Monday, December 10, 2018

Great reference book for insects and diseases of woody plants

by Kristina Hughes
Gardening in the mountains is full of challenges, so I am always looking for reliable sources of horticultural information pertinent to our region and our specific issues (like this blog!). And it is especially important to have good information when trying to figure out what’s wrong with a struggling plant.

For the past two seasons I have been volunteering at the Jeffco Diagnostic Clinic where people bring us their sick plants for diagnosis. They also bring us insects they suspect might be doing evil in their landscapes, mysterious fungi that have appeared unbidden (often in mulch), and unfamiliar plants about whose identity clients are simply curious. We have to solve all kinds of garden and landscape problems.

We have an entire library of resource materials at the Clinic, including compendia of turf diseases and vegetable diseases, books large and small on almost every plant pathology subject. But I have found that there one which is my favorite. I don’t leave home without it (literally - I keep a copy in my car at all times). It’s easy to use and easy to understand. It’s geared specifically to problems in Colorado. I’ve been known to read it in my spare time because it’s so well organized and has such good pictures.....


It is ‘Insects and Diseases of Woody Plants in Colorado’ from CSU Extension, 2014 edition. It is a soft-cover, spiral-bound book of 322 pages and it cost $40 when I bought my copy several years ago.

It’s easier to use than any of the other books because in the back near the index there is a excellent key which directs the reader to the most likely culprits for any given plant.

Have you ever wondered why Ponderosa pines drop the tips of their branches periodically? If you looked in the back of this book, under ‘Pines’ there is a subsection for ‘Affecting trunk and larger branches’ and then a listing for ‘Chewing off twigs’ which directs you to read about Abert's squirrels on page 259. There you will find pictures of the types of damage squirrels can do to trees along with detailed information about which plants they damage, times of year damage is most likely to occur, life cycle of squirrels and recommendations for management. It is just enough detail for a layperson to be able to identify the problem and execute a solution confidently, without getting lost in overly technical jargon.

Spruce Gall Photo by Kristina
Have you seen this on a spruce? 

















Or this on an aspen?
Poplar Twiggall Fly Photo by Utah State Extension

With this book, it’s easy to find out that the first one is Cooley Spruce Gall (page 140) and its mostly a cosmetic issue which usually doesn’t require intervention. The second one is caused by Poplar Twiggall Fly (page 141)which also doesn’t do much damage to the plant. 

This book addresses only problems of woody plants. But our woody plants are long-lived, important foundational elements in our landscapes and their loss can be devastating. This book contains a very broad range of information on insects, larger animal pests, bacteria, fungi, as well as non-living causes of disease, all organized in a highly accessible manner, which makes it easier for us to help our plants when they are struggling. I wish there were more books like this for other types of plants.

We have so many challenges in the mountains and having correct information allows us to be more effective when dealing with those challenges. I have found this book to be incredibly useful both in my personal gardening and in my various Master Gardener roles. It’s also just fun to read!

Kristina Hughes
Clear Creek County Master Gardener

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Landscaping with Colorado Native Plants Conference


By Irene Shonle, CSU Extension in Gilpin County
Native plants are some of the easiest plants to grow if you are a mountain gardener.  As I have been gardening up here for nearly twenty years, I have experimented with a lot of plants.  Some have done great, and some have died.  But, as I always say, “if you’re not killing plants, you’re not trying hard enough.”


Because I am a rather Darwinian gardener, I don’t coddle the plants in my garden. They have to make it despite drought, critters, winds, and long winters.  As a result, many of the non-native species have been weeded out.  Over the years, I have ended up with going from about 25% native to probably about 80% native.  And I couldn’t be happier.
If you are interested in native plants, please come to the 4th Annual Landscaping with Colorado Native Plants Conference on February 16th at the Auraria Campus in Denver.

The Landscaping with Colorado Native Plants Conference promotes the inclusion of native plants in our landscaping to benefit pollinators and songbirds, save water, and restore the beauty and health of nature in the places we live, work and play.


There are many delightful topics to pique your interest, including a keynote and endcap, and two tracks (‘new to natives’ and ‘knows the natives’).


