A natural garden becomes even more so | AspenTimes.com

A natural garden becomes even more so

Anna Naeser
Aspen, CO Colorado

The cages protecting my juvenile pinyon pines, Pinus edulis, have finally come down ” my “natural” garden looks much more natural now. Scattered among boulders, camouflaged by cheat grass, grow several kinds of cold-hardy cacti native to the dry, hot places of Colorado.

This garden is bordered by the neighbors’ stone walls above, fruit trees and planters lining the driveway on the downhill side, the fenced vegetable garden on the west and a shortcut from Sopris Drive to Homestead Drive on the east. The steep path is visually part of our property, if not legally. When a neighbor “improved” the dirt path by building steps, it had the same effect as clearing a lot to build a house ” the original vegetation was scraped off, and opportunistic plants moved in to colonize the ground. It was disheartening to watch the hillside become carpeted with alien cheat grass, tumbleweed and tumble mustard. Prickly cheat grass awns stick in the dogs’ fur, my socks and parts of my anatomy. They can puncture a dog’s eardrum. For a few years, we tried to stem the tide while disturbing the hill and its fauna, like the enchanting green snakes, as little as possible.

I sent samples of the grasses to an expert from whom I had taken a class, then sowed pounds and pounds of seeds of the three natives he identified. The birds had a field day. Watering was problematic. Only a few grass seedlings appeared. So now, we have a meadow of cheat grass. It is very pretty, the first thing to green up in spring and a lovely soft green. As it dries, it turns a tawny reddish tan, which is also beautiful. To my surprise, the native grasses are spreading slowly. Native wildflowers have filtered in.

Ten years ago, we decided to plant pinyon pines in the cheat grass meadow. We weren’t worried about the ips beetles then. Digging doesn’t begin to describe the process of making a hole by hand on this rocky, uncultivated ground. I needed small plants and had no luck with seeds. I found a nursery in Buena Vista that propagated native trees and shrubs, including P. edulis. In the fall of 1998, they root-pruned five small pinyons in the field, then dug them up and potted them in five-gallon containers early the next spring. By June, the pinyons were well rooted and ready to pick up and plant. My trees, with fine new candles of growth, were only about 18 inches tall but, just like the ones growing wild above Basalt Mountain, no two were alike and yet each was perfect.

Pinyons are rarely browsed by deer, but rarely doesn’t mean never, and I wasn’t taking any chances, so I had surrounded them with stout fencing wired to steel snow-fence posts. But the trees are about 5 feet tall now and filling out, and they had begun to grow through the mesh. While well-defined tracks and scat mark the perambulations of the deer around the pinyons, there was no sign of browsing. It was time.

Removing the protection was almost as much work as putting it up. It’s tricky keeping your footing on the rocky, steep slope without treading on plants you wouldn’t want to mess with even if they weren’t treasures, like cacti. Putting all her weight into it, Miranda, my daughter, managed to jog the posts loose and wrestle the wire down the hill. Then she came to get me, to look at the blooming cactus.

For weeks, we watched the developing buds on our various cacti. Finally, the claret cup cactus, Echinocereus triglochidiatus, was opening its goblets of smooth, scarlet petals to reveal a cluster of knobby, improbably green stigmas inside. Snatched from the path of a bulldozer on a highway expansion project many years ago by Miranda and Gerry, our tight cluster of short, ribbed, spiny cylinders has expanded into a mound several feet across. You might be able to spot some of these cacti on the south-facing slopes along Highway 82, between Planted Earth and the gravel pit, if you drive slowly. Every year I expect to see that land developed and the cacti to disappear. G. K Guennel, in volume one of his “Guide to Colorado Wildflowers” calls the plant an endangered beauty.

Several species of prickly pears, Opuntia sp., grow naturally in this garden. One volunteered behind a pinyon and has matured enough to sport a row of buds on the crest of each plump terminal pad. For the very first time, I wonder what colors the flowers will be. I wonder if it is time to stop irrigating the pinyons.

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