2021-11-Showy Milkweed-Barb Gorges

Many desirable Wyoming native perennials, like this showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), easily self-seed in gardens. Photo by Barb Gorges

This last summer I learned how three different gardens had three different personalities despite all featuring perennial flowers for pollinators.

Weeds

My home flower beds are reclaimed from the lawn and surrounded by it. So my weed, unwanted vegetation, is bluegrass, which spreads by rhizomes—horizontally spreading roots. I just dig around the edges, and maybe enlarge a bed while I’m at it and add some leaf mulch. These beds are stuffed with plants so there is very little bare ground and sunlight to encourage weed seed sprouting.

There were very few weeds in Garden #2. I checked it once a week, spending 20 or 30 minutes mostly looking for the few weeds and taking pictures of what was blooming. It has bare spots where I’ve tried again and again to get something to grow, but other spots are filling in nicely.

Garden #3 was a weedy mess this year. Every week there was a plethora of fresh weed seedlings. It was mostly kochia, traceable to weed skeletons blowing in over the winter and dropping their seeds. I realized as the summer progressed that pulling weeds disrupts the soil and exposes a new crop of seeds to sunlight. Many weed seeds need light to sprout.

If the ground is moist, the smallest weeds can be carefully pulled out without disturbing soil. But the annual weeds that get big quickly, like kochia, maybe should just be cut off at ground level. But probably not perennial weeds like bindweed and thistle that double when cut.

Whether something is a weed is dependent on the gardener’s definition. For instance, curlycup gumweed is one of the yellow, daisy-type flowers in late summer. It decorates the edges of our roads. It needs little water, attracts pollinators and it is a Wyoming native. But it self-seeds prolifically and may be better suited to a meadow-style perennial garden than a formal garden—even if the formal garden is also a water-smart garden for pollinators.

Seeds

Perennial gardens planted with natives and varieties that haven’t lost their reproductive powers can be self-perpetuating. As weedy as Garden #3 was, it also had a bumper crop of flower seedlings this year. I was happy to see them because every square inch of the garden that is covered in flowers is another square inch without weeds.

It can be tricky telling weed seedlings and flower seedlings apart. Sometimes you can tell by proximity—the seed didn’t fall far from the mother plant. But sometimes the seedling leaves are not very much like the adult leaves, so you have to wait a few weeks. Taking photos of seedlings at different stages helps, as does finding a copy of “Weeds of the West.”

Water

Up to a point, more water means a bigger plant. More water means plants can be grown closer together. Compare a plot in the thick vegetation along a creek with a plot out in the Red Desert. Each plant in the desert has to have a root system spread out around it to quickly grab rain and snowmelt.

I had no control of the irrigation at either Garden #2 or #3, except for dragging hoses to water transplants for a couple weeks. I can’t tell you the amount or the watering schedule since I visited each only once a week. Eventually, I realized part of the weed problem at Garden #3 was too much water—no wonder the kochia seemed to grow so fast!

Over at Garden #2 there are dry spots and wet spots. It has a sprinkler system rather than a drip or soaker hose system. Because many of the plants are taller than the often horizontal spray of a sprinkler head, they block the spray. Those plants get more water than the ones beyond them.

A system of soaker hoses under mulch would be better, except I’m not thrilled with the idea of plastic hose snaking all over the garden. However, with water shortages in Cheyenne’s future as more and more houses and businesses are built, we are going to have to think about gardens with flowers spaced further apart. Or rain gardens that collect runoff.

Mark’s and my yard is not exactly water-smart. We continue to use the old lawn sprinkler system, watering the lawn and the flower beds embedded in it. But it also waters our four large old trees. So far, they are healthy and we can afford to water them. Someday though, I’m sure I’ll be learning how to garden with more sunshine and less water.

This is a monthly article provided by the Cheyenne Astronomical Society (CAS). Marcy Curran has been the editor of the Cheyenne Astronomical Society’s newsletter since 1986 and taught astronomy at LCCC from 1992-2013. For further information about the CAS, visit our website at killerrabbit.co.

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