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Find plants that work with the Colorado climate

March 5, 2014 Updated: March 5, 2014 at 2:58 pm
photo - Hardy Pampas Grass
Hardy Pampas Grass 

Take on Mother Nature and you will lose every time.

Colorado gardeners take up the gauntlet all year, and fight conditions such as searing heat and light, droughts, poor soil and hungry deer.

The price they pay is steep: huge water bills, dying foliage, non-blooming plants and a lot of wasted time, money and effort.

The trick, said Julie McIntyre, owner of Summerland Gardens, is learning to embrace the conditions where we live - the arid Southwest.

"We're the high desert," said McIntyre, who also writes the Plant of the Week column for The Gazette. "A lot of people think we're the mountains, but we're still in the plains. We have that plains-mountain interface. We have conditions that are different from most of the other parts of the country."

Deciphering the best shrubs, trees, flowers and grasses isn't difficult, she said, and she's watched as more of her clients have come to accept our particular growing environment, especially during the current drought conditions.

"I hear about their2,000 and 4,000 water bills," said McIntyre, "and I'm, like, it doesn't have to be that way. But you grew up with it and the garden magazines - it's like garden porn - you want that and you're going to pay for it."

And even though our gardens should look different from lush English gardens that flourish under constant water and rich soil, it doesn't mean you can't have an attractive garden year round.

Unhospitable soil is a big concern in our climate. We go from gravel - the rock debris coming off the Rocky Mountains, McIntyre said, to the clay coming off the plains, and lack the great river bottom soils of the Midwest.

Is there any way to improve the soil?

"That's the million dollar question," she said. "Are you going to try to bring in truckload after truckload of compost to grow plants that don't want to grow here? Or pick plants where you don't have to break your back or your bank account to grow."

Wannabe growers sometimes believe their growing plans are relegated to cacti and scrubby stuff, but that's just not the case. There are plenty of greenery options for our part of the country.

"Our biggest challenge is water," McIntyre said. "And it looks like it will (always) be that way. We're changing our aesthetic a little. The town was founded when water was plentiful, and it rained every day. We never thought about it. And now we're hearing that was maybe the anomaly, and we're coming back to what really is normal for the high desert plains."


Whatever the case, choosing a locally grown plant is key.

"We get lots of people who go to box stores, and buy stuff grown in Oregon, or grown for areas other than the arid Southwest," McIntyre said. "This stuff isn't going to survive here. It hits dry air and the altitude - you might get a year or two out of it. But you increase the odds of success by picking stuff grown and adapted for here."

Ideal plants for our climate

Hummingbird Mint

Type: Perennial

Needs: Full sun to partial shade; average to poor soils, well-drained; drought tolerant

Your Hummingbird Mint will bring all the butterflies to the yard. This hardy perennial is a pretty presentation of tubular pinkish-orange flowers, which little winged creatures love. Even better, the leaves give off a root beer or licorice odor that repel deer. The plant is drought tolerant once established, and prefers infrequent watering.

Diabolo Ninebark

Type: Shrub

Needs: Full sun, part sun, needs full sun to maintain red leaves; average to moderate water; average soil

This shrub's for you if you like low maintenance greenery. Once established, it requires average watering, and likes full sun to encourage the growth of its red leaves. It sprouts white flowers in the summer and can grow up to nine feet tall and five feet across. Butterflies love it, and deer usually avoid it.

Leadwort (sometimes called Plumbago)

Type: Perennial, groundcover

Needs: Shade, full sun, some afternoon shade; average water; average soil, tolerates clay

If you've scrapped your dreams of a lush, green lawn, try a groundcover like Leadwort. The colorful cobalt blue flowers is drought tolerant once established. The plant can thrive in full shade or sun, but likes afternoon shade in hot locations. It spreads by itself underground, and can fill an area with dense green leaves. Deer don't hunger for it.

Butterfly Bush, (also called Summer Lilac)

Type: Shrub

Needs: Full sun; average water; average soil, well-drained

As you might expect, butterflies are attracted to these sprawling bushes with fragrant purple, pink, white or lavender flowers. Deer won't stop to munch, though hummingbirds will. Once established, it's drought tolerant.

Weeping Norway Spruce

Type: Evergreen tree

Needs: Sun to part sun; average water; average soil, needs well-drained spot

You almost want to run over and give a Weeping Norway Spruce tree a big hug, and reassurance that all will be well. The tree has great drooping branches, short dark green needles and can grow up to 12 feettall. They're easy to grow and low maintenance, plus they add some character to any yard.

Hardy Pampas Grass

Type: Grass

Needs: Sun to part sun; average water; average soil, tolerates clay

If grass can be a drama queen, then that's what Hardy Pampas Grass is. It's stately and tall, growing up to 12 feet with majestic plumes. Those plumes carry on through the winter, adding character to an otherwise drab yard. It adapts to all kinds of soil conditions and does fine with moderate water, though increasing that can grow a larger and fuller grass. Plus, it doesn't appeal to deer.

More suggested plants

- Perennial flowers: Salvias (like May Night), sedums, succulents, catmint, columbine, chrysanthemum, aster

- Annual flowers: Petunias, snapdragons, marigolds, zinnias

- Roses: Nearly Wild, Ruby Voodoo

- Shrubs: Blue mist spirea, ninebark, elderberry, burning bush, barberry, lilacs

- Trees: Hawthorn, crabapple, fruit (like apple, plum, cherry, pear)

Plants to avoid

Hydrangea, azalea, rhododendron


Julie McIntyre returns with her Plant of the Week column on March 22.

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