Monday, January 25, 2016

Plan, Then Do

We're starting the final week of January so you know what that means?  Yes, my mother turns 91* on the 31st, but it also means we can officially start the countdown (number of weeks) to the average last frost date for planting outdoors.  For those who have recently arrived to Colorado from warmer locales, the average last frost date meaning can be confusing.  Off the top of many people's heads, they'll often say that the last frost of the spring along the Front Range is Mother's Day weekend.  I think we can stretch that meaning to include most garden centers, box stores and every son who wants to make mom happy by planting a new rose or a couple of 'Early Girl' tomatoes on her special day.  So are they correct?  Is Mother's Day THE day to officially start the presses and dig the first hole?  The short answer is some years yes, some years no.

Internet Photo from
The average last frost date is based on 30-year averages (1980-2010) for normal climate temperatures. This historical data implies there will only be a 10% chance of a freeze event on or after a certain date. Frost occurs around 36 degrees. So, determining the exact date that temperatures won't dip below freezing (32 degrees) is about as accurate as getting the right date for your child's birth. You'll probably get it within days to a week, not bad averages unless you've planted several geraniums that get hit by severe frost one day off from your calculation.  Or worse, your mother-in-law arrives two weeks BEFORE Johnny is born!
My best recommendation is to rely on your past planting experiences, or your expert garden neighbor's recommendation. Check the long-range weather forecasts but cross your fingers for accuracy. The last two Junes ('13 & '14) are recent reminders that a good offense - later planting, and a well-planned defense - cloches, row covers, sheets etc. is the best bet to get your garden in.

Internet Photo from
For newbies, to further clarify the planting windows in our area, there are three overlapping seasons to plant. The cool-season planting period ranges anywhere from March to the first of May.  These include cool-vegetables like spinach, peas and beets and cool-season annuals like pansy, calendula and sweet peas. Some newly planted cool season plants may tolerate lows in the 40s but prefer growing in temperatures from the 60s to 80s.  Keep in mind that cool-season planting or direct seeding is all dependent on the weather - if snow is on the ground or it's raining or snowing from mid-March to mid-May, the cool-season planting window may either be delayed or skipped.  Using tunnels, row covers and cloches are recommended if the weather isn't ideal.

The warm-season window is anywhere from mid-May to the first of July and includes herbs like basil, vegetables - tomatoes, peppers, squash and corn, plus annuals - petunias, marigolds, sunflowers and cosmos. Hardy perennials, shrubs and trees can be planted during this time as well and all the way to early fall.  The exception is to try to avoid planting when temperatures are extremely warm. It can be done, but pay close attention to watering and providing some shade.  Mid-summer is when the third season planting window begins - mostly cool-season vegetables that mature in sixty days or less and warm-season crops that also have a shorter maturity date like summer squash, okra and basil.

Knowing about last spring frost dates and planting windows will help you plan your schedule for seed purchases (don't delay much longer) and indoor seeding for planting during the correct window - cool or warm-season. The timing and planting information on seed packets vary per company.  Some mention soil temperatures or map zones as guides to direct seed outdoors, or a certain number of days from frost dates to start seeds indoors.  Pay attention and familiarize yourself with the seed packet information. More - Garden Primer How to Read a Seed Packet.  Some gardeners use a chart or graph to list when and what to seed indoors for later planting or when to direct seed outdoors.  Click here for the vegetable planting chart I did on an earlier blog Vegetable Planting Chart

An excellent resource for climate summaries in Colorado that may also help you plan - Colorado Average Frost Dates and Length of Growing Season

Vegetable seeds that you need to get started soon (indoors) for early transplanting out in March to April include -  broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, parsnips, onions and celery. Tunnels or cold frames are recommended for early planting when freezes and frosts are the norm.  Also check out Niki Jabbour's blog on how to seed, then plant 'imperial star' artichoke in our cold northern climate for harvest in one growing season - Direct Seed 'Imperial Star' artichoke.

