Friday, October 16, 2020

Soil Health

Soil Health
By Jennifer Cook, Gilpin Extension Director and Agent

Soil health is defined by Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) as the capacity of soil to function as a living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. Healthy soils contain billions of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that help form an ecosystem, providing nutrients for plant growth, absorbing and holding water, and providing the foundation for agricultural activities.
Soil organisms living within a soil aggregate. Credit: S. Rose and E.T. Elliott, USDA-NRCS.

Whether you manage a large farm, a pasture, or a small raised bed, there are key soil health principles that will improve soil function. Soil health changes slowly over time, these soil health principles provide ideas for taking action now, so your soils can be more sustainable and resilient. 

Follow four basic soil health principles to improve your soil health and sustainability: 
  1. Keep the soil covered. Examples of cover are leaving plant residue behind after harvest, or mulching your garden.

    Erosion by wind and water happens when the soil is not adequately covered. Keeping your soil covered as much as possible protects your nutrient-rich top soil.

    In addition to soil erosion, cover can affect soil temperature and moisture. A soil covered with plant litter/mulch reflects radiation due to its “albedo.” This keeps soil temperatures lower than bare soils, which warm up more readily. Especially during the summer, the temperature difference between a covered and bare soil can be significant. Plants use soil moisture less efficiently at higher temperatures as more water is lost through evapotranspiration than utilized for plant growth.

  2.  Minimize soil disturbance. Examples of soil disturbance are tillage, overgrazing, and overapplication of chemicals and nutrients.

    Soil disturbance such as plowing and rototilling can impact soil by physically breaking up the soil structure and by stimulating microbial decomposition of organic matter. This includes the breakdown of biological glues, such as polysaccharides and glomalin, that are key in maintaining soil structure. Without these biological glues, when the soil gets wet, it collapses and loses large soil pore spaces resulting in a net reduction in infiltration, aeration, and soil microbial activity. Disturbed and compacted soils sometimes more closely resemble a brick than a healthy functioning soil!

  3. Use plant diversity. Examples of diversity are using crop rotations or planting a variety of species for pastures or cover.

    By increasing the diversity of plants above ground (at the same time or in a crop rotation), the diversity below ground can be enhanced. Diversity can build redundancies and synergies in the soil system which ultimately leads to increased resiliency (to drought for instance). Many would argue that this is the most important principle to improve soil health/function and increase long-term sustainability. For an added incentive, increasing crop diversity in agricultural systems has long been recognized as a tactic for increasing economic resiliency.

  4. Keep living plants throughout the year - most commonly achieved by using cover crops.

    Soils feed plants and plants feed soils. Through photosynthesis plants capture soil energy and convert it to organic compounds (from simple sugars to complex organic molecules like lignin). Plants use this captured solar energy for maintenance and growth. Most soil organisms need this external food source produced by plants.
    Many plants “leak” carbohydrates and other root exudates to stimulate soil microbial activity. Fueled by this symbiotic relationship, the area around the root (rhizosphere) is teaming with life in a healthy, functioning soil. This biological activity drives nutrient cycling in the rhizosphere. Many plants also form symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizal fungi by providing carbon to the fungi in exchange for nutrients (especially phosphorous). In these instances, soil microbes are providing services to the plant (i.e. nutrient cycling) at the cost of organic compounds from the plant. 
For more information, visit NRCS’s soil health webpage -

Friday, September 25, 2020

Flower Pots!

By Ed Powers 

For the past three years, my wife and I do flower boxes which rest on our home deck railing at about 8000 feet. We usually buy mixed flower pots at a local nursery or big box store, and also plant flowers in a fiberglass urn on the deck. Before beginning, we researched in the Garden notes from CSU, which was very helpful as we designed, built, and planted them. 

Initially, they were exposed with no cover.  The first set of plants were eaten by varmints that lived around our deck, and then what was left was destroyed by hail.  So we went back to the drawing board and designed what we thought would be a great cover to protect the flowers from hail and varmints. Wrong!  It protected against hail but not varmints. 

