What’s blooming in my Colorado Sky Garden?

After two inches of rain in the past few weeks (!) my garden is smiling every day now. It seems the worst is over from the critters eating everything that blooms.

First of all, we just fledged our second set of Rocky Mountain Blue Bird chicks this week!

My Russian Sage and Purple Hissup are in full bloom now…

And falling under the believe-it-or-not category, my Red Riding Hood Penstemon is blooming again after only being planted this May!

Everything else is smiling brightly, even the cholla cacti I transplanted here a couple years ago!

They’re not blooming yet, but I look forward to seeing them bloom next July!

My Portulacas are even smiling through their protective cage top. Be careful or the critters will climb up there and eat you!

And then there are our native Navajo sunflowers, volunteering again this July!

How Careful Observation, Writing, and Gardening Create New Meaning

One week ends another begins, but both seem the same. It’s that sameness that wears on us. The near term is the same, and the future seems clearly uncertain. It’s impossible to make travel plans, not just for now but for the fall and winter. Some people have started referring to 2020 as the “Lost Year.” Imagine how those in my family feel, having lost my Dad right before “the virus” took over our lives.

I am saddened to learn that COVID-19 may be taking a toll on Americans’ heart health even if we’re not infected with the virus. According to new research, cases of ‘broken heart syndrome’ are on the rise among those without any specific illness. This occurs when part of the heart becomes enlarged and is unable to pump blood effectively, preceded by intense emotional or physical stress.

Everybody deals with this kind of stress differently. I think it’s easier for us gardeners. We have something in our lives that brings us daily joy. We can go outside each morning and enjoy the summer blooms! The fact that our plants need us, even marginally, also helps. Let’s face it, we all need to feel needed. This is why we all need to find positive distractions from this sad time in all of our lives.

I relate to these issues more than most. I sometimes pass out from lack of oxygen and am not certain if I will take my next breathe. I struggle daily to find the good in everything, like the 4th of July celebrations on TV last week. I want to feel good about my country again and positive about our future, but it isn’t easy if I watch the news too much.

So I go outside and walk around my garden. I hang out with the birds and bees, literally! I watch the birds taking a carousel ride on Mike’s great purple wind sculpture.

I sit quietly and observe the end to another glorious day, as the sun sets over Mount Mestas to our West.

Sometimes I take photos of the sunny still life developing on my bedroom wall as the sun comes up each morning. My appreciation of my eye sight is increased one hundred-fold as it diminishes with worsening cataracts.

These are the moments that sustain me… What are yours?

A Brief High Country Lesson in Lavenders

Lavandula (common name lavender) has 47 known species of flowering plants in the mint familyLamiaceae. It is native to the Old World and is found from Cape Verde and the Canary Islands, Europe across to northern and eastern Africa, the Mediterranean, southwest Asia to southeast India.

Certain cultivars of lavender do GREAT in my high (7,000 feet) and dry Colorado foothills garden. I believe they survive because they are woody plants and smell funny to critters who might want to eat them.

This is Lavendula angustifolia next to a flowering Stonecrop. This one is three years old now!

According to my favorite place to buy plants in Rye Colorado, that just quit selling retail 😦 there are two types of lavenders that are hardy in Colorado,

Lavandula angustifolia (the English lavenders-called English, but originally from the Mediterranean) and Lavandula x intermedia (the English hybrids). Other lavenders, like French, Spanish, and various cultivars you may find sold at Home Depot  are not hardy here! We have talked to so many customers who ask “Why does my lavender die?” and it turns out they planted a type that is not winter hardy.  Please don’t make that mistake. The ones we grow are all hardy to Zone 5, and some brave gardeners have had luck with them at 8000′ elevation.”

Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote Blue’: Along with Munstead, Hidcote Blue tops the list of most hardy lavenders. Hidcote has a deeper violet blue flower and tighter flower clusters and more compact habit than other English lavenders, and it’s our go-to lavender for xeriscape and rock garden plantings. Winter hardy, deer resistant, drought tolerant– this lavender is a good choice for the Front Range. 18″ tall. Zone 5.”

I believe this one is Lavendula intermedia. It’s only two years old.

Lavandula x intermedia ‘Phenomenal’: Silver foliage is covered with a cloud of lavender blue flowers for most of the summer. It’s a very tough variety, even outperforming Hidcote and Munstead in many trials. Grows to 30″ tall and 3′ wide. If you want a lavender with landscape pizazz, this is the one for you. Edible, fragrant, deer resistant, xeric….we can’t say enough good things about this one. Zone 5.”

