Thursday, July 26, 2018

Paint my Garden Purple

by Vicky Barney
Unintentionally, my garden is a sea of purple flowers.  The flowers are blooming on a few natives and a non-native, all in shades of purple and all in bloom at the same time.  Before now, I would have thought that a garden of only purple flowers would be rather boring, but it is quite striking.

The wildflowers in bloom are Showy Daisy (Erigeron speciosus) and Rocky Mountain Penstemon (Penstemon strictus).  A few Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) are scattered about as well.  The non-native plant is the Clustered Bellflower (Campanula glomerata).  The last was a surprise; its roots were intermingled with clumps of daylilies from a friend’s garden.  All are perennials, all have been spreading for the past few years, and each complements the others in appearance.

Showy Daisy, also called Showy Fleabane or Aspen Daisy, grows from 1 to 3 feet tall and produces 1-10 small flowers that perch on top of each stem.  With yellow centers and numerous thin petals ranging in color from pink to blue to lavender, the flowers are a nice landing spot for a variety of insects including butterflies.  It thrives in moist areas and aspen groves in the Rocky Mountains, as well as in xeric gardens.  The native has naturalized in my garden, blooming in swaths of lavender in sunny and partly shady locations, and may rebloom if deadheaded, but I’ve not had firsthand experience yet.

Rocky Mountain Penstemon is another native that thrives in our area.  Like the Showy Daisy, it grows tall, is happy in both sun and part shade, is drought tolerant, and spreads easily.  It’s striking blue-purple tubular flowers bloom up sturdy stalks and are frequented by bees and hummingbirds.  It spreads by seed and now blankets several of my flowerbeds.

Harebell, the smallest of my purple bloomers, appears here and there in my garden and will continue to bloom all summer long.  It has blue-lavender bell shaped flowers on thin stems that grow to about a foot tall.  Native to the Northern Hemisphere, it is also called Bluebell.  It will grow in sunny and shady areas, in dry to moist conditions, and reseeds readily.  It sometimes surprises me with white blooms.

The non-native purple flower I’ve inadvertently planted is also a bluebell and is called Clustered Bellflower.  It is the showiest of the bunch, its stem growing up to 2 feet tall and the deep purple bell shaped flowers forming a colorful ball on top.  The Clustered Bellflower has found a welcome spot in my garden – a sunny location that was irrigated for a time for the naturalizing daylilies – and is spreading by rhizome among the daylilies and in the grass nearby.  The daylilies keep the heavy flower heads upright and appear to be keeping the invasive plant in check.  Although not native, the flowers are regularly perused by bees and other insects, and it continues to thrive in the sunny location with minimal irrigation.  Its flowers are suitable for cutting.

My purple garden has been delightful, tranquil yet humming with pollinator activity.  I will be sad to see it disappear.   Yet the process has begun, with the purple color fading and flowers in other colors starting to bloom.  In no time, though, with a little added water and more summer sunshine, my garden will take on a new identity with new colors and textures to enjoy.  It’s a wonderful time of year in the garden.

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

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Planting that Birthday Tree

by Kurt M. Jones
Chaffee County Extension Director
Sitting here on my back porch, looking past the potted rosemary and basil, I can see my son’s birthday tree in the back corner.  Grandpa and Grandma bought us a birthday tree in celebration of our son’s first birthday.  With an extension agent son-in-law, I’d better have planted it correctly!

