Posts Tagged ‘mulch’

Showcase 2, RCG Beds: Hot weather plants


I planted my hot weather veggies- specifically, tomatoes and peppers, a couple of weeks ago. There were a total of 9 pepper plants in Showcase 2, three bell, three jalapeno, and three chili. I also planted one bell pepper in bed B of my RCG beds. I’m not much of a pepper person, but the owner of Showcase 2 is. She got three tomato plants, and RCG A got two. I think we will not lack for peppers or tomatoes when the harvesting starts.

RCG B. You can see the three garlics that have decided that being planted in May is no reason not to participate.

The tough part of peppers and tomatoes around here is that they are not frost-hardy and I don’t have any of the nifty things to save them from a frost. In most of the country, once you’re a week or two past the last frost date, you’re fine. Well, it was snowing on Mount Evans a week before I planted, and a couple of days after I did the planting, Pikes Peak had a fresh white mantle as well. Granted, both of them are “Fourteeners” or mountains at fourteen thousand feet, but at around six thousand feet above sea level, we aren’t that far below the clouds that were dropping snow.

Showcase 2’s tomatoes and their brush trellis. The straw was purchased for the potatoes, but the other plants seem to like it, too.

They are growing fairly slowly at this point, but it hasn’t been consistently warm to really encourage them. The beans, however, seem to be quite pleased with themselves. It turns out the beans in RCG A are bush beans, not pole beans. Oh well. There are two types of pole beans and another type of bush bean in Showcase 2. We are using the dead brush in the corner of the garden as the bean trellis. When I was cleaning out some of the live stuff and the ones that seemed the most likely to poke an eye out, I ended up with enough spare branches to knock together a brush trellis for the tomatoes. That way, we don’t have to buy one. At least not this year. I don’t imagine it will last more than one.

Showcase 2: The Vegetable Patch

So far, two beds and compost.

It took me a while to get to it, but I finally got the second bed dug for Showcase 2. It took about two and a half hours to double-dig the 4×8′ plot. It’s a little bigger than the potato plot, but with the rain we’ve been having recently, the ground was also a little softer. I ran into a few different things with this plot than I did with the potato bed. The potatoes, by the way, are doing great. Every one of them has at least broken through the ground, and some of them are getting pretty big. I do need to track down some straw, though, to mulch them.

If there’s only one rock, make it count.

I ran into a few different issues with this bed. I dug up more sticks and roots than you can, well, shake a stick at. I suspect that the roots are from the bush behind the compost piles. I also found out why I wasn’t digging up any rocks. They were all concentrated in a single cubic foot. It was heavy. There was also proof of the mess that construction can make. In a couple of different places, I ran into construction sand. Considering that it was in the second layer each time, it had to have been from the original construction of the house. It is getting mixed in with the rest of the soil so that I don’t have little bits of beach in the garden, but that will have at least a slight effect on the soil texture. The changes are particularly interesting because this bed is two feet away from the potato bed, yet had almost totally different things to deal with. In a natural setting, two plots that close should be pretty similar. Clearly, that is not the case in an urban setting.

Sand in the soil.

I dug it over on Thursday night and didn’t make it back to rake it smooth and start planting until Sunday afternoon. I didn’t get in as much as I’d hoped, since rain was coming and I needed to get some stuff in my community garden plots. However, I did get two squares each of carrots and onions and the marigolds were planted up near where the tomatoes will be once we pick them up.

Grid and first planting.

Because this bed will be something that doesn’t have a “close date,” we opted to grow the parsnips in this garden. They take something like forever to grow, but this way we can leave them in the ground for a frost or two, or possibly overwinter them. We will also be putting in a proper fall planting of garlic so that we have it for next year. I am planning on adding kale in late summer so that we can see how that winters over as well.

Overseeing the gardener can really wear you out.

Class: Understanding Front Range Soils

“Soil is precious and we treat it like dirt.”

This class was taught by Jean Reeder, Ph.D. soil scientist. She spent 30 years with the USDA ARS, the agricultural research service. Since retirement, she is now a consultant for the CSU Soil Testing Lab and she is one of the instructors for the Colorado Master Gardener program. She has also discovered that she didn’t really understand the soil in her own back yard. Of natural, agricultural, and urban soils, urban soils are the most complex and the least understood. She has begun applying her skills to changing that.

