Nurturing Houseplants in Winter

Now that our doors and windows are closed for the winter, houseplants provide a welcome splash of life and color in our indoor landscape.

Fresh, vibrant, and green, those innocent looking houseplants contribute much more than just a touch of color though. They play a significant role in keeping stale, recirculated air clean. Plants create fresh oxygen, filter dangerous toxins out of the air, and add a bit of fresh air to any room they live in. For the most part, houseplants are pretty easy to care for, but the winter season can present some special challenges for them. Here are a few quick tips to make your indoor garden a successful one.

BUMP UP THE AVAILABLE LIGHT
Adequate light is one of the most important environmental factors in successfully growing plants indoors. Too little light may make your plant leggy with spindly new growth. Let your plants receive as much light as possible during the darker winter days. As the angle of the sun changes and the days get shorter, you may want to rearrange your plants to ensure they’re getting sufficient light in the winter months.

If you don’t have a sunny windowsill to house your indoor garden, grow lights can be especially useful. The proper lighting can supplement sunlight, or replace it entirely in the winter! Echter’s carries everything from full-spectrum bulbs to fluorescent grow tubes that fit in standard fixtures. Add some digital timers, and getting enough hours of light for your houseplants becomes effortless!

CHOOSE PLANT LOCATIONS CAREFULLY
Place your plants well away from winter’s chill. Don’t put them near entry doors where they will be exposed to cold drafts. Make sure the leaves of your plants living in window areas don’t actually touch the window. Minimize exposing plants to temperature extremes by placing them well away from your heating system’s air vents and also away from your fireplace.

DECREASE WATER & FOOD
Remember that indoor plants need less water & fertilizer during the short days of winter. Shorter days mean less growth, so you’ll want to water only when your plants require it.

Overwatering is the number one killer of houseplants! Frequent watering forces air from the soil and opens the door for root-killing bacteria and fungus to move in. Surface soil can dry out more quickly during winter months, but that’s not a good indicator that the plant needs water. Push your finger into the soil to determine if it is dry an inch or two below the surface—that’s when it’s time to bring out the watering can. Avoid shocking your plants’ roots by using room-temperature water in the winter. Use fertilizer at half strength every other time you water until about mid-March.

INCREASE THE HUMIDITY
Houseplants will benefit from added humidity. Humidifiers are great, but you can also use a simple-to-make pebble tray. Take an oversized saucer, add pebbles, and fill halfway with water. Then place your plant on the pebbles. As the water evaporates, add more, but don’t let the plant sit in water. 

KEEP A SHARP EYE
OUT FOR PESTS
Dry air in our winter-warm homes can create a favorable environment for pests. Keep a close eye on your plants’ leaves for signs of problems. Periodically check your plants with a magnifying glass.

Thoroughly check the undersides of leaves, stems, and branch axils. Look for common plant pests such as spider mites, mealybugs, whiteflies, & fungus gnats. Spotting problems and responding to them early can keep populations from exploding.

Just as winter is a season of rest for the outdoor garden (and the gardener!), consider it an off season for your houseplants, and give them a season of rest too. Give them the essentials, but leave things like repotting and propagation until spring when your plants begin growing actively again. Next spring, after a long winter’s nap, your plants will be ready to get growing again!

Putting the Garden to Bed

In October, when the temperatures finally begin to cool, it’s a welcome sign that soon both gardens and gardeners will be able to settle in for a well-earned winter’s rest.

Those cozy evenings by the fireside will be here before we know it, but this month, there’s still plenty to be done to get the garden ready for its dormant period, and also to prepare for next year’s busy growing season!

BEGIN BY CLEANING UP THE BEDS
Start the winterizing process with a good cleanup! A proper cleanup this fall will improve overall plant health for the following year. Begin by removing any weeds. They’re sending their energy into their roots just like all the other plants at this time of year. You’ll want to get them out, so they don’t spread seed or dig deeper roots over the winter.

You’ll also want to clean up dropped fruit under fruit trees. Fruits and vegetables left out all winter will only rot, attract animals, and set seed. Remove all vegetable plants that are finished producing for the season. Dispose of plants which had insects or disease. You don’t want to put those in the compost pile. The same goes for weeds. Pull out all dead plant material. This helps keep your garden healthy through the winter and helps protect against pests.

