Thursday, August 16, 2018

Currant Appeal

by Vicky Barney

The berry shrubs are loaded with fruit this year, most noticeably the serviceberry, whose branches are drooping under the weight.  In the wild and in my yard, I’m looking forward to watching the berries disappear and will be paying particular attention to my currants.

Golden Currant
Currants (Ribes spp.) are deciduous shrubs with 3-5 lobed leaves and edible tart fruit historically used by Native Americans for food and medicinal purposes.   In my yard, two shrubs have the distinctive leaves and berries, and similar looking arching branches.  Their pea sized berries are growing in small clusters, each with a “pigtail” which is the remnant of its flower.  Both shrubs are thorn less, drought tolerant, and, to date, of no interest to deer, moose, or bear.  But the shrubs have some differences that lead me to think they are different varieties of currant. 

On the east side of my yard, a small currant shrub is growing.  About 3 feet in size, it is has pretty bright green 5 lobed leaves and arching branches.  The spring flowers are inconspicuous but the berries are beautiful this time of year: bright red and clustered.  They are also tasteless.  I believe the shrub is a variety of the non-native Red currant (Ribes rubrum).

Red Currant
Red currant is native to Europe and has been widely cultivated, both for fruit production and for landscaping purposes.  It prefers cool soil temperatures with full sun and fertile loamy soil.  My red currant is planted in a partly sunny area and is growing at a pleasant pace. It might produce flavorful berries if the shrub received more sunshine, water, and fertilizer, or it may be an ornamental variety with berries designed for looks rather than taste.

On the west side of my yard, the currant shrub is much larger (over 6 feet tall).  It produced numerous fragrant, trumpet shaped yellow flowers in mid-May, providing early season food for pollinators.  I believe it is Golden currant (Ribes aureum), a native to most of North America.  Once the flowers faded, the shrub blended into the landscape with its bright green 3 lobed leaves.  Inconspicuous berries appeared recently, orange at first and then turning black. The berries are quite tart and are disappearing, likely feeding the birds.

Golden Currant
Golden currant prefers well drained soil in sun to part shade.  My shrub is situated on a slope that receives midday sun and very little water.  For a time, I aggressively pruned the sprawling shrub to allow the sun to shine on other plants.  It responded well to the pruning and became more attractive.  In fact, some currants grow better with regular pruning of older branches.  I also discovered the shrub spreads by rhizomes, sending up shoots in the neighborhood and forcing me to continually evaluate the size of my currant “patch.”

In our area, the Red currant is a more attractive and easier shrub to grow, but it appears to have no wildlife visitors – no pollinators and no one eating the berries.  Conversely, the native Golden currant, with its early flowers and little tart berries, has been humming with activity and loses berries every day.  For that reason, periodic pruning and keeping its spread in check is worth the effort, and watching both shrubs over the next few months to see who comes to visit will be quite interesting.

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

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Sharing my garden


by Vicky Barney
There’s something magical about seeing butterflies and hummingbirds feasting on flower nectar, or watching birds foraging for berries.  Observing a bear, moose, or deer browsing on aspen or berries is a real treat.  But when their browsing removes the flowers intended for pollinators or the berries for the birds, or when all the strawberries disappear from the carefully tended patch, the magic is gone. My “gardening for wildlife” strategy needs some work.

Butterfly visiting garden
My yard is surrounded by native shrubs and trees and was an attractive feature when purchasing the house several years ago.  I imagined watching wildlife pass through the yard from one wild space to the next, stopping to nibble aspen volunteers or newly planted native bushes. The plan was to create a place where wildlife would linger, preferably while I was watching.  Red-osier dogwood was planted (deer and elk’s “ice cream bush,” says Karen Vail in Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Southern Rockies), grassy spots were encouraged, and game trail openings were preserved.   Success!  Deer and moose have been observed, sometimes eating and resting for long periods.  Bears have also been observed munching on native berries just beyond the tended yard.

