Still feeling a wee bit defeated by that surprise frost last month? It was a tough being caught off guard, and many of us aren’t ready to let go of gardening yet. The good news is that there is still good gardening to be done!
Fall is THE time to plant bulbs! Tulips, daffodils, narcissi (that’s the plural form of narcissus for word geeks,) crocuses, hyacinths, and garlic! This is also a great time to divide irises and replant them, although they can wait for spring. Planting anytime from now until the third week of October is prime planting time- all the better since we’ve had some good rain recently.
It’s a bit sloppy to call refer to all of those plants as bulbs, as technically some are corms and some are rhizomes. I like to keep things at a “Fisher-Price®” level of simplicity, so if you’re someone who wants more information then click on the definition of a bulb, corm, or rhizome and satiate your thirst for knowledge. If you’d like more technical information on planting bulbs, the good folks at CSU can explain a whole lot more.
Simply put, bulbs are the underground parts of plants that store nutrients to grow new plants the following year. Planting them in the fall gives them time to do some root development, and transition into dormancy for the winter. Next spring when the snow melts and the ground begins to warm, their growth continues underground and then bursts through the soil surface to delight us with colorful blossoms. Many bulbs are cold hardy, so they can tolerate a light frost or snow, which means we can enjoy flowers before woody perennials shift into gear.
Bulbs are versatile and can be planted in a variety of spots. Some gardeners plant crocuses spread out in their lawn- the flowers bloom and the plant dies back long before lawn care becomes an issue. Bulbs can also be strategically planted in a perennial bed to add early season color, and then have growing perennials hide the dying top growth. This works well for tulips, since the life cycle lasts longer than small bulbs like crocuses and narcissi.
Beware that as much as we are keen for spring color, the local deer population is just as keen for yummy snacks after a winter of browsing. According to deer in my neighborhood, tender bulbs are candy and not to be missed! Plant your bulbs where the deer can’t get to them or be a fanatic about applying liquid fence® or other deer deterrent.
Planting bulbs is fairly straightforward. Charlie likes to joke (we think he’s joking….) that plants should be planted “green side up.” Bulbs can be a little harder to determine how to plant, since they are dormant. Without obvious roots and green growth to guide you, the shape is your guide. Typically there is a pointier end and a flatter end of the bulb, and as you might guess, the pointy end goes up.
As for how deep to plant them, the rule of thumb is “read the directions” on the package. It’s also advised to use a real measuring device rather than guess the planting depth. If you have heavy clay soil, ease up on the depth guidelines and plant them a little less deep. Even better is to amend your clay soil in the process.
Regardless of your soil type, apply triple-super-phosphate to the soil when planting bulbs. Phosphate will help the plant make a robust bulb for next winter and the following spring. If your bulbs haven’t flowered well in successive years, a lack of phosphate might be the culprit. If your bulbs have become crowded, that also affects ability to bloom. We’ll address fall division of perennials and bulbs next week.
Above we’ve talked primarily about flower bulbs, but remember that garlic is also a bulb! If you enjoy cooking with garlic, or making salsa, consider growing your own garlic. It’s fairly simple and follows the guidelines above, except don’t treat your garlic shoots with a deer deterrent. Garlic planted in the fall should be a “hard neck” variety and yes, we’ve got both flower bulbs and garlic available for you in the store.
The veggies are planted and flower baskets are blooming, perhaps now you’re thinking of planting perennials in the yard. But what can you plant that stands a good chance of thriving year after year? There are two concepts you’ll need to consider in selecting your plants: zones and microclimates.
Zones refers to the guidelines established by the USDA, which gives a rating to areas based on average winter temperatures over 30 years. Each zone has a 10 degree Fahrenheit range, and zones are divided into smaller subcategories of 5 degree ranges. For instance, Lander is positioned straddling zone 4b (-25 to -20F) and 5b (-20 to -15). You’ll want to consult the official USDA map to determine the zone for your land. When you browse perennials, be sure to read the tag to find information about zone hardiness.
