Archive for July, 2010

Want to extend your garden into fall?  Break out the popcorn and settle back: here’s this week’s video from my series for the Boulder Daily Camera

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Every family has them – the bad apples of the bunch.  A cousin that gets rowdy at parties or a sibling that seems like a lost cause may have us shaking our heads, tut-tutting while whispering “well, you can pick your friends but not your relatives.” 

So it should be no surprise that even lady beetles, the beloved icons of the garden, have a skeleton in their closet.  Well, actually, they have a lot of skeletons in the closet and they’re all leaves, thanks to the feeding habits of the Mexican bean beetle (Epilachna varivestis). 

Adults resemble large lady beetles, being rust colored with 16 spots on their backs.   But the larvae are like rock stars:  bright yellow and covered in huge spines. 

This bad bug feeds on the undersides of leaves of beans and soybeans, rasping off the green tissue and leaving  lacy, skeletonized remains.  If enough beetles gather for a food fest, beans and stems can be attacked and destroyed.

Adult beetles over-winter garden debris, emerging from when beans sprout through mid summer. Eggs are laid on the underside of leaves in clusters containing up to 60 eggs, hatching in one to three weeks.   Larvae then feed for two to five weeks.  There are several generations per year.

July and August are when we see the most damage, so scout your plants for signs of the critters.  Control them by hand picking and dropping them into a bucket of soapy water, or if you’re a bit squeamish about squishing, spritz the larvae with insecticidal soap.  Meticulous cleanup of the garden in fall is a must for keeping these pests from overwintering in your yard.

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 “May you live in interesting times,” is a curse that seems to dog gardeners this summer.  If late snow, shredding hail, and humid conditions weren’t enough, Mother Nature is now sending a wave of insects to perk things up in the tomatoes. 

Tomatoes top the list for most kitchen gardeners, ranking number one in popularity across the country in a recent National Garden Bureau poll.  With thousands of love apples blanketing the area, it’s no wonder the Front Range is a hot place for psyllids to take their summer vacation. 

These tiny tomato boogeymen have begun assaulting plants this season in what may be the vanguard of thousands of migrating psyllids (Bactericera cockereli).  Dr. Whitney Cranshaw, Professor of Entomology at Colorado State University, has seen large numbers of these insects several parts of the state, including Larimer county.  Sightings of the insect have also been reported in Louisville and north and south Boulder gardens.  

A classic sign of psyllids is their waste, called lerps.


The aphid-sized adults are lovely, with jewel-toned eyes and dark abdomen banded in white.  Their young, yellow at hatching, gradually turn green with each molt; being flat and elliptical they look like scale.  Though adults move about actively and fly in migration, the young are sedentary, content to sit quietly, feed, and excrete white, waxy frass that resembles sugar. This is their waste, called lerps, and is an easy to see clue that your plant is being attacked. 

We should prepare for their arrival in our area soon, since these small, winged sap-feeding insects have toxic saliva that causes the plant to grow oddly.  Look for leaves turning yellow with purple veins, fruit that’s small and tasteless, or the plant appearing as if sugar were spilled on it.  

  Start scouting your plants, carefully checking them for insects or disease every three days until you spot signs of trouble.  Psyllids can mean big problems for tomatoes, severely stunting fruit; so at the first sign of them begin spraying plants with insecticidal soap to keep them at bay.  Coverage of both upper and lower leaf surfaces is crucial to control, and may not be enough. 

Dusts of sulfur can help, if care is taken to cover all leaf surfaces, but should the insects get the upper hand, stronger products with pyrethrin or esfenvalerate can be used.  

 Several diseases show up in gardens at this time.  Green plants turning blonde by yellowing from the lower leaves upward should be closely examined.  If they have brown spots with concentric rings, suspect early blight (Alternaria solani). 

Water, insects, and gardeners spread this fungus.  Pick off diseased leaves and keep the ground free of debris. Dust healthy leaves with sulfur to shield them from infection.  Once the plants have gotten three feet tall, pluck off leaves in the lower foot to prevent the spreading climb of the fungus.  Give plants room to grow without crowding them, and use drip irrigation to prevent splashing water.   

