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Master Gardener: Tough plants

Vicky Barney
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

The north side of my house is a poor spot for a garden, receiving very little sun and used for winter snow storage. When a number of plants sprouted here, I was surprised. They must be tough plants.

Utility workers disturbed this inhospitable area a few years back, and subsequently, it was graveled. A few weeds sprang up, mainly prostrate knotweed and prickly lettuce, but no worrisome weeds.

Tough Columbine

In the middle of the gravel, flowering plants appeared: hollyhocks (Alcea rosea), common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium). These plants grow elsewhere without my help and tend to be aggressive, but, since they are thriving and draw pollinators, they are welcome here.

Nothing grew in the least hospitable spot — along the wall — until this last spring. Graveled and shady most of the time, it receives a little moisture as it is directly under the roof’s drip line. Surprisingly, this little bit of moisture has created an attractive environment for some really tough plants.

Beautiful Columbine (Aquilegia spp.) was the first to appear. I inadvertently planted it when seeds I had collected for another project scattered in the wind. The plant appeared in several spots and produced stunning flowers in light blue and white.

Bloom time varied with the location of each plant; those in colder and shadier locations blooming later than the others, and all later than those planted in garden areas. The last one to bloom displayed a completely white flower in late July. Liking their roots cool and shaded, these Columbine plants seem to have found a good home and still have green leaves.

The fastest growing plant is a currant, which likely is a golden currant (Ribes aureum). It is about 3 feet tall and has four sturdy stems with bright green leaves and must have sprouted from seed from the golden currant shrub around the corner. If it survives the poor conditions, it could spread by rhizome and become a pretty hedge with yellow blossoms for early arriving pollinators. A hedge would be welcome here.

Much less noticeable but also welcome is a creeping oregon grape (Mahonia repens or Berberis repens). It too must have grown by seed from nearby plants and has produced several holly-shaped spiny leaves. Either sprawling or compact, it would be an attractive addition with its bright yellow flowers, blue berries, and leaves in colors of red and green. Hopefully it too will survive here.

Not surprisingly, serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) is also growing here. I imagine serviceberry roots blanket my yard as the shrub has extensive root systems and sprouts everywhere. A few small stems with oval leaves are visible and will need to be monitored before their 6- to 10-foot size overtakes the area. In spite of this, it is welcome since its pretty white blossoms and dark blue berries attract wildlife.

I have one mystery plant that is sprouting elsewhere in my yard. It is composed of a single stem with compound leaves made up of oval, slightly toothed leaflets that are opposite compound and in opposing pairs. I believe it is some sort of ash tree, seeded from a neighboring tree. Until identified, it is not welcome.

Seeing these plants emerge and thrive is fascinating and encourages me to experiment with planting in other inhospitable areas. It will be interesting to see who survives this hot, dry summer and long winter.

Vicky Barney gardens for wildlife and is a member of the Master Gardener Class of 2011.


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