Grow resilient plants in Western gardens

The climate and lack of rain can make gardening difficult in Western states. But proper plant selection will make a big difference.

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While both coasts have received record precipitation, the Front Range plains of Colorado are dry.

This isn’t unusual winter weather, but the preceding months were dry, too. The sun shines here almost everyday and, at a mile high, UV light is intense. This month strong winds have blown for days at a time, gusting to 80 m.p.h. and sucking the moisture out of the ground. Several fires have erupted, although fortunately, no houses have burned since last September’s blaze above Boulder.

While drought can occur anywhere, here it’s part of the natural cycle, though defined today by reservoir levels, not by how much rain or snow falls. Like all semi-arid steppe climates, we have tremendous native plant diversity despite low humidity and precipitation. But these are not plants you typically find in yards or gardens.

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Urban trees were all planted. Except for the cottonwoods, willows, and box elders found along creeks and riverbanks, trees aren’t native to the plains.

A change in thinking

After decades of attempting to create lush green landscapes and gardens full of water-loving flowers in an inhospitable environment, Westerners started to wake up. In 1985, the term “xeriscape” was coined in Denver to describe water-saving landscapes, though many skeptically referred to it as “zeroscape” and snubbed the plants. Water was still cheap enough to mindlessly hose off driveways, and hardly anyone was talking about sustainability.

Times have changed.

Today many people want to garden using plants that don’t need extra water or pampering. Some have ripped out lawns to install food gardens and water-wise landscapes (and more would if neighborhood covenants didn’t prohibit it).

Plants that are adapted to local conditions

Thanks to the efforts of local and regional horticulturists, plants that are far better suited to our climate are readily available now: Moonshine yarrow, catmints, sedums, Centranthus ruber, artemisias, and Russian sage have become xeriscape standbys, but eriogonums (buckwheats), penstemons, hardy ice plants, grasses such as Sporobolus wrightii, and beauties like Salvia pachyphylla (a Mojave desert plant) are also showing up in home gardens.

The PlantSelect program has been instrumental in introducing these, and work is underway at several Western universities to introduce more garden-worthy natives that support native pollinators and can tolerate our weather extremes.

Spring rarely unfolds gradually here. Temperatures rise and fall precipitously into May. Garden plants often emerge from dormancy then freeze. But natives and plants adapted to Western climates are tough and resilient, even bouncing back after hail.

Many are drought-tolerant and thrive in lean soils, but this doesn’t mean you can stick them in any old piece of ground and expect them to dazzle right away.

It takes time even for tough plants to become established. In order to survive harsh conditions, some have long taproots, which take months or years to develop. New transplants need regular watering -- but not too much of it -- for several months to a year, depending on the plant.

Think before you buy plants this spring

Most need good drainage so their roots can access oxygen. Because their crowns need to stay dry in winter, some do better with pea gravel than with organic mulches.

Commercial perennials are grown in greenhouses and pushed to flower because that’s what customers buy. By the time they reach your garden, they’ve already expended a lot of energy. Before buying plants, do some research. Visit gardens where you can see them growing. Buy from a trusted garden center with knowledgeable staff, and ask questions. Instead of buying plants with the most blooms, choose the ones that haven’t flowered yet.

Resilient, water-wise beauties will reward you; just have a little patience.

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Jane Shellenberger lives on five acres at 5,000 feet on the plains in Hygiene, Colo., between Boulder and Longmont. She is the publisher and editor of Colorado Gardener, "A thinking gardener's companion". Her book, "Organic Gardener's Companion: Growing Vegetables in the West" will be available in spring 2012.

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