Ready, Set, Plant!

Strawberry Delizz F1 is an ever-bearing variety that is the first strawberry in AAS history to be chosen as a winner. However, it may not be widely available until 2017. You can plant strawberries in early spring. (Photo courtesy of All-America Selections)

Strawberry Delizz F1 is an ever-bearing variety that is the first strawberry in AAS history to be chosen as a winner. However, it may not be widely available until 2017. You can plant strawberries in early spring. (Photo courtesy of All-America Selections)

It’s early April, and the weather still can be cold and blustery at times. But even so, it’s about time to plant your cool-season crops along Colorado’s Front Range. Some of you ambitious types may already have a few crops in the ground.

One of the best ways to determine whether to plant is by checking the soil temperature. To do this, stick a soil or meat thermometer four inches into the soil in four areas of your garden plot. If you’re growing beans stick the thermometer down six inches. Record each temperature. Do this for a few days. If your readings average 40 to 50 degrees, it’s time to plant.

You can even warm the soil faster by covering it with black plastic. It’s not cheating.

Or you can simply check daytime temperatures to make sure they’re not dipping below 40 degrees.

Which are the hardiest cool-season crops? Peas, radishes, cabbage, lettuce, spinach and onions, to name a few. I’m not talking about tomatoes and peppers here—those are warm-season crops, which we typically don’t plant until late May or early June after the risk of frost has passed. But you can go ahead now and plant seeds indoors for those crops.

Warm-season crops need outdoor soil temperatures of 60 to 70 degrees.

Candyland is the first currant-type tomato selected as an All-America Selections winner in AAS history. (Photo courtesy of All-America Selections)

Candyland is the first currant-type tomato selected as an All-America Selections winner in AAS history. (Photo courtesy of All-America Selections)

For more information about when to plant various crops, check the Colorado State University Extension website.

If you’re wondering which varieties to plant, take a look at All-America Selections (AAS).

Each year, the folks at All-America Selections carry out rigorous trials on flower and vegetable varieties to determine the best performers. Then AAS posts the winners each year on their website.

It’s a big deal in the green industry for a variety to be chosen as an AAS champ.

For the first time in AAS’ history, the judges have selected a strawberry and a currant-type tomato for 2016. The strawberry variety is the ever-bearing Strawberry Delizz F1, and the currant tomato variety is Tomato Candyland Red.

Often the newly named varieties are difficult to find in garden centers because the seed companies and growers haven’t had time to ramp up production on the winners.

So if you can’t find the 2016 champs this year, simply buy selections from earlier years. You can bet that by next year, seed companies and growers will make the 2016 winners more widely available.

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Hibiscus Summerific ‘Perfect Storm’: Definitely a Winner

My Summerific 'Perfect Storm' hibiscus produced spectacular blooms from late summer to frost, in spite of Colorado's hot, dry summer.

My Summerific ‘Perfect Storm’ hibiscus produced spectacular blooms from late summer to frost, in spite of Colorado’s hot, dry summer.

Last May, Proven Winners sent me a collection of their Spring 2016 plants to try out.

I had just moved into my new home in Fort Collins. The shrub and perennial beds were covered with river rock mulch, except for two tiny beds on either side of the garage. Because of the rock mulch and landscape fabric, it was a horrible job trying to install additional plants. And frankly, I didn’t have time to mess with them.

But I don’t like to let babies die. So I installed several of the plants wherever they would fit. Some made it. Some didn’t. But the Summerific ‘Perfect Storm’ hibiscus surprised me with its ability to tolerate drought and neglect. A hibiscus, mind you. They reportedly need “average to consistent water.”

Perfect Storm is a beautiful, compact plant with red-veined, deep green leaves and, of course, a hisbiscus’ magnificent, show-stopping blooms. Flowers showed up on this baby in late summer and grew about five inches wide. The plant itself reached about 18 inches high and wide. At maturity, it should grow three feet high and about five feet wide with seven-inch-wide blooms. That means I’ll need to move it because I simply plunked this perennial into one of the tiny, concrete-surrounded beds in full sun by the garage.