CUTTING BACK & PRUNING
Many perennials and ornamental grasses add seasonal interest to the garden with attractive seed heads and plumes. Choose what you would like to remain intact and tidy up others by cutting tall stems back to the base foliage.

Cutting old and diseased foliage in the fall can help perennials jump right into new growth come spring. However, do not prune early-flowering shrubs such as lilac, forsythia, certain varieties of hydrangea, or rhododendron. These have already set next spring’s flower buds. Pruning now would remove next spring’s blooms! Spring bloomers like these can get a haircut right after they finish flowering next year.

AMEND THE SOIL — Autumn is a great time to amend your soil by working in organic matter. The addition of compost now will improve the soil next spring. Rototilling, or turning the soil over, will reduce insect and disease problems next year. Be sure to do this while the soil is dry.

ADD MULCH — Renewing all mulches in the autumn will yield several benefits. It helps maintain a consistent soil temperature, retains moisture, and prevents exposure of roots — which is a common cause of winter damage. Apply mulch around perennial plants — especially those that have been recently planted — as well as around trees and shrubs.

PREPARE FOR THOSE EARLY FROSTS — Keep an eye on those weather apps for nighttime temps dipping to or below freezing, and keep the frost blankets handy. A little protection for the first frost or two ensures your plants will continue to thrive in the warm autumn days that invariably follow a frost. If you run out of frost blankets, be sure to cover with a similar breathable material. Plastic is not recommended for frost protection because condensation beneath the plastic may lead to ice formation, which can damage the foliage.

TO HARVEST, OR NOT TO HARVEST — THAT IS THE QUESTION!

Though you may be able to extend the season by using floating row covers and frost blankets for the first autumn frost or two, generally it’s time to pull the warm-season veggie plants and put any harvests on the table for dinner. Here is a brief list of what to protect and when to call it a season:

Beans will not tolerate frost. Harvest and put them on the dinner menu.

Corn is frost sensitive and also should be harvested rather than covered.

Harvest all unprotected tomatoes and peppers. Unripened tomatoes can be placed in a paper bag or between sheets of newspaper to continue ripening indoors. Be sure to check on them often throughout their ripening process.

Cucumbers and summer squash should be harvested and thoroughly wiped dry before storing. Thin-skinned cucumbers do not store well and those should be eaten within a few days.

WHAT NOT TO
HARVEST … YET
Not all crops need to be hurriedly harvested before an autumn frost. Some cool-season vegetables are actually improved by the cold!

– Root crops like carrots and beets can remain in the ground until there’s a danger of the soil freezing. The soil acts as their protection from frost.
Celery and late cabbage can be harvested after you notice the frost has slowed their growth.
– Don’t harvest winter squash or pumpkins yet! Wait until their vines are frost-killed and their skins are hard to the thumbnail.
Kale and collards can be left in the garden until long after the first fall frost. Continue to harvest as needed until the foliage finally succumbs to the cold weather.
Potatoes should be harvested after the vines die down, so the potato skin has a chance to mature. This makes them less susceptible to bruises, cuts, and moisture loss during storage.
Lettuces and salad greens can be covered with frost cloth.
Onions should be harvested only after the frost has stopped their growth.

For a deeper dive into methods of storing vegetables for the winter, the Colorado State University Extension provides this handy fact sheet.

TO RAKE, OR NOT TO RAKE? Rake! Although some fallen leaves can be mulched back into the soil with your lawn mower, most turf grasses will not tolerate a thick mat of leaves over the winter. Soggy mats of leaves on turf can lead to disease problems. You can add dry leaves to the compost pile, or shred & dig directly into your vegetable beds to improve the soil over the winter.

Aerate your lawn to loosen compacted soil, and apply Green Thumb Winterizer in mid-October. Your lawn will be nice and green in the spring. For the final mowing of the season, leave your grass at a height of 2½”.

Bindweed, dandelion, and other perennial weeds will be moving food reserves down to their roots now. This is a great time to use Weed Free Zone to kill these invasive weeds, roots and all.

Before you drain your sprinkler system for the year, give your lawn a good watering. Continue to hand water as long as temperatures remain above freezing.

Put a trip to Echter’s on your autumn to-do list! We’ll help you tackle putting your garden to bed. Then you can feel free to settle back and enjoy the season knowing that your garden is well-prepared for a long winter’s nap!

Harvesting Summer’s Sweet Rewards!

