Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Mountain Gardening Tips and Tricks

This week on Salida Yard & Garden, a meeting of the minds: guest Gilpin County Extension Director Irene Shonle and host Chaffee County Extension Director Kurt Jones share their "Mountain Gardening Tips and Tricks." Also in this episode, an unintentional poem from Irene:
"There is no use
In shooing off a moose."

Friday, November 17, 2017

Composting yard waste

Kurt M. Jones
Chaffee County Extension Director

               As our gardening season comes to an end, rather than throwing away plant waste, many gardeners will compost those materials and help to improve their soils for future years.
               Composting is an accelerated way to reduce the volume of organic wastes and return them to the soil to benefit growing plants.  Organic matter improves the drainage and aeration of clay soil.  Compost can be thought of as a separator that “shoulders apart” tightly packed clay particles to allow air and water to enter.  Compost also helps sandy soil hold water and nutrients.  Compost holds moisture like a sponge and releases nutrients slowly into plants as needed.  It also increases the activity of earthworms and other natural soil organisms that are beneficial to plant growth.  Compost should not be thought of as a fertilizer.  The amount of nutrients in compost is limited, but the improved soil characteristics make the addition of compost into garden or flower beds worth the effort.
            Choose your composting site carefully.  Partial shading avoids the baking and drying in summer but provides some solar heating to start the composting process.  A site protected from drying winds prevents too much moisture loss.  Choose a site that is close to where the composted materials will be used, but not highly visible or one that interferes with yard activities.
            Structures are not necessary for composting, but prevent wind and marauding animals from spreading plant waste.  Structures are also more aesthetically pleasing for your family and neighbors.  The structure should be large enough to handle the amount of yard waste you are likely to produce, yet small enough to be able to mix the contents and remove the composted materials.  A suggested minimum size is 36 inches by 36 inches by 36 inches high.  Some better insulated wood or plastic structures can hold sufficient heat at smaller volumes.
            The breakdown of organic yard wastes is a biological process dependent on microorganism activity.  Like most living things, these microbes require favorable temperatures, moisture, oxygen, and nutrients.
            Plant digesting microbes operate in a temperature range of 70 degrees F to 140 degrees F.  Well-managed compost breaks down rapidly at internal temperatures between 120 degrees to 130 degrees F.  During the winter months, microbial activity is slowed, thereby slowing the composting process.
            Probably the toughest balance to maintain in Colorado’s climate is the moisture and oxygen balance.  Moisture must be added to compost piles to maintain optimal microbial activity.  Too much moisture, however, will limit the amount of oxygen causing the compost to have a foul odor and to not break down.  The best description of the proper moisture level is “moist” or “damp” but not “soggy.”  The entire mass of plant waste should be moistened uniformly to the point where only a few drops of water can be squeezed from a fistful of plant material.
            The microbes that break down plants use the plants for food.  Nitrogen is the most important nutrient.  A shortage of nitrogen in the composting materials greatly slows the process.  Green plant materials fortunately contain a high percentage of nitrogen.  Other sources of nitrogen include animal waste, granular fertilizer, or bloodmeal.  Carbon is also an important nutrient in the composting process.  Sources of carbon include woody materials, fallen leaves, shredded newspaper and animal bedding.
            Smaller particle sizes greatly enhance the composting process.  Plant pieces of ½ to 1-1/2 inches are ideal, allowing sufficient surface area for microbial activity.  These different plant materials should be layered in the composting structure in 6-8 inch layers.  Use equal parts of green plant materials (nitrogen source) and dry plant materials (carbon source).  Some soil can be added to the compost pile to inoculate the pile, but research has shown that too much soil can hinder the composting process.  “Soilless” composting is an effective means of breaking down plant materials.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Columbine - official state flower of Colorado

By Ed Powers

I have lived from east coast to west coast and North to south of the US before settling in Colorado.  I have chosen some favorite flowers during that time and the top of the list is Columbine.  They are the the most delicate, beautiful and hardy flower that I have grown.  They grow almost anywhere -- and self seed at a fast pace.  They make any space beautiful, in my opinion.   So you can imagine the excitement I felt when we decided to move to Colorado where we find one of the most, if not the most, beautiful varieties of Columbine in nature: the white and lavender Rocky Mountain Columbine.

