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Going native isn’t necessarily the easiest way

Brief by Central Staff

Gardening – May 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

Things are starting to turn green, which inspires thoughts of planting seeds to produce more greenery.

But that also means spading, raking, hoeing, weeding, and watering, which leads to backaches, sunburn, and expense.

So the thought arises: Why not seed some native plants? Since they grow here anyway, they should thrive without much attention, and still produce some blooms and greenery.

It’s not quite that simple, according to Gary Ludwig at Pleasant Avenue Nursery in Buena Vista. Gary is one of Colorado’s leading authorities on native vegetation — among his current contracts is restoration of the eroded corridor along the Pike’s Peak toll road.

Anything you plant requires attention, Gary says, and natives are no exception. “Native plants aren’t necessarily strong competitors for sunshine, water, and soil nutrients. Without some help, they can get crowded out by more efficient and aggressive plants, which are often known as ‘weeds.’ So you still need to weed.”

Native wildflowers generally do pretty well in a home garden, Gary says, “but many people are disappointed by them.”

The disappointment comes because people often expect blooms through the summer, and natives tend to bloom for only a week or two.

“This is a desert, and native annual plants have to manage their resources carefully,” Gary explains. “They wait for a few wet days, bloom so they can make seeds, and then they’re done. They don’t keep flowering like the cultivated varieties. So if you want flowers blooming all summer, they can’t be native flowers.”

Perennials take a long time to get established before they bloom, Gary notes — “three to four years is typical, and a lot of people don’t have that kind of patience.”

Native grasses are likewise slow. “I’ve had people call and complain that they spent $1000 on grass seed a year or two ago, and nothing has happened. I’ll visit and get down on my knees and show them that there are 60 or 70 tiny seedlings per square foot — seedlings so small that you can’t see them when you’re standing up.

“It will be another year or two before that grass is visible and thriving.”

Even at that, “native lawns are somewhat fragile. You drive across bluegrass once, and the marks are gone the next day. The imprints will be there for weeks with native grass.”

Of course, there’s the benefit that these lawns don’t need nearly as much attention once they’re established. Native food plants, like currants and strawberries, also do pretty well in yards, he says, and so do trees like spruce and aspen, assuming you get good stock.

“Gardening with native plants isn’t for everybody,” Gary says. “It takes patience, care, and attention. You’re not going to get good results if you just toss some seeds on the ground and let nature take its course. But many people find it quite rewarding.”

He’s one of them: “I’ve got the best job in the world.”

Area Growing Seasons

Location Last Frost First Frost Growing Season

Alamosa May 24 Sept. 13 102

Buena Vista June 12 Sept. 9 91

CaƱon City May 1 Oct. 12 164

Del Norte June 1 Sept. 24 114

Gunnison June 23 Aug. 13 52

Leadville June 17 Sept. 6 81

Monte Vista June 7 Aug. 24 78

Saguache June 4 Sept. 15 104

Salida May 30 Sept. 18 111

San Luis June 4 Sept. 20 108

Westcliffe June 11 Sept. 20 90