Anyone who lives in Colorado knows that we face a lot of challenges. Our semi-arid climate is cool with a short growing season, dry, and highly variable in both temperature and precipitation. However, more than 80% of plant problems are because of the soil. It is the fundamental component of the landscape. That makes it the biggest challenge. However, it is also the least understood. We have even less information to go on than most of the country, as our soil is as different as our weather. Where most soil is more acid, ours is alkaline. If you find a native soil around here that is 2% organic matter, you’re doing really well. In Iowa, 6-7% organic matter is perfectly normal. We also have free lime. She told us about one woman she knew that preferred to send her soil samples to a lab in Missouri to be tested. They never tested for free lime, since it isn’t an issue in Missouri.

There were a few main points I got from this class. The first is, test your soil. The old saying is “feed and nurture the soil and the soil will feed an nurture the plants.” That’s true, but how do you know how to nurture it if you don’t know where it is now? Sending off samples for testing is a bit more expensive than picking up a soil test kit at the store. However, you get a lot more information and a lot more accuracy. The other thing is to get it tested locally. I use the CSU service. Granted, the lab is in Fort Collins, which is not exactly around the corner from Colorado Springs, but they know Colorado. They know about free lime and our increasing problem with salt in our soils. They can tell me how to manage it in a way that will work here. The kits you can pick up at the store are apparently usually calibrated for acidic soils, which makes them worse than useless in our alkaline soils. They also don’t come with instructions for fixing any issues you have.

Once you get your test results back, there are a couple of things that it is best to just make peace with. The pH and the texture are almost impossible to change, and any changes may have other consequences. Our soils tend to be more clayey. One apparent solution is to add sand. Aside from the fact that you have to add too much sand for that to be practical, the recipe for concrete is lime and sand. It’s not a guarantee, but if you’re unlucky, you might end up with a concrete slab where you had intended to put in a garden. As for pH, our soils are very well buffered, so they resist being changed. One possible change is to add sulfur. However, if you have a high-calcium soil (lime is usually calcium carbonate), you end up making gypsum. Gypsum is used in places as a fertilizer. However, it is a salt, so you will be increasing the salt content of your soil. The only way to change the pH with any hope of permanence is to manage the garden correctly and consistently for about 50 or 100 years or move to the mountains. There are some old gardens and gardens in the mountains that are slightly acidic. However, those are the exception not the rule.

The result of squished roots and a rough spring.

Now that you have made peace with your texture and pH, it’s time to talk about amendments. All amendments are not created equal. In fact, all compost is not created equal. We do not have naturally saline soils. However, the application of high-salt fertilizers, both organic and not, is turning salt into a problem. There’s a reason people used to salt the fields of their enemies. You can’t grow anything in salted soil and, unless you have massive amounts of high-quality water to flush the salts through the soil layers, it is almost impossible to fix. She did a study of bagged, commercial fertilizer. However, it never got published because the only consistency was that animal-based ones had very high salt content and plant-based ones tended to have merely high salt content. Other than that, there was no telling what would come out of a particular bag. Even if you go natural, there is still a huge variation in what you can get. She showed us numbers of actual fertilizers she had analyzed from non-bagged sources. The numbers were all over the place. Including two that ended up with toxic amounts of trace minerals and several that were going to cause salt issues if they were used with any regularity. If you are considering using your neighbor’s horse manure, she mentioned that what they are fed affects the quality of the manure. The quality of what goes in affects the quality of what comes out the other end. Think about that for a minute. I sure did.

This one isn’t too happy with it’s placement either.

The last major point is compaction. I have run across this as being a problem in gardens before, but she took it to another level. Compacted soil means that the aggregates in the soil, the structure made from the mineral content and the organic material, have been destroyed, which means that there are few if any pores in the soil for air and water to penetrate. If you live in an urban area, it’s best to assume that your soil is compacted. If you are able to do so, you will want to fix that before you put down lawn and gardens, as it is almost impossible to fix later. If your soil has no, or few, pores with air and water, roots will not have anywhere to go, or a reason to go there. The smaller and more restricted a root system is, the smaller the above-ground part of the plant will be. I have notice small trees in “hell strips” between the sidewalk and the road recently that are only leafing out on their lower branches. This is apparently a result of restricted root growth combined with a dry spring. The upper branches had to be sacrificed because the limited roots couldn’t support them in the rough conditions we have had this spring. If it wasn’t trapped between the compaction under the road and the compaction under the sidewalk, the roots would be able to spread out, giving them half a chance to support the growth that had gone on before conditions got bad. When you walk across wet, loose ground once, you just compacted that ground by 75%. If you walk across it four times, now it’s 90% compacted. Now think about the damage a bulldozer or crane will do while the house is being constructed.

