Category Archives: Organic gardening

Keeping a Garden Journal for a Successful Next Season

As you reflect on this year’s summer gardening season, it might be tempting to believe that you’ll remember everything important until next spring. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work out, and you run the risk of doing a lot of guesswork when you’re getting started again next year. The solution? A garden journal! If you don’t already have a garden journal, now’s a perfect time to start one.

Instead of trying to remember what went well and what didn’t each year (or even from month to month), write it all down to refer back to at a later time. If you take the time to write down a list of what worked, what didn’t, and what changes you want to make, you can easily improve your garden in the future.

You can make your own garden journal out of something basic (I use the Composition Notebook pictured above), or you can purchase one at your local bookstore. There are also garden journal apps you can download if you prefer to go in a digital direction.

STARTING A JOURNAL

To get started with your garden journal, decide what information you want to remember. Many people choose to record things like sketches or photos of their gardens, planting dates, problems they ran into, and things that went well. Some people also like to add in general reflections about nature and the time they spend in their gardens.

WHAT TO RECORD

If you choose to make your own journal, you can customize it however you want. Keep track of anything you think is important to remember.

If you aren’t sure where to start, consider the following questions:

  • What did you grow this year?
  • What grew well?
  • What didn’t grow as well as you would have liked? Any idea why?
  • What took up more space than you anticipated?
  • Were there any nearby trees or structures that covered parts of your garden?
  • Was the sunlight too intense for any of your plants?
  • Did you struggle with pests or disease?
  • What do you want to plant next year?
  • Where do you want to plant everything?

If you plan on doing crop rotations, drawing a sketch of where things were this year can be extremely helpful, especially if you’re not quite ready to plan your 2021 garden yet. Instead of wasting time trying to remember in the spring, you can flip open your garden journal and get a map of exactly where everything was.

It’s also worth noting when external events happen each year. Was there a certain time when you noticed a certain pest appeared? Were the storms worse during some months more than others? Keep track of things as they happen so that you can predict them in future years and work to avoid preventable damage to your plants.

You can also record any expenses (seeds, pots, fertilizer, etc.) to keep track of how much you’re spending on your garden each year and to find ways to possibly reduce the costs.

Note the repairs you have to make around the garden and how often you’re making them. If you’re spending a lot of time repairing something, it might be time to replace it.

If you just want to note the major things, keep track of what you plant, the exact date you plant things in the spring, and what brand of seed you use. The frost dates are great guides for when you should plant things, but it also helps to know specifically when you started, planted, or transplanted things in previous years.

Keep track of where you purchase your seeds, how much you paid for them, how well they performed so that you can make any necessary adjustments.

Wrap down the season in the fall with a review of how things went the previous summer. It will be a great resource to rely on when you’re planning for the future.

WHEN TO RECORD

There are no set rules about when you have to record things in your journal, but it’s easier to keep it updated if you make a regular practice of it. Taking five minutes to write small updates every time you’re out will paint a picture of what’s going on in your garden to look back on when you’re planning for an upcoming season.

TIPS FOR HAVING A SUCCESSFUL JOURNAL

Whether it’s daily, weekly, or monthly, set aside regular time to write in your journal. Write down anything that feels important at the time. (You won’t remember specifics a year from now, so if it seems important now, write it down.)

Make sure that you can read your handwriting and understand what you write. It’s easy to scribble something down in the moment, but if you don’t go back and make sure that it’s clear, it’ll be a mystery when you read it later.

Your garden journal should be beneficial for you and with it you can learn how to manage problems more efficiently and increase your harvests. What you record in your garden journal is up to you, so have fun with it and do whatever you need to do to get the most out of it.

Written by Felicia Brower, Colorado Master Gardener since 2020

Growing Garlic in Colorado

By Felicia Brower, Master Gardener Apprentice, Denver County Extension

(Photo credit: Matthew Pilachowski)

As we wrap up our gardens this season, we can begin to think about all of the crops we want next year. If garlic is on your list, now is the time to act.

