Meet the Garden Squad is a way to get better acquainted with some of our CSU Extension Master Gardener volunteers.
Meet Nancy Downs
Horticulture is the thread that connects the stepping stones in the career path of Nancy Downs. She became a CSU Extension-Denver Master Gardener in 1993, and since 2005 she’s been the project coordinator of Gardening Help (GH) from Colorado Master Gardeners at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
A year-round volunteer commitment, GH provides research-based information to thousands of home gardeners by phone, email and those who drop by. In 2019 the GH team of 20 volunteers answered over 2300 questions.
It’s the thrill of the possibility of new discoveries that helps drive Nancy’s passion in botany and plant identification.
“Plant ID is endlessly fascinating,” she said. “It’s fascinating to bump into mystery plants and try to make the correct identification. It makes a huge difference in management recommendations.”
Nancy is a Native Plant Master, but said there’s always something new to learn. She also enjoys teaching woody plant and native plant identification.
In 2019 Nancy’s garden received special recognition from the Colorado Native Plant Society. Blonde Ambition Blue Grama grass provides a golden backdrop. (Image by Nancy Downs)
In 2019 her Park Hill garden received a gold certification from the Colorado Native Plant Society (CoNPS). The Certified Native Plant Garden recognition is meant to increase awareness of native plants and how they help provide “habitat for Colorado Native Plants and native wildlife,” according to the CoNPS website.
Nancy said she considers her garden a laboratory for experimenting with plants. The garden is about 30 years old and has gone through a number of phases as her taste and interests have evolved.
“At one point I felt I needed an all-white garden, but now it’s a big mish-mash. I’ve tried to mix natives into an existing older neighborhood with shade trees,” she explained.
The front garden includes Foxtail Lilies, white-blooming shrub rose and sunflowers. (Image by Nancy Downs)
Nancy said she’s drawn to the texture and architectural interest of her landscape plants instead of flowers. A list of her favorites includes Gambel oak, rabbitbrush, Arctostaphylos, ornamental grasses, buffalograss, junipers, yucca and, of course, much more.
Her interest in plants took root when working for the Boulder Parks and Recreation Department while an undergraduate at the University of Colorado. She was part of the team responsible for planting and tending the gardens at Central Park
After graduating with a degree in International Affairs, she worked in Washington, D.C., as press secretary for then-Congresswoman Pat Schroeder. When she returned to Colorado, she earned a law degree from the University of Denver and spent a few years working in Denver’s District Attorney’s office.
Nancy said she finally circled back to her first love of horticulture while working with Denver Botanic Gardens, Hudson Gardens, Denver Water Xeriscape clinics and Aurora Water Conservation Design clinics.
She even had her own design business, Nancy Downs Garden Design, for over 20 years specializing in residential design in Denver’s older neighborhoods.
In addition to coordinating Gardening Help as a Denver Master Gardener, she’s involved in other volunteer projects.
“A favorite recent project was the 2018 Botanical Survey of the High Line Canal carried out by Dr. Chrissy Alba from DBG’s Research and Conservation Department for the High Line Canal Conservancy,” she said.
The combination of yellow Mountain Goldenbanner and Dwarf purple iris is stunning when in full bloom. (Image by Nancy Downs)
Nancy encourages other Master Gardeners to continue working on their plant identification skills. She said an understanding of botanical Latin is important when trying to identify whether a plant is native or not.
Her hope is that more gardeners will want to add native plants to their landscapes and can start by asking nurseries to increase their availability.
Gardening Help Contact Information
To reach the Gardening Help from Colorado Master Gardeners at the Denver Botanic Gardens call 720-865-3575 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. GH is staffed April-October on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (noon-4:00 p.m.); November-March on Tuesdays (noon-4:00 p.m.)
By Jodi Torpey
Master Gardener volunteer since 2005
Comments Off on Meet the Garden Squad’s Nancy Downs
By this time in the year, I’m at the point of good riddance! with the weeds and careful tending (shout out to this cold spell for sealing the deal). Pretty much everything is done and put to bed. I then spend the next two weeks really dialing into my houseplant game before I get bored and start Spring dreaming. My Fall break from the garden is short-lived so I start listening to old episodes of now-defunct podcast series and dream with new ones. Here are a few of my favs:
Gardenerd Tip of The Week
Gardenerd.com is the ultimate resource for garden nerds. We provide organic gardening information whenever you need it, helping you turn land, public space, and containers into a more satisfying and productive garden that is capable of producing better-tasting and healthier food.
