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11 Lively Lovelies Can Turn Sunny Sea of Rocks Into Show-Stopping Meadow

Magenta prairie winecups, with runners extending up to 30 inches, are ideal for covering rock. They're also one of the longest blooming plants you'll encounter. (Photo courtesy of Plant Select)

Magenta prairie winecups, with runners extending up to 30 inches, are ideal for covering rock. They’re also one of the longest blooming plants you’ll encounter. (Photo courtesy of Plant Select)

“Water, water everywhere,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink.”

You’ve probably read this verse from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It’s an apt description of the river rock mulch in my yard.

This year, I spent weeks digging rock out of the soil in my back yard so I can begin planting next year. I still have more to go. On top of that, I spent about 10 days last September expelling tons of rock mulch and landscaping fabric from my front yard.

There’s also a sea of rocks along the west side of my house and all the way to the back property line. It’s ugly. Am I going to remove that tonnage, as well? Not a chance. I may develop a small area for a vegetable garden, but the rest of the rock will stay. Life is too short.

Ralph's Creeper ground cover rose, nestled here in pink soapwort blooms and deep-cut prairie winecup leaves, is a drought-tolerant repeat bloomer that explodes with color. Use it to keep dogs from pooping in your beds.

Ralph’s Creeper ground cover rose, nestled here in pink soapwort blooms and deep-cut prairie winecup leaves, is a drought-tolerant repeat bloomer that explodes with color. Use it to keep dogs from pooping in your beds.

If you, too, find yourself drowning in a sea of rocks, what can you do?

You can create a meadow of spreading ground covers and other perennials. Just move some of the rock out of the way, cut a hole in the landscape fabric, amend the soil with a little compost, and install seeds or baby plants.

If your area has a western or southern exposure with lots of sun, you can use plants such as these 11 lively lovelies:

  • Prairie winecups (Callirhoe involucrata). This long-blooming ground cover, a Plant Select winner, sends out runners up to 30 inches long. Because it grows about five inches high, it’s tall enough to hide rocks. Plant this puppy, and it will reward you with stunning magenta blooms from early summer till frost. In the fall, prairie winecups will produce small wagon wheels of seeds. Spread the seeds around, and you’ll have lots of babies by the following spring.
  • Soapwort (Saponaria ocymoides). When this evergreen ground cover is happy, it spreads far and wide. I have one exceptionally happy pink soapwort in my front yard that has grown into a plate that measures 40 inches wide and four inches high. After blooming in the spring, soapwort produces hundreds of seeds, which you can pull off and scatter to produce baby plants. Or you can simply wait for soapwort to self-sow and produce babies on its own for transplanting. Soapwort comes in both pink and white. I’ve found that the pink variety is more robust than the white.

    To install plants in a rock reservoir, simply move some rock aside, cut a hole in the landscape fabric, work compost into the soil, and transplant a small plant, such as this rugged little candytuft. It's still trying to bloom in December. Candytuft loves sun, but will tolerate some shade.

    To install plants in a rock reservoir, simply move some rock aside, cut a hole in the landscape fabric, work compost into the soil, and transplant a small plant, such as this rugged little candytuft. It’s still trying to bloom in December. Candytuft loves sun, but will tolerate some shade.

  • Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens). This tough, evergreen beauty erupts with masses of tiny white flowers in early to mid spring. It will spread 12 to 18 inches. If you sheer it after it blooms in the spring, it may rebloom in the fall.
  • Rozanne cranesbill (Geranium ‘Gerwat’ Rozanne). Another long bloomer, Rozanne grows about 18 inches wide and 24 inches tall. This ground cover’s purple blooms are simply stunning. You may have to cut it back in late summer if it becomes leggy, but it will rebloom till frost.
  • Sedums. Some of our beloved sedums, such as autumn joy, have been reclassified as the genus Hylotelephium for ease of pronunciation. Autumn joy (Hylotelephium ‘Herbstfreude’ Autumn Joy) produces pink blooms and grows 18 to 24 inches high. Low-growing Angelina sedum (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’) is one of my favorites, with its lime green summer color and orange/red fall/winter color. At three to six inches high, it’s tall enough to cover river rock.
  • Orange carpet hummingbird (Zauscheria garrettii). If you like neon orange, you’ll love orange carpet hummingbird. The plant explodes with tubular flowers in July and keeps pumping out blooms till frost. It grows four to six inches tall and 15 to 18 inches wide. Hummingbirds went gaga over this ground cover in my yard last year.
  • Ground cover roses. Some are hardier and more drought-tolerant than others. I’ve found that seafoam, a gorgeous white ground cover rose that grows about 30” tall, tolerates all kinds of abuse. One disadvantage is that white roses tend to turn brown in intense sun. So you might get away with a white rose in southern exposure, but I don’t recommend one in a western exposure unless it gets occasional shade, especially in the afternoon. Ralph’s creeper, on the other hand, produces vibrant red blooms throughout the summer. No brownout problems with this guy. I planted one in my west-facing tree lawn in Denver and rarely watered it, yet it bloomed like a banshee. If you have an area with lots of foot traffic nearby, ground cover roses will keep dogs from pooping in your yard.
  • Irises. With their strong upright form, irises provide a welcome contrast when you surround them with low spreading ground covers. The same goes for snapdragons. I’ve seen irises grow in the most godawful conditions, so a rock bed isn’t likely to intimidate them.
  • Snapdragons. These colorful biennials already populate my future rock-based meadow, thanks to the efforts of the previous homeowner. I just let their seeds drop in the fall and wait for new plants to emerge.
  • Mojave sage (Salvia pachyphilla). One of my newest favorites, Mojave sage is sometimes described as having silvery green foliage. Maybe my soil is different, but the Mojave sage in my garden has wonderful silvery foliage that happens to be blue. Although the plant displays showy mauve brachts surrounding violet-blue flowers, I actually prefer the foliage to the flowers and regard my Mojave sages more as small shrubs than as perennials. They grow 18 to 24 inches high and 24 to 30 inches wide.
  • Color Guard yucca. For drama and architectural form, it’s hard to beat evergreen Color Guard yucca. With its variegated, yellow-and-green leaves and masses of creamy white flowers on stalks, this plant is a showpiece. In Colorado, the plant grows in a clump two to four feet tall and two to three feet wide. However, its spikes can shoot up five feet or so. In late fall, the leaves take on a rosy hue.

There are, of course, many other worthy perennials, and even shrubs, that you can use to disguise a rocky area. If you see one that you like at the nursery next spring, give it a try, as long as the plant tag indicates that it’s full-sun and drought-tolerant. Because light-colored rock reflects sunlight, it creates a great deal of heat for plants, and dries out the soil. You can, of course, irrigate your rock bed, but where’s the fun in that?

Next month, I’ll tell you about perennials that you can use in shady rock beds.

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Ogren’s ‘Allergy-Fighting Garden’ Can Help You Breathe Easier

The reddish-gold leaves of the low-allergen Regent serviceberry brighten a garden in the fall.

The reddish-gold leaves of the low-allergen Regent serviceberry brighten a garden in the fall.

When I consult with my landscape design clients, I typically ask if any family members have allergies. Over the years, I’ve learned that landscaping with low-allergen plants can improve an allergy sufferer’s quality of life considerably.

For a reference guide, I’ve used Thomas Leo Ogren’s Allergy-Free Gardening: The Revolutionary New Guide to Healthy Landscaping. This week, Ten Speed Press released Ogren’s latest book, The Allergy-Fighting Garden, and I like it even better than his earlier book.

In The Allergy-Fighting Garden, Ogren again includes his Ogren Plant Allergy Scale (OPALS) for ranking various plants. He has updated the rankings since publishing Allergy-Free Gardening in 2000. He also devotes a chapter to eliminating mold spores, a major source of allergic reactions. Then there’s his chapter on allergy-blocking hedges.

Ogren rates plants on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being lowest in allergens, and 10 being highest. Using Ogren’s rankings, what low-allergen plants might you install in your Colorado garden?

For ground covers, you could use prairie winecups (Callirhoe involucrata), veronica, soapwort (Saponaria), orange carpet hummingbird (Zauschneria garrettii) and cranesbill geraniums, all of which I’ve grown successfully in my Denver garden. They rank from 1 to 3.

Blue iris and pink allium add beauty to your garden without producing masses of allergens.

Blue iris and pink allium add beauty to your garden without producing masses of allergens.

As for taller bulbs and perennials, try iris, allium, tall garden phlox, geum, Jupiter’s beard (Centranthus ruber), hummingbird mint (Agastache), sea lavender (Limonium), wild indigo (Baptisia australis), Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus).

Then of course, there are trees and shrubs to consider. They’re particularly important because the males (who are the pollen producers) generate significantly more allergens than smaller plants do. Good choices include hawthorns (Crataegus), barberry (Berberis), butterfly bushes (Buddleia), red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), deciduous viburnums, serviceberries (Amelanchier), and some maples, such as Acer rubrum ‘Autumn Glory’, ‘October Glory’ and ‘Red Sunset.’

