CO-Horts Blog

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Loving Living Wreaths

Posted by Micaela Truslove, Broomfield County Extension
Photo of Succulent and Sunshine's Living Wreath
Make this amazing living wreath using Succulents and Sunshine's easy-to-follow tutorial.
This Thanksgiving weekend when my husband and I take the boxes of Christmas ornaments down from the rafters and dust them off in preparation for our annual holiday decorating ritual, there is one very traditional ornament that will remain in its box in favor of what may be a new tradition in our house.

Wreaths have a long and varied history, from Mycenaean funerary diadems made from gold to the decidedly more modest headgear made of leaves worn by Greeks to symbolize victory or royalty.  Pliny the Elder also mentions wreaths worn on the head as a cure for headaches.  Fast forward to the Victorian Era when elaborate wreaths were woven from the hair of deceased family members.  The practice of creating wreaths from evergreen boughs most likely comes to us from a pagan practice in which the foliage of evergreen plants was woven together to symbolize everlasting life and the coming spring.  This eventually led to the Advent Wreath of Christianity. The custom of hanging a wreath on the front door of a house is a modern twist on the Roman tradition of displaying victory wreaths on their front doors.

Back to our plastic wreath that lives in the garage eleven months out of the year and is, well, very plastic.  This year I decided to create a wreath that is not only constructed of actual plant material, but will be around long after the tree is packed away and relegated to the rafters until next holiday season; a living wreath!

Look no further than your own back yard as many sedums and other succulents commonly found in Colorado gardens are easy to propagate from cuttings. Photo: Micaela Truslove
Living wreaths are incredibly easy to make and for those of us that are gardeners, they offer a chance to dig in the dirt and do a little planting months after the first killing frost has claimed most of our outdoor plants.  These wreaths can be made from herbs, pansies (which are no longer available, but can be obtained from garden centers late in the season – so keep it in mind for next year), and my personal favorite, tiny succulents.

The vast assortment of textures and colors presented by these little plants is staggering.  And they can be made using cuttings from your (or a friend’s) garden and will readily root once in the planting media in the wreath frame.  Brilliant.  There are plenty of tutorials online, and the materials and plants are relatively inexpensive, especially if you pilfer some bits and pieces from the garden.  Since they can be assembled in no time, they are a satisfying afternoon project that will provide a little therapeutic gardening time to relieve holiday stress without eating into your busy holiday preparations.

Move wreaths outdoors once weather has warmed. Photo from Better 
Homes and Gardens' living wreath tutorial, which can be found here.

The best part? Once the holidays have past and spring has sprung, these your creation can be taken outside and enjoyed for the remainder of the year until it is time again for the rest of the decorations to come back down from the rafters.  Oh, are you still sitting there reading?  Go ahead—off with you!  Off to the craft store and the greenhouse to gather your materials and start a new wreath-making tradition this holiday season.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Gobble, Gobble

Gobble, Gobble

Posted by: Darrin Parmenter, County Director, CSU Extension in La Plata County

The day of food is such a good day. When else do you have the excuse to put gravy on everything, and even if it mixes with the cranberries, you marvel at the surprisingly good combination it makes? And after a plate that held seven or eight dishes comes the pumpkin (or better yet, pecan or apple) pie?

When I lived in Montana, New York, and Florida, our (growing) family almost always hosted the day. Once in Bozeman, Montana my housemates and I served dinner for what must have been 200 people, most of which were uninvited snowboarders and ski bums looking for a free meal. Eight turkeys later, out came the aforementioned pumpkin pies (unknowingly) without sugar. The creations lasted about three minutes.
Thanksgiving, 2008

In all of these places, our friends were are family – plane tickets or driving 14 hours were typically hard to rationalize so we hardly ever travelled back home. But now that the family found its way back to Durango, we leave the cooking to my dad and his wife, and enjoy the company of siblings, cousins, and aunts and uncles. And to be honest, it’s nice to come home with a full belly and a clean kitchen.

But you know what the best part of the day is (no, not the gravy/cranberry combo)? It’s that moment when all of us all sit down – full plates and full glasses – and appreciate why we are all here. Sometimes sharing a meal is much more than just the food. It’s seeing my dad happy; my nieces and nephew growing up into mature, vibrant, and talented kids (and teenagers, ugh); my sister and her husband raising those impressive kids while making sure not to forget about themselves and what makes their relationship so important; and knowing my mom will soon take some time for herself and enjoy the rewards of a successful career (the kids are ready with their grandma-to-do list). 

