Monthly Archives: October 2016

Worm Composting – It’s Easier Than You Think (and it’s fun)

Are you looking for something to occupy your time after your garden is put to bed and the snow starts falling? How about vermiculture (aka worm composting)? It’s easy. It’s fast. It’s year-round. It reduces kitchen scraps going to the landfill. And it provides rich compost for your garden and houseplants.

Worm box worms are not your average earthworms. The most common worms for vermiculture are Eisenia Fetida, commonly known as red wigglers. Red wigglers love kitchen scraps.  They will eat pretty much anything from your kitchen except meat and dairy products. Avoid meat and dairy because they can attract unwanted pests to your box. Some people say not to feed them citrus fruit and peppers. I have not had a problem giving them citrus or peppers as long as both mixed in with other scraps.

Red wigglers enjoying a meal of kitchen scraps

Red wigglers enjoying a meal of kitchen scraps

Worm composting produces rich, finished compost called worm castings. And it produces them faster than your regular compost bin. And you don’t have to turn it.  And the worm castings are richer in nutrients than regular compost. What’s not to like? The worms do all the work and you get all the rewards. It seems unfair, but the worms don’t seem to mind.

Finished worm castings

Finished worm castings

The first thing you need is a box to hold your worms. Many people make worm boxes out of Rubbermaid containers. I prefer wood boxes because I think a wood box breathes better. Worms need air. If you use Rubbermaid containers, make sure to drill plenty of holes in the container for air and drainage. I know what you are thinking – “Won’t the worms escape through the holes?” They won’t for two reasons.  They need a moist environment to live and they are photophobic (they hate light). Your dark, moist (not wet) box filled with bedding (shredded newspaper) and kitchen scraps is worm heaven for them. They are very happy right where they are.

Red wigglers dwell near the soil surface so the box does not need to be deeper than 12 to 18 inches. One foot wide by two feet long is a good size for a small household. Two feet by three feet works for a bigger household or if you have a lot of kitchen scraps.

Red wigglers like about the same temperature range as us. Not too hot and not too cold. The ideal range is 55-77 degrees Fahrenheit. A basement, laundry room, heated garage, kitchen or living room corner are all great places for a worm box. Some people are reputed to use worm boxes as coffee tables, which I suppose could help with awkward lulls in conversation – “Guess what’s under the hors d’oeuvre plate?” Worm boxes can be kept outside in warmer weather, but be careful that the box does not get too warm or too cold. A well-managed worm box is odorless and unobtrusive.

Now you need worms. One great way to get red wigglers for your box is from someone who already has a worm box. A healthy box produces a lot of worms. Most worm composters are happy to share their surplus worms with people just starting out.  You can find worms on the internet. Years ago I ordered my worms on the internet and they came in the FedEx box with air holes punched in the side with a pencil. The worms did not seem any worse for the wear and their descendants are still going strong many years later. You can also find worms for sale locally (see the link below).

A great place to learn about worm composting is Denver Urban Gardens (DUG). They have a basic worm composting outline on their website.  DUG also holds worm composting workshops in the spring and summer. The website has a link on where to get worms in the Denver area. Check the DUG website to find a class schedule for next year.  Vermiculture at DUG.

Also, check out this great YouTube video on worm composting from CSU Extension and Tagawa Gardens.  It is a good visual primer on starting a worm box.

If you really get the bug to start worm composting, the classic book Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof is thorough guide to starting and maintaining a wormbox.

One last word of advice: don’t try to name all of them.

 

Written by Mark Zammuto, a Denver County Master Gardener

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Sheet composting or … cooking up an experiment in the garden

I’ve always known that the soil in the garden was the key to planting success.  So, when we started our new Denver garden in 2014 we turned in most of the turf and dug, weeded and added leaf mold to the topsoil.  (We had kept all the fall leaves for this purpose.)  Then all the bare soil was covered with a 3-4 inch mulch of wood chips.  Key trees were planted in spring 2014 with more trees, shrubs , ornamental grasses and herbaceous perennials following in 2015.  We watered diligently till the winter and snow came.  We thought we’d made a good start.