We finally developed protection that did both. We made a plastic roof that went from one end of the long pots to the other, secured to the railing and pots with screws. Bird netting was run around the lower half of the pots. This accomplished what we wanted. It protects flowers from hail as well as varmints.  

To our surprise it also allows some of the flowers to self-seed and grow again the next year.  Marigolds, petunias, and allysum have reseeded for the last three years. The plastic cover serves as a simple greenhouse.  However we must remember to water every day or every other day because the multi-plant roots require quite a bit of moisture,

This year has been our best year for all our flower pots. We have volunteer plants from previous years, and I grew seeds and we bought more flower pots.  We fertilize them and I water them every two days.  These pots are overrun with flowers, including purple and white Alyssum, blue and white Labella, Petunias, Marigolds, assorted Snap Dragons, Dusty Miller, Million Bells and Verbena.  In our urn, Columbine, Prickly Pear Cactus (dug up from our property), and two colors of petunias are growing strong. 

Of course the fact that we were at home a lot, because of COVID-19, helped our gardens. We have learned a lot about our gardens because of this and will apply it in the future.  We really enjoy the flowers!

Friday, September 18, 2020

Kale- An Easy Crop That Keeps on Giving!

By Yvette Henson, San Miguel Basin, CSU Extension

You may remember how trendy kale was a few years ago.  Many restaurants had some sort of kale salad on the menu and we were all making kale chips and kale pesto at home.  Farming of kale grew more than 57% between 2007 and 2012 because of consumer and restaurant demand!  Apparently, kale is used in more than 400 products!  And while Zagat declared in their National Dining Trend Survey in 2015, that kale is no longer “in" it is a crop that keeps on giving in my garden.

The first year planting of ‘Red Russian’ and ‘Blue Scotch’ curly kale in my garden.

Several years ago, I planted a small patch of ‘Red Russian’ and ‘Blue Scotch’ curly kale in my garden.  At the end of the season I decided to see if I could overwinter it to harvest seed the following year. I covered the plants with some row cover fabric held up by hoops. The following spring, although it was a little ‘burned’ from the cold, it quickly began to regrow and bolt.  I only allowed the Red Russian variety to set seed—it was the one that overwintered best.  I harvested it to demonstrate saving and processing kale seed at a Seed Saving class we held that October.  I had plenty of kale seed to share! 

My kale, gone to seed.

Seed processing demonstration.

It overwintered again, this time without protection, and I let it be there and kept harvesting it.  The next year I wanted to use that spot for something else, so I pulled it all out of the bed.  It had re-seeded at the base of the stone wall around the bed.  I let that grow for two more years, with only the water from overflow from the bed behind it and without covering it in the winter.  It continued to produce leaves that I harvested whenever I wanted them.  Last year, I thought “enough is enough!’  I tried hard to remove it by cutting the thick woody stems back at ground level.  It was quite tough since the bases were several years old and… it still came back this year!   

This is a picture of the three plants today.

Kale is easy to grow, obviously.  There are two species and main main types. Brassica oleacea (Dinosaur and blue curled kale) which will cross-pollinate with cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi and collards. Brassica napus (Siberian and Russian kales) which will cross-pollinate with rutabagas and swede turnips, as well as oil seed crops like canola and rape seed. 

Kale can easily be planted by seed. For spring and summer harvest, plant kale seeds four weeks before last frost. For fall harvest, plant seeds eight weeks before the first frost.  Feed lightly and regularly while growing with a 5-5-5, or similar fertilizer and water as needed (kale will get aphids if stressed). 

Keep cutting the oldest leaves when they are still succulent but do not remove more than 1/3 of all the leaves at a time. If you plan to grow kale for seeds, only save seed from plants that bolt after overwintering—early bolting is not a trait you want in the genetics of your seed.

Kale is nutritious!  It contains 900% daily needs of vitamin K and 600% vitamin A per serving! 

Here are some great recipes:

Massaged Kale - Red Russian or Siberian kale are best for this recipe because of softer leaves. 

Kale Pesto - You can use any kind of kale for this recipe. 

Kale Chips - Any kind of kale can be made into chips but I prefer varieties that have flatter leaves. 