My thoughts: The host lives in LA, so this one is great for winter listening as we get chillier, I love hearing about the warmth of Southern California and what’s coming into season. Interviews with other experts and educators in the horticulture field discussing plants, but also cultivating grains, discussing bees, and seeds. Each episode ends with the guest’s own tips, many of which are news to me and have been incorporated into my own practices.
On the Ledge
I’m Jane Perrone, and I’ve been growing houseplants since I was a child, caring for cacti in my bedroom and growing a grapefruit from seed; filling a fishtank full of fittonias and bringing African violets back from the dead.
Houseplants, if new to the podcast start here for an overview, and guidance.
Jane is a freelance journalist and presenter on gardening topics. Her podcast has a ton of tips for beginners, and more advanced info for longtime houseplant lovers, as well as interviews with other plant experts. The website is also useful to explore the content of an episode if you aren’t able to listen. I could spend an entire morning traveling in and out of the archives.
My thoughts: As the growing season comes to a close, my indoors watering schedule starts wobbling between what the plants need and my summer habits of watering too many times per week–welcome back, fungus gnats! Here’s an entire episode on them
Plant Daddy Podcast
We aim to create a listener community around houseplants, to learn things, teach things, share conversations with experts, professionals in the horticulture industry, and amateur hobbyists like ourselves. We also want to bring the conversation beyond plants, since anybody with leaf babies has a multitude of intersectional identities. We, ourselves, are a couple gay guys living in Seattle, Washington, with a passion for gardening and houseplants. A lot of our friends are the same, though each of us has a different connection, interest, and set of skills in this hobby, demonstrating a small amount of the diversity we want to highlight among plant enthusiasts.
My thoughts: Plants are visual, podcasts are auditory- episodic overviews with links to viewable content available on their website. Are you also seeing Staghorn Ferns everywhere? They have an entire episode (photos included!) on the fern and how to properly mount it for that vegan taxiderm look. Matthew and Stephen are self-identified hobbyists with a passion for plants all the way down to the Latin–it’s impressive.
The Epic Gardening podcast…where your gardening questions are answered daily! The goal of this podcast is to give you a little boost of gardening wisdom in under 10 minutes a day. I cover a wide range of topics, from pest prevention, to hydroponics, to plant care guides…as long as it has something to do with gardening, I’ll talk about it on the show!
My thoughts: The Netflix-episode-when-you-just-don’t-feel-like-a-movie kind of podcast. Addresses the best varietals, composting, soil pH, and troubleshooting some common issues in the garden. With daily episodes archived back to December 2018, there is a quickly digested thought for some of your own curiosities. The website is also a wealth of knowledge.
Eatweeds Podcast: For People Who Love Plants
Eatweeds: An audio journey through the wonderful wild world of plants. Episodes cover modern and ancient ways wild plants have been used in human culture as food, medicine and utilitarian uses.
My thoughts: most recent episode (and appropriately timed!) On edible acorns. My fav topics include foraging and wild yeast fermentation; and when I really start missing the Pacific Northwest, The Wild and Wonderful World of Fungi sends me back to a misty forest wander politely decorated by les champignons. Posting of this pod is sporadic–only 25 episodes since 2014.
You Bet Your Garden
You Bet Your Garden® was a weekly radio show and podcast produced at WHYY through September, 2018. The show’s archive is available online. It was a weekly syndicated radio show, with lots of call-ins. This weekly call-in program offers ‘fiercely organic’ advice to gardeners far and wide.
My thoughts: Host, Mike McGrath, spends much of the show taking calls and troubleshooting, reminiscent of another public radio behemoth with Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers. McGrath incorporates a lifetime of organic gardening tips with humor. McGrath features one tip to find a local “rent a goat place” (no joke) to get goats to eat the most troublesome weeds to a concerned caller considering setting much of her yard on fire.
Cultivating Place: Conversations on Natural History and the Human Impulse to Garden
My thoughts: sort of like On Being, but for gardening.
A fav episode:
If you aren’t so sure about this podcast thing, and just want a place to start, start here.