In spring 2016 I was delighted to see our young trees and shrubs budding out .  Most of the herbaceous perennials had survived, but they didn’t increase in size during the summer. They hardly bloomed.  They didn’t die.  They just sat there.  Watering seemed to make no difference.

I figured that the larger plants (trees and shrubs) were able to get their roots down into the clay where there was more moisture and more nutrients.  But the perennials were struggling with their smaller root balls being mostly in the 8-10 inches of sandy loam topsoil.  Here water drained away quickly and despite the wood chip mulch, the unrelenting sun and high temperatures baked the soil to an iron hard cap over dull powdery stuff below (if you could get the spade in that far!).

I had a soil test done by the soil laboratory at CSU which told me that our topsoil was low in nitrogen and organic matter.  Ah-ha!  That is why the plants weren’t thriving.  The lack of nitrogen was slowing the development of stems and leaves.  The lack of organic matter meant the soil wasn’t holding sufficient water for the plants’ roots to take up.

OK, I thought, we have to do more to improve the soil. I’ve never liked the idea of just throwing chemical fertilizers at the garden.  It’s expensive, wasteful and potentially dangerous to the wider environment.  Double-digging and adding store-bought amendments (of uncertain quality) is back-breaking and expensive. What to do?

Soil is not tilled in the natural world.  Fertility is built up by the decomposition of leaves, twigs and other plant waste on the surface.  Soil texture and nutrient levels are also improved by the actions and decomposition of organisms living in the soil and plant roots.  I’d just been reading about permaculture gardening techniques and the soil improvement technique of “sheet composting” or “lasagna gardening” seemed to be what we needed.

This is a way of building up organic matter and nitrogen in the soil without digging.  You gather different sorts of compostable material (green garden waste, compost, grass clippings, straw, dried leaves, well-rotted manure are just some you can use) and pile them up on the soil in layers.  Hence “sheet” composting or “lasagna” gardening. Essentially, you are making compost directly on top of the soil rather than in a compost bin elsewhere and then transferring it later to the garden.

Many books suggest that you also lay newspapers or plain cardboard down first to smother any existing weeds in the ground.  This is usually where you are trying to improve a weedy, uncultivated area.  But such two dimensional materials can be a barrier to the passage of water, nutrients and the essential soil creatures (see below) that you need to make the process work.

Cardboard layer to start

Cardboard layer to start. Existing wood chips raked on to path first.

Cardboard often incorporates waxes which inhibit the movement of moisture and make it hard to break down.  Shredded newspaper in half inch layers may be a better alternative, but not perfect.  I did use cardboard, but in hindsight probably didn’t need it as the soil was not weedy at all.

Every layer has to be thoroughly soaked with water including the existing soil.  The fungi, bacteria, insects, beetles, earthworms etc. that will break down your materials need water to do their work.

My “recipe” comprised from bottom (soil level) to top:

  • cardboard (on reflection, probably not needed)
  • garden compost (precious stuff from my own bins)
  • grass clippings from a neighbor’s “pile” and half a bag of left-over peat moss
  • partially decomposed garden waste from another neighbor’s “pile”
  • wood shavings and straw from another neighbor’s old chicken shed
  • grass clippings again
  • leaves collected in our leaf cage from the previous fall
  • more partially decomposed garden waste
  • wood chips to hold it all in place and for aesthetic appeal

The layers amounted up to about 12 inches of material.  Each layer was watered in.  Grass clippings were laid in approximately 1 inch layers while the other materials were laid in 3-4 inch layers.  You need much more brown material by volume than green.

