How to Start a Strawberry Patch on The Cheap

Bare root strawberries sit in a pot in my garage, where they wait until early April, when it’s warm enough to plant them outdoors.

Who doesn’t love strawberries?  Those plump, juicy little chunks of goodness snatch our attention when we spot them in grocery stores.

Fortunately, strawberries are easy to grow in Colorado gardens.  All you have to do is clear a patch of land and amend the soil with compost before plunking those babies into the ground.

The least expensive way to start a strawberry patch is to buy bare root strawberries online or at your local nursery.  Early April is the best time to install bare root plants in gardens along Colorado’s Front Range.

I use golf tees to mark locations for the plants. Everbearing plants produce fewer runners than June-bearing plants, so I plant them 5 inches apart in rows that are 18 inches apart. Eventually, I’ll cut off the babies on runners and use them to expand my strawberry patch.

I buy my bare root plants in early March for the best selection.  Then I soak them in water overnight before planting them in potting soil in a large pot, which I keep in the garage.  I keep them moist, but am careful not to overwater them because I don’t want them to rot.  Within a week or two, the plants start budding.  Then in early April, I place them in the ground while they’re still semi-dormant.  You can also simply buy bare root strawberries in April, soak them overnight, and plant them directly into the ground.

Another option is to go out and buy potted strawberry plants for planting in late May, but for the price of one or two potted plants, you can buy 10 bare root strawberries.

Before inserting a bare root strawberry into the ground, simply poke a slit into the soil with a garden trowel and then insert the plant, snugging the soil around it.

There are three basic classifications for strawberries:  June-bearing, everbearing and day neutral.  Although June-bearing plants produce the tastiest berries, their flowers can be damaged by late spring frosts, causing low yields.  For that reason, ever-bearing plants tend to be a better choice for Colorado gardens because ever-bearers produce crops in both summer and fall.  As for day-neutral varieties, they flower and fruit more consistently over the summer.  Interestingly, though, I haven’t seen any day-neutral varieties in local nurseries, which makes me wonder if day-neutrals are as winter-hardy as June-bearing and ever-bearing plants.

Some recommended June-bearing varieties for Colorado include Honeoye, Guardian, Kent and Delite.  I’ve grown Honeoye successfully, but haven’t tried the others.  Preferred ever-bearing varieties include Ogallala, Fort Laramie and Ozark Beauty.  I grew Ozark Beauty last year and am adding more, as well as Fort Laramie this year.

The literature I’ve read indicates that strawberries need full sun to grow best.  I’ve found, however, that mine do quite well in part shade, given the intensity of Colorado’s sun.

When you plant bareroot strawberries in the ground, you may need to trim the roots back to about four inches.  Be careful not to bury the crown or leave the roots exposed.

As for strawberry planting patterns and cultivation, the directions become rather wordy, so I’ll refer you to Colorado State University’s Strawberries for the Home Garden fact sheet and Cornell University’s Strawberries fact sheet.

Concerning mulching, I tried using straw mulch, as recommended.  However, the straw produced so many weeds that I ended up donating the straw to a more weed-tolerant gardener and began using grass clippings instead.  This year, I’ll try putting down a couple of layers of newspaper (no colored inks) and leftover packing paper, holding them down with rocks until I accumulate enough grass clippings to anchor the paper.

In addition to providing fruit, strawberries function well as a groundcover to help keep weeds out of your perennial beds.

If you start growing strawberries, you may enjoy them so much that you’ll decide to branch out into other berries, such as Chester dwarf blackberries.

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Kick-Ass Plants for Badass Territory

Kick-ass plants can provide color and interest even when they’re not in bloom. In this fall landscape, you’ll see (clockwise from lower left) Genista lydia, fiery Pawnee Buttes sand cherry, Sonoran sunset hyssop, sunset hyssop, blue avena grass, and orange carpet hummingbird.

Unless you’re one of those rare Colorado gardeners with a shady yard, you probably have spots that get blasted by the sun—in other words, badass areas.  And you likely have heavy clay soil, too.

The southwest corner of my front yard is badass.  Besides getting hammered by western and southern sun, the area sits next to a sidewalk, which radiates heat.

So when I designed this space, I selected kick-ass, drought-tolerant plants with fall color and winter interest in mind.  I also wanted most, if not all, of the plants to attract pollinators.  Here are the plants that made the cut.

Around July, these kick-ass plants burst with color, particularly the fuchsia-colored Sonoran sunset hyssop, salmon-and-lavender sunset hyssop, and neon orange carpet hummingbird. The Genista lydia in front erupts in electric yellow flowers in the spring. Pawnee Buttes sand cherry, behind the genista, produces white flowers in the spring. Because of their successional bloom, the plants (other than the blue avena grass) provide nectar to pollinators throughout the growing season.