Do you really need a brain to sense the world around you? To remember? Or even learn? Well, it depends on who you ask. Jad and Robert, they are split on this one. Today, Robert drags Jad along on a parade for the surprising feats of brainless plants. Along with a home-inspection duo, a science writer, and some enterprising scientists at Princeton University, we dig into the work of evolutionary ecologist Monica Gagliano, who turns our brain-centered worldview on its head through a series of clever experiments that show plants doing things we never would’ve imagined. Can Robert get Jad to join the march?
Last Monday, my dear friend and Community Forester, Chuck Sugent, and I took a neighborhood stroll to identify trees because I find myself recommending (or “oh, that’s an oh-no-no’ tree!”) at the farmer’s market; but when it comes down to it, I can hardly identify any trees at all and rely on the Front Range Tree Recommendation List. or the Denver approved tree list. My learning style is not entirely visual but seeing and discussing something certainly increases the likelihood of future accurate recitation. After a minor location miscommunication (“Heading your way!” “Good thing you sent that. I thought I was heading your way. Oy!”), we set off through a tree-lined neighborhood between downtown and City Park.
Chuck is the kinda guy who’s gonna be the good guy: he’s got the information, and he wants to share it (perhaps with an old-timey gangster of New York wiseguy affectation). So he took no pause when I suggested the idea of a tree walk. We’ve talked about the CMG program and community forestry in terms of our own participation for community stewardship, and have oft discussed a crossover—and thus, we went! We set off to name the trees and, in addition, ended up pretend-pruning, dreaming, and trouble-shooting all the ailments. Everything I espouse, I learned from Chuck (it was a very informative afternoon). Here’s an absurdly simplistic overview of the main players:
Gorgeous and quite popular. Responsible for the pinkening of the city each spring. Many varieties of different sizes and fruits. Also, edible. I grew up with a crabapple tree at my grandmother’s house which was the source of many summers dares to the youngest of us to “just try it! You’ll love it!” followed by giggle fits at the sight of desperate acceptance puckering away at the tiny bite. So—raw is a no, but cooked with sugar and acid makes for delicious desserts; or my family fav: Crabapple whiskey. Fill a jar with crabapples, a cinnamon stick, ginger, cloves and top with whiskey. Tuck it away until Christmas, strain and serve.
Thirsty mother lovers. They grow quickly and provide lots of shade. We have a ton of them in our metro canopy, but they are currently on a moratorium from planting in city right-of-way areas.
Black Locust has a darker trunk than the Honeylocust. Tiny leaves, gorgeous lemon color through the fall. However, tiny leaves make a mega mess–however, however, the leaves decompose quickly and return the nutrients to the soil. Also, a popular choice in this area, and continues to be on recommended tree lists for a new planting (NOTE: many varieties are on the recommended list, but the Sunburst Honeylocust is also on the moratorium list for street planting in Denver)
Classic Canadian flag. Gorgeous flaming fall coloring. The moisture level is moderate for this group, and they do not tolerate salty soil very well but are fairly drought tolerant.
This one makes Chuck’s shortlist of recommended trees for the metro area. The Hackberry has no known local pest, is native to Colorado, and drought tolerant. The Hackberry can get up to 50 feet tall, so consider this one for a street-side as a shade option. Lovely red berries darken to maroon in the Fall and provide home and a food source to the critters. Chuck calls this one a Hammer Tree; an all-around good selection.
When we happened upon our first Linden of the walk, Chuck took a step aside and said, “There are two kinds of Linden trees, and here’s how I remember them: LLL.” At this point, he raises his voice to denote the first type “LARGE LEAF LINDEN” followed by a substantially lower volume for the “littleleaf Linden.” He proceeded to crack himself up, and we carried on. There are many cultivars of Linden recommended in this area. Lindens are an attractive pyramidal shape, sensitive to salty soils, and their flowers attract bees and birds. Beware of the area you are considering, Lindens do not love high heat areas and should be planted away from any hardscaping.
Ever sturdy and reliable. The oak leaves have a bit of a leathery texture to reduce evapotranspiration, making them more drought-tolerant, and an excellent tree choice for this area. Their leaves differ in pattern depending on the cultivar but typically have the characteristic lobes and sinuses. The Bur Oak (recommended for the Metro area), is roughly obovate with many lobes and is pale and fuzzy underneath.