Straw and partially decomposed garden waste

Straw and partially decomposed garden waste

Just like making compost conventionally it is important to have a mix of “green” and “brown” materials or, in chemical terms, sources of nitrogen and carbon.  Too much green (e.g. grass clippings) and you have too much nitrogen.  Too much nitrogen will encourage leafy top growth in your plants at the expense of root and fruit/flower development leading to straggly unhealthy plants.  Too much brown and the materials won’t break down sufficiently.

But the green/brown or nitrogen/carbon balance isn’t just about your plants.  All the living creatures in your soil need the right balance too.  They have to live, multiply, work the soil, die and decompose in order to release the precious nutrients to your plants.  The soil creatures need to feed before your plants can.

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Last year’s leaves go on

It’s important that the materials you bring in don’t also bring in weed seeds resulting in a huge weeding problem for the next year.  But the theory is that any weed seeds that do come in will rot in the damp condition of the layers. And if they don’t rot first, they won’t germinate anyway due to lack of light.

The biggest part of this job is sourcing and gathering all the materials.  There were many trips to neighbors’ gardens with rakes and shovels.  Then the trips home again with a car full of other people’s “waste” in old plastic bags. It is hard work.

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The finished thing

So, now we have some 60 feet of garden borders resting for the winter under their layers of composting (we hope!) materials.  We also have many other areas where fewer layers were used (mainly straw with grass clippings or partially decomposed garden waste) to about 3-4 inches to perk up the soil around and between trees and shrubs.

Many questions remain:

  • Will the cardboard decompose?
  • Is the “green” and “brown” balance right?
  • Will the raccoons and skunks churn it all up?
  • Will there be a crop of new weeds from the imported materials?
  • Will the cold Colorado winter simply stop any decomposition from taking place?
  • Will there just be a smelly slimy heap to remove next spring?
  • OR, will we have achieved that elixir of gardening – fertile, well-drained, moisture-retentive soil???

Well, the answers to all these questions will be given next year when I report back in another post.

In the meantime, what do you think? Have you tried this? Did it work well? Please share your comments below.

Anne Hughes  – Denver County Apprentice Master Gardener

Colorado Master Gardener 2016 State Conference Recap

Colorado Master Gardeners from around the state gathered together October 3-4 to be entertained, educated and inspired at the first state-wide conference. Lunch and snacks were excellent, too.

After the welcoming remarks by Mary Small, state Master Gardener coordinator, JoAnn Powell, Extension Front Range Regional Director, thanked attendees for their valuable contributions on the 40th anniversary of the Master Gardener Program.

She challenged the group to think about the direction of Master Gardeners for the future. “It takes all of us to make Extension Master Gardeners work well,” she said. “We need to be in touch with our communities, adapt to our communities, and try new things.”

One of those new things included the filming of a Master Gardener promotional video to help increase the program’s visibility in the community.

Here’s a brief recap of the first conference. Hopefully you can join us next year!

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The keynote speaker, Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott from the Puyallup Research and Extension Center at Washington State University, signed books and answered questions before the start of the conference. Chalker-Scott is the author of  “How Plants Work” and “The Informed Gardener Blooms Again.” During her two sessions she dispelled myths about common gardening products and practices. She also helped Master Gardeners understand how to apply The CRAP Test to evaluate gardening information.

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Master Gardeners in attendance included representatives from all three state regions: Western Region, Peaks and Plains, and the Front Range. In addition to the keynote presentations, attendees could choose breakout sessions on topics such as Taxonomy of Vegetables, Tomato Diagnostics, Insects, Extending the Season, Facts and Fiction about GMOs, Landscape Design, Low-maintenance Perennials, Pesticides, Herbs, Turf, and Advanced Plant Physiology.

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Master Gardeners were encouraged to engage with fellow gardeners throughout the day. The social hour was a good excuse to meet and mingle over an impressive assortment of appetizers.

