Monday, September 15, 2014

Steps to Beneficial Fall Soil Preparation by Pete Biggam

Healthy Soil Surface - image courtesy of USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service
A traditional fall activity for many gardeners is preparing the soil for its upcoming winter slumber as well as getting a head start on improving the overall health of the soil in advance of the spring planting season.

There are a few simple steps to fall soil preparation, whether you're working a large garden plot or individual raised beds. 

1. Remove all weeds that are flowering or have gone to seed, along with any large or coarse plant materials from your garden.
Removing any existing weeds along this year's plant debris is a good, general sanitation practice. Weed seeds as well as those from various garden plants, if left on site, may be the first plants you see emerging in the spring, so you can get a head start to your spring gardening chores by removing as many as possible in the fall. Plant refuse makes a great place for insects and disease to overwinter if left within the garden plot.  If you had any issues with disease or pests on your tomatoes or peppers, you should remove these plants completely from the garden.  Other garden refuse is a good candidate for composting.
2. Work on improving your garden soils health by adding organic material and implementing wise cultivation practices.
An example of good soil aggregation after minimum cultivation - image courtesy of USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service
Keeping our garden soils healthy and productive is an important concept to consider every year.  Adding organic matter from the compost bin or other sources is a good practice to perform in the fall when the soil is still warm and workable, and the soil biological community is still actively performing it’s beneficial organic material decomposition process.

Incorporating these organic amendments into the soil is important, but be sure to not over cultivate the soil, as this can impact the overall existing health of the soil. Consider working your soil gently but deeply by using a garden fork, or even a broad fork to aerate the soil and allow for the organic material to be redistributed throughout the soil, and maintaining beneficial soil structure and aggregation.  This will also minimize the impact on your soil biological community and keep them content, situated at a depth they have been comfortable with, through the remainder of the growing season.

Below is a link to a video on use and application of a Broad fork for beneficial low impact soil cultivation. 

The USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service has recently updated information regarding Soil Health Awareness and has developed a series of videos and factsheets that are applicable to gardeners as well as farmers. 

3. Minimize soil erosion over the winter and early spring by adding mulch or even consider planting a cover crop.
Take care to make sure all of your hard work does not blow away with winter winds or early spring rains. You can mulch the plot with materials such as fallen leaves or even additional compost to protect the soil surface from wind and water erosion.
Another alternative is to plant a cover crop in the fall to both enrich the soil as well as prevent erosion, and keep and weeds at bay.
While our cold winters limit the variety of cover crops that we can successfully grow there are several plants that seem to do very well.  
A great reference on the use, application, and benefits of cover crops can be found in this can be found in CSU Garden Note # 244 on Cover Crops and Green Manure Crops
 4. Have your soil and compost analyzed

Fall is a great time to collect soil samples for testing in order to keep current on your garden's nutrient status. Testing in fall allows plenty of time to receive your results and act on recommendations.

If you have been composting and plan to add this to your garden, you can also have this analyzed so you have an idea of what you are applying to the soil.

The Soil, Water and Plant Testing Laboratory at Colorado State University can perform these analytical services for both your soil and soil amendments and is open year round.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Planting Garlic in the Mountains
Garlic, Allium sativum, a member of the lily (Liliaceae) family or Alliaceae family depending on your source, and 2004 Herb of the Year, is a great plant for mountain gardens.  Originating some 6000 years ago, it traces back to the Tien Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan, evolving from a wild species to the cultivated treat we know and love today.  Its bulbs have been used for food and medicine by our earliest ancestors.  At one time it was even so highly prized, it was used as currency.  Like many of the minor bulbs, it craves a period of cold, does not require a lot of water and has the ancestral qualities that make it work in the mountain areas.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Native or noxious? Distinguishing scentless chamomile from Porter Aster. By Irene Shonle

The petite and charming Porter aster (Aster porteri or Symphotrichum porteri) is out in profusion right now.   This is a lovely, late-blooming native plant.
Porter aster, a late-blooming native plant
There is another less-friendly white daisy that is also  blooming right now that some people confuse with Porter aster – this is the State List B noxious weed called Scentless chamomile (Matricaria perforata or Tripleurospermum inodorum).  This weed  is rapidly increasing in population in our mountain counties, forming monocultures in places like Winter Park, Fraser, Nederland, and many other locations. The reason it can spread so fast is that in a single year, one plant can produce up to 300,000 seeds!  I swear that it often seems as though each one of those seeds germinates and becomes a plant.  Yikes!  Please remove it from your property if you have it – and the task will be MUCH easier if you do it early in the game, before the exponential explosion occurs.

