What Do You Know About Pumpkins?

Do you know that pumpkins come in lots of colors besides orange? It’s true!  There are are green, yellow, red, white, blue, striped, and even tan pumpkins.


Before a Jack O’Lantern pumpkin matures it starts off green and comes in all sizes from very small to gigantic (mostly grown for competition).  Casper and Baby Boo are common varieties of white pumpkins (still have orange flesh inside).

Blue pumpkins like the Australian Blue Pumpkin, also known as Jaradale, are rare and look somewhat like a turban with a very wrinkly skin.  The Rouge D’Etant is a red pumpkin and resembles Cinderella’s coach in red. It is reputed to be the pumpkin served at the first Thanksgiving dinner between the pilgrims and Native Americans.

If you eat canned pumpkin, you are most likely eating a tan pumpkin. These are grown specifically for the canning industry.

Major Types of Pumpkins

The two major types of pumpkins are pie pumpkins and carving pumpkins (Jack-o-Lanterns).

Pie Pumpkins

Some of the most popular pie pumpkins are Amish Pie, Baby Pam, Small Sugar Pumpkin or New England Pie Pumpkin. When baking pies or using pumpkin in muffins or other recipes, the pie pumpkin is preferable as its taste is smoother and sweeter than carving pumpkins and flesh is denser.  Look for a pumpkin that weighs about four to eight pounds. Lumina, a white pumpkin, has a ghostly white shell, but the flesh is still bright orange. Some other good eating varieties are


Pumpkins For Carving

There are hundreds of varieties of pumpkins and when selecting carving pumpkins, also known as Jack O’Lanterns, look for a variety that sits flat and is balanced. These pumpkins were designed for easier carving with a thinner shell and less stringy flesh inside. They also have more water content than pie pumpkins. Some Jack O’Lantern varieties are Big Rock, Charisma, Cotton Candy (white), Howden, Howden Biggie, and Rock Star.



Building Compost with Leaves

If you want to have the best, most nutritious compost for your garden, start by composting all the leaves that are falling now. Leaf compost is one of the most beneficial items you can put in your garden. Use oak leaves sparingly as they take longer to decompose.

Compost Pile/Bin

You can place leaves in bins, in a pile, or in a line at the back of the yard. The key to a successful compost pile is air and moisture. Start with a layer of small sticks and branches that fall from the trees. This allows air into the bottom of the pile.


It is essential to shred the leaves with a shredder, mower, or in a garbage can with a string trimmer. Smaller pieces decompose faster. Add a 6 to 8-inch layer of shredded leaves over the sticks. Next add a 1-inch layer of soil. You will need to add nitrogen, so the next layer could be grass clippings, well-aged manure or up to one cup of high nitrogen fertilizer like urea per pile.

Just Leaves

It is not necessary to add food scraps to a leaf compost pile, but adding coffee grounds, banana peels, and other vegetable scraps will add additional nitrogen. Just keep adding layers of leaves, and a small layer of soil until it is the height you want it. Don’t use more than a total of one cup of nitrogen fertilizer for the entire pile. Three feet is the ideal height. More than that will slow down the process.

Tossing the Pile

Tossing the pile periodically will put more air into the pile and mix up the already composted material at the bottom with the top layers. It’s important to keep the pile moist, so if you don’t have any snow or rain, you might want to give it some water. Too much water is as much a problem as too little. If you have a particularly wet spell, you might want to cover the pile with a tarp.

Other Options

You can also place shredded leaves in yard litter bags, water them well, close the bags and put holes in the bags to allow air and moisture in. Place the bags on their sides at the back of the yard and wait for the results in spring.

How to Build a Cold Frame

If you want to build a wooden cold frame, here is how to do it. Selecting a covering for your cold frame will determine the size. Windows are the best because they can hold up under the heavy snow load. Next might be a translucent plastic in a frame that you build.

For our purposes, we are going to use two windows that are each 27X24 inches. The cold frame is going to be 54X24 inches so the windows will cover the top of the frame. You will need 2 pieces of lumber 2X10X10 and 1 piece 1X2.

First Layer

The first layer of the cold frame should be buried in the ground 4-6 inches. Cut two 54- inch boards for the front and back of the first layer. Cut two 21-inch pieces for the end boards. Screw them together with 3 inch deck screws, three in each end. The 21 inch boards will go inside the front and back boards. Dig a trench the length and width of your cold frame and place the frame you just build into the ground and fill in around it. For a deeper cold frame, add a second box on top of the first one.

