Avid gardeners who relocate to Denver often experience some challenges when “settling in” to their outdoor space. Many newcomers who imagine that the primary challenge for a garden will be selecting plants that do well in winter cold are disappointed, as cold-weather plants that do well in northern states like Minnesota do not thrive in Denver. The truth is, winter cold is only one of the challenges that gardeners face in Denver. Plants have to contend with a number of specific local conditions. Here are a few:
Denver’s high elevation means that the sunlight is more intense and humidity remains low, even when temperatures drop. Low humidity helps the respiration of plants but also makes sunlight more intense. Plants that will grow in full sun in lower altitudes often get too much light exposure in the bright sun of Denver and need to be shaded.
Local gardeners bemoan the dense, clay, alkaline soil of Denver. This heavy clay soil is poorly aerated, meaning that plants can easily drown for lack of oxygen at the roots. Poor aeration and drainage also mean that the top layer of soil easily accumulates excess salt, iron, and other minerals that are detrimental to healthy plant growth.
Rapid Temperature Changes
Finally, plants don’t have to just contend with seasonal cold temperatures. Denver often experiences sudden, dramatic temperature changes, often in springtime. Late heavy snows, or late hard freezes, can kill the tender new growth of plants that were emerging after winter. And cold air flows like water down mountain slopes and accumulates in landscapes and neighborhoods, making for highly local sub-climates.
There’s nothing more disheartening than nourishing a plant through a harsh winter and see it begin to flourish in springtime, then have a hard frost that destroys all your hard work. Particularly dramatic cold snaps can take a toll on plants for years, even if they survive.
But does that mean you can’t have a gorgeous garden? Of course not. In fact, some plant species do exceptionally well in Denver. Decreased humidity reduces many plant pests and diseases that are common at lower elevations. Warm days and cool nights in summer produce fantastic lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, and other cool-season vegetables. And Denver is perfect for some of the most beautiful flower gardens in America; the intensity of the light encourages long, strong stems and brilliant colors. Here are some tips to grow a spectacular Denver garden:
Select native plant species
Native plants are already acclimated to thrive in the harsh climate of Denver. And native plants require less care, less water, and are better for the environment than non-native species. Local bees, butterflies, and birds require native plants in order to thrive, so you can use your lawn and garden to provide much-needed habitat. Visit the Colorado Native Plant Society website for information about native plants.
Amend your soil
Using compost and organic matter to amend and aerate your soil can take several years, but the results are worth it. You can start by simply mixing compost into the soil in a raised bed or vegetable patch. Then, with careful composting or mulching, you can expand your efforts to aerate your soil deeper and nurture healthier topsoil, to help your garden thrive.
Learn more about plants that do well in Denver
Of course, native species offer many advantages, but they don’t need to limit your choices. Visit the Denver Botanic Gardens every 3-4 months to see which species thrive in which seasons, and get inspiration for your own garden. And reach out to Denver Urban Gardens for ideas, support, and solutions for your landscape.
Gardening is a passion that many people share, and Denver natives have developed great support and resources for each other. Making friends with other gardeners can not only help you find better ways to have the garden of your dreams in your new Denver home, but also to make new friends, and help you put down your own roots as well.