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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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Photo courtesy of Alison O'Connor

Several years ago a friend gave me hops plants, encouraging me to grow them, not because I love beer, but because I love bugs.  Each year, she assured me, her bines are crawling with ladybugs and lacewings feasting on the aphids that load the leaves. 

 The prospect of such a scenario won me over, and the hops have a home in the garden.  I’ve watched and waited for the insects, but the outbreak of historic proportions never arrived.  Until now.

Cleaning up and trellising the overgrown mass, I got up close and personal with more aphids than was comfortable.  True, they’re soft bodied and not aggressive, but the sheer numbers on the hops is alarming and the longer I worked with the bines, the more aphids I had crawling on me. 

Eventually I had to get the hoard off of me, and the stamping legs, shaking arms, and head flipping made my spouse think my iPod must be playing a rocking tune.  But soon he noticed the moving mass of pale green slowly engulfing me, the fence, and everything else in their path, and rescued me with a series of well aimed thwacks from his gloves. 

We fled the area, telling ourselves that the ladybugs have it under control, but in truth those plants are on their own.  A quick poll of gardeners this season shows many are fighting the same battle against that pear-shaped menace, which are rapidly turning our gardens into the Year of the Aphid.

Aphids are small, soft bodied, sap-sucking pests, and Colorado has several hundred species in a variety of sizes and colors, from green to black, purple, and red.  They feed by treating plants as their own personal big gulp, sucking the sap and reducing the plant’s vigor.  Aphids are born pregnant, and reproduce so quickly they rapidly build up on the plant. 

 But being soft bodied they’re easy to control.  Grab the hose and attach a nozzle that can direct a strong jet of water onto the plant.  The stream rips aphids from the stems.  If they aren’t crushed by water pressure, at least they’re flung to the ground, and due to very poor eyesight, can’t find their way back. 

 Insecticidal soap is excellent, provided the formula is made for the plant it’s sprayed upon.  Always read the label of any spray to see if your plant is listed.  Your plant must be mentioned on the label or chances are something about the spray will harm the plant.

Leaf curl aphids pose a different problem by stimulating the leaf to form a protective tent around the aphid colony.  This is a common problem on ash, plums and viburnums. Within the leaf, the colony is protected from water sprays and insecticidal soap, but there are a few beneficial insects can wriggle in and wreak havoc on leaf curl aphids. 

If you’re brave enough, grab one of the leaf curls and unroll it, ignoring the sticky sap and crushed insects that coat your hands.  Look for lady bug and lacewing larvae, or young syrphid flies, which are maggots.  Not all beneficial insects look cuddly like the ladybug, and learning to recognize pest predators is a must for savvy gardeners.  Check out the photos and information on Colorado State University Extension’s fact sheet .  To encourage beneficials, avoid spraying broad-spectrum insecticides that kill both good and bad bugs.

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Watching television is an endurance test, not for me, but for my spouse.  At any moment, the drone from the box will be split by an ear shattering “WHAT?” followed by my going on a five minute tirade whenever a commercial for a big box store comes on.  The 30-second ad gives me more of an aerobic workout than I get all day, what with my flailing arms, leaps from the sitting position, and fast march back and forth in front of the set.

The big box store, eager to cash in on gardeners’ enthusiasm for planting, has a chirpy commercial touting their expertise in plants, potting soil, and everything else to make your garden bloom.  Ahh, but the savvy gardener rises up in horror when the ad shows a tree plucked from its pot and plomped in the ground, not because the tree is planted, but how.

The three-second scene shows a man grabbing the tree by the trunk in order to lift it from its pot, which proves that the fellow doing this is an actor, not a gardener.  A gardener knows this is a no-no.  Grabbing the tree by the trunk to lift the heavy root ball from the pot puts the tree at risk of damage to the bark, which is sensitive in spring growth.

A good way to handle a containerized tree at planting is to dig your planting hole (which should be three times the width of the container, and the same depth as the root ball), then gently lay the containerized tree on its side.  Slide the tree from the container by tapping lightly on the sides of the container to get it to loosen away from the root ball.  Then set the tree upright and lift it from below the root ball to set it gently into place.  Score the sides of the root ball to cut any circling roots, then backfill the hole.

The ad doesn’t show this, so when it comes on, I lean forward, unable to look away from the flagrant foul the store commits.  Shrieking that the ad should have a “do not try this at home,” disclaimer, the diatribe begins anew.

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Author’s note:  here’s a classic article from 2006, published in the Boulder Daily Camera and Longmont Times-Call.