So if you thought, like I did, that hibiscus need to be babied, think again. Perfect Storm will delight you with its showiness and impress you with its toughness. As a bonus, the plant is also rabbit-resistant.

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Rabbit Resistant or Not? The Poop on 10 Perennials

Rabbits stayed away from Sonoran sunset hyssop in my garden. In general, they don't like hyssops. (Photo courtesy of Plant Select)

Rabbits stayed away from Sonoran sunset hyssop in my garden. In general, they don’t like hyssops. (Photo courtesy of Plant Select)

When I re-landscaped my front yard last September, I carefully researched lists of rabbit-resistant plants. I already knew that the plants I selected would, for the most part, be hardy and drought-resistant because I had grown several of them successfully in my old garden in Denver.

However, I didn’t have problems with rabbits in Denver. So I didn’t know which plants would really hold up against rabbit munching in my new Fort Collins landscape.

Here’s what I’ve discovered after planting the 10 perennials mentioned below.

Rabbit Food

Narbonne Blue Flax (Linum narbonense). Plant Select introduced this lovely selection in 2013, and I was eager to try it out. Narbonne reportedly has larger blooms, a fuller growth habit and a longer life that its better-known cousin, Colorado native blue flax (Linum lewisii). Unfortunately, rabbits sheared this plant to the ground within 24 hours of installation. So I may have to substitute either Linum lewisii or blue avena grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) for a spot of blue in that part of the garden.

Orange Carpet Hummingbird (Zauschneria garrettii). It’s difficult to miss orange carpet hummingbird in a garden because of its neon orange, tubular blooms. This long-blooming, creeping Plant Select groundcover grows about six inches high and 18 inches wide. Surprisingly, the rabbits nibbled on this plant some, but didn’t eat it all the way to the ground, except on one occasion. So I think it stands a decent chance in the garden, especially because it spreads fairly easily.

Veronica (V. prostrata and V. pectinata). These two low-growing groundcovers have graced my gardens for the past 10 years or so. Because they’re evergreen, they provide an attractive organic mulch under late winter- and early spring-blooming bulbs. Then they produce their own show by carpeting the ground with small blue flowers in late spring or early summer. Unfortunately, the rabbits have taken a liking to some of the plants. I’m not giving up on veronicas yet, though, especially because they spread rapidly and may be able to outdistance the rabbits’ appetites.

Rabbit Resistant

Hidcote Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’). I wouldn’t have a garden without lavender. It’s fragrant and evergreen, and on top of that, it produces delightful violet blue blooms. Hidcote grows about 16 inches tall and will spread as wide as two feet over time. After a few years, Hidcote will even begin producing babies that you can transplant around the garden. Munstead lavender is about the same size as Hidcote, but I prefer Hidcote because its leaves are softer-looking than Munstead’s are.  The rabbits haven’t touched my Hidcotes.

This mojave sage isn't rabbit food. Although the foliage looks green in this photo, the leaves are actually a soft blue in my garden. (Photo courtesy of Plant Select)

This mojave sage isn’t rabbit food. Although the foliage looks green in this photo, the leaves are actually a soft blue in my garden. (Photo courtesy of Plant Select)

Mojave Sage (Salvia pachyphylla). A friend of mine raved about this plant so enthusiastically that I decided to try it. I love it already, even though it hasn’t bloomed for me yet. Its leaves are a soft blue color that complement the fuchsias, oranges and purples in my garden. This Plant Select winner, which grows about three feet high and wide, has a shrubby growth habit. Mojave is a showy bloomer that produces violet-blue flowers surrounded by mauve bracts. Although my Mojaves sit close to hedge cotoneasters that provide cover for rabbits, the critters haven’t bothered these sages.

Rozanne Cranesbill (Geranium ‘Rozanne’). Five of these loose-growing groundcover plants went under my autumn brilliance serviceberry. The geranium’s purple blooms brighten the garden from early summer to frost. Rozanne grows about one foot high and three feet wide. The rabbits left these plants alone.

