Archive for September, 2010

After years of envying other gardeners’ bounty, I finally got my wish for a little more spice in my summer.  Year after year, despite my best effort, the garden lacked a little zest until Bill Renner, a friendly Colorado Master Gardener, gave me his secret:  all I had to do was let things heat up and Mother Nature does the rest.

The result is a harvest of peppers bigger and bolder than any I’ve ever had – so full of chiles, belles, and jalapenos that I fear for my family’s stomachs this winter.  After a weekend spent harvesting, roasting, and peeling, 16 bags are nestled in the freezer just waiting to warm cold evenings with a hot, sweet meal.

His secret?  Peppers love the heat, and I was cooling them off with a blanket of mulch too early in the summer.  Keeping roots cool is a core tenet of gardening in a hot, arid land, but not every plant likes to be coddled.

Peppers are tough plants that like their soil a tad dry and plenty warm, so I didn’t mulch until well into July, when soaring temperatures baked the earth.  The peppers loved it, setting fruit and growing large until they produced so many pods just looking at them made me sweat.

Sure, there were a couple of blemishes, but with this primer, you’ll learn to ignore a few spots and get rid of the problems:

What:  Light colored, thin-skinned spots on the fruit, becoming sunken, bleached, and papery. 

Cause:  Sunscald.  Skin crisps under the baking glare of our high altitude sun.

Cure:  Select cultivars with good leaf coverage.  Because our wind can push leaves off of the fruit, provide wind buffers if you live in a windy spot (essentially the entire state of Colorado).  Cut off affected area and enjoy the rest.

What: Ends of the peppers are rotten, look water-soaked, then dry out.

Cause:  Blossom end rot, caused by poor uptake of calcium.  Though calcium is plentiful in our soil, irregular watering and excessive heat prevent the plant from using it.

Cure:  Use a timer to automatically turn on and off the irrigation, and mulch plants to keep the soil from drying out too rapidly. 

What: Peppers are malformed, with yellowing, concentric rings around spots.

Cause:  Cucumber mosaic virus. Viruses can cause odd-looking problems. 

Cure:  Spread by aphids and occasionally by gardeners, once virus has gotten into the plant, pull it.  There is no cure; the plant just becomes the mothership for the disease.  

What:  Plants are wilting, leaves have brown spots and the fruit develops large, rotten spots, often bordered by white mold.

Cause:  Phytophthora, a soil borne fungus that is a problem in chronically moist ground.

Cure:  Provide good drainage, and later your irrigation.

What:  Leaf spirals, cupping or distortion.

Cause:  Peppers are sensitive to herbicides. Many gardeners don’t spray their food plants; instead, the damage is from drift.  Drift can occur from applying weed killer on windy days. 

Cure:  Limit applications of weed killer to cool times of the day when wind is calm.

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Early in the summer, I dreamed big.  The weather was warming and the spring garden abundant, so when the small package of Pumpkin Pro arrived in the mail, I gave in to my inner child and sprinkled the powder into my pumpkin hills.  Touted as “the secret ingredient to growing gigantic pumpkins,” I let myself believe that this year I’d finally get a gourd the size of a Buick in my backyard.

The trio of bio-products (mycorrhyzal fungi, Azos bacterium, and calcium carbonate), promised a pumpkin that needed a little elbow room, so I planted only seeds with the genetics of giants in that area, then waited.  Nothing happened.  After 10 days, I planted again.   

Over in the regular garden, the miniature pumpkins sprang up with gusto, running over the ground and fruiting like they were trying to set a record.   In the giant pumpkin patch, a small, weak vine struggled up, growing feebly throughout the summer.  I nurtured it, putting up wind breaks and fertilizing it with care. 

The vine set fruit and I quickly caged it to protect it from squirrels.  Checking it daily, I was happy to see the swell of what would surely become a prize-winning Jack O’ Lantern.  Visions of carving the expanse of squash filled my mind: do I stay traditional with a simple Jack face or sculpt it to illustrate Dante’s Inferno

As summer rolled by it was clear no further pumpkins would be borne on the vine, so I resigned myself to one show stopping gourd.  One is better than none.

