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Creating a Colorful Oasis Under Challenging Conditions

Part Three, COLOR:
We live in high Mountain Desert, facing substantial challenges working with rocks, limestone soil, fluctuating temperature, critters...

In last month's post you saw how we wrestled and embraced the rocks and other natural elements to create a sculpture garden. Layers of texture on a layered landscape.

Here's the first installment in this series:

Parched by sudden intense dry heat in June, our grasses turn to straw. So by July and August we especially welcome the flowers for splashes of color and variation.
Here's how we add the COLOR to our Mountain Oasis
Time: 2 Months Cost: $100 Difficulty: Medium
From a distance our property looks overwhelmingly green. But up close you'll see I've worked hard to create a lot more colorful variations and interesting textures mixed into wild grasses and nestled along water features.
For rocky slopes that means a) digging deep and removing a lot of the rocky soil, b) amending it with richer topsoil from other areas of my property, c) creating stair-step terraces reusing buried rocks, d) creating multi-levels of varied plantings mixed with stones and other elements arranged piece by piece.
Southern exposure requires sturdy xeric plants. Dependable rock garden plants: soft lambs ear and thyme contrasts well with new prickly pear, succulents and native plants.
For other slope-side areas I encourage wild masses of plantings by introducing one invasive but controllable species -- like CROWN VETCH shown above -- and letting it spread, curtailed by critters & my crafty intervention.
For other areas I throw seeds lightly over the surface in the fall and spring to get masses of color. In the fall you'll see me twirling wands of aster, or casting freshly collected seeds like mexican hat, brown eyed susan, wallflower and sweet william...
I expand edges and create new garden ellipses every year by a) digging a crisp edge > 2" deep; b) removing the grasses; c) adding plants and rock details.
Most of the new plants are transplants from areas which have become over-crowded or over-shaded, so my expenses are minimal.
My rocks and water features are the FOUNDATION of my central gardens. LANDSCAPING means creating form, dimension and texture... varying heights and levels to create interest.
The plants and flowers that come from GARDENING (tending soil & plants) are nature's sweet surprises that change every day.
Another very dependable friend all summer long: Stella d'Ora daylilies. You can buy these 50 at a time to make a strong statement like this island of color. Don't forget to buy other rarer lilies and other bulbs as well to mix into other areas of your garden: starting first with spring crocuses, then daffodils, followed by allium, irises etc.
A SUCCESSION of COLOR throughout the seasons is an important element of your Successful Garden Plan.
We attract fox, coyote, deer and elk... usually they stick to our far-away meadow, but sometimes come closer as you see. Occasionally a bear ventures in to check things out -- surprisingly non-destructive despite their size and strength.
We try to manage surplus population of ground squirrels, mice and gophers humanely... If you think encouraging birds of prey to nest here is humane. I have heard critters scream as they are carried away by a hawk. I have also tried every other technique, including explosive rodenators & fumigation...
Our latest strategy is to plant decoy temptations, like junk annuals, and sow seeds or encourage growth of plants they do not care as much for, including lambs ear, sweet william, aster... Of course that will only encourage them.
Call in the owls!
and Where are those weasels?

Contrary to the practices of the Great Wildflower Masters, like artist Chapman Kelley, who I had the honor of working with in Chicago. (google him esp Buckingham Fountain Project) I have bent from feeling the stings of failure.
#1 I do NOT use only native seeds
#2 I do not eradicate all grasses.
I would prefer to use all natives. I love lupine, Co. Columbine, bee balm, etc. But I have cried, a few times too many, over the loss of tender native seedlings from a full pound of seed, carefully tended, devoured overnight. While a mixed pack of foreign dependable tenderlings from American Meadows remain untouched.
I pull most of the grasses first, then work with Nature as she will.
I cast seeds into meadows, without much ground preparation, and they often turn into large patches of flowers. Then I can pull a few of those grasses and turn them into fresh ellipses of color.
I incorporate lots of bulbs and small flowering bushes, like dwarf lilac, butterfly bush and false astilbe. Some of my irises and lilies, all non-native, have grown happily over 4' tall. The ones in the pond can be 5'. I've yanked the native cat-tails (just drown them by cutting shorter than water level.) 
We welcome foreign talent, but can't brag too loudly due to discriminatory and purist practices still taking the "higher ground."
This is truly our own Private Oasis in a Mountain Desert.

Materials I used for this project:

  • Transplants
  • Seeds $25   (American Meadow)
  • Rocks & stones
See all materials
  • Hillela G.
    Hillela G.
    on Jul 17, 2017

    Wow! Just wow!! Oasis is the perfect term!

  • Wendy
    on Jul 17, 2017

    Adele, it is a privilege to be able to see your beautiful grounds- I am simply blown away.

  • Tova Pearl
    Tova Pearl Israel
    on Jul 17, 2017

    so gorgeous!!

  • Lynne Webb
    Lynne Webb
    on Jul 26, 2017

    Lemons into lemonade! I have a terrible slope in my backyard and want to do something like that. We live on opposite ends of the country and the weather is considerably different. I am in search of sturdy plants to stand up to extremes.

  • Danielle
    Danielle Statesville, NC
    on Jul 26, 2017

    You truly do have an oasis, and it's obvious that you love what you do. So happy you decided to share this with us!

    • Adele DuranGO
      Adele DuranGO Durango, CO
      on Jul 26, 2017

      Thanks Danielle. yep a labor of love that just keeps Growing...

Inspired? Will you try this project? Let the author know!