FCN Blog

Planning for Pleasure in the Garden

GardenPlanIn the past I’ve written about the importance of developing a detailed plan prior to the start of the gardening season – measure your beds, track sunlight, review your carefully compiled notes from the previous season, etc. Here’s the thing about all that: I was wrong. This detail-oriented approach is just one way to plan, but that doesn’t make it right. Don’t get me wrong, charts and diagrams are a great method, but only if that’s the way you want to do it. Gardening should make you happy.

When I was a student at Rivendell Elementary School, a great deal of emphasis was placed on “individualized” learning. This approach recognizes the importance of discovering each child’s learning style and adapts his or her educational program to fit. This allows each child to be successful in his or her own unique way. Similarly, a garden plan should be adapted to fit the gardener’s unique style, and success should be measured by each individual gardener.

Perhaps meticulous note-taking and a tape measurer are your weapons of choice in the garden. You look at the space available, consider past successes and failures, and break down the yard into sections to be analyzed and optimized like a high-performance vehicle. The idea of winging it makes you shake your head and feel sorry for those scatter-brained gardeners whose approach you might consider to be cavalier. If this you, embrace the comprehensive approach, and while you’re at it, develop contingency plans in case of bad weather or unforeseen pest problems. Your desire for order will thank you.

If, on the other hand, the suggestion of a meticulous and measured methodology sends you into a fit of anxiety, you might prefer a more “freehand” approach. Maybe there is a certain peony you’ve seen, and you want it in your yard. A more fastidious gardener might say “too bad there’s no space in my yard for that peony,” but not you. You will gladly accept the challenge, pruning a tree branch to allow more light, removing a tired daylily, and ultimately finding a way to squeeze that plant you’ve always wanted into your landscape.

Even still, this might be seem like a very organized approach compared to what you’re comfortable with. Your approach might be more…primal. You feel the need to plant something, but don’t have any strong idea what that something should be. You shop impulsively and ride the winds of fate like a leaf in the breeze. Sure, you might suffer some devastating failures, but you’ll also experience some dizzying successes that would leave more data-driven gardeners scratching their heads, wondering how on earth you managed to grow that plant in that spot.

For me, gardening is about enjoying and celebrating life. I fall somewhere in between the strict planner and the freehand gardener. I like knowing what to expect and I love optimizing my landscape, but I realize there are certain things I can’t live without and I will bend over backwards to find a way to make them thrive. This is the approach that brings me the most pleasure, but that that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect fit for anyone else. Some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever encountered are works of chance and folly (after all, nature is a tinkerer, not a designer). Therefore, I offer you a full and unconditional retraction of my suggestion that the best way to garden is with graph paper and a ruler. The best way to garden is the way that makes you happy, and you are the only person who knows what that looks like!

5 Tips for Successful Vegetable Gardens

VeggieBoxRGBSpring is here, and that means it’s time to shake off the winter cloak and get outside. Here’s a few tips to help you get your garden underway for a successful season filled with delicious homegrown food:

  1. Plan ahead
    As with many things in life, a good plan is the foundation for success. Measure your garden space, learn how much sunlight reaches your garden, and design your irrigation system. Research how many plants you’ll need of each variety to satisfy your family’s appetite. Figure out which plants can be sown directly into your garden from seed vs. started indoors or purchased as starts.
  1. Work in stages
    Reduce the stress of spring – don’t wait until the day you’re ready to plant to start preparing your garden. Pick a day to clear away any dead plants left over from last year, another day to prepare the soil, and another to make repairs to your irrigation system. By spreading out the work load, you can enjoy the pleasure of planting without the chaos of being unprepared.
  1. Plant diversity and crop rotation for garden health
    Crop diversity prevents pest problems by encouraging strong populations of beneficial predator insects. Add some flowers to your garden – not only will it make your garden more colorful, but it can improve vegetable production by attracting a broad range of pollinators. Choose varieties that make good cut flowers, such as zinnias, gladiolas, dahlias, larkspur, and sunflowers, and enjoy blooms in your garden and in your home all season long. Crop rotation reduces the potential for soil-borne diseases and viruses to get a foothold. Don’t grow the same plants in the same beds year after year and keep those pests guessing.
  1. Mulch
    Mulch is a huge benefit to a garden once plants have started to grow. It blocks sunlight from reaching the soil, which prevents weeds from germinating, reduces water loss due to evaporation, and prevents soil erosion in windy climates. Sterile straw makes a great veggie garden mulch because it decomposes easily in your compost at the end of the season.
  1. Don’t let failure lead to defeat
    This is probably the most important tip on this list. Some people are musicians, some are analysts, some are cooks. The same can be said of gardeners – some are great at growing flowers, some at growing tomatoes, some at growing apples. It is estimated that there are around 400,000 known plant species in the world. With that many choices, which is more likely – that you aren’t good at growing plants, or that you haven’t found the right plants yet? Instead of feeling let down when only two out of seven different veggies you plant succeed, focus on the two that performed well. Your local garden center can help you figure out why those two were successful, and what other options might also succeed under your care.

March of Progress

MarchTreesMarch in Colorado is a season of rapid and dramatic changes. We enter the month in a world that is, by all appearances, void of plant life, and we will bid her farewell surrounded by tulips, daffodils, and leaves popping from buds so fast it makes your head spin. While all this is going on, Fort Collins Nursery is experiencing a whirlwind of change, too.

March starts with the entire outside area of the nursery neatly tucked away for winter. Our bigger trees are stacked closely together, trunks wrapped in protective sleeves, and root balls buried in soil and woodchips to insulate them from the freezing winter air. Smaller trees, shrubs, and perennials are loaded into hoop houses where they are watered and covered with thick frost blankets to wait out the cold. Disassembled fountains wait patiently beneath tarps, pottery moves indoors, even our wagons are stacked neatly together to wait until they are needed.

As we progress through the month, spring creeps in. Days lengthen noticeably, the air gets a little warmer, and the wettest month of the year gets into full swing. Soon, we are digging out trees and setting them in rows. Tractors circulate with trailer after trailer of perennials and shrubs, carrying them to their temporary homes where they will wait to be discovered by a loving gardener. New loads of pottery arrive to join the holdouts and they all mix and mingle as they drift back outside. Likewise, fountains move back outdoors to meet their new arrivals, prepared for another season of splashing and gurgling their way from our yard to someone’s patio. Our wagons spread out across the property, but not before taking a quick stop at the service station where their handles are checked and wheels are repaired.

In so many ways, Fort Collins Nursery is its own little world. Tucked away along the banks of the Poudre, surrounded by the noise of the highway and the rough and rugged atmosphere of the surrounding industrial parks, we are blessed by the soothing elements of nature that make up our daily existence. Seemingly idyllic, but far from paradise, we bounce along through the seasons just like the trees that so resiliently go dormant and awaken each year without fail, keeping our world a little greener.

Greening up the Indoors

By Cathy Gladwin

Each year at this time, I redirect my horticultural interests indoors to my houseplants. They become the focus of my nurturing instinct until next spring. Right now they need to be dusted to improve their cell function, they need to have their dead and unhealthy leaves removed, and some plants need a different light situation to compensate for the shorter days and changing angle of the sun during the winter months. But my favorite part of this annual attention to my indoor greenery is adding a few new plants.

Perhaps this year I’ll add some refreshing fragrance to my home with a jasmine vine or a species of indoor citrus. Or I might soften my décor with a graceful fern. I have such a range of choices in the nursery’s greenhouse that it’s hard to decide, but I’ve managed to narrow it down to a few.


The sweetly aromatic flowers of indoor citrus (Citrus sp.) are definitely worth the effort. Perhaps I’ll try a grapefruit or a kumquat tree. The glossy green leaves will enhance my indoor forest, even when not in bloom. Either needs the sunniest exposure possible in a spot away from any drafts. Well-drained soil which is allowed to dry out between waterings is essential. Towards spring I’ll feed it with a high nitrogen houseplant fertilizer. In the summer it will enjoy a location outdoors with bright indirect sunlight.

A gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides) would provide very fragrant creamy white blooms set off by dark shiny leaves. This plant requires frequent watering to keep the soil evenly moist. If it dries out just once, the leaves and developing buds will drop. A humidity tray (a plastic saucer filled with gravel and shallow water not touching the pot bottom) helps prevent bud drop. Bright indirect light is best – an east window is ideal as long as the plant is checked for water daily. Cool night temperatures (60-65°F) and weekly feedings with a fertilizer for acid-loving plants will promote blossoming.

Jasmine, a relative of the gardenia, might also freshen my home with its fragrant delicate blossoms. The jasmine vines at the nursery include Star Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) and Pink Jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum). Both need support for the dark green vines that yield delicate sweet smelling white flowers. Both require bright light with some direct sun, similar to the gardenia. (Aha – these two would make great companion plants for my east kitchen window!) Also, like the gardenia, the jasmines need constantly moist soil, the benefit of a humidity tray, and weekly feedings with fertilizer for acid-loving plants.

Some new lush green foliage plants would make my house feel cozier. An old-time favorite, Boston Fern (Nephrolepsis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’) has always appealed to me. Its graceful arching habit makes it the perfect plant for hanging baskets or an elegant stand. Light from the north window in a cool room suits this plant (the perfect addition to my bedroom). It needs a well-drained fibrous soil, watering when the soil surface is dry to the touch, and extra humidity. Ferns are shy feeders, only needing monthly feedings at half the recommended rate of a balanced houseplant fertilizer. In the summer a protected shady location outdoors will spur lush new growth.

I’m looking forward to a few newcomers to enrich my home during the long winter months ahead. They will satisfy my need to putter with plants until the outdoor growing season arrives in spring.

This article was originally published in the Winter 1994 edition of Fort Collins Nursery’s Tree Talk newsletter and has been modified and updated.

From a Seed, a World of Good

By Jesse Eastman, Owner & General Manager

As a lifelong plant enthusiast, it’s easy for me to forget that for many people, gardening is not a lifetime dedication, it’s a hobby. Perhaps you make sure your landscape looks decent, maybe grow a few veggies (with varying degrees of success), and you do what you can to keep a handful of houseplants healthy. We’ve certainly got our fair share of die-hard plant fanatics in our midst (look for sunbaked skin, dirty fingernails, and a subtle but ever-present smile), but most people don’t consider themselves to be “gardeners.”  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve mentioned to someone that I own a garden center and heard “Oh gosh, you’d hate me then. I can barely keep a cactus alive.” In reality, though, by engaging in only the most basic of plant-related rituals, you are not only a gardener, but you’re doing immense work to keep our planet healthy, and that makes me smile.

image-for-newsletter-jan-2015Consider this: According to the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension Office, a single tree can sequester up to 1 ton of carbon dioxide over a 40 year lifetime. That means that even if you only planted a tree in your front yard to keep your homeowners association happy, you contributed to over 2,700 tons of carbon dioxide sequestration, just from trees sold at Fort Collins Nursery, and just during 2014. If you purchased a tree from us in the last 5 years, that number jumps to nearly 12,000 tons of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere by the year 2054.

Carbon dioxide sequestration is far from the only benefit you provide to the planet when you engage in gardening. Let’s assume, conservatively, that a single vegetable plant will produce one pound of produce. If you bought a vegetable start from us this last year (this doesn’t include anything you grew from seed), you contributed to over 33,000 pounds of locally grown produce that was not shipped from a farm to a grocery store to your home – it was just right there in your yard, waiting for you.

This brings me to seeds. We were thrilled to introduce two fantastic new seed companies to our lineup in 2014: Seed Saver’s Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. Both companies are dedicated to providing high quality heirloom seeds, and thanks to their hard work, many of you got to try some truly wonderful and unique plants that could otherwise have faded away into obscurity. Add this to the many great seed companies we already work with, and we find that during 2014, you collectively took home over 25,000 packets of seeds. With a conservative estimate of ten seeds per package, that means you brought life to a quarter of a million flowers and vegetables. In one year. Wow.

