Wyoming growers may consider starting seeds indoors before planting outsideWritten by Natasha Wheeler
“This is the time of year we start flipping through seed catalogues or wandering around the hardware store, dreaming about the beautiful gardens we will have this year,” notes University of Wyoming Extension Educator Mae Smith.
Although some seeds can be planted directly into the soil outside, others perform better if they are started inside and moved out into the garden once they have begun to grow.
“Cool season plants like Swiss chard, peas, garden beans, broccoli or lettuce like to germinate when it’s cold, so those will be plants we sow directly into the soil,” she comments.
However, warm season plants such as squash, tomatoes and peppers are likely to do better if they are started indoors.
To determine a seed starting timeline, growers can go online to plantmaps.com to determine the average date of the last seasonal frost in their region.
“On our seed packets, there is usually a number of days for germination or how long it takes for the seedlings to emerge,” Smith adds, explaining that the last average frost date and germination period will help determine when seeds will be ready to move outdoors. “We can count back and see how far in advance we need to start our seeds.”
Bearing in mind how many seeds come in each package is another consideration, as a whole packet usually has enough seeds to produce a large number of plants.
“If we think we can sustain our family on four cucumber plants, we might think about planting four to six cucumber seeds, instead of the whole package,” Smith suggests.
Starting plants for other people, large family sizes or preserving vegetables may be factors that growers consider if they plan on starting larger numbers of seeds.
“Next, we want to decide what we’re going to be planting our seeds in. There are a whole variety of things we can do. For example, many garden stores have handy seed starting kits,” she says.
Seed starting kits include small packets of soil specifically designed for new seeds, making it easy to start different plants indoors.
“We want to start our seeds in a seed starting soil mix. This will be a little more expensive, but it’s crucial because it is sterile soil, and there won’t be diseases,” Smith adds.
She also recommends washing out old containers to prevent diseases that may hinder new plants as they grow. A mixture of one part bleach to nine parts water can be used to sterilize pots or containers that have been used before.
“The new plants are really susceptible to freezes, wind and drying out,” Smith continues, adding that keeping them covered will help protect them until they have grown stronger.
Once seeds are planted, they should be placed under lights that are placed closely over the soil. As the plants begin to emerge, the lights can be raised slowly to allow room for growth.
“If we put them on the windowsill, chances are our plants are going to get really tall, spindly and then eventually fall over, or they will really lean toward the light,” she explains.
Once plants have grown large enough, generally when they exhibit at least two true leaves, they can be gently transplanted into larger containers.
“We need to be very careful with the roots because they are tender and small at that point,” Smith warns.
Once the plants are large enough and the last hard frost of the season has likely passed, they can be moved outside.
“We want to go through a process called hardening off,” Smith notes. “The plants have lived in this beautiful microenvironment for maybe two months, and when we introduce them to the real Wyoming, the UV light can be too much for them.”
By placing the plants outside in a shady spot during the day, they can become accustomed to the outdoor weather gradually as they grow hardier.
“We want to pull the plants inside during the night and do that for a week or so until they get more time outside,” she continues.
Eventually the plants can be planted into the soil and monitored closely for the first few weeks to ensure they are not killed by frost or other extreme events.
“We want to be sure to protect them for a little while,” she says. “We can baby them for a little while until they are established.”
Smith spoke at WESTI Ag Days in Worland on Feb. 20.
Spring planting: Trends indicate relatively positive outlook for upcoming seasonWritten by Natasha Wheeler
The recent, strong El Niño phenomenon has plateaued and will likely diminish soon, according to Plantalytics Senior Business Meteorologist Jeffrey Doran.
Doran was one of several speakers during a March 30 Plantalytics webinar, presenting the likely outlook for weather and planting in the upcoming season.
“This El Niño has actually tied for the strongest ever with 1997-98, and in the short term, remnants of El Niño will be influential,” he noted.
Neutral weather patterns are likely to settle in quickly, although comparative years from the past indicate that it may be difficult to predict how quickly or severely the El Niño pattern will subside.
“In 1958, the transition never fully occurred. That’s more of a rarity. Other years represent what we typically know to be the case, and that is a very rapid transition. But that transition can be a lot different. In 2007, it was a lot slower. It wasn’t until August that we saw neutral patterns, and in 2010, it was a lot quicker, and we actually got to neutral by May,” he explained.
