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DSC_0085If your New Year’s resolution is to join hands with others to make the world a better place, start in your own backyard. Big change can come from small scale refurbishing and the lives you save will repay your kindness with fruit, food, erosion control, and an increase in oxygen from the bevy of plant offspring produced by pollination.

Just don’t be surprised that the helping hand you reach out is accepted by a claw in gratitude; and please don’t squeeze. The tiny denizens of a healthy garden include bees, beetles, butterflies, birds, moths, flies, and bats who move pollen in important ways.   Good habitat is a premium for them, and you can help by creating pollinator friendly gardens.

Audubon Rockies wants to help you in your resolution, offering the Habitat Heroes – Gardening for Beauty and Birds workshop, Saturday, March 5, 9 a.m. to noon at the Boulder County Parks and Open Space building in Longmont, Colorado. As part of the Habitat Heroes program, the workshop features two speakers who give advice for creating meaningful gardens with pollinators in mind.

The Habitat Heroes program encourages gardeners to practice wildscaping, a form of landscape stewardship that utilizes native plants, minimizes water consumption, and provides habitat for birds, bees, and wildlife, large and small. According to the Audubon Rockies press release, it doesn’t matter if your landscape is a residential yard, a few pots on a balcony, a public park, schoolyard garden, orchard or farm – the concepts can be used in many forms.

As more wildscaped gardens emerge, they’ll create a mosaic of habitats that link to larger natural areas, providing a mix of food and shelter for wildlife and insects across urban areas.

This half-day workshop is for both novice and veteran gardeners who are interested in wildscaping tips and techniques, attracting wildlife in an urban environment, eliminating chemicals in the landscape and minimizing water consumption. The workshop features two prominent gardening and horticultural experts:

Marcia Tatroe, writer and columnist for Sunset Magazine and the Denver Post, and author of Cutting Edge Gardening in the Intermountain West and Perennials for Dummies. Marcia will discuss how wildlife habitat can coexist within a covenant controlled community, and how to ensure your garden pleases both wildlife and fastidious neighbors.

Deryn Davidson, a Colorado State University Horticulture Extension Agent for Boulder County. Deryn will explore how gardens can be designed to enhance the aesthetics of a site, attract pollinators and provide habitat for an array of wildlife.

If you go:

What: Habitat Heroes – Gardening for Beauty and Birds, sponsored by Audubon Rockies, Boulder County Audubon Society, Terra Foundation and in partnership with CSU Extension, Boulder County.

Where: Prairie Room, Boulder Country Parks and Open Space, 5201 St. Vrain Rd., Longmont

When: Saturday, March 5. The workshop begins at 9:00 a.m.

Registration: $15.00 per person.  Visit brownpapertickets.com with the keyword  Habitat Hero.

Door Prize: Win a Garden in a Box, an exclusive pre-planned garden from High Country Gardens.

 

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For gardeners, seeing the first, green shoots of spring is like hearing the NASCAR announcement “Gentlemen, start your engines.”  Our engines rumble, our minds become sharply focused.  We act like rookies on the line by digging a bit too early, our eagerness to get started getting the better of us.

If you’re itching to plant, get a jump on the season by warming your soil.  With a few simple tricks, you can get your spring salad off to a quick start.  Before you start, a note of caution:  make sure you’re not working wet soil.  Turning it can damage the tilth of soggy ground.

One of the simplest ways to warm your soil is covering the ground with plastic sheets. Use 6 mil or thicker, UV resistant clear or black plastic and lay it over the soil, weighing down all edges with rocks or soil to prevent winds from whipping it up, up, and away to Kansas.  Alternately, you can anchor it down with wire U-shaped pins.

Check the soil after ten days to see if it’s warmer; for germination of cool season vegetables the minimum temperature needed is 40-degrees F.  Typically, it takes two to three weeks for it to rise, depending on the soil type. Sandy or manufactured “planters mix” soils warm faster than wet, heavy clay.

