Archive for January, 2011

Getting your garden started seems simple:  you dream big, make wish list, then with warm weather, head to the garden center to pick out your plants.  But as those doors slide open to the warm, moist air of the greenhouse, a daunting tableau unfolds:  bench after bench filled with seedlings, rolling racks bursting with trays, containers crowding floors, until all that’s left is a narrow path snaking down aisles.  

At this point, gardeners react either in frenzy, gathering everything within grasp until their cart resembles a Dr. Seuss tower; or in fear, by turning on their heels and fleeing to a more orderly locale.   This is understandable: when facing an ocean of plants, how do you know which plants will work, or what to avoid?

“When I first started gardening and went to the store, I was in awe of what they offered; overwhelmed by the number of plants available,” says Diane Blazek, Executive Director for All America Selections, an organization dedicated to testing and recommending plants for gardens in North America (all-americaselections.org/).  “But most gardeners just want to know “what’s going to do well in my yard?”

Putting plants through rigorous trials since 1932, All America Selections winnows out the best of the best, finding tough plants that are star performers in almost every garden.  Capturing a coveted “AAS Award Winner” designation is like getting the Better Homes and Gardens Seal of Approval, says Blazek, because if they do well in 30 trial gardens across the U.S., they’ll probably grow in your backyard.

“The seed breeding world is competitive; everybody wants their products in front of gardeners.  There must be a way to ensure that they live up to their claims, if not, breeders can say whatever they want but it’s not always true,” she said. 

To put their claims to the test, corporations, individuals, and universities developing plants enter the yearly trials.  “We have plants from large seed companies, but we like to give smaller guys a chance too, like Gordon Smith.  He was breeding peppers in his Illinois backyard, entered and won – now we have Cajun Belle, a pepper developed in his home yard. “

Once the breeder has what they think is a winner, the journey from seed to celebrity spans a season.  Contestants are entered in November and seed is dispersed to gardens across the country for trialing the following summer.  The number of places a plant is tested depends on its category:  vegetables are trialed at 32 locations, cool season bedding plants in 25, and flowers in 42 gardens.

Judges are given strict guidelines for growing these plants: do nothing special.  “We insist that they treat them like an average gardener would so we’ll see how they are on their own.  Don’t spray them, fertilize them more, or treat them special,” says Blazek.

Throughout the season, contenders go through a litany of competitions, where contestants are judged against one another, plus two to four outsiders – ringers that excel in certain traits.   “Not a lot of trial programs have testing like ours.  We compare them against one plant for size, and another one for disease resistance; then they compete against a third plant to see which is earliest, or a fourth for bloom size.  An AAS winner has to be better than them all, in every category.”

Look for 2011’s AAS winners this year:

  Gaillardia ‘Arizona Apricot’ (Gailardia x grandiflora) , a blanket flower that blooms all summer

 Ornamental Kale ‘Glamour Red’ (Brassica oleracea), for intense color that shows off in fall

 Salvia ‘Summer Jewel Red’ (Salvia coccinea), with brilliant red, early spikes of bloom

 Viola ‘Shangri-La Marina’ (Viola cornuta), a pale blue, mounding viola for cool locales. 

The small pumpkin ‘Hijinks’ and two tomatoes perfect for containers, Lizzano and Terenzo, round out the winners. 

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Basil plant leaves.

Image via Wikipedia

In the first winter of my marriage, I wanted to cook a fabulous meal for my husband to make up for all of the awful meals I’d been cooking for him up until that point.  As this was before the internet was anything other than a twinkle in someone’s eye, I opened a cookbook to look up a recipe, which is what those kitchen paperweights were used for prior to phone apps and googling.

Before me was a wonderful recipe for Tarragon Veal Croquettes, calling for fresh tarragon, chives, and parsley.  It might as well have called for eye of newt and toe of frog, because I had no idea where to find them. I didn’t even know what they looked like.

Fortunately, one of our neighbors provided a few snips from her windowsill garden and my dish was saved.  From that moment on I vowed to grow herbs myself.   Armed with the confidence of the young, I brought home basil, chives, and thyme.  I spent more time arranging them on the windowsill than learning how to care for them.