Determining the zone is a great first step, but it is just the first step. Zones do not take into account summer high temperature averages, the amount of annual moisture, if that moisture is rain or snow, or comes regularly or seasonally, or prevalence and severity of wind—all of these factors also contribute to whether or not a plant will thrive. My birthplace of Iowa City (GO HAWKEYES!) is Zone 5b, just a little more temperate than Lander. However, there are key differences, such as length of frost-free growing season and that June, July, and August bring more moisture than Lander receives all year. Iowa City averages 37 inches of rain and 28 inches of snow annually- no wonder oak and weeping willows do well in the average backyard. The Matanuska-Susitna area north of Anchorage, Alaska is also 4b, but the 22-24 hours of sunlight yield magnificent crops. I doubt anyone in Wyoming could grow an 89.6 pound cabbage like the one I saw at the Alaska State Fair.
As for micro-climates, they come in large and small scale. Large scale includes significant bodies of water like Boysen Reservoir, or valleys ringed with hills like Jackson and it’s famous inversions. River drainages are a highway for air movement, as anyone who lives along the Upper North Fork can tell you. They have cold mountain air frosting their gardens through June and even into July. Small scale could be the area by your downspout in the shade where mosses and ferns grow, or it could be the “hell strip” of scorched turf between the road and the sidewalk, both of which radiate heat long after the sun has gone down.
What’s a gardener to do? First, keep a sense of humor and adventure. Second, think about ways you can manipulate the environment to either enhance or mitigate micro-climates:
Season extenders like row covers/ walls of water, or raised beds warm the soil faster than it would warm on its own.
Mulches do double-duty in keeping roots cooler and helping hold moisture longer
Structures can be used strategically to buffer wind and block hot summer sun. This could be tool sheds, buildings, or even solid fences. Structures that retain heat, such as a concrete foundation, might provide an advantageous location for heat loving plants.
Paying attention to aspect makes a difference as spring comes more quickly to south facing aspects than it does to north facing
Topography- even slight- can affect plants. The north side of Lander is slightly lower in elevation than the south side, which allows cooler air to flow downhill across town. Gardeners on the north side often report frost when south side gardens received none. Hot air rises and cool air sinks, and pockets of high/low ground can be quite different despite the proximity.
Putting it all together is a creative process, and it can yield great rewards. My hibiscus tree can tolerate light frost. It’s in a pot that can be moved outside in late spring, but it’s on my elevated and covered deck. If a night threatens to be a hard frost, it can easily be pulled inside. Otherwise, it’s a tropical plant that lives outside for several months. Irises are one of my favorite flowers, so I planted a bunch of them in 4 different micro-climates for an extended blooming season. The first to blossom were those planted close to the concrete foundation with a southern aspect. As they were fading, the irises facing the west with a tall fence behind them to the east began to bloom. Just as those were about done, the ones across the yard facing east with a fence behind them to the west kicked into gear. Finally, several weeks after the first irises started blooming, the north facing clumps offered their show.
So far I’ve had terrible results with asparagus, probably because the plants weren’t getting moisture in March and April. Now that I’ve got gutters installed, I think that the next place to try them will be near the downspout- spring snowmelt on the roof might give them the water they need. It’s worth a try, eh?
In the real world, we garden in microclimates, not hardiness zones.
- Charlie Mazza, Senior Extension Associate, Cornell University.
Who doesn’t like fresh strawberries? Or strawberry-rhubarb pie? Or strawberries in your smoothie? Or strawberry preserves on toast? Strawberries start to show up in large quantities at the grocery store this time of year, but it’s not hard to create your own strawberry patch.
If you’ve read previous articles, you’ve already heard the rallying cry of adding organic material to your garden. But really, for strawberries, go crazy. They do best in rich, loamy soil and hefty additions of compost are key. In preparing your site, be sure to add plenty prior to planting. Also add a 1-2” layer in the each year in the fall over the plants.
First though, you’ll have to make a choice on where to plant. All varieties need at least 8 hours of full sun daily to produce at their best. Then decide on what form you’ll plant, such as a clump or in rows, or perhaps using a fancy form available commercially. A word to the wise: the best way to keep your patch productive for many years is being able to control the runners and thin them out periodically. This may influence how you decide to plant.
As far as what kind to plant, it’s decision time again. There are two main groupings for perennial strawberries: June-bearing and everbearing. As you’ve likely guessed, June-bearing has a short production season, lasting 2-3 weeks early in the summer. This is helpful if you plan on making batches of preserves and want a hefty amount in a short time period. Everbearing will produce steadily from early summer until the first fall frost. That works well if you want a few to add to your morning bowl of cereal throughout the summer.
If you don’t have access to a yard, you can still have fresh strawberries all summer long. The ‘berri basket’ variety was cultivated to excel in pots. They are compact plants with vigorous production. Planting them in hanging pots makes for very easy harvesting- no bending over!
