Coax native blooms

Gardening guide

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The first European gardener in Steamboat Springs was probably Margaret Crawford, who homesteaded at the big bend in the Yampa River with her family in July 1875.

You can still see evidence of her affinity for yellow roses in the large bushes that thrive throughout Steamboat's Old Town. She was the one who planted them. One notable example is the flowering bush that grows at Yampa and 10th streets.

Pioneer life was challenging for James and Margaret Crawford, the first Caucasian settlers in Steamboat, and so must have been gardening. Gardening remains a challenge to this day in a valley where the number of frost-free days ranges from 39 to 59, depending on who you consult.

For the Crawfords, that meant their opportunities to supplement a diet of elk, venison and wild berries with fresh vegetables like the corn and tomatoes they must have known in their previous home in Missouri were limited.

If one is determined, it's possible to grow vegetables in Steamboat's short, sweet summer. However, many gardeners here concentrate their energies on brightening their properties with a mix of annual and perennial flowers as well as flowering shrubs like Margaret Crawford's rosebushes.

Gayle Noonan urges more contemporary gardeners to follow Crawford's lead.

At 6 acres, Noonan has one of the biggest gardens in the city limits. She is the supervisor of Yampa River Botanic Park.

"Everyone in Steamboat should have at least a few rosebushes," Noonan said. "They add such great structure to a garden. We have 80 varieties of roses at the park, and they're all shrub roses."

The hybrid tea roses that flourish in lush climates like that of Oregon won't survive in Steamboat Springs, but the Canadian Explorer series is ideally suited to the Yampa Valley, Noonan said.

These roses, many of them climbers, are named after famous figures from Canadian history - William Baffin and George Vancouver, for example. Steamboat is categorized as being in climate Zone 4, and almost all of the Canadian Explorer roses are suitable for the harsher winter weather of Zone 3 with several, including the soft pink double blooms of Martin Frobisher, hardy into frigid Zone 2.

As hardy as Canadian roses are, master gardener Deb Babcock advises beginning gardeners to look to native plants as they establish gardens in Steamboat.

"These definitely would be fail-safe plants if you're just getting started," Babcock said.

One of the easiest perennial flowers to get started in Steamboat is lupine. They're not Babcock's favorites because when done blooming in early July, they leave behind unattractive leaves and stems. However, for a dramatic burst of color in early summer, they are difficult to top. Lupines reseed so successfully that they could take over a flowerbed.

Babcock is more apt to turn to the tall stems and pale blue flowers of flax and the delicate blossoms of columbines.

Columbines are such an obvious choice for Northwest Colorado that it's easy to overlook them.

"Everyone should have columbines," Noonan said. "There's no reason not to. They thrive here, unless you're trying to grow them on your west porch."

Location can be everything in a garden. Noonan's admonition about planting columbines in a mixture of shade and sun points out the need to pay attention to the microclimates within your garden.

At the botanic park, the deliberate creation of berms that are 8- to 10-feet tall have created microclimates in which diverse species of plants find the conditions they need to flourish.

The dramatic community rock garden at the park enjoys a full southern exposure and intense sun. Turn around 180 degrees, and just across the path visitors are viewing a north-facing berm where evergreens and mosses can thrive.

Microclimates within a private backyard can be as small as the shady side of a large boulder.

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