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2024 Pepper Book

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The Gothic Vegetable Garden

By Katherine Placzek

Black & purple vegetables are not only for someone who is looking for a fun or Gothic vibe in their garden. Purple-ish fruits and vegetables have higher antioxidants, which play an important role in protecting your cells against heart disease, cancer, and other diseases. So it is healthy for you to plant and eat these dark maroon beauties!
All of these vegetables are carried by us as seeds through the Botanical Interests or Lake Valley Seed brands (both CO businesses). There is a wide array of purple/ black vegetables so feel free to go down the rabbit hole and create the dark and mysterious garden of your dreams! Note that various seeds may be out of stock throughout the season.

Burgundy: These plants offer beauty and sustenance! The plants can get tall and have elegant and eye-catching burgundy plumes that can be used in flower arrangements. The seeds were a major crop of the Aztecs, and are very high in protein and other nutrients. Cook the beige seeds like rice. Young leaves are also edible- use them in salads or steamed. The birds will also enjoy the seeds!

Cardinal: Cardinal’s’ deep crimson blooms allow this basil variety to be utilized beyond its culinary qualities! Use it as a surprising accent in a mixed container, or use it as a cut flower! The fragrance is lovely. With its strong scent, a little goes a long way in the kitchen. A wonderful dual-purpose herb.
Purple Petra: A deep purple, this basil adds vibrant color to any dish! A more mild basil- great for those who just want the essence of basil in their cooking. ‘Purple Petra’ can be used to make an elegant pink-tinted vinegar also! Use it as a companion plant to your nightshade veggies or as a statement plant in an herbal ensemble or annual flower container.
Purple Opal: Opal Basil has eye-catching purple leaves, and will bloom during the summer with light pink flowers. Feel free to fall in love with this variety! Grow it just for its rich beauty or for its culinary uses. Highly flavorful, this basil variety has flavor notes of cinnamon, anise, mint, and clove!
Siam Queen Thai: This beautiful basil has a complex sweet and spicy flavor with a hint of anise. Broadly used in Thai and Vietnamese dishes- it is versatile! It is easy to grow and highly ornamental with its dark amethyst blooms. Flower farms also grow Thai basil, for cut bouquets. Include it in your garden flower bunch and enjoy the unique fragrance. Bees also love this stuff!
Sweet Thai: Thai basil is of course a popular herb in many Southeast Asian cuisines, and is most regularly highlighted in a warm bowl of Vietnamese pho. This variety holds its flavor and texture through cooking more than other basils. Lovely in salads or when eaten fresh. Sweet Thai’s dark purple flowers and intoxicating scent allow it to double as an excellent addition to the flower garden. Produces well in containers also.

Royal Burgundy (Bush): Royal Burgundy has yummy purple pods that are easy to spot among green leaves. A wonderful variety to grow in cool weather and is unlikely to be challenged by bean beetles. A good container variety, as well as disease-resistant.
Trionfo Violetto (Pole): Trionfo Violetto’ translates to “purple triumph.” This Italian heirloom will win your heart, with its crisp and flavorful purple pods. While highly ornamental the plants are also highly prolific! The plants climb 6’–8′, and have prolific light amethyst flowers that bloom against green leaves that sport purple veins and stems. Similar to other purple beans, the pods magically turn green when they are cooked!

Bulls Blood: Plant one row of this beet variety for the beautiful greens, and another for the flavorful roots! ‘Bull’s Blood’ is valued for its tender, sweet, and deep red– almost plum foliage. Originally selected from a French heirloom for the darkest colored leaves, the 16″ “greens” are rich in nutrients! The roots are delicious as well, especially so, when harvested small. Use in succession planting as multiple crops are possible throughout a season.

Burgundy: This variety of broccoli is considered a “sprouting broccoli” since it produces one small main head, but then produces generous side shoots. Purple broccolis tend to be tender, flavorful, and full of antioxidants! ‘Burgundy’; is tolerant of a wider range of temperatures, which allows a longer harvest period. Some gardeners prefer to pinch the main floret off early on, to encourage more abundant side shoots. Also resistant to the disease, Fusarium yellows.

Red Acre: Jazz up cole slaw or any stir-fry with this gorgeous, deep-fuchsia cabbage! This variety has a very fresh and sweet flavor. Solid heads form early and grow on compact plants making ‘Red Acre’ an ideal choice for urban gardeners who may have limited space. Resistant to splitting as well as cabbage yellows disease. The heads store very well, in the refrigerator or a root cellar. A variety you must try!

Cosmic Purple Carrots: While various colored carrots seem to be the new fad, they have been around for centuries. In fact, the purple carrot has been around for at least 1,000 years! While previously unpopular compared to orange carrots, purple carrots have been rediscovered, and rightfully so! Besides being high in vitamin A, purple carrots contain anthocyanins (an antioxidant) that are common in blueberries. Kids will love them!

Black Beauty: A beautiful nearly black vegetable with lovely, lavender blossoms pretty enough to grow in the flower garden! ‘Black Beauty’ has set the standard since 1902 for large and high-quality fruit. When harvested at its peak, the skin is tender, so no need to peel it; making it perfect for eggplant parmesan, ratatouille, and grilling!
Finger Fruit Purple: Grow fast-producing clusters of beautiful eggplants on your patio or a sunny corner of your vegetable plot! These 4-6″ fruits contain few seeds and have thin, tender skin—perfect for stir-fries and roasting. A plethora of royal purple fruits on just 22-38″ tall plants make this variety a perfect fit for containers and small gardens.
Jewel Amethyst: ‘Jewel Amethyst’ is perfect for containers, since it has a tidy habit. You will also notice its growing pattern makes harvesting a joy! The oval, purple fruits are best harvested when about 3”–4 ½” long, to stay tender. Harvest regularly from this variety to keep eggplant producing throughout the season.
Long Purple: This long, slender variety, is not usually found in grocery stores, and is a treat! Sometimes called ‘Italian Long Purple’, this prolific heirloom will bring beautiful ruby-purple color to the garden and savory goodness to the table. Enjoy in a wide variety of dishes!

Early Purple Vienna: Early Purple Vienna kohlrabi is an easy-to-grow cool weather crop that forms a distinctive dusty lilac bulb with pale flesh above ground. A beautiful plant! Peel its crunchy bulb and enjoy it raw or cooked. Leaves are also edible- eat similarly to collards, or other steamed greens. Kohlrabi is high in fiber, making it an excellent veggie for overall gut health. Kohlrabi is also high in isothiocyanates and glucosinolates, which are powerful antioxidants, thought to lower the risk of certain cancers, heart disease, and inflammation. Keeps well in the fridge.

