Posts Tagged ‘Denver Botanic Gardens’

The Gift of Other

When my sister wrote this post, it got me thinking about a family I haven’t talked to in far too long. She has her own memories of them, and that Thanksgiving food fight was epic, but there was so much more than that. Being reminded of them in the context of a bigger world made me realize that they had given me a gift I think many people never have.

The mother and her son, the one I was friends with at least, were both very proud of their Native American heritage. The son and I met in preschool and remained friends even after they moved to another city before middle school. Part of being friends was spending time at each other’s houses and with each other’s families. It was running around in the back yard and playing by the river and pond. It was playing house and eating what the hosting mother was making for lunch. I distinctly remember launching G.I. Joes off the ceiling fan at his house since we could reach the blades from the stairs.

For me, at least, it was also learning about a world that wasn’t my own. My biggest memories of that were the annual dances at Indian Steps Museum. I was always invited, but I was always invited as a guest. There was no doubt in my mind that they wanted me there, but it was also very clear that there were things that I wouldn’t be able to participate in. I was, as they put it, a white girl, not a red girl. So I would always look at all of the wonderful crafts for sale by the Natives from their own cultures and imaginations and I would join the dances that were open to everyone. Well, I would be coaxed into joining, since I was shy. But I also learned to sit outside the circle and simply observe the dances that weren’t open for everyone. I learned to share in something from a respectful distance.

Native American cultures have always fascinated me, no doubt starting from this early introduction. It wasn’t until fairly recently, though, that I realized I might not approach wanting to learn from them in quite the same way as others do.

When I was living in Colorado, I met a woman who was working on convincing the local school to let her teach brain-tanning of hides to elementary students the way she had taught her daughters. I was dearly hoping she would expand this past just the school children because I wanted to learn from her. This wasn’t a wilderness school that took basic information and made it accessible, not that there’s anything wrong with that. This was someone who was teaching what her parents had taught her and their parents had taught them. This was not just a practical skill, but a culturally specific way of doing it that had the weight of generations behind it.

When the protests against DAPL were going strong, I had given some thought to going out to Standing Rock to offer my services. I was willing to be told to peel potatoes, write blog posts, or stand in front of the cops. The leaders would know where I would be of the most use to the people trying to protect a water source. I never went, but I did hear that a lot of white people did show up. No few of them treated this fight for basic rights like it was a Burning Man festival.

When I moved to Colorado and realized I wanted to start growing there, I knew that the best place to go for information were the people that had been there for generations upon generations. (The oldest white family I came across was one whose great-grandfather had been a mountain man.) I was living in a high desert, a place totally unlike the East Coast where my recent family had come from and totally unlike Western Europe where my ancestral roots have been traced to. Water was in my bones, water to excess. Dryness, the ability to thrive when water was limited, that was in the bones of the local Native Americans. I didn’t study them. Somehow, I never really made time for it. I learned how to make raised beds, a very European/East Coast piece of knowledge. I never did try out the lowered beds I saw in the Native exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens. In a place where water was scarce, I learned what was being taught. That was how to get water out of the area I wanted to plant, not to keep it in. But when you look at who’s teaching the bulk of gardening courses and doing the gardening research, it’s people with water in their bones, not desert. Most of us just never see that as a problem.

What that family gave me all those years ago was the ability to understand that what I know, what I see as normal, is just one way of seeing things. And it’s not a given that it’s the right way. By sitting and watching these other cultures be themselves, I was exposed to other ways of viewing the world. By being asked to sit outside the circle sometimes, I was given the chance to be the outsider, the token, the minority.

I forget this lesson on a regular basis. I get so caught up in just getting by, just being “normal,” that I forget normal is entirely relative. Much of it stemming from your own relatives, at that. There are other normals out there. We’re losing them at a remarkable pace as the Western, white, consumerist culture devours them, picking out the best pieces to keep and destroying the rest. They aren’t dead yet, though, and I think it would benefit all of us to remember/learn that all of those others exist(ed) for a reason. Just because it’s not my culture, not in my bones, doesn’t make it any less valid. It is in someones bones, and they are the people to ask about it.



Phelan Gardens was packed. Hello, Memorial Day weekend.

Phelan Gardens was packed. Hello, Memorial Day weekend.