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Table talks were a highlight at the end of the first day of the conference. Displays included programs from around the state like Jefferson County’s guidelines for using social media to promote master gardener volunteer programs. Other displays included Denver County’s Anchor Center for Blind Children, Arapahoe County’s work at the Colorado Center for the Blind Legacy Garden, and Pueblo County’s display featuring its Plant Diagnostic Clinic.

 

 

 

 

 

Under the Denver Sun

Beginnings of a Small Italian Garden

Italy. Hazy grey vistas are punctuated with narrow vertical trees. Nodding sunflowers laze in stony fields.  Knotty ancient thick-trunked olive trees hold forth in blazing sunlight. Window boxes are crammed full of vibrant red Pelargoniums or cascading petunias. Peeling walls, old doors and white sculptures are pierced with long rays. Shadowy evenings are filled with bees humming, and the breeze surprises with soft scents of lavender, roses and rosemary. Fountains play, and nearby the pergolas and arbors anchor verdant vines.  At once the designs are structured yet informal.  Italian gardeners tend to trim, pollard and generally shape many aspects of their plantings so keeping discipline within the freedom of the overall design. How could I bring these colors, textures and smells to a small sunny south-facing Colorado garden?

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Imposing Facade Bramasole, Cortona , Italy

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Roses, Lavender, Hibiscus, and Bees, Bramasole

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Blues in Foliage, Movement in Growth Pattern of Lavender Bed, and Lemon Trees in Movable Containers. Credit Patty Hollis Bramasole Photographs

We actually have some similarities here in Colorado to Tuscany: the purity of the sunlight, the ability to grow many of the same plants, and the often-disappointing soil!  Moreover, in Denver there is a propensity of Italian style houses needing yard work done, so as to create harmony with the home design.
We had this situation: a somewhat imposing stone house, with a tile roof, overwhelming a sad small lawned plot. We needed a plan that captured the essence of Italy. An Italian garden is rigid in some ways, but flowing and full of playful surprises as well. First, I put in the new curving flagstone pathways, then we had a focal point gate inserted in an existing wall (the only big expense), and I marked-out (with garden hoses) the new meandering borders for future flowerbeds.

Spring 2015, I laid six layers of newspaper, then topsoil and finally mulch (begged from a tree felling crew) on the new borders. Meanwhile, we planted the biggest items first so trees were positioned in the remaining grass areas. This stage included three small standard flamingo willow ball topiaries, and we were happy with how their pink spring delicate leaves brought in movement. In June I put in marker flags and then dug holes and planted the bulk of the borders.

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The New Reclaimed Border: Newspaper Layers, Topsoil and Mulch with Roses, Lavender, Speedwell, Tiny Dusty Miller, Boxwoods AND June Hail

From the house foundation to the front this was the order: Spiraea on one side (part sun), alongside large Rose of Sharon shrubs (full sun). Also, dusty pink climbing roses mixed with Russian sage were set-in at the base of the sunny wall. Then Moonstone™ floribundas were the next tall, back layer. Coming forward I placed Veronica (speedwell), and then lavender (both grouped in threes and fives), catmint (in a sometimes boggy drain outlet area), Bonica roses, and in front random plantings of soft grey Dusty Miller (which I planted as a annual but has thrived into this year). Finally, I nestled in boxwoods at the front of the new borders.

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New Garden Gate- Early Days

Boxwoods were intrinsic as a uniting design element, but I worried in this hot aspect that they might not thrive. They have done well so far (after some initial winter bronzing that righted itself) and although slow growing they add dark green shiny all-year round formality. I planted many more this year, and slowly I will add different sizes to bulk out the design. Also, I just put in a mixture of own-root end-of-year bargain miniature roses, in the same soft pink scheme.  Someone else might have chosen to go for more vibrant colors in so much sunshine, but for us the dusty pink and muted blue palette suited and followed our Tuscan inspiration.

