Monday, March 20, 2017

Drought has Sprung

 By Irene Shonle, CSU Extension Gilpin County

Happy Spring!

While today (March 20) is the first official day of spring, it has felt spring-like in Colorado for weeks now.  We have had record-breaking high temperatures in February (DIA reached 80 on Feb 10), and stunningly high temperatures through much of March.  Crazy to see sunbathers, people in shorts and tank-tops, and even one hardy soul swimming! 

And the warm temperatures were widespread- it was the second-warmest February on record (2016 was the hottest). (

We have missed our usual snows so far in March (usually the snowiest month on the Front Range), and the winds and warm temperatures have quickly sent the eastern half of the State into at least moderate drought conditions, with some portions of Larimer, Boulder, Weld, Denver, Jefferson, Adams, and Lincoln Counties in severe drought. A portion of Baca County even just entered the extreme drought category! ( 

Drought monitor for Colorado, March 14, 2017.  Yellow= abnormally dry, beige= D1 (moderate) drought, orange = D2 (severe) drought, orange-red = D3 (extreme) drought.
How can this be, when we had some epic snows in the high country, and, in fact, still have above-average precipitation (116% statewide, 108% in the South Platte River Basin up to 130% in the Gunnison River Basin)? (

This is because drought conditions are based on the water content in the soils, and that (except for irrigated land), comes only from precipitation.  The snowpack in the high country will melt, and the spring runoff will help to fill the rivers and the reservoirs, which is great news for water managers and farmers (and probably gardeners as well, since water supply forecasts currently indicate no water supply shortages for the growing season), but it won’t do much for the forests, rangelands, and unirrigated areas. 

We have already seen the effects of the droughts in these areas by the number of wildfires we have had already.  As I write, they are just lifting evacuations from the Sunshine Fire in Boulder, and there have been numerous, impactful wildfires in Colorado already this year (Sterling, South Table Mountain, Weld County, Idaho Springs, one in SE Fort Collins, just to name some. In 2017. And we haven't even reached the end of the first quarter.)

Sunshine Fire -- image from Jackson Barnett/CU Independent)
 In the past, we had a fire season in Colorado. With temperatures on the rise globally, we now have fire season year round.  At least it looks like there’s a little precipitation forecast for the next week.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Peas and St. Patrick's Day: Colorado Recommendations

Posted by: Carol O'Meara, Boulder County Extension
Everyone loves peas! Even beagles.
Despite the calendar and my family’s full-throated observance of St. Patrick’s Day, I hesitate to plant peas on March 17. The reason is simple: I’ve become suspicious that the cold shoulder the soil gives those seeds slows their germination.  This delays the peas’ entrance into the world, dashing my hopes to get the season rolling.

Though they’re a cool season crop, perfect for spring and fall gardens, peas are a bit of an anomaly.  The plant likes it chilly, but the seed prefers it warm, with best germination at 50 to 75 degree soil temperatures.  True, they’ll sprout if the soil is as cool as 40-degrees, but at those temperatures, peas take their time.

Several types of peas are perfect for growing at home.  Garden, or English, peas are best for gardeners who have a lot of time on their hands and want to spend an afternoon shelling the seeds from the pods for their meal.  Several years ago I shelled what I thought was a huge bowl of the pods; at the end of an hour I had roughly three tablespoons of peas. 
Not my yield, but it's a lot of work to shell peas!
(Photo courtesy of Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup:
Cooks wanting more performance from their plants should consider planting snap or snow peas, which can be eaten pod and all.  Snow peas are harvested young, before the seeds swell, while snap peas are delicious once the peas fill the pod.  Superb in stir fry and salads, these peas are kitchen-ready for quick meals.  An outstanding variety is Amish snap pea, with sweet, smaller pods that make excellent snacks as you harvest.

Last year I tried growing Alaska peas, which are unremarkable in fresh eating, but dried make a delicious pea soup.  We enjoyed that so much this past winter that I’m doubling the size of the planting this spring; last year’s four-by-eight-foot planting box yielded exactly one pound of peas.  I’d like a little more than one soup pot’s worth.  Grow dry peas as you would dry beans: leave the pods on the vine until both pod and pea are completely dry, then shell and store the peas in a clean, tightly covered container.

