Friday, June 26, 2020

Celebrate the Pollinators

By Sharon Faircloth, Master Gardener

Shouldn’t every week be “Pollinator Week?” Awareness of the role of pollinators in our gardens, their global impact and their challenges have become much more widespread over the last ten years. Their symbiotic relationship with plants, not only determine their survival but are instrumental in ours! Pollinators are responsible for as much as one-third of our food and drink. More than 70% of the world’s flowering plants rely on pollination for producing fruits and seeds.

Pollinator week: June 22-28, 2020
The species of pollinators are primarily insects. They include many, many species of bees and beetles, butterflies and moths, wasps, beetles, flies and wasps, hummingbirds and even bats. While we think of the pollinators we see in daylight, many of the moths, beetles, some bees and bats are all nocturnal pollinators. Education is critical to conservation and protection of many of the endangered among these species. One of our most iconic butterfly species, the Monarch, is severely threatened due to habitat loss.

According to the Xerces Society, a group devoted to conservation and education, there are four steps everyone can take to improve the situation. 
  1. Grow pollinator-friendly flowers, shrubs and trees with overlapping bloom times throughout the growing season 
  2. Provide an environment for nesting sites
  3. Avoid pesticides
  4. Spread the word
In our alpine environments, we choose our plants carefully. Altitude, temperatures, microclimates, critters, and soil type all play a part in the plants we invest in. When you’re making those evaluations, consider plants that will enhance the habitat for pollinators.

One of the easiest things you can do is put more thought into when plants bloom, as well as their size and shape. Bees prefer variety and like flowers of similar structure, planted in layers starting with trees, then shrubs, then perennials, grasses and groundcovers. Monarchs, as another example, like nectar-rich flowers and milkweed – much of which has been lost to habitat decline and pesticide over use and or misuse. 

Buddleja Purple Haze Butterfly Bush
Some plant ideas for high altitude are Amelanchier alnifolia (Serviceberry), Callirhoe involucrate (Winecups), Linum lewisii (Blue Flax), Penstemons of many varieties, Achillea millefolium (Yarrow), Salvias, Nepetas (Catmint) Anaphalis margaritacea (Pearly everlasting), Prunus virginiana (Chokecherry) and Campanula rotundifolia (Harebells). All are sun loving as are most pollinators. You can also add bright colored annuals to attract hummingbirds, although highly cultivated plants don’t yield much nectar.
Nepeta (Catmint) and Achillea millefolium (Yarrow)
Providing habitat for nesting is just as important as plants. Ground nesting bees like a little bare earth and cavity nesting bees will look for dead wood or hollow, pithy stems. Bee “hotels” are easy to make or purchase but need to be cleaned out or replaced after a couple of seasons.

A downside to pesticides is that they often don’t distinguish between unwanted and wanted and the unintended consequences disrupt the delicate balance in a healthy ecosystem. Selecting native plants will assist in reduction of pests as they are already acclimatized. Identify your pest and the underlying cause then manage it accordingly. 

Anaphalis margaritacea (Pearly Everlasting)

Perhaps the most impactful thing we can do is spread the word on the importance of supporting our pollinators. Talk to people who are afraid of bees and bats and encourage them to learn more about their habits. Bees are one of the most compelling species around! We may not have much control over corporate or large-scale farming or large-scale loss of habitat, but we do have control over our own gardens and influence over community areas. Let’s keep the pollinators in mind and make every week POLLINATOR WEEK!

For more information:

CSU Extension Fact Sheet # 5.615 Attracting Native Bees to Your Landscape

How to Create a Butterfly Garden Above 7500’ -

How to Create a Hummingbird Garden above 7500’ -

The Xerces Society -

Friday, June 19, 2020

Ground Covers

Ground Covers 
By Vicky Barney, Routt County Master Gardener

Ground covers – low growing plants that spread easily - are a great addition to Routt County gardens. When properly selected and planted, they provide visual interest (often in hard-to-grow areas), inhibit weeds, and reduce water needs by shading the underlying soil. Like all plants, they have specific needs in terms of sun, water, and soil, and thrive when grown in appropriate areas. 

Common periwinkle (Vinca minor)

In my yard (at 7,000 feet on a small lot in an established neighborhood), ground covers fill shady areas where little else grows. My experience with a variety of these plants has been mixed since I am working to mimic nature (think of a yard that is poorly irrigated and unstructured) and shade is taking over sunny areas as the trees continue to grow.

