Category Archives: Garden Maintenance

Nibble Away at Turf and Water Usage

Here’s what my front yard looked like last year after my second round of turf removal and installation of new plants.

Many homeowners, especially non-gardeners, take a set-it-and-forget-it approach to landscaping.  That approach is fine, as long as those homeowners realize that as plants mature over the years, some adjustments may be necessary.

Then there are some of us gardeners in semi-arid climates who dislike high water bills so much that we nibble away at our turf year after year. Kentucky bluegrass is, after all, one of the thirstiest plants you can grow. Two years ago, for example, I reduced the turf area in my front yard by about 33 percent.  Last year, I trimmed the remaining turf by about 25 percent.  And this year, I’ve decided to decease the existing turf by another 20 percent or so.

As you can see, there was turf galore in the front yard when I bought the home 2 1/2 years ago. The yard wasn’t water-wise, to put it mildly.

“Why not remove all the turf at once?” you might sensibly ask.  Well, removing turf is time-consuming and labor-intensive.  So, I like to spread out the effort.  Also, I like to propagate plants for filling in the newly expanded beds.  If I’m propagating from cuttings, it may take several months or more to grow a new plant.

I like a small expanse of green in my front yard, but ideally, I would like to eliminate grass altogether.  That’s why I plunked a small rupturewort (Herniaria glabra) plant in my perennial bed last spring.  I’m waiting to see how it performs as a potential turf replacement.  So far, I haven’t been wowed.  Perhaps rupturewort is one of those plants that sleeps in the first year, creeps in the second year and leaps in the third year.  I’m hoping to see some leaping this summer.

This year’s turf-removal effort involves increasing the beds at the front edge of the yard by another two feet. This expansion will enable me to grow my top-performing, 5-foot-wide red fire Meidiland ground cover roses in the space. The smaller purple rain roses that I planted last year were a major disappointment.

If that doesn’t work, I might consider soapwort (Saponaria ocymoides), which I’ve grown successfully for years.  It’s evergreen, and it’s a solid, drought-tolerant performer.  I need to decide, though, whether I can live with a bright pink lawn for the two to three weeks that it’s in flower.  Also, when It’s all fluffed up, it can reach six inches tall, which is high for a lawn.

Don’t talk to me about thyme.  I’m simply not a fan.  It can brown out in the center and turn leggy.

The same goes for Turkish veronica (Veronica liwanensis).  I’ve seen it brown out in my west-facing Denver yard.  Also, it doesn’t spread as quickly as I would like.

Ajuga?  I’ve never liked the looks of it.  Its growth habit reminds me of broad-leafed weeds.

Woolly speedwell (Veronica pectinata) has all the characteristics I’m looking for.  It’s attractive, low-growing, fast-spreading and evergreen.  Unfortunately, it would burn up in my south-facing Fort Collins lawn without shade.  So, I have to be content with growing it under my autumn brilliance serviceberry.

So, the search for the right ground cover continues as I nibble away at my turf.

For those of you who are customers of Fort Collins Water, please be aware that the City of Fort Collins currently is sponsoring a Xeriscape Incentive Program (XIP), which offers generous rebates to homeowners who remove turf and install water-wise plants.


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Winter Watering–Boring, but Important

Evergreen trees, such as this magnificent blue spruce, especially require water in fall and winter because they retain their foliage year-round. Evergreens lose water as moisture moves from the roots, up through the trunk, and out the leaves. Also, newly planted trees need more water in fall and winter to help them get established.

With the snow we’ve been receiving in Colorado over the winter, many gardeners think it’s unnecessary to water their plants.

Not so.  On average, 13 inches of snow equals only one inch of rain, according to the National Severe Storm Laboratory, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

So, this means you need to haul out your hose once a month when winter temperatures rise above 40 degrees, and give your yard a good soak.  Otherwise, you could lose some of your valuable trees and shrubs–especially evergreens, which require more water.

This year, winter watering is more important than ever, because Colorado’s 2017-2018 snowpack is the worst that it has been in 30 years.  So, we could be facing a drought for the upcoming growing season.  If you keep  your plants healthy now, they’ll be in better shape to withstand drier conditions.

I watered my entire yard about a week ago, even though the soil looked moist from melted snow.  I was amazed at how quickly the water from my sprinkler sank into the soil.