These are some awfully big numbers, and there is a really important message behind them: You don’t need to be a hardcore gardener to make a big impact. Playing with plants has a lot of benefits for you: beauty, exercise, home air purification, shade, food, etc. But if you’re convinced that your contribution to gardening is insignificant, think for a second about the part you play in the big picture. Remember the tree your HOA wanted you to plant? It will help us all breathe a little easier in 2015.


Are your evergreens looking yellow or brown? This might be why…

Extreme temperature changes over short periods of time during winter months can leave evergreen trees looking a little yellow and sad. There are a number of different reasons an evergreen tree might be turning yellow/brown and/or dropping needles this time of year. Sometimes it’s perfectly healthy, other times it’s not. How do you tell the difference, and what should you do? Here’s a few tips:

This pine is showing needle cast. Notice the brown needles are lower on the branch while the healthy green needles are closer to the tip.

This pine is showing needle cast. Notice the brown needles are lower on the branch while the healthy green needles are closer to the tip.

Needle Cast: If your conifer (pine, spruce, fir, or juniper) is dropping needles, it may be a perfectly normal and healthy occurrence. If the needles that are dropping are only on the interior part of the tree while the needles toward the ends of the branches are still flexible, green, and firmly attached, then your tree is going through a process called “needle cast.” This process is kind of like deciduous trees casting off their leaves every fall – the needles deepest inside the tree no longer receive much in the way of sunlight as they are shaded by the newer exterior needles, so the tree drops them. This is totally normal and you should not be alarmed.

Sun Scald: If the needles on one side of the tree are showing yellow or brown coloration, but the other side of the tree still looks healthy, it could be suffering from sun scald. The exceptionally dry winter air combined with low soil moisture and intense sun causes the needles to dry out. The damage is often only present on the most exposed parts of the tree where prevailing winds or southern sun can have the greatest impact. Often, only the tip of the needle will be discolored while the base of the needle remains green.

Some of this damage may be inevitable, depending on the location of the tree, but it can be mitigated by good winter watering (click here for more on winter watering). For particularly sensitive evergreens like boxwoods, arborvitae, and oriental spruce, to name a few, a permeable fabric like burlap can be used to wrap the plants, providing a little extra protection. Trees can also be treated with Wilt-Pruf, a product designed to give evergreen plants an added layer of protection on their needles and leaves. Generally, this type of damage is only short-term. Only in extreme cases do we start to worry about the overall health of the tree.

Freeze Damage: If your tree is dropping needles or yellowing/browning uniformly around the entire plant, there’s a chance the recent deep freeze caused such a shock to your tree that the needles were damaged.

Fort Collins Weather Nov. 2-15, 2014

Extended periods of warm weather followed by rapid temperature drops is the perfect formula for evergreen freeze damage.

Freeze damage on a Southwestern White Pine. Note the damage is present on the tips of branches while the interior needles remain green.

Freeze damage on a Southwestern White Pine. Note the damage is present on the tips of branches while the interior needles remain green.

When plants go through such a rapid change in temperature, they don’t have time to undergo the physiological changes that help them tolerate the cold. Cell walls can rupture when they freeze and the dry air can cause damage more easily than would otherwise be the case. In instances like this, the damage will be most prominent on the outer parts of the branches, causing the tips to discolor and lose needles while inner needles that weren’t as exposed during the freeze remain green.

Freeze damage on a Southwestern White Pine. Note the damage is not limited to just one side of the tree.

Freeze damage on a Southwestern White Pine. Note the damage is not limited to just one side of the tree.

In these cases, the only thing to do is wait and see. It is possible that in the spring, the buds that have already formed on the tips of those branches will still produce a new candle (the  growth from which new needles emerge). We encourage you to wait to prune until you are certain a branch has died, as cutting a branch that has a healthy bud on it will result in no growth next season. You can gently pinch the buds on damaged branches to find out if they’re still healthy – a firm bud is a healthy one, while a dried out dead bud will crumble between your finger tips. In this case, as with sun scald, the best treatment is a good deep watering 2 times a month through the winter when possible.

