Planting Season

Ed inspects the first delivery of annuals in mid May.

Ed inspects the first delivery of annuals in mid May.

May Day at tea time.

May Day at tea time.

We were wise to wait until after Mother’s Day to start planting annuals. Nights have remained cool. The soil was downright chilly. Soil temperatures regulate much of the activity above ground, and when they started to warm, our fair city greened in a hurry. It’s hard to believe that six short weeks ago, work was called on account of snow.

Although we have nearly finished planting annuals for the season, the carport and back patio are once again filling. This time it’s with perennials. We have projects ranging from converting an artificial turf putting green destroyed in the Waldo Canyon Fire to establishing groundcovers under a lofty canopy to planting up beds created in response to water shortages in an effort to reduce thirsty turf.

The old putting green about to receive its first plants.

The old putting green about to receive its first plants.

Planting season will continue through June, as long as daytime temperatures stay reasonably normal (no triple digits, please), and evenings cool. The one condition: Homeowners must take responsibility for regular hand watering to get plants established. To be within the rules of current water restrictions, any watering that takes place outside of your designated hours and days must be done with a drip system or by hose with a positive shut-off and on trees, shrubs, and beds only.

If too much heat comes into the forecast, we’ll take a break in planting. It really isn’t wise to ask plants to deal with getting situated in a new location during a hot spell. Too much stress. Don’t believe me? Try it yourself: Move to a house without air conditioning in, say, Houston in July. Doesn’t sound the least bit appealing, does it?

Why Wait for Fall

I first discovered fall planting about a decade ago. How? Springtime is too busy to plant in my own garden while keeping up with client demands. Summer? Well, it’s just too darned hot for both the planter and the newly planted.

Great things happen after the first of August, however.

First, nights get longer and generally cooler. This means that even if the day is hot, there’s often a respite between dusk and dawn — for garden and gardener alike. Longer, cooler nights help keep moisture in plants and soil. Stress levels go down.

Near the beginning of September, nights have become long enough to trigger changes in plant processes. What we notice takes place above ground — greatly diminished growth, the yellowing of some leaves, and a mellowing and quieting of most blooming activity. What we can’t see: Below the surface, roots are growing.

Growing underground in September, this new installation will start filling in next spring.

The convergence of lower overall stress and root growth make for excellent planting conditions. There is less opportunity for transplant shock. Even better, there is a good chance the new plant will root out in the still-warm soil creating a stronger plant next spring.

Another advantage of fall planting is cost saving. Garden centers regularly offer great bargains to clear their shelves. And, because it’s cooler you won’t be spending as much time and money keeping new plants hydrated.

Most plants benefit from dividing, transplanting, and planting in the early fall — from mid-August to the Autumnal equinox. This includes irises, daylilies, perennials, ornamental grasses, deciduous and evergreen shrubs, and small trees. Some sources say that grasses and evergreens do best if planted in the spring, but I can’t say I’ve found that to be true. Trees may also do quite well if planted after they’ve dropped their leaves in October.

You’ll want to get all your planting done by October. Not that all your plants will turn into pumpkins after October 1. It’s just you’ll want time to put in bulbs for spring.

Speaking of bulbs: Have  you placed your orders?

When It’s Too Darned Hot: Keeping Your Cool

This article first appeared in The Colorado Gardener. Daintily edited and with a few additions, I post it here.

Sea Foam Artemisia, Salvia pachyphila, Marubium rotundifolia, Russian sage, Sempervivum, Miscanthus, globe blue spruce, and Echinacea Art’s Pride thriving through the heat.

Some like it hot. Some would rather endure the dentist’s drill than a heat-wave. At least the dentist’s office is air conditioned, right?

Wherever you fall on the heat-loving spectrum, high temperatures are a force to be reckoned with. Colorado’s heat is usually delivered without humidity, reducing discomfort for most of us. Even so, our personal humidity is rapidly wicked away, increasing our risk of dehydration, especially when working up a sweat in the garden.

Dehydration isn’t our only risk. It’s possible to experience heat exhaustion or even heat stroke.

Heat exhaustion comes about as blood goes out to our skin, away from our brains, muscles and other organs, interfering with physical strength and mental capacity. Everyone is at risk of heat exhaustion, and the risk increases for those taking antihistamines, chronic alcoholics, the very old and very young, the obese, and those with compromised immune systems.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion are many. Not everyone will experience the same ones. In broiling weather, be on the lookout for fatigue, nausea, headaches, excessive thirst, muscle aches and/or cramps, weakness, confusion, anxiety, drenching sweats with cold/clammy skin, slowed or weakened heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, and agitation.

