Posts Tagged ‘Longmont Ledger’

When the call came in that a spruce tree was ailing in a way that baffled the local nursery, I was intrigued.  Garden center staff see a lot of strange plant things, and in order to stump them, the problem is usually a puzzler.

Any time a tree behaves badly I rush out to see it, like an ambulance chaser following a crew armed with chainsaws and chippers.  To avoid the disappointment of arriving to find the tree is normal, I’ve learned to ask for a description of the problem over the phone first.

“It defies description,” said the kind man on the other end of the line, “I honestly don’t know where to begin.”  Now, normally people have no trouble putting their plant’s distress into words, usually relying on such phrases as “bugs are eating my tree,” “weird oozing,” or the popular “I just woke up this morning and it was dead.” 

Here was a man who was speechless to describe it, and because he was referred to me by the nurseryman, I drove over.

 That nurseryman was right; one had to see this to believe it.  Under a mature spruce tree, thousands of small twigs littered the ground, falling from a tree towering more than 30-feet tall.  They were short tips of the branches, still green and succulent with life, covering the ground and lower branches.

The rain of twigs had been happening since mid-December, and to keep up with it, the couple had been sweeping up the twigs, collecting bushels full to take to the tree mulching yard.

I did the reconnaissance a tree diagnostician should do when coming upon a new patient – stood back and looked at the tree.  There were no obvious signs of stress – it looked healthy, top to bottom.  Stepping closer, the twigs scattered across the ground showed no signs of insects or disease.  But there was one, odd thing: A pattern to the cut ends.  They were all clipped at an angle. 

I’d seen this before, just not on such a large scale.  That angle was familiar, and slowly my eyes lifted to the fence line, upon which two squirrels were sitting and giving me the stink eye.  “You’ve got squirrels,” I said, “nipping your branches.”

Squirrels will do this, in winter or spring when food is hard to find.  They also do it at random times of the summer too, for no apparent reason.  Some foresters have suggested boredom.  And because the squirrels aren’t stripping the bark or eating the wood, I believe them.

There’s nothing to be done to stop the problem, but the good news it that the tree will be fine.  Although the damage seems alarming, a healthy tree can take a bit of twig loss.  If you find your tree suddenly losing its tips, check the discards closely for the tell-tale angled cut; if you find it, you’ll know it’s those squirrels, and not a disease.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

Read Full Post »

"Tenodera sinensis" Chinese mantis

Image via Wikipedia

As Valentine’s Day rolls around, a frenzied celebration of love grips us.  Wooing and winning take center stage as lovers come out to play, booking cozy restaurants and spending time on activities to heighten attraction.  These snuggles bring smiles to almost every face; that is, unless you’ve been burned by cupid like Lady Gaga, and caught in a bad romance

Like the famed pop diva, not every date is roses and candy, especially if you’re an insect.  The next time you’re feeling blue, look at our six-legged friends, and you might not feel so bad about your love life.

Follow my lead

Dancing With The Stars might be a popular show, but it could be a lot more interesting if they’d pair the dancers with a preying mantis.  The hypothesis that the female rips the head from the male during copulation is not entirely true; it all depends on how hungry she is.  If not fed prior to her date, she might tear the male apart, to nibble on as a post-coital snack.

To overcome this unfortunate fate, the Chinese preying mantis waltzes the female around, hoping to turn her thoughts from dinner to delight.  If he’s light on his feet, the male escapes to woo another lady, but if he trips up, he won’t be returning for a reunion show.

She’s just not into you

Picking up on her mood is hazardous for ground beetles, who say no with a chemical weapon.  When bugged by amorous suitors, less inclined females rebuff would-be mates with an anti-aphrodisiac, methacrylic acid, which knocks males out for hours.  Stunned and helpless, the males serve as a warning to others.

Date my daughter, or else

Blind dates can be hit or miss, but if you’re a honey bee, they’re downright life threatening.  In a typical small hive, one queen oversees twenty thousand female workers.   Males, called drones, are few – up to 200.  Though outnumbered, young drones’ lives are cushy, tended by workers, pampered for the day their services are needed. 

When that day dawns, drones are offered a choice: go forth and mate, or stay here and die.  On their own, they gather in groups, lounging around a bee equivalent of a pickup bar until young queens take flight.  When this happens, males launch, streaking after them to mate. 

If growing up an idle boy toy sounds grand, consider the bride; queens hatch with an attitude.  Those emerging first destroy any un-hatched queens, fight rival royal siblings to the death, contemplate matricide, then take off on a mating flight.  They say personality is everything.

If males are lucky and catch her, the job is a death sentence; unable to disengage, they break off their appendage and plunge earthward, dying.  She sails on, entertaining drone after drone until sated.