Avoid most grasses, especially Kentucky bluegrass, whose male cultivars carry a 9 rating. But be aware that the female cultivars (if you can find one) carry only a 1 rating. A good choice for turf grass is tall fescue, which Ogren ranks at 3.

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Everyday Plants Explode with Color in Well-designed Border

Hardy hibiscus, Annabelle hydrangea, black-eyed Susan, roses and Russian sage provide a backdrop for low-growing petunias, marigolds and Missouri evening primrose.

Hardy hibiscus, Annabelle hydrangea, black-eyed Susan, roses and Russian sage provide a backdrop for low-growing petunias, marigolds and Missouri evening primrose.

Gardeners sometimes think they need the latest and greatest cultivars to create dramatic borders when, in fact, everyday plants can serve just as well and often perform more predictably.

A case in point is a front border in my neighborhood. As you’ll see from the photos, the plants are simple, but the results are striking.

First, notice the color combinations. Startling shades of red (scarlet, purple and fuchsia), yellow (lemon and gold) and orange mingle with subtle hues of green.

Next, look at the way the low-growing fuchsia petunias punctuate the front of the border by alternating with Missouri evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa), marigolds, and red Jupiter’s beard (Centranthus ruber).

In the middle of the border, you’ll find taller plants, such as purple Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), red roses, hardy hibiscus, and yellow yarrow (Achillea ‘Moonshine’ or ‘Coronation Gold.’)

In another section of the border, iris and red garden phlox meld with yarrow and Russian sage behind  the brighter, low-growing plants.

In another section of the border, iris and red garden phlox meld with yarrow and Russian sage behind the brighter, low-growing plants.

Toward the back, observe the red and white tall garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), spruce, iris, and Annabelle hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’).  There’s even a tomato in a cage in the back of the bed by the front porch, but you can’t see it in pictures.

Although this border sits in shade during the morning, it tolerates blasts of intense sunlight throughout the afternoon.

You can easily find all of these high-performing plants at a local Colorado garden center.

I would add a word of caution, however–Jupiter’s beard and Russian sage can re-seed aggressively. So if you don’t want to play referee with your plants, you might consider substituting long-blooming Rozanne cranesbill (Geranium ‘Gerwat’) for Jupiter’s beard, and petite plum dwarf butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii nanhoensis ‘Monum’) for Russian sage.

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Winter Interest Transforms Moonscape Into Wonderland

This young staghorn sumac lends an Old West feel and architectural interest to the winter landscape.

This young staghorn sumac lends an Old West feel and architectural interest to the winter landscape.

If you’ve ever seen a butterfly bush kissed by snow, you appreciate the concept of winter interest.  Snow mutates the shrub’s leaves and faded flowers into a sparkling, lacy delight.

For those of us who live in Colorado and other tundra territories, we need plants with winter interest to prevent our landscapes from resembling moonscapes from December through March, and perhaps longer.

Plants that add a winter-wonderland quality to your environment include those with cold-weather color; architectural form; eye-catching stems and twigs; or fruits, berries, cones and seed heads.

In the winter color category, some refreshing groundcovers are woolly speedwell (Veronica pectinata) and prostrate veronica (Veronica prostrata).  V. pectinata foliage takes on a reddish cast in cold weather, whereas V. prostrata stays green and lush.  Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) also warms gardeners’ spirits with its deep green winter foliage.  Then there’s Angelina sedum, which turns from its warm-weather yellow-green color to its vibrant winter orange-red hue.

Taller plants that offer color year-round include euonymus (as in Manhattan and moonshadow), lavender, ornamental grasses, Carol Mackie dapne (which retains many of its variegated leaves), Oregon grape holly, yew, pine, fir, spruce and juniper.

Even a blizzard can't dampen the enthusiasm of this maple.

Even a blizzard can’t dampen the enthusiasm of this maple.

As for architectural form, the Kentucky coffee tree often comes to mind.  This drought-tolerant stalwart is beautiful, but you have to decide whether it’s worth the hassle to clean up its brown leathery seed pods.

Other favorites with distinctive form include maple, oak, weeping cherry, dogwood, hawthorn, sumac, willow, Harry Lauder’s walking stick and ornamental grasses.

If you’re looking for attractive bark and stems, consider ornamental cherry trees (with their gleaming red bark), paperbark maple, Kousa dogwood, lacebark elm, mature purple smoketree, red twig dogwood and yellow twig dogwood.

The bright twigs of this young Isanti dogwood contrast sharply with the snow and lend color to the landscape.

The bright twigs of this young Isanti dogwood contrast sharply with the snow and lend color to the landscape.

