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If you’ve ever tried to dig a hole in Colorado, you understand pretty quickly how the Rocky Mountains earned its name. If you’re from another part of the country and love to garden, get ready: a whole different set of rules apply here.

Take it from Emma Friedland, Lead Horticulturist for the Yampa River Botanic Park, whose job it is to manage the horticulture team who maintains all the gardens. Part of her job description, in addition to keeping out weeds, making compost into viable soil, and pairing plants for the most successful growing season, is to showcase Colorado’s native plants. “I was born and raised in Colorado, so I’ve been gardening here all my life,” she says. “I always tell people who are new to Colorado that native plants are the best to start.”

Colorado’s soil is notoriously challenging, as is the dry, hot, high altitude sun. There are other things to consider that might not occur in the more humid, verdant parts of the country, like the need to conserve water and to create your own soils, ideally from compost. We caught up with Friedland during her busy spring planting season to learn a few tricks of the trade.

Take inventory.

“The first thing to do if you want to plan a home garden is to look around and take inventory of your space,” Friedland says. “Is it dry, wet, shady, or sunny? Look around and see what types of plants are happy. If you’re really starting from scratch and want a low maintenance but beautiful space, the best place to start is to choose plants that are native to Colorado like Coneflower, Black-Eyed Susan, and Rocky Mountain Penstemon.” Friedland says there’s nothing wrong with wanting more exotic plants. “It’s really a matter of how much time you want to spend in your garden.”

Rocky Mountain Penstemon

Get your hands dirty.

When it comes to gardening in Colorado, the first challenge is the soil. “We tend to have very clay-heavy soils here, which has small pore space and is very compacted,” Friedland says. “This makes it difficult for air and water to travel through, and both those things are important for roots to be able to grow. The best way to amend this is to add organic matter or compost to your soil.” Making your own soil from compost, like they do at the YRBP, is the most sustainable option; it just takes time. You can also buy compost at your local landscaping store. “If you can’t make your own compost, just be sure to buy it from a local garden center as opposed to big box store. You’re going to get better quality compost and support your local community.

Let the light in.

Because of our close proximity to the sun at altitude, light takes on a whole new level of intensity, which can be good or bad depending on the type of plant. “It really depends on which side of the house you’re gardening on. If it’s south facing, choose sun-loving native plants that are easy to maintain and don’t require a lot of water like Blanketflower or Firecracker Penstemon. On the north-facing side of a home is an opportunity for a shade garden where plants like Irish Spring Lungwort and Coral Bells varieties will do well, even though they aren’t native to the area. A a few plants that do well in partial sun are Native Harebell and Colorado Blue Columbine.

Colorado Blue Columbine

Conserve water.

After 22 years of drought, Colorado’s water supply is extremely compromised, so it’s important to consider ways to conserve water. “Low water plants like Colorado Desert Blue Star, Scott’s Sugarbowls, and Mojave Sage are a great choice for a garden that is more sustainable,” Friedland says. “How and when you water your garden is also important. “I would recommend watering infrequently but for longer periods of time, so the water has a chance to soak in really deep, which is going to encourage your plants to grow long roots to get to those reserves,” Friedland says. “If you live on a slope, you may want to water for about 10 minutes, and then wait 10 minutes to give it a chance to soak in really well, then repeat. If the water is shallow, your roots will be shallow.” Time of day is also key: avoid watering in the hot sun when the water can evaporate. “The ideal time to water is in the evening so the water has all night to soak in.” Finally, choose those water-wise plants that can thrive without needing a lot of water. “Plants that are native to Colorado are always going to be the best choice for a low maintenance garden.” The grass might not always be greener in Colorado, but there is always plenty of room to grow. // yampariverbotanicpark.org