Lettuces/ Greens
Brentwood Lettuce: This variety produces pretty burgundy lettuce leaves making for some beautiful salads! The heads produce high yields in compact spaces, and their bolt resistance allows for a long harvest. Also resistant to downy mildew, lettuce leaf aphid, and Fusarium wilt.
Dazzling Blue Kale: You will be mesmerized by the beautiful colors of this extra-cold-hardy kale. It is even more cold-tolerant than other lacinato types. The purple midrib pops against the blue-green leaves, some of which may take on more purple hues in the cool temperatures of fall. Lacinato kale is ideal for kale salads. Pick tender, baby greens for fresh salads, chips, or sauteing, in just 30 days!
Marvel of Four Seasons: Tasty and attractive, this 1800s French heirloom is also known as Merveille de Quatre Saisons. The variety has sweet and tender leaves that are chartreuse green at the base, turning to a beautiful cranberry-red, and forming a crinkly rosette! Gorgeous! Rosettes are 8″–12″ in diameter and good for large containers.
Red Russian Kale: Typically, kale gets sweeter after the first fall frost. ‘Red Russian’, on the other hand, is sweet and tender all the time. The lavender veins are part of what makes ‘Red Russian’ as attractive as it is delicious. Harvest baby greens in just 21 days!
Truchas Mini Romaine: This deep-merlot, mini-romaine is a game-changer for salads! ‘Truchas’ is compact and easy to grow in small spaces. It also creates gorgeous contrasts with green lettuce. Uniform leaves stay upright in the garden and make for easy plant cleanup. Has disease resistance to downy mildew, lettuce die-back, and lettuce mosaic virus.

Black Velvet: These edible beauties add glamorous, ruby-black color to your salads and cheese plates! All parts of the flower (leaves, seeds, stems and flowers) are edible! Garnish tacos, avocado toasts, and pasta dishes with these beauties! Excellent as a companion plant to your tomatoes, and they repel several pests. Gorgeous in containers as well.
Tom Thumb Black Velvet: Tom Thumb features velvety, nearly black flowers with contrasting bright green foliage! Compact plants make this an outstanding choice for the border and containers. All parts of the flower (Leaves, seeds, stems and flowers) are edible! Add flowers to charcuterie boards, gazpachos, strewn on roasted root veggies, or create vinegar from them, for various culinary experiences!

Red Burgundy: Whether you eat okra or not, this plant is worth growing, just for the beauty of it! The pods are deep crimson edging toward maroon and are preceded by gorgeous yellow flowers that the bees love. This is the most productive red variety and will produce tender, 6″-long pods that are delicious in soup, gumbo, and stew, or deep-fried.

Green and Red Shiso Perilla: An absolute must for herb gardens! Also called Japanese basil or the beefsteak plant, shiso’s incredible flavor can be described as a combination of cinnamon, mint, and clove with notes of cumin. A beautiful, heat- and drought-tolerant bedding plant that attracts pollinators, and is excellent for containers. This packet provides 75% green shiso and 25% red (shows up as a deep mulberry color).

Snap Pea
Sugar Magnolia: Wow, a purple snap pea that is tender and delicious! Enjoy the pretty purple blooms first, then the purple pea pods. Eat them without shelling, dipped in hummus, in a salad, or in stir-fries! Long hypertendrils (vigorous, multi-branching tendrils) support the 6′-7′ vining plants. This growing pattern creates an airy structure that helps prevent mildew. Some of these open-pollinated peas may be flecked with green, or be fully green.

Purple: A purple tomatillo! Not only delicious but alluring also. The purple fruits are much sweeter than the green types and rich in antioxidants. Let the fruit remain on the plant as long as possible until the papery husks split for the best flavor and color. Tomatillos grow best in conditions similar to tomatoes (because they are related) but will handle a lot more heat. Tomatillos require cross-pollination so plant at least two plants in your garden to ensure good fruit production

Black Krim: This Russian pole heirloom originated in Krymsk on the Black Sea in Russia. Baseball-sized fruits weigh 10–12 ounces and have dark reddish-brown flesh filled with a rich, slightly savory flavor. Fruit sets well in heat and is a reliable “black” tomato, producing even under adverse conditions from summer to fall. Make sure to stake or cage, as the plants can reach 6′ or more!
Cherokee Purple: Cherokee Purple’ is said to have been given to a Tennessee family by the Cherokees over 100 years ago. This dark maroon tomato has just the right balance of sweetness and even a hint of smoke, making it a winner in taste competitions. From summer into fall, you will harvest lots of 10–12 oz. tomatoes from this well-regarded heirloom variety. Make sure to stake or cage, as the plants can reach 6′ or more!
Chocolate Cherry: Chocolate Cherry tomatoes—Yum! These 1″ purplish-red, delicious tomatoes are great for snacking on and add a bit of sweetness to salads and pasta. The prolific vines bear seemingly endless trusses with 6–8 ounce fruits that will bring you back for harvest after harvest. Fruit is crack-resistant! Make sure to stake or cage.

Sugar Baby: The taste of summer? Watermelon! As the name suggests, ‘Sugar Baby’ is sweet, sweet, sweet! It is also small enough to easily fit in the refrigerator. This plant produces a bountiful crop of 8–10 pound deep dark emerald green orbs that have juicy red flesh.

Black Beauty: Black Beauty is an early maturing zucchini-type squash that features delicious deep black to green fruits with pale flesh. A very easy-to-grow bush variety that is highly productive all summer long. Enjoy grilled, sauteed, fresh, in soups, or zucchini bread!

An Interview With Allisa Linfield

While I spoke to Allisa Linfield in November, you cannot sense the time of year as we begin our video chat. Her office space is filled with warm Colorado sunshine and she has plants filling the space. There is a happy jade plant to her right, and pictures of native plants pinned to the back of her cubicle. Allisa greets me with a warm smile, and I immediately feel welcomed by her. 

Allisa’s journey as a plantswoman began in the backyard, gardening edibles. She started noticing that when she observed plants, she learned even more about the world around her. This included small variations in weather patterns from year to year. As she continued to garden, she met other plantspeople. With these new connections, she realized that “We all could have this shared experience where we remembered periods of time based on what happened to the plants and how the weather affected them, or if there was a particular insect that was of interest that year.” She eventually began the Master Gardener program, and after completing her volunteering component, Linfield realized this was what she wanted to do as a career. She eventually joined the staff at the CSU Extension Office for El Paso County. Her current role is the Horticulture Program Coordinator. Her primary responsibility lies with coordinating volunteers, especially those who work within the Master Gardener program. Her enthusiasm is evident, even when describing the Extension office’s role. “Through Extension, we are the outreach arm of the university (CSU), so we get to take research-based information to the people, and have conversations… I love coordinating our Master Gardener program.” She is quick to share gratitude for the ones who are around her, doing similar work, and those who have mentored her in this field. “I am really lucky to have a colleague and mentor, Irene Shonle, who also shares a love for native plants.” Irene works in the Extension office with Allisa. “She (Irene) has brought back the Colorado Native Plants Master Program in our county.” Irene and Allisa are a couple of the trainers at the extension office who are increasing the native plant courses that are offered in El Paso County. “These courses provide an opportunity for the community to learn field botany and plant identification. We talk about how to use botanical keys, and we talk about the impact of invasive plants and noxious weeds. And then we also talk about human uses and landscape uses of plants.”  

