Category Archives: Garden Design

It’s Winter and, Yet, I Dream of Cactuses

It’s January.  As I write, it’s cold.  It’s snowing.  The garden is frozen solid.  There isn’t much that can be done out in the garden.  But indoors, we can do a lot of thinking about and planning for about our gardens.  For me, this also includes thinking back to what has already been achieved. My special joy has been planning, making and planting my “desert garden”.

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Prickly pear peeks out of the snow

Having gained my gardening skills and horticultural knowledge in the temperate south of England, I was excited on moving to Colorado to try my hand at growing these interesting, drought tolerant plants.  Cactuses in England are generally small prickly jobs which sulk year-round in dry pots on the windowsill, gathering cobwebs.  I knew virtually nothing about them when I came to live in the USA.  My husband wasn’t much better; he told me he knew his cactuses had been over-watered when he saw mushrooms growing in their pots!

Call it what you will – rock garden, trough garden, crevice garden, desert garden. From big deserts to tiny tufa troughs, cactuses and succulents can be grown and enjoyed in many situations.  I know it’s the middle of winter right now, but I’m thinking of the sunny joy of seeing the Community Heroes Crevice Garden in Arvada and the new steppe gardens at Denver Botanic Gardens in the summer of 2016.  These showed me what could be achieved.  And as I gaze at the tips of Opuntia (prickly pear and cholla) plants poking through the snow in my front yard today, I am in awe at the extremes these amazing plants can tolerate.

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Opuntia x pinkavae

 

 

Our front yard faces north, not auspicious for cactus growing, but safely out of bounds to the dog and small grandchildren, and raised up above the sidewalk, so safely out of reach of passers-by.  The area I designated to be the “desert garden” is about 20 x 10 feet, bisected by the path from the sidewalk to the front door.  Despite its northerly aspect, this area does get a lot of sunshine from spring to fall.  A minimum of six to eight hours of direct sunlight daily is recommended for cactuses.  When we moved in, this part of the garden was just a boring flat patch of clay soil with rather elderly wood mulch strewn over it.  Again, not exactly the well-drained, lean (in terms of nutrients) soil usually associated with cactuses.  But I like a challenge!

To get things started, I raked off the wood mulch and underlying landscape fabric to reveal a flat, compacted, grey soil surface covered in the wriggling, white stems of bindweed like ghostly spaghetti.  I pulled as much of the bindweed as possible. Then to create some height and slopes I dug and shaped the soil into small hills sloping down towards the sidewalk.  We inherited hundreds of large granite boulders with the back yard, so my son and husband hauled a couple of dozen out to the front for me.  I chose the most attractive boulders and made sure they were of similar or complementary colors.  These were placed on the slopes, either singly as “specimen boulders” or in groups forming little “canyons” in which I could plant.

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Rocks, soil, river rock and neighbor’s turf

The slopes help to ensure rain (when we get it) runs off quickly so the plants don’t sit in puddles.  Pockets of water are trapped by the boulders giving little damp areas against the boulders and allowing water to slowly trickle down into the soil below.  To improve the soil drainage further, I dug in a couple of trailers’ worth of “squeegee” to a depth of approx. six to eight inches.  This is the name around here (I gather) for crushed gravel.  It is pinkish in tone and halfway between pea gravel and sand in size. Areas of small river rock (obtained for free from a neighboring garden which was being “re-done” – I love a freebie!) were laid as a transition from the “desert” to the greener area of the yard and the sidewalk.  After planting, a thick layer of pure squeegee was used as a mulch over the whole area.  This has been very effective at keeping the bindweed at bay, helped by merciless hand pulling of any little shoots that do make it to the surface.

The choosing of plants followed considerable book research, web browsing and advice from local nurserymen.  I used a mix of cactuses, succulents, grasses, small drought-tolerant perennials and bulbs.  Naturally, none of these are hot-house types.  They are all cold hardy down to at least Zone 4.  For many of them their natural environment is arid mountain-sides in Arizona and New Mexico where they bake in the summer and freeze in the winter. A couple of dwarf pines provide year-round green and structure.  (I had to remind myself that these two needed regular watering, unlike the rest of the desert garden, as they are young trees, albeit small.)