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Cosmos: First Year Quick Dramatic Interest with Daisies and Spiraea

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Boxwood, Roses, Catmint, Russian Sage, Climbing New Dawn Roses and Trumpet Vine

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Moonstone Rose Large and Long Lasting

There was also an arid area around a large blue spruce so my latest additions have been barberries, grasses and low growing, tight growth junipers.

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Dwarf Hameln Grass, Barberry and Blue Spruce

Additionally, we have a small curved 270’ pathway that needed a focal point. I had a thriving eight foot Aspen, along with cankers and overnight new saplings.  It did hurt to rip it out, but it needed to be done. Ideally, a hundred year old olive tree was called for. But for a substitute we have just planted a Twisty Baby Black Locust to add the gnarly element that mimics a grand olive tree. I have given it a weekly dose of sugar water to possibly help with rather dramatic transplant shock more information here. This specimen tree should be interesting winter interest too, and we are hoping in time it will produce its lovely large white spring blossom.

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Dramatically Staked Rather Droopy New “Twisty Baby”

 

Recently we were pleased with how things were shaping up, but we still felt our house overwhelmed the plot and we were missing some movement, texture and color. I realized the design was devoid of a crucial element that separates the Italian landscape from any other, and without which Tuscany and even Renaissance landscape paintings would be dull.  The strong narrow verticals dotting all the land, lining the roads to cemeteries and grand villas.  I needed some upward movement.  In lieu of cypress I have planted, somewhat symmetrically, some Blue Arrows and Medora junipers. They have added the strong missing element, and should be interesting in our monochromatic winters.

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Assisi, Umbria Vertical Inspiration

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2017 One of the New Vertical Evergreens

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Whimsy. Perfumed and Perfect

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Structure in the Design, Clipped Hedges and Flamingo Willows.

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Blue Arrow Vertical Defining House with Speedwell & Sweet Drift Rose

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Part Sun Textural Plantings and New Verticals.

Late summer sees our humble garden at its best.  It is textural, perfumed and the air is filled with bees. As the boxwoods grow larger, and the narrow upright junipers extend upwards, the design will strengthen.  But for the moment I am content with the first steps on this project. Once established it has been low maintenance, with little room for weeds to grow. Ideal additions would be a little flagstone wall to step the front lawn, more beds, a sculpture or a sundial, and citrus in movable pots.
Anne Beletic.
A Denver County Apprentice Master Gardener

Appendix : Other Images Showing Details

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Bees and Hummingbirds

List of Main Plants:

Barberry: Berberis thunbergii for winter interest; slow growing  and perfect in front of blue spruce and Spiraea)

Lavender ‘Munstead’: Lavandula angustifolia for bees and constant summer blooming

Lavandin: L. angustifolia x L. latifolia

Russian sage:  Perovskia atriplicifolia  as a foil for roses and kept in check behind them

Catmint ‘Walker’s Low’: Nepeta racemosa covers unsightly gutter and run off area

Dusty miller: Jacobaea maritima gives a lot of bang for the buck and adds amazing light grey and texture to the design; much taller than the 10” I expected!

Speedwell: Veronica longifolia was cut well back in July for a substantial second bloom

Yellow trumpet creeper: Campsis radicans  f. flava Still waiting for flowers- value to be decided!

Junipers:  Juniperus scopulorum ‘Medora’ and Juniperus scopulorum ‘Blue Arrow’

Flamingo willow: Salix integra ‘Flamingo’

Boxwoods: Buxus sps

Black locust : Robinia pseudoacacia  Twisty Baby™

Roses:  ‘New Dawn’ – climbing; ‘Moonstone’™ – floribunda, highest maintenance, has had aphids, rose midge and very bothered by Japanese beetles, but are flourishing at end of summer with massive blooms; ‘Nearly Wild’; Bonica™; Blushing Knockout®; Pink Double Knockout®; Sweet Drift®; Whimsy™ – miniature, amazing fragrance.