Recently, though, visitors have come through after dark, pruning flowers, pulling up newly planted pansies and devouring my small crop of strawberries covered by bird netting.  They are welcome but I prefer they browse along their path, the one lined with tasty native bushes and flowers.  The wildlife – deer, I presume - have other ideas.

Deer candy
But is it deer in the strawberry patch?  There is no evidence they have browsed there – no prints and no torn leaves.  In fact, the patch looks untouched except for the missing berries.  Early one morning I frightened a flock of birds and realized they are the culprits.  They have learned to pluck the berries out of the netting that deterred them last season, and they have a quick getaway now that the nearby bushes have grown.

The more worrisome browsers in my yard are the deer.  They consume pretty blossoms, leaving behind shorn branches and torn leaves.  To be sure there is enough forage left over for butterflies and birds, I need to make a few changes.

Garden Design - Small modifications in design may discourage undesirable behavior.  For example, cutting back the bushes near the strawberry patch – reducing the birds’ safety zone – may reduce bird activity.  Moving the pansy pots onto the patio may discourage browsing, but some wildlife may to take a liking to the patio.  Another option is to surround pansies and other “deer candy” with less palatable plants.
Sharing the garden
Plant Selection - If hungry enough, wildlife will eat any plant.  There are a number of attractive plants, though, that are rarely browsed.  They include tough xeric plants (black-eyed susans and purple coneflower), fragrant plants (lavender, thyme, and Russian sage), fuzzy plants (lambs ear and lady’s mantle), and spiny or bristly plants (oriental poppies, rugosa roses, and oregon grape).  See CSU Extension Fact Sheet # 6.520 – Preventing Deer Damage for more plant ideas.

Garden management - According to Ruth Rogers Clausen in 50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants, gardeners should cut back on nitrogen fertilizer and water, ingredients for a lush and soft garden that deer prefer.  As the weather becomes dryer, deer also seek out moisture in newly watered plants, so irrigation should be timed such that plants are dry before dawn and dusk, times when most browsing occurs. 

Other ways to deter unwanted wildlife included the use of repellents and netting, but they are effective for only for brief periods of time.  Wind chimes and barking dogs may frighten off deer but will likely annoy the neighbors.  Of course, tall fencing is the best deterrent, but not suitable for my yard. 

With a few small changes in design, plant selection, and management, sharing my garden all season with all of nature may be possible. I hope so.

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


Thursday, August 2, 2018

Verbascum

Verbascum thapus (Common Mullein, noxious!)

by Cherie Luke
The genus Verbascum has some good garden plants and one noxious weed that should never be planted.  Verbascum thapus, also known as common mullein, is a member of the Scrophulariaceae, figwort family. Currently Verbascum thapus is on the “C” list of Noxious Weeds of Colorado.  This means it is already widespread throughout the state, and should at least be suppressed when possible. It is a biennial that reproduces by seed that can live up to 80 years. It is native to Asia but it is thought that it got here by way of Europe.


It has long furry leaves and a tall yellow flower stalk. It is well known among herbalists. Mullein tea is a treatment for respiratory problems such as asthma, bronchitis, and chest colds. Because it is a noxious weed, one can harvest unlimited quantities, but be sure that they have not been sprayed. The roots and seeds of this plant are toxic and should never be used for any reason.

Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Polarsommer’
Because of Verbascum’s  stately presence many people admire this plant. There  are about 300 species of Verbascum and some are considered “well behaved” in the home garden. There are some growing at Denver Botanic Gardens such as Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Polarsommer’, Arctic Summer Mullein.
Verbascum olympicum, Olympic Mullein
There was a Verbascum ‘Southern Charm’ that I found for sale at the May, Denver Botanic Gardens plant sale this year in the “Grown at the Garden” section that is describes as being pastel shades of lavender, buff, cream, and rose. The plant tag says full sun, dry to medium well drained soil, drought tolerant, zone 5-8, so I'm giving it a try. 
Verbascum ‘Southern Charm’ 
With so many beautiful and stately Verbascum’s available, there may be one that is just right for your own garden – except for the noxious weed!