- Jane Shellenberger
Gardening in Colorado Tips: Growing Ornamentals & Some Principles of Xeriscape
Match Plants to Your Conditions
For beginners especially, it’s a lot easier and more satisfying to match plants to the conditions you already have than to change the environment to suit plants that inevitably struggle here. Even if you find favorites you remember from CA, FLA or NY in big box stores, don’t assume they’ll thrive in our climate. It’s better to buy from a reputable nursery. Try plants with PlantSelect tags or order a Garden in a Box planned for our area (avail. through many municipalities & High Country Gardens online).
Plant Some Natives
Research has shown that adding natives to an existing landscape feeds and supports the native fauna, including birds, bees, and other beneficial insects. Plants from other continents are much less attractive to Colorado insects, for example. This used to be considered a good thing until we realized that insect-free ecosystems collapse. 98% of all birds depend on an astonishing 6000-9000 soft-bodied insects to raise their young. It may be difficult to wrap your brain around the concept that insects are desirable, but in fact, there are far more beneficials than pests. If we want to support life we can embrace plants that offer “ecosystem services” like food and shelter instead of just a pretty, unblemished face.
Different areas in your yard receive different amounts of light, wind and moisture. To minimize water waste, group together plants with similar light and water needs, and place them in an area that matches these requirements. Put high-water-use plants in low-lying drainage areas, near downspouts, or in the shade of other plants. Dry, sunny areas or areas far from a hose are great places for low-water-use plants.
Anything we plant in a garden, including low maintenance, xeric perennials, needs time to establish before you cut off life support. This means you need to water them regularly at first, usually for 6 months to a year. Once established, they usually won’t need you much anymore.
Most garden plants will benefit from adding organic material like compost, though many desert plants and plants native to lean Western US soils don’t need it. These have developed strategies like deep taproots to survive in harsh environments. Just loosening the soil before planting can sometimes be enough. “Native” can mean many different growing conditions: semi arid gravelly plains, moist riparian areas, mountain slopes, etc, so pay attention to cultural requirements.
Mulch keeps plant roots cool, prevents soil from crusting, minimizes evaporation, and reduces weed growth. Organic wood mulches should be applied at least 4 inches deep. Because they decompose over time, they’re an excellent choice for new beds. As plants mature and spread, they’ll cover the mulched areas. Many native and desert plants prefer inorganic gravel mulches to wood (which will hold moisture and rot their crowns). Apply gravel at least 2 inches deep. These rarely need to be replaced and work well in windy spots.