Pre-existing:

Michaelmas daisy:  Symphyotrichum novae-angliae

Spiraea  sp. Large and formally cut box shape house foundation plant, dark green leaf and few white flowers

Spindle:  Euonymus japonicus

Rose of Sharon: probably Hibiscus syriacus ‘Collie Mullens– has  very short “giving season” but is glorious August and September.

Semi Arid area under blue spruce tree:

Red barberry:  Berberis thunbergii

Mound grass: Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ – divided and planted late summer, so hoping it will thrive

Juniper: Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star – hoping to block out bindweed in time

Annuals:

Red fountain grass: Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’

Verbena  sps – in pots with boxwood 2016

Pelargoniums: Pelargonium peltatum ‘Contessa White’ – ivy’type for window boxes. I didn’t actually succeed in overwintering these and expense prohibited from re-buying, also they were not exactly an ivy geranium in their growth pattern, having only a slight “tip-over”

Other Plantings:

Bulbs, Cosmos, Chinese bellflower – Platycodon grandiflorus-  and ground covers including several Veronicas

List to do in Fall:

Anti-desiccant spray liberally on boxwoods and young evergreens

Wrap trunks of new trees

Twine wrapped around length of blue arrows (so snow doesn’t open the growth)

Collar grafted floribunda roses, pile mulch around other roses

Fertilize remaining lawn

Top-up mulch for general root protection and neatness esthetics (dark brown)

Gardening Between the Rocks

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Little Pickles Plant, Othonna capensis at CHCG

Have you ever marveled at a vigorous plant thriving in the narrow gap between two rocks? Or wrestled with a weed that stubbornly grows through the crack in a sidewalk?  The tenacity of plants to grow, and sometimes prefer, these tight settings is the premise behind crevice gardening, a form of rock gardening which is gaining in popularity.

To learn more about crevice gardens, a group of Denver County Master Gardeners recently toured the Community Heroes Crevice Garden (CHCG) located at the Apex Simms Street Recreation Center in Arvada. CHCG was designed and built by  Kenton Seth and his team in 2014-2015. It is one of the largest crevice gardens in the world, spanning over 1,000 square feet, built with 60 tons of Dakota sandstone from southern Colorado, 14 tons of sand and 20 tons of gravel.

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Pulvinaris ruschia, mat shrubby iceplant in winter at CHCG

Crevice gardens mimic mountain terrain through the use of flat stones which are laid vertically and buried deeply to create narrow gaps. The entire rock structure is “engineered” for stability with the care that a seasoned mason builds a dry stacked retaining wall. The stones keep the plants cool during the hottest part of the day and create various microsystems depending on the garden’s orientation. The gaps are filled with a porous, sandy planting mixture which is layered to promote optimum drainage and deep root development.

Specimens are planted “bareroot”, meaning the original potting medium is removed prior to planting. Roots are then gingerly tucked in the crevices. Once plants are established, CHCG is watered  by overhead irrigation every two weeks or less.  Crevice gardens generally showcase xeric plants, such as delosperma, hens and chicks, species tulips and manzanita, to name a few.  Trees and tall plants which would shade the garden are discouraged. The majority of plants at CHCG are from the dry, cold grasslands of the Steppe regions. A complete list of the plants used  at CHCG and directions for starting a crevice garden can be found here.

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Initial Planting of Community Heroes Crevice Garden

CHCG is a young, ambitious public garden. It’s very much a living laboratory (but then, aren’t all gardens?). It will be interesting to visit it periodically to see its development and seasonal changes. We are fortunate to have several established crevice gardens in Colorado including at the Denver Botanic Gardens (within the Alpine, Mordecai and Steppe gardens) and Vail’s Betty Ford Alpine Gardens (home of the International Alpine Crevice Garden).

If you are interested in trying crevice gardening, Kenton offered that growing plants between a few vertical, closely set rocks in the ground or in a stone trough is an easy and fun way to get started!

Photos courtesy of Kenton Seth

Written by Linda McDonnell, a Denver County Master Gardener.