Next Layer

For the top layer, cut one 21-inch section and one 54” section. Lay the 21-inch section out on a flat surface and draw a line from one corner to the other on a diagonal. Cut on the line to create the slanted pieces for the sides. Attach the slanted pieces to the base with a screw in the top of the lowest portion of the slant. Line them up with the sides of the base box.

Next, attach the back 54-inch piece to the sides, placing screws from the back into the high side pieces. Screw a piece of 1X2 into the back corners inside to secure the two layers.

Adding the Top

Add hinges to your window frame(s) at the back and a handle on top. Place a good layer of compost or enriched potting soil into the frame and you’re ready to plant lettuce, kale, spinach, radishes, or any other vegetables that don’t mind colder temperatures.

Reseeding when your first crop is finished will give you fresh vegetables all winter long. Be sure to place the slant of your cold frame facing south to get the most sun.

For more on building cold frames, see http://gardenmentors.com/garden-help/gardening-guidelines/garden-construction-coach-on-how-to-build-a-cold-frame/

When Not to Clean Up the Garden

Okay, the last blog was about cleaning up your vegetable garden for winter, and that still stands. You don’t want any diseases to overwinter in your soil.

Today, however, I want to talk about why you should leave some flower stalks and other debris in your flower beds. Besides providing winter habitat for bees and pollinators, the dormant flower stalks provide winter interest in the landscape.


The most important reason to leave flowering plants and dormant stalks in your garden is that bees and other pollinators, need nectar from flowers that bloom well into the fall and later can take cover in their hollow stems.


Ornamental grasses also make great winter habitat for bees and birds and look spectacular in the snow. You can cut them back in the spring before they break dormancy.


Butterflies love the tree bark and leaf litter and often overwinter in a chrysalis found hanging from dead plant stems or tucked into the soil or leaf litter. They may sleep through the winter in caterpillar form, rolled into a fallen leaf or inside a seed pod.

Beneficial Bugs

Some say “Ugh!!” when you mention bugs, but predatory insects such as ladybugs, assassin bugs, lacewings, damsel bugs, and ground beetles spend the winter sleeping in your garden as either adults, eggs, or pupae. They help control pests, so leaving them winter habitat means they will be on the job eating all the early emerging pests come spring.


You may wonder why you would want to encourage bees, birds, butterflies, and pest controlling predatory insects like ladybugs to spend time in your garden, but without them, you would have no flowers, no vegetables, and no berries on shrubs. It might be a pretty sparse garden without these pollinators to carry pollen from one plant to another so the beautiful flowers can emerge for your enjoyment.

So, relax and watch the football game. Your work in the yard is done for another six months.


Selecting Different Bird Houses

Winter is right around the corner and those birds that stay in Montana will be really happy if you are putting out bird feeders for them. With so much cold and deep snow, it’s hard for birds to find enough food to keep them all winter. So, drag out your feeders, or head down to the hardware store and buy some for your feathered friends.


Birds will be attracted to different kinds of feeders. The best feeders are sturdy, weather and squirrel resistant, tight enough to keep seeds dry, and easy to keep clean.

Tray Feeders

Tray feeders attract the widest variety of seed-eating birds like starlings, house sparrows, grosbeaks and native sparrows. The best tray feeders have a screened bottom to promote drainage and cover or roof to keep the seeds dry as wet seed can mold and harbor bacteria.

If tray feeders are placed near the ground you will attract ground feeding birds like juncos, doves, jays, blackbirds, and sparrows. However, feeders near the ground are easily available to other critters.

Hopper or House Feeders

Other birds like finches, jays, cardinals, grosbeaks, and chickadees like the hopper or house feeder. This feeder usually looks like a house with glass side walls. It protects the seed well, and as the seed in the bottom tray is eaten, more seed fills the tray.

Tube Feeders

Tube feeders come in different configurations. The plastic ones have perches on the outside of the tube with a feeding port for the birds to get to the seed. If the feeding ports are small, it will attract small birds and larger ports will attract larger birds. Another kind is a mesh cylinder that may not have perches, and attracts birds that will cling to the mesh and peck at seeds through the mesh.

Perches may be placed above the feeding port to discourage birds that cannot feed upside down. With tube feeders, it’s best to keep them small and thoroughly clean them to avoid disease.

Planting Fall Bulbs for Spring Flowers

The most popular flower bulbs (some varieties are corms) to plant in the fall for spring flowers are Snowdrops, Crocus, Hyacinths, Daffodils, and Tulips. Buy your bulbs from reputable garden centers and nurseries to ensure the best flowers.

Plant bulbs sometime after August and before the ground freezes. You’ll have to keep an eye on the weather forecasts because the first freezes can happen on different dates every year.