For plants with berries and such, it’s difficult to beat the winter king hawthorn, with red berries that hang like petite Christmas ornaments from its limbs.  This tough, water-saving plant also thrills gardeners in the spring, with its profuse white flowers and glossy green leaves.

Then there are firethorn (Pyracantha), red chokeberry, Japanese barberry and coral burst crabapple with their attractive fruit.  Meanwhile, Annabelle hydrangea, purple coneflower, yarrow and autumn joy sedum offer eye-catching seed heads, especially in the snow.  Finally, don’t forget roses with showy rosehips, or evergreen trees and shrubs, with their appealing cones.

Besides enlivening your winter garden, plants with showy fruit, berries, cones and seed heads often provide food for wildlife.

If your landscape currently looks moonscape-like, study your plant and seed catalogs to determine what you might plant this spring for a more stimulating winter ambiance in 2014.

For a Canadian blogger’s views on winter interest, visit Gardening for Winter Interest at patinaandcompany.wordpress.com.

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Serendipity Surfaces in the Shade

My grand gardening scheme consisted of creating a woodland look with Rozanne cranesbill and dogwoods in my part-shade front yard.  But Mother Nature just had to put her two cents in and produce a stand of Corydalis ophiocarpa to mingle with the cranesbill.

You see, about five years ago I planted a few corydalises in my side yard.  They reseeded aggressively and tended to move around.  Eventually they disappeared from my side yard because I didn’t water them enough.

But their seeds sneaked into my front yard, presumably because I’m always moving soil from place to place.  This resulted in said mingling of corydalis and cranesbill with cranesbill blossoms peeking out from corydalis’ fern-like foliage.

A Rozanne cranesbill blossom peeks from beneath the fronds of the low-maintenance perennial, Corydalis ophiocarpa.

A Rozanne cranesbill blossom peeks from beneath the fronds of the low-maintenance perennial, Corydalis ophiocarpa.

I love it!  It’s exactly the low-maintenance woodland feel I was looking for.  It’s also a perfect complement to my Isanti red twig dogwoods that emerge from the middle of the groundcovers. As long as I keep the soil from drying out completely, my woodland should stay intact and hopefully spread along my foundation.

Corydalis lutea offers fern-like foliage with bright yellow blooms from May through September in Colorado. (Photo courtesy of robsplants.com.)

Corydalis lutea offers fern-like foliage with bright yellow blooms from May through September in Colorado. (Photo courtesy of robsplants.com.)

Ferns, other than ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) can be difficult to grow in Colorado because of the dry climate.  Perennial corydalis fills the void.  You can plant Corydalis ophiocarpa or its cousin, Corydalis lutea.  Both are great-looking plants.  C. lutea blooms longer, cut I prefer the leaf structure of C. ophiocarpa.  It’s a personal thing.

Other outstanding shade-tolerant perennials include bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis or the shorter, fluffier D. formosa), tall garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), moonshadow winter creeper (Euonymus fortunei ‘Moonshadow’), variegated Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’), oxeye sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides), plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) and even prairie winecups (Callirhoe involucrata—yes, it will bloom in part shade).

As for shrubs and trees, excellent choices for part shade are golden spirit smokebush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Ancot’), autumn brilliance serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’), dart’s gold and Diabolo® ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Dart’s Gold’ and P. opulifolius ‘Diabolo’), oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), Knockout™ shrub rose (Rosa ‘Radrazz’ Knockout), and yews (Taxus spp.).

As you can see from these lists of plants, shade gardening can be downright exciting.  And you never know what Mother Nature might contribute to your efforts.

Here's how my front foundation border looks in September 2014.

Here’s how my front foundation border looks in September 2014.

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Drought Doesn’t Deter 3 Dazzling Trees

Hot Wings tartarian maple displays showy red samaras all summer long. (Photo courtesy of PlantSelect)

Hot Wings tartarian maple displays showy red samaras all summer long. (Photo courtesy of PlantSelect)

It seems as though drought is the new norm in Colorado. Last year we had a Stage 1 drought; this year we had a Stage 2.  So when we Coloradans hear about trees that thrive in hot, arid conditions, our ears perk up.  When those trees are also gorgeous, we get downright excited.

Three trees that thrill water-conscious homeowners are the Hot Wings® tartarian maple, golden raintree and Clear Creek® golden yellowhorn.

Hot Wings® tartarian maple, lovingly referred to as Acer tataricum ‘GarAnn’ PP 15,023, displays showy red samaras (those “helicopters” containing seeds) all summer long.  You can use this versatile specimen not only in hot, dry areas, but also next to patios and under utility lines.  The tree will eventually grow 25 to 30 feet high and wide.  As for fall color, it ranges from ranges from yellow to orange-red.