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Pinus mugo var. pumilio

Planting took place in June 2015, so these plants are now “enjoying” their second winter in our garden.  They spent two and a half months under snow in winter 2015/6 and came up smiling in spring 2016.  There were just two losses, both small Yuccas which had rotted at the crown.  Fortunately, I had extras safely potted up behind the house, so they were immediately replaced.

For the first summer, I watered maybe twice a week, using the mist spray on the hose head.  The second summer, 2016, I did not water at all.  The winter snow that laid on the area for two or three months or more, had provided a good reservoir of moisture which saw the garden right through the summer.

The immediate effect after planting was of a lot of very small plants stranded in a gravelly desert.  I believe in buying small and being patient for a year or two while the plants bulk up, seed around and acclimatise to their environment.

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Just planted, June 2015

 

And, now, after another summer, they are starting to do so.  I see little “pups” on the Echinocereus.  There are Sedum and Stachys seedlings. The stars are the Opuntias (tree chollas and prickly pears) and the Delospermas.  These have grown quickly and the Delospermas were carpets of jewel-like flowers for months on end.  Dianthus and Artemisias are soft foils to their prickly companions. Groups of Nasella tennuissima provide a feathery backdrop and transition to greener and moister plantings at the rear.  The gentle movement of these grasses is a nice contrast to the static cactuses. The little species tulips ‘Persian Pearl’ popped up beautiful purple-red blooms with yellow centers in spring.  I hope to see more of these this coming spring.

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Tulipa pulchella @Persian Pearl’

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Delosperma ‘Fire Spinner’

 

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Summer, 2016 (after the hail storm had knocked off all the flowers!)

 

Now it is getting established, it really doesn’t require a lot work.  No watering if we have enough snow in winter.  Minimal weeding.  A gentle blow-off of leaves and some careful extracting of same from the Opuntias’ prickles with the kitchen tongs once in the fall.  That’s it.

I love my desert garden and see passers-by enjoying it too and that just adds to the pleasure for me.

PS:  Cactus? Cacti? Cactuses?  Who knows … ?? Who cares … !!

Anne Hughes/a Denver County Master Gardener

https://communityheroesgarden.jimdo.com/

http://www.botanicgardens.org/

www.coloradocactus.org

Hardy Succulents: Tough Plants for Every Climate by Gwen Moore Kelaidis. Publisher: Storey Publishing.

Cacti and Succulents for Cold Climates by Leo J Chance. Publisher: Timber Press

Plant List

Cactuses

Echinocereus coccineus

Echinocereus triglochidiatus ‘White Sands’

Escobaria forcottei ‘Koenesii’

Agave utahensis var. kiahabensis

Tree cholla – Opuntia imbricata var. arborescens ‘White Tower’

Tree cholla – Opuntia arborescens var. viridifloa ‘Santa Fe’

Creeping cholla – Opuntia clavata

Prickly pear – Opuntia x pinkavae

Texas red yucca – Hesperaloe parviflora

Yucca flacida ‘Bright Edge’

Herbaceous perennials, bulbs and grass

Dusty miller/artemisia – Artemisia ‘Beth Chatto’ & Artemisia absinthium ‘Silver Frost’

Woolly thyme – Thymus pseudolanuginosus

Yarrow – Achillea sps. various

Sedum- Sedum spectabile various

Pinks- Dianthus sps. various + garden cuttings

Rock rose – Helianthemum sp.

Ice plants – Delosperma ‘Fire Spinner’ &  ?

Two row stonecrop – Sedum spurium ‘Tricolor’

Other stonecrops – ‘Vera Jameson’, ‘Lidakense’, ‘Angelina’

Mullein – Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Polar Summer’

Lambs ears – Stachys byzantinus

Feathergrass – Nassella tenuissima ‘Ponytails’

Species tulip – Tulipa pulchella ‘Persian Pearl’

Trees 

Dwarf mugo pine – Pinus mugo  var. pumilio

Dwarf mugo pine – Pinus mugo ‘Teeny’

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Under the Denver Sun

Beginnings of a Small Italian Garden

Italy. Hazy grey vistas are punctuated with narrow vertical trees. Nodding sunflowers laze in stony fields.  Knotty ancient thick-trunked olive trees hold forth in blazing sunlight. Window boxes are crammed full of vibrant red Pelargoniums or cascading petunias. Peeling walls, old doors and white sculptures are pierced with long rays. Shadowy evenings are filled with bees humming, and the breeze surprises with soft scents of lavender, roses and rosemary. Fountains play, and nearby the pergolas and arbors anchor verdant vines.  At once the designs are structured yet informal.  Italian gardeners tend to trim, pollard and generally shape many aspects of their plantings so keeping discipline within the freedom of the overall design. How could I bring these colors, textures and smells to a small sunny south-facing Colorado garden?