Planting a tree correctly actually starts with tree selection.  We purchased a Colorado Blue Spruce for a couple of reasons.  First was because of our son’s being enamored with our tree during the holidays last December.  Second, this tree fit into our landscape plans well.  Finally, it is one of Dad’s favorites.  I almost forgot, be sure to call for utility locates a minimum of 3 business days prior to digging.  It is a free service, and it is the law!  Simply call 811 to begin the process.
After looking at the available trees in the nursery, I chose one that had a couple of features that I was interested in.  First, I was looking for a tree that had good shape, and more importantly, one “leader” branch that was vertical.  I was also looking at the root ball for two items: ease of handling without a tractor, and the presence of stabilizing roots in the top 2 inches of the rooting soil.  Roots that are deeper in the ball or potted tree have the danger of being planted too deeply, lessening the chances of establishment or long-term survivability.  The tree that I chose was one that was potted (rather than ball-and-burlap) so that I could move it through our fence with a furniture moving hand cart.  Larger B&B tree stock often requires specialized equipment to move due to the weight and rounded shape.  One drawback of potted trees can be the lack of root ball as compared with the size of the tree, so extra care may be needed to establish a potted tree as compared with B&B trees of similar height.
Digging a largesaucer shaped hole
After getting the tree home, it is time to locate it and dig the hole.  We chose a location that will allow for mature size of the tree.  It is also relatively level, and it is in a location that we can regularly irrigate year-round.  Many of the tree problems that I have seen this year can be attributed to our dry fall and early winter, necessitating year-round irrigation once the tree is established and during tree establishment.
The hole that I dug was saucer-shaped.  I dug it 2 inches shallower than the height of the tree ball, and the edges were 3 times the diameter of the root ball.  Yes, a big hole.  Tree roots will grow primarily in the top 12 inches of soil (rather than developing “tap roots”) and spread laterally from the base of the tree.  The depth is dependant upon the available moisture and oxygen levels in the soil; too shallow and there is inadequate moisture, too deep and oxygen levels diminish. 
Why the saucer shape?  Researchers have found that in some cases, tree roots can turn upon themselves when faced with a vertical soil texture change (like those faced with the conventional tree holes with vertical sides taught years ago).  Saucer-shaped holes lessen the likelihood of tree roots turning on themselves, eventually girdling the tree as they mature.  Digging the hole larger has been shown to increase root biomass eight times over similar trees with holes dug to fit the root ball.
Planting a tree can be a family activity
After digging the hole, I removed the plastic container and the burlap that was also present.  Though burlap will eventually degrade, I did not want it wicking moisture away from the tree roots or interfering with root establishment until it degraded.  My preference is to remove as much foreign material (wire cages, burlap, strings, pots) as possible when planting trees.
When I got the tree upright in the hole, I began backfilling.  I did not use any amended soil in my backfill, instead I planted the tree in an amended location.  Tree roots spread laterally from the base, so amendment is best accomplished throughout the rooting zone, not just in the backfilled hole.  I also water-packed the backfilled hole, rather than tamping or stomping in the soil around the tree roots.  My purpose in digging a large hole was to avoid soil compaction, so I will avoid activities that contribute to soil compaction around the tree.
Growing evergreens
Finally, I drove some wooden stakes through the root ball into the undisturbed soil underneath to help stabilize the tree during periods of higher winds.  Because this is a special tree to our family, I wanted to use underground stabilization rather than straps, wire and T-posts to hold it in place.  If you choose to do wrapping around the tree to stabilize it, make sure you use straps designed for that purpose, and remove the stabilization materials after the tree is established (approximately 1 year later).  I had the unfortunate opportunity to see some established trees planted about 8 years ago that succumbed to the girdling effects of tree wraps (lengths of garden hose with wire inside).  I also mulched the entire area of disturbed soil to help hold moisture and reduce weed establishment.
Though I did not use any, many people believe that root stimulation hormones should be used.  Though research is conflicted about using root stimulator, it does not harm the tree and may help with speeding up root establishment.  One practice that should not be used is nitrogen-based fertilization.  The goal after transplanting trees is to establish tree roots rather than producing tree branch growth.  Nitrogen fertilization during the first growing season has been shown to reduce root growth.  Finally, I watered the tree ball and surrounding soil.
The simple act of planting a tree.  It is a practice that has many opinions, but for our family, planting a “First Birthday Tree” is a neat tradition that I was proud to be a part of.  For more information about tree planting or care, contact your extension agent or the Chaffee County Extension office at 719-539-6447 or visit us online at

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Why some weeds are slated for eradication

by Irene Shonle CSU Extension Gilpin County
Why are there some weeds, such as List A noxious weeds myrtle spurge, orange hawkweed, and others, required by state law to be eradicated?  The answer is long and complicated. First, we must start with what makes a weed a noxious weed – it is a plant that is alien (not from this country) that has been shown to cause problems in natural or agricultural settings. To be declared noxious, they have to be proven bad actors, and only after scientists have reviewed the data, and it has passed through a legislative process. It is not just “someone’s” opinion.  Because these weeds are not from here, they do not deal with the same suite of insects and diseases that our native plants have to deal with, so they have a competitive advantage. They usually have a nasty tendency to form monocultures and crowd out native plants. This is certainly the case with myrtle spurge (and most other noxious weeds); if it is left alone, it will take over large areas over time.  

Hillside filled with myrtle spurge, a List A noxious weed
Next, we must look at the relative benefit to the ecosystem of native plants and alien plants.  Doug Tallamy, a professor from the University of Delaware (author of Bringing Nature Home), has been studying how native plants support the entire food chain and how alien plants do so to a much lesser degree.  His definition of a native plant is a functional one: "a plant that has evolved in a particular place long enough to be able to establish the specialized relationships that create an ecosystem".  Noxious weeds, by virtue of being alien, are newcomers to the area, and do not have these relationships.

Natives in nature
Native plants provide the bottom of the food chain, and the insects that eat the plants are the next rung – but they can’t eat just any plant. According to Tallamy, "with few exceptions, only insect species that have shared a long evolutionary history with a particular plant lineage have developed the physiological adaptations required to digest the chemicals in their host’s leaves. They have specialized over time to eat only the plants sharing those particular chemicals." Alien plants like noxious weeds do not have the chemical footprint in their leaves that spells ‘food’ for most insects.