Friday, August 22, 2014

When to plant wildflowers? by Tina Ligon

It has been a great wildflower year here in the Colorado foothills. Fall is a great time to plant seed for next year's crop of flowers. Come and learn all about collecting wildflower seed and how to plant for success for next year.

Class on Sept 4th, 6:30 pm Exhibit Barn, $5.00:  The fall garden: Collecting/sowing wildflower seeds and ideas for fall color.  Fall is the best time to collect and sow wildflower seeds, but it’s not always that easy to figure out how to do it. We’ll include some hands-on activities in the garden if the weather holds; dress warmly.  Class will also give some ideas for fall color in your mountain garden. Call to reserve your spot - 303-582-9106

CSU Extension Gilpin County
230 Norton Drive, Black Hawk, CO 80422  

Mother Nature puts together the best combinations!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Distorted Aspen Leaf - by Irene Shonle

Have you been noticing any distorted or deformed aspen leaves?  They're becoming evident at this time of year, and because they look so odd (possibly even alarming), they cause concern.
Eriophyid mite on aspen leaves
The distortion is a gall caused by a tiny mite called an Eriophyid mite.

The good news is that the gall does not affect plant health, and usually the same tree is not hit two years in a row. So, it is just an aesthetic issue.  The affected leaves can be cut out if they are really bothersome, but it is not necessary.

The distortion is caused by  chemical secretions produced during feeding or egg laying. The chemicals act like natural plant growth hormones.  The leaves only become distorted when the leaf is attacked early in the growing season when it is rapidly expanding.  Fully expanded leaves do not have the same reaction.

For more information, please see this fact sheet:

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

On Microclimates: what a difference a side makes! By Irene Shonle

Microclimates are much more dramatic in the mountains than in lower elevations.  The intense sun can really warm up the south side of a house, while the wind and shade on the north can keep plants in a deep freeze for much longer.

Here is what I saw when poking around my house this morning (8,700')
I noticed my catmint blooming already on the south side:

Catmint in bloom June 1 at 8700 on south side

But on the north, this is what it looked like:

Catmint nowhere close to blooming on the north side
Same for Golden Banner:
South side -- Golden banner in bloom!
North side -- Golden banner tightly in bud
This shows the dramatic effect of microclimates.  Observing the same plant in different stages around your house can inform you about the microclimate, and help you choose the best plants for certain areas (or help you figure out what to plant where for that first dose of color for the season!)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Voles or pocket gophers -- what's eating your garden? By Irene Shonle

I get a lot of calls and questions about critters in the garden.  People almost always think that voles are the ones wreaking havoc in their gardens, when often pocket gophers are the actual culprits. The confusion arises when both species are present -- the vole spends much of its time above ground, and so is often seen (and therefore gets the blame), but the pocket gopher, which almost never emerges, usually causes far more destruction.

Here's how you can figure out what's eating your garden:

1.  Look at the holes/tunnels.

Voles have small, oval,open holes - about 1-2" wide.  These are never plugged with soil, and there is often a "runway" in front of the hole.  This can be easiest to see when the snow melts and the grass is not too high, or in the winter.

Vole holes - note that they are open.  The winter picture shows the runway clearly.

Northern Pocket Gophers' holes are about 2-3.5 inches wide, but are almost always plugged with soil.  In the summer, the holes are surrounded by large fan-shaped mounds of dirt  that are 12 to 18 inches wide and 4 to 6 inches high.

Pocket gopher hole -- note that it is plugged, and the fan of dirt.  The "hole" is not always this obvious.
In the spring time, just after the snow melts, if you see long tubes of solid soil  (eskers) snaking about on the surface , that is a definite sign of pocket gopher.  This is due to ongoing excavation of burrows during the winter -- they pack the excavated dirt into the snow, which shapes them into the eskers, rather than the fan-shaped mounds when there is no snow.