Peas are a cool-season crop, so if your soil is 40-degrees or warmer you can sow them directly into your garden.  Since they prefer to germinate at warm temperatures, then grow cool, savvy gardeners sprout their peas indoors then pop them into the ground.  To give yours a head start, place them between damp paper towels in a warm place, checking them several times per day to make sure the towels are damp and to look for germination.  Peas can be fussy about transplanting, so once they’ve sprouted, plant them one-inch deep and two-inches apart as soon as possible.
Sugarsnap peas have edible pods and flowers
(Photo courtesy of the University of California Master Gardeners in Napa County)
Although many varieties are short enough to need no staking, others need a bit of trellising to keep those gloriously sweet pods aloft.  Chicken wire supports run up taller stakes work, as do soft pea fences made from nylon string or twine.  Other gardeners employ tomato trellises to hold up the vines, or you can get creative with a chicken wire coated pvc tunnel that opens to one side.

Planting sun-sensitive spinach and lettuce under the pea tunnel extends their season, protecting them from heat as the pea vines grow.  Because peas climb readily, they need little encouragement from the gardener to find the trellis. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Burning Question: To burn or not to burn?

Every year this time of year, there is a big debate in the Grand Valley and I’m sure other parts of the state where burning and Agricultural burning takes place.  This article was going to be about residential area chickens but I recently saw article that was full of half-truths which has been eating at me.   Then I came upon an article in my husband’s Bugle magazine, which is produced by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation called, Return the Burn: Good Stewards.  It went on to say how beneficial burning is for elk habitat.  As many of you know or should know, always go with research based information.  That is why the Land Grant Universities like CSU exist. 

In history, burning was happening with the American Indians long before Europeans landed.  They used prescribed burns to clear areas for crops, to create meadows and pastures for wildlife, and helped keep the forest in a condition of succession of varying ages.  1 And of course, Mother Nature has been starting fires way before humans were around. 

So that brings us to today.  Many municipalities like Grand Junction do not allow burning within town, which makes sense.  Fire is usually not the answer in small spaces.  However, large growers of agronomic crops benefit from burning their fields and ditches because it makes it easier for irrigation to move through the fields.  The soils in western Colorado will not support the pivot irrigation of Eastern Colorado and the plains.   Converting over to other irrigation systems would be in the thousands of dollars of which most farmers cannot afford.   Burning can also help control other wintering pests like aphids on wheat which in turn allows less pesticides to be used.  The other option to burning ditches is to get in there with weed eaters.  Well, it is more economical, quieter and quicker to burn the ditches.  And yes, every year, someone that burns does not pay attention to the weather and it gets out of control.  That is the main reason there are burn permits to educate people about when and how they can burn and those that don’t have permits and start a fire can get in big trouble.   Of course safety of people, animals and property should also come first.
CSU The Semi-Arid Grasslands Research Center- Controlled Burn
Burning also helps control weeds that have already germinated or that are perennials.  Exposing plant tissue to a temperature of about 100°C for a split second (0.1 second) can result in cell membrane rupture, resulting in loss of water and plant death. Thus, the weeds do not need to be burned up, but rather just scorched.  Flaming works best on very young weeds. 2  The farmers that burn will also tell you that it decreases the number of times they need to get into the field thus fewer times of stirring up more dust particulates that go into the air.  As far as microbes and the health of the soil, the big factors are the duration and the intensity of the heat and how much organic matter exists.  “While high intensity fires tend to decrease site productivity, low intensity fires can increase site productivity (Carter and Foster 2003).” 3 Most information on this topic is from forestry studies, so what is happening in a farm field would be a good study.  Since these fires are quick moving, any damage should be decreased compared to forest fires.

There is a new way of heating organic matter at a very high heat without the presence of oxygen to produce bio-char and bio-oils.  This process is called Pyrolosis.  This bio-char, which is charcoal like, is supposed to help with soil amendment, with forest reclamation, carbon storing in soils. Why I have made the jump to this is, I think it might be a viable process to get rid of fruit tree trimmings that are infected with Cytospora fungus or Fire Blight bacteria.   The only way to get rid of these two diseases is to burn or to bury.  So fire can help reduce the spread of disease.
Cytospora Canker on Peach tree, SLCarter

Now I am not saying that more people should burn, my message here is that it is another tool that should be considered for certain situations like weed control, water movement...  And I believe people need to be very responsible when burning and get the appropriate education and permits before lighting the torch.  I would rather put up with a little more smoke and decrease the number of pesticides than not.  Plus, our farmers need our support.  Remember, there are normally reasons for processes in Agriculture and there are always two sides to a story.  That’s mine for today.  Here’s to spring and a good growing season.  Susan Carter, CSU Extension Horticulture Agent.

