A Public Garden to Visit Now

This is National Public Gardens Week. I was all primed to write about all the public gardens we can visit, but as you know, many (most?) are inaccessible. For example, there are currently ten thousand tulips are blooming at Denver’s Botanic Garden, and no one can go see them. It breaks my heart.

I was feeling a bit despondent—I desperately crave flowers by this time of year—when I considered that not all public gardens are surrounded by walls. I typically drive to Denver because spring comes earlier at  5,280 feet than it does here in Colorado Springs (with our 6,000 – 7,000+ foot elevation). But we have gardens right here in town that I can visit any time.

This past weekend, Pete and I popped over to Colorado Springs Utilities’ Xeriscape Demonstration Gardens. Even though it was a lovely Saturday morning, no one else was around, so social distancing was not an issue. I wandered the paths, looking for inspiration and perhaps a few subjects for my camera. Most plants were still dormant, or just beginning to emerge from their winter sleep—not a surprise when we’re still experiencing hard frosts. The daffodils were already finished, with crisp, papery blossoms browning on their wilting stems. But a few plants were in full bloom—spectacularly so.

My eyes were immediately drawn to a couple of Siberian Pea Shrubs (Caragana arborescens) completely covered in sunny yellow pea-shaped flowers. The individual blossoms are relatively small, but their sheer profusion makes this large shrub (up to 15 feet in height) the focal point of an early spring landscape. The plants continue to be attractive throughout the growing season. Flowers appear about the same time as the light green, ferny foliage, and are eventually followed by long pea pods.

Siberian Pea Shrubs are considered invasive in other parts of the country, but not here in Colorado. Rather, their stalwart constitution is just what we need for our harsh conditions. Any plant with “Siberian” in its name has to be hardy, and Siberian Pea Shrub is no exception, thriving in USDA zones 2 through 7. It’s not fussy about soil type, as long as it’s well-drained, pH, or fertility (like other legumes, pea shrub roots host nitrogen-fixing bacteria). It even survives in soil contaminated with road salt. The plant can handle some drought, It tolerates wind and harsh sunlight, and has no serious pests. Deer tend to avoid it. What’s more, the flowers attract butterflies.

What more can you ask for?

I had to look closer to notice the Mt. Atlas Daisies (Anacyclus pyrethrum var. depressus). These diminutive plants form mats of fuzzy, gray foliage only three inches high. The flowers are typical daisies, with white petals and yellow centers. However, the flowers close at night and on cloudy days, revealing the red backs of the petals.  Individual plants spread to about a foot in diameter, but a bit of self-sowing means that they’ll eventually fill in a larger area. (To encourage volunteer seedlings, try using a pea gravel mulch.)

Mt. Atlas Daisy is hardy from zone 3 through 10. It blooms best in full sun and, like other xeric plants, make sure it’s planted  in well-drained soil. This is a good choice for planting between stepping stones or in a rock garden.

As I straightened up from photographing the daisies, I caught a heady perfume on the breeze and turned to find its source. My nose led me to one of the most fragrant plants in the garden, the ‘Carol Mackie’ Daphne. The pinkish-white flowers are pretty, but unassuming, and the white-edged leaves are certainly good-looking, but it’s the sweet smell that makes me want to include this small shrub in my own garden in spite of its somewhat higher price tag.

Easy to grow once established, the shrubs’ delicate appearance belie their hardiness. They withstand winter temperatures to zone 4, are surprisingly drought-tolerant, and are happy in full sun or part shade. The neat shrubs, reaching 3 to 5 feet in diameter, require little maintenance.

These weren’t the only plants we enjoyed—I’ve included a few more at the top of the page. Plus, another few weeks should make a big difference.

Public gardens come in all sizes. We may not be able to visit the well-known botanic gardens right now, but it pays to look around for smaller options closer to home. You may be surprised at what you’ll find.

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