Sonoran Sunset Hyssop (Agastache cana ‘Sinning’ Sonoran Sunset). This compact show-stopper produces fuchsia blooms on upright stems from late summer to through fall. One of my plants was still trying to produce blooms well after frost, and all five were still producing basal foliage in early winter. A Plant Select winner, Sonoran Sunset grows about 15 inches tall and 18 inches wide. The rabbits didn’t go near it.

Sunset Hyssop (Agastache rupestre ‘Sunset’). This Southwestern native is another show-stopper with its smoky orange flowers emerging from lavender calyxes. Sunset can grow up to 42 inches tall and 18 inches wide. The rabbits didn’t like it.

Soapwort (Saponaria ocymoides). This humble workhorse is one of my favorite groundcovers. It’s evergreen, and it produces white or pink flowers that attract pollinators. I placed it along a path in front of my house to serve as a mulch between pavers. In bloom, soapwort reaches a height of about four inches. The rest of the time, this stalwart hugs the ground. Soapwort looks like a plant that rabbits would savor, but they didn’t.

Color Guard Yucca (Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’). As an experiment, I installed two of these bad boys near my front porch for drama. I’ll install a third as soon as one of my existing plants produces babies, which should be soon if these plants make it through the winter. During the growing season, the plant’s spiky yellow-and-green leaves provide excitement on their own. But when Color Guard sends up stems that are three to four feet tall and produces panicles of stunning white flowers, you really begin to appreciate its architectural grandeur. Color Guard is evergreen, but in Colorado, it’s a raggedy evergreen that makes you wish the plant would just dormant altogether. The rabbits have wanted nothing to do with Color Guard.

That’s the news so far on my new perennials and their relationships with rabbits.

In another experiment, I also installed three blue panda corydalis (Corydalis flexuosa ‘Blue Panda’) bulbs for their lacy leaves and early spring blooms. Rabbits have nibbled on them some, but it doesn’t look as though blue pandas are among their favorites.

Happy New Year. May your gardening efforts be wildly successful in 2016.

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Are ‘Bullet-Proof Plants’ Really Bullet-Proof?

A tiger eyes sumac, similar to the baby shown here, will be the centerpiece of my new garden.

A tiger eyes sumac, similar to the baby shown here, will be the centerpiece of my new garden.

Snow currently shrouds the carefully selected plants in my newly landscaped front yard. Bunnies have been chomping on some plants, even on so-called rabbit-resistant ones. I’m curious to see which plants survive the wildlife assaults and Fort Collins’ harsh winters to prove that they are, indeed, bullet-proof.

As promised in last month’s post, I’m sharing my plant selections with you, in case you’re looking for plants for tough growing conditions.

Trees

Autumn brilliance serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’).This multi-stemmed beauty is one of my all-time favorites, with its white spring blooms, tasty blue berries and flaming red-orange fall color. I wouldn’t have a garden without it.

Shrubs

Cheyenne Mockorange (Philadelphus lewisii ‘Cheyenne’). Cheyenne produces fragrant, lush white flowers each spring. This stalwart anchors a front corner of my house and will eventually reach 6 to 8 feet tall and 5 to 8 feet wide.

Hedge Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster lucidus). The home’s previous owner installed two of these shrubs, which turn an eye-popping red each fall. The shrubs are currently overgrown, but I’ll cut them to the ground this winter so they’ll emerge at a more appropriate size.

Pawnee Buttes Sand Cherry (Prunus besseyi ‘Pawnee Buttes’). I installed this woody groundcover for its hardiness, white flowers and red fall foliage. It’ll grow about 18 inches tall and 6 feet wide. The thing is, rabbits like to munch on Pawnee Buttes’ new shoots, so I’ve placed protective cages around these plants for the time being.