Come spring, even if no new growth emerges, if the remaining needles are still green, you’ve still got a healthy tree. Prune away the dead branches to expose the inner needles to light, give your tree a feeding with Jirdon Tree & Shrub fertilizer, and be sure to tell your tree how much it means to you and how happy you are that it’s still alive!

Out of sight, but hard at work

mini-poinsettiasby Jesse Eastman

As days grow short and Mother Nature slips into her frosty slumber, we get a lot of questions about just what it is that we, nursery employees, do during the winter. In spring we are caught up in the crush of customers seeking the perfect plant for their yard and the vegetable that will grace their table in summer. Through the summer it is all we can do to keep all our plants watered and looking good. Autumn is consumed with end-of-season sales and putting away plants for a long winter rest. But what happens when the plants are in bed and the snow comes?

Lots of desk work
Between analyzing this year’s sales numbers, budgeting, and placing orders for next year, we spend a lot of time sitting at our desks. For a group of hardcore plant nerds like ourselves, this is a challenge. Greenhouse manager/gift buyer Troy says “since I have to spend more time at my desk it means I spend a lot less time with the plants.” On top of that, we are generally a pretty active group of people, and the slowdown during winter can be a blessing and a curse. “It’s a time to let my mind and body heal so they are ready for spring” says Brendan, the production manager. On the other hand, as Ashley, the assistant production manager points out, she really misses the exercise she gets throughout the rest of the year.

Holiday sales
It’s no mystery we sell a variety of holiday merchandise, but do you know what it takes to pull off a good Christmas season at the Nursery? We have to reorganize our store and greenhouse, set up a work area where we can decorate wreaths, build and stock our Christmas tree lot, and decorate everything. Scott, who does buying for nursery stock and garden supplies, says his favorite part of winter at the Nursery is the transformation from nursery into holiday wonderland.

Decorating wreaths is a major process every year. Did you know we sold nearly 400 wreaths last year, each and every one decorated by hand? That takes a lot of skill, patience, and hot-glue burns.

We also sell lots of poinsettias during the holidays, and they are a time-consuming plant. They break easily and must be handled with great care. They balk at cold air (why are they such a popular plant in the dead of winter?), so we have to wrap each plant before it goes outdoors, even if only for a moment. Kristen, our garden shop manager, will tell you that the most time-consuming thing she has to do during the winter is carefully wrap tropical plants. “A lot of people will say ‘It’s OK, I am going straight home.’ These people are usually wearing a jacket and forget the plants are not!”

Business as usual
Perhaps the biggest misconception about how our nursery works is that we get to just kick our feet up and sit at our desks. In fact, we have to do all the things mentioned above while maintaining a warm and welcoming retail experience for our hardy customers who still visit us throughout winter.  According to Bobby, a sales associate, in spite of everything else going on this time of year, sales and customer service still takes up a lion’s share of his time. In spite of the obvious lack of plant activity outdoors, we still keep ourselves very busy through the winter with indoor plants, gifts, décor, books, and more. We are always receiving new plants and merchandise, and it is constant effort to keep our store looking fresh and exciting.

Winter often feels like the longest season, dragging on as we slowly freeze to death. Here at the nursery, though, winter is often too short. With all the activity going on behind the scenes, spring has a way of creeping up on us. Scott has some good advice for those of you who, like me, fear spring may never return. “Spring seems so far away one day, and then suddenly it’s right around the corner.” So enjoy the winter, do your planning, decorate for the holidays, and start fantasizing about spring. It’s what we do, and it keeps us happy!

From the kitchen to the garden

By Kathy Reid

istock compost 4webI learned the phrase from my mother: “Garbage is gold.” The garbage she refers to isn’t just any old thing that ends up in the trash can. Her “gold” is the scraps that accumulate in the kitchen from the not-so-perfect leaves of lettuce to the stringy orange carrot peels and the used coffee grounds.