Lydia broom (Genista lydia). This evergreen, groundcover shrub explodes with electric yellow flowers in the spring.  Its branches are somewhat scruffy, which is probably why you can’t find it in nurseries these days.  However, there’s a new smaller cultivar with more attractive branching:  Lydia bangle broom (Genista lydia ‘Select’).  Bangle grows 12-24 inches high and 18-24 inches wide, and produces the same showy yellow flowers that Genista lydia   I haven’t seen this plant in Fort Collins nurseries yet, but The Tree Farm in Longmont sells it.  So I’m guessing this cultivar will migrate north to local nurseries before long.

Pawnee Buttes sand cherry (Prunus besseyi). In April, this low-growing shrub pumps out fragrant white flowers, followed by black berries in the summer.  In the fall, this plant’s foliage is pure magic, when sunlight catches its fiery red leaves.  Then in winter, Pawnee Buttes’ perky little branches stand at attention.  This shrubby ground cover will reach 15-18 inches high and 4-6 feet wide.  Don’t let its width scare you, though.  Pawnee Buttes responds very well to pruning if you want to keep its width at four feet or so.

Sonoran Sunset hyssop (Agastache cana ‘Sinning’). This herbaceous, woody-based perennial blooms prolifically with fuchsia flowers from early June through October.  Then in late fall, its blooms turn tan, providing winter interest.  Pollinators, especially hummingbirds, love it.  Sonoran Sunset grows 15-18 inches high and 12-15 inches wide.  If you have heavy clay soil, be sure to amend it with compost to improve drainage.  Once this plant is established, don’t overwater it.  I’ve killed a couple that way in a moister part of my yard.

Sunset hyssop (Agastache rupestris). Sunset hyssop features salmon-and-lavender blooms.  It’s taller than Sonoran, reaching 2-4 feet high by 20-30 inches wide.  So I plant it as a backdrop to Sonoran.  Agastache has a reputation for being a short-loved perennial, but all of my sunset hyssops are going into their fourth season.

Orange carpet hummingbird (Zauschneria garrettii). As the common name suggests, this plant is beloved by hummingbirds for its tubular, neon-orange blooms from June to October.  Zauschneria spreads quickly and grows 3-4 inches high by 15-20 wide.  It’s one of those plants you’ll be able to share with neighbors.

Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens). It’s not easy to find blue plants for a garden’s color scheme.  That’s one reason I like blue oat (avena) grass so much.  Unlike many ornamental grasses, blue oat grass, doesn’t reseed and take over your yard.  This well-behaved plant delivers arching stalks of airy plumes in early summer, and grows about 2-3 feet high and wide.  This is the only plant in my badass area that doesn’t provide nectar for pollinators.

Cut the hyssops and blue oat grass to the ground in March or April as new growth emerges.

All of these plants offer nearly year-round interest except for orange carpet hummingbird, which dies back in winter.  They also bloom at different times so that pollinators have food sources throughout the growing season.

On April 14, I’ll be offering two short programs on kick-ass plants at the Sustainable Lifestyle Expo at the FirstBank Center in Broomfield, Colorado.  Colorado State University Extension agents, specialists and volunteers will provide research-based demonstrations and talks on more than 30 topics. Expo tickets are $10 for adults.  Admission is free for ages 17 and under.

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Keep Your Flowers Fresher Longer

What’s the #1 longest-lasting cut flower? Zinnia. These pollinator-attracting plants reach about 1 to 4 feet tall and are available in many colors.

With Valentine’s day approaching, many of you may find yourselves with bouquets of fresh flowers.  And others of you may be cutting flowers from your gardens later this year.

Either way, you’ll want to keep those flowers fresh as long as you can.

Guess what’s the most effective method for keeping these lovelies in pristine condition.  Pennies?  No.  Bleach? Unh-unh.  Aspirin, hairspray, vodka, vinegar with sugar?  Not even close.

ProFlowers, the online florist, tested all of the methods above and then some.  The test results indicated these two methods work best:  One, refrigerate your flowers each night; and two, add ¼ cup of soda pop (preferably clear, such as 7-Up) to the vase water.  This reportedly works even better than flower food.

If you pick the flowers yourself, be sure to cut them with a sharp knife or bypass pruners in the morning or early evening rather than during the mid-day heat.  Then insert the stems in clean water right away.