One of the reasons we are seeing a sad decline in bird populations (overall, 40 percent of the world’s 11,000 bird species are in decline, according to the 2018 State of the World’s Birds report) is because so many of our plants around us are now not native – either noxious weeds or beloved garden plants. Almost all birds, even if the adults are seed eaters or fruit eaters, require thousands of insects to raise even one clutch of birds.

Myrtle Spurge up close,
Colorado List A noxious weed
Weeds such as myrtle spurge may have pollinator visitation, but they occupy space that would otherwise be used by native plants which provide pollinator services AND are host plants for many different insects.  Also, research from the Xerces Society shows that native plants are four times more likely to attract native bees than exotics – and native bees are also suffering declines, even though the non-native honeybees get all the press. So, while it may seem on the surface that removing one plant would reduce biodiversity (we all know basic subtraction, right?), the natives do a much better job of supporting the myriad insects and birds that depend on them.  In fact, Tallamy’s research shows alien plants support 29 times less biodiversity than do native plants.

Orange Hawkweed, Colorado List A noxious weed
The next question is why does the law state that list A weeds must be eradicated? This is because these weeds have relatively small populations so far in the state. That means we should not have to expend a lot of time and effort in bringing these weeds under control if we act now. It also means that we probably don’t have to do a great deal of remediation afterwards, because their populations aren’t that large; the native vegetation will be able to take over again with little to no intervention. We don’t want to leave pockets of these weeds around, because those populations would spread into new areas (they are weeds, after all), and weed managers would continuously have to be putting out these small (or sometimes large) fires. Sure, we could wait until a weed like myrtle spurge gets as bad here as it is in Utah: “we waited too long and this thing is now incredibly entrenched, and there just doesn’t seem to be an answer,” according to Utah Native Plant Society’s Tony Frates in reference to the huge monocultures that have formed in the Wasatch. Then we would have lost our window of opportunity.  
Example of garden with native plants

List A weeds are sort of like a disease – in a perfect world, we would be able to completely eradicate diseases such as we have done with small pox, rather than dealing with the trauma and loss of life of epidemics, and rather than continuously having to vaccinate against them.  If we can deal with these weeds now while their populations are still small, we don’t have to worry about them coming back, and we can spend time and energy on either dealing with some of the other weeds, or habitat restoration, or some other productive use. That is why some weeds are required by law to be eradicated.

Irene Shonle is the County Extension Agent at the CSU Gilpin County Extension Office located at the Exhibit Barn in Gilpin County.  For more information, visit

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Yikes! My garden grew too big! What to do?

by Nan Porter
Yard with flowers and rocks
I started my garden many years ago when there was a 20 to 30 minute rain practically every afternoon.  I would expand every summer with more wildflowers and perennials.  The garden grew and grew and grew.  Then the rains stopped and I had to water by hand since we are in the country on a well. The ground around my flowers is rock hard since I only watered the plants individually.  That took about 2-3 hours every other day. I weeded, and weeded and weeded. Oh, and I got a horse that I wanted to ride.  Hmm, should I pull weeds or go ride my horse?

I had to figure out what to do.  I didn’t want to kill my sparse flowers that were significantly getting even sparser the drier the climate got.  I had used river rocks for borders.  I love rocks, collected them on walks, vacations, even got a ton for a Mother’s Day present a few years ago! 

River rock and flagstone
The answer to my dilemma: ROCKS!   I decided to fill in the borders with more river rocks. Then I decided to add rocks where there were bare or weed infested spots.  At first I only wanted river rocks, but they didn’t cover much ground.  My husband decided to jack hammer up some big rocks buried in the ground in a small pasture.  I used all the jagged pieces from the project.  I continued to look for river rocks to put in the flower garden.

Then my husband decided to make flagstone steps and there were pieces left over.  The leftover flagstone covered way more ground than the river rocks. Flagstone joined the river rocks in the flower garden.

I found a partial flat of flagstone on sale and filled more spots!   However, I still needed more.  I bought a full pallet to cover more area.  Wow, flagstone is expensive! I ran out of garden money so I will have to wait another year for more flagstone.

Overview of garden with rocks
My problem of weeding and watering is slowly getting solved with rocks! From the pictures you can see the different sizes and types of rocks I have used.  I think the different sizes and types compliment the rugged look of the garden. I still plan to add a pallet a year to the garden for a few more years.  My garden is becoming manageable!  I have time to ride and less weeding!  I still need to water.  I think my next project will be to learn how to put in a drip system!

I now have a garden of flowers and rocks!!!  (I might add some bushes next!)

Nan Porter (Master Gardener class of 2017) gardens on a well at 7100 ft.  She is a gardener, barrel racer, and photographer (Nan Porter Photography).