The overarching concept from this class is that, with two exceptions, less is more. On average, it takes about 150 years to build an inch of topsoil in nature. Colorado would need more time than average. Therefore, taking 10 years to slowly build a to-die-for garden is still well above average. The fewer amendments you use, the less likely you are to make a mistake. If you salt your garden or add toxic levels of a nutrient, you will be spending a lot of time and money to fix it. Along the same lines, once our native soil has been disrupted, she let me know that it is very hard, very expensive, and often heartbreaking to restore it. The less of the native landscape we disrupt, the less we will have to painstakingly restore. Tilling and other machines tend to break up soil aggregates, affecting the soil structure. Hand-digging is far less likely to do so. What we need more of is patience and knowledge, hence the slightly lengthy post. Your soil is unique. The more information you can gather, and the more time you can spend with it, the better equipped you will be to know how to nurture it.

Ranch Community Garden: Setting Beds

The tools of the trade. Yes, those are Tonka trucks.

The countdown is on until opening day for the Ranch Community Garden where I will be having a garden plot all of my own. The workdays are getting longer as they hustle to get everything in. Today, we finished setting the frames for the raised beds and filling them with dirt. It was a lot of beds, there are 120 in total and not quite half had been put in already, but just over a dozen people came and went throughout the day as schedules and sore muscles dictated, so the task wasn’t overwhelming.

I like the way the raised beds were handled. In a community garden like this, it is necessary to have the plots clearly delineated. The frames do that, showing clearly where each 4’x8′ plot begins and ends. However, instead of filling the frame with imported soil, we were digging the frame into the ground a little and filling it with the partially amended dirt that was already in the garden. Over the winter, the soil for the garden plot had been covered by wood mulch to start it decomposing into the soil and to protect it from

Partially done as we move down the line.

drying out excessively. What we were shoveling into the gardens was the mostly decomposed wood mulch and the soil it had been protecting. I think that amending the soil and then adding a frame to mostly just delineate the bed is a good way to go for someone who has the time for the amendments to be worked into the soil and has soil they don’t mind using. It is certainly cheaper and has a smaller carbon footprint than importing soil to fill a frame.

The garden is on the grounds of the Beth-El Mennonite Church. The founder of the garden is a member of the church, and they had land that suited his needs, so they were able to help him get the idea under way. Each time I have been out to help with the set-up, there were church members helping out, too. Most of them weren’t going to have plots, they were just volunteering in their community. I actually had a very interesting conversation this afternoon with one of the members about community and comparative religions. Being Colorado Springs, conversations about religion are bound to happen eventually. The conversation we were having, I feel, was starting to build community in the garden. When you work with people for several hours, you’re bound to talk about something. It was very interesting to have a deeper conversation than I was expecting, and it reinforced my hope that being part of the community garden will help me to build my community.

Two days worth of work. I like the subtle terraced effect the slight slope of the hill gives to the beds.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to get back there myself, but there are several more work days coming up if you happen to be in the area. There are also available beds, if you feel the need to play in the dirt with the rest of us. Once the garden is open, there will be plots set aside for a local food bank that I’m sure will be able to use the occasional afternoon of community work. In the meantime it’s back to nursing sore muscles and missing the calluses I used to have on my hands.

Class: New Gardener Boot Camp

This was a full day of classes designed to get us set up for the upcoming growing season. There was a huge number of gardeners there, so it was set up like school, where you had a schedule and the instructors were each teaching their class several times that day. Apparently the instructors had been told they would have more time than they did, so the classes were all kind of rushed. However, as usual, they did their best to give us the information we needed to be successful.

Being the clever girl I am, not only did I arrive a little bit late, I then proceeded to lock my keys, and membership card, in my car. I missed most of my first class, Beginning Vegetable Gardening taught by Betty Cahill. What I caught at the tail end was interesting, and I did get some good handouts to study, including lots of reference material. She also pointed out that the lettuce we harvest will hold up better in the refrigerator if we don’t wash it until we are ready to eat it.

The second class, Annuals and Perennials for Color in the Garden with Marcia Tatroe wasn’t at the top of my list of things I was looking for that day, since I’m mostly interested in food, but I got some very good concepts. Things like, the only things that you can read off the label and be sure of are the dimensions of the plant and the color. Everything else should be taken with a grain of salt, especially if the plant wasn’t raised locally. Most green-house plants are raised on the West Coast due to their mild climate. Unfortunately, this doesn’t prepare them for our harsh sun and less-than-mild weather. Just because a plant is a perennial somewhere else does not mean that it can be a perennial here. Even more to the point, the instructor’s gardens are at an elevation just 800′ above Denver Botanic Gardens and she has to grow as annuals some of the things the Botanic Gardens grow as perennials. One point that applies equally well to vegetable and flower gardeners is to not be afraid to be harsh with and even kill your plants. They aren’t puppies! In other words, pulling out mis-placed volunteers and thinning young plants to the mature spacing isn’t just necessary, it’s actually good for the garden as a whole. If you are working with xeric plants, you also want to be sure to treat them in a way that they have evolved to handle. That means that amending your whole bed into rich, black, highly organic soil might actually kill the local flora. On the other hand, if your yard has a sandy patch and a clayey patch and a low, wet patch, you can grow a wide variety of plants.