2. Look at the damage - is it above-ground or below-ground?
The most common voles we have are meadow voles and montane voles, and these two species mostly eat above-ground parts of plants, including  leaves of flowers, grasses and sedges and fungi  in the summer.  Dried grasses, bark, and twigs are winter staples.

Voles are of most concern when their winter bark-chewing girdles trees and shrubs (they are also problematic in lawns, but lawns less common in the mountains):
During the winter, a vole girdled this lilac by chewing the bark off all the way around the shrub

Pocket gophers mostly eat the roots of plants (below-ground).   They only rarely come above-ground to eat, and then only a very short distance from their burrow.  They use their sense of smell to locate the roots of plants, and then will eat the entire root system.  This causes a sudden and unexpected "wilt" of the plant.  They can even pull an entire plant underground -- sometimes even under the astonished eyes of a gardener!
The middle columbine's roots were eaten by a pocket gopher -- look for sudden, unusual "wilting"

Monday, May 12, 2014

Early May Bloomers at 7900' by Tina Ligon

Early Larkspur (Delphenium nuttallianum)

It is May 8, 2014 and we have bright sun and an inch of snow that fell last night. You gotta love spring in the Rockies. I took a stroll, OK, navigated an obstacle coarse, around the property to see what is blooming. Below are some pictures of these tough little plants, that will laugh at this little snowfall.
I discovered two new to me plants, the Clematis hiruitissima and the Collinsia parviflora.  I am amazed at  how some flowers seem to come and go, the conditions needed for some to germinate make them more like guest appearances. What is blooming in your neighborhood?

Sugar Bowl Plant (Clematis hirsutissima)
Blue Eyed Mary (Collinsia parviflora )

Candytuft (Noccaea fendleri, ssp glauca)

Mountain Parsley (Cymopterus montaus)

Spring Beauty (Claytonia lanceolata)

Mouse -Ear Chickweed (Cerastium strictum)

Golden smoke (Corydalis aurea)

Wild Woodland Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)

Sand Lily (Leucocrinum montanum)

Kinnickinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Golden Banner (Thermopsis divaricarpa)

Cut leaf Fleabane (Erigeron compositus.)

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Two Foothill Gardening Experiences in 2013 by Ed Powers

Seedlings getting ready for 2013 season
In 2013 I started the year where I left off in 2012.  In 2012 I had just moved to Evergreen from Detroit, Michigan and was able to start seeds in late April, almost too late for this area.  I planted a few tomatoes, squash, peppers, marigolds, Icelandic poppies and zinnias.  Of course I brought the seed from Detroit.  Everything sprouted and grew.  Because we were still moving in I gave most of the plants to my daughter who lives in Indian Hills about 6500 to 7000 feet in elevation. Our Evergreen home is at between 7400 and 7800 feet in elevation.  I kept a few squash, peppers and tomatoes which I planted late in June.  While the squash and tomatoes grew and began to fruit, the peppers plants were eaten by the chipmunks right away.  My 1st lesson learned.  The tomatoes and squash fruited but did not mature and died at the first frost in early September. The second of many lessons learned. My daughter’s garden in Indian Hills flourished, grew and fruited.  She planted in early May and covered them.  So my seed sprouting was successful.
Evergreen garden area covered and mulched
In 2013, I planned on planting a small garden in my front area.  Mine would not be a raised garden but on the natural land with amendments to help the land for planting and growth.  My daughter’s area was a set of three raised gardens.  She had set them up in 2012.  She enriched them in 2013.  After a few discussions, my daughter and I decided to do what Colorado State University had recommended.  We took soil samples from areas of our landed that had not been cultivated to see what the native soil in our 2 areas were like.  We sent them in early to get an idea before the gardening season started.  The results came back with the following results.  We both had land that needed to be given Nitrogen on a regular basis.  This is true of much of Colorado.  However, here is where they differed.  The Evergreen land was amended well and needed only to be kept up.  It held water well (unlike much of the surrounding land).
Our daughters land on the other hand needs to be amended in a big way and her land did not hold water.  So it required a large amount of amendments and required constant watering.  Her raised beds answered the requirements for her gardening.  