Yes, it’s a pain to water in cold weather, but just do it, as soon as the snow from yesterday’s snowstorm melts.  And keep doing it until rain kicks in around April.

For more information on winter watering, visit Colorado State University’s website.

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Horrors! It’s Borers!

There’s the tell-tale hole where the borer entered the pith. Very bad news.

Last week while admiring my tiger eyes sumac, I noticed a hole in the pith in one of the stems.  Pith, in case you’re not aware, is the spongy material inside each stem.

I then examined the pith in two other stems that had been pruned before I bought the plant six weeks ago.  All three stems had a hole.

Omigaw! I realized that my baby tree was under attack by borers—currant borers, most likely, which attack currants, gooseberries and black elders, as well as sumacs.

According to Colorado State University, currant borers lay their eggs on the plant’s bark in June and early July.  Then the caterpillar larvae bore into the plant, drilling down into the pith and wood.  The nearly adult pest spends the winter in the base of the canes before pupating and later emerging as a full-grown adult in late May or early June.

Before I pruned it, the tree had two nice, leafy branches. Notice the two upright bare branches? That’s where the borers attacked. They also attacked at the lowest crotch of the tree.

Make no mistake—these bugs can kill the plant, if left untreated.

So I whipped out my pruners and began amputating lengths of branches until I reached non-holey pith.  The worst damage occurred on an auxiliary branch, where the borer had drilled all the way down that branch and into one of the tree’s two main branches.  I could even see the borer in the hole.  This meant I had to make the unkindest cut of all to save the plant’s life—removing a main leafy branch, leaving just one leafy branch on this 30-inch-tall tree.

It wasn’t easy, but I did what had to be done, disfiguring the tree in the process.  Fortunately, sumacs produce new branches relatively quickly, so I expect the plant to recover in the next couple of years.

After pruning, the looks disfigured, but the tree wlll likely grow plenty of new branches in the next couple of years. Notice the healthy pith where the branches have been cut. I sealed the cuts with fingernail polish.

I then sealed the three pruned canes with colored nail polish to prevent further infestation.  Some gardeners think sealing is unnecessary.  Personally, I seal canes larger than 1/8 inch.

Borers attack a broad range of trees and shrubs.  The most infamous borer in Colorado right now is the emerald ash borer (EAB), which began attacking ash trees in Boulder in 2013, and has spread to Longmont and Lafayette.  It’s just a matter of time before the EAB will reach Denver and Fort Collins.

Treatments for borers vary, depending the variety and size of a plant.  For information on borers and their treatment, visit Insects that Feed on Colorado Plants and Shrubs.

Next time you’re strolling through your garden, check pruned branches on your shrubs for borers.  Once the autumn leaves have fallen, pruned canes will be easier to spot.

As for trees, learn to recognize borer entrance and exit holes in the bark, so you can keep an eye out for borers there.


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Tomato Cages? Give me U-Posts Any Day

U-posts topped by a bamboo stick provide a framework for the trellis netting. You can then tie tomato vines to the netting or simply wind the vines in among the netting.

I’ve never liked tomato cages.

They sit there, neatly stacked in the garden center, promising to bestow order on snaking tomato stems. Some of them even come in vibrant colors, as though that might help. But it doesn’t.

IMHO, there isn’t a tomato cage alive that can contain multiple six-to-eight-foot vines without creating a tangled mess. I’m talking about vines of indeterminate tomatoes—the ones that sprawl all over creation.

Then, of course, there’s the storage problem, if you can wrench the cage away from the tomato without destroying the structure at the end of the season. I usually manage to scratch myself with the bits of metal extending from the bottom of the cage.

Regarding storage, folding cages take less room, but usually cost a princely sum. Often, though, they’re still not tall enough to contain unruly vines.

So I’ve tried other approaches. I’ve created a trellis from electrical conduit, securing the corners with nifty 90-degree connectors, then tying trellis netting to the top and sides. This worked until the weight of the vines caused the trellis to fall against my privacy fence. If you’ve got a fence as backup, that’s fine. But don’t rely on electrical conduit for a free-standing structure.