Currently, my favorite way to eat kale is for breakfast—I just go out into the garden and pick a half dozen or so leaves and flash fry them in a small iron skillet until dark brown but not burned.  I add them to an everything bagel with smashed avocado and ‘everything but the bagel’ seasoning. 

While kale might not be as trendy in the restaurants, it is not a crop I want to be without, and I’m not sure I could be, even if I wanted to.



Friday, September 11, 2020

Maple Trees in Colorado

By Cherie Luke

Maple trees belong to the family Sapindaceae and the Genus Acer. There are approximately 128 kinds of maple trees which are easily recognized by their palmate leaves.

Having grown up in the east where maple trees are plentiful, I was happy to discover a maple trees that is native to the west, plus one non-native that will grow well at my 7,600’ elevation. Not only do I think they are a beautiful tree but I covet having deciduous leaves to use as leaf mulch to improve the soil in my gardens.

At the Denver Botanic Gardens plant sale a few years ago, I happened to find Acer grandidentatum, Bigtooth maple, in the “Grown at the Gardens” section. This tree started out 2 feet tall and now after about 6 years is 10 feet tall. It may well reach 20’-30’ tall. This is my favorite tree.

Tatariun Maple (Acer tataricum) 
Bigtooth maple may also be known as Wasatch Maple where its native habitat is located in the Wasatch Mountains. This mountain range stretches from Wyoming into Colorado and along the Utah border.

Another maple tree that I enjoy growing in my landscape is a Plant Select maple called Acer tataricum. This maple is expected to grow 15’-18’ tall and wide. This tree is native to southwestern Europe and western Asia. It has adapted well here because it doesn’t mind our alkaline soils, our semi- arid climate, and because it holds up well to storm damage. It’s beautiful red samaras (seed pods) are very attractive in the summer. In the fall the foliage turns a stunning red, yellow, and orange.

If you do not have any maple trees growing in your landscape, these are two you may want to try.

For more information about trees see CSU Extension Fact Sheet 7.423 Trees and Shrubs for Mountain Areas

Friday, September 4, 2020

A Butterfly Garden

A few years back I planted a small garden outside my back door.  I wanted to add summer color to the native chokecherry and serviceberry bushes that grow at the property’s edge.  To my delight, I inadvertently started a butterfly garden.

I notice butterflies when hiking in the high country.  They flutter about in a variety of colors and sizes, stopping briefly here and there, flying off before I get a good look at them.  Sometimes I see them congregating on the ground around a mud puddle.  Research tells me these are mostly males, likely getting nutrition from dissolved minerals.  One can learn to identify butterflies by noting size, color and pattern, and flight behavior, but to date, I can only easily recognize swallowtails and cabbage moths. 

This year I find I am hosting a new butterfly, a fritillary perhaps?  (see photo)

These visitors arrived in my garden in August when the nonnative purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and a native aster started blooming.  They appear to ignore other flowers nearby – black eyed susans, jupiter’s beard, cosmos, even the native bee balm.   They perch on the tall coneflowers when the sun is shining and linger, mostly one to a flower but sometimes sharing the bloom with another butterfly or even a bee.   They hang on when the wind gusts, rocking back and forth, finishing their meal before moving on.

Well planned butterfly gardens have host plants that provide food for caterpillars and nectar plants for adult butterflies.  They have sunny spots sheltered from the wind, and accessible water.  A garden with masses of flowers that bloom in sequence is ideal. CSU Extension’s “Attracting Butterflies to the Garden” has more details. (

My garden is not well planned, but it appears to have matured enough to provide the right environment for these butterflies.  They may like the untended surrounding area that has plenty of shelter and “undesirable” plants like dandelions and clover.  Or perhaps the small drip irrigation system installed last summer brought the butterflies.  Given regular water, all the plants have grown thicker and taller, with bigger and longer lasting blooms.

Watching butterflies lingering in my flowerbed is a treat!  With more research and a bit of work, I hope to attract more butterflies to my garden next year.    