Keep in mind that if you miss the window to start your seeds indoors, you can always purchase cool-season transplants at garden centers starting in late winter into spring, and later in the spring for warm-season plants. Warm-season seeds are generally started indoors in April for late May transplanting. 

Now for my Mom*

My mother Madylene is known as "Dickie" to her friends and sister - my Aunt Jo, her only remaining sibling. Why the unusual sobriquet you ask?  That comes from her father Sherman who gave his ten children nicknames. Pauline was "Pat," Irene was "Kelly," Florence, the oldest was called "Sister," and Martha was "Hibbie." My Uncle "Tummy's" given name was Sherman.  Martin, who died at age seven, was called "Buddy." I wish I could have known my grandfather, but he died a year before I was born. Sherman and Emma hailed from the Lee County Iowa area and moved to eastern Montana a little over one hundred years ago.

Emma and Sherman Beall 50th Wedding anniversary 1955
In my youth it was unusual for mothers to work outside the home but I didn't realize this fact until I was older.  She was before her time with a career, four children, husband, pets and a garden. My parents kept us active with weekend and summer camping outings, family reunions and visiting relatives around Montana and Colorado. "Dickie" was a registered nurse, first working at one of the hospitals in Billings, later she rose to Director of Nurses at a well-respected nursing home. In those days nursing homes took care of people young to old with disabilities or illnesses across a broad spectrum. Her patients, their families, and nurses respected and liked her very much. She often worked weekends and holidays for nurses or staff who wanted to be with their families.  Both my parents worked extremely hard and set lasting examples of the power of self-reliance by getting up every day and doing a good job.  They paid for our college educations and to this day my Mom says "that's your inheritance Betty!" Thank you SO much Mom!

My Mom is a lifelong gardener, as were her parents, siblings and relatives on my Dad's side of the family. My first cousin, and his son still work and live on a ranch forty-miles east of Billings in a small community named Rapelje, MT.  I am sure there is scientific research somewhere that proves a gardening gene exists, if not there should be.

My Mom and sister Lee, in front of compromised junipers from the November '14 freeze

Happy Birthday Mom!  You've been a great influence on my love of gardening today!


Monday, January 18, 2016

Cabin Break

In your free time are you dreaming about spring and getting outside?  I admit even when I'm vacuuming I'm thinking about starting the spring engines. You know what I mean - a day in March when the sun feels soft on your face and the soil is dry and warm enough to dive in. I'm going to call this can't wait feeling cabin fever even though we're not living like "Jeremiah Johnson" aka Robert Redford in his 1972 film about being a hermit mountain man fending off the elements. Other than dating myself as someone who saw this movie (hey, I was still in junior high) I'm ready for the spring season, at least in my mind.  Seeds still need to be ordered, tools cleaned and sharpened and I am ready to plant another batch of micro-greens, but other than that bring it on!

While waiting, try not to hibernate venture outside to check out the winter scenery or winter interest as it's often called. My favorite walking views are the trees. Conifers look proud and strong against the frozen ground, and where they stand among newly fallen snow or faded green turf they say "look at me."  And we do look because they often blend in during the spring and summer growing season receiving much less fanfare than what's in bloom. 

Deciduous trees during the winter months tell many stories, stop and take note of them with your eyes (or have someone describe them to you). My list of favorite deciduous trees is long, but hands down my favorite winter viewing ones are Kentucky Coffee Trees (Gymnocladus dioicus). Gymnocladus is from two Greek words, gymnos, meaning 'naked' and klados, meaning 'a branch' and refers to the appearance of the tree when not in leaf.  

These central-eastern U.S. long-lived natives are very appropriate to plant and grow in our dry, high pH, often compacted Colorado soils. During winter months their leafless thick set branches look like they are showing off magnificent muscles. On a mature tree, the large round canopy consists of twists and limb arcs that resemble flexed biceps, different than vertical poses of other tree types. Don't overlook the bark on older Kentucky coffee trees, step up close to look and feel their furrowed, coarse, sometimes crusty exterior. You might say these are ideal trees to surround a Halloween haunted house, cue the flock of black birds.