Looking at current moisture conditions, Doran commented that the Drought Monitor indicates continued dry conditions in California, despite increased precipitation this winter.
“Storm tracks across the Pacific Northwest have brought plenty of moisture to that area, and down south, a subtropical jetstream has brought plenty of moisture to Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Unfortunately, right in the middle is where we are not getting the precipitation we desperately need,” Doran explained.
In the Southeast and Delta regions of the United States, excessive moisture is becoming a concern due to saturated soils, but adequate precipitation levels are predicted throughout most of the nation for the first few weeks of April.
“May looks warmer for most growing areas on average. That’s good news to start to get the crop in and get some growing-degree days. In terms of precipitation, there are no anomalous trends,” Doran continued, indicating that the beginning of the planting season should be favorable for many farmers in the U.S.
The forecast for June continues to look favorable, with adequate moisture across the Corn Belt, although Texas and the Delta region may experience a dry spell with warmer temperatures that month.
Jude Kastens, research assistant professor at Kansas State University, noted that the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) indicates that the western Corn Belt has not yet begun to show significant crop growth, and strong snowpack is evident in the Rocky Mountains.
“Plants photosynthesize heavily in the red portion of the visible light spectrum, and healthy vegetation tends to reflect light very heavily in the near infrared. The NDVI utilizes those two aspects of reflectance from healthy vegetation as opposed to not healthy vegetation and creates an index that increases with vegetation vigor,” he described.
In the heart of the wheat belt, from central Kansas to Oklahoma and north-central Texas, NDVI data indicates fall-planted wheat is beginning to emerge, showing advanced crop development due to high moisture levels.
“The Northwest crop emergence appears to be about normal pace for that area,” he added.
Market crop basis levels for this season have flat-lined, according to Kevin McNew, ag economist with GrainHedge, who also spoke during the webinar.
“Traditionally, basis moves from lowest at harvest to highest as we go through the season into the late spring and early summer. This year, U.S. average basis has been flat. I attribute that to farmers holding tight to stock,” he remarked.
Collectively, the three major crops – corn, soybeans and wheat – have the largest stocks in the U.S. compared to the last 10 years, and McNew stated, there are currently no real grain shortages.
“Our expectations for corn planting this season are 7.8 billion bushels, which is only slightly up from last year but still an exceptionally high number,” he said.
Wheat is expected to drop 3 million acres from last year, after a natural drop in winter wheat plantings seen in the USDA’s January crop report.
“Corn is going to be the wildcard. Corn is the one thing that we have a hard time gauging,” McNew added.
Corn export and industrial inventories are closely monitored, but there is not currently an accurate measure for corn used in livestock feed, according to McNew.
“The corn number has the potential to be somewhat shocking one way or the other,” he mentioned. “Right now, the average analyst expects a 2 million acre increase in corn. Most people I talk to are saying that’s probably a given, and we could even have that number higher, based on the crop that gives farmers upside yield potential.”
As the season progresses, meteorologists and market analysts will continue to monitor trends, and the webinar speakers emphasized their continued efforts to keep clients informed as forecasts evolve into 2016.
Look for more on the corn and wheat outlook on page 23 of this week’s Roundup.
Using native plants in the garden decreases inputs and maintenanceWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Worland – “Why grow native plants?” asked Jenny Thompson, small acreage coordinator with University of Wyoming Extension, during WESTI Ag Days in Worland on Feb. 20.
“It’s easier to maintain a garden with plants that are already adapted to our climate rather than trying to fix everything so that it works for us,” she continued.
Native plants usually require fewer inputs, support local pollinators and can be blended into the landscape for a natural beauty in the garden.
“In our area, some of the conditions our plants need to be adapted to include cold temperatures, soils without a lot of organic matter that tend to be alkaline, dry air and the wind, which dries plants out. A lot of our native plants also tend to have a silvery color or mechanisms to bounce off light,” she continued, explaining that ultraviolet rays from the sun can be hard on plants at high altitudes.
Compared to other places in the United States, plants native to Wyoming are typically more short-lived with the ability to reseed themselves.