Garlic (Allium sativum) is easy to grow and a great crop for beginner gardeners. Even though you’ll harvest in July, you’ll need to plant before the end of October. When choosing which garlic you want to plant, know that you’ll need to purchase your bulbs from a garden center, a farmers market, a garlic farm, or a seed catalog (now is the time to place orders for garlic — they sell out quickly this time of year). Grocery store garlic is often treated with anti-growth products that will prevent you from being able to grow your own bulbs from those cloves.

If it’s your first time purchasing seed garlic, you might be surprised at all of the varieties that are available. Each variety has a distinct flavor and an average number of cloves to expect per bulb, so do your research, and choose accordingly.

Choosing Garlic Varieties

There are two distinct types of garlic to choose from: hardneck (ophioscorodon) and softneck (sativum).

Hardneck

Hardneck varieties are easy to identify because of the (you guessed it) hard neck or stem that you’ll find in the center of the bulb. While hardnecks don’t store as long as softnecks, the flavors are often described as being more intense. Hardneck garlic plants produce a scape, which looks like a curly spike with a small bulbous end. Scapes tend to show up a month or so before the plant is ready to harvest and need to be removed so that the plant can continue to send energy down to the development of the new bulb. Good news: scapes are also edible. Popular varieties of hardneck garlic include Chesnok Red, Music, and German Extra Hardy.

Softneck

Softneck varieties are often chosen because they tend to store longer than hardneck varieties, but they have a milder flavor. Most grocery stores carry softneck garlic, and the cloves tend to be smaller and more plentiful. Garlic braids are made with softneck varieties. Popular softneck varieties include Inchelium Red, Silverskin, and Lorz Italian.

Planting Garlic

Garlic plants don’t take up a lot of space and are known to repel rabbits and deer, so consider planting them around the edges of your vegetable and flower beds. Find a sunny spot and prepare your soil by digging a trench. If you notice you have heavy clay soil or very sandy soil, you should amend the soil with some compost prior to planting.

To prepare the garlic for planting, break apart each bulb into cloves, keeping the wrapper on each clove. Choose only the largest cloves to plant to ensure the best and biggest bulbs next summer, and use the smaller cloves for food. Plant the cloves immediately after breaking them apart from the bulb to reduce to risk of disease and excess drying.

Make a trench in the soil three times as deep as the clove. Plant each clove pointy side up four to six inches apart. Cover the cloves with soil, water well, and cover the trench with mulch, leaf litter, or grass clippings. Garlic needs water to grow and thrive, so make sure that you continue to water occasionally (about once every three weeks) throughout the winter season.

The tops of the the plants will start to come up through the winter, but don’t worry. Garlic is a hardy plant, and it should survive. Pull any weeds near the plant as it grows, as they will impact the size of the bulb.

If you plant different varieties in your garden, label each one so that you can make keep records of what grew best and which flavors you preferred for the next time you plant.

While garlic is an easy crop to grow, it is vulnerable to several types of rot. Avoid disease by planting only healthy cloves and being careful not to damage any bulbs while planting things nearby in the spring.

Harvesting Garlic

It’s time to harvest your garlic when the green tops turn brown and begin die down, which typically happens in July if you plant in October. If the soil is loose, you can pull the new bulb up by hand, but if it’s not, use a hand tool to get it out of the soil being very careful not to puncture any of the cloves. If you pull the bulb out of compacted soil, it can create wounds in the bulbs or the stem, which can quickly lead to fungal infections. When they’re removed from the soil, gently brush or rub the dirt off and let the remaining residue dry while the garlic cures. Fresh bulbs are very sensitive and bruise easily, so take care with the removal process.

Curing Garlic

If you want your garlic harvest to last, you need to cure it before you store it. After you pull the bulbs, spread them over or hang them in a warm, airy spot out of direct sun. Do not cover the bulbs with any heavy material, as that can prevent the air flow and encourage rot. If needed, use a lightweight cotton sheet. Store the bulbs at 40-60° F and cure for two to three weeks.

For a visual demonstration of how to plant garlic, watch How to Grow Garlic in Colorado – Produced by Tagawa Gardens, a partner in PlantTalk Colorado.