Keynote: The Meeting Place: Exploring the work of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center by Andrea DeLong-Amaya
“The environment is where we all meet; where we all have a mutual interest; it is the one thing that all of us share.” — Lady Bird Johnson, Environmental First Lady
The University of Texas at Austin Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is the State Botanic Garden and Arboretum of Texas dedicated to inspiring the conservation of native plants. The Center’s gardens and arboretum display native plants from across Texas and serve as a model for creating beautiful, sustainable landscapes. The Center guides the development of urban and rural landscapes across the U.S. that incorporate native prairies, green roofs, rainwater harvesting and other sustainable features. It operates Native Plants of North America, the most comprehensive online native plant resource, and has set aside millions of seeds from Texas native plants for future generations and restoration activities.

In addition to educating children and adults about native plants and training citizen scientists to identify and report invasive species, the Center led the development of SITES®, a sustainable landscape rating system now used worldwide. Join Andrea DeLong-Amaya, director of horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center for a virtual tour of how the Wildflower Center works to improve water quality, provide habitat for wildlife and enhance human health and happiness. Together we can make the world a better place with native plants
Breakout Session 1
§  New to Natives Track: Plant It and They Will Come: Habitat Gardening by Susan Tweit
§  In a world of climate change, droughts, heat waves, and imperiled populations of songbirds and pollinators, what can home gardeners do to make a positive difference? Plant habitat! Gardens that mimic the form and composition of nearby natural areas, and are based on native and regionally adapted species will attract and sustain songbirds and pollinators, and make a crucial difference in restoring nature in our everyday spaces. As Habitat Hero program founder Connie Holsinger likes to say, “Plant it, and they will come.” Join plant ecologist and writer Susan J. Tweit to explore how a habitat garden can fit into your landscaping, and learn what plants to use, plus design basics to draw on whatever your style or location.
§  Knows the Natives Track: Historic Uses of Colorado Native Plants by Jim Tolstrup
§  For Native Americans and early pioneers, Colorado’s native plants served as grocery store and pharmacy, and also supplied fibers and dyes. Understanding these historic relationships helps deepen our understanding of both plants and people. Join Jim Tolstrup to learn more about cultural uses of native plants, as well as how to cultivate these unique species in your yards and gardens.

Breakout Session 2
§  New to Natives Track: Integrating Native Plants to Your Existing Landscape by Ronda Koski
§  By now you are thinking that embellishment of an existing residential, commercial, or municipal landscape with Colorado native plants is the “right thing” to do. Perhaps you have your retrofitted landscape all planned in your mind and may even have drawn it out on paper. But how does one turn those ideas into reality? This session will provide you with suggestions to help you be more successful with the integration of Colorado native plants into an existing landscape.
§  Knows the Natives Track: Penstemons for Colorado Gardens by Mike Kintgen
§  Mike Kintgen is the Curator of Alpine Collections at the Denver Botanic Gardens where he oversees the Alpine Collection and eight gardens including the Rock Alpine Garden, Mount Goliath and South African Plaza. The drive to see alpines in their native environments has allowed him to observe alpines in Alaska, Hawaii, Argentina, Morocco, Spain, the Alps, and throughout the American West. Recently he completed a master’s in environmental science at Regis University exploring precipitation gradients and soil pH in Colorado’s alpine tundra. He is a coauthor of several books published by Denver Botanic Gardens.
§  With over 250 species the genus Penstemon is found in almost every environment in Colorado and Western North America. Most of the Colorado and the surrounding regions species can be grown in gardens and make excellent additions to Xeric, Native, and Rock gardens. We will cover some of the best species for Colorado gardens and some helpful hints to grow them in your gardens.

Breakout Session 3
§  New to Natives Track: Plant This, Not That: Colorado Native Plant Alternatives to Common Garden Plants by Deryn Davidson
§  Now that you know the benefits of using Colorado native plants in your landscape, how do you choose which ones to use? Selecting Colorado native plants can be challenging for gardeners because they are not familiar with their ornamental characteristics. Therefore, this session will list well-known non-native plants and then feature ideal Colorado native alternatives.
§  Knows the Natives Track: Native Grasses by Nick Daniel
§  Nick will give an overview of some well-known, and some not so well-known native grasses with horticultural importance. Using native grasses in your landscape is just as important as any other flowering plant in terms of water saving, wildlife value, and aesthetic. Cultural information and design considerations will be the focus of this presentation.

