A Colorado garden shaped by the harsh hand of nature
text and photography by LAUREN SPRINGER
LIKE MANY TRANSPLANTS to the Rocky Mountain West, I came for the region’s natural beauty. In 1995, after six years in an unremarkable small plains town north of Denver, I had the privilege of moving to 115 acres of pristine foothills land west of Fort Collins. It was more stunning a place than I had ever imagined living in, but gardening there was far from ideal. With a short three-and-a-half-month frost-free season and low temperatures placing it squarely in USDA Zone 4b, the cruel facts were undeniable. Add to this incessant wind, inconsistent winter snowcover, with some of the heaviest snows coming as late as May and as early as September, and clearly I was in for a challenge.
It wasn’t all bad news, though. The land was quite steep—a desirable change for me—with spectacular views of the first row of foothills and a red sandstone canyon. There was actually more topsoil than typical for the area: between four and nine inches before hitting subsoil and bedrock. The soil itself was a seemingly intractable alkaline clay that became an ally during drought, holding what little moisture was available and growing the plants tight and tough. Large rounded granite glacial boulders abounded on the site, along with ponderosa pines, Rocky Mountain junipers, and well over 150 species of gardenworthy native shrubs, perennials, bulbs, succulents, grasses, and sedges. At 6,200 feet in elevation, with primarily southern and eastern exposures, an overlap of shortgrass prairie, foothills chaparral, and montane flora and fauna made for an uncharacteristically biodiverse spot.
I was truly blessed, because I have always gardened to be closer to nature. My joy comes from re-creating a bit of wildness in a heightened, exaggerated form. This allows me to experience the land’s natural rhythms, seasonal events and changes, as well as to enjoy plants in associations that mirror the beauty of their native haunts.
My initial optimism was soon dampened by an overwhelming sense of awe for the beauty of what was already there. How could I ever create anything remotely as perfect? And how could I make my work fit in and look a part of the greater garden of Eden that lay all around me? Were it not for the immediacy of the scarred acre around the house caused by the building process, I might have remained immobilized. But erosion, encroaching weeds, and blowing dust all called me to arms. I had to plant something to heal the wounds. This one acre became a seven-year experiment from which I learned more about the joys and limitations of gardening in and with nature than I may ever be able to do again.
There were also practical obstacles. Before the first plant went in or the first stone was laid, I had hooved animals of all sorts to contend with. A resident herd of mule deer, the canyon’s seasonal cattle, and our own horses were all incompatible with plant life of the gardenesque sort. We put up a seven-and-a-half-foot tall New Zealand high-tension livestock fence, enclosing a bit over the acre I planned to garden around the house. Aside from keeping the larger herbivores at bay, it also provided security for children and pets after a serious wildfire, when bears and mountain lions came down close to our home in search of food.
As with any private garden, how one experiences the spaces around the house determines how the garden should evolve. The site told me what to do. On the west side of the house was a 250-foot-long east-facing slope that had been made even steeper by the initial grading for building. At its base I had a curved, four-foot, cream-colored stucco wall built to retain the soil and make a visual connection with the stucco house. This wall made a pale C-shaped gash in the landscape. The planting would have to stand up to this visually. The hillside was being eroded rapidly by thunderstorms and strong winds, and was also home to a zesty bunch of annual and biennial weeds. I decided this area needed my intervention first. It ran parallel with the main access route to the house from the stable, garage, and parking area, so I wanted it to be welcoming and appealing on an intimate level. To avoid blocking the view and in deference to the howling winds, I decided only low-growing plants could populate the hillside. These needed to knit the soil in place, remain evergreen for winter interest and continued erosion control, and look good from below. The site was not too hot—an east rather than south exposure—and wet in the spring but bone dry for much of the rest of the growing season.