Regent Serviceberry ( Amelanchier x ‘Regent’). Like its cousin autumn brilliance, regent serviceberry boasts spectacular fall color. But instead of red, regent shows off stunning golden-coral autumn color. Regent also has a more compact and delicate growth habit than autumn brilliance. This colonizing shrub is a slow grower that will eventually stretch 6 feet high, but it can easily be pruned to a lower height.

Tiger Eyes Sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’). I’ve had my eye on this stunner for years, and finally I have a spot for it in the garden. Tiger Eyes is the centerpiece of my landscape because it’s so showy. Unlike other sumacs, Tiger Eyes doesn’t sucker insanely in Colorado unless it’s installed in heavily amended soil. I dug a circle 3-foot circle around it and shoveled in lean clay soil to discourage suckering. The shrub has lacy yellow and chartreuse foliage on rosy pink branches. Each fall, the leaves turn orange-red. Don’t over-water this baby. Right now, it’s an ugly brown fuzzy stick with buds on it. But as it matures, it will keep its branches over the winter to provide architectural interest.

Angela sedum? It's drought-tolerant and beautiful, but rabbits ate mine to the ground.  Try lemon coral sedum instead.

Angela sedum? It’s drought-tolerant and beautiful, but rabbits ate mine to the ground. Try lemon coral sedum instead.

Perennials

Angelina Sedum (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’). Rabbits decimated this yellow/chartreuse groundcover as soon as I plunked it in the ground. So I took the crumbs from their feast and planted them elsewhere in the garden. The crumbs have taken root. But I’m concerned about this plant’s long-term survival with so many rabbits around. Last spring, Proven Winners sent me some new plants to try. One of them was lemon coral sedum (Sedum reflexum ‘Lemon Coral’), a splashy, tough Angelina sedum look-alike that stands three inches high. The rabbits never touched lemon coral. Unfortunately, this new plant is an annual in Colorado, but I’m hoping that lemon coral self-sows so that more of this wonderful plant will emerge next spring.  You’ll find lemon coral in garden centers next spring.

Valentine Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis ‘Valentine’). This newer, more compact variety of the traditional bleeding heart is a show-stopper. It will grow about 2 feet tall and wide with lovely reddish-pink flowers and the usual, attractive, deep-cut foliage. Rabbits nibbled on the bleeding hearts some, but not a lot. I’m hoping that, unlike the traditional bleeding heart, valentine will resist going dormant in mid-summer.

There are 10 more perennials in my garden. I’ll describe them in my next post.

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How to Install a New Landscape in 7 Days, Give or Take

OK, it doesn't look like Yard Beautiful yet. The plants are small, and the overseeded turf hasn't filled in. But just wait a year or so, and it'll look entirely different. I've installed cages around my Pawnee Buttes sand cherries and Norbonne blue flax to keep the rabbits from munching on them any more than they already have.

OK, it doesn’t look like Yard Beautiful yet. The plants are small, and the overseeded turf hasn’t filled in. But just wait a year or so, and it’ll look entirely different. I’ve installed cages around my Pawnee Buttes sand cherries and Norbonne blue flax to keep the rabbits from munching on them any more than they already have.

Put down two inches of compost and rototill it in to a depth of six inches. How can you screw that up? Plenty, it appears. The landscaper I hired to rototill in my compost doesn’t know the difference between a soil amendment and a mulch. A soil amendment is material (such as compost) that you work into the soil. A mulch is material you place on the soil to reduce weeds, moderate soil temperature and conserve moisture.

The landscaper rototilled some areas too much, pulverizing the soil, and didn’t rototill other areas at all. Then he simply spread compost on top of everything.

I was off working on other projects. It’s clear that I should have been watching the worker’s every move. I would have rototilled the area myself, except that a heavy-duty rototiller weighs more than I do.

So I spent the next two and a half days repairing the damage. I tilled the untilled areas, using my shovel, and worked the compost into the soil myself. I didn’t want to run the risk of having the landscaper pulverize more areas of soil, so I didn’t call him about coming back. Pulverized soil dries like cement after it gets wet.