General tips for keeping your patch healthy and productive:
· Birds love strawberries too, so put netting over your plants to keep them away. If you don’t, rest assured that you won’t get any of the fruits of your labor. Boo!
· Help the plants be stronger by pinching off the blossoms for the first season. That way the plant turns its energy into producing roots instead of fruit.
· Pick rotted fruit- otherwise makes it possible for nematodes and other insects as well as diseases to take root.
· It’s not that plants get too old, it’s that the plants are heavy feeders and also heavy producers of runners that create more plants. If runners aren’t controlled, what started as well-spaced area transitions into a mat of plants competing for nutrients.
· Planting in rows makes for easier control in the long run. Here is a great video on revitalizing an older, overgrown strawberry patch planted in rows.
There you have it! This time of year is perfect for establishing a strawberry patch, as most varieties are very tolerant of frost. Get them in the ground soon, and you could be making pies this summer.
Do you want to increase your soil structure and provide nutrients for your plants? Are you interested in your soil managing water better? Do you crave healthy, robust plants? The answer to all of those questions is compost.
You can purchase compost, but it’s easy to make your own. Turn your food scraps into much needed organic material for your garden and pots. It is a process that can range from simple to complex, your choice. We’ll start with the simple approach first, then increase complexity. Regardless of which you choose, you can practice alchemy and turn organic material into “black gold.”
Three ingredients are needed to make compost:
1) Carbon: Brown things like leaves, brown grass clippings, or finely chipped (and chemical-free) wood/sawdust
2) Nitrogen: Green things like fresh grass clippings, fruit peels/cores/rinds, vegetable scraps, healthy plant material
3) Water: Just enough additional water to moisten- not soak- the above ingredients
Other items you might want to include are coffee grounds, eggshells, and nut shells. Adding dairy products, meat scraps and cooked foods is discouraged for the likelihood of attracting pests and the possibility of icky bacteria developing. Also, don’t put a diseased plant in your compost, as that provides a means for the disease to spread. If you’re exceptionally tenacious, add super-high fiber like sunflower stalks and corncobs, or seeds that are nearly impossible to crack open like avocado pits… they make a grand challenge! (Most of us choose to put them in the trash.)
Here’s compost making at its simplest: pile stuff up and ignore it. Keep chucking material on top, and in a few years the bottom will become organic soil. If that works for you, stop reading. If that doesn’t work for you, keep reading.
If you want it ready to use by June, you’ll have to actively control the decomposition. Start by mixing the contents to increase air circulation, and potentially adding moisture and/or nitrogen. Keeping the compost pile in a structure helps manage the mixing process. Large-scale containers are 3 feet wide by 3 feet high, a great size if you anticipate large volume of leaves in the fall. Pallets* or chicken wire are a simple and inexpensive way provide structure. Smaller or fancier options such as spinning barrels, or vertical containers are available commercially.
Unless you’ve got a container that can be spun, mixing is a manual process. A pitchfork works well to turn high-volume heaps, especially if you can access the heap from the front. If you’ve got a top loading pile, a gizmo like this is a great tool.
Most compost piles in our area have plenty of carbon. After a winter of sitting, some of the nitrogen from the green items may have leeched out. Sprinkling a handful of something high in nitrogen every several inches provides additional nitrogen to feed the microbes that do the decomposition work. We carry blood meal as well as a variety of all-purpose lawn fertilizers high in nitrogen (and without weed killing ingredients) that can boost nitrogen content.
“Where do microbes come from?” you ask. They are present in everything, including your compost heap. If you want to increase the quantity, stop by the store and pick up some compost maker. It can be added dry or mixed with water. Given our arid climate, your heap is likely dry so extra moisture is helpful. It might need even more water than what’s needed for applying liquid nitrogen or compost maker. The goal is for contents to be moist, but not dripping wet. As you turn or layer your compost pile, add water every several inches.
Once you’ve done the initial building and mixing, let the microbes do the hard work. You’ll know they are working if the temperature rises within the pile. You might even see steam on cool mornings. Stir every 2-3 days and add more water as needed. More open containment systems like pallets and chicken wire will dry out quickly, especially around the edges.
After a couple of weeks of mixing a well-activated compost pile, you should see more and more dirt and fewer chunks of recognizable objects. It’s rare to get rid of all of the chunks in one season but you should have plenty of usable material. Sift what you’ve got through a screen of dime-sized holes and put larger pieces back into the pile to decompose more next time.
