Panayoti Kelaidis speaking Feb. 29, inspiring Wyoming gardeners to go native

International plant explorer Panayoti Kelaidis to speak Feb. 29 at Cheyenne Habitat Hero Workshop, to inspire Wyoming gardeners to go native

6th Annual Cheyenne Habitat Hero Workshop:

“Rethinking Wyoming Landscaping – Native Plant Gardening 101”

Feb. 29, 8 a.m. – 4 p.m., Laramie County Community College

$25 fee includes lunch. Register by Feb. 27 at, where the complete schedule can be read. Questions: Mark Gorges, 307-287-4953,

By Barb Gorges

            A couple weeks ago I was at the Denver Botanic Gardens to interview Panayoti Kelaidis who will be the keynote speaker at the 6th annual Cheyenne Habitat Hero workshop Feb. 29.

            PK, as he suggests people call him, stepped out to pour us cups of Ceylonese tea. While I waited, I noticed his office had floor to ceiling shelves full of plant books for parts of the world he’s travelled.

Numerous plaques and certificates on one wall commemorated his contributions to horticulture over a lengthy career. His latest accolade is to be a judge at this year’s Philadelphia Flower Show.

Panayoti Kelaidis, senior curator and director of outreach for the Denver Botanic Gardens.

The windowsill had a parade of small, unique succulents and cactuses, part of PK’s extensive personal plant collection at his Denver home. I toured the nearly half-acre garden on the Garden Bloggers Fling last summer.

            As part of his job as senior curator and director of outreach for the DBG, PK leads plant tours to foreign countries, most recently Tibet. A tour of the Sichuan, China, area planned for June will depend on world health concerns. He reads Chinese, having once been a student of the language.

             But PK is also enthusiastic about Wyoming, where he visited two favorite aunts as a child. In the 1980s he travelled our state for his native seed business. He likes to take people on plant tours to the Cody area. As the president-elect of the North American Rock Garden Society, he’s considering a future convention in Cheyenne—we have nearby natural rock gardens to show off.

            PK’s plant knowledge is extensive, especially grassland and alpine species. He co-authored the 2015 book “Steppes, the plants and ecology of the world’s semi-arid regions.” There are four major steppe regions in the world, including the Great Plains. He writes a blog called Prairiebreak,, and he established the Alpine Garden at the DBG.

            How does he describe himself? “Plant nerd.” He said a friend says he’s a plant geek. I think he’s both. He’ll tell you he is not a garden designer, but I’d say he looks at an even bigger picture. And that is why he’s been invited to be the Habitat Hero workshop’s keynote speaker.

            PK likens Douglas Tallamy and his book “Bringing Nature Home,” to Rachel Carson and her book “Silent Spring.” He said both books mark sea changes in our relationship to nature. Carson’s, published in 1962, showed the devastation caused by indiscriminate use of pesticides.

Tallamy, in his 2007 book, showed us our conventional landscaping and gardening practices are detrimental to native insects, birds, other wildlife, and consequently, people. We need to plant native plants to support native insects, including native bees and butterflies. They are the foundation of the healthy ecosystems we enjoy and require.

At first, PK thought Tallamy was a little too radical, saying all ornamental plants from elsewhere needed to be replaced with natives. For many generations, the goal of landscaping and ornamental gardening has been beauty, PK said. But now he recognizes the other goal must be “ecological services.”

“We really need to figure out how to create a garden that is part of the natural system, not an obstacle,” said PK. Can that be beautiful? Can we shift the paradigm completely?

Can we make beautiful gardens with native plants? What we mean by “native” varies. For some American gardeners, it means the species originated on our continent, even if 3000 miles away. Or “native” for Cheyenne could mean any Great Plains species, or even just those from the prairie outside town.

 Xeriscaping, gardening with less water, began about 45 years ago in the Denver area, PK related. With a growing population that could quickly run out of water, smart people realized changing from landscape plants popular in parts of the country with high rainfall to plants that need less water would help. The Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities promotes this philosophy as well. Many of the more xeric plants are natives.

PK works with the DBG and Colorado State University which partnered to form Plant Select, It develops plants native to our high plains and intermountain region for the nursery trade. It makes it easy for gardeners to grow beautiful plants by planting those that love to grow here—and use less water. Though, PK said, there’s still room to grow the occasional prized non-native, water-hungry ornamental.

The water-wise and pollinator-friendly movements were combined a few years ago by Audubon Rockies’ Habitat Hero program. The five previous workshops in Cheyenne have been well-received. I think it’s because people enjoy doing something positive like gardening to support our environment.

