By Sandy Hollinsworth, Gilpin County Master Gardener
Increasingly, mountain gardeners and homeowners living above 8,000 feet are interested in landscaping with native plants to increase success and promote sustainable, natural habitats. Native plants are inviting to pollinators, birds, and mammals by providing food, shelter, and nesting material. There are many benefits to using Colorado native plants including biodiversity, beauty, adaptability, plus many are fire-wise plants. They are naturally adapted to Colorado’s climates, soils, and environmental conditions. By choosing native plants, gardeners can work with nature, rather than trying to grow plants that are not suited to our local high-altitude conditions. Native plants are also more resistant to pests and disease when grown in areas where they are found in nature.
The mountain region is characterized by short growing seasons, cool nights, strong sunlight, and high winds. The soils tend to be decomposed granite, low in organic matter, and are usually very well-drained. Many native plants prefer particular soil textures, whether sand or clay or loamy soils. Almost all high mountain natives do not last as long in enriched garden soils; they grow faster and may look fabulous for a few years then die sooner. Because native plants are adapted to native soils they will thrive without fertilizer or soil amendments. A small amount of compost may help work the rocky soil, but gardeners will benefit by using compost sparingly. Species like columbines and Jacobs ladder that grow in moist forests, may benefit from more compost but otherwise, plant natives without fertilizer and other amendments.
Another consideration is microclimates, sections that are hotter and drier, or cooler and wetter than the rest of the property. Every garden and property have microclimates, depending on shade, sun, slope, water, and wind protection. Grouping plants with similar sun, water, soil and protection requirements will add to success and help with supplemental watering as needed. Colorado mountain natives generally require less water unless they naturally grow in riparian areas like Bluebells, Parry’s Primrose, Scouring-rush Horsetail or Blue-Eyed Grass.
Maintenance in your garden may be easier with natives. It is recommended not to rake away all dead leaves and twigs as it helps protect the soil and offers protection to overwintering pollinators. In fall it is best not to cut back plants but instead to leave seed-heads and dead stalks for food, perches and winter homes for native bees, beneficial insects, and wintering songbirds. Wait to cut back dead plant stalks in early spring at the first sign of green-up.
Mulch is critical for starting native plants from seed, and it can be a huge help in establishing nursery-grown plants too. Gravel mulch is best for retaining soil moisture without causing crown or root rot. Next best is locally-sourced shredded bark mulch although it can blow away.
Non-native plants that are adapted to Colorado’s climate, including CSU Plant Select species, may be more readily available. In years with less than normal rainfall and snow these non-native plants may need supplemental water, again pointing out the adaptive advantage of native species. Gardening with native plants also prevents the introduction and spread of noxious weeds. Many noxious weeds were intentionally introduced as garden plants and can crowd out or change the garden’s native characteristics.
In Gilpin County, the following list of native plants are found at 8,500 – 9,500’ on nature hikes and in established natural habitats. Most are available at local native oriented nurseries or through CSU Extension native plant sales. Inquire about sun and water recommendations to make sure to plant the right plant in the right place. Seedlings will take a few years to fully establish. Some reseed freely while others stay put and grow to their mature spread and height over time. Wind, furry critters, birds, and domestic animals may help spread seeds.
Pussytoes Antennaria spp
Kinnikinnick Arctostaphylos uva-ursi
Sulfur Buckwheat Eriogonum umbellatum
Common Yarrow Achillea millefolium (lantana)
Nodding Onion Allium cernuum
Pearly Everlasting Anaphalis margaritacea
Rocky Mountain Columbine Aquilegia caerulea
Blue Grama grass Bouteloua gracilis
Harebell Campanula rotundifolia
Indian Paintbrush Castilleja spp.
Rocky Mountain Bee Plant Cleome (Peritoma) serrulata
Showy Fleabane Erigeron speciosus
Wallflower Erysimum capitatum
Blanketflower Gaillardia aristata
Richardson’s Geranium Geranium richardsonii
Sticky Geranium Geranium viscosissimum
Prairie Smoke Geum triflorum
Sneezeweed Helenium Hymonoxys hoopesii
Showy Goldeneye Heliomeris (Viguera)
Scarlet Gilia Ipomopsis aggregata
Rocky Mountain Iris Iris missouriensis
Blue Flax Linum lewisii
Silvery Lupine Lupinus argenteus
Bee Balm/Horsemint Monarda fistulosa
Showy Locoweed Oxytropis lambertii
Rocky Mountain Penstemon Penstemon strictus
Blue Mist Penstemon Penstemon virens
Silky Phacelia Phacelia sericea
Jacob’s Ladder Polemonium viscosissimum
Pasque Flower Pulsatilla (Anemone)
Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia hirta
Wax Currant Ribes cereum
Woods’ Rose Rosa woodsii
Serviceberry Amelanchier alnifolia
Chokecherry Prunus virginiana
For more information about native shrubs https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/yard-garden/native-shrubs-for-colorado-landscapes-7-422/
Almost this same list, plant photos, and some garden design ideas are in this CSU Extension booklet:https://extension.colostate.edu/docs/pubs/native/MountainsSm.pdf