“As a result, things change, and plants don’t stay where we put them. The landscape is pretty dynamic. That’s something to keep in mind so our expectations are in the right spot,” Thompson said.
Wyoming plants also often have taproots, which can be harder to transplant than those with fibrous root systems. They are also often more resistant to drought, storing water and nutrients within the taproot to survive hard seasons.
“Some of our plants don’t play well with others. Even though they are great in many ways, some of them are fairly aggressive. We don’t want them in our garden landscapes because when they are taken out of a tough environment and put in a garden with extra water, they can really go nuts,” Thompson warned.
Many Wyoming plants are also sensitive to overly enriched soils because they are not adapted to dense organic matter.
“When we are reading gardening books from England, they talk about amending the soil and adding organic matter, but our native plants aren’t used to all of that nitrogen,” she commented.
Because they are adapted to our arid environment, native plants may also require very little watering, although Thompson recommends some extra care when plants are first put in the ground.
“Most plants need some extra care, at least for the first year, to make it through,” she mentioned.
Thompson also recommended a number of steps when creating a garden landscape, stressing that individual taste is the ultimate driving factor of design.
“The principles of garden design are the same, whether we are working with plants from the East or the West. We should group plants together that need similar amounts of water. We want to make sure plants are hardy enough for our site, and we want to choose plants that are happy with the conditions we have,” she suggested.
Thompson uses a variety of plants in her garden to maintain year-round interest.
“Our seasons are so short, and I want to enjoy the whole thing before winter comes,” she explained.
She also noted, “We want to consider how much maintenance we want to do because that will influence what kind of garden we want to have.”
Sharing some basic design principles, Thompson explained that growers might want to consider different plant heights and seeding patterns.
“If we see our garden from the front, we can put the short plants in the front and the tall plants in the back, so we can see everything,” she commented. “If we’re interested in having patterns with a natural look, we should clump plants instead of planting them in rows, which will help the ornamentals look more natural.”
Creating uneven borders and transition zones between different plants will also add to a more natural looking garden.
“The first thing I do for a landscape project is look at what’s out there. What buildings are there? What soils do I have? I want to measure the site and be sure to get the utilities marked,” Thompson said.
Considering the purpose of the garden can also influence the design and help homeowners implement elements that fit the desired outcome.
“We may want a place to sit and barbecue with the family, a place for the kids to play or a vegetable garden. We might also want paths or a way to get through the landscape we are creating,” Thompson added.
Thompson uses rough sketches to design her landscapes before she purchases materials to have a visual plan for her layout.
“I look at how big plants get and how hardy they are. Then in the spring, I go out, mark off the entire area and kill any existing weed plants,” she explained.
The next step is to work the soil and add any necessary amendments.
“We want to install all of the hardscaping, edges and permanent stuff first,” she suggested.
Then, the interior of the design can be filled in with desired plants, such as Pasque flowers, columbines, purple prairie clover or narrow-leaf coneflowers.
“Pasque flowers are the first thing to come up in the spring,” noted Thompson. “Columbines reseed and cross with each other.”
Purple prairie flower attracts pollinators, and narrow-leaf coneflowers are drought resistant.
Growers who want to create natural gardens in Wyoming may also discover other native species in the University of Wyoming document B-1255, Plants with Altitude – Regionally Native Plants for Wyoming Gardens.
High tunnels provide an option for growers where temperatures limit cropsWritten by Natasha Wheeler
“The key thing about a high tunnel is that it is not a greenhouse,” states Dan Drost, Extension specialist at Utah State University (USU). “There are different zoning regulations for greenhouses relative to removable, temporary structures like a tunnel.”
In terms of zoning, tunnels are also structures without power sources such as cooling fans or heaters.
“We heat the thing with sun coming through it and cool it by opening doors and ventilating the sides. If we put fans in it, it becomes a greenhouse again,” explains Drost, noting that greenhouses can be subject to different rules and taxes.
A high tunnel is also different than a low tunnel, which only covers a single plant or series of plants. However, low tunnels can be used inside high tunnels for increased temperature control.
“We can grow a wide variety of crops inside a high tunnel, and we want to build or purchase one that allows us to use our existing equipment,” recommends Drost.