Snowdrops and Crocus

Snowdrop will bloom first, but is less well-known than Crocus, which is more familiar to gardeners. Snowdrops and Crocus both have three to six-inch tall stems, but their blooms differ.

The Snowdrop has bell-shaped white flowers that droop from the tip of the stem and are fragrant, while Crocus have small pansy-like flowers. Both grow in full sun to part shade and have larger, hybrid relatives.


Another popular early blooming flower is the hyacinth which likes full sun and grows six to twelve inches tall. It does have larger, giant relatives and a smaller look alike called Muscari. The flowers bloom along the stem from the top down. All of the smaller early-blooming flowers have the most impact planted in masses.


Daffodils are planted more often than any of the flowers above and are easily recognizable. They pop up from March through April and really herald the beginning of spring. Their close relatives, narcissus and jonquils are lookalikes, but are recognized by the size, colors, and number of their flowers.

Daffodils multiply each year to form larger clumps. There are many hybrids that show different colors from the solid yellow to yellow and white to orange. Squirrels and deer leave them alone because they don’t like the smell.


Tulips may very well be the most popular, but they do require a little more effort. Many tulip varieties are annual, or in other words, you have to plant them every year. Others are perennial and come back for many years. When buying bulbs, ask whether they are annual or perennial.

Tulips come in many colors and shapes including single bloom tulips, parrot tulips with their ruffled edges, single and double tulips, stripes, blended colors, and different shaped flower heads. Tulips range in size from eighteen to twenty-eight inches tall and are easy to grow in full sun to part shade. Squirrels do love tulip bulbs though, so you’ll need to protect them with chicken wire on top of your bed to discourage digging.

Planting Cover Crops

Now that you’ve cleaned up all the dying vegetable plants it’s time to think about weed suppression for the winter.

Why Cover Crop

The very best way to discourage weed seeds from blowing onto your bare soil during the winter and spring is to plant a cover crop. If your garden lays exposed, soil can erode from wind and rain. Weed seeds blow in and in spring, they will sprout and you’ll spend hours digging and pulling them out. Tilling just brings weed seeds buried deep in the soil to the surface.

Cover Crops Benefit the Soil

The cover crop roots go deep into the soil loosening heavy soils and adding valuable nitrogen that your plants have used up. They also form a dense cover similar to grass that doesn’t let windblown seeds take root.

Best Cover Crops to Plant

Annual rye is the preferred cover crop because it sprouts fast, grows thick, and has deep roots that break up heavy clay, but you can also use buckwheat or clover.

How to Plant a Cover Crop

After removing all the old plant material, rake over your soil and add a layer of compost from your compost pile or purchased in bags from the garden center. Next, spread the seeds over your soil just like you would spread grass seed. Gently rake over it and you’re done. Don’t worry if you see some seeds, they will still sprout.

What to Do in Spring

In the spring, cut down the cover crop with the lawn mower or weed eater and dig it into the soil by simply turning it over with a shovel (no tilling). Rake it smooth, add more compost if you want and you’re ready to plant.

Protecting Your Plants

After planting your vegetables or flowers, cover any bare soil with straw or other mulch to reduce the weed population to near zero. Remember, any bare soil is an open invitation to weeds.

Inviting Birds to Your Yard

When we hear birds chirping, we think of it as songs or calls, but there is a difference. Songs are used to attract mates and females select the males with the most melodious songs. Calls are used to warn of danger when predators are known to be in the area.

They Will Come

It can be very interesting to attract birds to your yard, study them, and see if you can identify their different songs. If you keep a record, you will begin to see a pattern in their arrival and feeding habits. Many birds stay in Montana in the winter.

If You Feed Them

Birds will only feed where they feel safe. If you’ve ever put out a feeder and no birds came, it was probably because in the wrong place. Place feeders near, but not too close to, trees where they can rest and check out the area for predators before they descend to the feeder. Evergreens are ideal as they provide good cover and year-round hiding places. Shrubs and thickets are also good hiding places.

Where’s the Chow

If you are hanging feeders in other trees, you don’t want them where squirrels or cats can pounce on your birds. You will need to use feeders that are squirrel proof, use squirrel deterrent cones, or provide a feeding station for the squirrels so they leave your bird feeders alone (ha, ha).

Is That a Window or an Escape Route

Feeders can be placed near or on a window, but be sure to move planters or other objects that could hide cats or other predators, and put decals on the window so birds are less likely to think the window is an escape route. There are also deck and yard hangars that can hold up to four feeders.