Black, sunken, rotten spots on the bottom of fruit are blossom end rot, a disorder caused by poor uptake of calcium.  Though calcium is plentiful in our soil, irregular watering and excessive heat prevent the plant from using it.  The key to control is watering consistently, so use a timer to automatically turn on and off the irrigation.  Mulch plants to keep the soil from drying out too rapidly.  

More information on tomato troubleshooting can be found on the Colorado State University Extension website.

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My editor at the Boulder Camera talked me into making a series of videos about gardening this summer.   The experience has not been without mishaps – dumping fish emulsion in the newsroom was one – but as the summer wears on I can say I’ve learned a few things:

1)    Plants don’t cooperate with the video crew, so if you’re not good at a quick origami of leaves to hold them away from the scene, you’ll end up with leaves in your face.

2)  Interns from the local university are talented, but only experience can teach them not to record a woman of my age from below and slightly behind.  Visiting hours at the hospital are from 9 am to 8:30 pm daily.

3)  Have all planes from the local airport file their flight plans with you before taping.  Explain to the pilots that they’re temporarily grounded due to a gardening video.  

4)  The microphone’s always on and the video’s always recording, so someday that “freak-out” dance I did over the snake will find its way onto Youtube.

5)  Gardeners are kind people who love to share.  Many thanks to Roland, who cheerfully let me side dress his crops for the video.

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 The worst time for a gardener to take a vacation is during the summer.  Not because you’ll miss the blossoms or there are too many chores to be done; those can wait a week or two and friends can text you photos of the flowers.

No, what happens when gardeners takes their eyes off their plot for a few days is that the scourge of Western civilization takes over your yard.  That scourge is field bindweed (Convovulus arvensis), the best-known and most hated weed to stalk our gardens.

Despite being a member of the morning glory family, there’s nothing glorious about it.  It snakes through the garden.  It entwines itself through branches, drapes itself along trellises, and coils into every nook and cranny.  Nearby plants are smothered, reduced to objects of support for the cheerful-blossomed horror.

Pulling this plant results in a nightmare out of Greek myth – nodes along the roots spring up into a hydra-like mass of vines from the single plant pulled.  Battles with bindweed are epic and are a common thread between gardeners.

The amount of bindweed in my perennials is not so much a nuisance as it is a coup; this plant clearly has visions of holding dominion over this garden.  It lays egg-shaped capsules in the soil stuffed with eight seeds per capsule, something that has me believing those who claim this is really a creature, not a plant.

One friend suggested an approach to conquering bindweed: snip the bindweed back, leaving two or three sets of leaves, slide a coffee can with both ends removed over the weed to protect other plants around it from harm, then paint herbicide onto the bindweed.  For a gardener with a lot of time and not a lot of bindweed, this might work. 

I’m opting for pulling repeatedly and frequently, until the plant’s energy in the roots is exhausted and can no longer regenerate.  Obviously the bindweed has the same thought, and by extending its roots 20 to 30 feet in many directions, is succeeding in exhausting me.

Stamina and dedication are required in pulling to control this plant because it must be done thoroughly, leaving no trace of bindweed growing along the 30-foot span.  Any plant left on this long root system feeds and replenishes the root, supporting the birth of new siblings to resume the hostile takeover.

This is where control gets entangled with neighbor relations, because a root this long means a gardener with intent to eradicate might end up two yards down, trenching through lawns, rose beds, and children’s play boxes.  Unless you want to be hauled off for the safety of the neighborhood, stick to your own yard and practice pulling or hoeing up the plants every 10 to 14 days.  This will keep the infestation to a livable level, and your garden relatively bindweed free.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

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If your lawn stays thirsty even though you water often, you might have a problem with thatch.  Thatch is a brown, spongy material made of grass stems, living-, and dead grass roots that forms a mat along the surface of the soil.  It resembles peat moss in look and feel. 

Though thatch can be useful in small amounts to help keep the soil cool and the lawn comfortable to walk on, once it gets thicker than a half-inch, it turns into a big problem for lawns.  Plant roots are lazy when it comes to penetrating a resistant soil, and most plant roots will remain in the easy-to-grow area created by thatch, instead of forcing their way into compacted soil. 