Roses, such as the Fire Meidilands shown here, are stunning in cut-flower arrangements.

Whether you receive flowers as a gift or harvest them yourself, cut the stems at an angle for better water absorption, and remove all leaves below the water line to minimize bacterial growth.

Opinions vary concerning water temperature, but most sources recommend lukewarm water in the vase.  Add more water as needed, and clean the vase every few days.

Keep the flowers away from full sun, fruit, and hot and cold drafts.

Among the longest-lasting cutting flowers are zinnias, carnations, alstroemerias, delphiniums, daisies, peonies and sunflowers.  So plant your garden accordingly for bountiful blooms and durable arrangements.

 

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Unsung Heroes Brighten Winter Landscape

Japanese barberry feeds birds and the soul with its colorful winter berries.

Easy-to-grow plants with winter interest are Japanese barberry, Angelina sedum, creeping and upright Mahonia, color guard yucca, and ornamental grasses.

Yes, I know Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is somewhat overplanted in Colorado.  But there’s a reason for that.  This sun-loving shrub is extremely hardy.  The birds love the berries, especially in winter.  And people love the berries for their brilliant red color, especially in an otherwise-drab winter landscape.  The Kobold variety even resembles boxwood—a plus for gardeners who love the look of boxwood but don’t want to deal with its inherent problems in Colorado.

Angelina sedum explodes with yellow, orange-red, purple and green foliage in the winter.   This indestructible plant will gradually spread, and babies can be easily transplanted.  In warmer months, the foliage turns chartreuse.

Low-growing Angelina sedum generates explosions of color throughout the garden.

Mahonia aquifolium and Mahonia repens always have something going on.  They hold their leaves year-round, offering deep green foliage in warm months and reddish foliage in winter.  Each spring, Mahonia produces bright yellow flowers, followed by blue berries, which birds love.  Mahonia, like Japanese barberry, is tough and drought-tolerant, but grows best in shade.

Mahonia repens takes on subtle red hues when temperatures turn cold.

Color guard yucca displays yellow-and-green-striped leaves in warm weather.  When winter rolls around, the sword-like foliage becomes even more interesting by adding a bit of coral color to the yellow and green.  I’ve grown this non-patented beauty for about three years and have divided it to propagate three more plants.  The mother plant is 16 inches tall and 24 inches wide.  I’m hoping it’ll flower one of these years.

Hints of coral enhance Color Guard yucca’s yellow and green sword-like leaves in winter.

Ornamental grasses are stalwarts that provide architectural elements in the winter garden.  Don’t cut them back until late February or early March.

Other favorites for the winter garden are Harry Lauder’s walking stick, red twig and yellow twig dogwoods, yews, pines, firs, spruces, junipers and hawthorns.

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Low-Cost Propagation Methods Can Multiply Your Shrubs

This multi-caned red twig dogwood can be propagated by using simple layering, division, runners or stem cuttings.

In last month’s post, I explained how to use simple layering to propagate shrubs with branches close to the ground.

But what about shrubs that don’t have low-hanging branches?  Fortunately, there are other propagation approaches you can use: Dividing root balls, transplanting runners, and taking stem cuttings.  Within a short time, you can have several baby shrubs for transplanting around your yard.

Dividing root balls.  There are many shrubs that don’t respond well to division because of their tree-like growth habit from a single trunk.  But there are other shrubs, primarily those that produce multiple canes, that divide nicely.  Examples include butterfly bush, rose, dogwood, spirea, potentilla, lilac and forsythia.

To propagate by division, dig up the root ball of the mother plant.  The root ball may fall apart by itself, leaving several cane clumps with roots attached.  If not, use a shovel or knife to cut the ball apart, being careful to minimize damage.  Make sure that each cane clump has a good root ball.  Then transplant the clumps to their final resting places.

Transplanting runners.  Some shrubs produce runners, called rhizomes (underground) or stolons (above ground), which create suckers.   These shrubs are called colonizers because, over time, they’ll create colonies of themselves if left unchecked.  Colonizers include serviceberry, dogwood, lilac, sumac and kerria.

If you want to propagate and transplant a baby shrub from the mother shrub, look for a branch growing several inches from the mother plant—a branch that looks like it wants to strike out on its own.  Carefully dig around that branch to see whether it’s attached to its own runner.  If you spot a runner, dig it up, coat it with a rooting hormone, such as Clonex, and gently place it in a hole in a pot or in the ground.