Breakout Session 4
§  New to Natives Track: Native Plants for Year-Round Interest by Irene Shonle
§  Native plants can provide interest all year round, even in winter. We will look at plants that shine in each season, and discuss many winning plant combinations as well.
§  Knows the Natives Track: Colorado Native Plants on Green Roofs? by Jennifer Bousselot
§  Colorado’s rich native flora provides a proverbial feast for green roof enthusiasts worldwide. The City of Denver has recently passed one of the most aggressive green roof initiatives in the world. You too can have a green roof – on your home or simply a birdhouse green roof. Explore the emerging topic of using native plants on green roofs with one of the worlds few green roof plant experts.

Closing Endnote: The Nature of Colorado’s Native Plant Industry: Unveiling the Mysteries Behind Supply, Demand and Selection by Pat Hayward
If the nursery industry was like manufacturing, we’d always have a good supply of the species we need; if plants were more like widgets. they’d be consistent in form and size. If our natural world was a controlled biodome, everything would grow beautifully and without losses or failures. In Colorado, however, our horticultural world is dynamic and unpredictable, making our gardening lives more “interesting,” and causing increasing challenges to our native plant industry.

In this session you’ll learn about native plant production, gain insights into demand dynamics and discover how new native plant selections come to market. What new techniques are growers using? How is consumer demand for natives changing? And why-oh-why can’t we ever get enough of the new varieties?

Hope to see you there!

Friday, November 16, 2018

Simple Composting

by Yvette Henson
I love compost!  There is nothing that I can think of that is more beneficial for soil.  And, we all know that the secret to great gardens is the soil.  While it is more difficult to compost in the mountains, it can be done.  The most common frustrations are that it breaks down more slowly in our cooler summers and it often attracts critters like bears and skunks!  However, once you have successfully made your own compost, added it to your soil and seen your plants response you will know it is worth the extra management to speed up the composting process.  If you still find it too problematic outdoors, you can build a worm-bin or some other indoor composting system. Or once you are a “true believer”, like me, you will do both!

A 3-bin composting system
Compost has many benefits.  It increases water-holding capacity of sandy soils and improves drainage of heavy (clay) soils.  It also decreases the amount of shrink-swell of clay soils.  It improves soil aeration, infiltration, tilth and structure and reduces soil compaction and water runoff.  It increases soil biota and decreases disease and insect problems.  It improves soil fertility and moderates pH.  Composting reduces the amount of waste going into our landfills.

There are also a few potential environmental risks from the composting process and overusing compost.  Unfinished or immature compost may have phytotoxins that can kill plants.  Applying too much over time can build up toxicity of certain nutrients (especially Phosphorous) in the soil.  Leachates from compost can contaminate surface water or ground water if located too close to water sources.  Odor from improper composting is the most common complaint.

Steps for simple composting:
·         Locate to get around 6 hours of sunlight a day, but some shade will keep it moist. 
·         Use an ‘ideal’ ratio of 25-30:1 carbon to nitrogen when building your pile. 
o   Carbon is dry, brown or yellow, bulky material like autumn leaves, bark, paper, wood and sawdust.  Carbon gives energy to microorganisms but too much will slow decomposition.  Nitrogen is green, moist material like grass clippings, food wastes (including coffee and tea grounds) and fresh animal manures. 
o   Nitrogen increases microorganism populations. Nitrogen materials have high moisture and low oxygen, so too much leads to low temperatures, odor and leaching. 

Nitrogen sources to layer with dried leaves,
a carbon source, to build compost pile
·         Layer your carbon and nitrogen in equal, shallow layers.  Top with a thin layer of soil or well-composted manure if desired.  Variety is the key!
·         Build your pile to at least 4-6’ high and wider.
·         Keep moist-- like a damp sponge. If it isn’t moist enough it will break down slowly.  If it is too moist it will not have enough oxygen.
·         Keep well-drained and aerated.   If your pile doesn’t get enough oxygen it will have an odor and it will break down more slowly. 
·         The best temperature range for microorganisms to do the breakdown process is 90° - 140° F.  Too cool slows decomposition; too hot kills beneficial microorganisms (but also weed seeds).
·         Turning the pile speeds up decomposition (see the following graph).
Graph from Cornell Composting Fact Sheet #5
·         You will know your compost is finished when it maintains 70 degrees and larger pieces of what you have added have ‘disappeared’.  Chunky carbon like small branches, seeds and egg shells can be screened out.  
·        Apply your compost an inch or 2 deep and work into the top 8-12” of your garden soil before planting or apply a thin layer as mulch on your perennial plantings