Despite these cautionary tales, love is still a many splendored thing. But just in case, remember to pick up the roses and chocolate.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

Read Full Post »

When you’re a gardener, there’s a rhythm to the seasons.  A time for sowing and for harvest, months of plenty and those of quiet; days spent laboring and weekends preserving – all these make up the year for us.  As February dawns, the season stretches before us, one heralded by two things: seed catalogs arriving in the mail, and my husband taking my credit cards from me.

Late winter is the time for dreaming and setting our sights on the summer ahead. Seed companies know this, and feed our obsession with publications filled with seductive descriptions of leaves or fruit, and photographs so luscious and enticing, gardeners refer to it as “plant porn.”   We might not wrap catalogs in plain brown paper, but we’re careful about where we whip them out:  opening the pages is enough to set a room full of gardeners into frenzy, crowding in to get a glimpse of the promising plants.

If you’ve never ventured out of the stores and into the world of catalogs, let me lead you into temptation.  In those pages are a bevy of choices, from flowers to vegetables, trees and shrubs.  You’ll find choices that take a ho-hum kitchen garden and transform it into a gourmand’s delight. 

There’s no need to stay with the standard “Better Boy” tomato, when Pruden’s purple, or zapotec will win your heart.  Potatoes transcend russet or Yukon gold into Colorado rose, purple majesty, or German butterballs.  You can grow a different bean for every type of cuisine on your table, and you’ll never look iceberg lettuce in the eye again after you’ve tastes the crisp, sweet flavor of freckles or grandpa admires lettuce.

This is why my spouse has to hide the credit cards and checkbook.  I’m easily swayed into placing so many orders I outstrip the size of my garden, and so far the neighbors seem oddly reluctant to let me plow into their yards for expansion. 

In the midst of catalog frenzy, keep several things in mind, the foremost of which is that the seed companies pay good writers to come up with descriptions that convince you that each and every plant in the catalog is a must have in your garden.  Other factors to consider are the size of your garden, the cost of the seeds, and whether you want to start seedlings indoors, under lights. 

If you’re not into seed starting, peruse those catalogs anyway; many of our local garden centers grow these varieties for you, and you’ll know what to look for when you shop.  Stay in or get out, either way, get shopping.  You’ll find a new world opens to your kitchen.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

Read Full Post »

When the tool shed is full and you’re shopping for someone whose needs are dirt simple, what do you give them?  Wrap up something different this year, by giving the gift of time, luxury, or knowledge.

Your Edible Gardening Workshop, offered by the  Colorado State University Extension offices of Larimer, Adams, Weld, and Boulder, 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, Jan. 22, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Ranch in Loveland, and costs only $65.  Lunch is not included.  Call 970-304-3565 for more information or to register your gardener.

The Denver Botanic Gardens has a wide assortment of classes to fit every gardener.  From botanical illustration to cooking with aromatic herbs, you’re sure to find a class your loved one will adore.  Browse their online catalog for winter classes to inspire your gardener, then enroll them and wrap up the certificate for under the tree.

Gifts of time, guidance and comfort can be just right for the gardener on your list this holiday season.

One of the hallmarks of an obsessed gardener is that we like to dream, especially in winter when we’ve forgotten the insects, disease and heat that had us complaining in summer.  Our eyes are ever forward, so give your loved one a book to pour over on chilly days:

The Encyclopedia of Container Plants,” by Ray Rogers and Rob Cardillo (Timber Press, $34.95) is a richly photographed exploration of successful container gardens.  Featuring over 500 plants, this is one book that does double duty as both coffee table eye candy and valuable resource.

Edible Landscaping,” by Rosalind Creasy (Sierra Club Books, $39.95), is the long awaited update of the 1982 groundbreaking book exploring the combination of landscape design, permaculture, and edible plants.  Hot off the press, this is the book for anyone who wants to make beautiful, functional, landscapes.

When you have your hands in the dirt, nails and fingers can turn as rough as sandpaper.  A basket of salves makes a welcome gift.  Pull together Burt’s Bees Lemon Butter Cuticle Cream ($6), Crabtree and Evelyn’s Gardener’s Hand Therapy lotion ($15), and Dr. Bronner’s Organic Shikakai Lavender Hand Soap ($8.99), then wrap them up for your gardener.  For an added touch, slip in a gift certificate for a manicure.

What I love is the gift of time, because no matter how well equipped a gardener is, they could always use a little more.  Surprise yours by giving them a hand in the garden; wrap up a certificate good for spring cleanup, flower pot planting, or mulching.  But don’t be fooled: this isn’t a cheap gift to give. A day spent rototilling or pruning is sure to leave you grimy, sweaty, and scratched.  Your gardener will love it.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger. 

