Garden report: Why go native?

I’ve been outside today, working in the yard and soaking up the sunshine–all very therapeutic, especially in a life consumed with helping my beloved Richard navigate brain cancer and my parents find some peace with my mom’s approaching death.

I don’t usually do yardwork in January other than the occasionally shoveling of snow. But today I’ve been watering. Yup, here at 7,030 feet elevation in the Rocky Mountains of southern Colorado, I’ve been hauling hoses and sprinklers, giving our dryland native meadow yard a good soak, because we haven’t had any snow, and in fact, we’ve had no moisture at all in weeks.

Festucamontana

When people ask why I chose to “green” our formerly blighted industrial property by seeding in a native grassland instead of just sodding a lawn, I usually start with saying, “because it doesn’t need watering.” Somewhere around 60 percent of household water consumption here in the arid West goes to landscaping. That’s simply not sustainable. Especially here in the high desert, where in a good year we only get ten inches of precipitation all year long anyway.

Which is why I decided to go native with our yard, restoring the community of wildflowers, bunchgrasses and shrubs that have thrived here for millennia, instead of importing a water-thirsty, maintenance-intensive lawn. I figured the natives would be tough, would survive without additional water (most of the time), and wouldn’t need fertilizer and pesticides and weekly mowing.

Rmpenstemon

All of that’s proven true. I didn’t amend the soil (natives prefer the soil they’re used to, rather than garden soil); I don’t use fertilizers or pesticides–they don’t need either; I “mow” the yard once a year by hand, cutting back the dead tops of the perennial grasses and wildflowers in spring. And I hardly ever water–unless it’s been dry for weeks, which is the case this winter. We’ve had less than half an inch of precipitation since September. It’s been dry and windy. And eerily warm–yesterday our thermometer topped out at 62 degrees F. In January.

So I figured I’d give my natives a good soak today. Doing that reminded me of the other reason I went native in restoring this once-ugly property: it’s now beautiful all year long. The show-stopping seasons are spring and summer, of course, when passers-by ogle the sea of bright-colored wildflowers against the more muted green palette of the bunchgrasses.

Ipomopsis

But look what I found in the dead time of winter, in a season that’s been one of the driest in recent memory. The clump of grass with the gracefully slender, curling leaves at the beginning of the post is mountain fescue (Festuca montana). Next photo down, are the gorgeous burgundy leaves of Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus). And then the photo above, scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata) with its ferny, silver-haired basal leaves. Talk about texture!

 And one last pop of color and winter architecture from a clump of little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). If that won’t brighten your day, I don’t know what will!

Bluestem

So much more interesting than a monocultural turf-grass lawn… And of course, each of these native plants comes with relationships with other organisms that togther weave a healthy, sustainable, and fascinating community: the fungi that bind our grains of dry soil and help it absorb such precipitation as we get, the mosses and lichens that form a shady, insulating cover over the soil surface, the butterflies, beetles, bees, and hummingbirds that pollinate the flowers, the harvester ants, goldfinches and bushtits that eat the seeds, dropping some to sprout far from the parent plants.

In return for restoring the native species to wander as they will in our dryland meadow yard, we get a whole community to enliven our days, no matter the season. Sustainability, beauty, and something new to see every day. That’s a perennial gift. Why not go native?

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Coming next: We’re headed over the mountains to Denver tomorrow for another couple of days of helping my folks. “Hospice central” is a pretty intense place to be, so I don’t expect to be able to post until we return. In the meantime, may your days bring you beauty and grace!

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