Thursday, January 29, 2015

Pinteresting garden you have there!

Posted by: Rich Guggenheim, Hort/4-H agent, Morgan County Extension

How many of you have checked out the gardening section of Pinterest? I’ll admit, I use Pinterest, and I am a guy. There are some really great ideas I have gotten off there. An example is what to do with my long, shallow backyard which does not drain, and floods when we get a heavy rain.
However, Pinterest is plumb full of old wives tales on how to do, well, just about anything. I want to tackle just a few, and remind readers of the importance of getting your information from a known, reputable source. Your local Land Grant University provides you with research based solutions for your life.  CSU Extension is your go to source for answers about gardening in Colorado. 

So, here is a list of the top 5 wives tales I see on Pinterest, which you should avoid:

1. Use Epsom salts for a bumper tomato crop.
While this may sound like a good idea, the simple fact of the matter is any time you begin any gardening project you should start with a soil test. It is also a good idea to have your soil tested every few years just so that you know what is going on and what, if any, amendments may be needed. CSU Extension can provide you with a soil test. As a general rule Epsom Salts, Magnesium Sulfate, are not needed in Colorado soils because our soils generally have adequate amounts of Magnesium and due to our soil’s pH, is readily available to be taken up by our plants.

 2. Adding sugar or baking soda to your garden’s soil makes your strawberries sweeter.
The sweetness of your fruit or veggies is not really determined by the amount of sugar in the soil. Plants do not acquire sweetness from the soil. If you really want sweeter fruits, add the sugar to them in the kitchen.

3. Add Egg Shells.
I have seen many uses for egg shells in the garden. They are purported to keep slugs and snails away, add calcium to your soil, keep rabbits from eating your plants and more. Again, the best place to start is with a soil test. Usually, most Colorado soils have adequate levels of calcium. To keep slugs, and snails away, you may want to consider using diatomaceous earth. I’ve tried the eggshell to keep rabbits away with little to no luck. They will eat what they want, and egg shells really aren’t going to stop them.  If you choose to use eggs in your garden, the best thing to do is crush them up and place them in your compost bin.

4. Pennies or copper which repels slugs and snails.
If I had a penny for every time I saw this…
Taking a moment to think about this, yeah, it does work to a limited degree. But if it actually does effectively repel slugs and snails, all you are going to do is repel the slugs and snails from your collection of pennies and onto your collection of peonies. Try using copper sulfate as an alternative or beer as an alternative. I hear slugs really like Miller.

5.  Adding sand to help loosen up clay soils.
This one is perhaps my all time favorite. Have you ever made cement? If you want to build soil tilth, add organic matter. Organic matter aids in soil drainage, improves the nutrient holding capacity and helps break up heavy clayey soils.

So while you may be prone to seeing these wonderful things that tell you how easily you can have amazing gardens on Pinterest, the reality is that any garden worth having is going to require work. If you want to find out what shortcuts you can take and actually do work in your area, the best place to start would be from a trusted, reliable source. Your local Extension Office is the source for reliable and accurate information, and, we are on social media too!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Considerations Before the Chickens or the Eggs

Buff Orpington rooster
Posted by: Curtis Utley, Jefferson County Extension

Spring is not quite in the air but this is the time of year that I begin planning my vegetable garden and placing my baby chick order. Chicks are available every week of the year from most mail-order hatcheries but there is something nostalgic and anticipatory about new life in the spring. From a practical standpoint it is much easier to brood chicks in the warming months of spring. Chickens may be a great addition to your yard and garden but keeping chickens is not for everyone. The following is my dissertation on the pitfalls and challenges often overlooked by the impulse buyer.


First off, Chickens need suitable housing. Buying or building a chicken coop should be step 1. The coop should be weather and predator proof. Choose a coop layout that is easy to clean; chickens are messy birds. I strongly recommend a slick finished concrete coop floor for the ease of cleaning and to dissuade tunneling vermin.

Baby chicks in fire proof steel horse tank

In nature a mother hen hatches her chicks and broods them herself, keeping them close to her body for the first 6-8 weeks of life. With hatchery chicks, you are the brooder and many buildings have burned to the ground accidentally as a result of a brooder lamp or other heat source causing a fire. Both my cousin and I have had brooder lamp mishaps resulting in property damage so this should not be taken lightly.
Chickens eating prize winning Jack O' Lantern
Free Ranging Considerations:

last blades of grass in chicken yard
Chickens poop everywhere, all the time, everywhere. Unfortunately, chicken poop does not smell like roses, if it did I would not mind stepping in it so much. Chickens can fly, they are birds after all. This feat, temporarily defying gravity, gives chickens access to your outdoor furniture, (did I mention chickens poop everywhere) the roof of your house, your neighbor’s yard, the roof of your car, shade trees, swing sets, etc.    
Blue Andalusian rooster in the now plant-less chicken yard  
Chickens are omnivores eating anything that moves and your prize winning vegetables that don’t.  Chickens scratch the ground looking for worms, insects, seeds, pebbles, grass roots, anything. When you keep chickens in the same location they will eventually denude the ground of every living plant leaving dust holes and mud in their wake.