Golden raintree's beautiful yellow flowers give way to seed pods resembling small Chinese lanterns.

Golden raintree’s beautiful yellow flowers give way to seed pods resembling small Chinese lanterns.

Golden raintree (Koelreuteria paniculata) is so tough that it thrives in a parking lot island at Denver’s Eugene Field library.  You can use this plant next to patios and paths, under utility lines or simply as a focal point in your landscape.  In early to mid-summer, golden raintree rewards gardeners with panicles (pyramidal, loosely branched clusters) of bright yellow flowers.  The flowers then give way to brown seed pods that resemble small Chinese lanterns.  The plant will grow 25 to 30 feet high and wide.

Clear Creek® golden yellowhorn (Xanthoceras sorbifolium ‘Psgan’) offers feathery green foliage, bright white spring flowers and brilliant yellow fall color.  As a bonus, the tree also produces pods with edible seeds that reportedly taste somewhat like macadamia nuts when roasted.  You can grow this plant as either a tree or a shrub and use it hot, dry areas, such as the west side of your house,as well as under utility lines.  The tree will reach a size of 18-22 feet high and 10 to 15 feet wide at maturity.  The yellowhorn is difficult to find in Denver-area nurseries, but I did find a small one at Echter’s Nursery & Garden Center yesterday.

Clear Creek golden yellowhorn's white flowers feature a small blotch at the base that turns from yellow to red.  (Photo courtesy of PlantSelect)

Clear Creek golden yellowhorn’s white flowers feature a small blotch at the base that turns from yellow to red. (Photo courtesy of PlantSelect)

If you would like more information on tree selection, you can read my Denver Post story, “Choose Tough Trees for Tough Spots in West’s landscapes,” at http://www.denverpost.com/grow/ci_23301547/choose-tough-trees-tough-spots-wests-landscapes?IADID=Search-www.denverpost.com-www.denverpost.com.  Or if you live in the Denver area, you can attend my free workshop, “Right Tree, Right Place: Choosing a Tree for Your Landscape,” from 3 to 4pm Sunday, August 11, at the Schlessman Family Branch Library, 100 Poplar Street, in Denver.

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Three Thrifty Ways to Create Garden Whimsy

This playful display featuring foxtail fern (top) complements the lively atmosphere in the Denver Puppet Theater garden.

This playful display featuring foxtail fern (top) complements the lively atmosphere in the Denver Puppet Theater garden.

Have you ever wanted a playful garden that reflected your creativity?  There are dozens of ways to add whimsical touches to your garden without going broke.  Here are three low-cost approaches:

Pick playful plants.  Foxtail fern (Asparagus densiflorus ‘Myers’) lends a comical air to the garden because its shape resembles a jester’s hat.  Taller plants can radiate a sense of childlike wonder. If you like plants that reach five feet or more, consider foxtail lilies (Eremurus), annual sunflowers such as Helianthus annuus ‘The Joker,’ hollyhocks (Alcea rosea). Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) and Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’).

One gardener artfully arranged a small cactus collection on a colorful bench.

One gardener artfully arranged a small cactus collection on a colorful bench.

Compose colorful collections.  You may already have a collection that’s just begging to be displayed on a garden fence or trellis, or in some other garden location.  Examples include straw hats (as little as $2 apiece at thrift stores), baskets, old hand tools, sun faces, pink flamingoes, children’s furniture, vibrant flower pots or unusual plants.  Tereasa Surratt’s book, Found, Free & Flea:  Creating Collections from Vintage Treasures, offers abundant ideas for organizing and exhibiting collections.

This arrangement of wicker chairs has mama bear and baby bear written all over it.

This arrangement of wicker chairs has mama bear and baby bear written all over it.

Select sociable seating.  Wicker chairs add a friendly, comfortable air to the garden.  One gardener places a child’s wicker chair next to an adult wicker chair, mama-bear/baby-bear style.  Another gardener constructs a covered seating bench from discarded doors.  All kinds of objects can be used for seating, including nail kegs, cinder blocks with wood planks, tire swings and milk crates.  Marcianne Miller’s wonderful book, Salvage Style for the Garden, offers ideas and instructions for building garden benches, furniture and other accents from repurposed materials.

Once you add whimsical elements to your garden, you’ll begin noticing other items to incorporate into your exterior decorating scheme.  Resources for your repurposing efforts include thrift shops, estate and garage sales, salvage yards, nursery and hardware store sale racks, and even dumpsters, if your yard backs up to an alley.

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