Allisa’s relationship with native plants began similarly to many, with little to no knowledge about native plants. “Like many people, I did not fully understand what a native plant was. Many people have an idea about what native plants are; that they are good for pollinators and that they may not require very much water. Frequently people will tell me that they love native plants and that their favorite flower is coneflower, Echinacea purpurea. It is a North American native plant but it is not native to Colorado. Or they’ll say that Russian sage is their favorite native. I always just smile. Everyone starts from this place, where there is this plant in the landscape and it is surviving somehow when everything else seems to not be doing well. And there are bees around it. What they are telling me, is they are noticing these things for the first time. They want to learn more and do more. Then they notice, ‘Oh yeah, Russian is in the name, Russian sage. Oh, that’s not native. These bees buzzing around this plant are European honeybees.’ But it’s a gateway. It gets them interested. And I think that similarly, I started out growing my food plants and I started noticing things like bees, and interaction with other insects. Then I started looking into plant identification. I do a lot of trail running through the mountains, and so I get to see these really cool alpine plants that aren’t around in the foothills and the plains.” When she first began to identify plants in the field, Linfield encountered frustrations. Gaps exist in guidebooks, either description-wise or image-wise. She was lucky enough to cross paths with Irene at the Extension office within her Master Gardener program at this time. Serendipitously, Irene was beginning to restart the Native Plant Master Gardener program again in El Paso County. Allisa jumped at the opportunity and completed three native plant courses. This led her to become a trainer in the program and instruct others in the program the following year. From there, her world has been “all about the native plants.” Allisa grows many from seeds, and she even has a fridge dedicated to stratifying these seeds! Her trail runs are now called “speed botanizing” because she spends just as much time running as she does documenting any of the native plant species she sees along her runs, through pictures and the popular citizen science app, iNaturalist.

Her current native plant crush is hard for her to initially pick out. Allisa sits back in her chair with a happy and contemplative smile. “Ok. So, it’s really hard to pick. I was just thinking about this the other day…. I was organizing all of my seeds by plant family, and realizing that I have certain plant families that are my favorite and other plant families that are not…One plant family that I am very intrigued by right now is Polemoniaceae. And common plants in that family that people might know are Ipomopsis– a genus that they might knowOr Gilia. People may have heard of Fairy Trumpet or Skyrocket Gilia (there are a lot of common names for it). But that is one in the horticultural industry that they see, Ipomopsis aggregata. I would not say this plant is my crush but the family Polemoniaceae is. In addition to Ipomopsis, it has Polemonium, which is Jacob’s Ladder, and there are a lot of alpine Jacob’s Ladders, like Sky Pilot (Polemonium viscosum), is a common name for one that I love. I guess you could say Sky Pilot is my native plant crush! It has these really cool…feathery leaves and these beautiful blue flowers. It grows in the harshest areas… It is so cool. You will be going through alpine tundra where nothing will grow and you’ll see this pretty luscious plant growing out of nothing.” She shakes her head in wonder at this statement. Linfield creates space for awe in a niche field that has been underappreciated and unpopular in the past. 

 It was shortly after completing her Master Gardener certification that she decided to embark on a master’s degree in horticulture. When Linfield began to decide on her research focus for her graduate program, she felt the draw to native plants. “But within horticulture, it is such a small niche, within the green industry that there are not a lot of people researching native plants. Therefore it is hard to find mentors, or faculty who can support research in that area.” She was able to connect with Dr. Jennifer Bousselot, who had the perfect research project in mind. Her master’s thesis and research are exciting, especially for nursery production. Her research focused on the nursery container production of native plants, by “using different substrate amendments in containers, to see if there was any impact on plant growth response.” Finishing protocols for growers is an outcome of her research that will help growers be more educated about native plant production. One of Linfield’s main objectives is to bring “recommendations to growers, so plants look the best that they can, so they can compete at retail.” This is noteworthy research. In the industry, there is a continual conversation about the visual performance of native plants compared to non-native ornamental plants. 

The learning points of this extensive research indicate that native plants do not have significant growth results due to different substrate amendments when the main growing medium is a peat moss mixture. While not seemingly earth-shattering, this is groundbreaking and is guiding her future research. This conclusion opens a frontier of the vast capabilities of native plants’ resiliency and implicates more sustainable growing substrates for future research. This new research may allow Allisa “to be able to tell growers this (peat moss soil mixtures) is not going to have a significant impact on growth of the plant, and then you can market your native plants accordingly, and show people that you are producing these by using more sustainable practices…The people who are buying these plants are often doing this because they want to reduce their water usage and create habitat and forage for native wildlife.” Since native plants and kinder landscaping practices are a trend in gardening, this research may encourage growers to change to a different production medium for their plants.

Allisa Linfield appreciates the label, plantswoman. Her face lights up, and she smiles as she explains, “Partly because I think we so frequently hear ‘plantsmen,” and I think that women sometimes have a bit of imposter syndrome when using the term plantswoman to describe themselves. We should own it!” When she announced that she was graduating from her master’s program, in December 2023, and that she would be carrying on for a PhD (also in horticulture), we both celebrated. “One more plantswoman in academia, right?” The world of plants can be very isolating as a woman, and we discussed further the importance of women who had come before her. She seconds her appreciation for Irene, who continues to mentor her with their common roles at the Extension office. “Many think of her as a state-wide specialist in native plants.” They collaborate a lot together, and Linfield jokes that they are one full-time person combined, as they both fill part-time roles at the Extension office. “Someone else who has been doing the work in our community is Catherine Moravec. She works for Colorado Springs Utilities and has been the force that made the demonstration garden on Mesa happen and continues to be such a resource for the community.”