Make Your Own Herb-Flavored Vinegar

Photo credit:  Tim Sullivan

By Felicia Brower, Master Gardener Apprentice, Denver County Extension

Making herb-flavored vinegar is an easy way to get the most out your herb garden. The vinegars take on the taste of whichever herb or herb combination soaked in them, so you have an opportunity to get creative and to make a fun base for salad dressings, sauces, marinades, and other recipes. To make flavored vinegar, you can use herbs that are fresh, frozen, or dried – just make sure that there are no signs of mold or rot on any of them.

STEP 1: CHOOSE YOUR VINEGAR BASE

You can use several different types of vinegars for your flavoring base depending on how you want the end product to taste. It is recommended that you only use commercially produced vinegar as a base to prevent any spoilage or unstable activity and that you keep a close eye on it as it soaks. Vinegar is high in acid, so it does not support the growth of Clostridium botulinum bacteria (which causes botulism), but some vinegars may support the growth of Escherichia coli bacteria (commonly known as E. coli).

Distilled white, apple cider, rice, and wine vinegars are all common options for bases. If your herbs will impart a color on the vinegar or if you want a visual component, keep that in mind when choosing which one you want to use. As a warning, rice and wine vinegars contain protein that provides an excellent medium for bacterial growth if not stored properly, so you’ll need to keep a close eye on them while they’re soaking.

STEP 2: CHOOSE YOUR HERBS

The quality of the herbs will greatly impact the flavor of your vinegar. Use only the best leaves and flowers, and discard any discolored, bruised, torn, or nibbled parts of the herbs. For the most flavor, pick fresh herbs just after the morning dew has dried.

Chive blossom vinegar next to the remaining old chive blossoms.

What herbs can you use? Chives blossoms (pictured above) give you a light onion flavor with a stunning color. Other popular herbs for flavored vinegars include rosemary, basil, parsley, sage, thyme, dill, oregano, peppercorn, mustard seed, and lemon balm.

If you’re unsure of the flavors you prefer, try experimenting with small batches. If you’re a novice at making flavored vinegars, this is a good way to start in case there are any issues with spoilage or mold along the way.

STEP 3: CHOOSE YOUR CONTAINER

Before you make your vinegar, make sure that you have the proper storage containers. Use only glass jars or bottles that are free of cracks or nicks and can be sealed with a screw-band lid, cap, or cork. Make sure the containers are all properly sterilized prior to use.

STEP 4: MAKE YOUR VINEGAR

To make your vinegar, begin by thoroughly cleaning and drying your herbs. Make sure that you’ve sterilized your jars and then fill them with your desired amount and variety of herbs. Allow three to four sprigs of fresh herbs or 3 tablespoons of dried herbs per pint of vinegar.

You have two options: preparing a hot vinegar solution or pouring a room temperature one. If you want to prepare a hot solution, heat the vinegar to just below boiling (190F), and then pour over the herbs and cap tightly. If you want a room temperature solution, simply pour your vinegar over choice over your herbs and make sure they are fully submerged. With either option, cover the jar or bottle with a non-metal lid to prevent corrosive activity.

The herbs should begin to flavor the vinegar after a few days, but letting it sit in a cool, dark place for three to four weeks will bring out more flavor from your herbs. Taste it every few days to see how it’s progressing and to test if it’s finished. To test for flavor development, place a few drops of the flavored vinegar on some white bread and taste. The flavoring process can be shortened by a week or so by bruising or coarsely chopping the herbs before placing them in the bottles and adding the vinegar.

When it reaches the optimal flavor, strain out the solid herbs and pour your vinegar into a clean, sterilized jar. You should strain it a few times to make sure you don’t leave any small particles behind. Don’t leave the herbs in the vinegar for longer than two months, as the risk of spoilage increases after that time. If you see any signs of mold or fermentation, discard the vinegar and do not consume. (This is where the small batches come in handy!)

If properly prepared, flavored vinegars should retain good quality for two to three months in cool room storage and for six to eight months in refrigerated storage. If you notice any signs of mold or fermentation (such as bubbling, cloudiness, or sliminess) in your flavored vinegar, throw it away without tasting or using for any purpose. For the best flavor retention, store in the refrigerator.