As I’ve mentioned before, I got a slow start on prepping my beds and getting things in the ground this year. However, given how unpredictable the weather has been this spring (more so than usual for Colorado), I would rather get my plants in late than risk a late frost. Potatoes will do fine with one, but tomatoes, peppers, and squash will not. I got my Ranch Community Garden bed turned on Friday, and planted it yesterday- Wednesday. I purchased most of the plants on Saturday, but I waited to put them in because I wanted the blood meal to have half a chance to filter through the soil. Also, the straw and a couple of weeds that were turned in will start decomposing. This eats up the available nitrogen that my plants need. While a few days isn’t enough to really get things settled down, it was all the time I had.

These are ready to go in the ground.

These are ready to go in the ground.

I missed the plant sale at the Denver Botanic Gardens, so I went to Phelan Gardens to pick up most of my plants. By going there, instead of to, say, Lowes, or a grocery store, I was able to not only get some heirloom tomatoes, but I knew that many of the plants were grown right here in Colorado in their own greenhouse instead of shipped in from some lush nursery on the west coast. If it’s raised here, then there will be less shock when it deals with having to grow here. The other perk of waiting a couple of days to plant my plants after I bought them is that they were able to sit outside and “harden off” before they went through the shock of being transplanted. All of the frost-sensitive plants were sold from in the greenhouse, so sitting them on the back stoop for a couple of days let them get used to the harsh sun and wind that comes with not being under cover.

The Brandywine tomato (on the right) almost looks more like a potato plant at this stage.

The Brandywine tomato (on the right) almost looks more like a potato plant at this stage.

I’m most excited about my tomatoes. Nothing beats a garden tomato. Even the “vine-ripened” ones that you pay too much for at the grocery store can’t hold a candle to one you actually pick off the vine yourself. I got four plants, two of a size to slice, two of a size to eat whole. Three are heirlooms, and one of the heirlooms is yellow. It’s actually called a pear tomato, so I’m really excited to see what it looks and tastes like a little later this summer. One of the heirlooms even has differently-shaped leaves than the others. Genetic diversity is important. The more identical plants or animals are, the more likely it is that they can all be wiped out by the same disease or weather event. The tomatoes were planted with a pretty purple dwarf basil that contrasts nicely with the orange marigolds. The marigolds are to help attract pollinators, and to reduce the nematode population.

Don't forget to plant for aesthetics, too. Just because I'm planting food, doesn't mean it can't be pretty, too.

Don’t forget to plant for aesthetics, too. Just because I’m planting food, doesn’t mean it can’t be pretty.

For most plants, the general rule is to plant them as deep as they were in the pot you took them out of. However, there are a few exceptions. Tomatoes come in “determinate” and “indeterminate” varieties. The determinate varieties grow to a particular height and then bush out. They can also be called bush tomatoes. They tend to fruit all at once, which means that for a couple of weeks, you are swamped in tomatoes, but that’s it. Indeterminate varieties just keep growing taller, and they tend to fruit fairly constantly from the time they first flower until a frost kills them. All four of mine are indeterminate, so I got to take advantage of another cool thing about them. You can bury them pretty much up to the top. Any buried leaves will become roots. By doing this, you are automatically extending the root system. Strong roots make for strong plants. When you’re buying a plant, you want a short, bushy one. If you ended up with a tall, leggy one, you can also use this to take some height off the plant to help it hold itself up.

That big branch out to the left is at ground level.

That big branch out to the left is at ground level.

The other thing I planted in the RCG bed is peppers. I’m not so big on them, myself, but my roommate loves them, so that gave me an excuse to collect some. I might have gone slightly overboard with picking different varieties, but between freezing and drying the extras, we should be able to keep up with them. The cayenne already has a flower and two buds. She’s taking this reproducing thing seriously, getting a jump on the pollinators before the other peppers start making demands, too.

Hot to trot, baby!

Hot to trot, baby!

I think you can see fairly well that the plants all are each in their own little saucer of earth. The idea, particularly for new transplants, is  to catch all the available water and funnel it directly to the roots. Being transplanted is hard on a plant, so by making sure that they have easily accessible water, I am giving them their best chance at recovering and thriving. That’s also why I moved the drip lines to drip as close to the plants as possible.