Within the Master Gardener program, there is a required volunteering component. This past year, Linfield recorded the highest number of applicants for this portion. This is exciting and speaks to how necessary the Extension’s programs are for our community. “We would like to be able to take everyone, but we are not always able to, because we only bring on so many apprentices each year.” She recognizes that the community probably does not see the substantial work that her volunteers and apprentices commit to. Many components of the Extension office are completely operated by volunteers. The Extension office’s help desk is staffed by these unpaid volunteers. They answer your questions on the phone, over email, or even in person. They are very informative; identifying insects, and plants, supplying gardening advice, etc. One of Allisa’s future benchmarks is to make the help desk more accessible to the community. “Not everyone can come in during business hours, and sometimes people want to have a real conversation, not send an email and wait a couple days for a response.” Coming in the future is a virtual help desk with designated “open office” hours that will fall outside of their normal business hours. You may have seen another venue for master gardeners’ volunteer hours; Rick’s and other garden centers around the city have welcomed these volunteers during the height of the gardening season to answer community members’ questions and concerns. Another main thing that these volunteers do is help facilitate and teach classes taught through the extension office. Some of these classes are taught online or at the extension office, but the vast majority are special requests by gardening groups, clubs, schools, or other interested parties. There are a myriad of other ways volunteers can get involved, and the breadth of support that the extension offers to the community, with these energized volunteers, is breathtaking.

As for the future of gardening in the El Paso County area, Allisa has enthusiastic aspirations! The Master Gardener program is growing by 30% this year. People who are applying are not just retired people, which has been the case historically. Linfield encourages people to look into and apply for the program, even if they work full-time since more volunteer opportunities are increasingly flexible. The learning portion can be completely online for the benefit of those who are busy. One possible reason why this growth is occurring is many young people want to give back to this community. Allisa has a vision for the Master Gardener program in the future. “I would love the Master Gardener program to be a reflection of our community. That means we have lots of people from lots of different backgrounds, experiences, and thoughts. That we have people of all ages, that we have people of different races and ethnicities, genders, and different sexual orientations. I want to make sure that our volunteer group reflects our community so that we can serve the community to the best of our ability.” About the future of gardening in El Paso County, Linfield beams, “I love El Paso County; where we have so many different kinds of people who come to plants for different reasons, and with different motivations. I think we can be leaders in increasing gardening education, for youth, and having greater collaboration with all the little groups in our community.” She mentions there are new conversations, collaborations, and synergies between distinct groups of local farmers. This is an excellent start. “I think if we are all just open to collaboration, and that we are welcoming– that we can help serve the community better. And that gardening is the thing we have in common with each other” 

Allisa wraps up our interview with the importance of natives, and why planting natives is an important form of habitat conservation and climate activism. “We have the exciting opportunity to use our own yards and landscapes as corridors for pollinators and other native fauna. We have these open spaces in Colorado Springs. West Colorado Spring is really lucky to have lots of parks and open spaces, but these spaces can become islands. We have lots of urban areas that might separate the islands, so we can plant natives so that we can make a corridor for pollinators and other wildlife to have both habitat and food and forage.” She goes on to explain the second main reason natives are so important. “Another reason is just out of necessity because water is becoming scarcer and scarcer. Our climate is hard to grow in, even when we have plenty of irrigation.” Linfield approaches her work with natives with an incredible amount of hope, a contagious hope! “That’s the really beautiful thing about native plants! You as an individual can make an impact. Sometimes in this world, things happen and we are like ‘Well, what can I do about it?’ And this is one thing you can do!”


CSU Extension office for El Paso County: Native plants (this is an extensive resource- please check it out!): https://elpaso.extension.colostate.edu/native-plants-for-el-paso-county/

Master Gardener Program:https://cmg.extension.colostate.edu/

Native Plant Master Program: https://conativeplantmaster.colostate.edu/

Sign-up pages for Extension events: epcextension.eventbrite.com

Colorado Springs Utilities Demonstration Garden: https://www.csu.org/Pages/DemonstrationGarden.aspx

Plant Select: https://plantselect.org/

Resources through Dr. Doug Tallamy (a leader in the research being done on insects, birds and the nutrition/ habitat gained from native plants)

Book: Nature’s Best Hope (the Pikes Peak Library carries this in audio and book form)

Homegrown National Park: https://homegrownnationalpark.org/

An Interview With Larry Stebbins

When asked the softball of a question, “Why do you garden?” Larry responds, “It is much more than that– I have to garden.” With this type of sentiment, you know that Larry Stebbins is committed to a life of gardening. The story of how he became passionate about gardening begins in his childhood. “I was five years old, and I was at my grandparent’s house in Detroit,” he recalls, “My grandpa gave me a fresh tomato straight from the vine. It was the most incredible flavor! I thought to myself, ‘I gotta have a garden.’ When I went home, I told my parents that I wanted a garden. They eventually allowed me to have a small portion of the yard, and said that I needed to ensure that weeds would not take over. I think that they were surprised that they never found one weed in my garden. Not one!” After that, it was a life of gardening for Larry, and often by creative means.

 As Stebbins begins to relate the next story, his hands, which are tanned, become animated. “Our high school greenhouse was unused and barren of plants.  So my good friend, Doug, and I skipped class to see if we could get some tropical plants from the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory in Detroit.” He chuckles as he relates, “Well, we anticipated the staff at the conservatory asking all sorts of questions, but when we arrived, we found it was our lucky day! The staff was thinning out the tropical plants in the conservatory, discarding plants as they went. When we asked if we could have some of the plants, they said we could take whatever we wanted! We loaded up all sorts of plants, banana trees, vines, etc! Over the next two years in high school, you often would find the two of us tending to these plants.”

While you might assume that Larry pursued a career related to his green thumb, Stebbins chose the path to become a chemistry teacher for the majority of his career, as all the botany teaching jobs were taken. His teaching career led him to move from the midwest to the Denver area, where he worked at Aurora Central High School. For several of his initial years, he continued to experiment, making mistakes and growing lots of vegetables in his backyard. Eventually Larry began to grow outside of his own backyard garden– he wanted to create accessible gardens for others.  He moved over to work at Picken Tech, a vocational school, as an administrator.  An opportunity popped up where Larry was able to build a 100 ft by 50 ft greenhouse. He wrote grants and found sponsors for the funding of the project.  He wanted to involve others in the greenhouse design, so he collaborated with instructors at the vocational school who taught masonry, HVAC, electrical and horticulture courses. The students involved, were eager to build this project.  “We built an ADA compliance greenhouse that included a sunken classroom, bordered by a waterfall, winding brick pathways, and different microclimates for plants.” This indoor garden took a cumulative of three years to complete. Stebbins points to it as one of his significant experiences that led to his future community garden developments.

