By Elizabeth Gold
The geography of Colorado ranges from 3,300 feet high to more than 14,400 feet. It includes a wide variety of terrains — from rugged mountain land and desert canyons to wide-open plains and mesas.
In addition to providing infrequent rainfall, our Front Range weather features drying winds and temperatures that can fluctuate as much as 90 degrees in a 24-hour period. It can snow as late as May and as early as September.
To outdoor lovers, the state is an invitation to play. To gardeners, it’s a plea for water conservation, soil amendment and recognition that one size does not fit all.
The latter means that what grows beautifully in the national park may die in your backyard. So even though quaking aspen trees seem synonymous with the Colorado landscape, they are poorly suited for homes along the Front Range. The altitude, soil and climate difference between here and there makes aspens prime targets for disease and insect infestations.
Basic steps done right make the difference between wilting foliage and the kind of lush that capitalizes on our local environment, according to local landscape designers.
Step one for planning outdoor spaces in the Boulder County area is evaluating the site. It requires noting what Mother Nature blows through the yard before anything is added.
Does the area get sun all day? Does the wind shake your shutters?
Kristin Wachtel, associate designer with TLC Gardens Landscape Design and Construction in Longmont, advises people to know what they’re working with before choosing anything to plant.
“We actually stand in the yard and look into the sky, knowing that when the sun goes down or when it’s shadier in the winter, things will be different,” she said.
Knowing which side of the yard will be hit hardest by the wind adds another consideration because some trees and shrubs do better with it than others.
Noting the various microclimates is paramount in this initial evaluation. South- and west-facing areas are warm and sunny, east sides are cooler and possibly more protected from the wind, and north sides tend to be shadiest, coolest and most damp.
“Plants and trees have altitude ratings,” Wachtel said, “so ask if a plant you like will thrive at your elevation.”
It’s more of a hardiness factor than a temperature factor, she added, referring to the nighttime thermometer drops that surprise visitors from warmer climates.
Next on the list of steps is getting down and dirty. Literally.
The soil structure in our area is predominantly heavy clay. When it takes a mighty jump on the shovel to crack the surface, be assured that tree and plant roots will need an extra boost to have a chance for survival.
This two-step soil amendment process involves adding compost to break up the clay and nutrients to pump up the nutritional value. Talk to a garden professional to determine proportions and content that will make your soil a good home for the plant or tree suited for that spot.
Bill Melvin, owner of Ecoscape Environmental Design in Boulder, recommended mixing one to three inches of compost into the native soil.
The final step in creating a healthy landscape is keeping it wet.
“Well over three-quarters of our customers want to xeriscape,” Melvin said. “The turn of the century was a turning point for water usage in Colorado; it wasn’t well understood prior to 2000.”
Drought-tolerant landscaping or xeriscaping utilizes plants and trees that don’t need much or any watering after they’ve been established.
Melvin and Wachtel recommend drip irrigation for those that require more than nature can provide.
Melvin suggested hiring a professional rather than following the do-it-yourself model when installing a drip irrigation system. There are plumbing considerations in tying the system to a main water line, electrical requirements when installing valves and programming steps in creating a control clock.
Benefits of drip irrigation include targeted watering, a decreased water bill and no need to get a neighbor to water the yard when you’re out of town if you install a timer.
Moisture sensors can turn a drip irrigation system off when it rains, when evaporation rates are reduced or when the temperature drops below hot.
“It can all pay off in two or three years,” Melvin said.
His advice also is to remember to water trees throughout winter by slow soaking them two or three times during prolonged dry periods. Snow actually can be on the ground when a tree is dying of thirst.
If the snow is frozen on the ground or if there’s been no sign of precipitation for three weeks, it’s time, he said, “but you don’t want to water when it’s too cold — never at or below 28 degrees.”