Predators and Vermin:

Chickens beget mice if you did not have a mouse problem before, you will once you begin keeping chickens. This has more to do with storing chicken feed than the chickens themselves but chickens are messy and if you allow them access to free feed they will spill some on the ground and not bother picking it up since there is more in the feeder. This spilled feed is nutritionally balanced for breeding mice and if you’re really unlucky, rats. Interestingly, chickens love killing and eating mice, unfortunately chickens have terrible night vision when mice are actively out and about.

The deficit in night vision also makes chickens easy prey for predators including but not limited to: skunks, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, owls, mountain lions, bears, dogs, etc. So you have to be sure to close the coop door at night or you may risk losing some birds.
Hens eyeing a tasty garter snake
Chicken Sitin’:

Chickens can easily live for 10-15 years if they don’t get eaten by something first, and chickens, unlike dogs and children are not easily taken with you during your family vacation. Each time you plan to be away you must find someone you trust to come by your coop twice per day to collect the eggs, feed and water the birds, open the coop in the morning and close the coop door after dusk.

Sexing Baby Chicks

Many municipalities have relaxed their code rules to allow residents to keep a few backyard birds and this is fantastic. Within most of these new provisions cockerels and roosters (male birds) are still prohibited. If you are buying baby chicks you will have to buy pullets only, and if you accidentally end up with a cockerel you will have to find a new home for the bird or potentially suffer the consequences of being out of compliance. I have taught myself to sex chicks and I'm correct 50% of the time.

Production Issues:

Most people are interested in keeping chickens because of the prospect of fresh eggs produced in your own backyard; admittedly this is why I began keeping chickens 15 years ago. Baby chicks will not produce their first egg until they are 6-8 months old. Waiting for your first fresh eggs from your first flock of chicks feels like waiting for your 16th birthday to roll around and you finally gain the freedom of your driver’s license. Interminable.  Chickens need 16 hours of light before they begin egg production so they do not lay well in the winter when it’s dark. Chickens molt all of their feathers once per year and stop producing eggs, often for 2 months, during this time. Most hens are only productive for their first 4 years but live 10-15 years.

As spring nears and you are pondering adding a flock of chickens to your yard I hope you find this information useful. I love raising chickens; they add humility and a degree of complexity to my otherwise hectic life.

Addtional Information: 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Voles Invade Macy's!

Tony Koski, Extension Turf Specialist

Vole trails in Macy's lawn - originating in the junipers
OK, not the store…but their landscape. I was walking by Macy’s at Centerra (Loveland) today and saw textbook signs of vole activity on the small turf areas adjacent to the juniper beds near the front entrance. The recently melted snow had provided ideal cover for these small rodents, and fresh signs of their activity were quite evident. While active year-round in our landscapes, vole activity is more apparent in winter and spring when turf is not actively growing. Less obvious is the damage they may be causing to woody plants in the landscape. There are eight species of voles that live throughout Colorado; the one most likely to be found in urban landscapes is the meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) –  often called the field or meadow mouse.

Cute, yes - but destructive in the landscape
Voles are strictly vegetarian. In our landscapes their favorite food sources include turfgrass and the stems and bark of shrubs and trees. They can also be a nuisance in vegetable gardens, where they will eat seedling plants, as well as potatoes, carrots and other root veggies (voles are excellent burrowers). They will eat iris, flower bulbs, and some perennials (hostas are an apparent delicacy) in flowerbeds. When vole pressure is heavy, both newly planted and older, established trees can be killed by feeding that girdles the trunk. Along the Front Range, junipers frequently suffer from vole damage – probably because they provide both perfect cover and a ready source of food throughout the year.

Voles can totally girdle trees and shrubs
Even mature trees aren't safe from vole feeding
Hosta root system destroyed by feeding voles
Vole populations – and thus the damage caused by them – are very cyclical, with peak numbers occurring every 3-4 years, followed by years where they are hardly noticed. Turf damage is more severe in years where snow cover persists for more than a few weeks – shaded landscapes, the north side of structures, or where snow is piled during removal. Mountain golf courses often suffer severe vole damage on an annual basis because snow cover lasts so long. The above-ground trails seen in lawns will connect to a hole which is the entrance to a maze of underground tunnels.

Voles are more common in landscapes that border natural areas or greenbelts where grass is tall and infrequently mowed. Especially attractive are shrub and flower beds which are covered with landscape fabric (another reason NOT to use landscape fabric in your landscape!).  Discourage voles by eliminating places for them to hide and reproduce (they breed throughout the year, having as many as 5 litters of 3-5 young each time!).  Avoid the use of landscape fabric and pull mulch away from the bases of trees and shrubs. Mow tall grass in “native” or natural areas adjacent to lawn areas in the fall after the grass has stopped growing. Woody plants and treasured perennials can be protected by the use of wire mesh screening to prevent feeding.