It’s now matured, with orange blushing its skin, and today, I can proudly announce that I have applied the latest research and cutting edge technology to grow a pumpkin the size of my shoe.  The miniature pumpkins are larger than this.

Stuck without a decent-sized Jack O’ Lantern, I’m forced to go shopping.  Fortunately, the local pumpkin patches offer plenty of fun and a wide variety of designer pumpkins. 

Check them out this fall, but visit the farm’s Web site for daily hours.  Find a pumpkin patch near you at Pumpkin Patches and more

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

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“Woman squashes bear,” was the headline on a small snippet my spouse brought home for me yesterday.  He knows I live for stories like this.

It seems that a woman in the mountains near Frenchtown, Montana, has large zucchini and isn’t afraid to use them, especially when a 200-pound black bear attacked her dog, then tried to shove its way into her home to savage her. 

The woman, who asked not to be identified, had let her three dogs out around midnight September 23 when the bear, startled while feeding on apples from a nearby tree, freaked out.  Two of the dogs ran, escaping the charging bear, but the 12-year old collie, Brin, wasn’t as nimble.

The woman kicked the bear, screaming to try to scare it.  But the bruin turned its rage on her, swiping her leg and ripping her jeans.  As it tried to force its way into the house past the door the woman was desperately trying to close, the woman did what she had to do.

Let me say I’m impressed by this woman’s quick thinking under pressure.  Not only would it never occur to me to take up zucchini in self-defense, but because my kitchen is nowhere near the back door, I wouldn’t have had one handy.  The most I could muster would be a freshly laundered sock.

But lift the zucchini she did, launching a six-and-a-half pound salvo of squash to hit the bruin on its head.  The bear, clearly realizing that where there’s one zucchini there’s bound to be more, fled.  

The woman is shaken, but fine, suffering minor scratches from a swipe of a paw.  The collie was taken to the vet, where it is under observation but seems to be recovering from its close encounter.  Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks are on the case, laying a trap for the bear and planning to use DNA collected from the zucchini and woman’s jeans to ensure they catch the right bear.   

If you live in bear country you have to be prepared, urges the woman, who isn’t amused by the incident.  Indeed, if you live where wildlife could be attracted to your landscaping, be a responsible human and don’t plant things that could lead a bear into temptation.  It isn’t fair to the bear.

Learn more about the attack and living with bears.

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When you’re having an anniversary, throwing a party is a popular way to celebrate.  Haul out a shovel to dig in the soil during the party, and most people think you’ve gone off your rocker.  But if you’re Denver Urban Gardens, getting your hands dirty is what your big day is all about.

To celebrate their 25th anniversary, DUG has teamed up with Denver Parks & Recreation to break ground on their 100th community garden at Ruby Hill Park at the corner of West Florida Ave. and South Platte River Drive.  Residents are invited to bring their picnics to a free celebration, dubbed ‘Flourish!’, at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 25.  Music, cooking competition, and activities await participants. 

“In a lot of ways, this is a milestone,” says Michael Buchenau, Executive Director of DUG, “we’ve had our nose to the grindstone trying to build quality gardens, one at a time.”  Ruby Hill Park was selected for the garden location because of its incredible history, beautiful views and proximity to neighborhoods that can benefit from a community garden, he said. 

Although community gardens have been a part of the Denver landscape for generations, DUG’s roots began in 1985 as the brainchild of Chris Cordts, a Colorado State University Extension Agent.  Watching the thriving efforts of community garden pioneers such as

Denver Highlands resident Marty Roberts, who turned abandoned lots in her neighborhood into the Shoshone, Pecos, and El Oasis community gardens, and the creation of the Emerson Garden in Capitol Hill, Whittier Garden in Five Points, West Washington Park, Rosedale Gardens in south Denver, and the San Rafael Garden in Uptown, Cordts wanted to connect and support the gardens through a nonprofit organization. 

“During the early years, our roots weren’t with DUG.  We ran our own things, managed our own budget,” says Dave Conant, Garden Leader of Rosedale community garden.  Cultivating a plot there since 1986, Conant remembers the transformation of garden management from a loose group of independent gardeners to a focused, committed part of DUG. 