Yes, my mother is a composter and has been since long before it became a fashionable thing to do. As far back as I can remember, there was always some sort of receptacle under the kitchen sink filled with her soupy, sour-smelling accumulation. How often did she tell me over the years, “No, no. Not down the disposal. That garbage is gold!” For my mother is also a vegetable gardener and she learned long ago the magical power of the rich, black compost that she created from things that so often end up down the disposal or in the trash can.

As I washed the dishes the other night in my own kitchen, I contemplated the half-gallon milk cartons that line the space along the back of the sink, stuffed with banana peels, potato skins and apple cores. Nothing is wasted, for I, too, have learned the secret potential of what another might see as mere trash.

I don’t know where my mother learned the skill of turning kitchen refuse into a wonderful soil amendment, but I would guess it was from her own mother. The skill, no doubt, is as ancient as cultivation itself. Whatever the source of the knowledge, I am happy to carry on the tradition.

My mother has taught me so many things, among them the precious nature of garbage. I will think of her next spring as I marvel at the tender seedlings pushing up through the dark, rich soil of my garden. Thanks, Mom!


Great Pumpkin Contest winners

And the winner is … Pete Mohr with a 794-pound gourd. Mohr surpassed all other entries in Fort Collins Nursery’s annual event, taking the top prize of $500. Other winners are Margie Davis with a 350-pounder; Julie Bonneville, 307 lbs; Don Shelly, 301 lbs; and Oliver McCalmount, 199 lbs. Thanks to all who participated – we hope to see everyone back next year for more fun and an even bigger contest.

Pete Mohr took top prize with his 794-pound gourd.

Pete Mohr took top prize with his 794-pound gourd.

No such thing as “gardening season”

HerbPatioPot1by Jesse Eastman

This time of year I often hear the phrase “gardening season is almost over.” I hear it from friends, family, customers, and employees. Daylight is beginning its retreat as we slowly march into autumn, nights are cooler, and even the leaves are beginning to change colors before they succumb to the irresistible force of gravity. It truly does feel like the end of something wonderful.

The problem with this phrase is that nothing is ending. Does your passion for homegrown vegetables also end in autumn? Do roots stop growing? Does all of nature come to a screeching halt just because it will soon be too cold for petunias to bask outdoors in the summer sun? There is no end to gardening season – in fact, I would argue there is no such thing as gardening season, simply four seasons in which we garden. We do not speak of parenting season, eating season, or music season. These are things that are perpetual, ongoing, and even when we aren’t actively “doing” them, they are never far from our mind. Likewise, gardening is not a discrete period of time – it is a journey. As the external display of foliage and flowers draws to a close, the internal effort kicks into high gear as plants prepare for spring.

Every plant that goes into the ground in September is a testament to the never ending cycle of gardening. When their roots are gently lowered into the ground, they begin their own journey outward and downward, seeking out the elements of life – water, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium – and they start the hard and strenuous work of storing these nutrients for spring. Without the sharp deep cold of winter, many bulbs would not know when to awaken in the spring. It is not an end, but rather the next step in a cycle.

Not all gardening disappears underground in the fall and winter. Perhaps it is just time to move indoors. Houseplants help us cope with the apparent desolation of winter, and many people like to grow herbs on their windowsill in the kitchen. While we sit inside dreaming of warmer days, we are engaging in the unintentional act of mentally preparing for spring. We think about our successes and failures from last year and imagine ways to improve in the year to come. Classes are a great way to keep participating in the joyful progression of gardening – Fort Collins Nursery offers a wide range of Winter Workshops in January and February for just this reason. Just as plants grow, so too grows the gardener, and that in itself is a form of gardening.

No matter where you choose to enter the flow of the eternal river of gardening, you are never too late because there is no season. All that is needed to stay afloat is the awareness of what stage of the cycle you are in, and you will easily find your way to a life full of plants, beauty, and contentment.