Knowing when and how to harvest is an especially important part of growing your own food. Why? Because it affects the quality, flavor, and nutritional value of your homegrown produce! But how do you know when something is fully ripe, and what’s the best way to harvest? Scroll through, and check out our tips on how to harvest popular crops in Colorado.

Let’s start with the jewels of the garden — tomatoes! For the best taste and the highest nutritional value, you’ll want to leave your tomatoes on the vine until they’re fully colored, then gently twist and pull from the vine. The trick is in what “fully colored” looks like. Gone are the days when you could wait for a tomato to be a rich, vibrant red before confidently plucking it from the vine.

Nowadays tomato varieties comprise a rainbow of colors — yellows, oranges, greens, stripes, and even sprinkles! It’s particularly important to know what your ripe tomato should look like. If in doubt, a ripe tomato will give slightly to the touch. It it’s not ripe, it will still feel quite hard. Another tell-tale sign is how resistant the tomato is to being picked. If it hangs onto the vine for dear life when you try to pluck it, it’s not ready yet! If you’re growing heirloom varieties, you should pick them just shy of full color because they generally ripen before their color deepens.

When to Harvest Root Vegetables?

Beets … Most beet varieties are ready to pull about two months from planting. For baby beets, you’ll want to harvest earlier, when the roots are 1½” across. Letting beets stay in the ground too long will yield tough, woody roots!

Carrots … Carrots may be harvest young (at about ½” diameter) for baby roots, or allowed to grow to full size for storage. Not sure if they’re ready to harvest? Pull a few carrots for a quick taste test. If they’re crisp and sweet, they ready to eat. (TIP: loosen the surrounding soil before attempting to pull up a carrot. Carrots are notorious for breaking off when they’re pulled.)

Potatoes … After the potato plants have flowered, you may dig some of the potatoes to enjoy as “new” or “baby” potatoes. If you want to harvest full-sized potatoes, allow the tops to die back in the autumn, then dig up the tubers.

Check These Heavy Producers Daily!

Cucumbers … Harvest when they’re firm and smooth. Check on them often! If they’re left on the vine & become too large, they can become bitter and pithy. Use your garden shears or pruners to neatly clip these from the vine. This will prevent possible damage to the vine caused by twisting or pulling. Cut the stem approximately ¼” above the cucumber.

Green Beans … Pick them when the pod has filled out, but before you can see the seeds bulging. Simply grasp the bean pod firmly up near the top where it connects to the vine, then use your thumb to gently pinch it loose.

Zucchini … There are two things to remember about harvesting zucchini — pick young and pick often! These can quickly become too large. Zucchini is at its most tender and flavor when it’s about 5″-7″ long and you can easily poke your fingernail through the skin. Use a sharp knife (or your pruners) to cut from the vine. (TIP: you can also harvest those delicious yellow flowers! Enjoy them raw in salads.)

Harvest this summer favorite after the silks become brown and dry. The ear should be completely filled out, and the end should be rounded instead of pointed.

Peppers, Peppers, Peppers

Bell Peppers … These grow in a range of colors including green, red, dark purple, yellow, and orange. In general, they’re ready to harvest when they are the full color of the variety planted. You can harvest bell peppers when they’re green. If you allow them to stay on the vine to ripen further, green peppers may turn red, then orange, then yellow! Purple varieties will turn from green to a dark purple to nearly black. Bells can be eaten at any stage during this ripening process, however the longer you leave them on the plant, the sweeter they become and the higher the Vitamin C content will be. To harvest, use a sharp knife or scissors to cleanly cut peppers from the plant to ensure the least damage to both pepper and plant.

Chile Peppers … Both mild and hot peppers can be harvested when they reach full size and are fully colored. They can also be harvested as soon as they reach a usable size. Chiles can be eaten at just about any stage of development. Mild peppers commonly get sweeter as they mature, while hot peppers get hotter the longer they’re left on the plant. To harvest: cut peppers from the plant with pruners. Leave a short stub of stem attached to the fruit. Do NOT pull peppers from the plant by hand — this can result in broken branches.

With eggplant, slightly immature & smaller fruits are tastier and will contain less seeds. Eggplants should be firm and shiny when fully ripe. Cut with a knife or pruners rather than trying
to pull from the plant.

Winter squash … such as acorn, spaghetti, buttercup, butternut, and Hubbard are ready to harvest when you cannot puncture the skin with your thumbnail and the stems are dry and begin to shrivel. Use pruners to cut cleanly from the vine.