Then there are U-posts. I’ve found that these are much sturdier than electrical conduit. You can install a couple of them in the ground, secure a crossbar up high, and tie trellis netting to the posts and crossbar. As for the crossbar, I’m currently experimenting with a bamboo stick. It’s light, but strong. I tied the stick to the tops of the U-posts, but found that the connection was tenuous. So I placed gorilla tape over the top of the bamboo stick, then wrapped gorilla tap around the tops of the U-posts, securing the top strap of gorilla tape in the process. It seems to be holding well.

If you anticipate an unusually heavy crop, you can add a third U-post in the middle to make your trellis sturdier. I like the 6 1/2-foot posts which, by the way, are easy as heck to store.

Or you can just leave the posts in the ground for next year. It’s a good idea, though, to rotate your tomato crops, so you may end up supporting a different vegetable with those stakes the following season.

Gently tie your vines to the trellis netting with a stretchy material, such as pantyhose or elastic.  That way, the ties will expand as the plant stems grow larger.

So far, my U-post/bamboo structure is working. If that changes, I’ll let you know.


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And Here I Thought Pawnee Buttes Sand Cherries were Indestructible

Last month while performing a daily patrol of my garden, I noticed that one of my normally beautiful Pawnee Buttes

Here, you can see the leaf curling and discoloration that I found on one of my Pawnee Buttes sand cherries.

sand cherries exhibited a severe case of curly leaves and discolored foliage.

Pawnee Buttes are renowned for being drought-tolerant, disease-free, and low-maintenance—just about as bullet-proof as you can get.

So I hopped online to research the problem. Couldn’t find anything on Google about diseases for Pawnee Buttes. Seems that no one is having problems with these shrubby ground covers.

Although not typically life-threatening, curl leaf aphids can certainly disfigure a Pawnee Buttes sand cherry, not to mention other susceptible plants.

The next day, I noticed the same problem on a small part of another Pawnee Buttes sand cherry nearby. So I pruned the damage from both plants in an effort to prevent further spreading.

A short time later, I visited a local nursery, where I spoke with Bobby, my friend and former co-worker. He knows everything about woody plants. I barely got the symptoms out of my mouth, when he proclaimed, “Curl leaf aphids. They love to attack members of the prunus family.” Being a Prunus besseyi, Pawnee Buttes certainly qualifies as aphid bait.

When my sand cherries aren’t infested with aphids, they look happy and healthy like this one. The foliage will turn red in the fall.

So following Bobby’s advice, I drenched all four of my Pawnee Buttes with Fertilome Triple Action Plus insecticide and fungicide. Fortunately, the solution helped dramatically. Other possible treatments include insecticidal soaps, neem oil and canola oil. Given the severity of my aphid infestation, I didn’t mess around with the most basic treatment, blasting the plants with water. But now that the infestation is under control, I may do some occasional blasting.

Although aphids seldom kill plants, they make the plants unsightly and leave behind honeydew, which attracts ants.


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Springtime in the Rockies Turns into Snow Time

It’s April 29 in Fort Collins, and things aren’t looking very springlike in my front yard. To the left, you’ll see stems of three ornamental alliums, scheduled to bloom in early June. Fortunately, my autumn brilliance serviceberry in the upper right has already bloomed and is getting ready to set its delicious blue berries for June harvest.

After moving to Colorado from St. Louis 23 years ago, I popped over to a local nursery in late March, all eager to buy plants for my new garden. Surprisingly, there were almost no outdoor plants on display.

When I asked why, the nursery employee patiently explained that the growing season starts later in Colorado than it does in Missouri, because Colorado can still get frosts well into May.

This year is living proof of a late-season frost. Today is April 29. Last night, the temperature dropped to 31 degrees Fahrenheit in Fort Collins, and tonight it’s supposed to drop to 29. And there’s snow on the ground That’s why it’s advisable to wait until after mid-May to plant annuals along Colorado’s Front Range. Hardy perennials, trees and shrubs–fine. But wait on the annuals, unless you want to plant cold-season vegetables, such as lettuce. You can plant those in March or April.

So if you’re new to Colorado and are eager to start growing annuals and other tender plants, hold off a little. If you’ve already planted tender plants, they may be goners this year unless you covered them with a bucket or some such last night.  Then again, the snow may have insulated them sufficiently to keep them alive.  At any rate, cover them tonight.