 Vicky Barney gardens for wildlife and is a member of the Master Gardener Class of 2011 

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Garden and Landscape in a Time of Drought and Fire

 By Susan Carter, CSU Extension Tri River Area, Horticulture and Natural Resource Agent

I currently live in Fruita where the Pine Gulch Fire is about 12-15 miles north of me.  This morning I awoke to most of my garden covered in ash. It is amazing how far it travels.  A vegetable specialist from CSU campus suggested hosing off the ash. The plants would not be harmed by a loss of photosynthesis unless the ash layer was thick. By the time I was done hosing off everything, my once clean feet were covered with soot. I also learned that the fire-retardant slurry that fire fighters use, is high in phosphorus, and could harm plants. So how far does this slurry travel? I don’t know.

But the ash also got me thinking about defensible space.  My husband is a retired firefighter EMT of 21 years and fought many wildfires.  He doesn’t seem too concerned about the current situation since it is miles away, but In this time of drought, wildfires could happen ANYWHERE.  We should all be prepared.

How can you be prepared in the garden and landscape?  I would start by removing any dead plants. Deadhead flowers (removing flower stalks that are no longer blooming) as often as they dry out. Deadheading perennials and shrubs will also help them put more energy back in the root system instead of putting energy towards producing seeds. 

Remove leaf litter that is close to the house or in the gutters. It just takes one ember to land in a crook of the house where there is debris, and a fire starts. You could start a compost pile away from the house to add the plant debris. 

Closest to the house, use rock mulch, flagstone, paver stones, or other non-combustible materials. Keep wood piles and other wood products/furniture away from the house. Ideally a zone of lower growing, high to moderate water-loving plants are closer to your house, as long as it does not affect your foundation. 

To create defensible space, height should increase as you move away from the house. See the Colorado State Forest Service website for more detailed information on Defensible Space.,modified%20to%20reduce%20fire%20hazard.&text=Develop%20these%20zones%20around%20each,buildings%2C%20barns%20and%20other%20structures.

Did you know that there are plants that are more fire resistant?  Of course some of that depends on drought and how much moisture is in the plants. Take a look at the list of fire-wise plants here - .  Choose plants that do not produce a lot of litter. Aspen trees are a good high-altitude fire-resistant garden choice for the mountains. 

Now let’s talk drought. I have been getting many calls about older trees not doing well.  I know when you live on large properties or up in the mountains, typically there is not a lot you can do other than depend on Mother Nature for moisture. But you could water one or a few favorite, or most important trees. If they are mature established trees, water out twice their height or spread, and give them a deep soak once a month to a depth of 12-18 inches. This will keep them vigorous enough to help ward off insects like bark beetles and borers. Some trees, like pinion pines, might need some insecticide treatments to prevent ips beetle from infesting. When there are epidemics of insects AND there is prolonged drought, the trees are very susceptible to attack. More on ips beetles here -

Pinyon pine with twig or bark beetle damage, picture from Tri-River Area

For trees with lower dead limbs, remove them to decrease fire ladder potential. Prune evergreens when dormant to prevent attracting insects, like bark beetles and borers.  Use proper pruning techniques and cut outside the bark ridge and bark collar.  For bigger limbs use the three-cut method to prevent the limb from breaking and causing trunk damage. Read more about pruning techniques here -

Turn these limbs into chips or stack in a wood pile, away from your structures. If the plants are diseased or insect infested, follow appropriate protocol, for that particular issue, to dispose of or prevent any spread.

I hate to say it but I am hoping for an earlier winter, with lots of moisture, to help with the fires and the drought.  We can only do what we can do, the rest is up to Mother Nature.


Friday, August 14, 2020

Colorado Blue Spruce

The Tale of the Abused Colorado Blue Spruce
By Ed Powers, Jefferson County Master Gardener

My wife is from Colorado, and when we moved to the Detroit area of Michigan, she wanted a piece of Colorado near her. So we bought a 12-inch Colorado Blue Spruce for our backyard. It was not the azure blue but more of a deep blue green color. Of course, we did the research we could. At that time (35 years ago) the internet was in its infancy, so we discussed it with the local tree experts and spent time in the local library. Here some of the types of information we learned.