If you’d like to speed the process, combine the plastic cover with an insulating layer.  Using only clear plastic, lay a sheet on the ground, anchoring it as described above.  Then drape a second layer of clear plastic slightly above the first, using bricks or other objects to make a small space between the two layers.  Anchor the second layer securely, by tucking its edges under the bricks or by weighing them down on the ground.

To plant, fold back the plastic drape and remove the plastic sheet covering the soil, cleaning, drying, and folding it away for use another time. Plant seeds of lettuce, radish, kale, collards, cabbage, broccoli, spinach, peas, onion and carrots and then replace the plastic drape over the spacers, creating an impromptu cold frame, anchoring the cover securely so it remains to keep the seeds snugly warm in the bed.  There is no need for a plastic sheet on the soil once seeds are planted.

Patience is required when warming the soil as seed take longer to germinate at minimum soil temperatures than they would later in the spring.  Leaving the plastic on until the temperatures have risen higher than 40 degrees won’t take much more time and you’ll be rewarded with better germination if you wait.   Monitor soil moisture and add water as needed.

Watch the weather and your plants closely; once the weather warms, the plastic tenting will trap heat and can reach temperatures hot enough to sizzle your plants.  Open the cover on sunny days, partially folding back the cover and clipping the flap to prevent it from whipping in the breeze and tearing.  Be sure to close the cover in the late afternoon to retain heat.

When the weather has warmed, remove the cover gradually over a week to harden off the seedlings.  Provide wind protection to keep the worst of spring away from them by making a low wall from straw bales or plastic.

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cropped-dsc_0032.jpg  The depths of winter is a gardener’s favorite time, where we curl up under a lap throw and delve into seed catalogs. Each new variety or old friend is weighed and considered for inclusion in the upcoming garden; the shopping list grows along with the gardener’s contentment.

Perusing my stack of brightly colored, glossy catalogs helped nurse me through a bout of flu, distracting me from feeling sorry for myself and ensuring I didn’t drive my spouse crazy with pathetic cries for aspirin, juice, or more tissue. I thumbed the pages with vegetables to try, such as Mexican sour gherkins (tiny, one-inch fruits with sweet cucumber flavor and an almost-pickled sour tang), Lows Champion dry bean for making a sweet pot of baked beans in winter, and the stunning, conical, deep mauve-colored Kalibos cabbage.

Deep into my shopping, a new lettuce variety stopped me short. The chartreuse and maroon romaine Ruby Glow looked gorgeous and sounded delicious, yet I stopped, not because I would move mountains to have it, but because the price was astounding: $6.95 for one packet of seed. I thought it was a flu-induced hallucination.

Shock turned to anger as I turned the pages, finding more and more examples of pricey seed packets. When did the basics of gardening get so expensive? It’s not like we’re ordering a half-caff, skinny dipped, two pumps of classic, soy-based mocha latte. These are seeds, the building basics of every garden.

And when gardeners buy seeds, we buy them like it’s an addiction.  We become hunter-gatherers, ordering varieties from different companies, consulting with friends, cobbling together the perfect, unique combination of crops that fit us like a glove. I used to think we really can’t help ourselves, until this catalog arrived.

The price halted me. It got me thinking, which is never a good thing. We aren’t known for calculating the cost of seed to table, but if we did, we’d find truth in William Alexander’s the $64 Tomato book (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $10.93). Yet I started calculating.

For that price, I could order two packets from other sources and have two different types of crops. Variety is the spice of gardening. I also know that, caught up in the frenzy of shopping at somewhat low prices, I don’t pay much attention to how many packets I’m purchasing, which is a very good marketing strategy for companies to have. Adding in shipping costs magnified the grumbling in my mind.

I continued to flip pages, not-so-silently judging the company’s pricing. In other catalogs there are pricey packets, but in general, the companies keep prices reasonable. Local companies also have sales in garden centers; we can pick up our packets from them and avoid shipping costs.