May 19, 2017 update:  Yesterday Fort Collins received eight, count ’em, eight inches of snow.  Today, we may get a smattering before temperatures rise into the 50’s tomorrow.


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Does Plant Trenching Work? The Story 2 Years Later

The transplanted Veronica pectinata has grown to four times its original size and is now 3 inches high and 2 feet wide.

In February 2015, I moved from my home in Denver to my sister’s home in Windsor, Colorado for a temporary stay while waiting for the closing on my house in Fort Collins.

I brought plants with me from my Denver home, as I wrote in a March 2015 blog post on trenching plants. I dug a trench and used it as a temporary parking spot for the plants. I had intended to replant the plants after three months or so. But that three months stretched into seven.

One Genista lydia (foreground) survived. It’s now 10 inches high and 28 inches wide. In a few weeks, it will be smothered with bright yellow blossoms.

Now that two years have passed, I would like to report how those plants fared. The plants included two Genista lydias, one Veronica pectinata, three Pawnee Buttes sand cherries (Prunus besseyi ‘Pawnee Buttes’), two Meidiland fire roses, one Cheyenne mockorange (Philadelphus lewisii ‘PWY01S’ Cheyenne), one bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum), one regent serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia ‘Regent’), two Corydalis ophiocarpa, and three Isanti dogwoods (Cornus sericea ‘Isanti’).

Keep in mind that the ground was frozen when I dug the trench and installed the plants, so there were undoubtedly air pockets around some of the roots. Backfilling a trench with chunks of ice-encrusted clay soil is never a good idea, but I was desperate. During the 2 ½ months that I stayed at my sister’s place, I watered the plants every other day. But once I moved out, the plants received no water other than rainfall until September 2015, when I transplanted some of them to my new yard.

Also, the plants suffered high winds and blasting sun, as well as munching from horses and rabbits.

In other words, I would have been hard pressed to find more miserable conditions for preserving plants.

So, which plants survived this ordeal?

One Pawnee Buttes sand cherry survived in spite of repeated munchings by rabbits and horses. This plant is now 11 inches high and 30 inches wide, and is fast approaching bud break.

Survivors: One Genista lydia, one Pawnee Buttes sand cherry, one Meidiland fire rose, one Cheyenne mockorange, one bloody cranesbill, and one Veronica pectinata.

Decedents: One Genista lydia, two Pawnee Buttes sand cherries, one Meidiland fire rose, one regent serviceberry, two Corydalis ophiocarpa (shade-loving plants), and three Isanti dogwoods.

Concerning the survivors, the Genista lydia still looks straggly, but is gradually filling in, as is the Pawnee Buttes sand cherry. The Meidiland fire is small, but it looks happy. I ended up giving the Cheyenne mockorange to my sister. She divided it into three clumps. Two of the clumps survived. The bloody cranesbill and Veronica pectinata are performing like champs.

Plump buds on the Pawnee Buttes and cherry look as though they’ll burst open within the next week or so. The foliage of this drought-tolerant Colorado native turns a brilliant red in the fall.

As for the decedents, the Meidiland fire rose lived and was transplanted in my new yard. But I didn’t have a sunny spot to park it. So I planted it in a shady spot, which hastened its death. And in fairness to the dogwoods, I have to say that they were in the ground for almost two years because I didn’t have a place for them. But they stuck it out for months until death. The rest of the decedents just conked out over the course of seven months.

So from all of this, I conclude that trenching works well for moving plants, as long as you have decent planting conditions and can take care of the transplants. My plants experienced horrible planting conditions and neglect, yet some of them have survived it, and a few have even thrived. Interestingly, with some identical plants, such as Genista lydia and Pawnee Buttes sand cherry, one plant lived while one or more died. I expected the Genista lydia to transplant much easier than it did, given that it’s drought-tolerant.

If you want to improve your chances of success when trenching, backfill your trench with a mixture of good topsoil and compost, such as two parts soil to one part compost if you have heavy clay soil. Avoid planting in areas with strong western afternoon sun, if possible, so you won’t stress the plants while they’re vulnerable. And keep your plants watered without over-watering them.

Once you’re ready to move the plants to a permanent home, make sure you install them so the plant’s crown is even with or slightly above ground level. If you install plants too deeply, the crown and roots may rot from water accumulation.


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