Friday, July 17, 2020

Western Spiderwort

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

A native plant new to me is growing in my garden: Western spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis).  Recommended by my friend and local botanist Karen Vail, the plant has unusual habits that complement the neighboring plants.  It has become my favorite in the garden, at least for now.

A variety of spiderworts are native to the North American plains. According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Native Plant Database, there are 33 in the family, with 4 native to Colorado.  My Colorado wildflower guides list only Western spiderwort (also called Prairie spiderwort), which grows in the plains and foothills of eastern Colorado.  The spiderwort name may have originated by the spider leg appearance of the foliage or because it was once used to treat spider bites.  “Wort” is the Old English word for plant. 

There are a number of cultivated varieties with names like Spider Lily, Purple Heart, and Cow Slobber – really!   Spiderworts from tropical climates have been cultivated as houseplants as well, with names like Wandering Dude and Moses-in-the–cradle. The houseplants are easy to grow but may have toxic properties.

My spiderworts arrived last summer as leggy plants sprawling out of tiny containers.  They were bedraggled, with foot tall stems bent over by the weight of spent buds. From research, I learned the plants would grow in untidy clumps and might need maintenance like staking, deadheading, and cutting back.  They might also be invasive.  It sounded like a lot of work for flowers that last for only a single morning.  The research, though, was about cultivated varieties, not about my natives.

My spiderwort plants have been a treat to observe. Planted in light shade with drip irrigation and with no staking, every plant has grown upright over 2 feet tall.  Beautiful triangular flowers appear in the morning and last until mid-afternoon. The blue petals then disappear back into the original bud, now spent.  New blooms appear the following morning, a process that may go on for two months.

To date, I am a big fan of spiderwort.  Plants may suffer from foliar decline later in the summer but can be cut down once they quit blooming.  They also may get unruly looking (read: weedy) if they reseed, but for now, they are a wonderful addition to my garden.

For more information, please see CSU Extension’s Fact Sheet 7-242: Native herbaceous perennials for Colorado Landscapes (

Friday, July 10, 2020

Fall Gardening for Mountain Communities

By Yvette Henson, San Miguel Basin, CSU Extension

If you are like me, you may follow a few gardening/homesteading YouTubers. The one I watch the most lives in the SE United States. She plants her regular season garden in March as well as a fall garden in August. For her fall garden, she plants a second planting of cool season plants as well as a second round of warm season plants like beans and even winter squash!  Wow!  Those of us who garden in high elevation areas with short frost-free growing seasons and cool night temperatures are blessed to get any squashes, summer or winter, during our short main season!

Shelling or 'English' pea. Photo credit Pixabay
One of my favorite family recipes is creamed peas and spuds, basically mashed potatoes with ‘English peas’ mixed in.  Since potatoes are ready to harvest in fall, I want my peas to be ready in fall too so I can make this dish with my own fresh, home-grown potatoes and peas.

According to most gardening references, August 1st is the recommended timing for planting fall peas, based on my average first frost date.   Several years ago, I planted them then.  They were just starting to bloom when the temperature plunged to 15 degrees in October, which killed the plants.  The next year I planted pea seeds in mid-July.  They were just beginning to produce peas when the killing temperatures came.   By trial and error, my ‘fall crop’ of peas has become more like a second ‘succession’ planting.  I plant them by the beginning of July, when my late-April, early-May planted pea harvest is just getting started.  This extends my harvest of fresh peas over a longer period, ensuring I have fresh peas when I dig my potatoes in fall.

Fall-planted succession of Lams' lettuce. Photo credit Yvette Henson
I have had similar experiences when planting leafy greens like spinach, kale, arugula, lettuce, mache, etc. Spring planted greens will do well in my garden until mid-summer high temperatures result in bitter-tasting, tough greens that may start to bolt.  So, around July 1st I plant a second crop of spinach, kale and arugula.  I succession plant lettuces every three weeks to get heads of lettuce from summer through killing frost.  I can plant the quicker maturing greens like mache and arugula anywhere from mid-July to August 1st.

We mountain gardeners all have our own unique growing conditions and may have different experiences with fall gardening.  I would love to hear about your experiences and so would other readers!