August 15, 2012

Re-imagining the Dry Garden - Xeric Gardens in Denver

At the Kendrick Lake Park and Gardens, the design proves that even in August color and texture can reign,  making even a late summer garden visually interesting.
Acantholimon and Cacti can make even a bone dry garden interesting.
For my last post from Denver, I am clustering a few of the many gardens that I was able to visit, together. I can't cover them all, but each one offered something unique, and I will try to include them in some random posts in the future. Since a drought is still affecting much of this country, I am assembling many of the xeric gardens and dryland garden images together - I was so impressed with the diversity of plant material, and the creativity of the many gardeners in the Denver area. Here are a few of the most interesting gardens.

Kendrick Lake Gardens and Park, Denver.

Red Indian Paintbursh, Castillega integra grows in Jim Borland's Residential Xeric Garden Denver garden of native colorado plants.

As I write this, ABC News' Good Morning America is featuring stories about more wild fires in the west. I'm not that naive, even though I garden here in the eastern US - the growing reality of water shortages due to either climate change, or simply from humans living where perhaps they should not, is real, and stories about the extreme droughts seem more common than even damaging hail storms. But if we look at plants in the wild, even here in the dry west, we can see many plants surviving - even the most extreme of draughts. The above Castillega in Jim Borland's garden is a terrific example. In his residential neighborhood, he keeps a 100% dryland xeric garden - growing without a drop of water, even though his neighbors water their lawns most every day, but below, these wild Castillega on Jones Pass near 9,000 feet, are also growing without anyone watering them, except perhaps a nearby stream.

Castillega species growing on Jones Pass, Colorado 
This Claytonia megarhyza rosette is growing at 13,000 feet, in bone-dry gravel. I only took a few images on the pass, but this was one of the best - there were not many alpines blooming, and given that we were near 14,000 feet, you can see from the scree, that the elevation didn't help.

See those blue stems in the foreground? It's, Ephedra (yeah, that one). Along with native  grasses and cacti, they combine to create  a natural motif resistant to severe drought.

Whether you live in areas where rainfall is common, or if you are living in an arid climate, there are many tangible benefits in growing plants more efficiently. Even the wettest garden  can learn from those who practice xeric gardening. You don't need to live in a desert to practice good water management in your garden, but if you do garden west of the Mississippi, the chances that your gardening life revolves water bans, water rights, replanting gardens to be more efficient with xeric, dryland plants.

In Jim Borland's dryland front yard, dozens of species create interest year round. I heard that he often jokes about a truck of landscapers who once stopped, offering to "take care of that mess". Sure, this may seem messy, but everything is green, and he has not used a drop of water. This was a more natural planting.

Argemone polyanthmos - a treat for the many honey bees that were surrounding these large blossoms.

I was a little surprised to hear about how serious people take water access in Denver - some gardeners in restricted areas are not allowed to use rain barrels, they cannot capture what precious rain there is in rain barrels, since they are legally required to allow the rainwater to flow into the streets, streams and sewer systems. It does make sense, for this helps to keep the regional water table more stable but it was a concept which I could not even imagine in our wet garden (it's pouring outside right now!). All of this reminds us that more and more, water is becoming a valuable resource Some gardeners even had to place signs in the windows of thier home - disclaimers saying that they are using well water and not city water, to water their garden.

Many flowers ranging from Salvia's to sage to Oenothera  can be grown without much water at all.

This Colorado trip has introduced me to many fine and accomplished gardeners, and their gardens demonstrate many creative ways to use dryland plants. Each backyard garden we visited was so unique and personal, that I wish I could have posted a story about each one, but to save space, I will share a few here. Each garden housed a rich variety of plants, many focusing on natives, and those desert and prarie plants so rich with textures and scents - you know, sage brushes, salvias, thorny things, spiky things, sticky and fuzzy leaves - and all drought resistant. Some gardeners bragged that they have not watered their garden in years, as neighboring gardens in these residential neighborhoods showed off their green, artificially green lawns ( if irrigated) or dry, dead lawns ( if not irrigated). It seems that the smarter the gardner, the more native plants they used, and the more native plants they used in their plantings, the greener their gardens were - and the less water they used.

At the Kendrick Lake Park and Gardens in Denver, a very accomplished landscape designer has created a garden worth exploring. Using only dryland and xeric plants, this garden stops traffic ( and hummingbirds).

Plantings at the  Kendrick Lake Park and Gardens, Denver.


  1. Thanks very much for this post. Here in Chicago, we are normally not dry, but this year's drought caused tremendous damage. I too have found that many natives require little to no water - though there are drought resistant exotics as well. Prior to this year, I normally did not water at all except for containers and new shrubs.

  2. The Castilleja species at Jones pass is rhexifolia, for those interested.

    The biggest lesson I've learned from dryland gardening is that textural contrast in a planting comes first. Color is secondary. Most people in greener climes usually do it the other way around.

    I think that the west is on its way to developing a distinct gardening style, separate from the European models we inherited. Although, western garden does owe a lot to rock gardening, so I suppose it's still derivative.

  3. Your pics from Kendrick Park make me jealous, like te one with the rock angle or plane with the plants nearby! Interesting insights always come from those who view a different place from afresh.


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