“People were suspicious that DUG would come in and be too controlling, that they’d interfere with rules on how we could garden.  But we’ve evolved over the years; DUG raised our consciousness on what community gardens are all about.  They have the best vision and goals for community gardens, and we needed to rise to that level.” 

The Rosedale location is the largest community garden in Denver, and gardeners regularly donate produce to the food bank and Project Angel Heart, a non-profit that provide nutritious meals to gravely ill persons. 

Formally incorporated as a 501c3 organization in the spring of 1985, DUG spent a decade with a volunteer board working to expand the organization.  In 1994, they hired Buchenau and David Rieseckas as Co-Executive Directors.  Buchenau has captained the organization alone since the departure of Rieseckas over six years ago. “I have an M.S. in Landscape Architecture from Harvard, and worked in design for a while.  But I really wanted to give back to the community, to do something to connect people,” he said.  

With its Free Seeds and Transplants program, 99 community gardens, and DeLaney Community Farm, DUG’s Community Supported Agriculture project in Aurora, the organization is growing.  “Our castle on the hill dream is a garden in every neighborhood.  We will never feed the city – that’s unrealistic – but we’re part of the urban fabric, along with parks and neighborhoods.” 

Following the groundbreaking ceremony during Flourish!, attendees will be entertained by a cooking competition and community concert sponsored by Swallow Hill. 

Local chefs from Bistro One, Limon, Jonsey’s, Root Down, Village Cork, Black Pearl, and WaterCourse will compete using locally-grown, fresh ingredients and the winner determined by a panel of local celebrities.  Throughout the day, families will also have the opportunity to interact with hands-on garden and sustainability-themed activities. 

Swallow Hill will host a concert of an all-star lineup of musical acts, including national singer/songwriters Patty Larkin and Lucy Kaplansky, national children’s musician Justin Roberts and local Latin reggae band, Mono Verde.  The World’s Largest Ukulele Lesson – that’s right, ukulele – rounds out the day’s fun. 

Contact DUG for more details on the day.

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Despite Mother Nature’s hot flashes, eventually we’ll start getting frosty days.  Here’s a quick primer on harvesting and storing those not-yet-ripe tomatoes.  Video produced by the Boulder Daily Camera

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What ever you do, stay out of the burned zone, is the message experienced foresters, researchers, and firefighters have for residents returning to their homes after the Fourmile Canyon and Reservoir Road fires.  The blazes that left hundreds homeless leave another hazard in their wake:  falling trees.

 “Really hot fires burn the tree, its roots, and all,” says Greg Sundstrom, Assistant Staff Forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, “those trees are likely to fall anytime between now and ten years from now.”  This makes the burn zone an area that curious homeowners and curiosity seekers should avoid.

Left unstable without anchoring roots, charred trees begin falling immediately.  “When I was on the firefighting crews in California, they’d have us eat our lunch squatting on our feet.  This was so we could move quickly when we heard a tree coming over, to get out of its way,” he said, describing the thud-thud-thud of falling trees. 

But not all trees killed by fire die right away. “We’ve looked at survivorship of ponderosa pines following fire in the Black Hills,” says Dr. Skip Smith, Department Head of Forestry and Rangeland Stewardship at Colorado State University.  “Immediate kill from the fire, where the foliage is consumed, is obvious.  But what we saw is that trees will die for four or five years after a wildfire.  It may appear green but eventually dies.”

If the cambium – that area of living cells under the bark – and the phloem experienced a lot of heat, those damaged spots girdle the tree.  It may be alive right now, but next year or the year after, it dies, he says.

Assessing trees for survivorship can be tricky, cautions Smith, but here are a few things to look for.  Check the crown, looking for percentage of scorched foliage.  If more than half of the crown remains green the tree has a good chance for survival; less than half and the tree’s odds diminish.  Total consumption, where the crown has burned off, means the tree is killed. 

Look for deep charring around the base of the trunk.  Ground fires burning duff, leaf litter, or other fuels against the trunk can kill the tree at ground level.  Like a pencil standing on its point, these trees are hazardous and will fall.  But if sixty-percent or more of the base is unharmed, it might survive, says Smith.

