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Autumn, 2014

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A Colorado Native Plants Garden

Logic would have us believe that a garden of native plants would be the simplest approach to horticulture. After all, plants that Mother Nature intended for Colorado should flourish in our front yards, buoyed by our attention and love.

If only it were so. Native plants are among the most difficult to cultivate. That’s because Colorado is filled with microclimates: elephant’s head and marsh marigolds flourish in wet areas, cacti and cowboy’s delight cling to dry. Add these wet and arid conditions to steep altitude changes and you’ll discover bands of unique gardens.

While an alpine columbine displays white petals, the lower altitude Colorado columbine offers deep blue. Although they are relatives, the alpine columbine can take winds and cold that its close cousin cannot. The most ardent native plants lover soon discovers that our garden center horticultural plants have been bred to grow in a one-size-fits-all environment, which may stretch from Alabama to California. 

No so with native plants. Natives evolved over thousands of years to fit into a niche so that competition is squeezed out.

It so happens that our gardens are a niche, too, depending upon where we live. Find the natives that fit your own small landscape and they’ll reward you with vigor and health for years to come.

Natives that look breathtaking in our landscape often appear dreary when planned and designed as a native garden--the ragged chamisa and ungainly sagebrush are two examples. Like caging a wild animal, the creature remains majestic. It’s the cage that makes no sense. Even so, there are plenty of reasons to consider natives for the garden. They are linked to the health and vitality of regional pollinating insects. As habitats for those important creatures shrink, so will their capacity to pollinate all the blooming plants that rely upon them. 

In our small gardens, penstemons and agastaches hold stores of pollen for wild bees or nectar for hummingbirds as they migrate from Alaska to Costa Rica. We can set a banquet table to host and feed thousands of hungry small-winged creatures. Choose wisely and natives will add a touch of wildness to your garden that few can overlook.

Of course it’s most important to preserve natives where they grow. Those of us who cultivate a few natives know to buy seed or plants from garden centers that propagate from their own reserves rather than the wild. And we assume that many native plants will be unsuitable for a suburban location. For example, the paintbrush wildflowers grow only with a partner, usually a native grass like blue grama. They will not grow by themselves. Wild orchids, too, require particular bacteria to flourish. So cross those off the list. The Colorado columbine is spectacular but does need regular water and a bit of shade. Also, it will cross-pollinate with other columbines in the garden. So if you crave this native, you’ll have to grow only this one columbine and no other.

Despite these warnings, there is a vast collection of natives that thrive, even from seed, and will provide a garden easy to maintain. The trick is to find the native plants that fit most closely with your own soil and water conditions. You’ll be rewarded by plants that are remarkably pest free and adaptable to our soil and weather. Most need no fertilizer and little care. There are purists who grow only natives but most native plants companion beautifully with non-natives of similar needs. Rather than attempt to grow only natives, which may bloom for a short season or look weedy on occasion, consider companions for them: English lavender, santolina, sedums and ornamental grasses. Match garden variety plants to the needs of natives and you’ll have continuous bloom from spring to fall.

For beginners, the Rocky Mountain penstemon may be a perfect native to cultivate. Easy to grow from seed, reasonably agreeable to garden soil and spectacular in bloom, this penstemon sends out a long spray of spectacular flowers that springs from a glossy mat of dark green leaves. It arrives equipped to nestle into nearly any Colorado garden. 

And it’s not alone. The more we consider and try natives, the more information we have to pass along to new gardeners. Penstemons with ornamental grasses will be exquisite. Consider a bright yellow prairie zinnia with an Iris pallida of variegated yellow and green leaves to enjoy each other’s company. The palette is broadened and the natives are happy. You can grow successfully both the Rocky Mountain penstemon and prairie zinnia from seed. Prairie zinnia breaks dormancy very late in early summer, but it will survive years of serious drought.

Here is the most important but often overlooked piece of advice—one that can be chanced upon by luck. Learn to recognize what native seeds have blown into your garden and have taken hold. Let them establish a colony and leave them be. They won’t need fertilizer or perhaps much water. 

Here are a few that have blown into my garden and prospered: pussytoes creeping between patio bricks, prairie smoke sprouting among the herbs, serviceberry bushes lining up along a fence, wild roses ringing old maple and young crabapple trees, Mahonia repens colonizing in a shady, rocky area—these native plants chose the most hospitable place to grow. Surprisingly, many pop up alongside all the other tended plants and will masquerade as weeds. Only a close look reveals that they are worth keeping.