   Perhaps I have stepped over the line when it comes to gardening.  It happened recently when I slipped out the door in my old, pink bathrobe to get the newspaper.  I spotted a weed growing in the garden and became immediately sidetracked, swooping to pluck it from the ground.  Over an hour later I returned to my senses, knees and robe hem dirty, weed parts dangling from my fingers, wondering what on earth possessed me to spend an hour gardening in the front yard in my pajamas.

    Weeds have a lot to do with this erratic behavior.  They’re sprouting at an alarming rate.  While I am impressed with the growth of most plants at this time, the weeds are truly coming up faster than I can keep up.  Pulling weeds is a season long job and in pursuit of weed control many gardeners abandon some rudimentary connections to the world around them.  One colleague of mine told the tale of her small children coming to her while she was weed pulling to ask what was for dinner.  Distracted by weeds, she responded “I don’t know – what are you fixing?” 

   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) can grow 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 it’s 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.  Battles with bindweed are epic, and are, in my mind anyway, the true summer Olympics.

    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.  It looks nice, but heaven help you when it becomes mature, because this plant’s small burs hurt when they grab you.  The burs have a chemical on them that stays in the skin after the bur has been pulled off, leaving a really 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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Throughout the long, dry winter, gardeners dreamed of spring, when we could get outside and get growing.  And while catalog shopping is nice, what we really wanted was to get our hands on some plants and sink them into the soil where they could thrive.  Green thumbs are nurturers by nature, coaxing seeds and seedlings into glorious displays in summer.

So it’s no surprise that when a group of gardeners gets together, they throw a plant sale to benefit causes close to their hearts.  This weekend kicks off the season of plant sales, where you can pick up plants while supporting community causes.  Make room in your schedule and planting plans to attend several of these worthy fundraisers.

Denver Botanic Gardens plant sale, today and Saturday, May 7, is the largest event in the area.  They’ve changed their layout this year, so look for the digital map just inside the entrance to plan your shopping spree.  To ensure that you get the plant of your dreams, plan ahead by checking the lists of plants offered on their website, botanicgardens.org/content/spring-plant-sale.  Looking for a perfect gift for Mother’s Day?  Check out their container gardens for a pre-planted mix designed to show off in sun or shade.  Shop from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday.  Admission is free to the sale, unless you’d like to shop the plant sale preview party Thursday, May 5, from 4 to 7 p.m.  Tickets for the preview party are $35 per person.

 Boulder Garden Club’s plant sale, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, May 7, at the Eisenhower School, 1220 Eisenhower Dr., Boulder.  Browse member-grown perennials, annuals, vegetables, herbs, shrubs, and trees from the oldest garden club in Colorado.  At the Boulder Orchid Society table of orchids, you’ll find unique plants and good advice from the staff at the event.  Proceeds go toward supporting the club’s civic projects in Boulder and their international projects.

 The Gardens on Spring Creek Spring Plant Sale, Saturday, May 7, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 2145 Centre Avenue, Fort Collins.  Unusual annuals, heirloom vegetables, herbs, and perennials are offered for the discerning shopper.  For a plant list and more information, check out fcgov.com/gardens. 

Loveland Garden Club plant sale, Saturday, May 7, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the All Saints Episcopal Church, 3448 N. Taft Avenue, Loveland.  Perennials, annuals, vegetables and herbs are ready for your garden and if you’re unsure which is best, ask one of the Colorado Master Gardeners staffing the event.  Proceeds go to community causes, such as Larimer County area tree plantings, Loveland Youth Gardeners.  For information:  Laura 970-223-2265/970-222-3322

Happy Transplants Garden Club plant sale, Saturday, May 21, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the parking lot of Vectra bank, 3300 west 72nd Avenue, Westminster.  Sale of perennials, annuals, herbs and vegetables fund community projects and scholarships.  Information: 303-423-2923.

Growing Gardens Community plant sale, Saturdays and Sundays, May 14, 15, 21, 22, 28, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily at the Growing Gardens Greenhouse, 1630 Hawthorn Avenue in Boulder.  The event offers thousands of vegetable seedlings, plus annuals and perennials and benefits Growing Gardens programming, such as Cultiva! Youth Project, Able Gardening, and community gardens.  For information: growinggardens.org/.

Golden Gardeners annual plant sale, Saturday, May 21, 8:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. held in downtown Golden on the corner of Washington Ave. and 12th Street.  The sale offers perennials, annuals, ground covers, day lilies, and iris, plus a few begonias.  For information, call 303-271-1830.

 Plan to make your trip easy on the arms, by bringing your own boxes, wagons, wheelbarrows or carts to carry around your plants.