All grown up...
And it is about watching my family become part of this community. This week I took my daughter to get her flu shot at the pediatrician’s office and we walked by one of those little scales for newborns. Ten years ago she could have fit on that scale, but today she is writing stories on an iPad, listening to music that I am not familiar with, and getting pumped for another ski season. I wish she would always be sitting at the kid’s table, but I know before long she’ll be asking to move up to major leagues – the adult table. You know, the one that has gravy.

Truly, life is good, and it is important to remember why someone decided to call it ‘Thanksgiving’. It’s a day to not think about the economy, politics, the cost of living, or even who has the best deals on Black Friday. Heaven forbid it may even be a day to forget about horticulture (gasp!). 

It is a day to share what you have with those that don’t, appreciate those across the table even if it is someone you just met. 

And give thanks.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Seriously Cool Science: Estimating the Carbon Cost of Producing Trees in the Nursery

Posted by: Alison O’Connor, horticulture agent, CSU Extension in Larimer County

I spend a lot of time reading scientific journal articles. Now, before you make your assumptions and claim that I’m a weird, unsocial hermit, remember that I’m also a student and working on my PhD in horticulture at CSU. Reading published work comes with the territory and it’s not as bad as you think—and it also keeps me up-to-date as an Extension agent. But there are many days that I feel like Elton John’s Rocket Man: “…And all this science I don’t understand; it’s just my job five days a week.”

Not my beagle, but still cute!
There are many top-notch researchers in horticulture…people I admire and secretly stalk in a non-creepy way…and I’m always grateful to find articles that relate to my study. There’s something really satisfying about tying together another’s research with my own and helping me prove (or disprove) my research findings.  But I can only think of a couple articles that get me so excited that I bring them up to anyone who will listen…my dental hygienist (“Moooah…muhha…trees.”), my mother (“Uh huh…that’s nice Al.”), my beagles (who are excellent at looking the part with their heads cocked to one side)….  One such article was just published in September 2013:

Ingram, D.L. and C.R. Hall. 2013. Carbon footprint and related production costs of system components of a field-grown Cercis canadensis L. ‘Forest Pansy’ using life cycle assessment. J. Environ. Hort. 31(3):169-176.

This study, in my eyes, is brilliant. Dewayne Ingram (University of Kentucky) and Charles Hall (Texas A&M) attempted to answer some simple questions: How much carbon does it “cost” to produce nursery trees?  And does the carbon “cost” offset what the tree “absorbs” in carbon?

Carbon. Everyone talks about it and it’s currently popular to try to be “carbon neutral.”  That means that the carbon (carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases) it takes to produce a product will be equally offset by the amount of carbon the product stores.  Many major companies and organizations have posted their carbon footprint for products or services.  Timberland, maker of your hiking boots, has an average carbon cost of 40 pounds of CO2 per product.  Compare that to Patagonia’s Talus jacket, which is 66 pounds of CO2. New Belgium Brewery, located in Fort Collins, has their beer production down to science: a 6-pack of Fat Tire comes in at 7 pounds of CO2. 
Photo from
But finding the carbon footprint of trees…why is it necessary? Trees are touted as the carbon-munching beasts of the landscape.  We, in part, plant trees, to offset carbon being spewed into our atmosphere.  Trees are good. Trees are green. Trees beautify our landscapes. Trees need carbon to complete their essential process of photosynthesis. Trees are a win-win.

But it does take carbon to produce trees. Something I never really thought about.  But yes, trees are produced using equipment, fertilizer, herbicides, etc.—which all release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But no one, until Ingram and Hall, had looked carefully at the carbon production costs of producing trees in the nursery. Their study can help nursery producers locate areas of production where they may be able to reduce carbon inputs. And this is what they found:

By using ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud as one example (they also studied maple and blue spruce), they found that the total carbon input to produce a redbud from seed to landscape “costs”
Trees being loaded for transport at Van der Berk Nurseries
about 30.2 pounds of CO2.  This includes everything that goes into producing the tree: equipment, chemicals, loading and unloading the tree, harvesting, etc. They found that about 1/3 of the total carbon input was from loading and unloading the tree.  They also accounted for the carbon that the tree stored during production (~23 pounds of CO2). 

But then these clever researchers took this study a step further…they estimated how much the tree would sequester in carbon during its lifetime.  And this is where things get incredibly interesting. One thing to keep in mind is that the average life of a landscape tree is only 8 years. There are numerous reasons for this, but basically, the majority of our landscape trees don’t become the shade under which our children will lay.