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Weeds?

Weeds? (Photo credit: Cyberslayer)

Strolling the garden in the wee morning hours is a ritual for my spouse and me, one that lets us see how each plant is faring as the summer progresses. We check stems and leaves for pests, tuck in errant vines, and admire blossoms.  But when we get to the old perennial bed on the side of the driveway, excited chatter turns from new sprouts and swelling flower buds to dismemberment and destruction.

 The bed, which should be a showcase of the yard, is overrun with bindweed and thistle.  Passersby approach the riot of flowers with eagerness, only to recoil in horror at the sight of perennials being choked by weeds.  Days spent trying to get them under control only serve to make them determined to overrun the garden.

 A tug of war has ensued; during the day the weeds pop up under cover of foliage or coil around taller perennials.  Each morning, I halt in my tracks to pull them out.  Balancing a full cup of coffee while bending over to yank out weeds has become a special skill, one that my spouse admires as nary a drop of the tan liquid is lost.

 While I’m impressed with the growth of most plants at this time, the weeds are coming up faster than I can keep up.  Pulling them is a season long job.  In pursuit of weed control many gardeners abandon some rudimentary connections to the world around them, such as notifying your boss that you’ll be late – again – to the office.

 Some of the tougher weed characters in the garden may change from year to year.  This year there is Western Salsify (Tragopogon dubius), a grassy-looking biennial that is sprouting in many gardens.  Western Salsify’s grass-like leaves arise from a central stalk which, when damaged, oozes a milky sap.  Because it has a long taproot, plucking from the soil when it is very young will give the best control.

 Redroot pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus) grows to monstrous size, often two to three feet tall with flowers that bristle with spines.  The seeds of this annual weed are tiny and rapidly spread.  Redroot pig weed can be recognized by its characteristic reddish stalk and taproot.  Pulling it when it is young will give good control.

 Perhaps the best-known and most hated weed in our gardens is field bindweed (Convovulus arvensis).  Despite being a member of the morning glory family, there is nothing ‘glorious’ about it.  It snakes through the garden.  It entwines itself through branches, along trellises, and into every nook and cranny of the area.  Pulling this plant results in a nightmare out of Greek myth – four hydra-like plants sprouting from the single plant pulled.  Stamina is required in pulling to control this plant because it must be done repeatedly and frequently, until the energy in the root system is exhausted and the plant can no longer regenerate. 

 Gardeners should beware of the sinister puncturevine (Tribulus terrestris), also called goat’s head, due to the shape of the burs.  This plant starts off cute, with many small leaflets forming a mat across the ground.  When it becomes mature, the plant’s small burs develop a chemical on them that stays in the skin after the bur is pulled off, leaving a

painful sting that lasts for quite a while.  Any plant that is known to flatten bike tires and seriously injury livestock should be removed.

 If pulling weeds to the point of obsession is not for you, mulching garden beds is a great method of weed control.  In order to control weeds mulch should be applied to a depth of four inches across the surface of the garden.  Weed control fabric, when laid underneath the mulch may help, but research is suggesting that this fabric may limit water and air from getting to roots.

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Gazing into a crystal ball for predictions on the future isn’t easy, especially when you’re talking about Mother Nature.  Vagaries in the weather have left Colorado high and dry for the past year and forecasts of no relief have spurred Denver Water into planning for spring watering restrictions. But for residents north of Denver, things aren’t quite as dire.  Not yet, anyway.

“It’s a case of we don’t know what we don’t know,” says Russ Sands, City of Boulder’s Water Conservation Program Manager, “it’s way too early to say if we’ll have restrictions.  If we have a few good storms we won’t have to; everything is so dependent on late winter early spring.” 

Coming off of a record hot season, Sands says decisions Boulder made in 2012 to ramp up treatment plants and storage kept the city in good shape to meet needs heading into 2013.  “But it’s a good reminder for people to be conscious of water use; we need people to pay attention to making sure irrigation is efficient.  Pay attention to the lawn and tackle irrigation issues.”

Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District isn’t ready to push the panic button either, says Brian Werner, Public Information Officer for the supplier of water to 33 cities and towns and 640,000 acres of farmland in northeast Colorado.  “We’re always cautioning people to wait until March and April, because those are our wettest months.”

Werner acknowledges concerns, especially after last year’s low rainfall and this winter’s piffle of snow.  After all, memories of the 2002 drought cast a shadow over the hearts of gardeners.  “2012 was the second worst runoff year for us; you don’t want to put another year like that on top of it.  But it’s followed three of the wettest years – 2009, 2010, and 2011. This is why we have water storage in this state.”

Yet storage is 25-percent below average in the District’s reservoirs, making the District cautious in its planning.  “We have some big months (of moisture) ahead of us; Mother Nature’s given us that before.  But with the way things are now, we’re casting a wary eye to the sky.”

As one of the older cities in the region, Longmont has managed its water portfolio to ride out weather downturns like the current dry spell.  Between their reservoirs and shares in the Colorado Big Thompson project, they currently have plenty of water to meet needs for 2013. 

“We track our water over a two year period and manage it conservatively, in case of dry year scenarios,” said Ken Huson, Water Resources Administrator with the city.  “We project having 144-percent of need for 2013 and 136-percent for 2014.  Our drought trigger is 135-percent or less so right now we’re not projecting going into mandatory water restrictions.”

Huson credits the long range vision of Longmont leaders in planning for water, plus aggressive water rights accrual programs and excellent storage capacity.  As the city grows so does it’s water portfolio.  “We get water rights through annexations; whenever a farmer wants land annexed for development, we require they dedicate all water rights to Longmont.  As it happens, the land around us has the senior-most water rights in the St. Vrain Basin, so we do a little bit better than other cities in getting the water we need.”

“Almost half the water used is outdoors for lawns and gardens.  We’re asking people to think about next summer now,” said Huson, “what do you need to do in spring to repair sprinklers?  And there are a lot of great seminars in spring on water conservation.”  Start by checking out the Center for Resource Conservation  for tips and classes, or check with local garden centers for their upcoming seminars.

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A friend leaned close to whisper awful words in my ear, words that make many gardeners in the west sad.  “High Country Gardens has closed down,” she said, speaking of the Santa Fe, New Mexico business that has been a class act in our region and leaders in developing and promoting water-responsible plants for over 19 years.

According to an article in The Santa Fe New Mexican, High Country Gardens and its parent company, Santa Fe Greenhouses, could not overcome setbacks caused by the effects of slow consumer spending, drought, fire, and competition from big-box stores.  Attempts to downsize failed to save the nursery.

“I think what David and Ava Salman did was to bring the message of the beauty of water wise garden plants to the country,” said Pat Hayward, Executive Director of Plant Select .  “People fell in love with them; all over the country people wanted that look.  David combined beauty and water wise gardening in ways no one else has done, creating excitement.”

Salman worked closely with the Plant Select, a program dedicated to finding, promoting, and distributing plants that thrive in our harsh, dry Rocky Mountain gardens.  “We’ve been working closely with David since I first came on as Executive Director.  Blonde Ambition blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’) was one of his introductions, and we plan to have more of his work.  The void is huge, but he’ll continue breeding plants and discovering new, beautiful introductions.  He has an amazing eye.” 

The current economy doesn’t seem to favor any business right now, but plant industry is dear to the hearts of gardeners.  When one of our own closes down we feel the loss, especially gardeners in far flung locations that have difficulty finding water thrifty plants in their communities.  Panayoti  Kelaidis, Senior Curator and Director of Outreach for the Denver Botanic Gardens, commented on his December 6 blog, Prairie Break , that High Country Gardens’ 19 years “is a hell of a run for any nursery.”

