Wet spring grows a glorious High Country Garden Tour

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The cool, wet weather has been kind to Steamboat Springs' gardens.

The grasshoppers are at bay, lawns are lush, and flowers are expressing their gratitude in long, brilliant blooms.

What: High Country Garden Tour When: 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday Where: Begins at Strings in the Mountains tent Cost: Tickets are $20 in advance or $23 at the door Contact: Call 879-5056, ext. 1040

It's perfect timing for the High Country Garden Tour's annual show-and-tell affair.

Seven splendid Steamboat gardens will be open for exploration Saturday, with master gardeners on hand to sort out any inquisitive horticultural conundrums.

Start the day out early at the Strings in the Mountains tent, with coffee and homemade goodies baked by members of the Guild of Strings in the Mountains. Settle in for an educational talk about growing hardy trees and shrubs in Colorado gardens with Scott Skogergoe, head propagator at Fort Collins Nursery Wholesale. Then venture out with an official garden tour map to loll about the seven private gardens at your own pace.

"The day will surely inspire you to get out in your garden," High Country Garden Tour Chairwoman Louise Poppen said during a preview peek at the gardens earlier this week. Her own garden is part of Saturday's tour.

No. 1 -- Louise and Sherm Poppen

"This yard is what you get when your husband says, 'I like poppies, I don't want to step in mud, and I don't want to own a lawnmower,'" Poppen said while looking over her expansive garden. "We could have cut the whole lawn with scissors for what this cost."

In reality, Poppen doesn't have much lawn except for a patch of playground grass reserved for a croquet court at the top of her sloping back yard. The garden is a hummingbird's haven.

Poppen has built meandering stone paths amid a shade garden, a vegetable garden, climbing vines and tall stands of vibrant poppies. Her garden is chock full of colorful plants carefully situated around log architectural features, trellises, iron gates, old timber bridges and a plethora of whimsical garden art.

She even has a wildflower kaleidoscope.

No. 2 -- John Whitt

Just down the hill from Poppen, John Whitt's featured garden is a plant-lover's Mecca.

"This guy has a green thumb, a green hand and, probably, green feet," Poppen said as she approached Whitt, hard at work in his garden.

It is clear after only moments strolling about the yard with Whitt that this is a man who lives in his yard. He professes to not only know, but love, the Latin names for his plants, all of which he starts from scratch with two seed propagators in his basement.

Among his garden's well-stocked sea of plants, Whitt has a virtual field of alliums, a bright patch of ornamental cabbage and a spray of yellow queen columbine that he said flowers all the way through late fall. His vegetable garden adheres to the "wide row method," and a new greenhouse is waiting to be unpacked in his garage.

"It's always a work in progress for me," Whitt said.

No. 3 -- Martin and Deanna Allen

A short trip down Colorado Highway 131 and right smack in the middle of the south valley floor, a peek at Martin and Deanna Allen's Crazy Horse Ranch is a vision of manicured serenity.

A perfectly placed pond separates the house from the barn, with a reflection of the ski area looming above that is hard to compare. A creek tumbles from the pond, down a stone water feature and back to the Yampa River. Around the pond and the house, a sumptuous lawn is broken by copious stands of multihued lupine and a growing collection of perennials. Along the river, the Allens have installed an elevated wetland walkway that leads to peaceful benches at the water's edge.

No. 4 -- Verne and Nancy Lundquist

Wind back up the mountain, high above the valley floor to visit Verne and Nancy Lundquist's yard on Natches Way. Their garden shows a remarkable option for what can be done with a steep back yard.

Among shady trees and the aroma of fresh wood chips, a trail of boulder steps meanders down a steep embankment from the back of the Lundquists' home. At descending intervals, sitting nooks are nestled among small ponds, perennial rock gardens, Japanese lanterns and miniature wooden bridges. Carefully constructed waterfalls create the illusion of coming directly from the trees.

"The sound is terrific," Verne Lundquist said, confessing that he sleeps best when listening to the lull of his backyard waterfalls.

No. 5 -- Hal and Anne Matthes

Deep into wooded Meadowbrook Circle, a visit to Hal and Anne Matthes' garden is a trip to a candy shop of color.

Upon arrival, visitors are greeted by a huge boulder wall sprouting extraordinary patches of peonies, bright orange California poppies, sedum, yarrow, penstemon and more. Nearby are stands of iris in every imaginable hue from white to purple-black. Among perennial pansy beds and tangled clusters of columbine, the Mattheses have a garden where beautiful plants "volunteer themselves" to pop up in the most opportune spots, as Anne explained it.

"Things are just moving around. It's kind of fun," Anne said.

Out back, the Matthes' have their own swath of wilderness where a grassy trail snakes among thriving white fir, aspen and cottonwoods to a private oasis along a seasonal stream.

No. 6 -- Lola and Scott Schlapkohl

As you head downtown, stop to admire Lola and Scott Schlapkohl's gigantic lawn that miraculously defied last year's barrage of grasshoppers.

The Schlapkohls' near-perfect grass is ringed by carefully manicured shrubs, large trees and well-trained Arctic willows. In the front, shrublike Mugo pines reach their fingers to the sky and a large river rock garden is speckled with flowering succulents and small footpaths.

No. 7 -- Dan and Cher Dooley

By the time you meander your way down to Dan and Cher Dooley's Old Town garden, it is hard to decide what's most inviting: the living wreath hanging outside the wrought-iron gate or the sweet smell of strawberries that assaults your senses as soon as you open the gate.

Out back, the Dooleys' flower beds are overflowing and a greenhouse vegetable garden reveals unusually long tomato vines and enormous squash blossoms. The garden is strewn with a collection of ornamental frogs, several well-placed old wagons and a significant chunk of Steamboat memorabilia -- a huge four-part Nordic skiing mural that once hung on the wall of the Scandinavian Lodge now graces the exterior wall of the Dooleys' garden shed.

Most of the green thumbs featured on this year's High Country Garden Tour admit a lot of hard work went into primping their gardens to this level. But they also confess that there has been a little extra "oomph" in their gardening this season.

"We've all had a little help from mother nature this year," Dan Dooley said.

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