If you’re reading this… need I say more? See Plum for contingency planning. We have a million (estimated 1.45 million in the Denver Metro area) Ash trees. Aside from the EAB creeping into town, the Ash tree has a tendency to appear real leggy under the canopy when not properly pruned. We saw many examples of Ash trees with a lot of deadwood inside the canopy; this can be problematic when the wind picks up. They served a great function for our canopy by growing quickly and providing robust shade; but unfortunately, we’ve got to continue considering the impending Armageddon. What build projects shall we consider for a future influx of Ashwood? Denver also has a moratorium on planting Ash trees in public right-of-ways.
The purple leaf plum is my fan fav, and will likely be planted in my own front yard next Spring since my future self called and said: “This giant elm thing in your front yard was planted improperly, is massive, and when it goes, your front yard is gonna be U.G.L.Y.” Contingency planning in full swing. I encourage y’all to take a walkabout your own homes and chat with future self, especially regarding anything that is shade bearing. Something I picked up from my buddy whilst traipsing on the tree walk: purple leaf plums require regular pruning for flowering (Is anyone else as smitten by the plurality of prunes in this context?) Remove the deadwood and prune 1/3 the length of new growth. We found a perfect example and made pernicious prunes with finger scissors.
Colorado Blue Spruce
Beautiful. Also better at a higher elevation. We did see a few stunners, though, and learned a neat trick for tree ID: the leaf of a fir tree will be flat and flexible. Spruce, on the other hand, will be square and sharp (see what he did there?). Grab a leaf, roll it between your fingers, and name it quickly with this handy guide.
May make it to a mature size but inevitably will crash and burn. I’ve been touting this gospel for a while now, and take every opportunity to point out a struggler to my wife. which has become problematic, because now she counters by showing me all the healthy Aspen in the Metro area. The truth of the matter is an aspen tree (or maybe even a small clump of them) has the ability to thrive with the proper tender loving care… for a while. Above and beyond the statistically insignificant number of Aspen in the front range who appear to be doing well, they aren’t built for this elevation, and forcing them to do so causes undue stress, and makes them more vulnerable, hastening their predisposition to die anyway. Don’t do it. Go to the mountains more often and enjoy them in their own territory.
Beyond my self-imposed (and singularly played) trivia that entailed me interrupting, pointing, and shouting guesses; we also discussed the conversational piece of tree maintenance. Chuck indicated he has many chats with his neighbors about their trees and takes these moments to build his community and integrate his passion with friendly educational moments. We discussed the evidentiary tribulations of a tree in demise, that twists it’s trunk and bears the stripes of turmoil. We debated the suckers: their yappy attempts to address internal stress, and what to do with them (should we leave them and let it try to capture the energy it is craving? OR whack them back always? And when?) We talked about injury to a tree, and how the tree may cover and scab the wound, but the wound remains and the tree is still vulnerable. Chuck showed me a hackberry tree covered in galls. We both got lost in our attempts to recall the origins but settled on something about defense mechanisms and how they rarely hurt the tree.
As we were nearing our last corner on the way home, Chuck remembered a tree we hadn’t encountered that he loves. I’ve developed a habit this summer that whenever I see this tree, I shout it’s name, probably because it’s so fun to say, but shouting also seems appropriate just to communicate the whimsy of the CATALPA! Just try and say it without a bit of a shout. The Catalpa is also a recommended and robust tree for our area. It’s got those built-in wands and/or swords for play, and bright green wide leaves provide a huge amount of shade. . They are another tough tree, worthy of your scape.
Other items on Chuck’s “Oh no-no” list? Planting a tree too deep? Oh, no-no. Scoffing at the bare root and opting for a burlapped and caged tree? Oh, no-no. Planting anything from the Birch fam in Denver? Oh no-no. Hiring an arborist annually to tame your trees? Oh, no-no. With a little reading, Youtube-ing, or friendly forester finding, folks can save bunches of bucks by learning how to make the minor pruning adjustments to your tree every year to avoid the future big bills from an arborist. Trees can easily be grown and cared for by their owners working from reliable and factual info. Of course, always consult a pro when your tree questions start toeing the line safe vs. unsafe.
As DMG’s we get loads of questions about trees at the farmer’s markets. We try our best to offer small sagelings of fact-checked info, but what I’ve found to be more helpful is keeping the company of a forester. Trees are just as essential to the garden crew as our lawns, beds, and weeds. I encourage everyone to branch out (a thousand apologies for that one) and get connected–or get involved and become a Community Forester, yourself!