The names Colorado spruce, blue spruce and Colorado blue spruce tree all refer to the same magnificent tree—Pica pungens. Large specimens are imposing in the landscape because of their strong, architectural shape, in the form of a pyramid, and stiff, horizontal branches that form a dense canopy. The species grows up to 60 feet tall and looks best in open, arid landscapes. Smaller cultivars that grow 5 to 15 feet tall are right at home in lush gardens.

Colorado Blue Spruce
Picture Courtesy of Gurneys Nursery 
Blue spruce is a native tree that originated on stream banks and crags of the western United States. This sturdy tree is grown in farmlands, pastures and large landscapes as a windbreak and doubles as a nesting site for birds.

Short, sharp needles that are square in shape and very stiff and sharp attach to the tree singly, rather than in bunches, like pine needles. The tree produces 2- to 4-inch brown cones that fall to the ground in autumn. They are distinguished from other spruce trees by the bluish color of the needles, which can be quite striking on a sunny day.

Colorado blue spruce grows best in a sunny location with moist, well-drained, fertile soil. It tolerates dry wind and can adapt to dry soil. The tree is hardy in USDA plant hardiness zones 3 through 7.

A healthy normal Blue Spruce with proper shape
Picture courtesy of Garden Know How 
After all this research, we decided we could plant this tree in Detroit. The tale begins of the blue spruce: We dug the right size hole, put soil amendments in, and watered frequently the first year. It did well and was two and a half feet tall by the end of the first year. And then the unthinkable happened, we decided to move it to our backyard. The move slowed the growth. Next, something fell on the tree and it was topped. Now it was only 2 feet tall. We left the tree in place for 3 years. Something fell on it again and it was topped. Then we decided it would look better in the front yard and moved it again. I am sure if this tree had feelings it would have felt tortured. But it survived.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Honeysuckle Vines and Bushes

By Vicki Barney

A Trumpet honeysuckle vine (Lonicera sempervirens), is growing on an arch trellis outside Creekside Restaurant in Steamboat Springs, and is currently in bloom with masses of pink flowers.  It has been there for many years and, like other honeysuckle species, enhances a lovely garden setting.

About 180 species of honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) have been identified around the world.   Some species are vines and others are bushes, some more fragrant than others.  Usually they have oval, opposite growing leaves and produce flowers and berries in sets of two. They are fast growing and, once established, tolerate limited sun and water.  In some areas, certain non-native species grow too quickly and are considered invasive weeds. Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) is one such

species and is known to have invaded riparian areas in the Denver area.

I fear I have a Tatarian honeysuckle growing up along a wall in my yard.   The bush was planted more than 8 years ago and stands at least 14 feet tall.  Every summer it grows taller, producing bright green leaves, pretty pink flowers and small red berries. The flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and the berries feed the birds.  Fortunately, I have noticed no invasive behavior, likely due to an arid climate, a somewhat shady location, and no regular irrigation.

While honeysuckle plants are tolerant of drought conditions, they, like most plants, produce more flowers and more robust foliage when given regular water and more sunshine. Annual pruning may also keep a more attractive appearance.  Vining species need a trellis for support; some species, though, may be grown as ground cover.   Regarding shrubs, CSU Extension’s Fact Sheet on Deciduous Shrubs ( lists recommended species.

Colorado has one native species. Twinberry (Lonicera involucrata), a medium sized bush, grows along our trails and can be identified by its twin yellow flowers followed by twin dark berries in red bracts.  I have planted it in my yard to attract wildlife, and it flourishes in spite of limited sunshine.  More details about Twinberry and other native bushes may be found here: (

Our native honeysuckle is easy to grow and feeds our butterfly and bird populations.  Non-native species are almost as easy to grow, may produce more spectacular flowers, and are beneficial to our wildlife as well.  Nearly any variety of honeysuckle will add your garden experience.


Vicky Barney gardens for wildlife and is a member of the Master Gardener Class of 2011.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Western Spiderwort

By Vicky Barney, Routt County Master Gardener. Vicky gardens for wildlife and is a member of the Master Gardener Class of 2011.