HOW TO USE YOUR VINEGAR

Use your herb vinegar as a base for a salad dressing or as an alternative in any recipe that calls for plain vinegar. They add zest to marinades and interesting flavors to dressings for vegetable, salads, and pastas.

Photo credit: Patrycja Tomaszczyk

RECIPES TO TRY

Fresh Dill Vinegar
8 sprigs fresh dill
4 cups (1 quart) white vinegar

Wash dill and dip in solution of 1 teaspoon household bleach in 6 cups water. Rinse thoroughly under cool running water. Place dill in sterilized quart jar. Heat vinegar to just below boiling point (190 F); pour over dill. Cap tightly and allow to stand in cool, dark place for three to four weeks. Strain vinegar, discarding dill. Pour vinegar into clean sterilized bottles with tight fitting covers. Add a fresh sprig of cleaned and sanitized dill, if desired. Store in the refrigerator. Makes 1 quart.

Herbal Vinegar
4 cups red wine vinegar
8 sprigs fresh parsley
2 teaspoons thyme leaves
1 teaspoon rosemary leaves
1 teaspoon sage leaves

Thoroughly wash herbs and dip in solution of 1 teaspoon household bleach in 6 cups water. Rinse thoroughly under cool running water and pat dry. Place herbs in sterilized quart jar. Heat vinegar to just below boiling point (190 F); pour over herbs. Cap tightly and allow to stand in cool, dark place for three to four weeks, shaking occasionally. Strain out herbs. Pour vinegar into clean sterilized bottles with tight fitting covers. Add a fresh sprig of cleaned and sanitized parsley, if desired. Store in the refrigerator. Makes 1 quart.

For more information, refer to the CSU Extension Fact Sheet No. 9.340: https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/nutrition-food-safety-health/flavored-vinegars-and-oils-9-340/

Meet the Garden Squad—Gardening Help at the Denver Botanic Gardens

Meet the Garden Squad is a way to get better acquainted with some of our CSU Extension Master Gardener volunteers.

Meet the Gardening Help Volunteers

The CSU Extension Master Gardeners usually pick up the gardening helpline at the Denver Botanic Gardens or answer questions when people walk-in the door. Even though buildings at DBG are closed for now, gardeners can still get their gardening questions answered by Gardening Help from Colorado Master Gardeners at Denver Botanic Gardens, only remotely.

The interest in gardening has soared ever since people have had to hunker down at home and find ways to keep busy. First-time gardeners will likely have questions on how to get started, what to plant now, what can grow in containers, and much more.

Even gardeners with some experience have questions, too. All gardening questions can be emailed to gardeninghelp@botanicgardens.org and a CMG, working remotely, will reply by email.

Gardening Help volunteers include: Back row, left to right: Jan Fahs, Jan Davis, Ken Zwenger, Mark Zammuto, Gordon Carruth, Fran Hogan
Middle row: Lynne Conroy, Harriet Palmer Willis, Kathleen Schroeder, Leona Berger, Cindy Hanna, Mary Adams, Nancy Downs
Kneeling: Dee Becker, Charlotte Aycrigg, Jan Moran
Not pictured: Mary Carnegie, Linda Hanna, Maggie Haskett, April Montgomery, Ann Moore, Kathy Roth, Amy White

Gardening Help is a project of the CSU Extension-Denver Master Gardeners at the DBG. Volunteers provide reliable and research-based information to thousands of home gardeners each year.

Volunteers commit to at least one year in the role, with a minimum of six shifts spread across the year. The commitment starts early in the year with an orientation and training from Nancy Downs, project coordinator.

Many volunteers are GH regulars and they return to the project every year. In addition to being an active CMG, they have to satisfy DBG volunteer requirements, too. That means they’re a member of the DBG and enrolled there as a volunteer.

Some of the key characteristics of GH volunteers are good research, plant identification and diagnostic skills. Because the project is located at DBG, volunteers need to keep on top of what’s blooming at the DBG by season, so they can answer common questions that might pop up.

Photo provided by Nancy Downs

Text by Jodi Torpey
Master Gardener volunteer since 2005

No More Buds? Turn to Earbuds.

