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Sky-high gardens

by Sarah L. Stewart
Columbine, the state flower, is one perennial that does well in high elevations.
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Breathing, baking, staying hydrated: It seems everything is a little more difficult at high elevation, and landscaping is no exception.

As home sites climb higher up the slopes, homeowners aren’t willing to leave lush gardens and artful landscapes behind at lower elevations. But maintaining a yard at 10,000 feet and above presents a few challenges generally absent at 7,000, 8,000 or even 9,000 feet.

“It can be frustrating for some people,” says Matt Brewer, nursery manager at Neils Lunceford, a landscape design and build company in Silverthorne. “Each place has its own microclimate that is really the key to what we can grow.”

If you live near the 2-mile elevation mark, here’s some advice from experts who know how to make a high-elevation garden grow.

Plants that have spent millennia adapting to the harsh conditions present above 10,000 feet are the best bet for success at that elevation.

“Typically what we go with up here are native species,” says Brewer, whose company has landscaped homes near Hoosier and Boreas passes on the Summit/Park County line and at elevations of 12,500 feet.

“Plant material really struggles to survive at that elevation, even if everything is right,” says Tim Glasco, CEO of Neils Lunceford. “I don’t think you have an option to plant much introduced species. Really, you’re limited to native vegetation, which does limit your plant palette.”

At 9,000 feet, there are about 30 to 50 shrubs and 80 to 90 perennials that will grow successfully, Brewer says. At 10,000 feet, only about a quarter of those plants will work, and 75 percent of those are native.

He recommends evergreens, such as Colorado spruce, Engelmann spruce and bristlecone pine; shrubs, such as red-berried elder, golden currant and native willows; and native perennials, such as gaillardia and columbine, the state flower.

“A great thing with high-elevation landscaping is because most stuff is native, as long as you put the plants in the right place (in terms of soil moisture) they’re a lot more apt to take on and become a carefree landscape,” Brewer says.

Even plants well adapted to high elevations need some help to increase their odds of success, and therefore the success of your landscape.

A happy high-elevation plant must be acclimated to the climate before planting to avoid sending it into shock, says John Rosenfeld, owner of Johnie’s Garden in Minturn.

“I think the best thing is just be aware of how far along that plant is when you put it (in the ground),” Rosenfeld says.

Perennials from big-box stores and lower-elevation nurseries are usually bigger and closer to blooming than they would be if they began life at high elevations. Such plants should be cut back and protected from frost through June, which will encourage a fresh round of growth and acclimate the plant to its new environment, Rosenfeld says.

Use care in deciding where to place a plant, since sun, wind and moisture can vary from one area of a yard to the next.

“Paying attention to the angle of the sun and the altitude is very important,” says Jennifer Dolecki-Smith, landscape architect for Escape Garden Design in Aspen. Even at the slightly lower elevations where most of her landscapes are located, a plant might flourish on one side of the rock, while “on the other side of the rock, it might be a totally different climate,” she says.

Soil is also a big concern at high elevations, since the native soil tends to be rocky, inconsistent and weak in nutrients, Brewer says.

Both he and Rosenfeld recommend soil amendment ” the addition of organic material such as compost ” with each planting.

“That’s the key to success at high altitudes,” Brewer says.

The very things that make life at 10,000 feet special ” the high-alpine terrain, the cool summers, the wonderland winters ” make surviving a struggle for plants.

“The growth rate is so extremely slow,” Glasco says. The growing season, as defined by consecutive frost-free days, is just 23 or 24 days in Breckenridge (elevation, 9,603) and even less at higher elevations, he says.

A successful sky-high gardener, then, is a patient one. But nature can be given a nudge with some landscaping trickery.

Incorporating rocks into a landscape can compensate for steep slopes and sometimes lead to success with plants better suited to warmer climates.

“You can create a microclimate with rocks because they hold heat,” Rosenfeld says.

So a plant that would usually grow in the warmer hardiness zone four could potentially survive in the zone two above 10,000 feet if planted next to a rock with good sun exposure, he says.

“It opens up your plant palette a lot more.”


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