The tunnels in Logan, Utah at USU, for example, are built to accommodate a small tractor that can be driven through from end to end to manage the soil inside.
“How does the tunnel work?” he asks. “Sunlight brings in shortwave radiation to warm up the soil. Once we have plants in there, they warm up, as well as absorb some of that shortwave radiation.”
At night, as the shortwave radiation is converted to long-wave radiation, it rises in the tunnel, keeping the air warm inside.
“Some of it passes out, and that’s why it cools over time, but a lot of that heat gets reflected back into the structure,” he explains.
To grow crops in a high tunnel, it is important to know about the temperature environment that it is located in to be able to strategize which crops are grown and with what timelines.
“We want good thermometers and good records, and we can also use general climatic data,” Drost suggests.
Temperatures inside the tunnel can vary quite a bit from the outside temperatures based on sunlight, wind and other factors.
Temperatures around the edges of the tunnel can also differ from those further toward the middle, and buffer zones may be necessary for growing crops.
“Effectively, the heat of the tunnel melts some snow during the daytime, the snow tends to run down the sides of the tunnel, and it subs back into the structure as a cold, dense, wet environment. It takes a lot of sunlight to warm that soil back up enough to make these plants capable of growing,” he describes.
One way to combat this is to dig two fit ditches along the edges of the tunnel and fill them with plastic-wrapped foam board to create insulation. The USU tunnels use this technique along the long edges of their tunnels with non-growing buffer zones on the short ends where the doors are located, allowing people and equipment to move in and out.
“The main thing we are trying to do is manage temperatures, and there are a lot of ways for us to do that,” Drost continues.
The plastic sides of the structures can be tied up to let cool air in on a hot day, and some designs include vents that can be opened in the ceiling.
“Ultimately, we’re looking at growth and trying to prevent cold injury,” he says.
Understanding optimum temperature ranges for crops being grown within the tunnel is a key to this objective. Drost warns growers that plants with similar heat preferences should be grown together to increase success.
“In the summer, we pull all of the plastic off,” he adds. “In a very short time, we can go from indoor production to outdoor production.”
Using a simple meat thermometer, growers can use a probe to measure soil temperature to determine when covers should be removed for the season.
“We usually suggest measuring between noon and 2 p.m. because that’s when temperatures are going to be about mid-range,” he notes.
Across the United States, a wide variety of crops are grown in high tunnels, with over half of tunnel acres devoted to tomatoes.
“In Europe, they’re growing fruit trees. They are also starting to grow cherries and peaches under plastic in the Northwest, because one rain event can ruin a cherry crop,” Drost says.
Raspberries, blackberries and strawberries are often successful in tunnels, although they may limit other crop varieties that can be grown in the same structure.
“There is a little interest in squash. In the winter, cool weather crops like Chinese cabbage, lettuce, spinach, bok choy, kale and mustards are really good options because they can take the cold temperatures,” he comments.
Melons have also been grown in tunnels, although they present a challenge because bees in some areas do not prefer to be under plastic.
Basil, on the other hand, can compliment many other crops quite well, according to Drost.
Cool season crops such as lettuce, broccoli, carrots, beets, onions, rhubarb and asparagus have been successful for some producers, as well as warm season crops such as peppers, eggplants, summer squash, cucumbers beans and sweet potatoes.
“There are all kinds of designs and cost structures that go with tunnels,” he adds, adding that the Natural Resources Conservation Service and other programs often offer incentives for interested growers.
To learn more about using high tunnels and making decisions about what to grow inside, Drost directs growers to tunnels.usu.edu.
Koltiska’s pumpkin patch provides holiday fun, diversification in their cattle operationWritten by Rebecca Colnar Mott
The Koltiska Pumpkin Patch, now in its eighth year of being open to the public, began several years before when Gary Koltiska decided to plant pumpkins simply because he was fond of the orange orbs.
“My grandfather homesteaded the land in this area. We’ve always had a place in Clearmont to run cattle, but once we got irrigated farmland here, I plowed a field up and said I wanted to grow pumpkins. The first time we planted pumpkin seeds we did it by hand, one seed at a time, on 4.5 acres. It took us about two weeks,” says Koltiska.