Harvest pumpkins when they’re fully colored and the skin is hard enough to resist a fingernail puncture. They should sound hollow when thumped. Use a sharp knife or pruners to cut the pumpkin from the vine. Leave about 2″ of stem, and handle carefully. Any nicks or bruises will accelerate decay.

After the Harvest
Look for signs of trouble, such as yellowing leaves, rotting fruit, or unwanted pests. Be sure to put any plants that have disease or insect infestations into the trash — not the compost pile!

Healthy plant foliage can go into the compost pile after removing any seed heads. Remove any weeds from the vegetable garden, then improve the soil with compost, or plant a cover crop in the bed to overwinter.

Remember to Share the Harvest
If you find yourself with an overabundance of anything (we’re lookin’ at you, zucchini!) always remember to share the harvest with friends, family, and neighbors. If their cupboards are full, donations of fresh, homegrown vegetables are welcomed at your local food bank! After all, the summer harvest should be a season of plenty for everyone.

5 Smart Ways to Deer-Proof Your Garden

Each summer we get questions from exasperated gardeners asking, “What can I plant that the deer won’t eat?” It’s a complicated subject, since what works for one gardener might not work for another. However, there are a few smart garden strategies that you can try that may make your garden less attractive to deer.

Your first line of defense is always to make smart plant choices. Be aware of plants deer favor, and make sure you’re not stocking your garden with a buffet of their favorites! Armed with a little information, you may be able to plant your solution to the deer problem and discourage them naturally.

Deer tend to like plants that are smooth, tender, and flavorful. Plants such as arborvitae, tulips, hosta, daylilies, and roses are favorites. What they do not like are plants that are highly aromatic, prickly, thorny, fuzzy, or plants that contain a milky sap like milkweed. They also naturally avoid plants that are toxic such as foxglove, daffodils and poppies.

So, what types of plants are deer resistant? Some good shrub choices are: Holly, Barberry, Spirea, Boxwood, and Lilac. For the herb and vegetable garden try: onions, garlic, sage, tarragon, lavender, mint, and rosemary. Deer-resistant flowering plants include: Peony, Marigolds, Forget-me-not, Bee Balm, and Iris. Ornamental grasses in general are not a favorite of deer, but within that category try planting Blue Fescue, Golden Hakone grass, or a Black Mondo grass

As for that elusive deer-proof plant — there is no single plant that is guaranteed to be completely “deer proof!” As Dr. James Klett, Professor of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture at Colorado State University states, “Deer — if they’re hungry enough — are going to eat anything. If there is a completely deer-resistant plant out there, I don’t know what it is.”

If you think in terms of which plants deer do and don’t prefer, you can begin to plan your garden with a bit more foresight and strategy. Since deer tend to be skittish about coming in close to a living area & would rather remain near the safety of the forest, try planting your deer-favorite plants (like tulips and roses) close to the house. Also, planting less-preferred plants in a protective ring around those that are more desirable can be an effective strategy.

Try planting confusing combinations of plants. “I was sure there were daylilies in there somewhere”, Bambi complains, “but all I could smell was garlic!

Another deer-repelling strategy you can try is to “foul the fringes” — that is, line the perimeter of your property with unpalatable plants. Strategically placed hedges or thorny shrubs can serve as a natural way to redirect the deer and discourage lingering to feed on more attractive plants nearer to your home. Clever!

Deer don’t go past anything they can’t see through or over. You can make that work in your favor. Use solid hedges of pungent junipers or form trellises with fragrant morning glories. If deer can’t see what’s inside, they’re less likely to take that leap of faith onto your property.

Try working with their favorite plants combined with their desire to stay near the safety of their forest home. Plant things they DO like well away from your garden. A feast of their favorite flowers (delphinium, phlox, hosta and pansy) may have them nibbling, then heading safely back into the forest. It can be your sacrificial garden. The idea is to leave them thinking, “Why brave the garden close to the house, when the good stuff is planted all the way out here?

Keep in mind that deer are like people, and what deters one won’t always deter another, but trying several of these strategies can help. With a little careful planning, and a few tricks here and there, it may be possible for your garden to coexist peacefully with these beautiful creatures!

