“Redbirds in a tree” (Scrophularia macrantha) is the favorite plant of Ross Shrigley of Fort Collins, executive director of Plant Select®, a collaborative organization of Colorado State University (CSU), Denver Botanic Gardens and regional nurseries.
“Redbirds” is now a staple of the Plant Select® line, but its beginnings were humble.
“I dumpster-dived for a flat of this plant in 2002,” recalls Shrigley (quickly adding, “Yes, I had permission!”). “I looked at the tag and thought, hmm, small flowers…. I did not have much hope for liking them.”
He planted the castoffs on a raised berm where the plants got very little water and was “shocked!” at the results. “The following year they came up, and they bloomed all summer like they were extremely happy to serve in my garden. Hummingbirds, hawk moths and bees were hours of entertainment. From zero to hero, that plant moved me.”
“That experience is what I aim to achieve for everyone who purchases Plant Select® plants,” says Shrigley, who understands gardeners because he’s one himself. “I love being outside and looking around nature. I’m just as busy as everyone else, but this is the activity I choose to make time for. The work is therapeutic for me.” Flowers, grasses and other ornamental plants are his passion: “I’m a poor vegetable gardener,” he says without shame.
Naming a favorite plant is hard for gardeners. “I think that favorite plants are like favorite restaurants,” says Shrigley. “They change depending on the mood and experience. The most memorable ones are based on the pleasurable response experienced.”
Pleasurable experiences can be hard to come by for gardeners on the Front Range, especially to transplants of the human sort who move here from lusher, less challenging areas.
The growing season is short. Cold can be intense. Water is scarce, and moisture dries quickly from our lean soils, which lack the water-holding humus present in other regions of the country. Wind adds to the dessication. And even the sun takes its toll at high altitude, with extra-strong UV rays that can bleach flowers and dwarf the growth of plants that are not naturally adapted.
That’s why it pays to look for the Plant Select® label—it shows that these plants have proved their mettle. The branded tag is as close to a guarantee as a Front Range gardener can get. And that success goes for “new and experienced gardeners alike,” affirms Ross Shrigley.
The non-profit Plant Select® organization, which began in 1997, seeks out and tests new plants to find those that will flourish on the High Plains and in the mountains.
Plant Select® choices usually cost a little more than other plants. “I encourage sharing plants and/or buying them smaller,” Shrigley advises gardeners on a tight budget. “You can even get some Plant Select® plants as seeds.”
But “survival of the fittest” isn’t all that Front Range gardeners want. Beauty is tops on the list, too, and Plant Select® delivers.
“ ‘Kinztley’s Ghost’ honeysuckle, ‘Pawnee Buttes’ sandcherry, moon carrot”—lacy silvery-blue foliage topped by flat clusters of pale pink to white flowers—“Moroccan pincushion flower, ‘Granita™ Raspberry’ ice plant, ‘Blonde Ambition’ grass…,” Shrigley quickly ticks off other beauties, enthusing, “but there are WAY more!”
Plant Select® horticulturists are always on the lookout for good plants. A recent plant-hunting expedition to New Mexico (https://amerinursery.com/plants/plant-hunting-new-mexico/) turned up some interesting possibilities, including specimens of Gambel and silver oaks for consideration as landscape trees.
Testing of all Plant Select® candidates is rigorous. More than 50 public gardens in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and Montana participate in the Plant Select® Demonstration Garden Partner program, growing the plants and observing and rating their performance.
You can see trial plantings at the CSU Trial Garden and the Gardens on Spring Creek in Fort Collins; High Plains Environmental Center, Loveland; Treasure Island Garden, Windsor; Conservation Gardens at Northern Water, Berthoud; the Denver Botanic Garden; and many other places. To find a garden near you, see the map at http://plantselect.org/learn/demonstration-gardens/?landing=map
“Gardening to me is about community, sense of place and conservation,” muses executive director Shrigley. He’d love to see gardening get its rightful due. “NoCo is a hot spot of horticulture, and gardening should be as popular an activity as buying and drinking craft beer.”
To learn about the Plant Select® organization, admire the offerings, and find a list of retailers, visit http://plantselect.org/
The non-profit’s recently released book, Pretty Tough Plants (Timber Press, 2017), is an invaluable resource for every gardener in this challenging climate. Look for it at some nurseries and bookstores, as well as on Amazon.com,