It’s midsummer, and Fort Collins is awash in color, thanks to the numerous hanging baskets, pots and beds overflowing with foliage and blooms. What goes on behind the scenes to create and sustain this beauty?

Mother Nature gets a little help from the City of Fort Collins Parks Department. Mike Brunkhardt, Parks Department supervisor, said it takes a combination of regular staff and seasonal hires to handle the spring planting rush. They plant 40,000 annuals in five weeks, beginning in early May, prioritizing Old Town square in time for Colorado State University’s graduation.

Things don’t always go smoothly.

“We’ve had a few years with snow on Mother’s Day,” said Brunkhardt. “We plan for it. We’re ready to cover plants and even re-plant if necessary. We have to take that risk to finish downtown on schedule.”

Whereas spring planting is calendar-driven, fall cleanup happens after the first killing frost—typically in September or October. The next day crews move quickly to clean beds and haul containers to the city’s winter storage yard, where they can then be cleaned out of public view.

 

Photo by Tim O’Hara/Visit Fort Collins

 

Photo by Visit Fort Collins

 

Ecology is always top-of-mind. Spring waste is minimized by the use of elle pots, eliminating the need for disposable plastic four-pack containers familiar to consumers. Even the delivery trays transporting elle pots are cleaned and re-used the following year. Fall waste is ground and composted by the city to nourish next spring’s beds and containers.

 

Left to right: Photo by Bob Willis/Visit Fort Collins, Laporte-based Plantorium supplies Fort Collins with seedlings that are ready to be planted in May (Photo by Milan Hanson). Photo by Milan Hanson

 

The task is actually a year-round effort. Starting in August, the downtown horticulture crew begins designing next summer’s displays, melding ideas from personal and professional travels along with lessons learned from past seasons. The plan must be finalized by December 1, giving Laporte-based Plantorium (the city’s current supplier) sufficient time to order, start and nurture seedlings and cuttings so they’re ready for planting.

Plantorium sources tiny live cuttings from as far away as Central America, South America and Africa. These cuttings are chilled for the two-day trip to Laporte, where they’re immediately placed in rooting mix in steamy propagation buildings. Plants from seed are likewise started many months in advance so that they’re blooming and ready for planting May 1.

 

Tips From The Pros

How does Fort Collins transform bare dirt to abundant flowers so quickly—and keep blooms coming all summer? Mike Brunkhardt from the Fort Collins Parks Department and Jim Roberts of Plantorium shared these tips.

Plant densely. Small plants in large containers (or beds) put energy into root development, not top growth; whereas root-bound plants put more energy into foliage and flowers. Dense planting makes beds and containers look immediately full, and encourages new leaves and blooms right away.

Fertilize generously. The city fertilizes weekly with a 20-20-20 formula that encourages continued leaf and flower production all season long.

Water regularly. Some downtown beds and containers are automatically irrigated, but some are still hand-watered. Staff starts at 6 a.m. (4 a.m. on Mondays) and finishes by 10 a.m. while downtown is cool, quiet and deserted. This also coordinates with other city crew schedules—especially street cleaning and sidewalk pressure-washing—to make Fort Collins look its best every morning.

Deadhead and prune. Many plants stop flowering and decline after setting seeds. To prevent this, staff “deadhead” as they water, snipping off spent flowers and trimming long stems to encourage branching that keeps plants bushy and full.

Select varieties judiciously. Whenever possible the city chooses “self-cleaning” varieties that naturally remain compact and continue flowering with little or no dead-heading or pruning.

Monitor plant health diligently. Fort Collins’ moderate, arid climate is ideal for horticulture, minimizing losses to diseases and pests. The city prefers mechanical pest control over chemical treatments.

 

Milan Hanson is a Fort Collins-based freelance writer. To comment on this article, send an email to letters@nocostyle.com.