Alkaline soils, sparse rainfall, extreme temperatures, low fertility. Colorado doesn’t exactly sound like a gardener’s paradise. Few places do. Lamenting the current drought and expected summer water restrictions, I often dream of gardening in a place with ample rainfall. Wouldn’t it be wonderful?
Then I visited my daughter in western Washington. She and her husband live in Everett, north of Seattle. They have a view (on a rare clear day) looking east to the Cascades. These impressive mountains form a barrier blocking clouds that would otherwise move on into eastern Washington and Idaho. As a result, my daughter’s area gets a lot of rain.
They moved into their home only recently and have spent hours whacking away at the overgrown landscaping. At one point they pulled out an old, rotting fence post that had been sunk about two feet deep into the soggy soil. The hole quickly filled with water! We estimated that their trees and shrubs have about 18 inches of unsaturated dirt in which to spread their roots. Below that level, they’ll drown.
The conversation quickly turned to possible solutions. Should they add raised beds? French drains? (And where would the water drain to?) Would adding more amendments help? How much would all this cost?
I began to understand why their home’s previous owners had planted shallow-rooted rhododendrons, azaleas, and blueberries. Changing the growing conditions would be both time-consuming and expensive. For most of the yard, it really isn’t an option.
We finally settled on raised beds for the veggie garden they wanted, and proper plant selection for the rest of the lot. I began to make lists of plants suitable for their zone that don’t mind (or even prefer) wet feet—trollius, iris, marsh marigold, etc. We were surprised that there were so many to choose from. They’ll have to water during the summer dry season, but it’s much easier to add water than to remove it.
American gardeners have a tendency to grow the same plants no matter where they live. Big box stores all carry the same assortment of junipers, euonymus, spiraea, and other widely adapted species. Add the ubiquitous bluegrass lawn, and a neighborhood in Portland looks much like a neighborhood in Topeka or Chicago. How boring! On the other hand, think how interesting it would be if we all selected plants that are specific to our distinctive growing conditions.
Here along the Front Range of Colorado, we’re blessed with brilliant sunshine. The dry air and soil I gripe about are inhospitable to fungal diseases that kill plants in other places. We don’t even have to spray roses! We can cart in amendments to create a mid-western loamy soil—or we can plant natives such as penstemons, ninebark, and fernbush (left) that actually grow better and live longer without all the humus, fertilizer, and water.
Sure, if we want to grow vegetables, we have to amend, fertilize, and water. I’m willing to put in the effort for the reward of fresh lettuce, vine-ripened tomatoes, and an abundance of zucchini. But I, for one, do not want to fuss that much over my entire yard.
I have a new standard for ornamental landscape plants. They have to be tough. No more mollycoddling! I want a garden that uses a minimum of supplemental water, that survives our winters without added protection from the cold, that thrives in my high pH, sandy soil. I’ve started by planting natives—gooseberries, chokecherries, yarrows—and am adding imports that pass the test of benign neglect (the mugo pines are doing well so far). Now I simply stand back and let nature determine the winners.
Photos, from top: ‘Red Rocks’ Penstemon, Leadplant (Amorpha canescens), Globeflower (Trollius sp.), Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla sp.), Fernbush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium), Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) fall foliage.