Tough as nails: Plants for gardening success in the foothills

When I moved to Rist Canyon from Dallas back in December 1989, little did I know how much my gardening knowledge would change over the next 25 years. In March 1990, I planted several pots full of pansies, expecting spring rains to keep them happy until the heat of summer. Several snowstorms later, and unencumbered by the facts, I once again planted my pansies. I was a glutton for punishment that first year. But time passes, and so does ignorance, as I slowly learned what works and what doesn’t.

By Bridget Tisthammer
Colorado State University Extension Master Gardener in Larimer County

Native plants are, by far, the most reliable, low maintenance plants to grow in any locale. But, I’ve found many non-natives that will flourish as well. I’ve developed a short list of easy-to-grow perennials, both native and introduced, that survive the wet springs, the hot, dry summers, and the terrible, crushed granite and pine duff soils of the foothills. My requirements for this list were simple: it had to live for several years—not just one or two; and it had to put up with deer, rabbits, chipmunks, and all other manner of wildlife that might want to use it as a salad bar.

Here are a few of those tough-as-nails plants:
Hands-down, number one, go-to plants—the Canadian Explorer and Morden series shrub roses. Their lush leaves, season-long blooms and incredible hardiness make them superstars in a foothills garden. A few favorites include ‘John Cabot,’ a climber reaching nine feet, with medium to dark pink flowers and orange hips in the fall; ‘Winnipeg Parks’ which sports a hot pink flower with purplish blue leaves; ‘Morden Sunrise,’ a compact variety that produces orange buds opening to coral flowers which slowly fade to yellow’; and ‘Henry Kelsey’ that develops tall, arching canes of dark green leaves and deep red flowers. There is no need to pamper these roses. They require no mulching or wrapping in winter, are disease and pest resistant, and are fairly drought tolerant once established. As if that isn’t enough, they are all fragrant.

Another favorite is Yarrow, or Achillea sp. Not only does it spread, but I didn’t even have to buy it. A beautiful, white variety with soft, dark green ferny foliage grows right here in the foothills. I did eventually buy some other colors, such as ‘Moonshine,’ ‘Paprika’ and ‘Strawberry Seduction’ to add some variety. Yarrow is fragrant, long-blooming, drought-tolerant, and will grow in shade or sun. Be aware that it can creep into the lawn (if you have one).

Next is the Catmint, or Nepeta sp. Its lavender flowers, set against furry, silver-green foliage, are vibrant in spring. This is an early season treat for the bees when the salvia is barely poking through the soil. It will continue to flower intermittantly throughout the summer, and if cut back, will put on another big show in the fall. A prolific reseeder, it works best where it has a chance to spread and fill in. It also grows in sun to part shade, and is very drought tolerant. You have to admire a plant that will grow in recycled concrete.

Number four on the list is Creeping Jenny, or Lysimachia nummularia. This fast-growing groundcover, with round, kelly green leaves and bright yellow flowers forms a mat that very few weeds can penetrate. It grows in full or part shade and is incredibly easy to propagate. Just snip off a runner—you’ll see roots growing from the underside of the leaf nodes—place on another area of soil, cover with a handful of soil, and water. It will take off.

I hesitate to mention Snow on the Mountain, or Aegopodium podograria ‘Variegata,’ because once planted it can spread aggressively and is difficult to remove. However, if you have a spot in full or part shade that won’t support any other life, Snow on the Mountain will probably grow there. Its variegated leaves and delicate white flowers brighten up a shady spot, and will require watering only during dry spells, once established. After flowering, prune plants by mowing them. I’m not kidding. They will be ankle-high again in a week.
Next up is the Snow Daisy, or Tanacetum niveum. This plant produces a profusion of tiny, daisy-like flowers from spring until frost. It will fill in empty spots and looks good with anything. It is a prolific reseeder, attractive to butterflies, and drought tolerant once established. The snow daisy’s ferny, dark green foliage reaches a height of 18 inches. You may also see lime green foliaged sports in your new crop.

The Columbine, or Aquilegia sp., is one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring. When this plant is in bloom it can reach two to three feet tall, although some hybrids may be shorter. After the first bloom, cut it back and it will immediately begin regrowing and setting another bloom. Columbine is a prolific reseeder. If you plant several types, the new crop will most likely have flowers combining the colors of different varieties.
If you have a moist, sunny spot, consider growing beebalm, or Monarda sp. The round, bushy flowers of purple, pink and red are a magnet to bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. There are several varieties now that are resistant to powdery mildew. Two of my favorites are the four foot tall red variety ‘Jacob Kline’ and a shorter, lavender-pink variety called ‘Marshall’s Delight.’

These are just a few of the many tough plants that can grow at higher elevations. For more information, log on to and click on On-line Yard and Garden Publications. See the following fact sheets:

No. 7.242 Native Herbaceous Perennials for Colorado Landscapes
No. 7.406 Flowers for Mountain Communities
No. 7.413 Ground Covers and Rock Garden Plants for Mountain Communities
No. 7.421 Native Trees for Colorado Landscapes
No. 7.422 Native Shrubs for Colorado Landscapes

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