That's a lot of peppers for a non-pepper person.

That’s a lot of peppers for a non-pepper person.

The wind may or may not let the straw stay in place, but I re-buried the garden in it to help retain moisture. As of the end of April, we are back to having only half of the expected moisture, year-to-date.  You will see that I planted the plants closer than the recommended distance. The peppers stated 18″ between plants, and I planted them 12″ apart. Once they mature, the plants themselves will do what the straw is doing now. Namely, shading out weeds and keeping the sun from stealing all the moisture from the soil. It also means that I got four peppers in a four-foot space instead of three.

Planting 016

Showcase Updates and Dogproofing- Again

She isn't even clearing the fences anymore. She's just sliding over the top.

She isn’t even clearing the fences anymore. She’s just sliding over the top.

Here we are again, at the beginning of a new growing season. I’m a little more on top of things this year, but only just.

The owner of Showcase 1 is back in school and in the midst of changing direction, so her garden will remain tucked under a layer of straw for this growing season, and we will review her available time next spring. I have signed up for my plots in the Ranch Community Garden, and Showcase 2 is still available. In fact, I’ve had to do a little work on Showcase 2. The owner’s dog has discovered that compost tastes really, really good.  At 10 years old with some arthritis, we figured that a second fence might be enough of a challenge to keep her out. It also set aside a strip of yard to start growing grass. Apparently, compost tastes better than we thought.

Mmm. Yummy.

Mmm. Yummy.

We opted for a compost pile behind a fence for Showcase 2 for a couple of reasons. One being that it doesn’t cost anything, since the fence needed to be there to keep the dog out of the whole garden anyway. I like compost that’s on the ground instead of in a barrel because it encourages the native decomposers to work harder, and to breed more prolifically. The more decomposers you have, the healthier your soil is going to be, and the more nutrients will be available in a form that your plants can use. The last reason being that you can have multiple piles going at a time without needing multiple barrels or other apparatus. The magic number seems to be three- one to add to, one that’s cooking, and one that you’re pulling mature compost out of to use.

It's terrible of me to lock away the good parts, right?

It’s terrible of me to lock away the good parts, right?

Our third try at dog-proofing the compost is sort of a hutch that we got for free. It is open to the dirt, so we will be encouraging decomposers in the garden soil, but the sides and top are covered, so it should discourage the dog. I wasn’t able to fit all of it in the hutch, but I did put in the newest kitchen scraps with enough “brown” material to balance it out. We will be using it for future kitchen scraps, but I think weeds will be safe enough in the open pile. They just aren’t as interesting to eat. A side perk is that since it is enclosed, it should retain moisture better than the open pile, which will help it compost faster.

The less interesting pile turned and watered. It would be further along if I did that a little more often.

The less interesting pile turned and watered. It would be further along if I did that a little more often.

As for being on top of things- I have missed the best time to start peas by about three weeks, but I may throw some in the ground anyway. I also need to get the order in for seed potatoes since they can be planted shortly. The potatoes did ok last year, but I think this year will be better.

Class: How to Hire a Landscape Professional plus the Denver Botanic Garden’s Spring Plant Sale

There are mountains over there. Somewhere.

As I was driving up to the Saturday class this past weekend, I was noticing the change in perspective that low clouds can cause. Our landscape is dominated by the mountains that we live in the shadow of. On the rare occasion that they disappear, all of a sudden the foreground is visible. On the drive, I saw buildings and shapes in the landscape that I had never noticed before because my eyes are usually drawn past them to the mountains. I also noticed that the horizon-to-horizon gray had a different effect on me than it did when I lived in Maryland. In Maryland, the effect is just depressing. Part of that is probably because it may stay that way for a week or more. Out here, I got the impression of a fuzzy, comforting blanket. This may or may not have been influenced by the fuzzy fleece I was wearing and the fact that the car heater was on to combat the chill. However, it was good to know there was moisture in the sky and that the low clouds were keeping the sun from immediately drying the rain that had fallen the night before.

I loved the wagons. It was just like going to an Amish market with my Mom when I was growing up.

