Friday, August 28, 2020

The Garden and Landscape in a Time of Drought and Fire

 By Susan Carter, CSU Extension Tri River Area, Horticulture and Natural Resource Agent

I currently live in Fruita where the Pine Gulch Fire is about 12-15 miles north of me.  This morning I awoke to most of my garden covered in ash. It is amazing how far it travels.  A vegetable specialist from CSU campus suggested hosing off the ash. The plants would not be harmed by a loss of photosynthesis unless the ash layer was thick. By the time I was done hosing off everything, my once clean feet were covered with soot. I also learned that the fire-retardant slurry that fire fighters use, is high in phosphorus, and could harm plants. So how far does this slurry travel? I don’t know.

But the ash also got me thinking about defensible space.  My husband is a retired firefighter EMT of 21 years and fought many wildfires.  He doesn’t seem too concerned about the current situation since it is miles away, but In this time of drought, wildfires could happen ANYWHERE.  We should all be prepared.

How can you be prepared in the garden and landscape?  I would start by removing any dead plants. Deadhead flowers (removing flower stalks that are no longer blooming) as often as they dry out. Deadheading perennials and shrubs will also help them put more energy back in the root system instead of putting energy towards producing seeds. 

Remove leaf litter that is close to the house or in the gutters. It just takes one ember to land in a crook of the house where there is debris, and a fire starts. You could start a compost pile away from the house to add the plant debris. 

Closest to the house, use rock mulch, flagstone, paver stones, or other non-combustible materials. Keep wood piles and other wood products/furniture away from the house. Ideally a zone of lower growing, high to moderate water-loving plants are closer to your house, as long as it does not affect your foundation. 

To create defensible space, height should increase as you move away from the house. See the Colorado State Forest Service website for more detailed information on Defensible Space.,modified%20to%20reduce%20fire%20hazard.&text=Develop%20these%20zones%20around%20each,buildings%2C%20barns%20and%20other%20structures.

Did you know that there are plants that are more fire resistant?  Of course some of that depends on drought and how much moisture is in the plants. Take a look at the list of fire-wise plants here - .  Choose plants that do not produce a lot of litter. Aspen trees are a good high-altitude fire-resistant garden choice for the mountains. 

Now let’s talk drought. I have been getting many calls about older trees not doing well.  I know when you live on large properties or up in the mountains, typically there is not a lot you can do other than depend on Mother Nature for moisture. But you could water one or a few favorite, or most important trees. If they are mature established trees, water out twice their height or spread, and give them a deep soak once a month to a depth of 12-18 inches. This will keep them vigorous enough to help ward off insects like bark beetles and borers. Some trees, like pinion pines, might need some insecticide treatments to prevent ips beetle from infesting. When there are epidemics of insects AND there is prolonged drought, the trees are very susceptible to attack. More on ips beetles here -

Pinyon pine with twig or bark beetle damage, picture from Tri-River Area

For trees with lower dead limbs, remove them to decrease fire ladder potential. Prune evergreens when dormant to prevent attracting insects, like bark beetles and borers.  Use proper pruning techniques and cut outside the bark ridge and bark collar.  For bigger limbs use the three-cut method to prevent the limb from breaking and causing trunk damage. Read more about pruning techniques here -

Turn these limbs into chips or stack in a wood pile, away from your structures. If the plants are diseased or insect infested, follow appropriate protocol, for that particular issue, to dispose of or prevent any spread.

I hate to say it but I am hoping for an earlier winter, with lots of moisture, to help with the fires and the drought.  We can only do what we can do, the rest is up to Mother Nature.


Friday, August 14, 2020

Colorado Blue Spruce

The Tale of the Abused Colorado Blue Spruce
By Ed Powers, Jefferson County Master Gardener

My wife is from Colorado, and when we moved to the Detroit area of Michigan, she wanted a piece of Colorado near her. So we bought a 12-inch Colorado Blue Spruce for our backyard. It was not the azure blue but more of a deep blue green color. Of course, we did the research we could. At that time (35 years ago) the internet was in its infancy, so we discussed it with the local tree experts and spent time in the local library. Here some of the types of information we learned.