Photo from Mark Adams, Adams Arbor Care, LLC
Being optimists and knowing that some trees do live beyond 8 years, Ingram and Hall used the hopeful number of 40 years (the estimated long-term life of a redbud). Over a 40-year lifespan, the estimated carbon sequestration of redbud was 323 pounds of CO2. That means, the tree is doing exactly what we expect trees to do…offset carbon inputs into the atmosphere by storing a greater amount of carbon than it took to produce it.  But what about when that tree eventually dies? Let’s not forget that it takes carbon to remove it…by using equipment. So Ingram and Hall took this into account as well. They estimated carbon released when driving to the site, running a chainsaw, running a chipper and then moving the mulch. All told, to remove a mature redbud, there is a release of 194 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. So the tree absorbs 323 pounds of CO2 during its lifetime, but it takes 194 pounds to remove it from the location. A net benefit of 129 pounds CO2 stored by the redbud during its lifetime.  Not bad, but only about three pairs of Timberland boots.

Let’s go back to that average life of a landscape tree. Again, most trees don’t live to be 40 years old. Based on information that Dr. Ingram shared with me, in order for the tree to be carbon neutral in its life (from seed to death), the tree has to live an estimated 22 years—almost 3 times as long as the current average.

So what does this mean? Well, several things. One is that we need to do a better job of producing, planting and maintaining trees to last longer in our landscapes. Another is that Ingram and Hall’s study can be crucial to a grower who is looking to not only save money on production costs, but to be more environmentally responsible. Part of the article focuses on reducing carbon inputs, like driving trees a shorter distance to a job site (driving 240 miles vs. 120 miles reduces carbon inputs by half, to ~4 pounds of CO2). Eliminating a year of production on the tree can reduce carbon by 2.6 pounds of CO2 per tree (from 4 years to 3 years). All important evidence a grower can use to make his/her businesses more economical and viable. Plus, let’s face it…don’t you think marketing a “sustainable” tree would be appealing to consumers?

I also think that this article is timely with the recent detection of emerald ash borer in Boulder. If we lose the majority of our urban ash forest due to this insect, a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide will be released in their removal, but also to replace them with other trees. And we lose the carbon absorption benefit from those dead, removed trees. That reinforces why it’s even more important to ensure that our newly planted trees survive, to help offset some of the potential new carbon emissions in our atmosphere. Whoa.


Friday, November 22, 2013

Small scale biochar by Irene Shonle

Up here in the mountains, our soil is usually loose “sandy” decomposed granite.  It’s not particularly good for holding water or nutrients, and I’m forever recommending that people amend their soils (especially for vegetable gardening)

We also tend to accumulate a lot of slash (pine tree limbs with needles on them) as a result of cutting trees for fire mitigation.  Typically, the slash is considered to be a waste product, unfit for burning in wood stoves or for larger-scale woody biomass utilization.

These two things have led many people to consider biochar as an interesting strategy to not only make use of the “waste” product, but to capture carbon and increase soil fertility and water-holding capacity all at once.  There is even a fact sheet on it from CSU:  There is ongoing research on large-scale forestry/biochar applications or recovery from wildfire ( , but I’m interested in a very local garden scale.
Biochar --
What is biochar? According to the International Biochar Initiative (, biochar production is a” 2,000-year-old practice that converts agricultural waste into a soil enhancer that can hold carbon, boost food security, and discourage deforestation. The process creates a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that helps soils retain nutrients and water.”  It was originally discovered by examining the unusually fertile soils comprising the ‘dark earth’ in the Amazon (terra preta). The soils are anthropogenic in nature, and are dark because of their very high charcoal content.  They were created by adding a mixture of charcoal, bone, and manure to the otherwise relatively infertile Amazonian soil. It is very stable and remains in the soil for thousands of years.  Modern day enthusiasts claim biochar will do everything from save the world from the looming climate crisis to producing the best vegetables your garden has ever seen!  What’s not to like?

I’ve been poking around , trying to learn a little more about how to make biochar.  For the most part, the theory is pretty straightforward – burn wood in an oxygen-starved manner (much like making charcoal), and then grind the resulting blackened chunks, mix with compost or manure – and add to your garden.

But, of course, the devil is in the details. I have found instructions on everything from digging a trench to much more elaborate commercial units.

The trench method involves  placing wood in a pit, setting it on fire, and then covering it with soil and letting it smolder a while before stopping combustion by drenching.  This method is spelled out here:  This method is also recommended by some  for farmers in developing countries:

While I like the simplicity of this technique, some say that this won’t produce enough of a controlled burn, and that the product will be less high quality.  This camp says you need some sort of kiln. There are many homebrewed versions of creating a biochar kiln (, and  many others) as well as variously priced commercial units ( , or other such units). 