I planted several dozen dwarf conifers, mainly pines and cultivars of Colorado spruce, as well as a number of common spreading junipers. These helped tie the hillside with the juniper- and pine-dotted chaparral beyond. A few other woody plants—prostrate forms of broom, plum, manzanita, and rose—went in. Then came hundreds of mat-forming Mediterranean and rock garden plants: sedums, ice plants, phloxes, veronicas, small geraniums and erodiums, alyssums, dianthus, hypericums, oreganoes, thymes, and savories. Small grasses and sedges helped keep the planting in harmony with the grassy slopes all around. I planted mostly two-and-a-half-inch pots—leftovers from specialty nurseries at the end of the season and seedlings I’d grown myself. A good third died the first winter, desiccated by winds in the autumn and unable to get their roots established. I learned not to plant anything small past early September. The following year I added thousands of bulbs, mainly scillas, puschkinias, muscari, chionodoxa, fritillaries, alliums, and cyclamineus daffodils. These took to the site quickly and continued to increase in number for several years until the three-year drought hit in 2000. Most of the hillside planting survived this misery, during which our well ran dry for four months during all three summers. The plants just did not grow much, or bloom well.
Unsung Grasses and Sedges
On the hunt for tough, clay-loving, hardy, and seasonally drought-tolerant grasses and sedges to help blend my garden into the native grassland already on the site and to celebrate the intense light and wind, I discovered many less common, unadulterated species deserving more garden use. Large, flashy, often variegated grasses, many of exotic provenance, have dominated the horticultural scene since grasses became popular a couple of decades ago. Here are some sturdier species that should share the limelight.—L.S.
Aristida purpurea/purple three-awn
Bouteloua gracilis/blue grama
Carex flacca/blue sedge
Carex muskingumensis/palm sedge
Festuca mairei/Atlas fescue
Sporobolus heterolepis/praine dropseed
Sporobolus wrightii/giant sacaton
Stipa comata/needle-and-thread grass
A FAILED EXPERIMENT
The drought was not nearly as kind to the courtyard garden. This was the only flat part of the site, on the north side of the house but in full sun, where water literally stood for several weeks during the early spring the first four years we lived there. I enclosed the area with a stucco wall, creating a frame to separate this planting from the rest of the garden. This worked on many levels, first and foremost as a firebreak. It also helped link the garden to the house, and created a sense of enclosure and privacy. Lastly, the walls helped set the area apart visually, to separate the plants that would live there from the much smaller, scruffier, wilder assortment that grew in the rest of the garden and in the natural areas beyond. A rustic pergola went into the center, and a raised path and platform of cedar for access and dining, to keep out of the muck in the spring. Here went plants that could take spring flooding and much drier conditions later in the season. We added 26 pickup-loads of rotted horse manure. Most of the plants had to be watered at least every 10 days throughout the growing season, because so few plants can tolerate such extremes in moisture availability. It became the highest maintenance area. A couple hundred camassias and 2,000 dependable large-flowered narcissus cultivars went in, along with many shrubs, a dozen small flowering trees, and lots of large grasses and perennials. After three years of drought, not much survived except the bulbs, a few lilacs, and a couple of crab apples. I was especially sad about a collection of 35 robust kniphofia species and hybrids. Only two remained.
Dependably self-sowing annuals, biennials, and short-lived perennials
Argemone polyanthemos/pricky poppy
Cleome serrulata/Rocky Mountain bee plant
Eryngium planum/sea holly
Eschscholzia californica/California poppy
Glaucium corniculatum, G. fibrilligerum, G. grandiflorum/horned poppy
Ipomopsis aggregata/scarlet gilia
Linum Iewisii/native blue flax
Papaver triniifolium/Armenian poppy
Tanacetum niveum/snow daisy
Verbascum undulatum/wavy-leaf mullein
THE DRY SOUTH GARDEN
The most successful area was the last one I planted, three years after I moved to the canyon. A friend and I had found a supplier who had boulders that matched the glacial rocks on the site exactly, the same sort of rounded, uncomplicated, gentle-looking lichen-encrusted “manatee” rocks, as I like to call them. We added a flatbed trailer’s worth more rocks to the steep gulch on the south side of the house. This area was to remain unirrigated and make use of many native plants and a few of the most drought-tolerant exotics I knew. It was the warmest spot on the site, out of the prevailing winds and in full sun at all times of the day and year. It connected two favorite hangouts along the gulch—a stone bench under a lone ponderosa pine with a great view of the canyon, and a firepit for barbecuing and partying into the night. With a host of grasses, yuccas, and a thicket of three-leaf sumac (Rhus trilobata) already there, I added many more yucca species along with hardy cacti, agaves, dasylirions, hesper-aloes, and nolinas, and just shy of 80 species of penstemons and eriogonums I had grown from seed. Some other tough exotics went in, including a litany of labiates—species of dracocephalum, nepeta, agastache, sideritis, teucrium, stachys, ballota, salvia, scutellaria, and marrubium. Thousands of crocus and tulip species went in—they could take the heat and drought, and the unamended baked clay prevented rodent damage that would occur on moister, amended parts of the site. My cats helped decimate the rodent and rabbit population over the first couple of seasons, which helped as well. The first spring after a late-summer planting, this garden exploded with all the quick-growing, showy penstemons.
