“One of those primroses is not happy,” Hensen points.
“But see some of the geraniums coming back?” Honychurch says, referring to another small triangle of plants growing on the gravel-covered berm. The three gardeners slowly move to the other side of the garden, plucking a weed here, commenting on the health of one of the garden’s plants there.
The focus of these gardeners’ attention is not on just any garden, but a special High and Dry Garden sponsored by Colorado State University Cooperative Extension in Norwood. Located along the east end of Telluride’s River Trail, the garden features plants carefully chosen to demonstrate one seemingly difficult achievement – to have a beautiful garden at high altitude that doesn’t require watering.
Started last summer and still developing, Telluride’s demonstration garden is the first High and Dry garden of its kind on the Western Slope (with the exception of a similar demonstration garden outside Norwood’s CSU Extension office). It isn’t chock-full of showy plants with massive, colorful blooms. Rather, the plants selected for this garden a more practical side of high-altitude horticulture, since they are all considered “water-wise,” or “xeric.” In other words, this garden was designed and planted to exist on Telluride’s precipitation alone.
Despite having no requirements for supplemental water, the High and Dry Garden is far from austere. Plants like serviceberry, French sage, penstemon, primrose, and geranium dot the raised bed, offering bursts of color and interesting shapes amid the gray gravel mulch – also intentionally chosen because effectiveness over wood chips at reducing water evaporation. A red gravel path cuts through the middle of the garden, providing color contrast to the gray mulch and a raised vantage point to examine the intricacies of water wise gardening.
“The idea was to demonstrate that a precipitation-only garden could be more than just rocks,” says Hensen, who oversaw the project. She says the High and Dry demonstration garden concept sprung out of the desire to explore more unique, conservation-minded gardening techniques, especially in Telluride’s often-persnickety high altitude mountain climate. Hensen’s own research for her master’s degree was in the area of drought study, precipitated by her desire to explore feasible ways to grow gardens even during drought years (like that of the summer of 2002, when watering restrictions were put into effect throughout Colorado.)
The Telluride High and Dry garden has been carefully looked after by volunteers Honychurch and Wells, two of the region’s Master Gardeners. Both participated in the Norwood’s CSU Extension Master Gardener program in 2008, and as part of their 50-hour community service requirement, the two helped plant the High and Dry Garden in Telluride last summer. Honychurch was its designer, and she and Wells have continued to tend the garden throughout this summer – an admittedly difficult season due to its early, unusually wet weather.
But ultimately, the High and Dry concept is about planting gardens fit to survive fickle swings in all kinds of weather conditions while enduring other factors that make gardening difficult in the mountains.
“Chipmunks, deer, early frosts, short growing seasons, poor soil, little water… about every aspect of gardening at altitude is challenging,” Wells says. But her Master Gardener degree has given her the tools to tackle the high altitude gardening challenge with gusto, she says.
“It’s helped me look at the bigger picture,” she says. “Gardening up here is not just about throwing something in the ground because it’s supposed to grow there.”
Creating an eye-pleasing, precipitation-only garden at nearly 9,000 feet hasn’t necessarily been easy, even for these master green thumbs. Experimentation and education are a large part of the process, they say.
Next summer’s garden will boast nameplates for all the garden’s plants, along with revamped signage explaining the project, so that anyone – from the local gardener passing by to the tourist out on a stroll – can learn a little about water-wise gardening at altitude. The garden has already piqued the interest of many passersby, Honychurch says.
“The response has been encouraging. People do stop and ask questions – they’re quite interested in what we’re doing,” she says.
Learning the tricks to water-wise gardening is just one of many subjects, including weed control, plant and insect identification, pruning, diagnostics, and understanding microclimates, covered in the CSU Extension Master Gardener class. For more information about upcoming Master Gardener courses, regional demonstration gardens and other CSU Extension programs, visit www.extension.colostate.edu/SanMiguel or stop by their booth at the Telluride Farmer’s Market. Hensen may be reached directly at the CSU Norwood Extension office at 327-4393.