If you’re using a pot, mix peat moss with sand or perlite for a loose, well-draining medium.  If you’re planting the runner in the ground, dig a trench about six inches deep and fill it with sand.  You should moisten your growing medium with water, then poke a hole in the medium with your finger so you can insert the runner into the medium without disturbing the rooting hormone.  Then gently backfill the hole.  After that, just keep the runner watered the same as you would a regular plant.

Then wait about four months or so to give the runner time to develop auxiliary roots before transplanting it to its new home.

Taking stem cuttings.  This approach, in my experience, is the diciest of the propagation methods.  So if you can propagate a shrub by layering, division or transplanting runners, I suggest that you use one of those methods instead of taking cuttings.

In spite of difficulties, I have successfully propagated red twig dogwoods from cuttings.  But my success rate was only about 60 percent. Professionals have better equipment and are far more adept at propagating from cuttings than I am.

With layering and division, I’ve had a 100-percent success rate, and with transplanting runners, I’ve averaged about 75%.

If you have your heart set on propagating a shrub that can’t be propagated with the other methods I’ve described, then cuttings are the way to go.

There are three types of woody plant cuttings:  softwood, semi-hardwood and hardwood.  Softwood cuttings are taken from tender new growth in the spring or early summer.  Semi-hardwood cuttings are taken from partially matured growth in the summer.  Hardwood cuttings are taken from mature stems during the fall and winter.

Different types of shrubs root more readily from different types of cuttings.  Daphne and euonymus, for example, propagate most readily from semi-hardwood cuttings.  Viburnum, on the other hand, propagates most readily from softwood and hardwood cuttings.

To determine which shrubs require which cutting types, I check my reference book, Plant Propagation from The American Horticultural Society.

When I propagated red twig dogwoods, I took semi-hardwood cuttings in late summer and stripped off all the leaves.  Then I dug a trench, filled it with sand, and planted the cuttings the same way I did for the runners mentioned earlier.  I then mulched the cuttings with black plastic.  The following spring, I planted the cuttings in their final resting places.  Four of my seven cuttings survived the winter and transplanting.  I used rooting hormone on three of the seven cuttings.

If you want to get serious about rooting shrubs from cuttings, I suggest consulting Plant Propagation for step-by-step instructions.

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A Plant Geek’s Haphazard Approach To Propagating Shrubs

The equipment and supplies for simple layering are simple–gloves, sand, compost, anchoring pins, rooting hormone, pruners and a spade. The mother plant, a Genista lydia, sits in back.

Have you ever wished you could get three shrubs for the price of one?  Well, you can, with a little know-how and patience.

You simply propagate new plants from the mother shrub.  There are several ways to do this, including layering, dividing, digging up runners and taking stem cuttings.

Today I’ll cover simple layering.  In a future post, I’ll review other propagation methods that you can perform in your garden.

My study of propagation began last fall when I bought Plant Propagation, an excellent reference book produced by The American Horticultural Society.  I learned about hardwood and softwood cuttings, heating pads, cell trays, rock wool and all manner of horticultural mechanisms.  And I soon realized there were all kinds of propagation equipment and supplies that I didn’t want to spend money on.  So I experimented on the cheap.

I wanted to propagate more Genista lydias from my existing genista.

This shrublet is one I started last spring from layering. So it has been in layering mode for 6 months. I’ll wait until next spring to transplant it.

First, I tried taking a genista cutting and growing it in a sand/potting soil mixture in a pot with a plastic bag over it to retain heat and moisture.  Within a week or two, tiny green buds started popping up all over the cutting.  But a few weeks later, the cutting rotted and died.

So after doing more propagation research, I decided to try simple layering.  You can perform simple layering on any shrub with branches low enough to reach the ground.  I used it successfully last fall on red meidiland ground cover roses.  So I figured it might work for Genista lydia, as well.  Other candidates for simple layering include climbing roses, spreading cotoneaster, forsythia, lilac, viburnum, daphne, raspberries and blackberries.

Here’s my approach:

Step 1.  Collect your tools and equipment.  Mine include gardening gloves, pruners, spade, anchoring pins (I had edging pins on hand, so I used those.  But you also can use smaller, less expensive landscape fabric pins), rooting hormone (such as Clonex or Garden Safe TakeRoot), compost and general purpose sand.  The Clonex set me back $20, but everything else is stuff I already had around the house.  You can make homemade rooting hormone, if you want.  Just google online for recipes.

After digging your trench, strip all leaves from the underground portion of your selected branch and scrape a thin coat of bark off of the bottom of the branch. Then anchor the branch to to soil. I took this photo before pushing the anchoring pin farther into the ground so that you could see the pin more easily.

Step 2.  Select a young branch that’s at least 10 inches long.  You’ll need to bury some of it and have enough branch left over to leave some vegetation above ground.