After seven Job-like years of gardening, a group of tried-and-true plants remained steadfast through deluge, draught, wind, hail, record-breaking heat, and subzero winters. These became signature plants of the garden-I planted more, eager for dependable beauty. They shared the wild, natural look that I desire, and outstanding reliability. Some worked their way into my heart for their long season of appeal, while others earned my affection for just the opposite reason, for their seasonal moment of splendor, which, though fleeting, came faithfully and gave me much anticipatory pleasure. Listed below are some of my favorites from this stalwart group.–L.S.
WINTER Acantholimon spp.: spiky evergreen gray-green and blue-green mounds, pink flowers in summer, dried seed stalks also pretty Agave havardii: largest hardy agave, sexy wide-leaved blue evergreen rosettes Arctostaphylos nevadensis, A. patula: olive-green native broad-leaved evergreen shrubs, copper bark, small white-and-pink urn-shaped early spring flowers Crocus ancyrensis: most floriferous and perennial, earliest, bright egg-yolk gold Cupressus arizonica: hardy, fast-growing, icy blue lacy upright evergreen tree Cytisus purgans: green wiry evergreen shrub, clay-loving broom, loads of golden flowers in spring Juniperus deppeana: graceful silvery blue airy native evergreen tree, checkered bark on older trees explains the name “alligator juniper” Picea pungens ‘Hillside’: dwarf mounded selection of the Colorado spruce, soft gray-green rather than the overbearing blues typically available; ‘Mesa Verde’: flat-topped almost prostrate wide-spreading green selection, fast-growing Pinus aristata/bristle-cone pine: dark green small tree, with dense needles all along the branches, appears almost animal-like Yucca baccata: large, wide-leaved green or blue-gray evergreen, pretty curling filaments along leaf margins, creamy white flowers in early summer
SPRING Amsonia jonesii: ice-blue stars on bushy, dark green, drought-tolerant deciduous perennial Anthemis biebersteiniana: evergreen silver filigree foliage, bright yellow daisies Clematis hirsutissima: low-growing fine-textured local native with very early navy-blue urn-shaped flowers, loves dry shade or full sun Fritillaria meleagris
‘Alba’: large creamy bells on thin, almost leafless stems; easy bulb, shows up better than its more common maroon form Iris lactea: grassy gray-green foliage clumps, graceful white and periwinkle blue flowers Paeonia anomala, P. mascula, P. mlokosewitschii, P. obovata, P. veitchii subsp. woodwardii: species peonies that do not flop and look more natural, flowers are single with showy yellow stamens, colors of above species are rose red, red, yellow, rose red, and pink, in order, shorter than typical hybrids Pulsatilla patens/native pasqueflower: very early, pale lavender chalices with yellow stamens, furry silvery perennial Syringa vulgaris ‘Krasavitska Moskvy’: pink buds open to pointed semidouble white flowers, fragrant, my favorite common lilac Thermopsis fabacea: pale yellow lupinelike flower spikes, very early, deciduous perennial Tulipa whittallii: coppery red flowers with olive green streaks on outside, on strong but graceful 8- to 10-in. stems, narrow foliage is unobtrusive, very perennial, wild looking