Most home composters won’t generate enough volume to cover gardens in several inches of organic material. That’s the gold star for our low nutrient soil. However, applying your compost in a targeted fashion can help your plants immensely. Mix in a spade-full (or two) in each hole when you plant your veggies, or add a hefty shovelful to your pots. Your plants will thank you for it!
Compost 301 and higher
You’ll have to do self-guided education, but we’ll offer you some resources. The book that spurred home composting is Let It Rot and is available through a variety of bookstores. It’s easy to read and offers all sorts of information. The good folks at CSU Extension have an on-line article on composting that’s quite helpful and includes a simple chart on addressing common compost issues. Between the two, you’ll be well on your way to creating garden gold!
*We’ve got oodles of pallets free for the taking on the North side of the warehouse, between the warehouse and the tree lot.
A winter's worth of food scraps. It's icky here, but just wait....
"Cooked" compost ready to be sifted.
Chunks that were too large to be sifted. Back to the pile they go!
Wouldn’t it be nice for the Easter Bunny to enjoy spring flowers while hiding eggs in your yard? Lucky for her- and you!- there are hardy flowers that can tolerate frost.
Pansies, snapdragons, dianthus, nemesia and salvia can, if acclimated, survive temperatures dropping to 22 degrees. Have a handy means of covering them the first few nights outside if the forecast is for below freezing temperatures, or for any hefty spring storms that might lurk in our future. It is after all Wyoming, where spring temperatures can swing 50 degrees in less than 24 hours!
There are more annuals to fill out your pots or beds that aren’t quite as hardy, but do tolerate a light frost: petunias, bacopa, osteo’s, and million bells (a.k.a. callies or alohas). With this spread of plants, you can create combinations with a wide variety of colors, heights, textures, and growth patterns.
Want to add more color still? Geraniums can take a very light frost, so if you’re including those in your pots or beds, make sure you have an easy way to cover and protect them against spring’s crazy weather.
Plants to avoid until danger of frost has passed include heat and sun loving flowers like zinnias, marigolds, and moss roses. Hmm, it makes sense that full sun plants don’t do well with sub-freezing temperatures.
There’s no need to purchase new potting soil for your pots each year. Amend it with compost or manure, and add in a hefty dose of time-released fertilizer when you plant, and your plants will be healthy and happy. If the soil has dried out, dump it into a wheelbarrow, break up the clumps, slowly add water until all of the soil is moist. Another soil-saving tip is to place plastic bottles in the bottom to lessen he need for soil, and to make the pot lighter and easier to move. Roots of annuals on reach just a few inches deep, so no need to fill a 14” pot with soil. Yup, it’s odd for a garden center to tell you to not to buy stuff, but the truth is that soil can be reused for quite some time.
In other Easter Bunny beautification tips, now is a good time to trim back perennials. For ground hugging plants like sedum, meadow sage, perennial geraniums and the like, cut old flower stalks back to just above the new green growth. Thicker and woodier stalks will need to be snipped, while thinner stalks can be gently pulled by hand. Last year’s growth around irises and day lilies can also be cleaned up by hand.
Most perennials will show new growth by now, but not all. Plants like Russian sage are notorious late bloomers so wait a couple of weeks before cutting that back. When you do trim, cut back to green bud growth which could be as high as 8” on last year’s stalks. Decorative grasses are also cut 6-8” above the soil surface. Close cropping of grasses can kill the plant.
For you skeptics that don’t believe in the Easter Bunny, it’s still a great time to clean up the yard as Lander’s citywide clean up is next week. Pick up for north side will be Monday, April 21st while south side pick up is Tuesday, April 22nd. Items for pick up must be on the curb, properly prepared: tree limbs must be no longer than 4’ and bundled together no more than 1’ in diameter. All leaves and plant debris must be bagged. Pick up will take place between 7 am and 3 pm.
The weather forecast looks promising for both yard clean up and planting. Finally (FINALLY!) we have the chance to plant flowers. Anyone else have a serious itching to get hands in the dirt?!?!
Geraniums, pansies, bacopa and spikes make for a lovely early season pot of color.
Although still small, the million bells (also known as callies) are starting to flower- yellows, purples, pinks, peach and white colors are available.
Too bad there's not a "scratch and sniff" feature. Not only are pansies lovely, they have a delightful scent!