Most of the plants sold at places like Home Depot and Lowe’s will not survive the winter here! Those plants are grown in places like Arkansas. Also, be sure not to water lavender much. It can lead to brown flowers and root rot!

Note: Can you tell I was raised by a botanist? My Dad hopes so! Much more fun to think about than Covid-19!

Penstemons are my friends!

After five years of trying to get a Colorado foothills garden going, I have discovered how much I LOVE Penstemons!

First of all, I have a very early blooming native, I believe it is Penstemon buckleyi, that volunteers as one of the earliest blooms in my garden!

Then I started some Penstemon Strictus (Rocky Mountain Penstemon) four years ago and look at them now! They also bloom quite early, in mid-May. They spread nicely too!

This year I bought two new versions that are supposed to be red. My garden is almost all purple at this point in time.

Amazingly, the Red Riding Hood variety (Schmidel?) is already in full bloom!

I also bought two Penstemon pinifolius and put them in. According to my book exclusively on Penstemons, “Penstemon pinifolius is an attractive low-growing evergreen plant with showy, scarlet flowers in June to August.” Mine are just tiny this year. I hope they bloom next year!

My point is that these are the kind of plants to grow here because they are natives! The critters don’t eat them (at least not so far…). They spread nicely and fill up their space by a foot or two, and they love it here!

Want to learn lots more about penstemons? This is a wonderful book for that purpose: Penstemons: The Beautiful Beardtongues of New Mexico.

Exciting new wildlife sightings!

Just a few days ago Mike was out hiking when he heard a loud sound just ten feet to his left.

He glanced over to see a deer struggling with a mountain lion on top of him! Mike was so stunned he stood there for about 20 seconds and then started walking away quickly. He never made eye contact with the big cat.

Last night Mike found a five foot snake out on our patio. Snakes might be just the thing to get rid of those varmits who keep eating my flowers!

Building a Southern Colorado Foothills Garden From Nothing – Summer Solstice 2020

So we have been living in rural southern Colorado for six years now, after a precipitous (on my part!) move down south from our nice home in suburban Fort Collins in June 2014. It took over a year to build our passive solar home here, because building in this rural area is DIFFICULT and agonizingly slow! Then came the garden…

Here is where we started out in 2015. Empty ground, which quickly turned into volunteer sunflowers and weeds in our first year here.

Four years later we are here.

The reason my garden is named after my brother John is because he came up from Arizona for a few years in a row to help us finish the hardscaping. He was here when we laid concrete out there. He was here the next May to help Mike lay out the stone walls…

John & Mike (above) finally laid down the gravel last May. Mike has also put his heart and soul into this project! And I should add, none of us have good backs in our mid-60s!

What a satisfying achievement though!

Through a few years of testing out a number of different native xeriscape plants, I have narrowed my selection down to those that actually survive the winters here and that terrible wind we get regularly.

Lavender and Spanish Peaks 2018.

Now I know what type of lavender luxuriates in this climate…

I also know Penstemons LOVE it here, as well as many kinds of birds, lizards, beetles, and butterflies!

A native Showy Four O’clock, Blue Mist Spirea, Yarrow, Red Knight Knautia and Catmint thrive here!

There have certainly been a number of frustrating moments in this process, but I love my garden now. It gives me GREAT and continuous JOY, especially in the spring & summer months…

BEAUTY IS THE GARDEN WHERE HOPE GROWS!

Why not try focusing on the best days of your life?

In these trying times, I can highly recommend a practice I have been involved in for the past few days. I strongly believe:

What you focus on grows! And beauty is the garden where hope grows.

Therefore, I have been busy focusing on what have been the best days and moments of my life so far. Remembering those moments is such a fun escape from my worries.

Immediately I remembered a wonderful week I spent in Cane Garden Bay in Tortola in my 30s. I got there by chance, and soon afterward the woman I was there with left me alone. What a MARVELOUS time that was!

It was the year of Hurricane Hugo (1989) so no one had come to vacation there in February. Having an area like that to myself was magical!

And my week in Venice, also in the 1980s. It was January and I was sick with bronchitis, but I still absolutely loved the place and did not want to leave!