When I read the description for the class, I got the impression that it was someone who had been burned by a landscaper and they were trying to keep others from suffering the same fate. I felt like I was taking it under false pretenses, as I intend to be a landscaper of sorts but I wanted to know what questions might be asked. I clearly mis-read the description, though, because it was presented by Curtis Manning, one of the partners of the Arcadia Design Group, a design and build landscaping firm. He decided to give this class because when it comes to landscaping, design in particular, the market doesn’t understand the product. The class is to help educate homeowners so that they have some idea of what to expect from a landscaper and how to communicate effectively with the person or firm they choose to hire. While he conceded that there are some bad apples in the industry, like every other industry, most of the problems are caused by lack of understanding or insufficient communication between the firm and the client.

I like this idea of using food plants as ornamentals. It’s both decorative and useful.

The two major points I got from this presentation were budget and details. Know your budget. How much are you willing and able to spend? If you are not willing to provide a hard number, at least provide a range so that your landscaper doesn’t plan a $50,000 overhaul when you have $10,000 to spend. Details came up over and over again. The more detailed you are in describing what you want, the more information the landscaper has to work with. They, in turn, should be able to provide you with details about timing, materials, and how to contact them with questions. Woven through this was the idea that a good company will work with you. They want you to be happy with your investment just as much as you do. While it is a job, and they do have to make a living, for many it is also a passion.

Your budget can actually affect a fair number of pieces for this puzzle. The amount of money you have to spend can help you narrow the choices of firms. What is too large or small for one firm to be able to handle might be exactly what another firm is set up for. If you have a particular firm in mind but have less to spend than their usual clients, you may need to wait for a slower time of year for them to fit you in. The other thing to consider is whether the budget is all you are willing to spend on the project or if you might have assets to spend on it in the future. Curtis, and other landscapers I have been taking classes from, are generally happy to phase in a project over time if that is how your budget can support your dream.

I think this modest selection showed remarkable restraint. It’s also supporting a good cause.

When Curtis was discussing what to look for in a design, he showed us a couple of what I hope were unusual examples first. They lacked detail and explanation. If the company that is doing the design is also doing the building, they can omit some minor details if certain things are always constructed a certain way. However, if it is a stand-alone design that you are taking to a different company to build for you, the construction company should not have any questions. Then he showed us one of his. There were multiple views and so many details that it looked like a building blueprint or electronics schematic. While his company both designs and builds, his designs are sold separately from the building bid. On the off chance that the client liked the design but chose to go with another construction firm, all of the details the other company would need will be in the design. The contracts should have a similar level of detail so that it is very clear who is responsible for what along with how and when it will be completed.

The short version of the class is to be an educated consumer. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and follow up with references. There are nearly as many kinds of landscapers as there are landscaping businesses. During the busy season, which is now, they are very busy and may not be able to answer your questions immediately, but a good firm or individual will answer your questions. The class was slated for one hour, but took about two because of the amount of information he had to share and his willingness to answer our questions. I am going to blame mulling over the information for distracting me and causing my window-shopping at the end of the plant sale to turn into actual shopping.

Classes: Herbal Mother’s Day Gifts and Herbal First Aid Kits

Bath tea on the right, extra supplies on the left.

I took the Herbal Mother’s Day Gifts some time ago, but I wanted to wait to post it until the birthday presents I took it for were already in the mail. Due to my impressive promptness with making them, I managed to take Herbal First Aid Kits in the meantime. Both were given by Christina Blume of Blume’s Farm. She actually began her fascination with herbs due to the need in grad school to have one more advanced anthropology class. She chose a class on medicines in other cultures. The herbs spoke to her, causing her to change paths and travel the country learning everything she could. Both of these classes were on the expensive side for the Denver Botanic Gardens, but I did come home with some pretty cool loot.

The first class, Herbal Mother’s Day Gifts, was a fairly small group, which was probably a good thing considering the hands-on nature of the class. Christina handled the preparations that were melted, but we made our own spritzer/cologne and “Easy Bath Bombs.” It turns out that balsam fir and lavender make a sharp, refreshing spritzer. The bath bombs will require a little more practice. The dry and liquid ingredients need to be mixed carefully so they don’t fizz before you drop the finished bomb into your bath. Practice will help me develop the feel of the mixture to pack into the molds. Any failures will still work very well to keep my skin soft in the meantime. While we were working on the bath bombs, I got to chat with the women I was sharing my batch of ingredients with. It turns out they like to learn various crafts together and then use what they learn to make gifts for friends and family. The gifts are pretty universally well received. I’m going to need to remember this next time it’s time for presents.