A native plant new to me is growing in my garden: Western spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis).  Recommended by my friend and local botanist Karen Vail, the plant has unusual habits that complement the neighboring plants.  It has become my favorite in the garden, at least for now.

A variety of spiderworts are native to the North American plains. According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Native Plant Database, there are 33 in the family, with 4 native to Colorado.  My Colorado wildflower guides list only Western spiderwort (also called Prairie spiderwort), which grows in the plains and foothills of eastern Colorado.  The spiderwort name may have originated by the spider leg appearance of the foliage or because it was once used to treat spider bites.  “Wort” is the Old English word for plant. 

There are a number of cultivated varieties with names like Spider Lily, Purple Heart, and Cow Slobber – really!   Spiderworts from tropical climates have been cultivated as houseplants as well, with names like Wandering Dude and Moses-in-the–cradle. The houseplants are easy to grow but may have toxic properties.

My spiderworts arrived last summer as leggy plants sprawling out of tiny containers.  They were bedraggled, with foot tall stems bent over by the weight of spent buds. From research, I learned the plants would grow in untidy clumps and might need maintenance like staking, deadheading, and cutting back.  They might also be invasive.  It sounded like a lot of work for flowers that last for only a single morning.  The research, though, was about cultivated varieties, not about my natives.

My spiderwort plants have been a treat to observe. Planted in light shade with drip irrigation and with no staking, every plant has grown upright over 2 feet tall.  Beautiful triangular flowers appear in the morning and last until mid-afternoon. The blue petals then disappear back into the original bud, now spent.  New blooms appear the following morning, a process that may go on for two months.

To date, I am a big fan of spiderwort.  Plants may suffer from foliar decline later in the summer but can be cut down once they quit blooming.  They also may get unruly looking (read: weedy) if they reseed, but for now, they are a wonderful addition to my garden.

For more information, please see CSU Extension’s Fact Sheet 7-242: Native herbaceous perennials for Colorado Landscapes (

Friday, July 10, 2020

Fall Gardening for Mountain Communities

By Yvette Henson, San Miguel Basin, CSU Extension

If you are like me, you may follow a few gardening/homesteading YouTubers. The one I watch the most lives in the SE United States. She plants her regular season garden in March as well as a fall garden in August. For her fall garden, she plants a second planting of cool season plants as well as a second round of warm season plants like beans and even winter squash!  Wow!  Those of us who garden in high elevation areas with short frost-free growing seasons and cool night temperatures are blessed to get any squashes, summer or winter, during our short main season!

Shelling or 'English' pea. Photo credit Pixabay
One of my favorite family recipes is creamed peas and spuds, basically mashed potatoes with ‘English peas’ mixed in.  Since potatoes are ready to harvest in fall, I want my peas to be ready in fall too so I can make this dish with my own fresh, home-grown potatoes and peas.

According to most gardening references, August 1st is the recommended timing for planting fall peas, based on my average first frost date.   Several years ago, I planted them then.  They were just starting to bloom when the temperature plunged to 15 degrees in October, which killed the plants.  The next year I planted pea seeds in mid-July.  They were just beginning to produce peas when the killing temperatures came.   By trial and error, my ‘fall crop’ of peas has become more like a second ‘succession’ planting.  I plant them by the beginning of July, when my late-April, early-May planted pea harvest is just getting started.  This extends my harvest of fresh peas over a longer period, ensuring I have fresh peas when I dig my potatoes in fall.

Fall-planted succession of Lams' lettuce. Photo credit Yvette Henson
I have had similar experiences when planting leafy greens like spinach, kale, arugula, lettuce, mache, etc. Spring planted greens will do well in my garden until mid-summer high temperatures result in bitter-tasting, tough greens that may start to bolt.  So, around July 1st I plant a second crop of spinach, kale and arugula.  I succession plant lettuces every three weeks to get heads of lettuce from summer through killing frost.  I can plant the quicker maturing greens like mache and arugula anywhere from mid-July to August 1st.

We mountain gardeners all have our own unique growing conditions and may have different experiences with fall gardening.  I would love to hear about your experiences and so would other readers!