High altitude gardening in Gilpin

Plant Select offers new choices for plant lovers – part 1 of 2

By Don Ireland

Ross Shrigley doesn’t mind if you call him a plant geek. Actually, it’d be something of a compliment for Shrigley, the executive director of Plant Select. Although he doesn’t live in Gilpin County, Shrigley is familiar with high-altitude plants and the challenges of growing in the mountains, whether it’s around 8,500 feet in Gilpin County or other, higher places. He helped install plants at the Mt. Goliath Natural Area and Dos Chappell Nature Center at Mount Evans, just outside Idaho Springs. Visits to the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in Vail and the Yampa River Botanic Gardens in Steamboat Springs also have been part of Shrigley’s travels. In fact, he once served as a travel assistant to John Fielder, the nationally renowned Colorado photographer, publisher, environmentalist, and teacher for his book – Rocky Mountain National Park: A 100 Year Perspective.

Shrigley recalled working on the Mt. Goliath project in the fall of 2005. “We couldn’t water the plants we put into the ground at that time because there wasn’t water available. However, I was surprised how many of them survived,” according to Shrigley, whose organization focuses on low-water, attractive plants that can improve the beauty of their surroundings and help support pollinators.

A lack of abundant water in many mountainous areas, coupled with often-rocky soils can pose challenges for people who want to install plants on their property. Shrigley said a pickaxe can be useful for digging. Another tip is to poke a metal rod deep into the soil prior to planting a shrub. That can help you determine if you can even dig in that spot. “Doing some advance work can save a lot of time and frustration,” according to Shrigley.

If you recently moved to Gilpin County from Denver, Loveland, Fort Collins or elsewhere, the typical planting season in those places begins around Mother’s Day. Shrigley advises new mountain residents to be aware of a shorter growing season, due to an abundance of cold spring nights, and a planting season that typically begins many weeks later compared to the Front Range.

Shrigley said other factors to consider include planting to avoid potential fire dangers and protecting planting area from various mountain wildlife that wouldn’t mind dining on your garden plants. “Just assume the critters will eat everything – even if some plants are labeled deer resistant. Installing a fence around your garden is important.”

Despite recent snow, Colorado is in a drought at a time when the population is increasing and the water supply is limited. Shrigley believes Plant Select can offer solutions for those searching for ideas on how to conserve water yet still have attractive, Colorado-style landscaping.

Plant Select is a non-profit collaboration started in the 1990s by Colorado State University, Denver Botanic Gardens and local horticulturalists. The organization annually adopts several plants into its list of recommended offerings based on low-water use and ability to endure Colorado’s often-zany weather changes.

Many people, Shrigley said, are not aware that plants considered for Plant Select approval are planted in trial gardens in several locations across the state, where they are further evaluated. A committee, including dozens of green industry professionals, determines whether to accept a plant into the program.

Plant Select’s list currently boasts 160 plants, including perennials, shrubs and trees. The list includes 80 North American natives, including 40 Colorado native species. Some of the non-native plants originate in places that have similar weather characteristics to Colorado, including mountainous “steppe regions” of Asia, Africa and elsewhere. Photos and information about Plant Select-recommended species are included in the organization’s recent book, “Pretty Tough Plants” and in a free, searchable database at the Plant Select website (www.plantselect.org).

Plant Select’s website offers free garden design plans and a map of 55 demonstration gardens throughout the state and beyond. The website also lists local garden centers and greenhouses that sell plants bearing the Plant Select label.

Shrigley said some Plant Select offerings require regular watering for a year, until the roots are established. Others may not require supplemental watering weeks after planting. “There are many Plant Select plants that require no water at all after they’re established. I know some people find that hard to believe but it’s true.” Over half of the Plant Select offerings, once established, need 5 inches or less of supplemental water per year, he said.

Although Gilpin County’s winter season and frequent cold nights wouldn’t be suited for some Plant Select recommendations, the website shows which plants can work in higher-altitude settings.

It’s not uncommon to find the white and lavender Columbine – Colorado’s state flower – growing wild in Gilpin County. However, there are other columbines, recommended by Plant Select, that also will grow in the area. Shrigley suggests adding the Denver Gold Columbine and the Remembrance Columbine to increase the color pallet in a yard.

Other Plant Select recommendations that should do well locally – and add a variety – include Kannah Creek buckwheat, Wallowa Mountains desert moss, Grand Mesa beardtongue, Bridges’ penstemon, Dalmatian pink cranesbill, golden storksbill, Carol Mackie daphne shrubs, Corsican violets, Orange Carpet Hummingbird Trumpet, Crystal River veronica and “red birds in a tree” (a rare penstemon relative that has red blooms throughout the summer), Shrigley said. “These are some of the toughest plants we have.”

Part 2 of high altitude gardening will be continued in the next issue, with planting and gardening tips from the Gilpin Extension Service of Colorado State University. The story will feature information about many local and free resources available for Gilpin County residents.






Photo: Plant Select Executive Director Ross Shrigley promotes the organization’s recent book, “Pretty Tough Plants.” (Photo by Mike Bone of Denver Botanic Gardens.)

Additional photo: Remembrance Columbine (courtesy, Plant Select)

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