What about those pesky critters?
Personally, I’ve never had much problem with critters in my piles because I don’t add fruit, meat, grease or cooked food.  I save fruit for the worm bin.  I always cover my nitrogen materials, after adding them with a layer of carbon (bagged leaves or spent straw are what I usually have on hand).  Other things that might discourage critters:  use ‘bear proof’ containers for composting, electrify your compost perimeter, use repellents (hot pepper spray, etc.) and again, be sure to avoid adding meat, fish, oil, grease or dairy products and maybe egg shells.  Not adding fruit or burying it deeply in the pile is something to try too.
COMPOST HAPPENS!

Friday, November 9, 2018

Mountain Vegetable Gardening


By Ginger Baer
Every well-seasoned gardener knows that each new year is different from the last.  From variations in temperatures, to variations in moisture, wind, pests, to the variety of plants one can potentially grow.  For the non-seasoned gardener, take heart!  Every year has a new challenge, but isn’t it the challenge that keeps many of us going?

Troughs used in Community Garden
I grow at 9000’ in the Gilpin County Community Garden. As if the altitude alone is not enough of a challenge, in the growing year 2017 we had the added challenge of combating a large influx of Golden Mantled Ground Squirrels and a multitude of pocket gophers. In an effort to improve our plots in the community garden, the CSU Extension office in Gilpin County purchased some metal water troughs. These created a barrier the critters could not dig into, nor climb. And the troughs, measuring 10’ x 3’ x 2’, gave our seniors raised beds in which to garden.  Something that my knees appreciated!

As added protection for the raised bed, I also used a floating row cover.  This protected the plants from possible frost, winds and beating sun.  I made sure to keep a portion of the cover open to allow pollinators to get in. They obviously did their job as I did have a mostly successful harvest.

Since our growing season is so short (maybe 90 days if we are lucky) the common practice is to grow cold weather vegetables. Peas, greens, carrots, broccoli, radishes, turnips and such do very well.  Often a second planting of greens can produce a late season crop. It is recommended to select varieties that have the shortest number of days to maturity.

Not to be deterred by conventional wisdom, I just had to try to grow some warmer season crops.  I opted to grow summer squash, cucumbers, onions and green beans. Here is a list of what I grew (or attempted to grow) and my notes about each.

Radish French Breakfast- I love this one! It is a long cylindrical shaped radish with great spicy flavor. I will do this one again next year. I also was able to successfully plant and harvest several crops of this as it is quick to mature.

Carrot Little Finger- This is a crisp and sweet carrot. I was able to grow many up to 6' long. I think this can be attributed to growing in the trough garden.

Arugula Rocket Salad, Roquette- I love this one! Very quick to germinate and a wonderful spicy flavor. I got a successive harvest late in the season. I will do this one again.


Lettuce Salad Bowl Red, heirloom- Bright red, deeply lobed leaves with a smooth silky texture. This grew well all season without bolting. I will do this one again.

Spinach Palco Hybrid- This is a favorite variety of mine. I have had success with this one for a few years. The leaves can grow quite large, but stay tender and the ribs are even edible with a nice crunch. Very slow to bolt. I will do this one again.

Peas Sugar Ann, Snap- This is a "bush" pea that grew to about 3 ' tall. It really did not require support as I grew the plants close together so that they would support one another. My only error was growing it too close to other vegetable because the peas flopped over on top of the other things. I will grow it again, but will be more mindful of what is growing nearby. A prolific producer.

Summer Squash Grey Griller- Wow! This is a really great squash. It will give you zucchini like fruit within about 50-60 days. Large variegated leaves give the plant some interest as well. I will do this one again but do not need to have 4 plants, 2 will be enough. They took up about 25% of my trough and over produced for me. You know, close your car windows or you will get some squash from me!

