Friday, June 28, 2019

Ground Covers to Enhance your Landscaping

by Sharon Faircloth
Ground covers are typically thought of as a group of low-lying plants with a spreading habit of growth used to cover the landscape not taken up by our fabulous flowering plants!  Creepers can enhance and protect hillsides from erosion, protect hot dry areas, enhance shady spots and assist in weed control.  They can be used to enhance year-round visual interest and many varieties are critter resistant.

Galium odoratum, Sweet Woodruff next to walkway
As in all landscape choices, “right plant, right place” is always the first consideration.  Most open spaces in our landscape seem to fill up with weeds.  Ground covers are an excellent way to introduce an alternative.  There are a number of attractive ground cover plants that will add color, texture, and continuous interest.  Plant choice is also important in determining the area you want to cover.  The larger the area, the more important the choice.

Under the right conditions, ground covers will spread quickly, allow some light foot traffic but preparation is important.  Don’t fall for the misconception that ground cover means no maintenance!   After you’ve determined your site, how much sun it will get, how much protection from weather you have and what type of look you want, it’s time to start removing weeds and or grass.  Successful growing will be greatly enhanced by soil amendment with organic matters like compost, aged manure and sphagnum peat.  Once established, some plants require less care than others.  According to the excellent CSU Fact Sheet 7.413 (, the higher the altitude, the longer it takes to establish.  It will take about two years to establish at lower altitude, giving enough time to maximize weed control. Clearing weeds as you seem them will help minimize later.

Ajuga reptans or bugleweed is a pretty, fast and low-growing option.  It has interesting purplish green leaves and grows by runners that root at the nodes.  There are several cultivars and readily available as ajuga, carpet bugle, blue bugle and carpetweed.  It’s mat-forming and the straight species is hardy up to 10,000 feet. Recommended choices for altitude are ‘Bronze Beauty’, ‘Atropurpurea’ and ‘Chocolate Chip’ varieties.  The leaves stay colorful well into the fall and spring brings spikes of bluish-purple flowers.  It works well along walkways and patio areas preferring part sun to shade.

Ajuga reptans, Bugleweed
Two choices for full season visual interest are Arctostaphylos spp., or kinnickinnick, and Vinca (although the latter is hardy to only 8,000’ or lower).  Both have bright green foliage and are low-growing.  Kinnikinnick has small pink flowers in the spring and red berries in the fall.  Indians used the plant for tea and a medicinal for skin problems.  Vinca, or common periwinkle, have bluish purple blooms in spring.  It has shallow roots and does well on banks and in gardens.
Vinca minor, Common periwinkle
For more sunny locations, like rock gardens,  Sedum spp. (stonecrop) are great options.  They come in a variety of colors and can turn lovely shades in the fall for additional visual interest.  The Sedums like well-drained soil and will do well on moisture, once established.  Best choices for alpine gardens are Sedum acre or 'Goldmoss' with green leaves and yellow flowers, Sedum album or White stonecrop with small green leaves and white to pinkish flowers and ‘Dragon’s Blood’ with purple leaves and reddish-purple flowers. 

Sedum spurium, Stonecrop ‘Voodoo’ in rock garden
The hardy Geranium spp. cultivars have delicate lobed leaves with white, pink or blue flowers and vary in height and width.  They like sun, bloom earlier in the year and will tolerate low to moderate moisture levels. 
Geranium cinereum, Cranesbill
There are many advantages to adding spreading ground covers to areas of your landscape.

For more general information about ground covers, see Fact Sheet 7.40.  For a refresher on soil amendments, look at Fact Sheet 7.235, and for a great resource on mountain communities check out Fact Sheet 7.413 Ground Covers and Rock Garden Plants for Mountain Communities.  In addition to a head start on successful planting, get many of your questions regarding bloom times, exposure preferences, moisture requirements and general comments answered within these publication. 

All photos by Sharon Faircloth

CSU Fact Sheet 7.413 (
CSU Fact Sheet 7.40
CSU Fact Sheet 7.235

Friday, June 21, 2019


by Ginger Baer
A new study shows 41 percent of insect species have seen steep declines in the past decade, with similar drops forecast for the near future. It is estimated that 40 percent of the 30 million or so insect species on earth are now threatened with extinction. The causes are not surprising, and have all been on the radar for decades. Deforestation, agricultural expansion and human sprawl top the list. The wide use of pesticides and fertilizer as well as industrial pollution are also taking massive tolls. Invasive species, pathogens and climate change are also getting punches in.[1]

‘Why is this such a big deal?’ you might ask, ‘I don’t need pesky mosquitoes all over me’… ‘Who needs those ants anyways?’… ‘Besides, those bugs are making a mess out of my garden. They make holes in my flowers’ leaves, and they mess with my lettuce and make it look really ugly.’