I’m intrigued and may even try it this winter, given that the snow makes it possible to obtain an open burn permit up here, and I definitely have some slash I need to get rid of.  If I try it, I’ll be sure to report back.
Has anyone tried small-scale biochar?  If so, please let me know what you did in the comments!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Your Input Needed: Gardening in the Philippines, Can It Help Relieve Poverty?

Posted by David Whiting, Department of Horticulture & LA, Colorado State University

Our sympathy and prayers go out to the victims of the typhoon in the Philippines.  It is hard to comprehend the destruction and loss of life this past week.

The past couple of weeks, I’ve been in conversation about gardening in the Philippines and the concept has really captured by imagination.  Let me share the focus of the discussion.  Your input on the topic would be greatly appreciated.

I was contacted by a financial advisor who represents a foundation trying to deal with the extreme poverty in the Philippines.  He was seeking input on the potential for gardening to help build the lives of the poor and reduce the extreme poverty.  In the Philippines, there is a significant population who basically has nothing.  They live off the land and scrounge through the trash to survive.  Home may be nothing more than a couple of sheets of plywood and sheet metal, under a tree, to provide some shelter from the tropical rains.  (Not much protection from a typhoon.)  Jobs simply do not exist for some of the population. 

So, the concept is for the foundation to purchase farmland, allowing families to settle there growing crops and living off the land.  I was called for a reality check on the concept.  If land was provided, could squatters living off the land make a decent life for their family? 

Not being gardener themselves, the financial advisors thinking about this idea really did not know what questions to ask when they visit the area at the end of this month.  So I helped them framed a list of questions to ask about the soil, the climate, and crops that could be grown.  The area is rich in agriculture production.  Local gardening includes warm season crops, like corn and tomatoes, and many tropical vegetables, like Calabasa (squash), Gabi (Taro), and Kamtoe (Sweet Potatoes).

A second part of this discussion centers on human development.  The growth in self-esteem being able to grow the produce to feed your family.

So I ask you the question,  if land was provided, could squatters living off the land make a decent life for their family?  What would you advise the foundation considering this question?



Friday, November 8, 2013

Earthworms: The Beauty and the Beast

Posted by: Alison O'Connor, Horticulture Agent in Larimer County
An earthworm; photo by Alamy
Ok, I’ll admit….I’ve never given much thought to earthworms, except when I was growing up in Minnesota and squeamishly threading one on my fishing hook.  I found that sunnies preferred fat, juicy nightcrawlers and they were the easiest fish to take off my hook (aside from perch).  But I digress…

Earthworms.  Everyone knows about them, but are they good or bad?  Do they have a useful purpose?  What’s their role in our landscapes?

First, did you know that what we call “nightcrawlers” are not native to North America?  (I’ll give you a second to pick up your gaping jaw.)  It’s true.  These are introduced arthropods from Europe that joined our early settlers on their boats—soil and rocks were used to help ballast the ships sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean.  When they arrived, they dumped out the soil and rocks (and nightcrawlers) and “traded” with North American goodies to bring back to Europe.  The first example of “Fair Trade.”

These non-natives have out-competed our native populations of earthworms…so much so that it’s difficult to find any native earthworm species throughout the U.S.  In fact, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources labels them as an invasive species in Minnesota (take note, fisher-people!).  The worms in the northern state are so productive in the forested areas that there is virtually no duff or forest litter left.  What this means for the trees is fewer nutrients and a lot more soil erosion.  Plus, the slimy guys have also changed the ecology of native wildflower populations.  It’s a pretty interesting article, if you care to read it

On the plus side, now that the worms are permanent residents in Colorado (and not a part of the 51st state), they do provide some benefits to our landscapes.  They are great at de-compacting our clay soils, recycling organic matter and freeing up nutrients for plant use.  If you have a “lumpy lawn”, you’ve got worms.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, unless you like to play croquet or have active slip-n-slide users. 

Earthworm in estivation; photo by Jacob McDaniel
A recent study in Colorado found that earthworms can survive drought for up to three weeks!  While water is a necessity for regular earthworm function (it keeps their slime slimy, which helps them glide like butta’ through the soil), if soils begin to dry, earthworms go into estivation, a “summer-like hibernation.”  Personally, I’d enjoy a respite of estivation during hot summer months, myself.  Researcher Jacob McDaniel, a research associate at Colorado State University, found that during estivation, the earthworm curls itself into a tight ball to reduce contact with the soil (thus reducing water loss from its body).  
Various tests were conducted—including constant water (the control) and one, two and three weeks without any added water to the soil.  Though 14% of the worms died in the 3-week drought, the remaining 86% recovered after the soil was rewetted.  Wow.  That’s amazing resiliency, little earthworms!