Cucumber Lemon- This was what I would call a short season variety (70 days) but it did not do well for me. I only got 2 very small cucumbers from this. It could, in part, be from the squash overwhelming it, but also not suited to altitude in my experience. I also grew 1 plant in a pot on my deck and did not get but 1 cucumber to set. Some vegetables need warmer night time temperatures than what we have, and I believe that may be the case with this one.

Green Beans Denver: French/Filet- This is a lovely, slim bean that matures in about 66 days. I don't think I will do this one again though as it was slow to germinate and about the time we started getting frost only about 30% of the blossoms produced beans. They are tender and tasty, just not worth the space in my opinion.

Onion Mix: Red, White, Yellow- These were purchased randomly through the internet. I did not know if they were short day, long day or day neutral. I took a chance and planted approximately 60 sets. I feel this was a success because I was able to harvest some through the season to use as green onions for salads and then I did have a nice harvest at the end of the season of moderately sized and very flavorful onions.

In addition to growing my vegetables in the trough in the community garden I decided to give the pollinators somethings to thrive on.  In the ground next to the trough I planted Sunflowers: Florist’s Sunny Bouquet and some Cosmos. Both flowers did well at altitude and were loaded with pollinators once they started to bloom.


In another couple of months, the seed catalogs will be starting to arrive. I need to see about trying some new things, along with the tried and true.  I only hope that I have enough space to grow in, or else I may need to get a second trough!
Thank you, CSU Extension Gilpin County, for getting those troughs. They were a definite success!


Thursday, November 1, 2018

What Are Rutabagas?

Creamy mashed Rutabaga like my family makes
by Ed Powers
‘What are rutabagas?’ was the question I asked myself when introduced to this vegetable by my wife and in-laws.  They had a tradition of having rutabagas for Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, a tradition brought over from England and Canada.  I must admit, I found rutabagas to be very good and we now have them every Holiday Season. It’s like having mashed potatoes, but they are rutabagas.  In Michigan, where we lived, rutabagas were easy to find (grown in Canada and shipped in).  Here in Colorado, not so much.  So, I had to do some research to see if I might be able to grow them at my altitude (7,600’).  When doing the research, I found some interesting information.

Rutabaga’s botanical name is Brassica napobrassica, and rutabagas are only called ‘rutabaga’ in the U.S. Throughout the rest of the world, they're known as swedes. This ordinary root vegetable is thought to have originated in Bohemia in the 17th century as a hybrid between a turnip and wild cabbage. It is a large, round, yellow-fleshed root that is eaten as a vegetable.  The earliest reference in print was from 1620 when it was noted that this vegetable could be found growing wild in Sweden.  Rutabagas first appeared in North America about 1817 where they were reportedly being grown in Illinois.

Turnips (Brassica rapa) are usually white or white/purple while rutabagas are usually yellowish and brown. Rutabagas are slightly sweeter tasting than turnips, and the most obvious visible difference between them is their size. Turnips for human consumption are harvested when small and tender. They tend to get woody when bigger. Turnips are also grown as a nutritious livestock feed. Rutabagas stay tender at larger sizes. Even though you might find some small ones, they are usually harvested at a larger size. So, the big yellowish ones are rutabagas, and the smaller white and purple ones are turnips.
Physical Difference between Turnip and Rutabaga
Difference between Turnips and Rutabagas



















Rutabagas are also called Swede or Swedish turnips, yellow turnips, and "neeps." Many simply call them turnips. Best of all, turnips and rutabagas are easy to grow, and store, and are relatively pest-free.  Much of the crop's success depends on timing.

Rutabagas grown in raised gardens 
So, after finding this background information, I went on to learn how to grow them. What I needed to do is to sow a spring crop in early March 1/4 inch deep. Seeds may be broadcast and later thinned to three or four inches apart, or they can be planted in rows 18 or more inches apart. Give rutabaga plants six inches in which to grow.  I followed this planting routine for the first time in Colorado last spring.  Even though it was very dry this year I watered every other day.  The leaves grew huge and seem to cover the garden area.  I did not believe it was growing anything.  However, I harvested the second week in October and I had rutabagas anywhere from 3 to 6 inches.  So, we can grow them at our altitude!  We will be planting them again next year.