The good news is that ponderosa pines become resistant to fire, developing a thick, corky bark as they grow.  This insulates the cambium from heat.  Other trees aren’t armored from the heat, such as Douglas fir or lodgepole pines; they often fall victim to the flames.  Unable to regenerate from roots, pines succumb completely.  But other trees, such as Aspen, are remarkably resilient and will rise from the ashes to shade the land.

“Aspen will sprout up after fire if the heat into the soil isn’t great,” said Dr. William Jacobi, Professor of Tree Pathology and Extension Specialist at Colorado State University.  “In fact, often they’re not even noticed until after wildfires remove other trees.”   Native bushes are supposed to burn, he says, and come back quickly.

The big question for these areas is whether invasive plants will crowd into areas where smaller vegetation has burned off.  “The problem, now that invasives have moved into the forest, is that the invasives often do better after fire.  Seeds and roots survive, and they grow back before the natives,” he said.

At this time of year, experts recommend people whose property burned should stabilize the soil before snow flies, remove hazard trees, and plan revegetation for spring.  Contact the Colorado State Forest Service for a list of tree contractors.

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A pitfall of being a gardener is overconfidence.  After triumphing over soil, weather, and a few insects, there’s a swagger to your walk; you find yourself smugly thinking you could master any plant your heart desires.  When you reach that point, there’s always one that calls your bluff. 

In my case, it’s hops, the essential element in beer.  A friend convinced me to put in two plants with a simple plan: grow hops, harvest them, and trade them to brewers for beer. 

The first season was an easy, no-brainer, I thought, since the vines with hand-shaped leaves stayed small and well behaved.  In the winter they died back, and I snipped off the spent vine and tucked in the roots for winter.

The second year, the hops settled in, crawling up the fence and spilling over the side.  “Must be why they call them Cascades,” I thought, “they’re cascading all over the neighbor’s yard.”  Pulling them back, I harvested the cones and offered them to home brewers.

Now in their third season, they’re showing their true nature: alarming.  Not content with climbing the fence, my hops grabbed the neighbor’s apple tree, vining up to cover the branches in an aromatic blanket.  Staring up at the harvest dangling 20 feet above my head, all I could think was “Houston, we have a problem.”

“They’re really vigorous; they’ll climb over anything. They’ll take over bushes, ornamental plants,” says Ali Hamm, Hops Specialist with Summit Plant Laboratories, Inc., in Fort Collins (plantlabs.com/).  “There are reports of them getting 50-feet tall, but in Colorado they’ll only get about 25 feet.”

Hamm spent four years on what many college students might consider a dream project: researching the best types of hops for our area at Colorado State University.  The high yielding plant shows promise for Colorado growers; warm days, cool nights, low humidity and few pests keep problems away.  Once established, hops are also drought tolerant.

The market for local hops looks strong.  “People in Colorado will always be drinking beer, and there will always be hops in it,” says Hamm, “I think it’s a great crop to be growing here, but I’m biased about it.”  She estimates the industry is two to five years from being established, mainly due to large up front costs of trellising and post harvest equipment.

Brewers are watching the fledgling industry closely, which currently has 75 acres in production.  “We used to get wet hops from Yakima Valley (Washington), but we want to use local hops for our beer,” says Ro Guenzel, Head Brewer for Left Hand Brewing Company in Longmont (lefthandbrewing.com/).  “They’re better, fresher, and we can visit the fields to select the rows that we want.”

Wet hops, unprocessed cones used within 12 hours of harvest, are expensive to ship by overnight express for brewing Left Hand’s Warrior beer.  Now Guenzel brings in his hops from Sunrise Farm in Paonia, which picks and packs the hops onto small airplanes for a quick trip over the mountains to Longmont. 

 “We can only make a wet hop beer once per year, when hops are picked.  Since they’re not dried, there’s no loss of volatile oils.  They provide a different character to the beer, it’s a little greener, brighter flavor,” he said.  Balancing malty sweetness with a touch of bitterness is not all hops do; each type brings its own flavor to the brew.  “Hops can be citrusy, piney, earthy – they’re all unique.”