A cluster of columbine near Silverthorne at 14000 feet
It was designated the official state flower of Colorado in 1899 after winning the vote of Colorado's school children. Discovered in 1820 on Pike's Peak by mountain climber Edwin James, the Rocky Mountain columbine ( Aquilegia caerulea) is a lovely flower with a rich aroma to attract bees, hummingbirds and butterflies to its nectar. The Latin word aquila means "Eagle" and refers to the claw-like spurs at the base of the flower.
There are another  65-70 species of columbines (Aquilegia) in the world, all native to temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. Many of the taller species inhabit meadows or open woodlands, with some extending into the alpine zone. In the garden, they are carefree plants that simply require well-drained soil and regular watering during dry spells. They are all late spring-early summer bloomers. Many of the species about to be described are not available at local nurseries, but are often found among offerings of mail-order specialist nurseries or as seed from seed exchanges. However, a word of warning; columbines are promiscuous and will hybridize with blooming neighbours so seeds from exchanges may end up being hybrids. If growing from seed, provide the sown seeds with a stratification period of 4-6 weeks to simulate a winter, or sow outside in the fall. All of these species are hardy to USDA zone 5 and several are hardy to zone 3.
The white and lavender Rocky Mt. Columbine has blue-violet petals and spurs, a white cup and yellow center. Blue is a symbol of the sky, white represents snow, and yellow symbolizes Colorado's gold mining history. However it is threatened by collectors who want it for their rock gardens. A law was enacted in 1925 to protect this rare & delicate flower. The Colorado General Assembly wisely made it illegal to uproot the flower on public lands and the gathering of blossoms and buds is limited (and on most public lands, not permitted at all). It also may not be picked on private land without the consent of the landowner.
A cluster of columbine at 9,000 feet
I enjoy seeing these columbine flower so much that I have taken many pictures of them above 9000 ft in the Ouray, Colorado area over the last 3 summers, including the ones in this article.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Extending the growing season

Kurt Jones
County Extension Director

Our cats are always in a big hurry to get outside in the mornings, but have become a bit more hesitant in the past couple of weeks as the nighttime temperatures have been falling.  Probably more important than our cats’ comfort, is protecting the vegetable garden plants during these periods of cooler weather.

There are two types of frost that can affect our garden plants.  Advective frosts occur when a cold front comes through an area, causing temperatures to fall significantly below threshold levels.  Typically, our efforts to protect sensitive plants against advective frosts leave the gardener frustrated.  Last Saturday night (in Salida), we suffered from a radiation frost.  These frosts occur during calm, cool nights.  In mountain areas, our temperature inversions (cold air trapped in mountain valleys) can cause radiation frost damage to plants.  Frost protection is warranted in these scenarios, as temperatures tend to be just a few degrees below thresholds, and good soil warming occurs before and after frosts.

Some of the sensitive warm season plants (those needing protection first) include tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, winter squash and pumpkins.  Less sensitive warm-season plants include beans, corn, cucumbers, and summer squash.

When protecting warm-season vegetables from frost damage, the idea is to allow the soil to warm during the day, then insulate the plants during the night so radiated heat is trapped around plants and does not escape.  It is important to insure that the frost protection (plastic, blankets, etc.) do not touch the plants, rather that it floats above the plants.  The warm soil is the heat source at night.

Tomatoes are always of concern as our weather changes.  As the season draws to a close, many green tomatoes will still be on the vine. With a little effort, a temporary plastic greenhouse may be constructed over the plants to extend the season. Support the plastic so it doesn't touch the foliage. Ventilate to prevent excess buildup of heat during the day. Later, when frosts occur regularly, there will not be enough ground heat to prevent freezing within the shelter. At this time, harvest the remaining fruit, individually wrap it in newspaper, and store it in a cool place. As needed, fruit may be unwrapped and placed on a window sill to ripen.

Adventurous gardeners may enjoy having a cold frame to help with early season gardening and extending the fall growing season.  Facing the cold frame South with plastic, glass or plexiglass will provide good passive solar heating.  I lined our cold frame on the North side with gallon-sized plastic bottles filled with bleach water to help collect that solar energy and dissipate it throughout the cold frame as ambient air temperatures fall.  Putting in two tablespoons of chlorinated bleach discourages bacterial growth in the stagnant water in the jugs.  Paint the gallon jugs flat black to aid in solar heating.