Stebbins capstoned his final years as an educator with an administrator role at Air Academy High School, in Colorado Springs. Despite being an administrator, Larry still found ways to bring gardens to students. “I enlisted a small group of students and a few teachers to build a greenhouse for the biology classes. It was never used, even though it had built-in heating and electricity. I collaborated with the Special Education department to allow students to grow salad greens and other vegetables and then harvest the produce. The students prepared the produce for salads that they sold in the lunch area. They learned how to utilize money and give back change. It was a full circle experience for them and empowering!” This administrative role was his last career before retirement and people continually asked him what he would do afterwards. His eyes crinkle behind his eyeglasses, in a smile of mirth. “Oh, if you ever want to make something happen, tell a bunch of people. That is what I did! I said I was going to do two things, ‘Build houses for Habitat for Humanity, and build community gardens around the city.’”

Staying true to his word, Stebbins began working with Habitat for Humanity, at the Restore, shortly after retirement. This is where he sustained an injury, which sidelined him. “During that period of time, I began to think, ‘Well, maybe it is time for me to start on the second thing I said I would do.’” Larry was not sure of how to really start community gardens, but he began poking around trying to make connections.  He was able to begin working at Venetucci Farms (this was prior to its current use as a flower farm, and when it was formerly a pumpkin farm). During his time there, he educated individuals and several groups of school children on the basics of gardening, but it was not the right fit for Larry’s vision. Fate ultimately intervened. A Colorado College student was doing research on community gardens, and he reached out to Stebbins for further information. “It was kind of crazy, he knew more about community gardens than I did.  That was when I decided to get serious about this community garden thing. With the student’s initial connections, I was able to link up with a lot of people who were doing community gardens in the Denver Metro area. I learned a lot from them.” From there, Larry created Pikes Peak Urban Gardens (abbreviated as PPUG) in 2008.  

The mission of Pikes Peak Urban Gardens focused on building gardens in low income neighborhoods and teaching gardening classes to all.  Stebbins has many fond memories from his PPUG days. One of his favorites includes the building of the Relevant Word Church community garden. Larry’s entire face brightens and he laughs, “They showed up!  Everyone, even those who were not particularly interested in gardening were there and one in a wheelchair. The community was invested in the garden.” Stebbins pauses, speaking with veneration, “The folks brought food and lots of it. We completed building the gardens, in about three hours and afterwards, we all enjoyed a community cooked meal. The food was spectacular.” Over the years, Larry led the creation of over a dozen community gardens across the city.  Stebbins built these gardens to have the infrastructure to last. Many of these gardens are still in great shape and a few are still run by the community. Unfortunately, today, Pikes Peak Urban Gardens is not active. Larry retired again, and passed PPUG down to a new board and management.  Haltingly, Stebbins discloses, “It breaks my heart that the new management could not make a go of it. This was my passion, and the organization was serving so many different communities across the Springs. I am grateful some groups were able to bond together to continue to keep their community garden going. When you are at the top of the hill, it is not the time to coast to the bottom. You need to begin pedaling so you can crest the next hill ahead.” He is adamant that Colorado Springs still has a need for community gardens. Since being retired twice, Stebbins hopes some new blood will enter and continue this endeavor. He says that as long as he is able, he will offer his advice and guidance, free of charge, to anyone wishing to fill the void. 

“I have learned that anyone can benefit the community if they want to.” Stebbins is firm in his conviction that you do not need money to create change. His recent 100 Garden Challenge in 2019 is proof of this. This was another situation where Larry had to follow through with what he said to others. “It was at a gathering of minds about how to encourage further gardening. I showed up. Everyone was kind of pointing fingers at each other. ‘The City should do this. So and so should do this.’ Finally, I spoke up. I said, ‘I bet I can get 100 new gardens in the city by the end of the year.’ I asked for collaboration with the local garden centers, where if an individual participated, they could use coupons provided by the garden centers. I also got donation prizes for the top three new gardens. There were 40 new gardeners as a result! I did not use any of my own money, no grants, no funds from the government.” Larry continues to come up with creative ways for the Colorado Springs community to become a gardening society. In 2021, he collaborated with the Colorado State El Paso County Extension office for the Backyard Garden Project. This plan specifically allowed new gardeners that were identified as food insecure by local agencies, to grow their own food.  These new gardeners grew tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, broccoli and carrots in 30 gallon garden felt pots. This setup was especially helpful for those without a yard or who were living in an apartment space. He encourages, “Anyone can do this. If you garden, just lean over your fence and encourage your neighbor.” 

Stebbins is an avid educator even after years removed from the classroom. He regularly has classes open to the community concerning all aspects of organic gardening. Throughout the years he has taught over 9,000 eager gardeners. These classes have been located at Horace Mann Middle School, various garden centers or landscaping businesses.  Larry is nondenominational about gardening practices. “There is more than one way of making spaghetti sauce and many are delicious. The same thing with gardening. If a technique works for you, run with it. If you want to try a new idea, experiment with it! I just share what has worked for me.”

If Larry is anything, he is ever humble. Stebbins was candid enough to share a “fail” that he experienced in the garden to share that he continues to learn and experiment!  Larry had seen a French garden technique where you dig in “hot” or fresh horse manure into berms surrounding raised beds.  This generates heat and will warm up your garden beds, allowing you to begin your season earlier in the spring.  Larry’s experiment worked very well to start off with. All of his vegetable starts were able to go out earlier than usual, and grew very big. “But a severe winter storm came in and the tender young plants all perished. I do not push the season as much as I used to anymore. I no longer advocate any specific dates for early spring planting. I recommend looking at your phone. Every weather app has a 10-12 day forecast that you can plan by.” It is refreshing to hear of a giant in the gardening world being willing to admit to learning through mistakes and share his wisdom from them.

Stebbins’ work and passion for garden accessibility reminds me of Margret Mead’s famous quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Perhaps we too, can find the courage to do what Larry has done. “As an adult I learned it is OK to say no, but if I say yes then I am committed to doing my best to get it done.”  Maybe it really is that simple. 


You can learn more about how to vegetable garden with Stebbins’ guidance through the following resources:


Includes a frequent blog- https://thegardenfather.com/ 


This is where he drops future class dates. Sign up on his website.


Find all of the below books for sale on the website listed above. They are also available for free through the Pikes Peak Library system, or in a digital format through Kindle or Amazon for a nominal fee. 

The Backyard Vegetable Gardening Guide

This monthly primer is over 200 pages, and 600 photos that lead the gardener through an entire year of gardening…month by month.  The beginner or experienced gardener will find tips and suggestions on soil preparation, planting guides, and the what, hows and when to plant. This is a must have book if you have been challenged with growing in the Pikes Peak region and beyond. 

No Strain Gardening

The eight important principles for a successful vegetable garden are covered in detail. This discusses the science behind gardening, including soil amending, compost building, hardiness zones, and so much more.  Over 100 pages, with many diagrams and photos. 

