It’s not easy gardening in Southwest Colorado – with its erratic temperature fluctuations, whipping winds and snowstorms that could hit pretty much at any time. But still, people make it happen.
“Hell yeah, they do,” said Darrin Parmenter, director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office.
With its diverse climates and unpredictable weather, La Plata County poses a challenging puzzle for people who want spruce up their homes with gardens.
Cindy Smart, who founded the Durango Botanical Society, said there are seven different climate zones across the 1,700-square-mile county, which is nearly the size of the state of Delaware. As a result, aspiring tillers have to tweak gardens for what thrives in a particular microclimate.
“Plants that would thrive in town wouldn’t necessarily be able to deal with windy days, dry conditions and extreme sunlight that plants deal with on Florida Mesa,” she said. “This really is a very unique area to garden in.”
Parmenter added that the growing season is short, about 100 to 130 days out of the year, and there’s no consistency in how long the season will last from year to year. Freezes can hit at any time, precipitation can be erratic at best, and intense sunlight because of the region’s high elevation can scorch plants.
“It just becomes a challenge on top of a challenge,” he said.
But there are ways to make it work.
“Our master gardener motto is, ‘right plant, right place,’” Parmenter said. “You don’t go off what a tag says for a plant. You need to understand how things happen at your house.”
Every year, the Durango Botanical Society hosts a tour of local gardens that represent the giant swath of climate zones to help people see what plants work where, said Connie Markert, an event organizer. The hope, she said, is people find at least one garden that reflects their own, and find out what grows well there.
One such garden that stands as a shining success story to be featured on the June 22 “Gardens on Tour” is the historic Roberta and Robert Barr property in the Animas Valley.
“They’ve done an amazing job out there,” Parmenter said. “It’s beautiful.”
Roberta Barr, who lived in the Animas Valley for most of her life, moved to the property with her husband, Robert, in 1947 and became renowned as an avid gardener, even being featured in Better Homes and Gardens in 1999.
But as Barr aged, her garden fell into disrepair. She died in 2013, at the age of 99, and the flowers and fruit trees had become entangled with the weeds and grasses.
That is until 2015, when Eric and Alice Foultz purchased the property and vowed to restore the historic estate.
“Even though it was way overgrown, her garden was amazing,” Eric Foultz told The Durango Herald at the time.
Lisa Bourey, a local designer, was hired to take on the task around 2016.
“When I got to the property, I just thought about all the history, I thought about Roberta and I just wanted to bring it all back to life,” she said.
Bourey found an original map of the property and blended the historic nature with a few of her own twists.
“It’s been one of my most fantastic projects,” she said.
Aaron Edwards, groundskeeper for the Foultzes, said the property falls in the middle of all those climate zones. Some areas are drier and support more desert-type plants, while others hold the perfect conditions for a burst of flowers, including poppies, goldenrod and, of course, Roberta’s favorite: rose.
“I’ve watched it transform from being in a state of disrepair to what it is now,” Edwards said. “It’s been fun watching it evolve.”
Smart, who retired as executive director of the Botanical Society in January, said the other aim of the tour is to inspire people to get outside and get their hands dirty, especially the next generation.
“It’s important to try to engage our younger audience, so they understand what gardening does for environment and for their soul,” she said. “Gardening is a place through the centuries that people have really come in touch with themselves.”