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Gardening Daze



Last week, I went out and did something I have never done in 10 years of Colorado gardening. Baked and tired from a long day in the sun, I bought a 12-foot-tall Shademaster Honey Locust tree to give me a break from the intense sun on the south side of my studio greenhouse.

After planting the tree, I stood back, struck by the instant shade its branches shed, and the allure of instant gratification grabbed me. That afternoon I bought 10 more 12-foot-tall, single-stemmed trees.

When my husband (and gardening partner) and I began building gardens together in Colorado in 1992, we did not know what we were up against. We grew up and lived in far gentler gardening climes -- Puerto Rico, Panama, Iowa and New England. The property we purchased here sits on the southwest edge of the Black Forest exposed to Front Range winds, so one of our first tasks involved slowing down winds from the north to create a protected microclimate for growing plants.

We chose a selection of time-tested plants recommended by the U.S. Forestry Service to create our windbreak, hoping these young tree seedlings would grow up tough, adapted to our soils and climactic conditions. The tiny seedlings of spruce, fir, pine, cedar, and juniper that we planted in our north windbreak now stand 6 to 12 feet high and span 200 feet, providing habitat for birds and protection for our gardens.

But our adolescent stand of trees came with a price. We spent nine years tending, watering, observing, mowing, mulching, feeding and brushing gobs of wet snow off tender young limbs. This investment of human energy, time and labor for the return of living, breathing trees has given us a priceless treasure. But a decade and counting is a long time to wait, and I'm longing for summer shade in the garden.

When our 10 trees were delivered one morning last week, the day was balmy and windless. We planted all day and into the dark night of the next. The hawthorn, oak and crabapple trees were each carefully planted, fed and watered. By nightfall, all were staked except for three which we decided to finish first thing the next morning. Sunday morning greeted us with 55 mph winds, snow and three unstaked trees listing southward.

After 10 Colorado springs, I should accept this erratic weather as a matter of course, but a familiar resentment arose in me at this bold demonstration of nature's fury. So much for protective windbreaks and dreams of soft spring nights. We dragged our exhausted bodies out of warm beds, donned coats and gloves, and headed for the meadow to straighten up and stake our trees.

I know from experience these trees may revert to multi stemmed shrubs in a harsh winter or capricious spring. When it comes to deciduous woody plants, Colorado is, in the long run, shrub country. Many single-stemmed trees, in the hope of survival, revert to multi stemmed shrubs after a winter of dry, lashing winds, fluctuating temperatures and winter sun scald. Or, they may survive, like our scrub oak, by assuming stunted, contorted gawky shapes. Still, we love trees and continue to plant them whatever the risks may be.

After almost a decade of gardening here in Colorado, we continue to learn the subtleties of provenance, the intuitive sense of where we are in the regional scheme of things. We grow many plants native to the Rocky Mountains in our cultivated borders and on the peripheral wild areas of our meadows. At the other extreme, every year, I can't resist growing tropical flowers from seed as reminders of my Puerto Rican birthplace. We also experiment by trying plants that may be marginally hardy here, just to see what happens.

One of this year's experiments, along with the 10 mentioned above, is the Persian Parrotia tree, Parrotia persica, whose native range is Iran. Good as a specimen or shade tree, its striking features include bright orange, yellow and scarlet fall color and a flaking bark which reveals a handsomely mottled pattern of gray and off-white. It prefers well-drained, slightly acid (pH 6.0 to 6.5) soils; likes full sun but will do well in light shade; and is extremely tolerant once established. We'll see how our new tree responds to our slightly alkaline soils, intense high-altitude sunlight and winter winds. (Warning: Try this experiment in horticultural elasticity at your own risk.)

I long to languish in the summer shade of a honey locust tree. I want lush gardens even though I live in a mountain desert. This spring, I've thrown caution to the wind to have paradise now, rather than later.

-- Laura Spear is owner of ForestEdge Gardens, a private garden in the Black Forest. To receive an invitation to see her garden in the summer, call 535-7457 and leave your name and address. Throughout the summer, Gardening Daze will alternate with Domestic Bliss in this space.

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