Ground covers I found too aggressive include the following:
  • Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) – Planted without a barrier by a former homeowner, this little plant appears to be outcompeting the grass in spite of my efforts to stop it.
  • Creeping potentilla (Potentilla neumanniana) – This plant spread quickly and comingled with other plants in a weed-like fashion.
  • Snow on the mountain (Aegopodium podagraria) – A shade loving plant, it was not properly contained in my yard and wilted unattractively when it spread into sunnier areas.

These plants tolerate both sun and shade and are thriving in various places in my yard:
  • Creeping Oregon grape (Mahonia repens) – A native growing along popular trails, this plant’s holly shaped leaves turn various shades of red. Early bright yellow flowers are followed by blue berries. It is growing beside and under shrubs.
  • Common periwinkle (Vinca minor) – Shiny green leaves appear as the snow melts, followed by small purple flowers. Occasional watering prevents wilting where it is growing in sunnier areas. 
  • Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) – This early blooming plant grows unchecked in a neglected area, producing early white blooms and summer-long green and somewhat woody foliage.
  • Dragons Blood sedum (Sedum spurium “Dragon’s Blood”) – With green succulent leaves and a late blooming flower, this plant has spread beautifully between rocks and into bare spots.
  • Pussytoes (Antennaria dioica) – This native plant is mat forming and produces tiny pink flowers in spring. The foliage is a distinctive silver blue color.
Pussytoes (Antennaria dioica)

For more suggestions and details about these low maintenance plants, please see CSU Extension’s Fact Sheet 7.413: Ground Covers and Rock Garden Plants for Mountain Communities (

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

Friday, June 12, 2020

An Often Misjudged Plant

An Often Misjudged Plant, the Common Mullein
By Ed Powers, Jefferson County Master Gardener

My first experience with mullein (Verbascum thapsus) was in my yard in Michigan. My wife and I thought it was a beautiful weed growing in our garden. We were concerned and tried to eradicate it without much success, but eventually decided it would be an addition to our garden if we were able to have some control over it. While not able to kill it, we were able to control one certain area and enjoyed it over time.

We thought we were through with common mullein when we moved to Colorado, and of course we were wrong. It grows even stronger and with more vigor here.

Mullein rosette
Mullein is an easy-to-grow plant, often seen growing in fields and ditches. Because of its ease to grow and spread uncontrollably it is considered an invasive weed in many states, including Colorado

Common mullein (V. thapsus) does however, have a rich history as an herbal remedy, and has some scientific justification as a medicinal herb.

When it is grown as an herbal remedy, every part of the mullein plant is usable at different times during its life cycle. The thick, soft leaves are made into a tea to treat respiratory problems by loosening congestion and helping clear the lungs. The tiny hairs on the leaves can be irritating, and any teas should be filtered carefully to avoid this problem. A tincture (or an extract) of mullein alleviates this problem.

Flowering mullein
In addition, mullein flowers can provide a soothing and cleansing effect on the skin. Use mullein as a wash or balm for minor skin wounds or disorders by infusing flowers in olive oil and adding beeswax to make a balm. When looking for wild mullein, only harvest from straight, vigorous stalks that have not been treated with herbicide.

Although mullein is considered an invasive weed in Colorado, there are several varieties (around 300) that are grown as ornamentals in home landscapes that are not as invasive as the common mullein. They are a great addition to your garden landscaping. The flower stalks near my home at 8,000 feet grow up to 6 feet high, and the leaves grow as big as 2 feet across.

Mullein stalks growing in field
If you want to grow them, do so in an area where bees can enjoy the flowers, and birds can enjoy the seeds. Deer and elk eat the stalks and dead flowers around my house in the winter.

A note on the weedy, common mullein:

Common mullein is a biennial weed which reproduces by seed only. Plants first emerge as fuzzy rosettes in fall or spring, then bolt the second year, sending a single thick stem 2-6 feet tall. Yellow flowers turn brown as seeds mature in late summer. Seeds can be viable for 80 years. If you do not want to be over-run with mullein, remove the rosettes quickly.

Control options, according to Larimer County Weed Reference Guide, 5th edition:
  • Manual removal of plant by pulling or digging is effective if done prior to seed production. If removing mature plants with flowers, it is important to bag the plant so seed does not spread.
  • Herbicide must be applied prior to late flowering stage or seed may still be produced. Herbicide works best in rosette stage in spring or fall. A number of products provide excellent control: Milestone, Escort, and Telar. The addition of methylated seed oil to the spray mix is essential for herbicide to penetrate the hairy leaf surface.

Picture credits: