Born and raised in northern Idaho, the granddaughter of avid gardeners, Mary Ann Newcomer grew up with an appreciation of native Rocky Mountain flora and the unique brand of nurturing it can require.

"The region is very much characterized by basin and range. We get less than 12 inches of rain a year and sometimes horrendous snowfall as well as blistering hot temperatures," said Newcomer, a gardening expert whose newest book, "Rocky Mountain Gardener's Handbook" ($24.99; Cool Springs Press; 272 pages), focuses on all forms of gardening - decorative to functional - in the Rocky Mountain region. The book, co-authored with Colorado horticulturist John Cretti and published late last year, includes techniques for cultivation and maintenance and a vast catalog of plants - annuals and perennials, grasses, edibles and trees - known to thrive regionally, given the proper care.

"There are some places in this region where they're never without a frosty night, so there are a few places without much of a growing season at all, especially the higher elevations," said Newcomer, whose book includes a special section on fire-wise and drought-tolerant gardening. Still, "there are a lot of high country plants that do very well."

Stretching more than 3,000 miles from northern British Columbia to New Mexico, the arid Rocky Mountain region and its terrain can present a challenge for traditional gardeners. While dryness is occasionally an issue for temperate gardeners, for growers here, low rainfall and drought are quotidian concerns that must be considered at the front end.

"We're just so dry, you have to do everything you can to make the most of the water you do have and direct that water to the garden. I think we've adapted really well," Newcomer said. "There are also wild temperature swings. In one day, we can go up or drop by as much as 50 degrees in some places."

Even the most rugged, high-altitude gardens need not go bare, though, given the right plantings and caretaker.

"There's always something (that will grow), and Colorado is a really great example of that," she said.

In fact, if a plant could thrive in Colorado, Newcomer considered it hardy enough to handle the entirety of the Rocky Mountain region, and worthy of inclusion in her book.

"If they can make it in Colorado, they can pretty much make it anywhere," she said.

Flowers making the cut include hollyhock, wild daisy and syringa.

"A lot of the things that people associate with old, historic gardens - the sentimental favorites like lilacs, peonies, and irises - do very well here," she said. "They survive with very little water and are tough as nails."

Still, a successful Rocky Mountain gardener must remain vigilant, able to quickly and deftly respond to quickly changing outdoor conditions.

The climate "makes it difficult to know what's going to happen next," Newcomer said. "Your garden really has to be prepared and you need to be on guard to make sure you're out there, with polar fleece blankets if it's cold and sunscreen if it's hot."


Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364