It smelled slightly of peanuts. Looks pretty though.

The second class, Herbal First Aid Kits, offered more practical goodies for an accident-prone person like myself. Christina showed us a couple of preparations, although there were too many people in the class for us to get to do things ourselves. She also gave me permission to share a recipe from the class. I chose the herbal bactine, or Echinacea Plus Tincture, because of it’s general usefulness internally or externally.

2-3 chopped, fresh Echinacea flowers or 2 tablespoons dried Echinacea root

A small fistful of fresh Calendula flowers or three tablespoons of dried flowers

3 tablespoons of dried Oregon grape root

2 tablespoons dried myrrh power

Grind the herbs in a food processor or blender. Pour into a jar with a tight-fitting lid and cover with Everclear to one inch above the herbs. Put a layer of waxed paper between the jar and the lid. Shake once or twice a day for two weeks. Strain through a cotton cloth and store in a dark bottle with a tight-fitting lid. This can be used on any cut, scrape. or wound as a disinfectant and anti-microbial. Due to the alcohol content, it will sting when applied. Internally, take 1/2 a teaspoon in a small amount of juice every two hours the first day.

I need to work on my straining skills.

The Everclear is needed for the myrrh. As a resin, it needs a higher alcohol content to actually make a tincture. Most of them work very well with cheap vodka for a lower alcohol content. However, it is also one of the best antimicrobials there is. Apparently, its use for embalming protected the embalmers in the Middle East during times of plague. You may want to make the Echinacea tincture separately as well. With most, tinctures, the alcohol will extract the pertinent parts of the herb. For Echinacea, however, the polysaccharides, which don’t come out with alcohol,  are also pertinent. After you strain the solids out of the alcohol, you will want to simmer the solids in water to extract them. When you add the second extraction to the first, the amount of 50% of the water portion will also need to be added in additional alcohol.

Between the two classes, there were lots of interesting tidbits. Most of her salves are made with olive oil, but the “Sole Softener” recipe calls for castor oil. It is far more penetrating and healing on its own. Given the tenacity of it while I was making the sole softener, I’m not so surprised that a god was named after it. It gets on everything, but my hands felt great afterward. I also found out that essential oils are not necessarily a good idea for use by expecting mothers. For those gifts, you might want to stick with whole herbs, as they don’t have the same potency while still being useful. If you need comfrey root, leave the grinding to the professionals. Apparently it will destroy regular kitchen utensils.

Cooled and ready to be mailed. The one with the fingerprint and the poor straining will be staying with me.

I need to weigh which classes I can afford to take this year and which ones I really should put off, but she has a class for a full home kit coming up that I think would be a good investment. Now that I know where to find my herbs, Mountain Mama’s, although I hear that Vitamin Cottage is also really good and found outside of Colorado Springs, it’s something that I want to play with more. Next time I pick up bits and pieces at the grocery store, however, I might opt not to pick up a saline laxative (epsom salts, great bath salts) and a liquid laxative (castor oil, for the sole softener) in bulk at the same time. The cashier was clearly wondering if my day was going as badly as it appeared.

Class: Botany

This is the first class I started with Sheridan Samano, and the most recent one that I finished. It is usually held over an eight-week period, but with her more intense travel schedule, it was condensed to eight classes in four weeks. To be honest, two classes each week probably helped me on the quiz we started each class with, since it hadn’t been a full week since I had learned the information.

This class, even more than the ecology class, felt like a college class. There was a lot of information to cover, and we even had a text book. I recommend Brian Capon’s Botany for Gardeners to anyone that is interested in the why behind the how of gardening. It is accessible without being shallow, and is small enough to not intimidate. There were a couple of corrections to the book that we got in class. The favorite color of bees is yellow, not purple and blue, and there are more than four hormones that we now understand. We talked about a fifth, briefly, but apparently the number keeps growing.