My first attempt at growing herbs indoors taught me that over-watering them leads to a slimy, smelly mess.  Apparently waterlogged soil becomes anaerobic, and without oxygen starts to smell like a sewer, which is not good for impressing a new husband with dazzling kitchen prowess.  Most herbs don’t need a lot of water, so if you’re growing them, place them in quick draining containers and allow them to slightly dry between watering. 

Light is also important.  Mine were on a north-facing windowsill and got little sunshine.  They grew tall and spindly, falling over onto the counter.  “They’re leggy from too little light,” my neighbor said, making me consider buying them stockings.  To avoid the common problem of tall stems with spindly growth, herbs need five hours of direct sunlight or twelve hours of artificial light per day.  If using artificial light, keep the plants three to four inches under it.

The right container is crucial; choose those that are at least six to eight inches deep with drainage holes.  Decorative tins, old boots, or colorful crockery work well as outer pots to slide around the container the herb is potted in, to keep your window attractive.  Fertilize herbs, but do so lightly, using half strength fish emulsion or liquid kelp. 

Thyme and oregano eventually became my favorites.  Both perennials, thyme is a must for kitchens; its small leaves spill over quirky containers.  And oregano is easy to grow as long as it gets a sunny window and is pinched back to keep it bushy.  Use the clippings in sauces and stews, or dry the sprigs for later.

 Chives, garlic chives, and mint like moderately moist soil but harvesting can be tricky.  Chive leaves will not grow past a cut high on the leaf, so snip each leaf near the base of the plant.  Keep a container of mint growing to flavor Mojitos, or use in jellies, garnishes, or adding zip to steamed vegetables.  Harvest by pinching stems just above the leaf junctions to encourage compact growth with more stems.

Should you want to try basil, it’s easy to grow, but can start shedding its leaves if conditions are too cool or the light isn’t bright enough.  Most kitchens provide the right warmth, and as long as your window is south or west facing, you shouldn’t need extra lights.  Try lime basil for marinades or cinnamon basil for salads.

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The new year has gotten off to quick start and gardeners are eager to get their hands back in the soil. But the ground is frozen and plants are asleep, so the best cure for the green thumb itch is to sit through a few classes. Fortunately, there are several seminars to choose from along the Front Range.

Two powerhouse speakers, Lauren Springer Ogden and David Salman, are appearing January 22 at the Drake Centre, 802 W. Drake Rd. in Fort Collins. Salman, owner of High Country Gardens in Santa Fe, and landscape designer/author Springer Ogden are expert in creating beauty in the west. Their topic, “Creating Undaunted Gardens: Plants & Inspiration from Two Pioneers in High Country Gardening,” is a must-see for gardeners feeling the winter blues.

Fee for this seminar, a fundraiser for the Gardens on Spring Creek in Fort Collins, is $40 members, $45 for non-members, and includes a breakfast buffet. Information and registration are available online or by calling the Gardens on Spring Creek at 970-416-2486.

“Your Edible Gardening Workshop,” offered by the Colorado State University Extension offices of Larimer, Adams, Weld and Boulder counties, is a one-day immersion into food gardening. The basics of soil, water, and plant selection are explored, along with seminars on specialty crops, like strawberries, tree fruit and brambles. This all-day workshop is Saturday, January 22, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Ranch in Loveland, and costs only $75. Lunch is not included. Call 970-304-3565 for more information or to register.

Can’t decide between landscaping for beauty or wanting to plant for food? Check out the one day “High Plains Landscape Workshop,” Saturday, Feb. 26 at the Fort Collins Senior Center, 1200 Raintree Dr. Featuring Scott Calhoun, author and columnist for Sunset magazine, the workshop focuses on gardening from the ground up with seminars on perfect plant combinations, soil savvy, strategies for design, and choosing vegetable varieties.

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; $40 after February 16. Workshop information and registration materials are available online or by calling the Gardens on Spring Creek at 970-416-2486.

If you don’t mind driving and want a chance to hear elite speakers discussing issues and intricacies of gardening in a land with limited resources, head to Colorado Springs for the Peak to Prairie Landscape Symposium, Feb. 4 and 5. Design tips, trends, and water-wise landscaping are the focus of this two day event.

