Updated: Feb 11
You think you have a black thumb. Or you’re new to Colorado and you’ve recently been made aware that your new home state’s soil, weather, sun, seasons and critters are completely different from the place you just left. Either way, you’re daunted.
Gardener, take heart. Given average soil (meaning, pretty sad) and average sunlight (meaning, pretty fierce), this list is a good place to start. All of these plants are inexpensive problem-solvers, not problem-makers. They can take our dry conditions, especially if you pamper them with the sprinkler a little bit during their first year. Most are perennials, meaning you plant them once and they keep on giving, or they self-seed enough to give you new plants to take their place nearby.
OK: Ready? Set? Dig. A whole season of beauty is waiting for you.
Why grow them: These bright-purple reticulatas reliably bloom in the first weeks of March, sticking their speckled tongues out at raging wind. They’re only 3-inches tall, but aren’t as drought-sensitive as crocuses or snowdrops. You will never be sorry you planted them. Bonus: The bulbs are tiny, so you don’t have to dig as deep as you do for tulips and daffs. Also, critters (rabbits, squirrels) tend to ignore them. And if you buy lots, they’ll set you back as little as 15 cents each. Needs: Sun; a little wind protection doesn’t go amiss. Water every other week or so if spring is super-dry and windy. Plant it with: Squill, crocuses or other extra-early bulbs. Almost nothing is blooming as early, so nestle them among dwarf evergreens, manzanitas, euonymous or rock features. Downside? None. When the blooms are spent, dwarf iris send up green spires of foliage. You don’t want to cut that leaf; it’s feeding the plant for next year.
‘Basket of Gold’ Aurinia saxatilis AKA yellow alyssum, madwort
Why grow it: Gives you an intense, bright swath of yellow flowers in mid-spring. When not blooming, it’s a soft gray-green ground cover. Great for borders or bright punctuations in a naturalistic bed. Durable and self-seeds, but not aggressively Needs: Prefers sun, but totally not fussy about soil or drainage. Drought tolerant. Best feature: Crowds out weeds, sometimes even bindweed. Size: 6-12 inches tall and wide at maturity. Plant it with: Dark-burgundy ‘Queen of Night’ tulips; shrub roses; white daffodils; or anything that will bloom while or after the flowers are spent. Downside? Ages out (meaning individual plants will die, usually after 4-5 years, but the self-seeding will give you new ones).
Why grow it: First off, it’s technically not a spirea; it’s a caryopteris (Caryopteris x. clandonensis, to be exact). But you grow it because you love bees, love its sprawling, informal shape, and love its cool blue flowers in mid- to late summer, when Colorado really starts cookin’. Bees absolutely mob this shrub, from tiny solitary bees to honeybees to big fat copper-banded bumblebees. Many sizes and varieties (‘Dark Knight’ is popular) are available. Needs: Sun. Appreciates being on a drip line or a little supplemental water during the first year and in dry summers. Reputed to dislike clay, but not a hard and fast rule. Prune it back in early spring to keep its low mounding shape and vigor. Try not to crowd it. Downside? Larger sizes can be a little pricey. Zero winter interest. Size: Varies anywhere from 2-feet wide and tall to 3-feet wide and tall.
Why grow it: Fragrance, toughness, and spring bloom ‘ right around Mother’s Day. New varieties like ‘Boomerang’ give you two blooms, or blossoms that are deep purple outlined in white. But if it’s perfume you’re after, there’s nothing like the double-flowered varieties for fragrance. Needs: Lilacs are legendary for prairie toughness and hold up well to drought, given the full sun and decently draining soil they like. They appreciate a little composted manure and mulch in the spring but can get along without it. Buy yours small and follow good shrub-planting protocol, and water it occasionally through its first winter if there’s no snow. Deadhead spent blooms immediately or not at all, as this shrub blooms on year-old wood. Downside: Spent blooms can look a little tattered. But it’s a small price to pay for the fragrance. Size: Smaller varieties top out at 7 to 8 feet; some reach 12 and need about 6 to 8 feet of space.
Knock Out shrub roses
Why grow it: As a first rose or a rose for someone who wants reliable flowers with no fuss, this family of roses is a true prizefighter. Double Knock Out, with its deep candy-red flowers, is ubiquitous for a reason: It’s disease resistant, hardy, and just keeps blooming. Knock Out roses now come in creamy yellow (Sunny Knock Out), pale pink (Blushing Knock Out), coral (Coral Knock Out) and peach (Peachy Knock Out). Needs: Few. Plant like any other shrub, maybe with a little Mile High Rose Food or kelp meal in the planting hole. Prune only to shape it; if you like a rangy sprawl, let it go. Spray off aphids with a strong jet of water. Plant it with: Anything. Makes a nice hedge. Downside: Fragrance is minimal. Can send up a wild cane or two that reaches for the sky, but just prune them. Size: 3- to 4-feet wide and high.
Other hard-to-kill plants we love
Close contenders to consider: Herbs
Bronze fennel (bees, butterflies, beauty)
Sage (one of the plain garden perennials ‘ give it sun and watch it go!)
Thyme (no kitchen should be without it)
Italian parsley (makes great pesto with walnuts or sunflower seeds)
Garlic chives (aggressively self-seeds, but bees love it)
Lavender (because we all have stress)
Arugula (leaves, flowers, seed pods are edible; bees love it; high in Vitamin C; self-seeds)
Straight Eight cucumber (given enough water, yields bushels)
Broccoli raab (aka rapini, broccoli rabe; nutritious Italian green raw or cooked)
Swiss chard (substitute this easier, prettier, more heat-tolerant veggie for spinach)
Zinnia (easy, cheerful)
Cosmos (beautiful, airy, self-seeds enough to be placed in the perennials category)
Portulaca (takes our blistering heat and sun)
Daffodils (more reliable here than tulips, not to mention some are fragrant)
Foliage and shrubs
Pygmy barberry (tough, colorful, doesn’t mind clay; pygmy variety stays small)
Manzanita (needs drainage, but evergreen, tough and long-lived)
Pawnee Buttes Sand Cherry (super tough, super drought tolerant, super fall color)
Currants (native, fruit-bearing, bird-enticing)
Serviceberries and chokecherries (perennials see above)
Tatarian ‘Hot Wings’ Maple (fuchsia ‘helicopters’ in fall)
Western Catalpa (big, fast-growing, provides deep shade)
Cornelian Cherry Dogwood (blooms super early in spring; delicate form)
We’re here to help!
We know that not everyone has the time or the desire to spend their days toiling away in their yards and gardens. But that doesn’t mean you should miss out on the beauty and bounty of a well maintained landscape. No matter your location and tastes, Plant Escape has solutions for you. Our landscape design company has created, installed and maintained thousands of beautiful interior and exterior plant arrangements, earning us over 25 years of awards on a local and national level for color design, landscaping and customer service. If you’re interested in hiring our Denver landscape designers for a residential project, visit our website or give us a call today at 303.584.0496 for a free consultation and estimate.