Botany is an under-studied and under-researched field. Sheridan herself got into it kind of sideways, since her first interest is birds. She started learning about botany to better understand the birds’ locations and habits. Being a botanist isn’t a show-stopper of a career like a marine biologist or an avian biologist. After all, they’re just plants, right? How exciting could that possibly be? It turns out, even if you don’t take into account carnivorous plants, it can be quite exciting.  Everyone should remember from their middle-school and highschool science classes that plants are the primary producers. They are the organisms that take sunlight and make food that every other organism uses one way or another. The ways that they have found to survive and thrive in all sorts of environments to continue to do so are fascinating.

We all know that plants have been around for a long time. There are four classes of plants: Bryophytes (moss), Pterophytes (ferns), Gymnosperms (“naked seeds”), and Angiosperms (“vessel seeds”). Bryophytes, or non-vascular plants, are the oldest. Angiosperms are both the newest and the most prolific. They are also mostly what we use in our gardens. After all, the bulk of gardening is done for flowers and for fruit (technically just a fertilized ovary) which are only found in this class.

The variety found in plants is both fascinating, and potentially challenging. Anyone who gardens has run across the fact that some things just won’t grow in some locations. With this class, those locations have gone from large areas to very small ones. Don’t plant native Colorado plants in what used to be your vegetable garden. Their death will have nothing to do with elevation, water, or sunlight. It will have everything to do with the fact that they are designed for a harsh environment, not the lush richness required by vegetables. Don’t plant broad-leaved, shade-loving plants in a sunny spot around here. That death will have everything to do with the sun. When choosing indoor plants, bear in mind that most commercial houseplants are tropical plants that grow in the shade. They can handle the limited sun of a house without growing toward any sun they can find.

As with anything, the more I learn, the more I find that I don’t know. However, this class was a fantastic start to understand the whys behind so many gardening hows. Also, as long as you aren’t a Poison fan, here’s a conversation-starter for you. Every rose does not, in fact, have its thorn. They have prickles.

Class: Gardener’s Ecology Course

This is my second course with Sheridan Samano, but the first one I have completed. She recently retired from teaching college-level biology to focus on her tourism company. Unlike the landscapers and homesteaders I have been learning from, this class felt like a college class. But it was the kind of class you hoped to get, the kind where the professor is so excited about the subject that you can’t help but get caught up in the enthusiasm.

It is a six-hour class. Usually it is broken up over three weeks, but this particular round was two three-hour Saturdays. It was an intense amount of information, but very useful. We covered general ecology information before we moved on to more Colorado-specific information.

Ecology is the study of interactions between an organism and its environment. When we think of this, we tend to think of plants and animals. In fact, ecosystems are named for their dominant plant species. However, it is the abiotic, non-living, factors that determine the dominant plant species. The plants then determine what animals can be supported in that area. What does this mean to a gardener? If you don’t have the right abiotic factors, sunlight, temperature, moisture, etc., then your plants are going to have a difficult if not impossible time surviving. I spent the drive home on the first Saturday noticing that there was still snow on the north-facing slopes despite the unseasonably warm weather. In the northern hemisphere, the north-facing slopes are cooler and wetter than the south-facing slopes, due to less sun exposure. That would not be the place for an early spring garden.

When we were discussing biotic (living) versus abiotic (non-living) factors, it was interesting to note that soil is considered a biotic factor. The minerals worn from rocks are abiotic, but when you add in the organic material and the organisms that make that organic and inorganic material available to plants, it becomes biotic. In other words, it’s a living organism that you can kill. This becomes important when you think about fertilizers. Too much or the wrong thing can kill the soil as much as the plants that are using it.

I am very interested in the idea of making gardening easy. I like to garden, but I have a lot of interests. I only have so much time to devote to each. When you think about fertilizing, instead of automatically dumping on x product, organic or not, at y time because you always do, think about whether or not there’s a need for it. Are you seeing evidence of a lack of particular nutrients? Is it a vegetable garden where you know that you don’t leave any vegetation to decompose for use the next year?Those are the times that Sheridan suggest that you fertilize. That way you are providing what is needed, but no more.

I really enjoyed this class because gardens really are little ecosystems. They can be healthy ones or they can be faltering ones. The more we understand that a garden is more than the plants we thought were pretty and plunked in the garden where we decided they should go, the more we can understand how to help a faltering garden or appreciate one that is a successful balance of so very many variables. I also now have a desire to take a trip out I-70 to the east so that I can watch the march of all the different ecosystems we have, here, in Colorado.