In addition to David Salman speaking on designing with xeriscape plants and also on rock gardening, Denver Botanic Gardens’ plant explorer Mike Bone will dazzle you with “The Wisdom of Well-Adapted Plants,” and Dr. Patty Limerick of the University of Colorado’s Center of the American West presents the thought provoking “From the Ground Up: Harvesting the Lessons of Westward Expansion.”

Register for both days or a single day only; check out their Web site for fees and registration information online.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

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Some states elect wrestlers, others movie stars.  But in Colorado, we’ve elected a brewer.  Ok, yes, before that he was a geologist, but for any gardener who’s toiled under the blazing sun cutting a soon-to-be garden bed, well, a skill in brewing up cold, frosty beverages is more useful than being able to say that those rocks are limestone, granite, or gneiss.  Leave that conversation for after you’ve relaxed in the shade.

As John Hickenlooper is sworn in as the 42nd Governor of the state, I hope the man who launched the Million Tree Initiative in Denver takes that philosophy across the state.  Think of it – if an area the size of greater Denver can hold a million new trees by 2025, can’t he pack a few more into the state, until we become so thickly forested that we resemble Connecticut instead of Colorado?

Sadly, the answer is no, as anyone traveling the eastern or western borders of our state can attest.  It turns out we can’t really plant wall-to-wall trees, despite what bona fide treehuggers like myself want.   We’re limited by water, something trees need to grow big and strong.  On those borders I haven’t seen anything much larger than a shrub living outside of the towns. 

But a gardener can dream about taking over the planet with big, hulking vegetation, and trees are a gateway plant to other garden treasures.  Their shade keeps us cool, their branches support our children’s swings; the only thing I have against them is that they harbor squirrels who pilfer from my garden (it could be worse – if it gets much colder in portions of Florida, they’ll have those iguanas dropping from the trees again).

True, the Governor will have his hands full with the state budget, and yes, creating jobs, shrinking government and promoting the state are all worthy of his immediate attention.  But as long as he’s appointing a cabinet, toss in a tree czar – he can appoint an Ent to the position. 

Then the tree czar can get to work encouraging people to plant this spring, which is right around the corner.  There’s plenty to do, what with the new Front Range Tree Recommendation List being unveiled at ProGreen in February, The Colorado Garden and Home Show (also February), and planting starting in March.  

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Now that your Christmas tree — which brought such joy — is tattered and dry, how can you keep its spirit alive throughout the year?  By tearing off its limbs and grinding it up for mulch.  Though this may sound like Halloween got mixed up with Christmas, treating your tree to a gruesome end gives it a makeover that will have other plants cozy through the rest of the winter.

This year, the weather’s been dry, with warm days, freezing nights and plenty of wind; this is a recipe for disaster for plants in our landscapes.  Moisture from exposed ground is wicked away and in bone-dry soil, roots wither and die.

Perennial beds endure the double jeopardy of the freeze-thaw cycle, where soil heaves and cracks; exposure to the elements kills roots and bulbs.  In spring, your perennial bed will be a shadow of its former self, spotted with dead plants surrounded by a chalk outline of leaves and stems.

Fortunately, this is something that can be remedied with a nice drink and thick blanket, but get yourself up off the couch on the next warm day to go outside and water those perennials.  Then cover them with the ground up Christmas tree.

When experts say “apply a thick mulch,” how deep do they mean — a bag or a truckload?  While you don’t need to pile mulch up to your chest, the depth of the coating depends on the size of the wood chips. Because they compact more, smaller chips should be applied thinly; no more than one to two inches thick.  Larger wood chips should be spread three to four inches thick. More than this and you run the risk of smothering the plants.

Evergreen branches from the Christmas tree are excellent blankets, giving evergreen plants extra protection from the winter.  Evergreen and semi-evergreen perennials, at risk from sunscald (called winter burn), can’t replace moisture pulled from leaves by windy, sunny days when the ground is frozen.  Boughs trimmed from your tree will buffer these plants from the worst of the elements.

Use only those branches that still have needles clinging to them, laying them two layers deep across the perennials.  In spring, slowly move them off of the plants to let air circulate to the plant, and ensure new sprouts harden off as they grow.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

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