No crowing, Kentucky coffee trees are a terrific selection for sunny tree lawns, tough hell strips or as the main event in any backyard. They leaf out very late in the spring and shed leaves earlier in the fall so you don't have to fret about heavy spring snows breaking branches.

When describing Kentucky Coffee trees Michael A. Dirr, Ph.D horticulturist and expert on woody plants says "to know her is to love her."  He goes on to say, "a wonderful native species that tolerates the worst stresses that nature and humanity can impose, yet it is nowhere very common in the landscape." 

Leaves first emerge pink to purplish in color, then change to bluish-green. Their bipinnate compound leaves resemble honey locust leaves, but are much larger with greenish-white flowers on both female and male trees. Male flowers are four-inch long clusters compared to twelve inch in length for the fragrant female flowers. Leaves turn yellow in fall.  Choose male cultivars to avoid the leathery brown/black 5-10" long seed pods.  Look for Gymnocladus dioicus 'Espresso' easily found in nurseries and garden centers along the Front Range. 

Early pioneers used the pod seeds as a coffee substitute. They softened the seeds by roasting and pounding before boiling for coffee that tasted quite bitter.  A little was all that was needed and its use was quickly abandoned when real coffee was available. Unroasted seeds and pods are toxic, even squirrels and deer don't like them. 

There are several Kentucky coffee trees planted in Washington Park and seeing them on my daily walk is like saying hello to dear friends. They don't mind that I stop and stare. 

As with any tree choice, think long about the decision and don't skimp on your research.  Planting a tree isn't like dating for a few months. Trees are long-lived partners where we accept changes along the way. When small, Kentucky coffee trees look sort of gangly and not particularly attractive or exciting in the nursery. It will take them a few years to get established, but after that they can grow about a foot a year, up to fifty plus feet.  Read more about them at the links below.   

Colorado Tree Coalition Kentucky Coffee Tree 

Fairmount Arboretum Kentucky Coffee Tree 

Approved Street Tree List for Denver's Public Rights-of-way 

And if you're a tree admirer consider attending the third annual Tree Diversity day-long seminar at Denver Botanic Gardens on March 3rd, 2016.  Details on the link -

Tree Diversity Conference - DESIGN WITH MORE. TREE. TYPES. 

Denver Digs Trees - YES, it's time to order your low cost or FREE trees (based on neighborhood locations).  Order deadline is February 15 for distribution on April 16.

Denver Digs Free and Low Cost Trees 2016 



Monday, January 11, 2016

El Niño...Maybe

It's almost surprising that the crusty mounds and areas of snow are still in yards and around the neighborhood.  Anyone living in Colorado for more than five years knows that winters are pretty consistent when it comes to the snow/melt cycles.  We generally go from a snow event (mild to blizzard) followed by sunshine and warm enough temperatures to melt most of the snow right away. Even if some of it hangs around it will melt sooner rather than later from another cycle of temperatures in the high 40s to 50s.  Plus we always seem to have a chinook event in January where it's seasonably warm enough to walk around in shorts (not me).

Internet Photo from NOAA

Not being a weather professional, just a regular clicker on or a local news watcher (no comment on their reliability), one of the reasons for our cold temperatures and snow storms may be the predicted El Niño. In a nutshell an El Niño is periodic warming of the surface of the Pacific Ocean which results in areas getting too much or too little precipitation and temperature extremes.  Periodic in Colorado is anyone's guess.

Internet Photo from NOAA

On the color detailed El Niño weather maps, parts of the Front Range are smack dab in the middle of the drier-warmer north and wetter-cooler south.  So if we get more snow we can say it's from El Niño and if we are drier this winter into spring we can say it is from El Niño.  Now that's a hedge! 