Heat stroke, which is quite serious, can occur without prior heat exhaustion symptoms. You or a companion might experience nausea and vomiting; skin that is flushed, hot, and dry; rapid heart rate; decreased sweating and/or urination; shortness of breath; confusion, delirium, or loss of consciousness; and/or convulsions.

Fortunately, there are beaucoups strategies for avoiding these serious and frightening symptoms.

Tops: When possible, avoid the heat. Work outside in the early morning or with a headlamp after the sun has found a mountain to hide behind.

If the only time in your schedule for gardening falls between 9 and blistering 6, there is still a lot you can do.

Let’s start with clothing. Yes, wear some. Keeping the sun from directly hitting your skin is a good idea. Choose styles that are loose fitting and open at the neck. Even long sleeves and pants aren’t a bad idea. Find fabrics made of natural fibers, like cotton and linen, that are both lightweight and breathable. Forget black, no matter how slim you think it makes you look. Pick out lighter colors.

Wear a hat. Something broadly brimmed that shades your neck, ears, and face. Never fail.

Don’t make me come after you. Wear a hat!

You say you need to show skin? Then slather on sunscreen. There are controversies about the stuff, so go as natural as you can. Any way you can manage to keep your skin from burning has at least some merit, and will keep you feeling cooler.

Now, how about something to drink? The best thing, you might guess, is pure, cool water. Plenty of it. Drink it preventively. By the time you actually feel thirsty, you may already be verging on dehydration. Think you’re hungry? Drink first. Thirst can be mistaken as hunger. If you’re like W.C. Fields and won’t drink water because of what fish do in it, or you just need a little something different, try cooled herbal teas, salty lemonade, or lime squeezed into coconut water. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and overly sugared slurps… at least until later, when you’re celebrating how good you were to yourself outside in the heat.

So, now, you’re properly dressed and gulping down the good stuff, but you’d like some more relief. You can have some real fun with this. Run through the sprinkler. Hand someone a hose and tell them to take their best shot. Or, if one is handy, jump in a pool. Getting thoroughly wet can actually bring down your core temperature a bit and keep you cool for quite a while, especially while your clothes dry.

More demure choices: Carry a spray bottle and mist yourself. Pre-chilled wraps or wet bandanas on your neck or in your hat can help. What you want to do is target your pulse-points: your wrists, neck, temples, and the backs of your knees, and cool them with either evaporation or cold gel-packs.

Should you find yourself beat by the heat anyway, there’s no shame in retreating. Knock off early, and go to the movies.

Edward T. Handsome has chilling down to a science.

Cooling off at home can be quite delicious. Take a tepid shower or soak in an equally tepid tub and lace the water with baking soda. After lightly toweling off and forgetting the blow-drier, pull on a breezy outfit. Head for a cool spot with comfy furniture. Put your feet up to improve circulation. Turn on a fan – unless there’s a nice-looking and scantily clad someone to billow ostrich feathers over you. Down a lovely tumbler of some non-alcoholic beverage. Take a spoon to a big chunk of watermelon. Or crunch through a cucumber. When you’re done with your treat, put a cool washcloth over your eyes, and listen to some great music. There’s a reason it’s called “chilling”.

After an hour, if you’re still wiped out, seeking medical advice isn’t out of the question.

If you’re feeling refreshed and don’t want to kill the chill by cooking, here’s a delicious cold soup recipe.

Visualize Whirled Peas

  • 2 C fresh peas (1 pkg frozen, mostly thawed)
  • 1/2 C (loosely filled) chives
  • 1 C robust greens (arugula, mustard, etc)
  • a few leaflets each parsley, lovage, basil, &/or mint
  • 1 C yogurt
  • 2 C chilled veg broth

Place all ingredients in a blender and whirl til creamy. Then place in fridge to gaurantee chill.

Before serving, salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with something colorful — thin slices of red or yellow bell pepper, chopped radish, carrot curls, paprika…

Makes 2 meal-sized or 4 side servings.

When It’s Too Darned Hot: Tasty Soil, Tender Mulch, and Just Enough Water

Have you felt yourself wilting, lately?

A day in the nineties or triple digits, makes me glad I’m a mobile creature. I can retreat to the shade or the relative cool of an interior. But what happens to plants when the temperatures soar?

Plants, like people, differ in their responses to heat.

As you can imagine, plants which evolved in steamy tropical rain forests and searing deserts survive the heat without much apparent fuss. It’s the plants from temperate zones which stress and cause the gardener to stress even more.