References: 
The spruceeats.com
Organicfacts.net
Michigan State University
Pictures Courtesy of:
Tablescence .com
Live and Learn-Toss and Turn
Mygourmetconnection.com

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Why do we Garden?

Nature's garden
For this blog post, I would like to consider the big picture of why we are drawn to gardening.  Taoist created gardens to improve human health, and in Mesopotamia the land was used as it was found, with hillsides, depressions, streams, paths and canals incorporated into the garden's plan.  A 17th century guide advises readers to ‘spare time in the garden…. there is no better way to preserve your health’.  Since the beginning of time, nature has been used for its restorative value. 
Many contemporary studies show the direct positive impact nature has on humans.  It has been proven many times that nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, it contributes to your physical well-being (reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones).  In one study, patients in a hospital healed faster on the side that had a view to a natural space.  Findings have become so convincing that some mainstream health care providers have begun to promote nature therapy for illness and disease prevention.


‘Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better’. Albert Einstein
Connecting to Nature
Looking ahead, looking behind. 
How do you connect to nature?
Although we are part of nature, many in modern society are quite removed. We’ve become dependent on technology, removed from our senses or intuition.  People swirl unconsciously around their busy lives, oblivious to the natural world or where their sustenance comes from.  By spending time in nature improve our well-being, connect to that which gives us life and release pent up hormones and energy.  For example, when we lack serotonin (those feel good hormones) we are subject to depression. You can increase the serotonin in your brain by getting your hands dirty, getting in contact with the soil (and a soil bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae).  Feel better by playing in the dirt, this is where gardening comes in.
We don’t need to go deep into the wilderness to gain benefit from nature, often just out the back door. Nature provides answers, things to contemplate and learn, gets us curious and involved.  Consider the pine out back, can you appreciate its shade and the many winters it has withstood?  Be fascinated by how a little seed can metamorphosize into an edible plant...Observe how you feel the changing seasons…Be curious about the microbes affecting the character of the soil.  This is nature connection, this is when we are open to learning, growing and expanding. 
Nature's art...What can we learn to add to our garden?
The sights, smells, and sounds of the garden promote relaxation and reduce stress.  Observe the development of your plants, listen for the sounds of the wind and birds, appreciate the fragrance or texture of a plant.  And, what better way to take care of your body then to get stronger, or breathe harder, doing chores that come with having a yard and garden?  Makes 'exercise' much easier when you benefit in other ways!
From the National Garden Bureau, here are additional benefits of gardening-
* Garden for Exercise Get a good workout without even thinking about it.  Gardening can help reduce osteoporosis, strengthen or stretch muscles. And, after you're finished, you see immediate results in your garden as your physical health improves.
* Garden to add Beauty A house with a nice yard is a pleasure to look at and satisfying to live in. Think of the garden as another room to be enjoyed whether you are inside or outside.
* Garden to Learn Gardeners find that the more they learn about plants and gardening, the more they want to know. Gardening provides an outlet for creative and artistic expression.
* Garden for fresh, healthy Produce The satisfaction of nurturing and developing something for sustenance.  The food you grow yourself is the freshest you can eat.
Heart rocks in the natural landscape
* Garden for emotional needs and spiritual connections Gardens play an important part in our well-being. A garden might serve as a tranquil retreat or private escape from the demands of everyday life. The beauty of flowers can lift spirits, while pulling weeds can be a great release for stress and excess energy. A harvest of colorful flowers or tasty vegetables provides a sense of achievement and feelings of success.  On a higher level, gardening provides a spiritual connection to life. It's a miracle to take a tiny seed, nurture it, and watch it grow into a beautiful flower or delicious food for your table. Tending a garden also contributes to improving your own living space, the environment and our planet (from Why Garden? The National Garden Bureau's Top Ten Reasons).
So, why might you spend time in the garden?  Just by enhancing our awareness about why we garden may, in turn, increase our enjoyment and appreciation for the effort we put forward.  So, get out and play in the dirt, allow yourself to feel fascinated with the process of life, knowing we are part of all of this.  Gardening may be your therapy leading you toward a happier and healthier life. 
Joelle Dunaetz has a background in landscape design, wellness coaching and supporting people in getting out in nature. She enjoys educating people on how increase awareness, appreciate life and make healthy choices for their well-being and the well-being of the planet.  She also spends time at the Gilpin County Extension office and tinkers in her own garden.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