They got smart fast, traveling to Colorado to buy a vegetable planter that could be pulled behind a tractor, thus eliminating the arduous task of hand planting.
The Koltiskas were told that pumpkins wouldn’t grow in Wyoming, so Gary was determined to give it his best shot. He was extremely pleased when the pumpkins began to grow on the vine.
For a few years, the Koltiskas didn’t think of selling the produce, but turned the cows loose on them.
“Cows really love pumpkins,” the Sheridan rancher says with a smile. “Then Vicki asked me what I was going to do with all these pumpkins, and we came up with the idea of selling them to local grocery stores.”
Finding a market
“Carl’s IGA said they’d take some, and we had a good run with them for several years,” says Koltiska. “SuperValue in Billings also began to sell our pumpkins. The first few years of selling them commercially was labor intensive as we had to hand pick then load 50,000 pounds of pumpkin by hand onto the semis. We produced enough pumpkins to fill two semis.”
They later began loading the pumpkins into large cardboard boxes on pallets, which could more easily be loaded and shipped.
All good things must come to an end, however, and when Carl’s closed its doors, the Koltiskas lost a customer.
“We talked to Wal-Mart, but they wanted a guaranteed 250 acres of pumpkins. We usually planted between four and eight acres, and they wanted all of the pumpkins to look the same,” he said.
That’s when Vicki decided that the community might benefit from a pick-your-own patch, and the rest is history. Koltiska disagrees with the “sameness” policy that grocery stores dictate – every pumpkin must look alike.
“People actually want pumpkins of all different shapes, sizes and colors,” he says.
Today, even though Koltiska says he doesn’t really keep count, he estimates more than 1,200 people, including school kids, come each year to find the perfect pumpkin.
For those interested in how pumpkin farming works, at the Koltiskas, the soil is cultivated and seeds are planted in mid-May. Once the irrigation water is sent down from the Big Horn Mountains, the crop is irrigated. Since they don’t use herbicides on the pumpkins, the patch isn’t a tidy row of leaves, but a high mass of leaves.
“We do cultivate a couple of times during the growing season before the vines get too big,” says Koltiska. He explains that pumpkins need to be in a four-year rotation. “We’ll plant pumpkins one year, the next year that ground will be summer fallow, then we’ll plant a wheat crop, then the following year will be summer fallow and finally pumpkins again.”
Because of the rotation system, he adds that it’s a good thing their farm has plenty of land to move the patch around.
This year’s crop
This year, Koltiska said the drought has made a different in the crop.
“We’ve seen a lot of male flowers, but not so many female ones, so that’s made a difference in the yield,” he says.
The pumpkins are ready for harvest between late September and early October. This year, the season is running from Sept. 17 to Oct. 7.
“Once it freezes, you lose your crop,” he says. “It really is a very short time frame when you can pick good pumpkins.”
Once the visitors have selected their pumpkins and ride back in the wagon, they pay for their pumpkins. Pumpkins are priced at six dollars for the largest pumpkin, and based on a graduated scale. After they make their purchases, visitors are invited to come into the large metal shop and enjoy juice, lemonade or water and some tasty cookies. Long tables are creatively decorated with Halloween figures. At one table, people can guess how much a display of several pumpkins weighs.
“We have a lot of school groups come out to pick pumpkins and learn about agriculture,” explains Koltiska.
Each year, they pick a school to come out and pick pumpkins free of charge. This year, Tongue River Schools were selected.
“It kind of helps when your grandparents own the patch,” says Koltiska, referring to granddaughter Sadie who lives in Dayton and lends a helping hand during the pumpkin harvest.
Koltiska says one of the pleasures of growing the pumpkins is the people they meet.
“There have been a few times when it’s been rainy and muddy, and people are still come out and have fun,” he comments. “It’s not just for kids. We have some ladies in their mid-fifties come out this year, and they had a great time. We also had some 80-year-olds from Alaska came out, and they just had a ball.”
Koltiska sees his pumpkin endeavor as a great stress reliever and says he enjoys being out in Mother Nature.
“After all these years of growing pumpkins, I still love walking through them,” Koltiska mentions. “Every pumpkin is different. I’m certainly going to keep on doing this.”