Rock gardens a perfect mountain town match

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— In every direction, a Yampa Valley resident is mesmerized by majestic vistas of mountains, cliffs, boulders and alpine terrain. So why not bring some of that majesty home to your backyard garden?

A rock garden that simulates the slope of a mountainside with a tumble of boulders and stones can be created in almost any environment. Panayoti Kelaidis, creator of the Rock Alpine Garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens, says, "Rock gardens can be adapted to any kind of site since soil can be bermed and appropriate rocks selected to echo house color. But obviously, they are the perfect solution for house sites on steep slopes or with any kind of bank that is otherwise hard to maintain."

Even if your garden is on a level plane, you can construct a rock garden and display beautiful and rugged stones. According to Planttalk, a service of Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, it's best to place the largest rocks within the soil base towards the bottom of your slope. Arrange smaller ones to give the impression they have tumbled down. Place all rocks on their broadest side and bury them at least half way into the finished grade. Kelaidis says that one of the biggest problems facing people building rock gardens is the artistic placement of rocks. "The more naturally and artfully the rocks are arranged, the more successful the final rock garden will be," he says.

Add color and interest to your rock garden with a variety of plants from small, hardy bulbs to mounds of ground cover to compact perennials and ornamental grasses.

"If I had but one alpine to grow it would probably be the Trumpet Gentian of the Alps. Gentiana acaulis blooms for weeks in late spring and early summer with the most eye- piercing blue color imaginable," Kelaidis says.

Here in the Steamboat Springs area, plants that do best in a rock garden environment include White Rockcress, Alpine Aster, Little Bluebells, Spotted Pinks, Mossy Saxifrage, Baby's Breath, Wooly and Creeping Speedwell.

Gayle Noonan of the Yampa River Botanic Park points visitors to two rock gardens in the park that showcase a wide variety of plants that grow well locally.

As you create your rock garden, keep in mind the short growing season and the long dormant season we experience in the Yampa Valley. Consider plants that offer color, texture and interest early and late in our growing season. Several grasses and small shrubs have gorgeous foliage into the winter months. Early blooming bulbs, such as crocus, miniature daffodils and tulips, give you early color in the spring.

Another consideration when choosing plants for your rock garden is the site environment. If it is shady or has regular irrigation, more traditional alpine plants may be appropriate. In a sunny, dry environment, concentrate on native plants, succulents, drought-tolerant and heat-tolerant plants.

"There are not one but two rewards for rock gardens" Kelaidis says, "a well-planted rock garden is a visual feast for the eyes an object of beauty that provides year-round delight. More than any other kind of garden, however, a thoughtfully planted rock garden contains treasures from high places all over the world: It is a powerful tool for educating the gardener about botany, and can lead many of us to seek out wildflowers and study alpines all over the world. A rock garden is a key to both aesthetic delight and intellectual enlightenment a tall order for a mere garden.

Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions and topic suggestions for this column may be submitted directly to the CSU Cooperative Extension office at 879-0825.

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