The Garden Father’s Year in the Garden

This 230 page book reads like a garden journal.  The gardener is taken through a full year of experiences in the garden. Learn about the many tips and suggestions from a life-long gardener. Interspersed throughout are “Did You Know” sections with interesting vegetable facts and history.  

An Interview With Melody Daugherty

In mid-November, I met Melody Daugherty at a local gathering spot in Manitou Springs for a hot beverage.  Dressed similarly to our regulars who have landscaped or gardened in the region for several decades, you can tell she is a woman who is connected to the earth. Melody wears little jewelry or makeup, but rather has a sunkissed glow. Her bright blue eyes light up as she recounts her story of becoming passionate about preserving pollinators and their habitats.  Melody Daugherty grew up in rural Wisconsin where she had a strong tie to the outdoors and the living beings around her.  “I used to sit in a field where I grew up, and there were so many invertebrates around. It was loud, like a drumbeat,” she recalls. “The world is very different from when I grew up. The community really showed up for each other and I was surrounded by people that just loved the earth. Capitalism was not the orientation. This care for others was a heart issue and there was inherent value for every living thing that was not turned into maltreatment of animals or plants.” This drumbeat that she experienced as a young girl has become a calling for her now.    

Melody has had her own landscaping business for over a dozen years. She credits the native seeds and plants surge to her awareness surrounding the plight of the pollinators.  Another pivotal circumstance that jump-started her innate desire to become an advocate for the pollinators is the massive invertebrate pollinator die off in 2018-2019.  Approximately 75%-95% (depending on sources) of pollinators in the region died. This was shocking to Melody but also to many of the beekeepers in the Manitou Springs area. Beekeeping has been a tradition for many families in the region for generations. When this die-off occurred, a group of concerned beekeepers gathered in Manitou. Melody and other members of the Manitou Springs Pollinator Project attended their meeting. The Manitou Springs Pollinator Project was created by Beth Chorpenning.  It was a club of local residents committed to grass roots activism to do something on behalf of pollinators before it became the Manitou Pollinators, a 501c3 non-profit. The grief experienced in the beekeeping meeting sparked her further commitment to the cause of Manitou Pollinators. She knew that she had to do more.

Shortly after the meeting of the beekeepers, Daugherty read a news article about the Butterfly Pavilion, and how they were looking for municipalities that were interested in becoming Pollinator Districts. Without even calling or emailing to make an appointment, she hopped in her car and drove there. After arriving at the Pavilion in Westminster, CO, she asked to talk to the director and “bing, bang, boom, we were brought into the certification process!” This certification process is tailor-made to fit any community that applies, no matter the size. After speaking to the Butterfly Pavilion and seeing the rigorous universal metrics used to assess a community throughout the certification journey, she knew she could trust their process. After this, the real work began. Melody met with innumerable business owners, residents, non-profits, the City of Manitou Springs, faith communities and more. Buy-in from all of these various parties took five years, but in 2023, Manitou gained the distinction and honor of becoming the world’s first recognized Pollinator District! She continues to meet with new stakeholders since she realizes it takes communities absolutely committed to pollinators and their habitat to make a difference.

When chatting with Melody, I notice she uses the language of accountability, justice, duties and responsibility often. I asked her if this is an intentional use. “Oh absolutely! I view my work with the Manitou Pollinators as part of two of my obligations. One is to my Indigenous Elders, and the other is to the pollinators themselves.” Melody is a Traditional Indigenous Elder with duties and responsibilities to the Cherokee and Anishinaabe of Canada. Her Elders guide, instruct and offer the wisdom to support her environmental and conservation work with the land, the Manitou Pollinators and Manitou Springs Municipal Certified Pollinator District. Several of the things that she continually works on include, the ethics of how the organization operates, the breadth of community involvement, future generations as a forefront, and how their efforts impact other species. This work is very spiritual—a ministry for her. Many non-Indigenous people may not grasp this level of meaning in her work, and this is one of the gaps she must broach in her conversations with others. As she transitions to talk about her second obligation to the pollinators, she lights up referring to them as her sisters and brothers or her relatives. “They are the reason I do this work.  The land and our relatives take care of us, without asking for a dime. One out of three bites of food is a result of pollination!”

Daugherty has learned a lot through her efforts in Manitou’s certification as a Pollinator District. “I have learned to take risks when feeling inadequate or scared. ‘Be scared and do it anyway’ mentality. I need time to step away from situations and chill out. This time allows me to figure out a way to do it anyway.” Throughout this journey, she recognized that it required a “different wisdom,” one that requires “being in a relationship” with her community, the pollinators, and the land. As mentioned previously, this project took immense collaboration and conversation with innumerable stakeholders throughout the Manitou Springs community. “Another lesson that I learned was how to figure out where to meet people where they are at. Not everyone comes to the table with a passion for pollinators.” Daugherty concedes, “Pollinators are political.” As an introvert, she has had to learn creative ways to connect with people and adjust through conflicts. Many of her strategies involved asking about others’ bonds with nature. “Some of people’s connections were that they gardened, others had children who loved the outdoors, hiking, camping. Even golfers have a connection with nature that I can tap into. It is always about the common ground before bringing them to how to protect the pollinators.”

When asked if she has any wisdom for budding activists, Melody laughed, “Get lots of sleep! There are going to be times when you feel like you are at a breaking point. Honor that feeling, lay down your work, and sleep. Then this is when you make a choice of how you show up next.” She also advocates that it is “especially important for women activists to have mentors.” Her mentors include her Indigenous Elders, and she finds great comfort and spiritual mentorship in Desmond Tutu.  His living example of not stopping in the face of Apartheid was his greatest teaching to her. After talking to Melody, one gets the sense that she is never alone or lonely—standing on the shoulders of so many others who have come before her. Her mother’s legacy especially, continues to be a significant influence. She vividly remembers an incident where her mother introduced environmental justice to her at a young age. “We were all in a car driving behind this guy in a truck. The man hit a dog with his truck. My mom followed and chased this man until he pulled over. She got out of the car and gave this man an earful. My mom was the first person to teach me to care about all the living beings and to hold the cruel accountable.” Daugherty also shared that her mom started the first in-home care program for elders in their rural community. ” I was taught early on that this check-in on our elders was out of love.”

After first recommending that readers check out the Manitou Pollinators webpage, as well as the Butterfly Pavilion resources, she asserts that every person has the capability of helping the pollinators. “My advice is to grow plants. Grow them in containers outside if you have an apartment, a condo, or just a small growing space. There are so many options! Grow food plants—the plants the pollinators gain nutrition from. Also, protect larger pollinator habitats. This includes trees where they mate, lay eggs, nest, and have shelter from weather, including hail (referring to birds). There are 964 different types of native bees. Pollinators also include moths, beetles, and flies. They need our help—planting plants is the best way. They need an oasis that they can hop, fly, or travel to. If your neighbor has a garden, that is not enough. They need corridors so they can travel from one safe habitat to another. Everyone is part of this solution!” Melody has a whimsical side as well. She played along when asked what type of pollinator she would be. Without hesitation, she replied, “For this season only—I would be a hummingbird. I like to travel long distances, especially to warm climates. They are beautiful, athletic, and almost gymnastic-like. They also sound so cool.” 