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.

https://gardenerd.com/

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.

https://www.janeperrone.com/on-the-ledge

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.

https://plantdaddypodcast.com/

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.

Epic Gardening

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!

https://www.epicgardening.com/

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.

http://eatweeds.libsyn.com/

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

(no longer on air, but archives available)

 

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.

https://www.wlvt.org/television/you-bet-your-garden/

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

Jennifer Jewell, the founder of Jewellgarden and Cultivating Place, achieves this mission through her writing, photographs, exhibits about and advocacy for gardens & natural history and through her weekly public radio program and podcast Cultivating Place: Conversations on Natural History and the Human Impulse to Garden, on gardens as integral to our natural and cultural literacy.

https://www.cultivatingplace.com/

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?

https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/smarty-plants

10 Reasons for Becoming a Denver Master Gardener

If you like to plant and grow things, you may be a Master Gardener in the making. A desire to help your community is another plus. In case you need more convincing, consider these 10 benefits of joining us and then take the next step to become a Colorado Master Gardener.

Number 10: You’ll be a better gardener. Becoming a Denver Master Gardener doesn’t mean you’ll be a perfect gardener, but at least you’ll know why the daisies died, what’s wrong with your tomato plant, why the lawn has brown spots, and what the heck is eating those roses. The CSU Master Gardener program is like getting a mini-degree in horticulture.

Number 9: You’ll help with important research. Master Gardeners are often called on to help with CSU Extension research projects. One recent project included collecting tree data as part of the Rollinger Tree Collection Survey project, a collaboration with the Denver Botanic Gardens and other partners to understand the past, present and future of Denver’s urban forest.

Master Gardeners like to meet, mingle and break crab legs together.

Number 8: You’ll meet and mingle with like-minded folks. Gardeners like to talk—and listen. Whether you’re a social butterfly or just like to belong to a tribe with similar interests, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy each other’s company.

Number 7: You can share your knowledge. People have questions and now you’ll have the research-backed information to provide answers in person at farmer’s markets and special events or by answering email questions from home. There’s a lot of gardening misinformation out there, but you can help dispel the myths (except when it comes to marijuana).

Number 6: You can volunteer in meaningful ways. Community outreach is an important part of being a Denver Master Gardener and others appreciate your contribution. The vegetables grown in the Harvard Gulch Demonstration Garden are donated to help feed the hungry; The Haven at Fort Logan offers another chance to serve others with your gardening skills.

Master Gardeners plan and plant the CSU Extension exhibit at the Colorado Garden and Home Show.

Number 5: You’ll get to work behind the scenes at the Colorado Garden and Home Show. A favorite volunteer project is being part of the annual show whether helping to build the CSU Master Gardener display or answering attendee’s questions. Free entry to the show is an added bonus.

Number 4: You can stretch your leadership skills. Being a Master Gardener lets you take the lead on a special project in a safe and supportive environment. Creativity, innovation and new ideas keep the program interesting.

Number 3: You’ll receive a well-recognized credential. Anyone who’s been paying attention has heard of CSU Extension’s Master Gardener program. The title is a well-known and well respected credential in the gardening world and in every state across the country.

Number 2: You’ll be supporting an important educational program. Becoming a Master Gardener isn’t free, but the nominal annual fee ensures the Denver Master Gardener program can continue its mission.

Being a volunteer at the City Park Greenhouse refreshes gardening skills for the new season.

And the Number 1 reason for becoming a Denver Master Gardener: Volunteering at the City Park Greenhouse.  It’s one of the most revitalizing volunteer gigs, and it happens at a time of year when gardeners need it the most.

Those are my top 10 reasons. What are your top reasons for becoming a Denver Master Gardener?

By Jodi Torpey
A Denver Master Gardener since 2005

Fall: The Science of Color and Options for Clean-up

In Colorado and many other states in the US, we enjoy fabulous fall color in our gardens, parks and wilder landscapes.  We notice it most on trees, but many shrubs and other plants change color in the fall too.  Have you ever wondered where all that color comes from?  Why do the leaves drop off the trees?  And what use are all those huge drifts of dead leaves to us?

