Why Wait for Fall

By Cheryl Conklin

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?

Sage and Savvy, Number One

By Cheryl Conklin

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

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

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.

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.

How to Kill Your Lawn and Still Be a Good Neighbor

By Cheryl Conklin

With the cost of irrigation going up, you might be tempted just to turn off the spigot altogether, take the lawnmower to a donation center, and go someplace cool for coffee.

Wait!

If simply abandoned, a typical urban yard in Colorado will turn into a dirt lot. Seriously. Do you really want to depress your neighbors that much? There are alternatives.

Here’s what you can do:

1) Figure out which grass you just might want to keep. A nice level spot, maybe a little high shade, so you can cool your feet, play croquet, or let the dog have a place to “go”.

2) Dream up what you can put in the place of all that grass. Anything BUT rocks. How about a vegie garden? Create habitat for birds! Put down some mulch, move in a bench, and take a nap. Flowers, now there’s a thought. You could even plant native grasses.

3) Choose a method of elimination. Herbicide (poison). Removal (murder by spade). Or smother it.

4) Put something fun, useful, or pretty in its place.

My friend, DB, took the plunge a couple of years ago. Got rid of all her bluegrass. Replaced most of it with buffalo grass and made an eye-catching mixed border out of her parking median. The new look still fits the neighborhood, but takes almost no supplemental water to maintain. Have a look.

For the full show, so to speak, come on down to the Western Landscape Symposium in Pueblo!

To Build or Not to Build

By Cheryl Conklin

Say you live in England and you love desert plants, succulents and cacti from South Africa, Baja California, or somewhere really exotic, like Colorado? Your soil is constantly moist, lightly acidic, crumbly with leaf-mould. It’s terrible! What can you do?

That’s right, you’ll have to build your own soil. Make it lean. Make it gritty. Make it quick to drain. Use a little of your garden soil and mix it with equal parts coarse sand and lightweight perlite. That should do it.

Now, isolate the stuff in a pot so you can control how much water it doesn’t get, and so it will dry out fast, like it would in the desert. Then plant it up. Put the whole kit and kaboodle someplace in full sun, but sheltered from the rain, and you’ve got it. Instant, handmade desert.

Sound like a lot of trouble?

It is.

It’s the same kind of trouble we semi-arid plains dwellers go through to grow broccoli.

But what if we semi-arid plains dwellers want to grow native yucca, shrubs, sage, cactus, agave, grasses, and wild beardtongues? Should we build the soil?

It’s a great question, and one with no definitive answer.

Gardeners have a hard time resisting compost or believing (at least at first) that anything of value can grow without our TLC. There’s always the thought that a little assistance can’t hurt. Isn’t it what every plant hopes for?

Maybe. Maybe not. Conventional ideas of fertility may not be a great thing for plants that evolved in and for such “poor” soils as ours. There is even research suggesting native plants will form stronger myccorhizal communities, taking up greater quanities of nutrient from mineral-rich soil, if left to their own devices.

However, there are gardens featuring native plants throughout Colorado, in which soils were amended before the plants went in. There is no question these gardens are thriving.

To build or not to build?

Why not join in the great experiment yourself, and try some natives?

Life Beneath Our Feet

By Cheryl Conklin

In addition to dirty knees and fingernails, gardeners have soil on the brain.

In the Pikes Peak Region of east central Colorado, a layer of recognizable top soil is generally thin, if it exists at all. Even so, the undisturbed landscape is far from barren. A host of different plant communities have adapted to a wide variety of growing conditions, not the least of which is the soil beneath their feet.

Our native soils tend to be mineral rich and poor in organic matter. Wind, the great eroder, ice, the occasional stream, and other natural forces break stone into ever smaller particles. Depending on the parent stone, the results are gravel, sand, clay, or silt. Low humidity, high winds, and gully-washing rains contribute to the mobility of these particles.

Native plants adapted to the soil and atmospheric conditions by developing root systems that could hold tight, exploit the minerals, and take up scant moisture. They adapted above ground by forming leathery or hairy or pale green leaves. They spread themselves around via windblown seeds or passage through the guts of birds and mammals.

The tough nature of the leaves combines with low humidity and high winds to keep fallen organic matter from staying put and breaking down into humus.

Thus, existing soil, atmosphere, and native plants form a self-sustaining system.

Enter the wily human, many of whom are never quite satisfied with things as they are, and, let’s face it, we’re not at all suited to nibbling on sideoats gramma, yucca (except the flowers), or mountain mahogany. To encourage nearly every plant that isn’t native to the area, gardeners have to make changes. Many think it’s just a matter of supplementing the moisture that does (and just as often doesn’t) fall from the sky. But the issue is deeper.

Shade trees, blue grass, most ornamental flowers, and nearly all of our favorite vegetables evolved or were developed in areas where soil and atmosphere have vastly different characteristics from our own. Below the surface, mycorrhizae form a link between soil and plant root, converting soil into nutrient for the plant. There are thousands of different mycorrhizae, and more is being learned about them all the time. What is known: the microorganisms, the plants, and the soil have become what they are together in fairly specific ways.

It comes as a surprise to many to learn that soil, even the sparse grit and heavy clays of the Pike Peak Region, are teaming with life. It may also come as surprise that the partnership of soil and plant communities is very easily disturbed or destroyed and not so easily restored. Scraping the surface of vast tracts of land to make way for houses and lawns, even repeated foot or bike traffic interfere with or remove entirely what took a very long time to create.

Over the next weeks, look for more posts about what gardeners can do to build and maintain healthy soil-plant relationships.