While many people felt doom after the incredible die-off of pollinators in 2018- 2019, Melody used her emotions to fuel a more beautiful reality. Daugherty believes that there is power in our smaller actions. “Change is possible. We do this every day! Micro decisions that impact the big picture; it is not just how we vote in elections. Of course, our daily decisions are not a replacement for voting.” When asked if she thought there was hope for our future, she replied, “Mother Nature never lies. Colonialism brought us to this current level of denial and lying about the current situation. Climate change is a breakdown of relationships. When like-minded people who care get together and do something about it, change is created. Sometimes things feel overwhelming. The problems of our world are so big, bigger sometimes than we thought. It can be scary to look at the bigger picture, but when we reach out to each other for help and create community, create relationships, more often than not, the community understands. They get behind us in our change-making. There is hope for us- yes. We all love.” 

While talking to Melody Daugherty, her calm resolve to impact her community shines through. Her unwavering commitment to the success of the Manitou Springs Municipal Certified Pollinator District inspires a shift in mindset for us all. What small things can we change for the better? Daugherty’s activism proves that love can change the world, even if only one Pollinator District at a time.


Manitou Pollinators webpage: https://manitoupollinators.org/

Butterfly Pavilion webpage: https://butterflies.org/

Pollinator District information: https://butterflies.org/pollinatordistricts/

Rick’s 2023 Winter Reading List

By Katherine Placzek

Winter is the perfect time to curl up with a book. Our staff has accumulated our favorite plant reads so you can get a stack of books from the library or your favorite local bookstore. All you need is a blanket and to start the tea kettle!

Plan a Colorful Garden for our Rugged Terrain:

Pretty Tough Plants:135 Resilient, Water-Smart Choices for a Beautiful Garden

by the Experts at Plant Select

Plant Select, the country’s leading brand of plants designed to thrive in high plains and intermountain regions, wrote the book on hardy high desert gardens- literally! This book will help you make a list of plants to seek out when it warms up. With amazing photos, each plant is described with specifics that are important for garden design, such as growing zones and light requirements. The selected plants include perennials and annuals, groundcovers, grasses, shrubs, and trees. Drool over each page, and complete your winter garden dreaming with this essential book!

Relish Edible Garden Designs:

Groundbreaking Food Gardens: 73 Plans That Will Change the Way You Grow Your Garden

by Niki Jabbour

Based on actual gardens designed by celebrated gardeners and renowned landscapers, each of these 73 gardens offers unique solutions for your own garden. The garden layouts are illustrated, and list the edible plants included. You will find a pepper garden with over 24 pepper varieties, a garden that is in harmony with a chicken coop as its central feature, a cocktail garden, a balcony garden, and so many more niche ideas. Regardless of your space or experience, you will find something that will be new and exciting to you! Explore new species of eggplants, climbing tomatoes, edible flowers, and a plethora of ways to showcase the bounty in your vegetable garden.

Live an Insect’s Perspective:

The Bees

by Laline Paull

Throughout this novel, you will fall in love with the main character, Flora-717, a female bee in a honeybee colony. While scientific in many ways, it is a suspenseful and fantastical story in its own right. Experience predatory insects, pesticides, birds, weather, seasonal changes, human interactions, and the hive mentality from the perspective of a worker bee. The Bees will change how you view the life of a honeybee!

Drool Over Houseplants:

Plantopedia: The Definitive Guide to Houseplants

by Lauren Camilleri & Sophia Kaplan

This is a wonderful introductory guide for the houseplant enthusiast! 130 plants including foliage plants, succulents, and cacti are profiled. While as educational as a textbook, this book also doubles as a coffee table book due to its incredible images! You will be able to keep your houseplants happy and vibrant after reading this informative book. Plantopedia is a great gift for any houseplant lover!

For the Fledgling Plantswoman:

The Earth in Her Hands: 75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants

by Jennifer Jewell

If you are inspired by seeing other individuals who are molding the future of the plant world, check out this beautiful book. 75 women are interviewed on their backstory of how they debuted in the plant world. Each individual is given a multi-page spread, and vivid pictures are included. You will meet nursery owners, photographers, vegetable farmers, flower farmers, activists, researchers, florists, plant breeders, seed collectors, and a myriad of other professionals.

A Mystery that Involves a Plant Poisoning:

A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons

by Kate Khavari

This lighthearted mystery introduces you to the world of Saffron Everleigh, who has just become a research assistant at the University College of London during the early 1920s. Plant lovers will enjoy the scenes located in various gardens, arboretums, and greenhouses. After a poisoning occurs, our fearless heroine is caught in the middle since her mentor is the main suspect. She undertakes the task of clearing her mentor’s name with her dashing sidekick, Alexander Ashton. This is the first book of a series, so feel free to get emotionally attached to the characters.

Calling All Beginning Vegetable Gardeners: 

The Kitchen Garden: A Month by Month Guide to Growing Your Own Fruits and Vegetables

by Alan Buckingham

This book is a great foundation for beginner and intermediate vegetable gardeners. The author provides you with detailed crop planners, indicating when to sow and how to care for more than 60 veggies, herbs, and fruits. Every month is broken into tasks. Discussion on growing zones occurs, so you can acclimate to the monthly tasks based on your region. Basic composting, Hugelkultur, and crop rotation processes are also covered. The author shares tips on maximizing your garden plot if sloped or uneven terrain is a concern, which is common in this area. Buckingham especially trains you in gardener’s foresight strategies. Get your feet wet and your hands dirty with this book!

A Gardener’s Contemplation:

Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education

by Michael Pollan

This was one of Michael Pollan’s first published books. If you know him as a food writer or culture shifter, reacquaint yourself with him as a gardener. His amusing stories have a retro feel due to their publishing year but are still relevant to how societal norms influence our lawns, yards, and gardens. He talks about the dichotomy between the wilderness and a garden. The book makes you consider the role that your yard plays in this conversation.

How to Start a Flower Farm:

Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden: Grow, Harvest and Arrange Stunning Seasonal Blooms

by Erin Benzakein with Julie Chai

In Erin Benzakein’s debut book, you will be absorbed by the gorgeous photographs of colorful flowers, and her thoughtful design. Benzakein’s generous spirit shines through, as she guides you from a beginner’s understanding into the intricacies of large-scale cut flower farming. While reading the book you will learn about helpful tools of the trade, planting/care staples, the harvesting processes, and the art of flower arrangements. Soon enough, you will be dreaming of dahlias, zinnias, poppies, daffodils, anemones, ranunculus, and more!

