• Jane Shellenberger

Editor's Letter: April 2017

Whenever I teach a class or go to a gardening conference where the audience asks questions, the one that inevitably arises is: How do I get rid of my grass and replace it with gardens, preferably without spraying?

Where I live the brome grass is so strong that putting in a garden usually involves a big struggle. Not so far this year though. I see dry years as opportunities for garden making.

I moved here during some exceptionally dry years. My neighbor told me not to worry; the pasture would come back, even if it looked mostly like dust to me, and he was right. That made me realize that brome has very deep roots - great for a horse pasture, not so great if you want to remove it.


Every spring he sprayed his ditch with herbicide and it died back. The following spring the brome grass came back so he sprayed again. Using herbicide only worked as an annual application from what I could see, plus constant touch-ups were needed. I paid someone to weed whack my ditch once or twice a year instead.


The only way I’ve been able to out-maneuver the brome and persistent weeds around the house is by smothering them with cardboard and covering that with a mound of dirt to create a berm. I use plastic landscape edging around the circumference. I don’t know of anything else that works as well in that situation to prevent the grass from sneaking into the berm. (Landscape barrier doesn’t stop brome for long in my experience and can be very difficult to remove. Cardboard, on the other hand, eventually breaks down). I still have to weed some grass out occasionally, but it’s manageable. If I can overcome brome, you can overcome bluegrass.


As a result I’ve ended up with gardens that are small islands, with some eventually merging into a bigger island. What I like about this approach is that it doesn’t take too much time or effort all at once to create a defined garden space, I don’t need special equipment, and I don’t end up with gardens that are too big for me to take care of. Plus, I can more easily tailor the soil mix for natives, cactus and succulents, or whatever.


As many gardeners know, berms create a lot of extra surface area for plants. They can be high or low, though over time they will settle and become lower. I grow a lot of interesting, pretty, resilient (they have to be) and useful plants that I look forward to seeing each year and I rarely feel overwhelmed by maintaining them. Starting small made that possible.


My vegetable gardens are well established now with healthy, “alive” soil thanks to mulching with chopped leaves (and a little forking in) every fall, and adding compost when I feel like it. Originally I used the same weed and grass smothering technique: cardboard at the bottom, covered with soil.


When I visited the High Plains Environmental Center (HPEC) in Loveland this spring and saw the scale of the beautiful restoration they have accomplished at their 67-acre site, replacing invasive weeds and grasses with natives, I was completely impressed. (One effective technique they used – and that you might try – is solarization: covering large weedy areas with clear plastic to kill it.) Their “living laboratory” is well worth visiting. You’ll have a great opportunity to visit – and purchase native plants – at their Grand Opening and Native Plants Sale on May 13. Read more about HPEC in this issue.


Other April features include: David Salman, chief horticulturist at High Country Gardens, on growing wild columbines in gardens; Kirk Fiesler, owner of LaPorte Ave. Nursery in Fort Collins, on Piñon Pines & Their Dwarf Selections; and Mikl Brawner, owner of Harlequins Gardens in Boulder, on growing Grapes on the Front Range.


Frank Hodge of “Father Earth Farm” in Lafayette is the subject of our gardener profile. A generous and extremely knowledgeable life-long gardener/farmer, Frank grows over 100 fruit trees that he planted, berry bushes, and plenty of vegetables and herbs – all organically.

Getting more specific, Paula Ogilvie focuses on the closely related, nutrient dense vegetables in the cabbage family known as the Brassicas.


Entomologist Eric R. Eaton tells you about fascinating “chemical conversations” between plants and bugs, while Amy Yarger of the Butterfly Pavilion describes Healthy Habitat Pest Management.


You may have heard something about our “Steppe” climate recently. Read the excerpt from Panayoti Kelaidis’ Introduction in the new Denver Botanic Gardens book, Steppes: the plants and ecology of the world’s semi-arid regions on page 3, and be sure to see the new Steppe Gardens next time you visit the Gardens at York St.


Jane Shellenberger



Excerpts from the Issue:

Introduction to Steppes by Panayoti Kelaidis

(Excerpted from "Principle Steppe Regions", Panayoti Kelaidis’ Introduction to Steppes - the plants and ecology of the world’s semi-arid regions.) Our psychology, ecology, and habits as Homo sapiens were undoubtedly shaped by the millennia of evolution that took place exclusively in steppe and savanna environments, where our existence depended on our efficiency and ruthlessness as hunters (and ourintelligence evolved rapidly to help us avoid becoming prey).


Frank “Father Earth” Hodge by Jane Shellenberger

His father died when Frank was 11. All his siblings got other part time jobs working for aunts and uncles, but Frank stuck with growing food for a local farmer. At 15 he was taking vegetables to market, driving the farmer’s truck. “Completely illegal,” he says, "but the farmer said it was ok."


Piñon Pines and their Dwarf Selections by Kirk Fiesler

Piñons are the hardiest, most xeric and heat tolerant pine in our landscapes. Along with the native junipers, they would be the only thing alive in twenty years if we stopped irrigating our yards.


A Healthy Habitat Approach to Pest Management by Amy Yarger

Butterfly Pavilion showcases over 500 different species of plants in its tropical conservatory and public gardens, but around here, it’s the bugs that come first. The horticulture team has learned that pest management at an invertebrate zoo is a challenging and exciting journey, but well worth the results for everyone involved.


The Chemical Conversations of Plants & Bugs by Eric R. Eaton

Butterflies are known to have taste receptors on their feet; the female insect scratches the leaf surface to release volatile chemicals (kairomones in this case) that will tell her if this is the appropriate plant on which to lay her eggs. An incorrect choice means her caterpillar offspring will starve or be poisoned.


Beauty from The Wild; Gardening with Wildflower Columbine Species by David Salman

The best way to enjoy Columbine is to plant only non-hybrid species that establish colonies. They come true from seed and the flowers maintain the same brightly colored flowers like the parent plants. Most commonly sold Columbines are hybrids.


Preserving Native Diversity in the Midst of Development - High Plains Environmental Center by Jane Shellenberger

In a uniquely cooperative arrangement between developers, builders, and businesses, HPEC was formed as a non-profit (501C3) in 2001 to create and restore natural areas as a component of community design.


Grapes on the Front Range by Mikl Brawner

So thanks to Elmer Swenson and Scott's testing and selecting, we now have many Zone 4 grapes that grow well in all along the Front Range.


Meet the Nutrient Dense Brassicas by Paula Ogilvie

Cole crops are rich in sulfur-containing compounds that impart the distinct flavor and odors that some people may not appreciate.