.00 at the door; children 12 & under FREE

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   When you think of a spring garden, do your thoughts meander across rows of lettuce and carrots, past spinach and scallions, and radishes?  As you contemplate the best things to grow, wind around to thinking of peas, the hallmark of March planting. 

Several types of peas are perfect for growing at home.  Garden, or English, peas are best for gardeners who have a lot of time on their hands and want to spend an afternoon shelling the seeds from the pods for their meal.  Several years ago I shelled what I thought was a huge bowl of the pods; at the end of an hour I had roughly three tablespoons of peas. 

Cooks wanting more performance from their plants should consider planting snap or snow peas, which can be eaten pod and all.  Snow peas are harvested young, before the seeds swell, while snap peas are delicious once the peas fill the pod.  Superb in stir fry and salads, these peas are kitchen-ready for quick meals.

 There’s a variety I’d never seen before offered by Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, a big, six-foot vine loaded with crisp sweet pods.  But it isn’t the towering vine or the prolific crop it gives that caught my eye; the beauty of this plant is that the peas are yellow (Golden Sweet Pea). 

Peas come in green and blue, but as a gardener with a sense of humor, yellow peas were irresistible.  The two-tone lavender blossoms are a bonus that makes the whole plant pretty.  Toss these beautiful blossoms, or the white ones,  in a salad and your guests will be impressed. 

 Peas are a cool-season crop, so if your soil is 40-degrees or warmer you can sow them directly into your garden.   But they prefer to germinate at warm temperatures, then grow cool; savvy gardeners sprout their peas indoors, then pop them into the ground.  To give yours a head start, place them between damp paper towels in a warm place, checking them several times per day to make sure the towels are damp and to look for germination.  Once they’ve sprouted, plant them one-inch deep and two-inches apart.

 Although many varieties a short enough to need no staking, my pea will need a bit of trellising to keep those glorious, golden pods aloft.  My usual three-foot tall chicken wire support won’t do.  A full-scale structure is needed, and amongst my anxiety over choosing between nylon netting, cement reinforcing mesh, or chain-link fence, my spouse offered a brilliant plan:  a chicken wire coated pvc tunnel that opens to one side.

Planting sun-sensitive spinach and lettuce under the pea tunnel will let me extend their season, protecting them from heat as the pea vines grow.  Because they’re snow peas, they climb readily, and need little encouragement from the gardener to find the trellis. 

Once my trellis and bed is ready, all a gardener need do is wait for St. Patrick’s day to be planting o’ the green – peas, that is.

This post previously appeared in the Longmont Ledger.

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If you have an apple or pear tree that needs a trim, now is a good time to get out and prune it.  In this second of a two-part blog, we’ll look at some ways to tidy up your trees. 

Please note that there’s a difference between training a tree – shaping it so that it has an open center and low, outward branches – and pruning a tree, which is keeping it cleaned up and productive.  Today we’re focusing on pruning pointers; for training (shaping) the tree, see the excellent fact sheet from North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension.

On a warm, sunny day head out to the yard, gathering up a hand pruner, loppers, and a tree saw.  Buckets or a wheelbarrow are helpful for carrying twigs and branches from the area once you’re done. 

Be sure to take tool disinfestant with you, to clean your tools between every cut.  Apples and pears are notorious for carrying Fireblight (Erwinia amylovora), a bacteria that’s lethal to these trees.  Cleaning your equipment between each cut is a good plan to reduce the chance that you spread the problem.  You can use a mix of 10-percent alcohol to water or use a disinfecting spray.

Stand back and look over your tree from a slight distance, checking for branches that are crossing others, broken, or diseased.  These are the first you’ll remove.  Twig tips that are dried out with a grayish or black appearance should be nipped off, cutting them back to a bud or to the junction of twig to branch.

When pruning to a bud (the outward-facing side), clip it one-quarter-inch above the bud at a 45-degree angle, making your angle slant the in same direction as the bud.  

Prune out any crossing or rubbing limbs, or those that grow in towards the center of the tree.  Keeping the center open to sunlight means your fruit will ripen more evenly and be sweeter.   

Suckers at base of apple tree. Prune these off.

Next, target water sprouts and basal suckers (the vigorous upright growth shooting up from branches or from the base of the tree).  This type of growth is usually weak, and fruits poorly. Prune it completely off.

Finally, remove twigs that grow with narrow angles to the branch.  Open angles – where the twig joins the branch – are strong enough to hold the weight of fruit.  Narrow angles may break, especially if your tree is loaded with fruit when one of our wet fall snowstorms come through.  