 After PK’s keynote address, “Rethinking Wyoming Landscaping – Learning from the Natives,”designed to inspire us, the workshop’s other presenters will walk us through the steps to take to make a Habitat Hero garden.

Talks will include how to protect and maintain natural prairie if you have some already, deciding on a location for a garden, removing unwanted plants whether turf or weeds, choosing plants, proper planting techniques, maintaining plants and gardens, and how to apply to be a certified Habitat Hero. The two hands-on components will be about how to install drip irrigation and how to use the winter sowing technique to grow native plants from seed (seeds, soil and containers included).

Panayoti Kelaidis explores plants at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area in northern Colorado.

Habitat Heroes wanted to grow native

Habitat Hero banner

“Be a Habitat Hero” – find out more about the program at

Published Feb. 8, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “‘Habitat Heroes’ wanted to grow native plants.”

By Barb Gorges

Sometimes, wildlife issues seem to be out of the hands of ordinary people, people like those of us who are not wildlife biologists, land managers or politicians. Often, it seems futile to write a letter or email stating my opinion.

Connie Holsinger has devised a way for us to do something for wildlife right in our own backyards–literally.

Connie is the founder of the Habitat Hero program which shows people in the Rocky Mountain area how to turn all or part of their yards, no matter what size, even a container or an apartment balcony, into wildlife habitat for birds, bees, butterflies and, may I add, even bats, and other wildlife.

A popular term for this is “wildscaping.” Add to that the term “waterwise” and Connie immediately grabs the attention of everyone who pays an increasing amount for watering their lawns as well as those who recently read the articles in the paper about Laramie County’s finite water supply.

Connie is a native of Maine, in a zone that enjoys 50 inches of precipitation each year, compared to Cheyenne’s 10-15 inches. When she moved to Massachusetts, she discovered birds, as well as the fact she can plant what would attract them to her yard. She volunteered with Massachusetts Audubon’s Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary on habitat improvements.

Next, at her home on Sanibel Island, Florida, she discovered if she ripped out all the invasive vegetation and planted natives, her once quiet yard was suddenly full of birds.

Relocating to the Front Range of Colorado in 1998, she learned what semi-arid means, especially when a major drought was just getting started. And she also learned that some native plants like the semi-arid life–after she killed her plantings of native penstemons two years in a row because she was rotting their roots with too much water.

It’s no surprise that a smart woman like Connie then put “waterwise” with “wildscaping,” a natural fit here in the arid West.

Also, the decline in the numbers of bees and butterflies documented in recent years makes even more important the idea of converting conventional urban/suburban landscapes into nectar and pollen havens, in addition to providing seeds and berries and cover for birds. Not to mention that native plants can take less work and water (read money) than a lawn.

With funding from the Terra Foundation, her private foundation that supports projects restoring the Colorado River Basin, Connie launched the “Be a Habitat Hero” campaign in 2013.

Anyone who would like to pursue the designation of “Habitat Hero” can apply through the website,, in September to see if their yard measures up. Last fall, 28 people, including Laramie County master gardener Michelle Bohanan, earned the designation.

While most of Cheyenne’s home owners and renters have mastered the basics of lawn care and keeping shrubs and trees alive, and many have a flair for flowers and vegetables, wildscaping requires a little change in horticultural practices, and a little change in mindset.

Explaining exactly how to transform all or part of a conventional yard or commercial landscape into a wildscape will be the topic of a Habitat Hero workshop scheduled March 28 at Laramie County Community College, 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. The $15 registration fee covers lunch, handouts and a tote bag for each participant full of donated items.

The three speakers will be Susan Tweit, plant biologist and author of “Rocky Mountain Garden Survival Guide;” Jane Dorn, co-author of “Growing Native Plants of the Rocky Mountain Area” (a digital version will be given to each participant); and Clint Basset, Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities water conservation specialist.

The major sponsors are Laramie County Master Gardeners, Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, Audubon Rockies (which now administers the Habitat Hero program), Cheyenne Botanic Gardens and the Laramie County Conservation District.

One of the fun parts of the day will be the panel discussion, when the three speakers take a look at selected yards submitted by participants in advance and make recommendations on how to transform them into wildlife destinations.

Registration is available online at, key words “Habitat Hero Cheyenne.” Registration will also be available at the door, provided there are seats left. The workshop is limited to 100 participants.

“Plant it and they will come,” Connie has said often.