Once I finished hand tilling the soil, I began grading it so that water would drain from the top of the landscape onto the lawn or into defined lower areas. I used a three-foot-wide landscape or grading rake to do this.

Normally, I would have installed edging next to separate the turf area from the shrub and perennial beds. But this was late September, so my top priority was getting the plants into the ground quickly so they could recover from transplant shock and put on root growth before the ground froze. As a result, I began installing plants and mulching around them as I went.

I dug a trench 4 inches deep so I could install steel rolled top edging to separate my turf from my shrub/perennial bed.

I dug a trench 4 inches deep so I could install steel rolled top edging to separate my turf from my shrub/perennial bed.

Once all the plants were installed, I used a mattock to mark the line for my edging. I like to play with the line as I go to make the curves more interesting.

With the line marked, I dug a trench along it and inserted steel rolled-top edging, anchoring it with anchor pins every two and half feet or so.

Steel rolled top edging snakes its way along the trench I dug. I left 1/4 inch of edging above ground when I backfilled the trench.

Steel rolled top edging snakes its way along the trench I dug. I left 1/4 inch of edging above ground when I backfilled the trench.

Then I dug a two-inch-deep mulch trough along the edge of the sidewalk and on the inside edge of the edging so that mulch will have a place to accumulate during rainstorms instead of flowing onto the sidewalk.

Finally, I mulched the entire landscape with shredded Washington red cedar mulch, a vast improvement over the rock mulch I had before.

I chose mostly bullet-proof plants because of my heavy clay soil and the extreme weather conditions in Fort Collins. In my next post, I’ll share my plant selections with you.

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How to Tear Out a Rock Landscape in 13 Days or Less

Here's how the front yard looked in May before heavy rains contributed to a fungal disease in the lawn. The dark shrubs in the front right are spireas damaged by last November's hard frost.

Here’s how the front yard looked in May before heavy rains contributed to a fungal disease in the lawn. The dark shrubs in the front right are spireas damaged by last November’s hard frost.

If you ever need to tear out an existing landscape and install a new one, perhaps you can learn from my experience.

The 22-year-old front yard that I inherited when I moved into my place four months ago was overgrown and populated with plants that weren’t particularly thrilling, except for two 7-by-7-foot Peking cotoneasters. Winter interest was non-existent except for the spruce tree planted five feet from my foundation.

These two Peking cotoneasters are just beginning to take on their red fall color. I'll include these shrubs in the new landscape, but will cut them to the ground next February so they won't be overgrown. That's an irrigation line draped across them.

These two Peking cotoneasters are just beginning to take on their red fall color. I’ll include these shrubs in the new landscape, but will cut them to the ground next February so they won’t be overgrown. That’s an irrigation line draped across them.

I decided a makeover was in order. So I created a landscape drawing and contacted my homeowners association for approval. The HOA was incredibly responsive, and one of the board members and his spouse came by within a day or so to walk my property, review the plan and discuss the project. The board member verbally approved my plan on the spot, and by the end of the day, I received written approval by email. This was September 3. The saga was about to begin.

I had contacted the utilities locator a few weeks earlier, so I knew where my utility lines were. I had also had the spruce removed so that the roots wouldn’t threaten my foundation, and the crown wouldn’t threaten my roof.

My initial work involved tearing out all the steel edging and marking a new, smaller turf area with landscape flags.

Then I used a reciprocating saw to cut my shrubs down to the ground.

Next came rock removal. Although it’s difficult to see from the photo, my front yard had a lot of rock mulch, five cubic yards’ worth (about seven tons). I originally thought there was no way I was going to move that much rock. But earlier, a young couple in the neighborhood mentioned that they had removed all of their rock. Being no stranger to hard work, I thought, “If they can do it, so can I,” even though they’re 30 years my junior. It’s just a matter of being insane, getting up every morning and plugging away at it.

Using a rake, flat shovel and wheelbarrow, I moved the rock from my landscape and built a pile in the corner of my lot near the street. Rock removal took about eight days. Most days, I worked on it for two to three hours. On a couple of days, I worked five to seven hours.