Lunch was burritos from Chipolte and Gorgeous and Easy Container Gardens with Susan Evans. I think my favorite part of her lecture was the idea that you should build your gardens to your preferences, not to your neighbors or for the cars on the street. Your neighbor might look out their window at your front lawn every day, but that doesn’t mean they get to dictate what is in it. There was a lot of discussing how to put things together and classic design concepts. However, in the end, it is yours. Make something you like. She discussed fragrance gardens. She has one at nose-level beside her favorite chair and she suggests having one on the way to the car. That way you can pluck off a piece to lay on your dash as a non-toxic air-freshener. When you are picking your pots, plastic is probably the best bet. Clay is pretty, but it wicks water out of your plants. Given our dry climate, that’s a problem. You should also consider larger rather than smaller pots, as they also hold water better. She is an herbalist, so she gave us some tips on them. Basil and cilantro don’t dry well, so both of those can be pureed with a little olive oil then frozen in ice cube trays. The rest of the herbs can be cut, bunched, and hung to dry. However, she reminded us several times to remember to take the bunches down for storage. No one likes peppermint and cobweb tea. The herbs should be stored in glass and as whole as possible, as you lose the essential oils when you chop or crush them too early.

My next class was Soils and Composting 101 with Carl Wilson. This was the only class that didn’t feel rushed, but I got the impression that not much could rush him. I finally got definitions of silt and loam in this class. Silt is mineral particles that are mid-way between sand (large) and clay (very small). Loam is unlikely to be found around here, but it is about 20% clay, 40% sand, and 40% silt. Clay is so dominant that at only 20% of the amount, it has a significant impact on the texture. Given a choice between sand and clay, clay is actually preferred. It has a charged surface, unlike sand, so it holds the nutrients that you add far more easily, keeping them within reach of plants. However, if you go significantly in either direction, the mineral content can give you challenges to work through. I thought it was very interesting that managed Western soil is only 5% organic matter at the most. More than that and you can have trouble with the nutrients actually getting to the plants and not being stuck in the soil. A big part of that is having enough organisms in the soil to break down what you add to things that the plants can use. He also discussed the fact that residential soil, what most of us are working with, is not the same as agricultural or native soils. The top soil has often been removed during the building process, removing those microorganisms and hundreds or thousands of years worth of their work. That means that before anything else happens, that somehow needs to be replaced. For compost, he mentioned that most residential piles don’t get hot enough to kill seeds and disease. If you have diseased plants or weeds that have gone to seed before you got to them, it may pain you, but they need to go in the trash. Animal products in general aren’t added, but a lot of gardeners add eggshells. Given the naturally high lime- calcium carbonate- content of our soils out here, you may want to think twice before you add them. It does, of course, also depend on the makeup of your particular soil.

Starting Seeds was taught by Patti O’Neal that I had taken a class from earlier. Apparently the 10 easiest plants to start from seed are beans, cucumbers, radishes, pumpkins, cosmos, peas, lettuce, squash, sunflowers, and zinneas. There were a lot of definitions in this class, but one of the comparisons that stood out was hybrid versus heirloom. Heirlooms have been around for a long time. The minimum time for a plant to have been reproducing reliably to qualify is about 50 years. Hybrids, on the other hand, are a first-generation cross that won’t reproduce true to the plant you saved the seeds from. My main interest is heirlooms, but apparently hybrids are often easier for beginning gardeners as they have had disease resistance and other perks bred into them. I may have to rethink my stance on them. She also strongly suggested that, as in most crafts, you plan twice and plant once. This includes reading all the information provided on the seed packets to know when, where, and how to plant the seeds. When you are saving your seeds, as they can last from year to year, you need to make sure they are cool and dry. She uses a coffee filter with kitty litter as the desiccant in her glass seed-jar. You will have better success if you store them in a cool basement rather than a garage that will heat up in the summer. After all, it is warmth and water that cause germination. To start your seeds, what you need is a tray to catch the water, something to hold the seeds, and a cover. This could be like the spiffy, professional seed tray we were given, or it could be reclaimed materials. She likes strawberry boxes and toiletpaper rolls for kid’s projects. Bear in mind that the “biodegradable pots” that are popular right now will not biodegrade in our soil. She noted that if you are “gardening in Iowa in devil’s food cake” they work fine. However, as noted above, we have a low level of organic material which means fewer of the organisms needed to break them down. The seeds will need warmth of some sort and the seedlings will need light. If you have good windows, that can work, but they tend to grow better if you actually have a light installation. It can be affordable fluorescents as long as you get one warm and one cool to capture the full spectrum. The goal is to get short, stocky, bushy plants in varieties that you can’t find at most nurseries.

