A garden inspired by nature
Abigale and Christopher Curtis’ garden sits at the edge of the foothills in zone 5 Boulder, Colorado. The overall design is by Tom Altgelt, owner of Altgelt and Associates and the hardscape was installed by a team from Changing Landscapes. Though it's a cultivated creation, the wild surroundings supplied plenty of inspiration. Native plants, cut stone, large boulders and water features connect the garden to the nearby foothills.
The area with the fountain in the photo above is one of the first things you see when you come down the driveway, near the front entrance to the house. It’s a peaceful setting with built-in seating so you can enjoy many different vantage points surrounding a basalt fountain sculpture. Water falls into the pool below creating a rich sound as it then cascades down four steps, through a runnel and into the pond. Being just a few steps from the door, it’s a breathtaking site at sunrise, especially with a cup of coffee in hand. And the multilevel, flat open surfaces make it a nice place to stroll through after a long day at the office. The raised beds that surround the fountain are filled with a variety of perennials and annuals, including vegetables and herbs that can be easily harvested for dinner.
Colorful front yard
It’s difficult to imagine, but this area at the front of the house was just a steep lawn when the Curtises moved in. Now, the large multilevel water feature surrounded by gardens makes it more colorful, workable and walkable. Here are some of its best features.
The Curtises wanted to have the front yard look good year-round since it’s what guests see when they arrive. Planting in drifts, or large sweeps of the same or similarly sized plants, creates a more natural look, especially on hillsides and slopes. And creates a large block of color that's easy to see from a distance.
The combination of ornamental grasses, showy flowers and ground covers creates an eye-catching mix of color and texture from spring through fall. Orange pineleaf penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius) and pink ‘Coral Canyon’ cold-hardy twinspur (Diascia integerrima) add a lot of bright flowers along the edge of the beds all summer and attract butterflies and hummingbirds, as well. Leaving some of the grasses in place and not cutting them back until spring provides interest in the garden in winter.
Low maintenance plants
Lean soil and low rainfall is the norm for this region and that can be hard on some plants. Dragging hoses around to hand water is no walk in the park for you either. To make maintenance easier this garden has lots of drought-tolerant species — they thrive without additional feeding or watering except in the dryest of summers. Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus), spike blazing star (Liatris spicata), and salvia (Salvia spp. and hybrids) are just a few great options in these beds.
Not all of the plants are drought-tolerant, though. Delphiniums, do need some extra attention but those showy blooms are worth it! They add great shape and rich purple color to this garden. A 3- to 4-inch layer of wood chips around plants holds in soil moisture and prevents evaporation. Because weather conditions vary so much here, mulch also helps to maintain an even soil temperature, keeping roots cool. You can also reduce watering (and feeding) by amending your soil with compost to add more organic matter and nutrients.
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Ornamental grasses play a big role in giving this garden its natural look. Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) is a great drought-tolerant grass for hot dry regions like this one. It forms a mound of blue foliage that fits perfectly next to the path near the water feature. Long flower stems sway in the breeze 2 to 3 feet above the foliage creating an elegant screen. Cool-season ‘Elijah Blue’ blue fescue (Festuca glauca) in the photo above keeps the garden colorful earlier in the season and stays evergreen in mild winters.
Easy to walk surfaces
Poured concrete is a low-maintenance landscaping material perfect for patios and walkways. To give the large slabs in the photo a more pleasing look than standard dull gray concrete, they were treated with a finish that combines colorants and sand into the concrete mix to create a customized look and a decorative nonskid surface. It works well for entries, patios or pool decks. To get a similar look on a do-it-yourself budget, apply a concrete stain (available at big box stores) for the color. And if you want a nonslip surface try a sealer additive that creates a textured surface. It comes in several colors so you can find the one that fits with your patio design.
Create a backyard retreat
Take a walk along the side of the house toward the back of the property and you’ll find a quiet, secluded setting that opens up into the large multilevel patio area above. With a blending of the natural slope, evergreens and retaining wall, it’s a private retreat from the neighbors and street above.
A variety of materials in this area gives it a rugged, natural feel. Cobblestone pavers with an aged look give the patio an old world charm as well as a stable surface to walk on. The large boulders were locally sourced and make an excellent accent or focal point. They were placed with care to draw attention to steps, intersections and other features around the garden. The uniquely shaped stone near the seating area is the first thing you see as you climb the stairs — it makes a great focal point, pulling you over for a closer look.
To work large stones into the garden so they have a natural look, study the rock from different angles to determine its best face, then set it so that side is where you'll see it most. Position a few plants close to the stone to soften the hard lines and make it appear that it's growing out of the vegetation. Keep in mind the mature size of nearby plants — you wouldn’t want them to overshadow the rock in a few years.
A pastel palette of pink, yellow and blue reinforces the relaxed vibe of this seating area. ‘Wichita’ blue juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) and ‘Globosa’ dwarf blue spruce (Picea pungens) offer year-round color and interesting shapes that contrast with the warm orange tones of the stones.
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Create a place to gather
The seating area is a comfortable retreat set away from the house and situated to offer a great view of the gardens. Dark brown resin wicker furniture complements the landscape, rather than stealing the show away from the surroundings. Take a closer look at the cozy configuration perfect for relaxing in the evening and chatting with a few friends. The coffee table offers a hidden storage compartment to keep candles or pillows in easy reach. Tucking the seating area into the curve of the rock wall-lined patio promotes a sense of comfort — if this setting were pulled out into the middle, you might feel more exposed. And the low profile of the furniture is just the right height to let guests enjoy the plants in the raised bed at eye-level. A serviceberry (Amelanchier lamarckii), which has white flowers in spring, dark purple edible fruit and red-orange fall foliage, was also included here for its multiseason appeal. Since the tree is elevated a few feet by the raised bed, it provides overhead interest even right after planting. Eventually it will grow 15 to 25 feet tall and will add extra shade to the patio.
This right combination of natural materials and an array of native plants has created a beautiful garden that looks as if it was designed by Mother Nature.
Low-maintenance plants to try
Below is a selection of six great easy-care plants found in this garden. Check out the basic growing information and try adding a few to your own space for low-maintenance beauty!