Fortunately when I posted free landscape rock on craigslist, a fellow homeowner contacted me immediately and offered to haul it away for his own yard.

I then removed the landscape fabric and residual rocks.  To cut the landscape fabric, I used an inexpensive linoleum knife.

Finally, it was time to dig up the shrubs and perennials. I blasted all of the plants with my hose to loosen the soil around the roots. The next day, I started digging out the blue mist spirea. Piece of cake. However, the densely branched, compact, pink-flowered spirea were hell. So I whipped out my reciprocating saw, stuck it into dug-out areas around the root ball and whacked away on the roots. It took about 20 minutes to yank each of those puppies out of the ground. The perennials? Another piece of cake.

I transplanted a few of my favorite dug-out perennials in the back yard and offered the rest to neighbors.

The yard looks sad and barren now, but it offers a clean slate for installing a new landscape. Later this month, I'll overseed the turf area.

The yard looks sad and barren now, but it offers a clean slate for installing a new landscape. Later this month, I’ll overseed the turf area.

Last night (Day 12) I cut out some tree roots and added them to my debris pile.

Today, I hired someone to come over in two days and rototill two inches of compost into my soil. I also accepted delivery of five cubic yards each of compost and Western red cedar mulch. If I have material left over, I’ll use it in another part of the property.

Tomorrow, I’ll dig up remaining tree roots, rake up leftover wood mulch and tidy up the area for the next day’s rototilling.

Then it’s on to the fun part—plant installation. Once I’m done with that, I’ll add a new post to explain that process and show you photos.

By the way, I bought all my plants at the Labor Day sales and saved a small fortune.

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Perform a Sacred Act: Plant a Tree

In a few weeks, my newly planted autumn brilliance serviceberry will turn this color.

In a few weeks, my newly planted autumn brilliance serviceberry will turn this color.

I’ve always considered planting a tree to be one of life’s sacred acts.

Besides making the environment more beautiful, trees combat climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. They cool your home and streets, conserving energy. They provide food and a habitat for wildlife. What’s not to like?

So this week, as a first step in redesigning my front yard, I planted a multi-stem autumn brilliance serviceberry tree. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I’m gaga over serviceberries.

As far as I’m concerned, every garden needs at least one. Serviceberries provide white blossoms in the spring before other trees even wake up. Then in the summer, these plants produce delicious blue berries treasured by humans and birds alike. Finally, in the fall, serviceberries dazzle passersby with outstanding fall color. The autumn brilliance turns red-orange. Another of my favorites, the regent serviceberry, turns a fabulous golden color, sometimes mingled with coral.

So if you’re thinking about planting a tree, serviceberry or otherwise, now’s a good time. Trees are on sale at nurseries because garden centers want to reduce their inventories before winter. In addition, fall is one of the best times to plant because of increased rainfall after dry summers.

When planting a new tree, such as this autumn brilliance serviceberry, mulch around the root ball, but not on top of it.

When planting a new tree, such as this autumn brilliance serviceberry, mulch around the root ball, but not on top of it.

Although I’ve planted many trees and never lost one, I always check the Colorado State University website for the latest updates on tree-planting techniques before I plant a new tree. Techniques change as researchers discover new information about tree establishment and growth. So this time, I used Colorado Master Gardener GardenNotes #636, Tree Planting Steps. I especially like the labor-saving tip about creating a saucer-shaped planting hole during the backfill process.

One of the most common mistakes that homeowners make when planting a tree is planting the root ball too deep. So pay special attention to the depth of the planting hole in relation to the height of the root ball. I planted my young serviceberry so the top of the root ball was one inch above grade.

And don’t be shy about tearing into that root ball to untangle any girdling roots. If you plunk the tree into the ground without untangling the roots, the roots will likely continue to grow in a circle around the root ball instead of venturing out into surrounding soil for nutrients.

If you plant a tree correctly (and yes, you can do it yourself), you’ll enjoy a beautiful, healthy tree for years to come.

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