Ladybug devouring aphids
Ecosystems can’t function without the millions of insects that make up the base of the food chain.  We need those insects to pollinate our food chain. They are the sole food source for many amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Many insects are predatory or parasitic, either on plants or on other insects or animals, including people. Such insects are important in nature to help keep pest populations (insects or weeds) at a tolerable level. [2]

Birds need insects to fledge their chicks. Per Doug Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home) it takes 6,000 - 9,000 caterpillars to rear one clutch of chickadees.  Even hummingbirds need insects to feed their clutches.  They will eat upwards of 2,000 insects per day.

Hummingbird chooses bug over nectar
Bird populations have decreased 50-80% in the past few decades. Two groups of birds have been especially affected: grasslands species, which have been hurt by the conversion of their habitat into farmland, and insect eaters such as swallows and flycatchers, whose decline is less obvious but may be a result of falling insect populations.[3]

“So, what does this have to do with me? What can I do?” Plenty!  First of all, DON’T SQUASH THAT BUG! Next, take stock of what it is that you are planting in your garden. Native plants will support native bugs which will in turn support native birds. Ideally our gardens should have about 70% native plants in them. Flowers, bushes and trees that are native will support the native insect population.  Do you have holes in your plants’ leaves? Celebrate! You know that you have a plant that will support a local insect, that will in turn support a local bird.

Are you inclined to clean up your garden in the fall when everything is turning brown and dying back? Please don’t clean up yet.  Leave your plant material as it is until the spring. In doing this you will be leaving the seeds for the birds, areas of protection for the insects, and perhaps some structural interest in the bleak landscapes of the winter.

Healthy holey leaf
CSU Extension has a great FREE publication listing native plants for gardens above 7500’.

Some of my favorites that I grow at 8,600’ are: Rocky Mountain Columbine (Aquilegia caerulea), Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), Catmint (Nepeta faassenii), Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) and Wax Currant (Ribes cereum).

Remember, NO insects = NO birds, NO fruits and vegetables and NO HUMANS.


Monday, June 17, 2019

2019 Parade of Spring Flowers

by Vicky Barney

After the long winter, flowers are a welcome sight. The parade of blooming flowers in Routt County started in mid-April with a few native blooming wildflowers, then a variety of bulbs, continuing with flowering shrubs and fruit trees.  The view down Lincoln Avenue with crabapple trees in bloom is spectacular!

Spring blooming bulbs in my garden have put on quite a show as well, thanks to a previous owner.  Appearing first were native glacier lilies and pretty blue glory-of-the-snow, then crocus.  Next came the daffodils, along with grape hyacinth.  Last to appear were the tulips.  Miraculously, the tall tulips have remained largely intact, overlooked by hungry moose and impervious to more than one snowstorm. 

Seeing color in the landscape as the snow melts is a cheerful sight. CSU Extension Fact Sheet No. 7.410 Fall-Planted Bulbs and Corms ( , provides instruction on how to select and plant bulbs. It also reminds gardeners to remove the withered flowers but do NOT cut the foliage until it completely dies back.  Until then, photosynthesis continues and energy is stored in the bulb for next season.

Bulbs are easy to plant but have a couple of requirements that might be tough for the Routt County gardener.  First, the bulbs must not be eaten by critters. Mice, squirrels, chipmunks, voles, and pocket gophers will happily make a meal of certain bulbs.  In some parts of the county, gardeners will have no success growing tulips or crocus and will have better luck with less tasty daffodils, alliums and hyacinths.  If the bulbs survive, though, they may not actually bloom. Moose have been known to eat the tulip buds in my neighbor’s yard, leaving beds of healthy but flowerless plants.  Other critters enjoy the buds as well.

I get tripped up by the requirement that spring blooming bulbs must be planted in the fall. At that time of the year, my love of gardening is waning, the open spots for bulbs have disappeared beneath the foliage of other plants, and digging is harder. But I have a plan: 1) Take photos now of the available spots.  2) Have Fact Sheet No. 7.410 ready to follow and calendars marked for September planting.  3) Cross fingers the neighborhood critters will not eat the bulbs or buds. 