Or the river trips I took while living in Salt Lake City after a devastating previous year in Seattle. I would so love to take a week-long trip down any river again, but with Mike this time. He would love it!

One of the BEST vacations I ever took was also by chance, a week in Tulum in the 1990s, before it “developed.”

My best friend had planned to go with her husband on that vacation, but he couldn’t go at the last minute so she invited me instead. I will never forget our trip down an underground river, known as a cenote! We had so much fun with a great group of fellow travelers who were also there for a past life regression workshop. The regression was super interesting too!

After spending a day or so lost in these kinds of memories, it suddenly struck me. Living here and watching my spring garden develop, these are also some of the best days I will ever know. Yes, my health is difficult now and I cannot do what I’m used to, but I have been and am so lucky in life!

To have the love of a great man, a very cute puppy and one crazy kitty plus to live in a wonderful new home close to some beautiful mountains, what more can I ask? Gratitude is grand!

Are there “Superblooms” in Southern Colorado?

Just this year I learned a new term that I find fascinating: SUPERBLOOM! Having never lived near one, I never gave them a thought. According to Wikipedia, a superbloom is:

A rare desert botanical phenomenon in which an unusually high proportion of wildflowers whose seeds have lain dormant in the soil, germinate and blossom at roughly the same time, like these California poppies to the left. This phenomenon is associated with an unusually wet rainy season. The term may have developed as a label in the 1990s.

Yellow fields of tea flowers in Navajo Ranch west of Walsenburg Colorado!

Well, I’m here to tell you, we have had two of these just since 2014 when we moved here! We are at 7,000 feet in the high desert of southern Colorado. When we first moved here we were receiving far above average spring rainfall in Walsenburg, where we lived from June 2014 to July 2015. Walsenburg averages around 15 inches of precipitation per year, but in May of 2015 we received over 6 inches of rain in one month! In 2015-2016 we received over 23 inches total for the water year!

That’s what helps to create a superbloom!

My first experience with a superbloom is documented in the header of this blog. In June 2015 we had fields full of Navajo tea flowers along Highway 510 on the way into our place. I had never seen such a thing!

Then in the summer of 2017 Navajo Ranch was inundated with sunflowers! We have had a regular crop of sunflowers around our new home, which we attributed to the soil we had to bring in for building, but this was big fields of sunflowers everywhere!

I love a nice crop of volunteers around our home each summer!

The bees also love it!

Garden Notes – Critter Control!

After five years living here, on the edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at 7,000 feet, I’m beginning to see that my critter problems will change from year to year. Part of the problem is that I have to continually guess who the culprit is. Then I have to figure out what plants they won’t eat.

In the first year or two the most obvious culprits were the deer. They would amble up here and graze for a while, partially because we had a water source (bird bath) and it is super dry around here. We decided to add a small water source down below the garden, and then this year Mike made a few wind sculptures and placed them in the garden. Presto chango, no more deer!

Then we noticed the portulacas being eaten, but that was easy to fix. Just place them a foot or two off the ground. Bunnies don’t seem to bother plants above ground level. A couple of years later we had two squirrels. I do not like squirrels, so we made them uncomfortable enough to leave.

June 2019 record blooms!

Last summer was great. We had so much rain in the spring that nothing seemed to threaten my plants! This May is a different story. With the dry conditions we have chipmunks for the first time I can remember. They seem to have the most annoying habit. Instead of eating my plants, they just eat the FLOWERS! OK, let me get this straight, I wait for a whole year to see a little bit of color out there and right before I get to see my flowers, THEY EAT THEM! This is all out war! They especially love portulaca flowers, but they aren’t too picky. Anything down at their level they eat. They apparently can even climb up a few feet to access flowers.

Luckily I have an amazingly talented and creative partner to help me. Last evening Mike designed and made a wire cage to protect my flowers in a large wooden planter he also made a few years ago. It is on a hinge and he even plans to make a lock if we need it. Take that you nasty but adorable varmits!

Unfortunately, every morning I must go out to see what’s been eaten lately. For example, I’ve had gaillardia plants out there for a couple years now, but this spring SOMEONE is eating off the flowers right as they start to come out. Mike made a cage for that plant too. I’m hoping we won’t need the covers forever, but that’s what we have to do for now. Does anybody have advice about scaring the chipmunks away? Mike has tried shooting bb’s at them to no avail… Please help. I have never had this problem before!