Apple spur

Apples and pears bear fruit on stubby growth, called spurs, which form on three to five year-old wood.  Though most trees put on spurs naturally, some are shy about it and need a little coaxing.  Known as spur pruning, this technique is best for young trees that already have good shape.

Spur pruning is done on maiden shoots only – those that are one-year-old and unflowered.  Clip off the tips of these maidens, leaving just four buds.  In summer, this twig will grow both flowers and woody shoots. 

Apple flower bud (left) and wood bud. Flower buds are much larger, rounder, and fuzzy.

Next winter, nip back the branch to the outermost flower bud, or if there is room to let the limb get many spurs along its length, leave three or four wood buds.  Apple and pear flower buds are much larger, rounder, and plumper than the buds that grow twigs. 

When pruning go lightly, removing no more than one-quarter of the tree’s branches in a season.  Trees store energy in roots and trunk for the following season; prune off too much while the plant is dormant and the energy is pushed into sucker growth, rather than to healthy, strong wood.  Clean up your tree over several seasons if you have to, to avoid over stimulating the tree into sucker growth.

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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

Obsession is such an ugly word for what can be the most rewarding experience to give your stomach.  Sure, a few hours spent planning, a month or more spent purchasing and utter devotion to soil and sowing may seem an addiction, but for kitchen gardeners, the rewards are worth the time.

 It’s not about putting food on the table; it’s about putting in endless combinations of tastes and dishes.  Getting months of harvest to come together in a culinary crescendo takes exquisite timing and if you want to foray into gastronomic gardening, the time to get started is now.

 Unsure how to begin?  Here’s a guide to planting your inner chef this month:

Beginning in mid March, direct sow seeds straight into the garden.  Creamy-crunchy lettuces, sweet spinaches, beets and carrots in purples, golds, and oranges pack your spring garden with flavor if sown directly into the prepared bed. Turn an inch of compost into the soil, break up the clumps and smooth the bed.  Small seeds like shallow sowing; sprinkle them out and cover with a dusting of soil.

Try slow bolting Ben Shemen lettuce, developed to take the heat in Israel, stays sweet in Colorado’s blast oven summer.  Two-toned Purple Dragon carrots and golden beets are pure table chic.    

Pre-sprouting peas at warmer indoor temperatures gets them started for growing in cool weather.  To jump start peas, place them between damp paper towels in a warm place, and check them several times per day to keep the towels damp and to look for germination.  Once they’ve sprouted, pop them into the garden, two-inches deep and three-inches apart.

Choose taller varieties to trellis if you have little space– they give you more peas than compact varieties.  Change up your ideas on peas by planting both Sno peas – that you eat pod and all – and shelling peas, for perfect round balls of flavor.  

Perennial rhubarb will produce succulent stalks year after year once established.  But be patient and don’t cut the leaves the first year they’re planted.  Put rhubarb in a sunny spot where it can stay; this plant can easily live up to 30 years.  Space them 34-inches apart, deep enough to have the top of the crown two-inches below the soil. 

Start seedlings indoors.  Warm season plants such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, or cucumbers give earlier production if started indoors six to eight weeks before planting.  Cole crops like cabbage, cauliflower or broccoli are sweeter started early because they are planted in time to take advantage of our cooler, moister spring.

Keep these tips in mind when starting your seeds:

 – Choose an out of the way, sunny location to place your tray over flooring that can get wet or dirty.

–  Moisten light, sterile seed starting mix before you fill small pots or cells.  Get the mix damp but not soggy.

–  Sow seeds and cover with slightly damp mix, then place a plastic tent or dome over the tray to raise humidity until germination.

–  Once your seeds are up and growing, remove the humidity tent, but do so gently over a few days – a blast of cold air can shock seedlings if the tent is taken off too quickly.

– Keep lights within three inches of the seedlings as they grow, but don’t let the plants touch the light.  Raise the lights as the seedlings grow to keep them above the plant.

–  Feed with half-strength fertilizer after they get their second set of true leaves.

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If you’ve been wondering when to start your seeds indoors, take a look at Botanical Interests’ Indoor Seed Sowing guide.    This handy chart walks you through planning to have your seedlings ready in time for planting. 

If you’re unsure of when you should plant out, Fedco Seeds has a very thorough chart that includes dates for setting out.  Please note that if you live at elevation, or in far northern areas, you should go by soil temperatures needed for planting out, rather than a fixed date.

Gardeners in Colorado can check out this timetable for seed starting, written for Colorado State University Extension by Dr. Steven Newman.

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