Over time, the major part of the grass’ root system gets limited to the thatch layer, which doesn’t hold water or nutrients well.  The result is turf roots drying out and top growth burning back despite excessive irrigation.  Once this happens, the recommended amount of water will not be enough to keep your lawn healthy. 

 Thatch can be a problem on Kentucky bluegrass, bentgrass and fine fescue lawns, but rarely on tall fescue or buffalograss.  To help slow thatch buildup core aerate each year to break it up and encourage roots to grow into the soil profile.  But wait to aerate until fall or put it on your calendar for spring – mid-summer is not a good time to open up a bunch of holes in the soil for the heat to dry out.

Contrary to myth, grass clippings don’t add to thatch problems; use a mulching mower to leave the clippings on the lawn to recycle the nutrients they contain.

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 There is a foodie magazine in the area, Edible Front Range, that I contribute articles to occasionally.  It’s a wonderful magazine filled with interesting stories on local food and their blog is always fun to read.  Last year I added the following post on making your own Greek-style dolmades, the little grape leaf rolls commonly served as appetizers.  Here it is for you, in case you have grape vines that need a little pruning:

If you grow grapes like I do, you’ve probably noticed that the wet weather has turned those well-behaved plants into The Vines That Ate The Neighborhood.  Though grown dry, grapes actually love water, taking all we can give them; the result is wild, uncontrollable growth. 

Instead of hanging demurely on the trellis, the shoots are running rampant – cascading over fences, coiling around perennials, and throttling the competition.  These plants are out of control – I live in fear of them grabbing small pets or compact cars as they go by. 

The choice is simple:  either let the grapes terrorize the neighborhood or give them a haircut.   While the first is amusing, the plants can’t tell friend from foe and my own garage is being swallowed whole.  They must be stopped, so armed with shears on a sunny day, and I marched forth to prune.  Sixty minutes of clipping, snipping, and flailing later, I stared at the pile of cuttings. 

 Slowly a delicious thought formed:  it’s time for Greek dolmades. 

Don’t groan – those over-pickled, canned stuffed grape leaves can’t hold a candle to the light, savory flavor of fresh dolmades and they’re surprisingly easy to make.  That stack of shoots was ideal for the job, because those leaves were young, soft, and medium-sized.

 Bright eyed and eager to try something new, I took the vines into the kitchen, piled them on the counter and commenced diving into cookbooks for recipes.  Yet tome after tome was silent on the subject, as if Greek cooking was too complex for words.  But the leaves were waiting, so I did what every red-blooded cook has done through the ages – I panicked.  Then I called my friend for help. 

She’d seen dolmades made from fresh leaves once, and rummaged about until she found the recipe.  Preparation is simple – just clip the petiole of the leaf off, wash them gently, and par boil them for three minutes.  Plunge them into ice water immediately to cool.

The stuffing’s just a bit of rice, dried currants, pine nuts and herbs from my garden, all boiled together with water and lemon juice.  After it cools to room temperature, you fill and roll the leaves, drizzle them with olive oil and lemon juice, and bake them.

All told, it only took an hour and was much easier than pruning.  And the result was light, delicately flavored hors d’oeuvres fit for a fancy event or simple gathering of friends.

If you’re not growing grapes, ask your friends if they have some leaves to spare – 40 are perfect for the recipe, but it feeds a crowd.  Use only leaves from edible grapes, not ornamentals.  Make sure the plant hasn’t been sprayed with pesticide, and use the leaves the same day they’re picked.

Check out the recipes at What’s Cooking America. 

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Hosting the family picnic seemed like a good idea months ago, but looking over the struggling lawn, are you wondering what possessed you to say “yes” to this event?  With cousins bringing footballs and aunties croquet mallets, what should be a cause for celebration is now a source of panic. 

If the date is looming while the yard is dying, get it in shape with coaching from an all-pro turf master.  With no room for error before your relatives arrive, here are a few tips from one who knows how to handle the punishment a wild bunch delivers to a lawn. 

“Give it four to six weeks and you can have a pretty good lawn,” says Ross Kurcab, Turf Manager for the Denver Broncos, who keeps Invesco Field at Mile High ready for play.  “It won’t take a lot of traffic but it will get you through the event, after which you can plant for recovery of it.”