Garden Smart with Xeric & Native Plants

Colorado gardeners are portrayed with a wide range of descriptive terms: enthusiastic, resilient, tenacious, optimistic and persistent come to mind. We learn by experience, and all of us — novice or veteran gardener, have enjoyed success and have also been disappointed with failure. What we all share is our sense of place and region, with all of its gardening advantages and challenges. Our sunny skies and dry climate provide the perfect palette for plants native to the region as well as those from other areas of the world that thrive in similar conditions.

What are Xeric plants? Xeric is a term that applies to plants that grow well with minimal irrigation once they are established. They are eagerly sought by the gardener who is looking for plants that demand less water and adapt to the soils of the region. The xeriscape gardening concept uses seven basic design and planting fundamentals.

Why Choose Native & Xeric Plants for Your Home Landscape?
There are plenty of good reasons to fill your garden with water-wise native plants. It makes sense to use plants that are naturally adapted to Colorado’s unique climate, soils, and environment. When they’re correctly sited, native species require less water & fertilizer, and they’re more pest & disease resistant.

By choosing native plants, you’ll be working with nature, instead of trying to work with plants that aren’t suited to our local conditions. Another great reason to choose native plants is to restore habitat and biodiversity in our rapidly-growing urban areas. Gardens with native plants provide food, shelter, and other important resources for our wildlife — including our native pollinators!

Where Can You Find Xerics & Natives?
It’s not hard to find xeric or native plants for your garden! Many plants that are native to our region are also xeric. These water-wise plants include favorites such as Blue Flax, Blanket Flower, Penstemon, Apache Plume, Kinnikinnick, Boulder Raspberry, Hackberry, Hawthorn and Serviceberry. The true natives — such as the Desert Four O’clock and Purple Poppy Mallow — also play very well with immigrants from abroad including Russian Sage, Ice Plant, Torch Lily and many more. These are just a few of the many interesting choices that will happily settle in and make themselves right at home in your garden.

At Echter’s, we carry a wide variety of drought-resistant and xeric plants that are especially suited for Colorado’s dry climate. Our knowledgeable staff will help you choose just the right plants for your landscape.

You’ll find that xeric and native plants are resilient, tenacious and persistent. They will inspire enthusiasm and optimism in your gardening adventures. So celebrate your sense of place, and welcome native and xeric plants to your garden where they will feel right at home!

Beat the Heat in the Summer Garden!

We’ve experienced some very warm weather this last week, and it looks like there is going to be more of it next week!  Some of your plants may be showing signs of heat stress. Leaves may wilt. Vegetables like lettuce and spinach may bolt (flower prematurely) or in the case of plants you want to blossom, like peppers or watermelon, they may drop blossoms, reducing yield. Here are a few tips to help your garden withstand the hottest part of the summer.

Watch Your Plants
Plants will often tell you when they are needing water. Lawns will turn a bluish green and show footprints that don’t rebound. Bean leaves will turn a darker green and begin to wilt. Most plants will perform better if you don’t allow them to wilt before watering, so check your garden every day and observe their needs.

Water When Necessary
It’s true that you need to water more often during hot weather, but first check the soil. The surface may look dry even though there is plenty of moisture in the root zone. Over-watering can be just as harmful as under-watering, so don’t over do it. Slow, deep watering will ensure that water soaks down to the roots. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation systems work well.  If using a hose that has been laying in the sun, be sure to let it run for a minute or two, until cool water comes out.

Mulch to Keep
Things Cool!
A couple of inches of organic mulch like compost, grass clippings, or bark mulch will help reduce moisture loss as well as cool the soil temperature. A side benefit is that it prevents most weeds from germinating, too!

Shade
Cover cool-weather veggies like lettuce and spinach with shade cloth. It won’t totally prevent bolting, but it might delay it a bit.  Also, raise your lawn mower blade up so that you have 3 inches of grass left standing after you mow.  This will provide shade for the roots of your lawn keeping them cool and much happier (which means a greener lawn).

Don’t Spray Chemicals
During Heat
Avoid spraying garden chemicals when temperatures are above 85 degrees. Weed killers can volatilize (evaporate and become air borne) and drift onto desirable plants. Insecticides can burn leaves of plants when temps are above 85. Spray early in the morning when temps are cooler and the air is still, or wait.

Summer is just getting started! With a little extra attention and a little extra know-how, your garden can come through this summer’s heat waves with flying colors, and keep right on blooming!