Note to FCC:  the above suggestions were not solicited by the companies.

Read Full Post »

Weather experts are predicting a mild winter this year, with above average temperatures and less snowfall.  Though “warmer” doesn’t mean it’s time to plan a luau for Christmas, scant snowfall and sunny days put your trees at risk from sunburn and dehydration.

So as you string your holiday lights, unpack your soaker hoses and break out the tree wrap, it’s time to get your plants ready for winter sunshine.  The secret to keeping trees healthy throughout the year lies in giving them moisture during the dormant season, and protect them from sunscald.       

What: Sun hitting trunks of young, thin barked trees 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, an area that will be prone to disease in summer.

How:  Protect them for the first two to three years they’re in your landscape by wrapping them with tree wrap. 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.  Mark your calendar to remove the wrap around April 15. 

Dragging wet hoses and getting sprayed with water can put a damper on anyone’s holiday mood, but with a little planning, winter watering can be a snap.

When:  Water once per month through March if we don’t have much snow or rain.  The lingering fall is keeping soil soft, letting rain soak in, but once temperatures get colder and the ground freezes, giving the trees a drink means watching the weather. 

Measure the snowfall at your house with a ruler to figure your plants’ watering needs. Write each storm’s accumulation on your calendar and add it up every four weeks.  Anything less than 12 inches of snow, total, means it’s time to water. 

How:  Pick a day when temperatures are above 40 and there’s no snow on the ground.  On frozen ground, water should be applied slowly, so spiral a soaker hose under the tree or use soft spray nozzle if watering by hand.  Have a timer on the faucet automatically shut off soaker hoses or plan on setting timers in the house to remind you to turn off water.

Tip:  Always disconnect hoses from faucets immediately after watering to prevent frozen pipes.  Plan to water at a time when you will be home to monitor temperatures, and water during the warmest part of the day.

Where:  Water around the dripline of the tree – the area that falls under the outer tips of the branches.   Soak the ground two to three feet on either side of the dripline, to a depth of 12 inches.  If using a soil needle, insert it no more than eight inches deep.  The roots that take up water are in the top 12 inches of the soil.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

Read Full Post »

A picture of compost soil

Image via Wikipedia

If your Day of the Dead has turned into a month-long marathon of cleanup, you’re ripe for one of the best ways to recycle your plants into amendment for your soil.  Through the miracle of rot, decaying plants are converted to organic matter that holds water and nutrients for roots to take up. 

Grab a rake and pull up those plants; November is the month to celebrate composting.  Here are few quick and easy tips for getting started:

Pick a sunny, out of the way area at least four-feet by four-feet wide.  If your Home Owner’s Association objects to something decomposing in your yard, use a composting bin to keep things tidy.  Choose one that is well ventilated and allows easy access to the compost for turning.

Gather up green and brown plant material, with twice as much brown as green.  Fresh, green plant parts provide nitrogen to the pile; dry brown material supplies carbon.  Microorganisms need both to turn your garden waste into soil gold.

Avoid resinous wood such as junipers, pine, or spruce; resin keeps the plants from decomposing, increasing the time needed for composting.  Some deciduous tree leaves also take longer, so gardeners wanting a quick batch of compost should avoid oak or cottonwood in their piles. 

 Weeds with seeds and diseased plants should be disposed of in another way; most backyard compost piles don’t get hot enough to kill the seeds or disease.  If you want to compost weeds, clip the seed heads off before tossing the plant on the pile.

Kitchen scraps are good additions to the compost, but not meat, bones, grease, eggs and dairy products that attract animals and insects.  Dog, cat, and human manures should never be added to compost.

For faster composting, chop large material into small chunks before mixing them into the pile.  Leave tree leaves whole so they don’t compact down and smother 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.

There’s no need for soil or compost starter to be added to the pile; microorganisms that break down materials are on the surface of most plant material.  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 pile.  Keep turning until it no longer heats up, looks like crumbled humus and has an earthy smell.  Help your compost stay moist in winter by placing a burlap blanket or other breathable material over it.  If your compost cools in the frigid months, don’t worry, once the temperatures warm up in spring your compost, turn your pile, add a little water and the pile will heat up again.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

Read Full Post »

Latrodectus mactans

Image via Wikipedia

Halloween is rolling around, when tales of spiders abound, weaving stories of the danger from these beneficial arachnids.  Take a closer look, and you’ll realize most of what you hear are myths.

A belief in medieval Europe held that the bite from a wolf spider caused tarantism, a condition where the victim jitters around in an uncontrollable dance, eventually collapsing in exhaustion after three or four days.  This myth helped solidified human fear of spiders.  Yet even though we have such a condition running rampant today, I don’t see anyone hanging effigies of Lady Gaga out to scare people on Halloween.