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Imposing Facade Bramasole, Cortona , Italy

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Roses, Lavender, Hibiscus, and Bees, Bramasole

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Blues in Foliage, Movement in Growth Pattern of Lavender Bed, and Lemon Trees in Movable Containers. Credit Patty Hollis Bramasole Photographs

We actually have some similarities here in Colorado to Tuscany: the purity of the sunlight, the ability to grow many of the same plants, and the often-disappointing soil!  Moreover, in Denver there is a propensity of Italian style houses needing yard work done, so as to create harmony with the home design.
We had this situation: a somewhat imposing stone house, with a tile roof, overwhelming a sad small lawned plot. We needed a plan that captured the essence of Italy. An Italian garden is rigid in some ways, but flowing and full of playful surprises as well. First, I put in the new curving flagstone pathways, then we had a focal point gate inserted in an existing wall (the only big expense), and I marked-out (with garden hoses) the new meandering borders for future flowerbeds.

Spring 2015, I laid six layers of newspaper, then topsoil and finally mulch (begged from a tree felling crew) on the new borders. Meanwhile, we planted the biggest items first so trees were positioned in the remaining grass areas. This stage included three small standard flamingo willow ball topiaries, and we were happy with how their pink spring delicate leaves brought in movement. In June I put in marker flags and then dug holes and planted the bulk of the borders.

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The New Reclaimed Border: Newspaper Layers, Topsoil and Mulch with Roses, Lavender, Speedwell, Tiny Dusty Miller, Boxwoods AND June Hail

From the house foundation to the front this was the order: Spiraea on one side (part sun), alongside large Rose of Sharon shrubs (full sun). Also, dusty pink climbing roses mixed with Russian sage were set-in at the base of the sunny wall. Then Moonstone™ floribundas were the next tall, back layer. Coming forward I placed Veronica (speedwell), and then lavender (both grouped in threes and fives), catmint (in a sometimes boggy drain outlet area), Bonica roses, and in front random plantings of soft grey Dusty Miller (which I planted as a annual but has thrived into this year). Finally, I nestled in boxwoods at the front of the new borders.

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New Garden Gate- Early Days

Boxwoods were intrinsic as a uniting design element, but I worried in this hot aspect that they might not thrive. They have done well so far (after some initial winter bronzing that righted itself) and although slow growing they add dark green shiny all-year round formality. I planted many more this year, and slowly I will add different sizes to bulk out the design. Also, I just put in a mixture of own-root end-of-year bargain miniature roses, in the same soft pink scheme.  Someone else might have chosen to go for more vibrant colors in so much sunshine, but for us the dusty pink and muted blue palette suited and followed our Tuscan inspiration.

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Cosmos: First Year Quick Dramatic Interest with Daisies and Spiraea

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Boxwood, Roses, Catmint, Russian Sage, Climbing New Dawn Roses and Trumpet Vine

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Moonstone Rose Large and Long Lasting

There was also an arid area around a large blue spruce so my latest additions have been barberries, grasses and low growing, tight growth junipers.

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Dwarf Hameln Grass, Barberry and Blue Spruce

Additionally, we have a small curved 270’ pathway that needed a focal point. I had a thriving eight foot Aspen, along with cankers and overnight new saplings.  It did hurt to rip it out, but it needed to be done. Ideally, a hundred year old olive tree was called for. But for a substitute we have just planted a Twisty Baby Black Locust to add the gnarly element that mimics a grand olive tree. I have given it a weekly dose of sugar water to possibly help with rather dramatic transplant shock more information here. This specimen tree should be interesting winter interest too, and we are hoping in time it will produce its lovely large white spring blossom.