Do Your Research

Before buying feeders, do some research on the birds that may come to your yard. Some like to perch, some will hang from the sides, some need large holes in the feeder, some need small holes or mesh. Some birds won’t feed near certain other birds.

Next post, we’ll talk about kinds of bird feeders.

For an excellent guide to birds of Montana, with pictures, habitat, and identifying information check out the Montana Field Guides at http://fwp.mt.gov/education/teachers/birdGuide.html

Growing Vegetables All Winter

If you’ve ever wished you could have fresh lettuce, radishes, or spinach all winter long, here is some information that will make it possible. You have several options for mini-greenhouses, or cold frames, and the ability to grow cold tolerant vegetables all winter on the south side of your garden.

Vegetables – Here are some cold-hearty crops to grow in your winter garden:  onions, garlic, peas, red oak leaf lettuce, tatsoi, perpetual spinach, mache, kale, swiss chard, napoli carrots, and radishes. http://blessmyweeds.com/best-cold-hearty-crops-for-winter/

Straw Bale Coldframe – This method uses straw bales for the walls of the coldframe and an old window or plastic for the top. One layer of straw bales is sufficient, placing one on the ends and two or more on the front and back, depending on the size or sizes of your windows. You can use more than one window, but them together where they meet. You will have to remove them to access the vegetables.  https://sunstonefarmandlearn.com/2010/02/07/strawbale-cold-frames/

Cloche – Almost anything can serve as a cloche, or cover, from an upturned five-gallon water bottle with the bottom cut off to the most expensive purchased one. Glass will absorb the most heat from the sun, but you can also buy cloth or plastic ones.


Mini Polytunnel (AKS Hoop House) – Here you can use the raised beds from your summer garden and put a top on them. PVC pipe is cut large enough to stretch from one side of the frame to another and high enough to allow room for the plants. Insert the overhead PVC pipes (or hoops) into clamps or other PVC pipes inserted into the ground inside the edges of the frame. Cover the hoops with plastic. You can also make a frame, attach the plastic to the frame, and hinge it to one end or side of your raised bed. http://yearroundveggiegardener.blogspot.com/2012/02/mini-hoop-tunnels-in-summer.html

Cold Frame – This is a three or four-sided box, made from any number of materials, with the back slightly higher than the front to form a slanted box, and topped with plastic or old windows. You can also be successful with windows on top of your raised beds.


Greenhouse – Whether a small mini, or a full greenhouse, this is the ultimate in winter, spring, and fall gardening projects. Build one out of 2X4s or PVC pipe, or cattle panels, and plastic, buy an inexpensive one, or invest in a larger greenhouse. Overwinter outdoor plants and pots, start seeds in spring, and grow vegetables for the kitchen in winter.  https://www.apieceofrainbow.com/21-amazing-diy-greenhouses/




Traveling With Your Pets

As the holidays approach, many of you may be making plans to travel out of state or out of the country. Making arrangements for pets is one of the decisions you will have to make.

Traveling by Car

When traveling in a car, pets should always be secured either in a kennel, carrier, or strapped into harnesses attached to seat belts. It is unsafe for the animal, passenger, and driver to allow pets to sit in the driver’s lap or roam around the car free.  The passengers and/or the pets could be injured or killed in the event of a sudden stop or accident.

Panels are available to place behind the second row seats to separate a larger dog from the rest of the car. If forced to put your pet in the back of a pickup truck, be sure to place them in a protective kennel and secure the kennel to the bed of the truck. Cats and small dogs should always be secured in a carrier.

Do some practice runs with the pets in their restraints, carriers, or kennels so they get used to the motion. Many cats will howl the whole time they are moving. You may need to talk with your vet about a tranquilizer for nervous pets.  Plan to make frequent stops for bathroom breaks and exercise.

Traveling by Plane

Many airlines allow dogs and cats to fly with their owners, either in the cabin for small pets or in the hold for larger dogs. Check with the airline for their rules and requirements for transporting pets. Most small pets must be in carriers that fit beneath the seats. Airlines charge additional fees for pets traveling with owners and require proof of vaccinations including rabies. Is your pet chipped in case it gets lost?

Staying in Hotels, Friends, and Family

When making hotel reservations, look for pet friendly accommodations. Ask about special areas for walking dogs and be a good pet owner and pick up after your pet. If you are staying with friends and family, ask about allergies your hosts may have to pets and if they are okay with you bringing your pet. Consider whether your pet will be friendly with your hosts’ pets.


You need to start now making reservations if you haven’t already. Planes and hotels will be filling up very soon. If you opt to leave your pet in a boarding facility, you will need to research them and make reservations there also. Have a great trip!