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Around 200 varieties of Peruvian potatoes were...

Image via Wikipedia

Reader Leslie asked a great question, hoping for tips on how to grow potatoes in straw.  Digging into the subject has gotten me fired up to try it, because I’m such a brute with the shovel I always end up nicking the spuds.

But growing potatoes in straw is an easy way to get perfect spuds without the hassle of shoveling.  Known as ‘Straw Potatoes,’ you’ll have better size, shape, and color of the tubers than those grown in soil.  Straw has the added benefit of reducing weeds, keeping roots cool, and conserving water. 

Choose an early to mid-season variety, purchasing certified disease-free seed potatoes at garden centers or on-line – DON’T use potatoes from the grocers. That’s not safe gardening ; those potatoes might carry disease into your garden.

Plant seed potatoes (small, whole potatoes) or potatoes cut into 2 ounce pieces. If cutting up potatoes for seed pieces, be sure to leave at least one good eye per piece and let them wait a few days to allow the cut side heal over before planting. 

Plant potatoes soon;  four-to-six weeks before the last frost.  Choose a flat, sunny location out of the wind for your straw patch.  If there is no place in your yard without wind (please stop laughing), encircle the area for planting with a chicken wire cage that can be easily opened for harvesting.  This will keep your straw from flying to Kansas.

Place seed pieces on the soil with the cut side down and eyes up, spacing the spuds 12 inches apart.

Cover the potatoes with six inches of clean, weed-free straw.  The potato will send up a stem, and as it pokes up out of the straw, add another six inch layer.  Repeat a third time. This ensures that you’ll have a long, underground stem from which the tubers will grow. 

During the summer, if the straw compacts down or starts to decompose, add more, tucking it in around the plant.  Check the straw frequently to make sure it’s covering the tubers – if hit with sunlight they turn green and become bitter.

Pay close attention to watering the potatoes over the summer; they should not be allowed to dry out, nor should they become soggy. A soaker hose laid across the surface of the soil will help you irrigate the potatoes evenly.  Pull any weed that makes itself at home in the straw.

Go lightly with fertilizer – you want the potatoes to form tubers, not a lot of foliage.  Give them a shot of balanced liquid fertilizer about six weeks after the first sprout has topped the straw (even if you continue to add layers of straw, mark the date the vine first poked up).

In August, harvest new potatoes – young tubers not fully sized – by carefully pulling back the straw to reveal them.  Pluck out a few new potatoes, then tuck the straw back around the plant, and it will continue to produce for you.  Or wait until the plant dies back to harvest the fully-sized crop.

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Peas in pods.

Image via Wikipedia

The answer is no.

This pains me, because that answer flies in the face of years of tradition.  But despite the calendar and my family’s full-throated observance of St. Patrick’s Day, I did not plant peas in the garden.

The reason for this is simple:  I’ve become suspicious that the cold shoulder the soil gives those seeds slows their germination.  This delays the peas’ entrance into the world, dashing my hopes to get the season rolling.

Though they’re a cool season crop, perfect for spring and fall gardens, peas are a bit of an anomaly.  The plant likes it chilly, but the seed prefers it warm, with best germination at 50 to 75 degree soil temperatures.  True, they’ll sprout if the soil is as cool as 40-degrees, but at those temperatures, peas take their time.

My soil is registering a flat 50-degrees on the thermometer I shoved into the raised bed, which is why I vowed to wait an extra seven to ten days; to give the soil time to warm before sowing

What it boils down to is an experiment between my desire to plant and my resolve to wait.  At this point, it’s a toss-up as to whether I can fight the urge; like a dieter determined to keep their mind off of food, I’m distracting myself with odd jobs, writing, and reruns of Glee.

If you held onto tradition and planted peas, give them some water and patience.  If they seem a bit slow to start, don’t give up on them.  We’ll compare notes in a month or so, to see whose plants are further along.

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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

Make room, gardeners, the season for houseguests has arrived. For these, rearranging the furniture and cleaning the windows is a must, and if you slip something extra into their water they won’t mind.

Houseplants have regained their place on windowsills and counters, brought in from the patios and decks where they spent the summer. With a little understanding and prepping the house for their visit, your foliaged friends will be happy all winter long.

When the plant is brought inside, do you stick it into an unused corner of the room or a place that needs a little more ‘meaning’? This is a common mistake, since those spaces are already empty of clutter. But don’t leave your plant huddling in a cold, dark corner — that’s the last place to put your houseplant.