11.       Thomas M. Bonnicksen, M. Kat Anderson, Henry T. Lewis, Charles E. Kay, and Ruthann Knudson. 1999. Native American influences on the development of forest ecosystems
22.        CSU CMG Garden Note #351, Weed Management
33.       Fire Effect on Soil, Fire Effects on Soil Nutrients, modified from Forest Encyclopedia Network webpages.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Hort Peeves: When it's time to say goodbye

Posted by: Alison O'Connor, Larimer County Extension

Right now, Colorado is in the middle of Master Gardener and Colorado Gardener Certificate training. What I love about teaching our "newbies" is their eternal optimism. As a seasoned Extension agent, I can't say that I have the same outlook on certain landscape practices they do. That's not to say I'm a "glass half empty" person...I'm more of a realist.

The classes I teach for the circuit are the Science of Planting Trees and Care of Trees in the Landscape. And with both of these classes, we discuss trees gone bad. We have some great discussions about trees (and landscape practices) and there are always a few people who hold out the eternal hope that the tree will recover.

A tree that stimulates good discussion...keep it or make the final pruning cut?
I will note: some trees I have labeled as goners have come back and surprised me. Windsor, where I live, had an F3 tornado rip through the town in May 2008. Driving around after the storm, the trees looked horrible and I questioned if our forester should have removed more. Nearly 10 years later, a lot of those trees look pretty good...maybe a bit worse for wear...but their tornado scars give them charm.

So when it is time to say goodbye? Well, it's a hard decision. But think about the health and overall look of the tree as objectively as you can. Try to keep your personal feelings out of the equation, though I know this is easier said than done. Especially if the tree was planted to celebrate or honor someone.

Think about the following when accessing your tree:

1. Does it have proper structure and/or branching?
2. Is it aesthetically pleasing? Does it add to the overall beauty of the property?
3. What percent of the tree is in decline? If you prune out the dead branches, what will the tree look like?
4. If you change your cultural practices, is there a strong likelihood the tree will recover?
5. Finally, and most importantly, how much are YOU willing to invest in the tree, both financially and with your time?

And sometimes, all it takes is someone to tell you, "Cut it down!" Peer pressure does wonders.

Let's take a look at some trees that probably should be removed. Now, before you label me as a "tree hater", I'm a firm believer that we should encourage and promote good horticultural practices. The photos below are not examples of our finest work.

Is your intent to grow half a tree?
 The photo above is a case of planting two trees too closely to each other. In order to make them both "fit", one must be pruned. In this case it's the Austrian pine, which resulted in a tree that looks completely and totally awful. Best to remove one of the two trees...and my choice would be the pine, since the job is already half done.
Yellow...and dead!
Parking lot trees face so many problems: limited rooting space, hot temperatures and a lot of traffic from cars and shoppers. This was an Autumn Blaze maple in a grocery store parking lot in Fort Collins. Fortunately, this tree has been removed and nothing has been planted in its place.
The fix after a storm.
Mary Small, fellow blogger, sent me this from her neighborhood. Look closely at this photo and you'll notice that the branch on the right, which is a co-dominant stem, split as far as you can see in the photo. (Mary said it went even further.) The fix was to use black electrical tape and two hose clamps to piece the tree together. It's a bandaid fix and will not solve the problem. More than likely the hose clamps will start to girdle that branch and there will be even more issues. Remove both limbs, which may mean it's the whole tree.
Sunscald damage.
This one is more tricky and would require looking at the canopy and more closely inspecting the sunscald damage on the trunk. Has the tree started to seal over the wounds with callous tissue? Is there any dieback in the canopy? While the trunk looks terrible, sunscald is something that trees can recover from, but it depends on many other factors. I would give this tree the "wait and see". I would recommend pulling back the mulch from touching the trunk (and keeping it 6" away) and try to increase cultural practices. I would not recommend fertilization, as that could make the problem worse.
Trees should not levitate!
This one is easy, since the tree clearly is detached from its root system. This was in Windsor, and it took a surprisingly long time for the tree to be removed and sent through the chipper.
The homeowner must believe in miracles...!
This is just classic. Something happened to the main part of the tree and the homeowner decided to grow a water sprout/side branch as the main tree. Ok, be honest here. Does this tree look good? Would you want this in your yard? Here's the thing with suckers (from the roots) and water sprouts (adventitious growth on branches or the trunk): it is all structurally unsound growth. I would hazard a guess that this branch is not properly attached and would be prone to storm damage or wind. Make the final pruning cut at the base!
Five leaves and oh-so-pathetic.
Another one that is pretty obvious...but again, some might say they can "bring it around". Consider again if this tree is doing anything for the environment and our community.

I know it's hard to say goodbye. No one wants to cut down a tree, especially if it has a few leaves and only one living branch--because it's still ALIVE--there's hope! But be diplomatic and consider it a new opportunity where you can plant another tree in its place and start the cycle of life over. You can do it!