From some reactions to the sight of a spider, you’d think they were carting off young children instead of flies for feasts on the neighborhood web.  This is nonsense: as any adult knows, it’s hard to hold a squirming toddler when you weigh 150 pounds, much less 3 grams. 

That’s where venom comes in.  Like parking the kid in front of the television, venom keeps prey quiet and semi-conscious until the spider can eat or wrap it up for later (this scenario is anecdotal; I’m not suggesting you park your child or stun it with venom).  Almost all spiders are venomous, but the majority aren’t harmful to humans.

Did you hear the one about the black widow always killing her mate?  Though generally not true, this is my favorite myth whenever I need to remind my spouse of the dangers of annoying me.  In reality, of the black widows in the USA, only one is known to kill the male after courtship: the eastern ones, Latrodectus mactans.  Western widows consider it rude to dine on their dates. 

Yet even eastern males often make a clean getaway.  That is, unless she’s hungry – a state that drives females of many species to murderous action.  But if he’s careful and she’s well fed, she won’t kill him. 

Does everybody swallow spiders in their sleep?  According to snopes.com, this myth started in 1993 as a magazine columnist’s demonstration on how anything can be said in email spam lists and gullible people believe it.

Spiders don’t have any reason to get into our mouths, unless you go around with it hanging open so insects can live there.  They prefer drier locations, ones that don’t snore or mumble. 

The biggest myth state spider experts hear is that the Brown Recluse (Loxosceles reclusa) is here in Colorado.  This is completely false, according to Dr. Paula Cushing, Department Chair and Curator of invertebrate Zoology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  Though the black widow is everywhere, few people ask her about it.  Instead, she fields hundreds of questions on brown recluse, a spider whose bite can cause a wound that grows but won’t heal. 

Colorado isn’t part of its natural range, but due to the miracle of the internet, many people think it’s here.  Occasionally it hitchhikes into the state on lumber or in moving boxes, but so far it hasn’t established colonies and settled down to raise families.

Learn more about spiders on the museum’s Spider Survey website.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

Read Full Post »

Cast your mind back in the not-so-distant past, to early October last year.  The days were warm, the nights crisp, and frost nipped at gardens but the season was not yet at an end.  Lulled by temperatures swinging from 21F to 88F, gardeners delayed the chores of putting the landscape to bed for winter. 

Frozen backflow preventer - photo courtesy of ALCC.

Suddenly, the weather threw us a curve ball, plummeting temperatures to a chill 16 degrees on October 10.  Plants froze, and so did sprinkler systems.  Some were lucky, escaping harm to their pipes.  Others didn’t see the damage until spring, when they started up their systems to water yards.

 That’s when gushers erupted from backflow prevention valves (the brass valve on the outside of homes), cracked by water turning to ice in the sudden freeze.  Calls to sprinkler companies skyrocketed, and homeowners shelled out $300 to $400 for repairs.  Vows were made to never let this happen again.

But Mother Nature is having hot flashes, and our landscapes still need water.  The resulting seesaw between day and nighttime temperatures are a roulette game for irrigation damage.  But you can keep your system safe with a few tips from the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado .

– Wrap your backflow preventer for as long as you want to keep your system operational.  Water in the preventer can freeze during cold snaps, so if you haven’t winterized your system when temperatures are due to dip, swaddle the backflow device with building insulation or towels, three to four inches thick, wrapping pipes all the way to the ground.  Cover it all with plastic, then secure it with duct tape.

– Once you decide to put the landscape to bed, winterize the system by shutting off the water and draining the lines.  Most systems in Colorado are designs that require blowout, but a few have manual or auto drains to remove water.  Should you have one of these, consider blowing out the system anyway, since lines settle over time and low spots often develop that hold water.

– Have your system blown out with an air compressor. Even if you’re a do-it-yourselfer for most tasks, blowing out a sprinkler system should be left to the pros.  A quick internet search for instructions on how to do this resulted in so many warnings shouted in bold, uppercase letters that it should be taken seriously.  According to the Hunter Industries website, using an air compressor to blow out lines can result in flying debris, although they don’t say if it’s from sprinkler heads shooting up like rockets out of the lawn.  The caution not to stand over the heads while they’re under pressure is an important safety tip.

To ensure your system is undamaged during blow out, look for a company with professionals certified by ALCC.  These Landscape Industry Certified Technicians must complete over 2000 hours of practical experience and 10 hours of testing in order to meet the standards of best practices the certification requires.   

Make your appointment soon, since October is a busy month for companies that offer winterization service.  Expect the blow out to cost $50 to $100, but it can save you higher costs come spring.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »