Balanced, sustainable gardens year-round |

Balanced, sustainable gardens year-round

Kimberly Nicoletti
Special to the Daily
the Alpine hill a flower bed in park
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

VAIL — When it comes to High Country summer blooms, many people choose annuals, which tend to flower sooner, relatively easier and longer than perennials. But planning a balanced garden using perennials and xeriscaping helps ecosystem sustainability and can still provide a colorful, textured landscape.


Xeriscaping has been popular for years, due to its lower water usage, which is a major plus. Still, it needs drip irrigation or a low spray. And, like any plant first taking root, more water is necessary until it is well established.

Though xeriscaping provides less color than a mixture of annual and perennial flowers, an interesting xeriscaped garden stems from texture and height variation. During winter months, the plants also add tones of greens and browns to an otherwise white landscape.

Grasses and feathery plants, such as Karl Foerster grass, red-leaf coreopsis and lily-like hostas add texture and provide a native Coloradan feel — plus many are drought-tolerant. Tall trees create a backdrop for smaller shrubs, and taller flowers. Shorter growing plants and ground covering like snow-in-summer and penstemon make a beautiful forefront.

Planning is key when planting any garden, especially a xeriscaped one, said Glen Ellison, co-owner of Land Designs by Ellison, a Ceres Company.

He encourages people to spend money up front for the design process; this allows homeowners to become very specific when it comes to choosing the multitude of not just plants, but also pavers, stones and other elements of xeriscaping.

In fact, elements homeowners might not even consider include: how bird baths attract birds that eat destructive bugs and how various flowers such as larkspur, hydrangea, rhubarb leaves, foxglove and tulip and daffodil bulbs are poisonous to dogs.

Another example of potential problems come into play with sloped lawns, which allow water to run down without fully irrigating grass and other plants. A series of terraced plateaus grounded with plants can solve the problem and use less water.

Proper garden planning also takes winter into account.

Jamie McCluskie, owner of Mac Design in Avon, designs landscapes for snow storage, as well as summer delight. He incorporates hardy shrubs, perennial flowers and/or boulder outcroppings to protect more delicate plants from snowplow blades and heavy snow piles. Many perennials and shrubs such as ural false spirea and black beauty elder are resilient enough to bounce back after sitting under heavy snow build-up.


Annuals provide instant gratification when planting a garden, so many people avoid perennials because they usually have a shorter blooming period and take patience. However, planting a variety of perennials that bloom one after another (in various stages, seasonally) leads to a colorful garden.

“Perennials take time, but they don’t take much work if you select the right varieties,” said, Nick Courtens, senior horticulturalist of the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens.

He has helped grow more than a thousand varieties of perennials from around the world, and, while it’s not necessary to go that far, he does encourage people to incorporate plenty of perennials in their gardens.

“Growing a more diverse plant selection is critical for a healthy garden,” he says. “Growing one plant is detrimental if a bug or disease (takes over). Other plants can attract certain bugs that are good.”

Perennials such as catmint, salvia, moonshine yarrow, lambs ear, creeping phlox and echinacea deter deer, which takes some of the wildlife magic out of gardens, but also keeps your plants from being chomped to the ground.

Tall trees, such as red twig dogwood and yarrow flower also add a tinge of color in winter. Summer flowers such as daisies, lupines and columbines are easy to grow, and flowers such as trumpet flower attract butterflies.

And, contrary to common knowledge, there are many low-water perennials, such as columbines, black-eyed Susans, blue flax and Sweet William.

Then, there are more tricky perennials to grow, but plenty of resources exist to help gardeners successfully grow high alpine plants, from nurseries to the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens Educational Center.

“People get discouraged when plants die, but you only can learn from what you kill sometimes,” Courtens says. “If you try once, don’t give up. People get discouraged too easily and go back to easy altitude plants they’re used to growing already. But there’s a joy in gardening (and) trying more diverse plants.”

In addition to the fact that perennials re-seed themselves every year so gardeners don’t have to replant every nook and cranny, as more people request a greater variety of high alpine perennials at nurseries, the more selection nurseries will offer, due to demand.

“I feel that people think that the gardens up here have to be boring and can’t be colorful, but there are so many possibilities up here,” Karolina Zolnierczyk, landscape designer at Ceres Landcare said. “You just have to have fun with the garden. Play with it.”

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