The names Colorado spruce, blue spruce and Colorado blue spruce tree all refer to the same magnificent tree—Pica pungens. Large specimens are imposing in the landscape because of their strong, architectural shape, in the form of a pyramid, and stiff, horizontal branches that form a dense canopy. The species grows up to 60 feet tall and looks best in open, arid landscapes. Smaller cultivars that grow 5 to 15 feet tall are right at home in lush gardens.

Colorado Blue Spruce
Picture Courtesy of Gurneys Nursery 
Blue spruce is a native tree that originated on stream banks and crags of the western United States. This sturdy tree is grown in farmlands, pastures and large landscapes as a windbreak and doubles as a nesting site for birds.

Short, sharp needles that are square in shape and very stiff and sharp attach to the tree singly, rather than in bunches, like pine needles. The tree produces 2- to 4-inch brown cones that fall to the ground in autumn. They are distinguished from other spruce trees by the bluish color of the needles, which can be quite striking on a sunny day.

Colorado blue spruce grows best in a sunny location with moist, well-drained, fertile soil. It tolerates dry wind and can adapt to dry soil. The tree is hardy in USDA plant hardiness zones 3 through 7.

A healthy normal Blue Spruce with proper shape
Picture courtesy of Garden Know How 
After all this research, we decided we could plant this tree in Detroit. The tale begins of the blue spruce: We dug the right size hole, put soil amendments in, and watered frequently the first year. It did well and was two and a half feet tall by the end of the first year. And then the unthinkable happened, we decided to move it to our backyard. The move slowed the growth. Next, something fell on the tree and it was topped. Now it was only 2 feet tall. We left the tree in place for 3 years. Something fell on it again and it was topped. Then we decided it would look better in the front yard and moved it again. I am sure if this tree had feelings it would have felt tortured. But it survived.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Honeysuckle Vines and Bushes

By Vicki Barney

A Trumpet honeysuckle vine (Lonicera sempervirens), is growing on an arch trellis outside Creekside Restaurant in Steamboat Springs, and is currently in bloom with masses of pink flowers.  It has been there for many years and, like other honeysuckle species, enhances a lovely garden setting.

About 180 species of honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) have been identified around the world.   Some species are vines and others are bushes, some more fragrant than others.  Usually they have oval, opposite growing leaves and produce flowers and berries in sets of two. They are fast growing and, once established, tolerate limited sun and water.  In some areas, certain non-native species grow too quickly and are considered invasive weeds. Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) is one such

species and is known to have invaded riparian areas in the Denver area.

I fear I have a Tatarian honeysuckle growing up along a wall in my yard.   The bush was planted more than 8 years ago and stands at least 14 feet tall.  Every summer it grows taller, producing bright green leaves, pretty pink flowers and small red berries. The flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds, and the berries feed the birds.  Fortunately, I have noticed no invasive behavior, likely due to an arid climate, a somewhat shady location, and no regular irrigation.

While honeysuckle plants are tolerant of drought conditions, they, like most plants, produce more flowers and more robust foliage when given regular water and more sunshine. Annual pruning may also keep a more attractive appearance.  Vining species need a trellis for support; some species, though, may be grown as ground cover.   Regarding shrubs, CSU Extension’s Fact Sheet on Deciduous Shrubs ( lists recommended species.

Colorado has one native species. Twinberry (Lonicera involucrata), a medium sized bush, grows along our trails and can be identified by its twin yellow flowers followed by twin dark berries in red bracts.  I have planted it in my yard to attract wildlife, and it flourishes in spite of limited sunshine.  More details about Twinberry and other native bushes may be found here: (

Our native honeysuckle is easy to grow and feeds our butterfly and bird populations.  Non-native species are almost as easy to grow, may produce more spectacular flowers, and are beneficial to our wildlife as well.  Nearly any variety of honeysuckle will add your garden experience.


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