Guenzel was happy to take the two bushels of hops harvested from my plants to add to the Warrior brew.  “Cascades are the most widely used, they’re the quintessential hop.”  But Hamm also recommends Chinook, Crystal, or Nugget for people who want a tried and true plant.  Then get to know your neighbor, taking them beer in exchange for their patience with your vine. 

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Organic Bartlett pears (Williams Bon Chrétien ...

Image via Wikipedia

Every year has bumper crops and busted dreams, so a gardener learns to go with the flow.  Though chilly nights this summer kept some vegetables to a minimum, Mother Nature made up for her stinginess with an overload of tree fruit.  Apples and pears are on people’s minds, and if you’ve been staring at the tree trying to figure out when to clear your schedule for harvest, here are some hints for getting perfect fruit. 

Apples are easy to tell ripeness on because they hit you on the head when ready.  Dropping from the tree by bushels, your yard gets covered in slightly bruised, ready-to-eat fruit.  This makes a mess; laying there it begins to spoil, fermenting until you worry that the wasps and squirrels nibbling on it will start throwing drunken toga parties. 

 Those fallen apples have to be used quickly; they won’t store well after hitting the ground.  Jelly, sauce, and frozen pie fillings are best ways to preserve that harvest. 

 But apples don’t ripen at the same time; some finish early, others late.  If you’re lucky enough to have late types, you’re in position to harvest apples for storage through winter.  Picked when mature but not fully ripe, they’ll keep for months at 32 F.  Leave the stem on when storing, and pack them in plastic lined boxes that hold humidity.

To gauge an apple’s readiness, get to know the skin color before it ripens.  This is known as “ground color.”  As apples ripen, the area facing the tree usually colors up last; watch this spot closely.  Once its ground color changes from bright green to creamy or yellow-green, the apples are ready.  Pluck them as soon as possible to prevent them from fully ripening on the tree.  

 Pears are challenging, cantankerous enough to make gardeners want to take up another hobby.  Ripening from the inside out, if left on the tree, they’re mushy by the time you think they’re ready.  But picked early, and the fruit just sits there until it rots instead of ripens.    

 The way to wrest control over pears is to turn the ripening process on its head through chilling.  Pick pears when they’re just becoming mature, the point at which the fruit detaches when tilted horizontally from their hanging position (Boscs don’t do this; they cling to the tree).

Once pears are picked, cool them to about 30 F; the sugars keep the fruit from freezing.  Hold Bartlett pears at this temperature for a day or two, others such as Anjou or Bosc for two to six weeks.  Then bring them back up to 65 to 75 degrees to ripen.  Depending on how long they were chilled, Bartletts are ready in four or five days, Boscs in five to seven days, and Anjou in a week to 10 days.   

Gauge ripeness by gently pressing the neck of the pear just below where the stem joins the fruit. If it yields evenly to gentle pressure, it’s ready to eat.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

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Learn to recognize the one organism that can’t get enough of zucchinis in this video produced by the Boulder Daily Camera:

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Watching the 7,000-acre fire burning west of Boulder reminds me that every area has its share of heartbreaking natural disasters.  We live in a dry state where fire is a destructive force we fear every year.   Seen from my home to the east, the plume of smoke from the Four Mile fire is boiling near the flames as it rises to spread across the sky.

Passing overhead, a fine ash settles down, coating my home and land.  The question callers are asking is:  Will this ash harm the plants?

“This late in the season – September 7 – a lot of the trees and shrubs are starting to be ready to shed those leaves,” says Dr. Jim Klett, Professor of Horticulture at Colorado State University, “they’re prepared for winter and a little ash won’t harm them.  They’ve already set buds for next year.”

Showy fall color might be hurt by an ash coating, Klett said, by encrusting the leaves with gunk that diminishes the intensity of color.  But unless the ash is thick enough to smother the branches and buds, the plants will be fine.  Should that happen, a heavy rain will be enough to wash off the plants, or winds will move it off of the tree.

Of course, this advice is for those out of harm’s way.  Closer to the blaze, landscapes could get singed.  “If it’s near the fire and the ash is warm, yes, it can burn small holes in the leaves,” said Klett, but even then the leaves can take a bit of damage.

There’s little to be done except wait for the fire crews to contain the blaze, and hope for rain.

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