Color

Most plants have green leaves.  This is because chlorophyll in the leaves absorbs the red and blue parts of the light spectrum but reflects green light-waves so we see “green”.  Chlorophyll is used in photosynthesis.  This is the chemical process by which plants convert light, carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and carbohydrates – i.e. food for the plant. Chlorophyll is an unstable compound and the plant continuously replenishes it throughout summer when good sunlight and high temperatures prevail.

When temperatures cool and nights lengthen, chlorophyll production stops and so does photosynthesis (the plant’s food production system). As the green-reflecting chlorophyll disappears, other colors “appear.”  In fact, these colors were always present in the leaves but now they are no longer masked by the green light-waves reflecting from the chlorophyll.

Carotenoids absorb blue-green and blue light and reflect yellow light waves.  This is perceived by the human eye as yellow or greenish-yellow.  This is why the fall color of birches and aspens is yellow.

Anthocyanins absorb blue-green, blue and green light and reflect red light-waves.  This is perceived by the human eye as red through to purple.  This is why the fall color of red oaks, sumacs and some maples is red.

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Acer tartaricum ‘Hot Wings’ still green

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Acer tartaricum ‘Hot Wings’ turning red

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The depth and shades of fall color depend not only on the presence (or absence) of these pigments, but also the temperature and sunlight available.  Low temperatures and bright sunlight destroy chlorophyll.  So, falls with dry, sunny days and dry, cool nights tend to produce the best fall color.

In severely dry falls, the lack of moisture available to the plant may mean that leaves simply die without producing their usual fall colors of yellow, red or purple.  The leaves lose so much moisture that the normal chemical processes cannot continue and the leaves dry, turn brown and drop early.

The ‘Fall’

Once the spectacular show of fall color is over, deciduous (i.e. leaf-losing) trees and shrubs drop their leaves.  Cooling temperatures and lengthening nights trigger plants into sealing off the point on their stems where leaves are attached so that no more exchanges of moisture and nutrients between the leaves and the rest of the plants are possible.  This is called the “abscission layer”.  When this layer is complete, the leaves drop (or “fall”).

What use are those dead leaves?

Think about how nature deals with this “problem”.  Leaves fall from trees to the ground of the woodland, forest, mountainside, meadow – wherever they are situated.  Rain, frost, snow, the trampling of animal feet all help to break the leaves down into smaller and smaller pieces.  A huge drift of fallen leaves decreases significantly in size as air spaces between the leaves diminish.  An army of creatures from the soil surface, and from beneath it, break down the leaves further through eating and excreting them (think: earthworms, beetles) or chemically decomposing them (think: fungi, bacteria).   In this way, the dead leaves are decomposed into the tiny elements that create soil.  It’s a mixture of humus and minerals.  The humus is the last vestiges of the leaves that are hard to break down like cellulose and the minerals are the chemical components of the leaf tissue, e.g. nitrogen and carbon.

The humus and minerals help to form new soil structure in which new plants can seed, germinate, develop and continue the cycle.  The new fertile or replenished soil provides the moisture and nutrients that the now-leafless trees will need to survive winter and re-start photosynthesis and growth in spring.

How to deal with those huge piles of leaves

We’ve seen above that the dead leaves have an important part to play in the garden’s eco-system.  So, what can you do?

  • Just let the leaves remain where they drop on garden beds. They provide great mulch to maintain soil temperatures and protect plant roots and will rot down over winter, improving your soil as they go.
  • Leave a thin layer of leaves on lawns. Rake or blow them off (if you must) but a thin layer of leaves (especially if you run over them once or twice with the lawnmower) will break down quickly and help re-vitalize your lawn.
  • Rake or blow leaves off walkways, drives and sidewalks on to adjacent garden beds, so that these hard landscape areas are visible and don’t become slippery. Do not sweep or blow leaves into the street, as they can cause serious blockages in street drainage systems.
  • For a neater look, you can blow the front edge of borders clear, letting the leaves accumulate at the backs of borders and behind and below larger plants.
  • Put layers of leaves in your compost bin (even better if you can run the lawnmower over them first) between your layers of green garden/kitchen waste.
  • Save the leaves in plastic trash sacks (stored in an unobtrusive part of the yard) and let them rot down over winter, to be returned to the garden when they have decomposed. This leaf mold (the lovely dark brown material you get from decomposed leaves) is like “gold-dust” to the soil.
  • Save the leaves in an open cage made of upright posts and chicken wire to decompose – more “gold-dust”. If you have room, let your neighbors drop their leaves in the cage too.
  • BUT if leaves come from a diseased plant e.g. one with powdery mildew, black spot (roses), apple scab, anthracnose, they should be collected up and disposed of as garbage to help prevent re-infection in the next year.