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Dramatically Staked Rather Droopy New “Twisty Baby”

 

Recently we were pleased with how things were shaping up, but we still felt our house overwhelmed the plot and we were missing some movement, texture and color. I realized the design was devoid of a crucial element that separates the Italian landscape from any other, and without which Tuscany and even Renaissance landscape paintings would be dull.  The strong narrow verticals dotting all the land, lining the roads to cemeteries and grand villas.  I needed some upward movement.  In lieu of cypress I have planted, somewhat symmetrically, some Blue Arrows and Medora junipers. They have added the strong missing element, and should be interesting in our monochromatic winters.

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Assisi, Umbria Vertical Inspiration

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2017 One of the New Vertical Evergreens

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Whimsy. Perfumed and Perfect

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Structure in the Design, Clipped Hedges and Flamingo Willows.

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Blue Arrow Vertical Defining House with Speedwell & Sweet Drift Rose

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Part Sun Textural Plantings and New Verticals.

Late summer sees our humble garden at its best.  It is textural, perfumed and the air is filled with bees. As the boxwoods grow larger, and the narrow upright junipers extend upwards, the design will strengthen.  But for the moment I am content with the first steps on this project. Once established it has been low maintenance, with little room for weeds to grow. Ideal additions would be a little flagstone wall to step the front lawn, more beds, a sculpture or a sundial, and citrus in movable pots.
Anne Beletic.
A Denver County Apprentice Master Gardener

Appendix : Other Images Showing Details

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Bees and Hummingbirds

List of Main Plants:

Barberry: Berberis thunbergii for winter interest; slow growing  and perfect in front of blue spruce and Spiraea)

Lavender ‘Munstead’: Lavandula angustifolia for bees and constant summer blooming

Lavandin: L. angustifolia x L. latifolia

Russian sage:  Perovskia atriplicifolia  as a foil for roses and kept in check behind them

Catmint ‘Walker’s Low’: Nepeta racemosa covers unsightly gutter and run off area

Dusty miller: Jacobaea maritima gives a lot of bang for the buck and adds amazing light grey and texture to the design; much taller than the 10” I expected!

Speedwell: Veronica longifolia was cut well back in July for a substantial second bloom

Yellow trumpet creeper: Campsis radicans  f. flava Still waiting for flowers- value to be decided!

Junipers:  Juniperus scopulorum ‘Medora’ and Juniperus scopulorum ‘Blue Arrow’

Flamingo willow: Salix integra ‘Flamingo’

Boxwoods: Buxus sps

Black locust : Robinia pseudoacacia  Twisty Baby™

Roses:  ‘New Dawn’ – climbing; ‘Moonstone’™ – floribunda, highest maintenance, has had aphids, rose midge and very bothered by Japanese beetles, but are flourishing at end of summer with massive blooms; ‘Nearly Wild’; Bonica™; Blushing Knockout®; Pink Double Knockout®; Sweet Drift®; Whimsy™ – miniature, amazing fragrance.

Pre-existing:

Michaelmas daisy:  Symphyotrichum novae-angliae

Spiraea  sp. Large and formally cut box shape house foundation plant, dark green leaf and few white flowers

Spindle:  Euonymus japonicus

Rose of Sharon: probably Hibiscus syriacus ‘Collie Mullens– has  very short “giving season” but is glorious August and September.

Semi Arid area under blue spruce tree:

Red barberry:  Berberis thunbergii

Mound grass: Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ – divided and planted late summer, so hoping it will thrive

Juniper: Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star – hoping to block out bindweed in time

Annuals:

Red fountain grass: Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’

Verbena  sps – in pots with boxwood 2016

Pelargoniums: Pelargonium peltatum ‘Contessa White’ – ivy’type for window boxes. I didn’t actually succeed in overwintering these and expense prohibited from re-buying, also they were not exactly an ivy geranium in their growth pattern, having only a slight “tip-over”

Other Plantings:

Bulbs, Cosmos, Chinese bellflower – Platycodon grandiflorus-  and ground covers including several Veronicas

List to do in Fall:

Anti-desiccant spray liberally on boxwoods and young evergreens

Wrap trunks of new trees

Twine wrapped around length of blue arrows (so snow doesn’t open the growth)

Collar grafted floribunda roses, pile mulch around other roses

Fertilize remaining lawn

Top-up mulch for general root protection and neatness esthetics (dark brown)