Like afternoon naps for the gardener, one of plants’ heat survival strategies is dormancy. A great example is the natural response of bluegrass varieties. When the heat turns up, bluegrass turns brown and goes to sleep. The water we pour on it through the hottest months isn’t so much to keep it alive, but to keep it cool. As long as irrigation water is evaporating and cooling the lawn, it stays relatively green. According to University of Colorado Extension, a healthy bluegrass lawn can get by on twice weekly irrigation and can survive in dormancy for weeks or even months without irrigation. Once cooler temperatures return, begin regular watering, and the green will follow.

Many flowering annuals take a break in the heat. While they aren’t totally dormant, they save their energy for the opening and closing of stomata, a kind of pore on the undersides of leaves. Perennials that normally bloom in summer’s heat, such as lilies, may wrap up their season in a hurry. When a plant wants to rest from the heat, it’s important to refrain from fertilizing. This is especially true of roses.

The Golden Jubilee Agastache pictured above is in a serious heat wilt. It is also more sensitive to soil moisture than many of the plants around it. I call it a signal plant. When it droops, I watch it as the evening cools. If it perks up, soil moisture is not yet an issue. If it doesn’t, you’ll see a sprinkler out in the morning.

During a heatwave, the natural impulse of many a gardener is to turn on the tap. While it’s important to keep garden soils from drying completely, we often water more frequently than necessary. In sandy, porous soils, three times a week might suffice. In clay-based soils, twice a week could do it. The trick is to irrigate for longer periods during extreme heat, making sure moisture penetrates to a depth of 6-8 inches.

To muddy the waters a bit: All watering rules are relative. How quickly do the temperatures rise in the morning? How far did they go down overnight? What is the relative humidity? Has it been windy? Any of these factors can change your watering regimen.

Knowing when to water is told by the soil. Put a blade in to a depth of 3-4 inches and make an opening. Feel the soil at the bottom of the opening. If it is cool and damp, all is more or less well. If it is dry, it’s time to water. Relying on plants to tell you when to water can be misleading. While it’s true that plants droop when they need a drink, they also droop in heat. They can also droop from drowning.

The same principles apply to the vegetable garden. According to University of Colorado Extension, a properly prepared veg garden should be able to tolerate intervals of 2-7 days between watering.

These watering intervals might seem counterintuitive at best, preposterous at worse, but the key is to follow other practices as well.

The foundation to any lawn or garden survival through these conditions is living soil. Soils that are properly amended save on water and support stronger, more resistant plants.

In addition, the use of mulch is crucial, even in the veg garden. The goal should be no exposed soil surface. Even half an inch of humus, leaves, straw, or fine gravel will shade the soil, helping to keep it cool and reduce evaporation.

Timing and delivery methods of watering are also important. Most experts agree: water in the morning and deliver the water at the soil’s surface, under the mulch, if possible. This helps mitigate fungal and disease issues as well as conserve water.

Keeping up with watering is sometimes the only thing a hose-dragger like me can accomplish during the hottest weeks. The comfort is knowing that as the day’s grow shorter, longer nights and cooler overnight temperatures give both gardens and gardeners a much needed respite.


It’s an event more dreaded than frost. It never comes at a good time, unless, maybe, you were looking for a reason to start all over again.

The hail storm that devastated gardens, stripped trees of both leaves and fruits, and piled feet deep in parts of Colorado Springs was especially shocking following such a spectacular and productive spring.

Even when you know what needs to happen following a hail storm, the trauma of such loss can leave a person feeling overwhelmed. That’s why I was so glad to recieve an email from Larry Stebbins of Pikes Peak Urban Gardens with a list of reminders. His calm voice can be read below.

“Here are a few tips:
  • Pick damaged fruit (even if immature) from your fruit trees and discard them to your compost pile
  • Trim back your annual flowers (if there is anything left) and fertilize lightly with diluted fish emulsion and seaweed extract.
  • Veggies can usually recuperate faster than some things in your garden so you may wish to wait a few days to see if they will spring back.
  • If the veggie plant is stripped of its leaves it is still early enough in the season to replant.  Squash, cucumbers and beans should be replanted now. Tomato and pepper plants take a long time to recover so don’t wait too long before deciding if it worth keeping them.
  • Leafy crops like spinach and lettuce might come back if the damaged outer leaves are removed. In one week if the plant is not looking like it will recover to your expectations then replant.
  • If your garlic is stripped of most of its leaves you have two choices: pick now and eat as a green garlic (still yummy but will not store) or lightly fertilize and hope they grow until harvest come early to mid July.
  • Onions will come back so be patient . Trim off the severely shredded leaves but keep as many on the plant as you can.
  • If some of your shrubs were damaged you should carefully remove the minimum number of leaves and branches to make the plant look acceptable. It should grow back.
  • Another tip is to stake up some of your recovering plants and where possible put a one to two inch dried grass mulch around the base of the plant. Lettuce will respond nicely to this extra support and care.
  • Plants whose leaves have been knocked into the soil by the hail can be allowed to dry out a day or two then gently lift the leaves from the soil so it can begin to regrow.”