Next, look at your terrain. What native garden is closest in climate, altitude and soil? Are you a mountain dweller? Then consider plants that flourish in our montane areas. Colorado columbine, shooting star, blue spruce, ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, lupine, monkshood and larkspur make sense. Most montane plants require moisture, or water that rushes down a mountainside. If your garden is on a slope, rejoice. Montane gardens thrive when snowmelt rolls down the mountain rather than suffocating their roots in stagnant water. Your garden will be the most likely to harbor seeds that blow in and find a new home. All you need do is add a few of your favorite non-natives: Iceland poppy or delphiniums, primroses or dianthus. A few well-chosen garden center plants will glow next to the native blue grama grass, paintbrush, myriad daisies, shooting stars and early spring pasque-flowers. Your garden, too, will accommodate Douglas firs, aspen and on a dry slope, ponderosa pine.

If you live in the foothills, penstemons, wild roses, gaillardia, lupine and wallflower thrive. Most of us on the Front Range live in an area that is mixed with foothills and prairie plants that may include penstemons, yarrows, coneflowers, blue flax, rudbeckias and many more. The foothills will accommodate perhaps the greatest number of native plants. The hardest decision will be which to choose.

Plains and prairie areas will be home to little bluestem, cowboy’s delight, cacti, blue flax and prairie coneflower. Many of these plants will overlap geography. But defining the character of your garden’s location will help to recognize wild plants that have evolved for your soil and topography. You may live in a mountain area that is both moist from a stream and dry in a ponderosa forest. Foothills gardens, too, may include both prairie and some mountain plants. Start with perhaps only three stalwarts and you’ll be on your way.

A list of native plants too beautiful not to cultivate:

Prairie, Colorado Plateau and arid gardens:

blue flax (Adenolinum lewisii), prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera), pussytoes (Antennaria parvifolia), scarlet globe mallow or cowboy’s delight (Sphaeralcea coccinea), spotted gayfeather (Liatrus punctata), prairie zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora), desert goldenrod (Solidago velutina), desert penstemon (Penstemon pseudospectabilis), Palmer’s penstemon (Penstemon palmeri), Eaton’s firecracker (Penstemon eatonii), Colorado four-o’clock (Mirabilis multiflora)

Foothills with spring rains and dry summers:

Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus), wild rose (Rosa woodsii), Gaillardia (Gaillardia aristata), prairie smoke (Geum tribolium), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis), little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium), woolly cinquefoil, (Potentilla hippiana), pineleaf penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius), mat penstemon (Penstemon linarioides), scarlet bugler (Penstemon barabatus), Maximilian’s sunflower (Helianthus maximilianii), golden columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha), Agastache (Agastache cana)

Mountain gardens with moisture and streams:

shooting star (Dodecatheon pulchellum), Rocky Mountain columbine (Aquilegia caerulea), Rocky Mountain wild iris (Iris missouriensis), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium demissum), which is really an iris.

Mountain gardens that are dry, like ponderosa forests: Whipple’s penstemon (Penstemon whippleanus), Western wallflower (Erysimum asperum), One-sided penstemon (Penstemon secundiflorus), blue-mist penstemon (Penstemon virens)

Dry shade gardens: Oregon grape holly (Mahonia repens also listed as Berberis repens)

For disturbed areas: fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium or Chamerion angustifolium) will take some shade, wild bergamot or bee balm (Monarda fistulosa)

For butterflies: Showy and swamp milkweeds are host plants for monarchs (Asclepias incarnata and speciosa), chokecherries (Padus or Prunus virginiana ssp. melanocarpa) for yellow tiger swallowtail butterflies, thistles for painted lady butterflies, parsley family for black swallow tail butterflies

Wildflowers easy to grow from seed: prairie coneflower, blue flax, gaillardia, Rocky Mountain penstemon, all of these will self-seed rampantly

For rock gardens: native pasque flower (Anemone patens ssp. multifida, Pulsatilla patens), harebells, also known as bluebells (Campanula rotundifolia), stemless Townsend daisy (Townsendia exscapa), wild candytuft (Thlaspi montanum var. fendleri), sky pilot (Polemonium viscosum)

Sources:

Alplains Seeds, P.O. Box 489, Kiowa, Colorado, 80117; 303-621-2247

Laporte Avenue Nursery, 1950 Laporte Avenue, Fort Collins, Colorado80301; 303-939-9403 (rock garden plants a specialty)

Rocky Mountain Native Plants Company, 3780 Silt Mesa road, Rifle, Colorado 81650, 970-625-4769

Rocky Mountain Rare Plants, 1706 Deerpath Road, Franktown, Colorado, 80116-9462 (no phone); www.rmrp.com

Sunscapes Rare Plant Nursery, 330 Carlile Avenue, Pueblo, Colorado, 81004, 719-546-0047; www.sunscapes.net

Western Native Seed, P.O. Box 188, Coaldale, Colorado, 81222; 719-942-3935; www.westernnativeseed.com

Plants of the Southwest, 3095 Agua Fria Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 87501; 800-788-7333; www.plantsofthesouthwest.com

Photos from top: pasque-flower, Rocky Mountain columbine, Rocky Mountain penstemon, cowboy's delight, Mahonia repens, lupine


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