With many plant introductions of his own, Kelaidis said he was deeply saddened by the closing of the cutting edge business.  “No question, it was the highest caliber of production, the perfect combination of quality plants for the widest market.  Theirs was a magical gift to our industry.”

Kelaidis points to Plant Select for those looking to fill the void in searching for additions to water responsible gardens.  The plants Salman helped that program introduce will continue to thrill gardeners, keeping nurseries in Colorado doing well, by and large, said the esteemed Denver Botanic Gardens’ plantsman.  “Salman helped Plant Select create a pallet of plants ideal for western gardens, plants that are low water.  It’s like our own drought insurance for our industry.  These plants are adapted, tailored to our state and growing conditions.”

Rumors abound as to whether the catalog business of the company will find new ownership, but in the meantime, gardeners, take a moment to ponder where you purchase gifts this season and next year.  Check out local garden centers and nurseries for their stock, and talk to the staff.  Over repeat visits, you’ll find they become like family, and our patronage helps them stay afloat while we all ride out the economy.

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More fall leaves...

More fall leaves… (Photo credit: life is good (pete))

Though the season seemed endless, the recent cold snap has convinced even the die-hard gardeners that fall is well under way.  Winter is around the corner, so before the holidays distract you and chill days drive you indoors, take advantage of the lingering warmth to tuck the landscape in to bed.

 Here are a few suggestions for helping your garden head into winter:

 Wrap young trees.  With a few moments out of your busy schedule, wrapping a young tree to tuck it in for winter is an easy way to keep your sapling strong.

 Winter can be a rollercoaster of warm days and cold nights, which wreak havoc on young, thin barked trees that have not grown old enough to form protective corky bark. Sun hitting trunks on south and west sides warms the bark and cells underneath, causing them to lose their cold protection.  As nighttime temperatures plunge, these cells freeze and burst, resulting in sunscald on the trunk, an area that will be prone to disease in summer.

 Sapling fruit trees are vulnerable to sunscald, as well as lindens, honeylocusts, ashes, oaks, maples, and willows.  Protect them for the first two to three years they’re in your landscape by wrapping them with tree wrap in early in November.

 Wrap from the ground upward, overlapping each layer over the lower one by one-half-inch until you reach the lowest branch.  Use tape to hold the wrap in place, making sure the tape doesn’t stick to the trunk.

 Mulch perennial beds.  Leaves make an excellent blanket for protecting perennials and woody plants from the ravages of winter.  In Colorado, thawing and freezing can lift roots, but covering the soil with a four to six-inch layer of leaves will keep temperatures consistently cool.

 If the leaves are from trees that aren’t diseased, pile them up around your plants and let the ones that blow into the beds settle there for winter.  In spring, rake the leaves out and put them in your compost pile.

 Compost rotting, dead plants to convert them to organic material that, tilled into the soil, holds water and nutrients for roots to take up.  This is a great soil amendment to have on hand in spring.

 To build a compost pile:

–          Select an out-of-the-way area at least 4-by 4-feet wide.

–          Gather together both green and brown plant material – you’ll need twice as much brown material as green.

–          For faster composting, chop the plants into small chunks before mixing them into the pile.

–          Layer brown and green material into a pile, adding water with each layer until the pile feels damp, like a sponge.  If the pile is soggy to soaking, add more material in until it dries a little.

–          The compost should heat up within a week and be very warm to the touch.  Once it begins to cool, turn it from the outside in and sprinkle with more water to recharge the microorganisms.

–          When the compost no longer heats up after turning, looks like crumbled humus and has an earthy smell, it’s ready to be added to your soil.

 Give trees and shrubs one last, big drink.  Research has shown that the best thing to do for trees and shrubs as they head into winter is to give them a deep soaking before the ground freezes.  This helps prevent winter desiccation of branches, needles, or evergreen leaves, so for good woody plant health, give them a last soaking when temperatures are warm.  Be sure to disconnect the hose from the faucet once you’ve finished watering.

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