PS. Did you know if you live in Denver you can get nearly *free* trees?
By McKenna Hynes
Apprentice Colorado Master Gardener since January 2019
Posted onJuly 25, 2019|Comments Off on A Denverite Visits New Orleans in July, Leaves in Awe That Anything Grows in Colorado, Like, Ever.
I recently returned from a little summer vaca in the South. New Orleans in July (a questionably timed vacation, albeit) is showy and fragrant; the ferns suckle lovingly to any crack and crevice providing green brush-strokes and blots everywhere, palms fill beds and pots alike, all of my houseplants are thriving in the wide open, the sun is scorching, and as our pilot reminded us as we prepared to de-plane, its humid enough to confuse a frog. I was constantly amazed at how effortlessly everything seemed to grow.
While in New Orleans, I was frequently amused by how the rest of the country (mis)understands Colorado living conditions. For the most part, folks think we spend most of the year dreaming of gardens as we stare out our frosty windows waiting for the snow to melt, visiting floral places abroad, and wearing multiple layers of socks at all times. Soooo… basically gardening at 10,000+ feet? While these perceptions are laughable, I started thinking that even though we don’t live in perpetual wintry wonder, the challenges we face to make anything grow aren’t necessarily less surmountable than our fam in the lofty-actual-mountains.
We were welcomed back to Denver with a remarkable storm featuring lightning, torrential rains, booming thunder… and hail. Of course, the very next day was smokin’ hot with nary a whisper of the siege. Maintaining a vibrant garden in the Front Range is an extreme sport with our baffling daily fluctuations; the entire notion of keeping anything alive here seems impossible at times, but we’ve gotten pretty good at strategizing. Here are a few resources I’ve tracked down this year to help us all maintain beauty, build our skills, and be stewards to our land and community.
Resource Central is a nonprofit organization based in Boulder that helps communities conserve resources and build sustainability efforts simply and cost-effectively. Their water-saving initiatives include native plant sales with simple designs for home gardens and often include low water perennials. They also have a tool library in Boulder where you can borrow for a couple of bucks per day so you don’t just buy the tamper, hedge trimmer, turf roller, or post hole diggers you need so infrequently.
The cities of Boulder, Lafayette, and Louisville partnered with Resource Central to give customers a Garden In A Box for turf-removal. Their Grass to Garden initiative is available to all communities with tips and resources to convert high water-consuming turf to low water garden areas. For the North Metro area, they have resources for assistance removing and disposing of turf, landscape architect recommendations, and more.
Denver Water coined one of our most successful water-wise strategies with xeriscaping. And to keep sharing the good water word, Denver Water also partnered with local landscape architects to provide us mere civilians with some FREE! FREE! FREE! creativity. For those of us who are new (it’s me) who struggle with vision (all me), and are easily overwhelmed by the thought of starting fresh with a blank canvas (still, totally, all me), they’ve curated a bunch of plans for a variety of situations. They have plans for sloped xeriscaping, budget-friendly xeriscaping, narrow bed xeriscaping, year-round beauty designs, and many more. July is also Smart Irrigation Month! Head to Denver Water for tips on maintaining irrigation systems, watering rules, and efficiency strategies.
And for the grand finale top-notch gardening game-changer, check out Plant Select for all your future dreaming. Plant Select is a nonprofit partnership between Colorado State University, Denver Botanic Gardens, and professional horticulturists to identify smart plant choices for the Rocky Mountian Region. Their mobile-friendly site has a tool to help you find plants that will suit the conditions you’re facing. I tend to challenge the tool to see how obscure or specific I can get, and it always provides me with something unique and gorgeous. Plant Select: taking “right plant right place” to an accessible and fun platform. Say So Long! to the multiple Google tabs researching the same plant with contradicting information on each site; Goodbye! Big Box Store swindlers promising “You REALLY can’t kill this one!” and go get yourself some good, wholesome, ACCURATE information quickly and easily from Plant Select. They also feature some garden designs and ideas.
By McKenna Hynes
Apprentice Colorado Master Gardener since January 2019
Comments Off on A Denverite Visits New Orleans in July, Leaves in Awe That Anything Grows in Colorado, Like, Ever.