Granted, most of these tips are for vegetable gardens, but it speaks to the resilience of both plants and gardeners, and gives strategies that can be applied in both productive and ornamental garden.

To this list I would also add:

  • Give the garden several days to rest. It will then show you quite clearly what is mortally damaged and what will recover.
  • Seaweed extract, applied as a foliar spray, is an excellent tonic for traumatized plants.
  • Learn to live with the tattered look. Even battered leaves, if still pliant and vital, are feeding the plant and helping it to recover, at least for a while. As damaged leaves yellow or otherwise decline, remove them.
  • Try not to take it personally. Look, instead, at what’s still doing well, learn something, and see what opportunities can come of the loss.

Penstemon strictus and P. eatonii the morning after a hail storm shattered other plants.

To plan for minimal damage from hail (yes, it can be done), consider using plants native to the plains and foothills of Colorado or ones that look similar. Avoid using plants with broad, tender leaves (hosta in particular). Cabbage-type plants, like Crambe, arching leaves, like daylilies, and the buds of both hemerocalis (daylilies) and oriental lilies are also particularly vulnerable.

The buds on these oriental lilies were still small, and most will survive, though some have dings.

Standing outside shouting “DON’T HAIL!” doesn’t work.


It’s iris season. While some take prized positions in well-planned perennial borders, other tall bearded iris spangle parking medians, flash out of gravel wastelands in neglected foundation beds, march along driveways.

Iris shares its name with a Greek goddess of the sea and sky. In mythology, she is a messanger, able to travel from the underworld to the heavens and is associated with the rainbow. She brings water to the clouds. The water she carries is also poured on those who perjure themselves, putting them to sleep. Here she is depicted in Morpheus and Iris, an 1811 painting by Pierre Narcisse Guerin.

As a member of the garden pantheon, Iris has a lot to recommend her. Irises generally require little care, are long-lived, and multiply easily. And who can quarrel with the immense variety of color they offer?

Iris do best in full sun, and prefer a neutral, well-draining soil.

They perform best on a lean diet. A low-nitrogen fertilizer may be applied when bloom stalks appear and about a month after blooming.

Iris should be divided every 3-5 years. The best time to divide is right after blooming.

Remove dead leaves and spent bloom stalks, but don’t compost them. Leave the rest of the fan standing, as the greenery feeds the rhizome.

OK, it’s true: the bloom season is short, especially if the weather turns brutally hot and windy. A well-planned perennial garden, however, will have something to capture our hearts soon as the iris fade.

The Miserable Gardener , in a blog entry titled “After the Rain,” has written off iris. But even Mr. Miserable makes an acception: Iris pallida. My favorite variety is “Variegata.” The leaves glow all season.

Sage and Savvy, Number One

What’s a gardening website without tips, tid-bits, and to-do lists?

Every now and then, at least, don’t you think?

Some of my favorite tools for Spring clean-up. Especially the little rake. It can get into the crunchiest of places.

Spring clean-up will soon be wrapping up in these parts, but just in case you’re running a little behind, like I am, here’s a couple of tips:

  • Use hedge shears to cut back dead stems and grasses. I find cutting is easier on the plants than pulling, except with daylilies and iris.
  • Cut down a whole bed at once (unless it’s too windy), and then rake it off.
  • Toss everything directly into a large trash can or open tarp that drags along as you progress through a bed.
  • Compost at home, or take winter’s dregs to a place like our beloved Rocky Top for recycling.

Gotta love a hori-hori.

Now is a great time to:

  • Blade out those cool season weeds, like dandelions.
  • Get soil activator and fertilizer on what’s left of your lawn.
  • Scatter, scratch, and water in compost or organic fertilizer around your shrubs, grasses, and perennials.
  • Turn on your irrigation system or start dragging hoses.
  • Top off your mulch.
  • Cut new edges along beds and walkways.
  • Pinch back those geraniums you overwintered.
  • Resume the stretching you ignored all winter long.
  • Stock up on sunscreen.

Oh, and if you have early season tulips of daffodils that have finished blooming, snap off the seed pod forming at the tip of the stem. Bulbs tire more easily if they bear seeds.

Always remember to step back from time to time and admire your work.

Oh! Oh! And one more thing: Schedule a massage.