Kurcab shared tricks turf managers use to jump start fields for the big show.  His quick fix suggestions aren’t for everyday lawn renovation; instead they’re designed to make you the hero without big league spending.

Identify areas needing to bulk up, making sure spots of bare soil, dead grass or weeds are prepped before over seeding.  “Don’t plant into a patch of weeds.  Dig them out, rototill them up, or use a weed killer before you seed.”  If using a weed killer, check the label to make sure you can seed grass after it’s applied.

 Remove thick mats of grass or weeds before you plant, then run a core aerator several times across the area, poking a lot of holes into the soil.  Rake up the area to rough it before planting.

Under a time crunch, choose your grass wisely; not all germinate and establish quickly.  Perennial rye is the go-to grass of choice for the pros, since it can be coaxed to germinate in a week if temperatures are ideal.

For fast results, pre-germinate the seed by soaking it in water for 24 hours.  “We put a mesh bag of it into a big trash can of water, soaking it to pop the seed coat. It’ll give you a two day head start on getting the seed out of the ground,” he said.  Once soaked the seed is perishable, so drain the seed after 24 hours, fluff it up and sow it within two days.   

How you plant is the difference between rookie and pro, says Kurcab, so err on the side of aggression.  “People think you just throw it on the ground and it grows, but grass seed needs planting.  Get the seed into the soil by spreading it thickly – about five or six per square inch – then sprinkle a half-inch of soil over the top.  Seed is cheap, don’t go too light with it; though this is three times the recommended rate for new lawns, we’re doing a quick fix to get you through the picnic.” 

Rake the area to get the seed into the core aeration holes and break up the cores.  Then lightly roll the area to press the seed against the soil (rental firms may have rollers available). 

Once your seeds are in, water them thoroughly for the first two days, keeping the area slightly squishy.  Then water the area three times daily for 5 minutes for two weeks to keep the top half-inch moist.  After the seedlings are up, slowly wean the water away until you’re watering it along with the rest of the lawn.

Fertilize it when the seedlings get a half-inch tall with regular strength fertilizer.  You’ll need to mow more often to keep fast-growing seedlings even with the mature grass, but no pain, no gain.  And it’s a small price to pay for a winning picnic.

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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

Gardeners, gather your tools, pick up those gloves and stretch those muscles. Break out the catalogs and comb the stores for seed, grab a few bags of compost and prep the soil. Planting season is around the corner, and savvy gardeners are getting ready for their next – and sweetest – season of vegetables.

Don’t groan. We know you’re bracing for the summer harvest, gathering your courage in advance of zucchini, tomatoes and green beans.  Though the thought of stretching this out for another round of growing seems like insanity, once you’ve tried the flavors of fall, you’ll be hooked on third-season gardening.

Sowing cool season crops begins mid to end of July, to ensure you’ll be harvesting sweet rewards when days get crisp.  As daytime temperatures drop – and they will – most cool season vegetables begin maturing, and the trend towards chilly means those plants aren’t suffering hot flashes as they reach their peak.

 Beets, carrots, kale, lettuce, broccoli, spinach, turnips, and peas can be direct sown through mid-August, but before you put the seeds in the ground, treat yourself to a little shopping.  The savvy gardener knows that the time for finding bargains is now, when many retailers have seeds on sale trying to clear out inventory.  

When shopping, look for fast-maturing vegetables to bring a harvest in before truly cold weather arrives.  Grab packets of peas and try a few beets, or go for the spinach and turnips.  If we get that September snow squall, don’t worry.  These vegetables will shrug that off, and continue to produce well into October or November when we finally get a killing frost.

Prepare your garden by removing all summer crop residues and weed growth in the area you want to plant, and turn the soil at least six to eight inches deep. Add a bit of compost, and mix it into the soil.

If you don’t have room in the kitchen garden to add these fall plants in, consider ripping out the ornamental beds to make more room.  Those flowers are just showing off, and there’s time to build a new bed now and get the irrigation in.  Just use your vacation time to start another garden instead of going to a cooler locale.

Best results are achieved by sowing seeds of broccoli raab, bok choi or other cool season vegetables directly into the soil, but beware the hazards of a Colorado summer and keep the surface of the soil from drying and cracking with a light mulch of compost over the seed row.  