Think of your plant as royalty and choose a bright, sunny location away from drafts or heaters to place it. Move the furniture if you have to, to give your plants the pick of your home’s sunbeams. And get ready to clean. Houseplants are not overly demanding -they don’t care if the carpet is stained or the dishes need doing — instead, all they really want are good, clear windows.

Light is critical for houseplants to thrive, yet because the amount of light needed varies from species to species, deciding where to put it can be a challenge. Check the plant tag for guidance on low (limited), medium (indirect or bright), or high (direct) light requirements and place the plant in the right spot, or add supplemental lighting.

As a rule of thumb, low-level light rarely strikes the leaves and typically comes from north facing windows. Medium, or indirect light, is when light strikes the foliage for less than four hours per day. Through winter, medium light comes from east and west facing windows.

High or direct light is as it sounds — light falls across the plant for a minimum of four hours daily. Plants that love these conditions should be placed in a south-facing window. Distance from the window plays a role in light levels also, so keep your plants within two feet of the window. Further away and light levels fall off rapidly.

The dry interior of homes is particularly stressful to many of our tropical houseplants, which need more humidity than is present in houses. Although misting the foliage is one way to approach this, it doesn’t provide steady humidity and must be repeated throughout the day.

An easier approach is to place a pebble tray filled with water under the plant. Simply take a tray and layer small stones evenly along the bottom, then fill with enough water to reach the top of the stones. Place potted plants on this tray, but take care that the water is not touching the pot itself. Most houseplants should not be placed in standing water.

Refill the pebble tray often to keep the humidity levels even, and group plants closely together. Water vapor coming off the soil or clay pots adds to the air moisture of the happy group.

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Yellow jackets, a wasp that gets very aggressive late in the season, eat many types of sugars and meats.  Their predilection for sweets creates an interesting phenomenon in fall around trees that are plagued by aphids.   Wasps swarm the tree, flying about in such numbers that homeowners are very afraid.

To understand the wasp, first you need to know the aphids – small, soft bodied, sap-sucking pests of many plants found on most shrubs and trees in our area.  We have several hundred species of these insects, which come in a variety of sizes and colors, from green to black, purple, and red. 

Aphids are greedy feeders, pulling out the sap of the tree so quickly their tiny bodies can’t process all of it.  What isn’t used flows out their back end in a sticky, sugary liquid entomologists politely dub “honeydew.”  Wasps love this yummy treat, lapping up the sugar snack without a thought to its origin.

 If you have a problem with wasps flying around a tree, check it for large numbers of honeydew producing insects – most likely aphids but it could be scale.  The honeydew is what the wasps are after. 

A similar behavior occurred this summer, with wasps scavenging along tomato plants.  On closer observation, I discovered that the wasps were gleaning lerps from the plants, which is excrement left by a different sap sucking insect called psyllids.  Unlike honeydew, lerps is solid, resembling sugar crystals and apparently tasting like them too.

That’s a sweet tooth that’s out of control. 

There’s little to be done about the tree at this time, since the leaves will fall soon and the aphids will go into dormancy.  The time for action is next year, just before budbreak, when you could apply dormant oil to the tree to try and smother aphid eggs.  The wasps will eventually die off, leaving only the queen to survive winter.

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A buddy of mine, Alison O’Connor, is a graduate student at Colorado State University.  She’s working on her Phd. in horticulture, and as part of her research, she had to plant 27 trees today.  Playing in the mud is always preferable to pushing paper on a desk, so a bunch of us went over to give her a hand. 

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The trees needed to be planted as correctly as possible, and Alison offered us a refresher on proper planting techniques.  Planted too low or to high, and the tree suffers, unable to root out  to support the 100-year lifespan. 

If you’re popping a tree into the ground this fall, brush up your skills by following her step by step advice:

Measure the height of the root ball to determine depth of planting hole, which should be one to two- inches shorter than the root ball.

Dig saucer-shaped planting hole, three-times the root ball width.  Straight sides limit root expansion, so to get your tree off to a fast start, slope the sides of the hole.  We had straigh holes dug with an augur, then sloped the sides with a shovel.

 Remove tree from container, clip any girdling roots, score the rootball, then set tree in place.  The “knees” of the rootball – the top edge of the soil – must be about two inches above the planting hole. 

If your tree has a “dogleg” from grafting (a curve in the trunk just above the graft), turn the rootball so the inside curve faces north.  This helps that sensitive spot avoid sunscald.

Pack soil around lower third of rootball, to help stabilize it.  then backfill the rest of the hole, leaving soil loose.

Water the planting area.

Mulch the tree.

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