This approach to landscaping benefits wildlife, but Connie said it speaks to her soul too when she sees the birds, bees and butterflies.

Her biggest aha moment came when she realized, “I can create a habitat in my yard, and take it beyond looking pretty”–making a difference in the world–in her own backyard.

Don’t poison your yard to save it

Audubon at Home

Backyards should be places safe for people and wildlife. Graphic from Audubon at Home.

Published July 26, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Don’t poison your yard to save it. Natural defenses against pests are better for wildlife, people and pets.”

2014 Update: So many options and so much advice is available today for avoiding using pesticides. At the National Audubon Society website, look for “Audubon at Home,” If you live in Colorado and Wyoming, check out Audubon Rockies’ Habitat Hero program, Also check out this directory of pests and pest management:

By Barb Gorges

Which is more hazardous, walking New York City streets or hiking Wyoming’s back country? They have muggers; we have bears.

New York got ahead of us last summer, with an outbreak of West Nile Virus, which can be fatal to some jays and crows–and some people.

I was surprised, however, by a news release from the National Audubon Society. According to Ward Stone, chief wildlife pathologist for New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation, among 4,000 dead birds collected and tested for the virus, synthetic chemical pesticides were a contributing factor or cause of death more often than any other reason, including the virus.


Choice of last resort, this herbicide is not necessary if you get to know your yard and learn how it grows.

Lawn chemicals were among the most common toxins.

About a dozen pesticides approved for backyard use have caused documented die-offs of birds, author Joel Bourne writes in “The Audubon Guide to Home Pesticides.”

Nationally, we use three times more chemical pesticides on our lawns at home, school and the golf course than the total amount used by farmers. That statistic comes from David Pimental, a Cornell University scientist.

More than 100,000 cases of pesticide exposure were documented in 1998 at U.S. regional poison control centers. But the centers do not cover the whole country, and many people do not think to report what just seems like flu symptoms.

What’s a conscientious person to do?

Recently Audubon published a poster, “10 Commandments for a Healthy Yard,” which helps answer that question. Here are the commandments, with my local interpretation.

Go Organic. For a quick introduction to organic yard care methods–which will save you money as well as make your yard safer–pick up an issue of Organic Gardening magazine or visit

Make Your Turf Tough. Use grass varieties meant for our climate. Use sharp mower blades and cut high. Water well a couple times a week, rather than watering lightly every day.

Go Native! Plants native to our area will be less susceptible to pests–and they require less water. Check at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens for suggestions, or visit their web site,

Know Your Enemies. Figure out what bugs you have, whether you have enough to make treatment worthwhile and when in their life cycle is best to strike–and with what. Call the University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension horticulturist, Liberty Blain, 633-4383 or bring your bugs and diseases to her (in containers) at the office in the Old Courthouse, 310 W. 19th.

Treat Only When Necessary. Use nontoxic methods first, picking off insects, pruning affected areas, hosing down plants. For more remedies, look for books such as “The Encyclopedia of Natural Insect & Disease Control,” edited by Roger B. Yepsen or “Rodale’s All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening” edited by Fern Marshall Bradley.

Pick Your Pesticides. Don’t go for the “shotgun” approach. It will kill beneficial insects as well as pests. Use the least toxic product. The Environmental Protection Agency’s rating system is “caution” (least), “warning” and “danger” (most toxic).

Use Biological Controls or Biopesticides. If you can’t borrow a goat to eat your thistle, biological pesticides decompose more rapidly and are better at targeting the pest than chemical pesticides. Check the EPA’s biopesticides web site, (although I don’t agree that genetically altered plants should be included in EPA’s definition of biopesticides).

Follow Directions and Protect Yourself. And don’t forget to protect other people, pets and wildlife habitat from exposure. Read the label. Less is best.

Respect Your Neighbor’s Right to Know. Ever had your windows open to the light summer breeze–and the chemical drift of whatever your neighbor’s lawn care service is spraying? Thank goodness the City of Cheyenne is using modern methods to control mosquitoes instead of spraying malathion everywhere.

Teach Tolerance and Be Tolerant. As the poster explains, “Create natural yards, with a variety of pests, predators, weeds, wildlife and native plant species.”

My favorite: “Enjoy controlled untidiness, not time-consuming lawn maintenance,” and “show by doing.”

I don’t use pesticides in my yard, so had I been writing these commandments, I would have left out numbers 6, 8 and 9.

But if we were all to subscribe to the organic yard care philosophy, just imagine what the birds would think!