Lettuce, peas and spinach need a bit of shade to reduce heat in the soil for germination, and if you can, plant them under taller summer crops that will be finished with the first frost.  Plant the seeds slightly deeper than in spring to take advantage of cooler, moister soil.  Consider popping in a few annual herbs, like basil, for a late season burst of flavor to go with those savory vegetables.

Brassicas, such as broccoli, will turn bitter if water stressed and don’t recover once this has happened, so don’t allow seedlings and young plants to dry out.  Because cabbage loopers may be around, have a supply of Bacillius thuringiensis (Bt) nearby to help control them on the young plants. 

Once you’ve started bringing in the harvest, plan on freezing some to preserve it for winter meals.  You’ll be glad you went to the effort of growing a third season of food for the family, and won’t miss those ornamental beds after all.

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 In a city where millions pine for green space but budgets are tight, getting a garden is often a dream.  Though some have the cash to build parks, those that struggle are left with empty lots and cement, unable to afford the costs of greening up.  What they need is someone with the means to invest and the vision to see the beauty and peace gardens give to urban areas.

For New York City’s Harlem that visionary was Bette Midler.  In 1995, the accomplished performer/author founded the New York Restoration Project, a non-profit devoted to bringing gardens and trees to an asphalt jungle.  Disturbed by the difference between the west side of Manhattan with it’s lush parks and lawns, and the east side where cracked cement was the only offering, she purchased property to transform into gardens and created an endowment to fund the organization’s goal of greening the city. 

“These are places to come out and feel safe,” says Akiima Price, of the NYRP, “one of the reasons people don’t come outside is that they don’t feel safe out here.  We offer a variety of programs; workshops on cultivation of the garden but also yoga and cooking.  In general a garden implies a place to grow things, but to us it’s where we get out.”

Providing all the seeds and plants for the gardeners plus a space to call their own, the NYRP and their corporate partners work with neighborhoods to bring the residents what they need and will use.   “We look at who uses the space, and how, then plan to make it better,” said Barrett Robinson, landscape designer with NYRP.  “We sit with the community and invite them into the planning by asking what they need and what is the best use of the space.”

  The community is consulted throughout the design process, said Robinson, as he pointed out the Target Garden’s wind turbines, solar panels and rainwater collection systems that power and water the plot.  Raised beds with vegetables are tended by community members, who often share the bounty with other gardeners and families without gardens.

“We meet with garden members in spring to talk about what types of plants are possible, like heirloom vegetables and plants that can work well.  But they choose whatever they want to grow and we provide it,” said Robinson.  In the zone 6b gardens, ears of corn in tassle supported vines of beans, while tomatoes and carrots were getting ready for the summer show.

“It’s not just about the gardens, but about the areas around us as well,” says Price, so the NYRP works to overcome obesity in a place where people lack access to fresh vegetables and fruit.  Many of the children believe their food starts at the bodega, a small grocery store carrying mostly packaged foods.  “Food habits are hard to change.  People shopping at the same bodega all their lives have habits; they want the same food.  Getting them to try new vegetables is hard.”  Once the children learn to garden, they often succeed in getting their fresh vegetables onto the dinner table. 

Donte Taylor, Garden Manager, was raised in the city and knows the value of having growing things around him.  Managing a two-person crew to care for the 12 gardens in Harlem, he takes pride in the plants they tend.  Looking at the cypress, dogwood, hostas and ferns in the Home Depot Garden, he spoke of the care NYRP has for the people who work for them. 

“I started with them through Americorp working one year, then a second, on their projects.  At the end of those terms I got a staff position.  They see the potential in so many people,” said Taylor, “they saw it in me and brought me up.”  Gardens small and large are cared for by his crew, who keep them clean and plants healthy for the residents to enjoy.

“Each garden is set up to be unique,” said John Douglas, who works for Taylor maintaining the gardens.  “It gives me peace of mind to work here and the tangible reward of knowing that when I’m finished, my work keeps growing.”

Both Taylor and Douglas, with their hands in the soil and surrounded by green, believe that their biggest reward is that the people of Harlem enjoy the gardens.  And by tending these plants, the New York Restoration Project is growing the people around them. 

Like Bette Midler, that’s simply divine.

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