Don't Get Left High and Dry | High-Altitude Dry Gardening Research Comes to San Miguel County
by Josie Jay
Jul 31, 2006 | 509 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Successful gardening in the Rocky Mountains requires more than just a green thumb – it requires ample rainfall, avoiding a late freeze and a good deal of luck.

Yvette Henson plans to take some of the mystery out of high altitude gardening. Henson, who is Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Director for San Miguel and West Montrose counties, is organizing a "High and Dry Research/Demonstration Garden" at her office at 1120 Summit Street in Norwood.

Henson's garden, part of an ongoing study designed to test the ability of various plant species to do well at high elevations with little or no supplemental water, is the first "High and Dry" garden to be planted on the Western Slope.

The project came about because recurring drought patterns throughout the State of Colorado have led to municipal watering restrictions that, in accordance with the Colorado Water Law, specify that private wells "drilled on or after May 8, 1972 on properties of less than 35 acres are permitted for exempt household use only," prohibit outdoor watering of landscapes and livestock when water is scarce. "We're testing the plants to see which ones will survive on natural rainfall," said Henson of her garden.

Front Range demonstration gardens have sprouted up in at Cheyenne Mountain and in Gilpin and El Paso counties.

"Most were planted right after the 2002 drought," explained Henson. "A lot of research was started then."

Henson, whose Henson's graduate work focused on how drought affected annual bedding plants, was part of that movement.

Her Norwood garden will test the ability of 20 species of native shrubs and perennials to survive on natural rainfall alone – not much water, since the Norwood area averages four-and-a-half inches a month of rainfall in the summer months of June, July and August.

Plants selected for the Norwood garden include several shrubs, including two types of service berry – the Rocky Mountain and the Utah service berry. "The Rocky Mountain native service berry was used in the other gardens," said Henson, "but here we're really close to the range of Utah species, so I'm doing both."

Other plants include several varieties of penstemon, such as Rocky Mountain, Grand Mesa and Pine Leaf, as well as pussy toes, Oregon grape and flea bane.

"All of these are native plants, [and are] native to Colorado," although not necessarily to San Miguel County, said Henson, a trend in the study elsewhere, she added.

"It's interesting, because some of the plants at other research gardens were introduced species as well.

"Since this is research, I took the plant list from the other gardens and selected plants they had in common," she said, to show replication of the plants grown at different elevations.

"If it does well I'd like to trial some more plants" in the future, said Henson, in her High and Dry Garden, which measures 60 feet by 15 feet.

She hopes to maintain the garden for at least five years to obtain significant data, and is open to finding other sites for demonstration gardens, preferably at a higher elevation.

"We're at about 7,020 feet here in Norwood," she said. "It would be fun to put one at 9,000 feet."

Preliminary results from the garden should be available as early as next year, once the plants have withstood their first winter.

"We'll see what happens," she said. "Some of the gardens have a lot of data out there, so I know more about them. Some looked really bad after the first year, then the second year bounced back."

Most of the Norwood garden will be started with plants, with just a few species started from seed.

Henson, who took the position as cooperative extension director in January of this year, said she had planned to start the garden earlier in the year, hoping to break ground before the late-summer heavy rains begin, but was delayed due to other projects.

"It's kind of late," she said. "The idea is to plant it right before the monsoon season, but things have been so crazy around here I had to put it off. We're still expecting an extended monsoon, and hoping for that." Planting before the monsoon season helps establish the garden, she explained.

"Since I've been here I've had several people ask me, 'Can you give me plants I can plant that don't require added water?'" said Henson. While she already has a list of drought-tolerant plants, the demonstration garden will help her know which ones thrive in this specific environment.

Henson will begin planting the Norwood High and Dry garden Friday, Aug. 4, and needs volunteers. For more information or to volunteer, call Henson at 327-4393 or email
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