Earthworms are a major issue on golf courses…the lumpiness they cause makes putting difficult and golfers crabby.  And they are really good at killing grass by popping out of the ground and splaying their castings (poo) and soil on top of the turf surface.  Nightcrawlers can also live for many years and inhabit the same burrows.  Like any good homeowner, they frequently clean house…but instead of keeping their trash out of site, they display it for all to see—on top of the turf surface.  
Earthworm casting on Bethesda golf course;
photo courtesy of Bethesda Country Club
Golf course superintendents do have ways to discourage earthworm activity.  One way is sand topdressing—the sand is irritating to the worm’s body (but we do not recommend you do this on your home lawn).  Another solution is trying to keep the course as dry as possible.  Earthworms will gravitate to areas of higher moisture near streams and water hazards.  There are no pesticides labeled for the control of earthworms.

As a homeowner, you can encourage earthworm populations by reducing tilling in your garden and adding organic matter to your soil.  Recycling your turf clippings will also feed the worms, which is like “cotton candy” to them.  Keeping your lawn and garden moist will make for happy worms.  But if you don’t like them or are finding them destructive, there’s little you can do.  Try rolling the lawn to smooth out the bumps and dry down your garden areas.  But really it’s probably better to accept and welcome them, since they clearly have claimed your landscape for their own and have no plans on leaving.

So the choice is yours regarding our fellow worm—good guy or bad guy?  I was always a fan of Slimy on Sesame Street.  
Slimy! (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Friday, November 1, 2013

Fall Color: Its Not Just for Broadleafs

Posted by: Eric Hammond Adams County

Front Range landscapes are thoroughly in the grip of fall. The leaves of many shade trees have changed color and are falling, vegetable gardens have mostly been put to bed, lawns have been aerated, sprinkler systems winterized and the deciduous conifers are losing their needles.

Fall Color of Tamarak (Larix laricina)
Ok, so maybe that last one is not exactly thought of as a hallmark of fall but it is an interesting side note to the season.

All conifers drop some needles annually. As the nights get colder and the days get shorter its completely normal for the inner older needles of temperate zone conifers begin to yellow in a less attractive parody of the fall color exhibited by many of their broadleaved counter parts. Different species hold on to their needles for different lengths of time. For example, Eastern White Pines (Pinus strobus) drop their needles after two years while Austrian Pines (Pinus nigra) normally hold on to theirs for four years. What makes the group of plants known as deciduous conifers unique is that, as their name implies, they drop all of their needles each year.

These plants can add a bit of fall interest and curiosity to a landscape when used correctly. I have always thought of them as the eccentric cousins of the more common spruces, pines and firs. There are several such conifers which can be grown along the Front Range. The most adaptable of these is European Larch (Larix decidua).

State Champon Eourpean Larch
The European Larch is a large tree which develops a more open habit as it ages. Under favorable conditions its needles can turn an attractive yellow before falling from the plants. The state champion tree is located in
City Park in Fort Collins and it is really worth seeing if you are in the area. While this species tolerates our climate and soils they are definitely not low water use plants. They are best used as either specimen or curiosity plants and could also be used in groups in landscapes that can accommodate their eventual large size such as parks, golf courses or large yards.

 Two other species of deciduous conifers which can be grown along the Front Range are Dawn Redwood, (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) and Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum). From a botanical perspective (read: to a plant nerd) both of these plants are really interesting.

Dawn Redwood in the Fall

Dawn Redwood is a relative of the sequoias and at one point in time was native to much of the northern hemisphere including North America. The species was thought extinct until the early 1940s when a stand of living trees was found in a rural province of central China. Since then, Dawn Redwood has been reintroduced as an ornamental, with successful plantings from California to Maine and beyond.

Fal folliage of Dawn Redwood
As a landscape plant Dawn Redwood has a lot to offer. Plants are fast growers, have a soft and feathery texture and turn a very attractive orange-red in the fall. Unfortunately, in our climate they are best suited to protected microclimates and though they have some tolerance for higher pH clay soils they do best in better drained soils with a more neutral pH.

Bald Cypress is well known and valued for its ability to resist decay. The remains of large old growth trees are even harvested from the bottoms of swamps in the south east.

It is also a surprisingly adaptable plant given that it is native to swampy sites in the southeastern United States. It can be found growing in landscapes as far north as Canada. However, the species is even less tolerant of high pH soils than Dawn Redwood and must be sited carefully along the Front Range.