I planted our seeds indoors in early March of 2013.  I planted Tomatoes, peppers, Zucchini Squash, Acorn Squash (seed from previous year’s crop), Spaghetti Squash (seed from previous year’s crop), various flowers.  The peppers never came up.  We did supplement our gardens with plants we bought.  I recorded the progress of the gardens and made comparisons with pictures during the season.  The gardens took about the same amount of time to grow.  However the garden in Indian Hills did better with the squash than did the Evergreen Garden.  The Indian Hills garden receives about 6- 8 hours of sunlight and the Evergreen garden receives 10 hours of sunlight.  Our daughter covered her squash with clear plastic which helped.

The squash in Evergreen struggled all season and produced little fruit.  I will rig some type of cover this year. The peppers we bought did not mature or fruit in either garden.  We will look at a different type of pepper next year to see if we have any better luck. We both had good success with the annuals we planted and bought.  They bloomed into October.  They were Petunias, Alyssum, Icelandic Poppies and Lobelia.  Our daughter also planted Pansies. At the end of the season, Evergreen harvested over ¾ of a bushel of tomatoes from 4 plants, 4 squash and no peppers.  Indian Hills harvested ½ bushel from tomato plants, 12 squash and no peppers.  The tomatoes had to be brought in to ripen after the frost but we did not lose any and they all ripened.

All in all it was a good 1st full year for us and it gives us something to build on. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Supergermination of Annual Weeds Possible by Irene Shonle

The torrential rains of last fall combined with an above average snowpack this winter mean that we can expect a banner year for weeds, especially annual weeds.  (Of course, it also means we should have a fabulous wildflower year, too.)
Cheatgrass, also known as downy brome, is the weed that is most likely to be found in abundance this year.  Cheatgrass can outcompete most native plants and even many grasses, because it germinates so early; it is a state-listed noxious weed (List C).  Later in the summer it becomes a fire hazard and a nuisance as the seed heads lodge in socks and fur.  Cheatgrass can produce 13,000 seeds per square yard (meter).  When conditions are just right, almost all of these seeds will germinate, creating a larger-than-usual crop of weeds.   
Alyssum simplex (also known as Alyssum minus) at early stages of flowering -- a great time to tackle it
Small-flowered alyssum, that tiny upright weed that turns the hillsides a yellow green in the spring, will also respond to the moisture, but perhaps not quite to the same extent.  Other annual weeds that might respond enthusiastically include scentless chamomile and field pennycress.

This supergermination might sound like it’s really bad news, but it all depends on whether you can get out there to deal with them before they go to seed.  If you can, this spring will be a golden opportunity to deplete most of the seeds in the seed bank.  That means that in future years, there will be almost no new weeds!   If possible, prioritize working on these weeds in May and early June, especially if you don’t have extensive patches to deal with.  If your populations are large, try tackling the most important areas first; these probably will be the areas closest to your house, or where you want to grow flowers.  The flip side is that if the weeds go untreated, we will have extra seeds going into the soil and weed populations will increase.

The key here is in the timing – you have to get out there almost as soon as the seeds germinate.  If you catch them before there are any seeds present, you can hoe, till, or pull the weeds.    It’s possible to take care of huge swaths of weeds in just an hour using a stirrup hoe.  Kind of makes you feel like the Valiant Little Tailor of Grimm’s Fairy Tale fame, who “killed seven with one blow.”  There’s no need to bag the plants if seeds have not been set (anytime through early flowering); they can just be left to decompose on the ground.   It’s also possible to use an herbicide, but you would need to apply it very early; many annuals don’t respond to herbicides later in their growth cycle
Cheatgrass seedlings before flowering and seed set -- easy to take care of with a hoe
If you don’t quite catch them before they set seed, controlling the weeds becomes a little more of a nuisance, but is still doable.  Pull the weeds and seal them in a plastic bag, then throw them away.  Since this can quickly turn into quite a lot of bags, it’s easy to see why getting them earlier is a good idea.
Pulling and bagging cheatgrass