Fortunately, if our efforts fail, we can count on Nature to provide next year’s Parade of Spring Flowers.

Vicky Barney gardens for wildlife and is a member of the Master Gardener Class of 2011.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Growing Ornamental Grasses at Altitude

by Susan Scott
Gardeners in Steamboat are amazing! They deal with high altitude, cold temperatures, and most of all, very dry summers. I love to garden, but when the heat of summer arrives, I prefer to have really easy plants because I can’t find the time to tend the garden and I don’t have automatic sprinklers.

I have found several perennial ornamental grasses that are a great fit for Steamboat. They are very low maintenance: cold hardy; drought tolerant; will grow in sun or shade; deer resistant; pest and disease free; and, mostly tolerant of poor soil. The area I have placed them only receives approximately 4 hours of sun each day in summer. (Hint: more sun, more water yields bigger plants!)

I began with the tall, showy feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora “Karl Foerster”). It grows around 4’ tall with a reddish brown stalk in the spring, the tops feathering out with a beautiful golden wheat color. It provides a lovely backdrop that can “hide” objects like the electric meters, etc.

Next I found a Strawberries and Cream ribbon grass, or reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea) with white and green stripes and shades of pink throughout. It grows in big bunches approximately 2’ tall.
Ornamental Grasses Photo by Susan

I found lots of Blue Oat Grass (also called Blue Avena, Helictotrichon sempervirens) in the area, which is about 1’ tall and thick and bushy.

One of the staples of grasses grown locally is Elijah Blue Fescue (Festuca glauca) which has an attractive blue color and grows in low clumps that are good for edges.

I filled in with Japanese Blood Grass (Imperata cylindrica “Red Baron”) that has a cranberry red color and Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis) to add color and variety.  

These grasses are fast growing, very hardy, and easy to establish.   The first year I mulched to keep down any weeds, but now that they have spread out, there is no room for weeds! I have added some more color with Catmint (Nepeta) because that is another perennial that takes very little care. Some of these grasses are considered invasive in other parts of the country, but here, they stay smaller because of the extreme climate.

Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis), a sun lover, is another popular grass (designated Colorado’s state grass) and Purple Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum “Rubrum”), an annual, grows around town.  Neither of these would work for me. I do minimal maintenance with my ornamental grasses. I only water once every two weeks (if that!) and cut them back before the first snow. Some people like to keep them tall until spring but I find that we have so much snow that it’s easier to cut them back in the fall. And that’s it! Enjoy the compliments of your visitors as they admire your handiwork!

Susan Scott was a Master Gardener in St. Louis at the Missouri Botanical Garden for several years before moving to Steamboat, where she volunteers with the local gardeners. 

Monday, June 3, 2019


by Yvette Henson
CSU Extension, San Miguel Basin

As we know, summers in our mountains are short but glorious!  If the snow ever melts this summer, the wildflower display should be one of the best ever! Go hiking and/or take a Native Plant Class!  CSU Extension offers a variety of classes across the state as does the Colorado Native Plant Society.  Be on the lookout for those and other native plant classes and field trips near you!

I am planning on spending as much time as I can in the mountains this summer and I hope to see some new things as well as old-favorites! 

A plant I search out every year on my property at 8,400’ is stemless Easter daisy, Townsendia exscapa.   It is blooming now. 
Easter Daisy- photo by Yvette Henson

A wildflower that I look for in late May is Erigeron compositus.  I look for it growing on the shelfs of rock cliffs in a canyon near Rico at about 9,000’. 
Erigeron photo by Yvette Henson
Who isn’t delighted to stumble across a fairy-slipper orchid, Calypso bulbosa, growing in the deep shade of the subalpine forest? 
Fairy slipper photo by Yvette Henson
I am fascinated by the variety of paintbrushes (Castilleja spp.) that grow in Colorado, especially the ones that can be found growing above timberline in August!
Paintbrush photo by Yvette Henson
Another beautiful plant that is blooming above timberline in late August, after the frosts have begun to kill the majority of other blooms, is Gentiana algida, arctic gentian.
Gentian photo by Yvette Henson
Don’t let summer get away from you this year—get out and hike in our wonderful mountains and revel in the beauty of the views, the singing creeks and waterfalls and of course the wildflowers!