SUMMER Artemisia versicolor: silver semievergreen filigree on a noninvasive subshrub Ballota pseudodictamnus: semievergreen, silvery chartreuse hairy leaves on tumbling subshrub, large lime-green calyces hold inconspicuous flowers, great texture Dierama dracomontanum: hardy, small plant, russet flowers Digitalis obscura: evergreen, copper flowers, compact, long-lived Fallugia paradoxa: native semievergreen shrub called Apache plume, white five-petaled flowers over a long period become rosy peach fluffy seedheads, finetextured Lilium philadelphicum: native orange wood lily, small, wild-looking, long-lived in clay Papaver atlanticum ‘Flore Pleno’: semidouble soft orange poppy flowers all summer, smaller than Oriental poppy, longer-lived than most other poppies Penstemon richardsonii: evergreen hollylike foliage on small shrublet, rose-pink flowers in late summer into fall, very long-lived for a penstemon Rosa gallica ‘Charles de Mills’: dusky magenta, flat fully double flowers, very fragrant, compact shrub; ‘Complicata’: large shrub with luxuriant foliage, 3-in. single rose-pink flowers; ‘Darlow’s Enigma’: semiclimber/large shrub, trusses of fragrant, small white flowers all summer into fall; ‘John Davis’: most graceful flower of the hardy Canadian shrub roses, soft pink double flowers repeat over the summer, large shrub; ‘Lawrence Johnston’: vigorous spiny climber with semidouble clear yellow flowers, very hardy for a climber Salvia pachyphylla: hardy evergreen silver shrub with rosy red calyces bearing purple flowers in late summer and fall, very aromatic
AUTUMN Aster oblongifolius ‘Dream of Beauty’: native low spreading aster with gray-green foliage, sugar-pink flowers with burnt orange centers Euphorbia epithymoides: old favorite deciduous perennial, acid-yellow flower clusters in early spring, red fall color Forestiera neomexicana: native small tree, luminescent yellow fall color, blue fruits on female plants, small yellow flowers before foliage emerges in spring, pale smooth bark Geranium sanguineum: many cvs, pink or magenta flowers over long period in summer, dense mounds of foliage turn scarlet in fall Limonium gmelinii: papery purple flower clusters on stiff stems over flat evergreen leathery foliage, takes up less space than the more common L. latifoliumOriganum laevigatum ‘Hopley’s’: tiny blue foliage clothes wiry purple stems, dainty rosy lavender flowers appear in panicles late in the season, deciduous perennial Prunus besseyi ‘Pawnee Buttes’: prostrate form of native, shiny foliage turns orange red in fall, small creamy flowers in spring before foliage emerges Ribes odoratum ‘Crandall’: native deciduous shrub, spicy-scented early yellow flowers, black edible fruit, red fall color Vitis ‘Himrod’: a seedless green grape, great flavor, hardy and productive and beautiful as a vine on a trellis.
For expanded versions of Lauren Springer’s plant lists, visit www.hortmag.com.
The following year, 1999, we had 14 inches of rain in six weeks, and most of the penstemons rotted. The rest of the garden, however, continued to keep my spirits up through the ensuing three years of drought. Although little flowered, the textures and forms of the maturing succulents and airy grasses were my sanity while so many plants in other parts of the garden languished and died. Container plants also helped me through those hard years.
I left this garden at the end of 2002 and moved back into town, to a flat half-acre with neighbors and basketball hoops rather than coyotes and rocks. I no longer fear wildfires or worry about bears and mountain lions, though deer pass through occasionally. The wind howls less, the weeds are fewer, and there is deep, fertile clay. I now have a city tap to water if I need to. My heart misses the wild, open beauty of the canyon; the practical side of me is relieved to be back in civilization. Liberty Hyde Bailey once said, “the best gardener is also the best naturalist.” My seven years gardening in the canyon brought me a lot closer to the true meaning of those wise words, and for that I am deeply grateful. H