Today (as I write this) is officially the third day of spring, but you’d never know it here in Colorado. I can barely make out the house across the street through the snow hurtling by at up to 70 mph. Cottony clumps of white stuck to the window screen have totally blocked the view from my office (right). Those who can are staying home, businesses are closed, and schools would be too if the kids weren’t already off for spring break. The blizzard warning keeps changing. We can expect a mere 1 to 3 inches of snow. No, we’ll get 6 to 12 inches. And now they’re saying 8 to 16 inches with significantly higher drifts.
My first daffodil bloomed yesterday.
I had intended to post something cheerful and optimistic, appropriate for springtime and Easter. But with the wind and snow threatening to blow the house down, it’s hard to concentrate on delicate pink blossoms and fragile seedlings. Rather, Colorado gardeners need sturdy plants, plants that can withstand this sort of onslaught. It’s hard to believe, looking at the storm outside, but such plants exist.
You can find lists of recommended species on the CSU website, sorted by type and purpose. What I want to focus on here is how to tell if a plant not on these lists is a good candidate for survival. Making sure a plant is hardy is an obvious first step. But what other characteristics help a plant endure in such an inhospitable place?
As I surveyed my yard earlier this week, I noticed that some plants are already leafing out, while others are biding their time. And for the most part (with some exceptions), the more conservative plants were Colorado natives. Seeing that any leaves are likely to be frozen and shredded by the driving snow, it makes sense for plants to wait until the odds of success are a bit higher. Yes, I’m as anxious as the next gardener for any sign of spring, but there’s a reason that plants such as Gamble oak, buffaloberry, Boulder raspberry (left), and evening primrose are still dormant. When it comes to springtime in the Rockies, patience pays.
Even a dormant plant is subject to breakage, which is why many of my native plants have a kind of flexible sturdiness to them. Whether it’s gale-force winds or heavy spring snows, plants that give way before the elements will do better than those attempting to stand up to Mother Nature. I remember losing trees in California windstorms that would be mere breezes compared to what we’re experiencing today. Yet, our trees are moving—bending, flapping, branching tossing—but not breaking.
Sometimes, the sturdiest plant encounters more than it can handle. The top dies back to the soil and the whole thing looks dead. This is when it helps to have plenty of roots. Like perennials, many shrubs can resprout even if all their top growth is destroyed. We had a shrubby cinquefoil at our previous house that survived the weather, but got stepped on—or rather, stomped on—by some enthusiastic kids. The entire plant broke off, and I was sure it was dead. Yet, the following spring a shoot appeared. Within a few years, it was as big and healthy as the other shrubs that didn’t get smashed.
Of course, one good way to avoid nasty winter weather is to plan to lose your top growth and simply hide underground. That’s why perennials and ornamental grasses are so popular, and why so many of them do well here. As mentioned above, it helps to choose those that wait a bit before growth starts in the spring. But even catmint, one of the first to reappear, seems to shrug off the wind and snow and keep on keeping on.
Low growing plants stand a better chance of surviving a late spring blizzard. They’re out of the wind and the ground retains whatever warmth the sun has given it. It’s no surprise that most of the evergreen shrubs and shrublets that will grow here are short and wide. Kinnikinnick, Oregon grape holly, cotoneasters (left), ground-cover junipers, and similar sized plants are all good choices.
Finally, one good way to predict a plant’s sturdiness is to look at its history. Where does the plant come from? You’d think that natives would be safe, but it largely depends on the specific type of habitat they prefer. Blue spruces, coming from high elevations, are used to more moisture than we have here in the foothills. Riparian plants won’t survive in a xeric setting. It’s better to choose a species from the same habitat than one that just happens to grow naturally in our state. For example, a lot of our best plants come from the high-altitude steppes of Asia.
Don’t settle for the same old familiar shrubs you’ll find at the big box stores. Although you might not believe it from a casual drive around town, many attractive plants thrive in our conditions. We have choices far beyond the standard rocks, grass, and junipers. And if you simply have to have something that may not survive a spring blizzard, go ahead and try it anyway. I often choose some inexpensive plants that I love enough to take a chance on. As I said, my first daffodil bloomed yesterday. It might still be there tomorrow.