This post turned into something of an epic. I apologize for that, but I only scratched the surface of what we were given. Between those classes and some others that I will be writing about when they finish, my head might just explode from the information being stuffed in. However, it is all so very pertinent that I couldn’t be happier with finding the Botanic Gardens for classes. I knew I needed a sharp learning curve to get up to speed with local conditions and helping others learn the basics, and this is giving me that flood of information.


I just started getting the Colorado Springs Gazette. What can I say, helping the papergirl get free college classes sold me. I’m a sucker for affordable higher education. Once I realized that I did like the coupons, but there wasn’t a chance I would read a daily newspaper, I switched to just the Sunday paper. Unfortunately, I didn’t do it quickly enough, and I had a pile of newspapers to deal with.

Somewhere along the line I had heard that you shouldn’t compost colored ink. Dutifully, I went through each paper, pulling out the pages that had just black ink. I was left with a very small pile of paper that could be composted or used to make paper seed-pots. Fortunately, this was addressed in the class about making the most of your garden. It turns out that if your newspaper uses soy-based inks, you can compost the colored ink as well, as long as it is on regular newsprint. With a quick e-mail to the Gazette’s customer service folks, I confirmed that they use soy-based inks. Now all I have to do is re-sort to take out the glossy pages and I will have a much bigger pile that’s safe for garden use and doesn’t need to be recycled.

It turns out, colored ink was a problem, once upon a time, and may still be for the parts of the newspaper that might not be printed in America. The inks were petroleum-based, allowing all sorts of nasty things to build up in your soil with repeated use. However, the bulk of newspapers have since moved to soy-based inks as they are safer for the people that are on the printing floor. You will want to contact your newspaper to confirm, but the colored inks are probably not a problem. They are still made with some heavy metals, but as one post pointed out, the amount in the ink really isn’t going to be noticed by someone gardening in an urban setting. Not with all the other contaminants to worry about. The glossy inserts, however, still need to go into the recycling pile, as they undergo extra processing and may not be printed in the United States, so their ink composition can be harder to pin down.

Now that you’ve supported your paperperson’s educational goals and sorted the newsprint from the glossy parts, what do you do with it? One of my first interactions with gardens and newspapers was as a layer of mulch. There are a couple of ways to do this. If you have a garden that is set up to be a few plants with mulch between, a thick layer of well-overlapped newspapers will let you keep the potentially pricy mulch to a minimum while still suppressing the weeds. This technique could also be used to line garden paths or mulch around large plants such as potatoes. You will probably be using rocks to anchor the newspapers in the vegetable garden instead of purchasing mulch, unless you prefer the aesthetics. I have also seen newspaper used to kill grass in an area that will be turned into a garden. If you are just going to turn the grass into the soil right there, depriving it of sunlight for a while weakens it and makes it easier to cut through.

Another way to use the newspaper is in your compost pile. It counts as a “brown” in an outdoor compost pile, and vermicompostors use it as bedding for their worms. In either case, it does need to be shredded first, as flat sheets of newspaper compact and don’t let in the air necessary for breaking it down. The more finely it is shredded, the more easily it can decompose. One person even mentioned that they feed their worms their shredded mail. I don’t know how mail compares to newsprint for composting, but it would be the most secure way to dispose of information that I have ever heard of. As an apartment-dweller I am very curious about vermicomposting, since it can be done inside. Regular composting, of course, is a great way to make the most out of what you pull out of the garden, be it weeds or the leftovers from preparing your vegetables to eat. Both will be getting posts in the future to explore them further.

If you are starting seeds, you can also use newspaper to make biodegradable pots. These would be a less expensive alternative to peat pots for plants that don’t like to have their roots disturbed but need to be started inside like  cucumbers. If you aren’t good at origami, a tool like this can help.

Newspaper is one of those things that you don’t look at and think “garden.” Well, most people don’t, anyway. But it can actually be pretty helpful in degrading your kitchen scraps back into rich compost or keeping the weeds from where they shouldn’t be growing. We are being encouraged to recycle, which is a good thing. But reusing and repurposing can actually be even better, since it seldom requires another input of energy outside of a little creativity.