Step 3.  Dig a trench 4 to 5 inches deep and about 6 inches long beneath your selected branch.

Step 4.  Strip all leaves from the portion of the branch that will be buried.  Scrape a thin layer of bark off of the bottom of the branch to encourage rooting through contact between the plant tissue and the soil.  You can also apply rooting compound at this point, but I generally just wait until the transplanting phase to use it.

Step 5.  Anchor the stripped portion of the branch to the ground with one or more anchoring pins.

Once you’ve anchored your branch to the ground, cover the anchored portion with 2 to 3 inches of a 50/50 compost/sand mixture. Then backfill the remainder of the trench with soil.

Step 6.  Cover the anchored portion of the branch with 2 to 3 inches of a 50/50 compost/sand mixture.  Then backfill the remainder of the trench with soil.  I’ve found that the compost/sand mixture improves drainage and prevents rotting, which is often a problem in heavy clay soils.

Step 7.  Position the above-ground portion of the branch so that it’s as vertical as possible.  You can even stake the top, if needed.  I don’t stress out if the branch isn’t perfectly vertical because I’ll be digging it up later to transplant it anyway.  At that point, I can reposition the top as needed when I replant it.

Step 8.  Mulch the trenched area and water it regularly.  Then wait.  Depending on your growing conditions, your new shrublet may be ready for transplanting in 4 to 6 months.  I typically transplant in spring or early fall for best root growth.  I dig a hole, coat the new roots of the shrublet with rooting compound, place the shrublet in the hole, and backfill with a mixture of two-thirds soil and one-sixth each of compost and sand.

There is one caveat to propagating your own plants asexually—that is, by any method other than planting seeds.  Don’t propagate patented plants.

Here’s the deal when it comes to patents.  When a breeder introduces a new plant, the breeder applies for a patent, which is valid for 20 years.  It’s only fair that the breeder should have an opportunity to recoup its costs and make some profits for developing the new plant.  Once the patent has expired, it’s all right to homeowners like you and me to propagate the plant asexually.

So do your research online to find out whether the plant you want to propagate has a patent in force.  Otherwise, you could face severe legal penalties.

 

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Bury Bulbs Now for Spring Surprises

Corydalis ophiocarpa’s yellow blooms brighten the landscape in early spring.

Some things in life are just worth the wait. Take spring-blooming bulbs, for example.

In autumn, you dig a hole, gently insert a small vegetative object and cover it with soil. Then you wait. Come late winter or early spring, vibrant little beauties start poking their heads above ground, and before long you’re looking at a lavish display of pre-season blossoms–an end-of-winter announcement.

October is prime time for planting spring- and early-summer-blooming bulbs in Colorado, but you can get away with planting in early November, as well.

If you haven’t bought bulbs yet, you probably can still find some at nurseries, hardware stores and even big box stores, such as Costco.  The ones from the hardware and big box stores may not be premier quality, but they’ll get you by—especially if you just want to experiment.

Siberian squill’s nodding blooms add a woodland feel to the garden.

If you want top-quality bulbs from, say, mail-order catalogs, you’ll have to wait till late April/early May for the best selection of spring bloomers.

Why bother with bulbs?  Because they extend your growing season. Some bulbs, such as crocus and winter aconite, bloom as early as February, long before most perennials start waking up in April or May.

On top of that, bulbs are cheerful, exotic and easy to grow.  And they come in a massive variety of shapes, colors and sizes.

Allium 'Globemaster'

Globemaster allium, with its giant head that measures 6 to 8 inches across, is astonishing. It blooms in late spring or early summer.

Some of my favorites are Corydalis ophiocarpa with its ferny leaves and bright yellow flower stalks; Siberian squill with its delicate, nodding blue heads; and allium with its dramatic drumstick-like demeanor.  If you can’t find Corydalis ophiocarpa, you can find its darling cousins, such as C. solida or C. lutea.

Then, of course, there are ever-popular tulips and daffodils.

When planting bulbs, be sure to dig the hole two to three times as deep as the bulb’s height.  So if you have a tulip bulb that’s one-inch tall, for example, make your hole two to three inches deep.  Also, make sure that you insert the bulb so the pointy end faces up.  Otherwise, you’ll never see blooms.

I’ll admit that bulbs aren’t the first plants that I install in a landscape.  I want to get the trees, shrubs and perennials in place first.  But once that’s done, I like to tuck bulbs into small openings here and there in the garden.  They create such a nice surprise.

Try a few bulbs.  You’ll see what I mean.

 

 

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