I've said all this to get to the point of my blog (finally) which is what all this continuous snow and ice cover is doing to our lawns. Is it causing damage or mold?  In three words - not to worry.  The best person to know all the ins and outs is Dr. Tony Koski, Extension Turf Specialist with Colorado State University. He recently posted a blog on this very topic which I highly recommend reading - Snow Mold in Lawns: Should we be Worried? 
The good news is that even if we get additional snow on top of what hasn't melted, our turf should be fine, provided the snow isn't sitting on matted, wet leaves (I know you raked last fall). 

Snow isn't going away in my yard!

So, the only thing gardeners need to fret about this very moment is how many seed packets to purchase. And better find those shorts, it's going to warm up soon!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Garden Soul

Welcome to January when regular life and schedules resume. Whether you're back to your career and work, school, travel (lucky you) or retirement (really lucky you), it's the time of year to start anew.  May I suggest adding a class or club to your busy plate, that is your gardening plate?

Glad this brave person didn't fall into Washington Park Smith Lake

One of the great joys of gardening is hanging out with other like-minded folks; it's almost like we share a garden soul. We speak the same language and share genuine camaraderie when talking about our plants and gardens.  "How did your garden do last summer?"  "Do you grow vegetables or perennials or both?"  "Do you start plants by seed?"  "Have you been to the Chelsea Flower show?"  "Maybe some day!" A garden conversation is always pleasant and can go long if you don't need to catch light rail.

Thank goodness the Front Range has several outlets to match and grow your gardening interests.  You'll easily meet other gardeners at botanic garden classes or seminars. There are many to choose from - beginner on up, ranging from starting seeds to botany to caring for backyard chickens and honeybees. Garden centers offer programs which will be starting soon - check their websites for fees (many are free) and get registered, they fill quickly.

First Denver Rose Society Meeting last year, great treats too!
Garden clubs can't be beat for sharing garden souls.  Some have been around for decades and are still going strong.  Look for neighborhood garden clubs or check out the many specific plant society groups.  I've linked as many as I can find as of this writing, along with places to check out garden classes.  More and more Facebook pages and blogs are available for like-minded gardeners to ask questions or share stories (check my left side bar for a handful of links).  For the busy person who doesn't have time to take a class or join a club, the internet will/can keep your focus.  Happy New Year, hope to see you at a class or club meeting soon!

SEMINARS & CLASSES: (range from continuing education to certificate completion or degrees):

Adams County Extension Spring Gardening Classes
Colorado Master Gardening Training
Colorado Schools & Universities for Landscape Architecture, Horticulture & Landscape Careers
Community Forester Training
CSU Extension Certified Gardener Program *NEW* on-line flexible program based on the CMG Master Gardening curriculum 
Denver Botanic Gardens
Growing Gardens  Boulder
Habitat Heroes: Gardening for Beauty and Birds Workshop  Longmont
The Gardens on Spring Creek  Ft. Collins
The Hudson Gardens  Littleton
Pikes Peak Urban Gardens Colorado Springs
2016 Tree Diversity Conference DESIGN WITH MORE. TREE. TYPES.

Colorado Gardener Magazine  Hard copies available at area garden centers and gift stores. Great resource for garden center classes, special events and workshops. The Education Issue will be available February 10th.

AREA GARDEN CENTERS:  too numerous to mention, so call around or check on line for their classes.


Colorado Garden Clubs This is a good place to start, some clubs don't regularly update their contact information, so you may need to Google search for more information.  This link isn't inclusive for neighborhood garden clubs.  Check with area newspapers, newsletters, listserv like Nextdoor to find garden clubs near you.


Colorado Cactus and Succulent Society
Colorado Native Plant Society
Colorado Water Garden Society
Denver Field Ornithologists
Denver Orchid Society
Denver Rose Society
Front Range Organic Gardeners
Ikebana Denver Chapter
Rocky Mountain African Violet Council
Rocky Mountain Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society 
Rocky Mountain Koi Club
Rocky Mountain Unit of The Herb Society of America