I do hope you will excuse my absence on the blog front recently. Life got busy, I got tired, and then I was out of town for a while on a business conference. I was able to return to my heart-home – Colorado. The conference was at Keystone Colorado, a lovely 9000+ feet above sea level and home to a host of pine trees, granite outcroppings, blue skies, wildflowers, and abundant sunshine. I was beyond happy to be back home again in my mountains. Everything else about the trip was icing on the cake. The conference was good and the hotel luxurious, but even during all the talks and symposiums, my mind was fixated on one thought: “my mountains are right outside this door”!
Now, this series of conferences is unique in that we have the afternoons off. They are held in skiing communities, typically in the winter, so that attendees can enjoy skiing. But a few are hosted during summer months, and that’s the one I’ve gone to for two years now. This time, I was travelling on my own (not with coworkers) and I rented a car to do some things in the area that I hadn’t had a chance to do since I lived there with my family.
One of those activities on my to-do list was to visit Vail. When I lived there, my family took a fall trip there and visited the town and a garden. I remember a world of boulders and waterfalls nestled in the arms of aspens glowing with fall color. It is the Betty Ford Alpine Garden and is the world’s highest alpine garden, clocking in at 8200 feet above sea level.
While living in Colorado, I learned to love alpine gardens deeply. They are one of my very favorite types of gardens and I was anxious to see these and compare them to the alpine gardens at Denver Botanic Gardens. The important features of an alpine rock garden are thus: 1) rocks – you must have large granite boulders strung about the garden in a haphazard manner (actually it’s quite precise, but meant to look random and natural). These must be heaped up on each other or otherwise look like they’ve tumbled down the mountain and they provide wonderful nooks and crannies for plants to grow.
Which brings me to 2) plants specialized to live in low moisture, high extreme environments. It’s surprising the variety of plants that can grow here. There are columbines, lupines, and grasses that gently blow in the wind. And then there are tiny dome-shaped plants like alpine clover that are a mass of little leaves and pink flowers that form a mat over their shallow root system and protect the roots from frost damage. One of the interesting adaptations of alpine plants are their roots. The plants that grow together have differing lengths of roots – from very shallow to over 3 feet deep. this allows them to specialize by extracting nutrients from the soils at different depths, and it also allows for different plant growth habits. Those plants with deep roots can grow taller and those with shallow systems typically are ground-cover plants.
Other ingredients for a proper rock garden include 3) succulents – you really can’t have a decent garden full of rocks and not have hens and chicks growing all over the crevices and edges of the rocks. There were a variety of succulents growing along the trails and rock walls and in the boulders. Like in desert environments, water is scarce and many alpine plants are succulents and store the water in their leaves. Really good alpine gardens will also feature pine cones along with their succulents. Well done!
4) Lichen – in addition to being incredibly beautiful, they are an interesting example of symbiosis. Lichens drape across the surface of rocks much like doilies drape antique furniture. In a range of yellow, to green, to brown, these tiny organisms create a dazzling display of color and texture over the boulders. They are a unique combination of algae and fungi that coexist together, where neither could survive alone. The algae photosynthesize and provide energy source and the fungi extract required minerals from the soil.
5) Water – preferably a waterfall or stream or both. Although most alpine gardens are specialized to survive low water, most will have a “wet” season in summer from some snowmelt. All throughout my drive in the mountains I saw spontaneous waterfalls where snow-melt rivers were filled to the brim and spilled out on the rocks below. This garden mimicked the mountains in early summer with a series of waterfalls down the mountain, ending in a meandering river banked up with wildflowers and aspens.
An added plus to any alpine garden are benches to sit and admire the beauty while knitting.
Visiting this garden was such a delight. It was created and maintained by a team of volunteers from the city and it’s a beautiful legacy of love in the mountains of Colorado.
Blessings to you,