My Experience Counting Bees – Become a Citizen Scientist


by Jay Johnson
If you are an active gardener who loves growing all kinds of produce, or if you love to grow flowers and want to help support a national project as a citizen scientist and learn about the kind of native bees, bumblebees and other pollinators that may visit your garden, then you may find the following fun, useful and interesting. Or, if you are interested in science and the plight of bees and are thinking about starting a garden, I recommend you investigate a project I recently joined.

Bee's eye view
My journey started this year on one of my regular visits to the library, visits that include reading Horticulture. I live in Meeker, Colorado and am fortunate enough that they carry the magazine. In the March/April 2018 issue of Horticulture, the cover caught my eye: a picture of 2 sunflowers and the caption, “Be a Citizen Scientist in The Great Sunflower Project”. Intrigued, I checked out the magazine.

The Great Sunflower Project (GSP) was started by researcher Dr. Gretchen LeBuhn (LeBuhn) of San Francisco State University. At first LeBuhn wanted to find out the state of native bees (over 4,000) in the United States and Canada. The article continues to say she wanted to focus on bees since bees are queens of pollination and little is known how they are doing. With one research project being able to only focus on a small area at any time, she created the GSP.

The basis of the GSP is to count pollinator visits per hour per flower on the same kind of plant across the country. LeBuhn chose to focus on sunflowers because they are easy to grow and are visited by many kinds of pollinators. Some of the visitors are the most interesting in the bee world, in particular those in the genus Melissodes. The male has long antennae, and they are called long-horned bees.

The GSP began in 2008, when LeBuhn sent an email to people in the southeastern U.S. asking them to plant specifically ‘Lemon Queen’ sunflowers. LeBuhn didn’t ask them to be scientists such as an entomologist; they simply needed to be able to count. Therefore, anyone can join the project. I myself do not have entomological experience, but I love to grow flowers, though I hadn’t ever successfully grown sunflowers before 2018.

Honey bee, species unknown
A critical part of the GSP is growing the correct variety of ‘Lemon Queen’ sunflowers, of which there are two. The one needed for this project is an annual, a cultivar of Helianthus annuus. Also critical to the project is that neither the seeds nor the plants are treated with pesticides. They should also be neonicotinoid-free.

 If you are interested in the project, there are 3 seeds companies I would trust to provide the correct kind of seed: Botanical Interests, Beauty Beyond Belief (BBB Seed) and Baker Creek Heirloom Seed (Rare Seeds). Botanical Interests has a bit of information on the GSP on the back of the ‘Lemon Queen’ sunflower seed packet. I am also willing to share seeds with anyone interested in the project.

Bumblebee, species unknown
Armed with the seed buying information, I set out to participate in the project. I ordered seed and shared with friends who either were willing to plant the sunflowers for the project or were just interested in growing the flowers. Fortunately, I was able to secure an extra plot at the Meeker Community Garden just for the sunflowers and planted in the June time frame. As of the date of writing this article, September 8th, 2018, I have been counting bees since August. I started on August 26th, 2018 and have counted 9 times so far. Though I haven’t been able to identify individual species to this point, I’ve noted mostly bumblebees, honeybees and other types of bee visitors.

The user friendly GSP website (http://www.greatsunflower.org) is where you go to submit your data, once you have registered.  Data to record includes: counts, plant species (as other flowers may be used if they meet certain criteria), number of flowers on the spike/bunch, date, time of day, number of minutes counted and name of pollinator only if certain of the name. The website also has tools to help you identify species if you are interested, as well as other information related to the project.

Sleeping bee
Overall, this has been a very fun and positive experience for me.  I would kindly ask you to join me this year if you have flowers that meet the criteria, or join me in 2019. It is a wonderful opportunity to learn and teach someone of any age about sunflowers and native bees. Happy gardening!

About Jay Johnson:
·         -  I grew up in North Dakota and moved to Colorado in 2007.
· I work in Natural Resource Management.
·  I took the Master Gardener training through CSU Extension in 2017