• Jane Shellenberger

Hooked on Rock Gardening

By Jane Shellenberger:

Amy Wendland & Mike Smedley
Amy Wendland & Mike Smedley

Mike Smedley doesn’t have fond childhood garden memories. He remembers the hot, sweaty, hand-blistering job of cutting his grandma’s chemical drenched lawn and dumping the clippings on her thorny, stabbing rose bed every week. It all seemed so pointless.


Only much later in life, nearly 15 years after moving from Utah to Durango, did he embrace gardening and a new ethos of working with nature. He bought a townhouse with a “postage-stamp sized moonscape backyard” and, encouraged by Jeff Wagner, an ecologically minded, well educated and well traveled plantsman living in Durango, got hooked on rock gardening. That was the beginning of what has become an obsession. “I have no children,” he says by way of explantion. When people ask if I travel much I say, “Yes - to the People’s Republic of Backyardistan.”


About 10 years ago, Mike and his wife Amy Wendland, an art professor and dean at Fort Lewis College, were out doing errands when they passed a house with a for sale sign. The owner beckoned them inside to take a look, which they did, on a whim. Both agreed that they hated the house, but a few days later they put in an offer. After all, it was in a great location, had an almost bare double lot, and by this time Mike had outgrown his tiny backyard.


Inspired by a visit to Sandy Snyder’s innovative, no-mow, bulb-studded buffalograss lawn in Littleton, he decided to grow buffalograss for lawn exclusively – from plugs, not seed. It’s also “the perfect foil for over 13,000 species tulip and crocus bulbs planted for an audacious burst of spring color and food for early pollinators.” He says, “I’m not a subtle guy.”


Since then he has regularly been invited by Denver Botanic Gardens to make a presentation (“part comedy, part scholarly”) for their annual Fall Plant Sale. Did you know that the eranthis (winter aconite) tuber is actually the petrified poisonous slobber from a three-headed dog from hell encountered by Hercules on a trip to Hades?

Above: The Smedley rock garden looking south. Mike cut every stone for the paths and spent nine weekends placing rocks, tweaking, rebuilding, cursing.

Mike says his gardening education was largely spurred by reading Passionate Gardening by Lauren Springer and Rob Proctor, and later, Springer’s The Undaunted Garden. He recommends them in that order. He’s a huge fan of PlantSelect. With their plants “I know all the mistakes have already been made so I won’t have to make them again, plus they’re beautiful.” He says he has no gardening philosophy, he’s just looking for colors and textures. And the more he learns, “the depth of my ignorance is staggering.”


While transplants and second-homers in Durango often fall prey to a nostalgia for more familiar water-intensive gardens or the stereotypical aspen and green lawn aesthetic, snubbing the lovely rocks, shrub oaks and other endemic plants, this is sometimes cured by $400 a month water bills. “Water is very expensive here,” Mike says. “The whole point with growth trajectories is that there is going to be less and less. We face huge challenges. The whole basis of western water is snow – melting and being stored. Winters used to be harsher here. Now we get rain in every month of the year.”


In addition to being a plant and rock hound gardener, Mike Smedley is a banker with a background in journalism. He recently won a prestigious award from the N. American Rock Garden Society for his piece in their Rock Garden Quarterly, "Battling Clay on Garage Hill" where he describes the process of tearing down the old garage and building the backyard rock garden. Here’s a short excerpt: To call it a “garage” would be an insult to outbuildings everywhere. Constructed in the 1950s with two salvaged mismatched bay doors, this detached “garage” had dirt floors, no insulation, and a hole in the roof where someone obviously fell through. Inside, a lone light bulb offered all the charm of a Third World prison cell. And those were the good points. Demolition consisted of one slight nudge from a backhoe. A rock garden was born. Sort of. The problem was soil… Contractors are great folks. But most are not gardeners. To them, soil is what you build things on. Thus, on a spring morning nine years ago, two dump trucks showed up and deposited the nastiest, stickiest, orange clay subsoil. By afternoon, heavy equipment busily compacted this pottery-grade fill. The soil was so bad that nothing grew there in the first year except for some miserable strands of bindweed. Not only did the site lack tilth, it also lacked life, be it microbial or invertebrate. This was a blessing in disguise because there were a few other pending gardening projects, namely flagstone paths, waterwise borders, woodland plantings, fences, a street-facing hellstrip, a southern-exposure crevice garden, a fish pond, two decks and the planting of 10,000 bulbs amongst buffalo grass lawn plugs.

The side gardens at Mike and Amy’s house, designed for privacy, include an assortment of gorgeous and unusual small and medium sized conifers, many of them local, and a beautiful Southwestern native Fernbush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium). The backyard rock garden was a “Egyptian” effort – rolling huge slabs of stone around and into place, including a mighty specimen he won in a contest by guessing its weight. Mike cut the stone for all the paths himself, using up 40+ blades in the process. “In a rock garden,” he explains, “you can express personal style and create astonishing beauty in a small space that’s super cool and ecologically sound.”