Vole damage on carrots
Research with voles suggests that repellents are largely ineffective because they don’t last long and simply cause the voles to move to another area of your landscape. While there are poisonous baits (the anticoagulants used for mouse and rat control in structures) that can be effective, you have to be vigilant in providing the bait and have to be concerned about children, pets and other non-target wildlife when using them (read more about the use of poisonous baits in this fact sheet).

Set traps in the runways: end-to-end,
with triggers on opposite ends - or so
the trigger is directly on the runway.
Baiting appears unnecessary.

Trapping can be highly effective for eliminating (or at least reducing) vole populations in the home landscape. The plain ol’ mousetrap (unbaited), placed on vole trails and/or near their holes at the end of the trails, can be used with great success. Drill a hole in the center of the trap so that it can be anchored in the ground with a large nail, to keep it in place. Look for signs of activity on the trails and at the burrow openings  - bits of chewed grass clippings and freshly deposited (they will have a green tinge), tiny pellets of mouse poop (technical term). Set the traps where the voles are most likely to cross the trigger. Because you can’t tell from which direction voles will be traveling on their trails, a good strategy is to place two traps end to end (with the triggers on opposite ends) directly within the vole trail. 

Cover mouse traps with pieces of gutter
to keep pets and children from disturbing the
traps, and to guide the voles to the traps
Cover the traps with a length of gutter or a tunnel fashioned from a half-gallon, cardboard milk carton. The tunnel will keep nosy dogs and cats from messing with your traps and can “guide” the voles into the traps. If you do choose to trap voles, take special precaution with handling and disposing of the  the vole cadavers. Recent research has shown that voles can be heavily infected with the bacterium that causes tularemia in humans and other mammals. 

A good source of more detailed information on voles can be found in this CSU fact sheet: Managing Voles in Colorado

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Saving pollinators one garden and one person at a time

Irene Shonle, CSU Extension in Gilpin County

At this point, most people have heard about the dire situation of Monarchs butterflies.  The World Wildlife Fund and others documented a 59 percent decline in monarch populations this year.  Monarchs get a lot of press because of their beauty and the spectacle of their generations-long migration, and their plight helps to also shed light on the issues facing other pollinators.
Monarch butterfly courtesy Dave Cappaert,

Honeybees are struggling, too, and many native pollinators are in serious trouble, according to Eric Mader, assistant pollinator program director with The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Several species of bumblebees in the United States have declined substantially over the past 2 to 3 decades, according to a study led by entomologist Sydney Cameron of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The declines are thought to be due to habitat loss/fragmentation, pesticide use, climate change, and non-native pathogens.

Scientists are particularly tracking five declining species of bumblebee, including the Western bumblebee, Bombus occidentalis – and there have been recent sightings in our area! For more information, go here:, or to join a citizen science project documenting bumblebee distribution, go here:
Bumblebee photo courtesy Whitney Cranshaw
Protecting, restoring, and enhancing habitat is the best way to reverse the declines in bumblebee populations, and the best thing is that this is a project where individuals in our own mountain yards can actually make a significant contribution!  So often, you hear about one environmental disaster after another, and can feel somewhat helpless and depressed, but here is a win-win situation where your efforts will help the pollinators and make your yard more beautiful.  Bumblebees are gentle creatures (often likened to flying teddy bears), and will rarely sting unless threatened, so don’t be alarmed at the thought of attracting them to your house (unless someone in your house has a severe allergy).

Bumblebees need three types of habitat to survive: plants on which to forage for pollen and nectar, nesting sites, and places to overwinter.  Usually the latter two don’t require much effort on our part (other than leaving them undisturbed); so here are some tips on what to plant to attract our native pollinators:
  • Plant a diversity of species (best choices are native) so your yard will provide bees and butterflies with nectar and pollen from early spring through fall.  Great flower choices include Golden banner (Thermopsis divaricarpa), Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata), Yarrow (Achillea lanulosa), Lupine (Lupinus argenteus), Rocky Mtn. beeplant (Cleome serrulata), Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa), Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia), Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), and all Penstemons.  Flowering shrubs can also be good choices – look for Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), Wood’s rose (Rosa woodsii), and Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana).
  • During hot, dry periods, provide water in shallow birdbaths or pools where pollinators can easily land. Some wasps and bees need mud to build their nests, and butterflies like to gather in muddy puddles.
  • Reduce or eliminate use insecticides, especially ones that state that they are harmful to bees or butterflies on their label. If using an herbicide, target only invasive weeds, and don’t spray when bees or butterflies are present.