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Leaf cage made from old timber and chicken wire

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Fallen leaves make great mulch (and are warm and cosy for the dog!)

If none of these options work for you, you can dispose of the leaves in degradable paper sacks which are usually available from your local hardware store at this time of year.  The sacks can be collected with your normal weekly trash service.  Some towns and cities will have leaf drop-off points where you can take the bags for the city to collect.  The city will then use the leaves to make leaf mold for local parks or otherwise dispose of them.  If you can’t do these things yourself, look for a local lawn service company that can, or hire a local teenager to help.

But, whatever you do, remember that the leaves really belong on the ground.  That’s nature’s way, after all.

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Acer saccharinum (silver maple) turned yellow

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Quercus rubra (young red oak) turned red

Anne Hughes/Denver County Master Gardener

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

CSU Webinar Helps Solve Garden Mystery

Deformed tomato leavesEvery summer is different in the garden, but this year I found something I hadn’t seen before with two container tomato plants. The new leaves on these  plants was stunted and twisted into odd shapes.

Like many gardeners, I’ve seen plenty of tomato problems in my garden over the years. Early blight, late blight, blossom end rot and insect damage have cropped up from time to time, but these twisted leaves had me stumped.

I looked for images of similar problems online and checked my Tomato MD app, but I couldn’t find anything else that looked like that deformed growth.

In a great gardening coincidence while I was finishing my Colorado Master Gardener continuing education requirements, I clicked on a Small Acreage Management (SAM) webinar, and the mystery was solved.

These SAM webinars are posted on YouTube, so any gardener can watch them for free. The one that helped me diagnose my tomato plant problem is called “Herbicide Carryover and Fall Garden Care” led by Darrin Parmenter of CSU Extension in La Plata County, dated Sept. 4, 2013.

Herbicide carryover can happen when gardeners use herbicide-treated hay, straw or grass clippings as mulch or compost in their gardens. Herbicide carryover can also occur if gardeners apply manure from livestock that ate treated pasture or crops. Tomatoes and members of the tomato family are especially susceptible to herbicide carryover.

I’ve used well-aged horse manure in my garden for years and there’s never been a problem until this season. It turns out that herbicide carryover from horse manure is the top pathway because herbicides can pass through horses so quickly.

As soon as I understood the problem, I started a remediation program to improve soil microbial activity in the two containers with the affected tomato plants. I’ve cultivated the soil to increase oxygen, added a different kind of organic matter to increase beneficial soil organisms and used a home-made organic mulch. I’m also keeping the soil evenly moist and using a liquid fertilizer once a week.

According to Darrin in the webinar, the tomato plants may recover if there’s enough vegetative growth. I’m certainly going to be more thoughtful with how I amend my garden soil in the future.

By Jodi Torpey
A Colorado Master Gardener

Seed School

You may be familiar with the Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa. As a member you can buy or exchange seeds with other members.  They encourage heirloom seed saving.  You can grow the same variety of Hollyhock or Sunflower that your grandmother grew because people have saved the seeds and passed them along for other gardeners to grow.  seeds

A relatively new organization is the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance.   The founders of the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance spoke at the Denver Botanic Gardens in September 2015 – “Seed: the Future of Food”.   Seeds saved from successful plants are uniquely adapted for the local environment which makes local or regional seed groups important.

Both of these organizations offer “Seed Schools” where they teach best practices in seed harvesting and preservation.   The Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance offers webinars on seeds and has a seed school in Aurora, CO in August 2016 

If you want to see some interesting videos about International Seed Banks see my earlier post on this site.