A Throwback:

Silent Spring

by Rachel Carson

Initially released in 1962, this book helped the public understand the impact of pesticides. Rachel Carson, an American biologist, writer, and conservationist, researched the impacts of post-World War II pesticides, including DDT on songbird populations. Through the publication of this book, her audience was able to push for a nationwide ban on DDT. If you are able to pick up a physical copy, the illustrations are exquisite! The images were drawn by Lois and Louis Darling. Naturalist Sir David Attenborough expressed Silent Spring as a book that has changed the scientific world- a classic read for any gardener! 

A Reason to Plant Natives:

Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard

by Douglas W. Tallamy

Written by Dr. Douglas Tallamy, a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, this book will convince you to plant native plants in your yard. Tallamy explains why various insect larvae are keystone species, especially for bird populations. The book details how the landscape is changed when invasive or non-native plants are incorporated, and how natural food sources for wildlife are erased. This can be changed easily by planting native plants that provide dense nutrition as well as protective habitat corridors within the urban setting. Native plant guides and resources are provided throughout the book. Overall, a convincing and empowering read.

Learn to Garden on a Shoestring:

The Dirt Cheap Green Thumb: 400 Thrifty Tips for Saving Money, Time, and Resources as You Garden

by Rhonda Massingham Hart

This little book is chock full of clever ways to garden! The author is frank on how to save money while building a beautiful and productive garden. Enjoy humor and advice on the best ways to stretch your dollar, from starting seeds to preserving produce. The author explores all gardening, including edible and ornamental. Even seasoned gardeners will find resourceful tips in this helpful guidebook.

Summer 2024 tomato Variety List

In our newsletter we mentioned Rick’s would soon release our 2024 tomato list and we are excited to reveal it to you now! Inspired by Good Earth, we want to grow strong, and flavorful tomatoes of numerous varieties for next summer. Tomato seeds and plugs will be organic, while any shipped in from growers will be grown sustainably. The list below is what we will feature this summer if all goes according to plan!

Come Meet Our Geckos!

Here at Rick’s Garden Center, we’d like to introduce you to our two new special guests living within the store: Mist and Jupiter! Mist and Jupiter are geckos, Mist being a female common Leopard gecko and Jupiter being a male crested gecko. They each live in separate terrariums, featuring plants similar to those found within their indigenous landscapes. They can be found in the houseplants section here at Rick’s Garden Center.
Jupiter’s home consists of a jungle within a vertical tank, as crested geckos dwell in trees and canopies of tropical environments. These lizards are native only to southern New Caledonia, making his appearance here at our store all the more special! Like most crested geckos, Jupiter enjoys hiding within the dense foliage of his terrarium and sleeping due to his species’ nocturnal tendencies. Crested geckos often will lose their tails in events they feel threatened and unlike many lizards, are unable to regrow them. Hence, we leave it to the professionals to handle Jupiter. You will often see him outside of his tank with his owner, Lie.
Mist is the other gecko and she lives in the desert terrarium. Her enclosure is rocky and warm, replicating the environments her species originate from in the Middle East. Mist however is less frequently within her home than Jupiter is and instead she often accompanies Rick’s workers on their daily routines. She helps out mostly upstairs by the registers or within the houseplant and succulent rooms, tagging along with Rick’s workers by clinging to their arms or shoulders.
Please come in anytime and say hello to Mist and Jupiter, they’d be excited to meet you. And if you’re not a reptile person that’s okay-our most frequent customer, the cat Lucius, comes by at least once a day to the store. Happy gardening!

Too Deep in Love: Two Common Killers of Freshly Planted Trees

Trees are the cornerstones of our landscapes. No other kind of plant impacts the local ecosystem as broadly and effectively as trees; they create shady, cool microclimates, provide erosion control with their expansive roots, and supply habitat and food for many creatures. Planting trees is not difficult, but with their slow growth and considerable price, it pays to get it right the first time. Here are two common problems we see with freshly planted trees at Rick’s Nursery.

The most common and fatal error in planting trees is burying the root ball too deep. It only takes a few inches of soil on top of the root ball to smother it. When you plant your tree, take it out of the pot, then lightly brush off the loose soil on top-assume that the tree was never planted at the correct depth in the pot by the nursery that grew it. Then, after you finish planting the tree, you should still be able to see the top of the potting soil. In areas of poor soil drainage, it may be appropriate to leave the “shoulders” of the root ball as much as 2 inches above grade. Top with mulch to prevent the surface roots from drying out, but be careful not to contact the trunk. It will look wildly incorrect when created for the first time, but it is essential to the plant’s health. When you plant too deep, you starve the roots of oxygen, and the tree is prone to dying within the first 2-7 years of planting. Once you start observing trees, you may even begin to notice mature ones that are planted too deeply; trees should never look like a telephone pole sticking out of the ground, there should always be a distinct root flare. If you have already planted your tree too deep, you can carefully excavate by hand around the root flare to expose it. You can even mitigate too-deep planting in mature trees, though care should be taken not to damage roots. Just carefully remove the soil until you find the root flare, then mulch.

Our soil in most parts of Colorado is notoriously poor. Whether you have sand, clay, or just decomposed granite on bedrock, amending your soil with organic matter can solve several soil problems. We often forget, however, that in life and gardening, moderation is key. When you amend the backfill of your planting hole, you should use a maximum ratio of 1 part compost to 4 parts native soil. When you amend by more than 20% organic matter, you risk “containerising the hole.” This happens when you over-prepare the backfill of your planting hole; the roots of your tree are content with the fluffy, rich soil, and never establish outside the new hole. This creates circling roots and other problems associated with container trees, thus “containerising the hole.” Trees whose soil is over-amended are more prone to overwatering because the soil holds on to excess moisture. Trees may also begin to sink and list to one side as the extra compost decomposes and shrinks in volume, especially when the compost is dug under the root ball. Thus, the bottom of your planting hole should always be firm, unamended soil. Fresh compost should never contact the roots directly and should be mixed thoroughly into the backfill soil. Depending on what kind of tree, and the soil condition, it might be wisest to skip amendment altogether, and just let the wood mulch on top do the soil work. Generally, though, just a dab of compost will do the trick. Ultimately, we gardeners see soil amendment as an act of caring; just make sure not to love your tree to death.

Nothing makes us happier at Rick’s Garden Center than seeing your nursery plants thrive. For more information on planting, see our Tree and Shrub Planting Guide, available on our website. Happy planting!