High-Country Color

In the mountains of Colorado, a gardener creates a lively collage of ever-changing flowers.

Jane Hendrix came late to gardening. It took a major life change for the inspiration to hit: retirement followed by a move to the mountains —Breckenridge, Colorado. Shortly after she and her husband, Bob, settled into their new home, Jane was awestruck by the vibrant colors of the flowers in summer gardens she saw around town.

“Everything looked so intense. I told my husband that I would love to see 10 feet of flowers outside the glass doors of my office,” she says.

And that was it. She was hooked. What started out as one bed has now become 40.

A six-week growing season?
But while all those flowers may look carefree, the truth is that nothing has come easily. Jane and Bob’s home is nestled on an acre-and-a-half lot in a forest of lodgepole pines. After first trying to plant directly into the soil and quickly hitting rocks and sand, Jane and Bob had topsoil and large boulders hauled in to create the raised beds that encircle the house.

But they faced even greater obstacles: Their home is just 8 miles from the Continental Divide at an altitude of 10,000 feet. While their USDA Hardiness Zone is 4b, the climate is considered high alpine, which means intense sun, high winds and summer temperatures hovering around 70ºF during the day before falling into the 40s and 50s at night. Midsummer freezes aren’t unheard of.

“People joke that our growing season is only six weeks long, but that’s pretty true, really,” Jane says, explaining that everything gets planted in June and blooms all at once in early August.

The upside is unparalleled color. Research has shown that annuals and perennials often produce blooms in more vibrant and diverse colors at higher elevations. Reasons for this are many, including the intensity of light and an attempt to attract more pollinators.

Jane’s ability to artfully combine flowers in contrasting and complementary colors is evident throughout her gardens.

Whatever the case, Jane finds the profusion of colors in her gardens fascinating and inspiring. And with the help of two trusted assistants she hires each summer to help out, she’s constantly experimenting with new ways to create interesting combinations and palettes.

“I never imagined that the garden would become such a meaningful part of my life. But a passion has a life of its own and carries you with it,” she says.

Organize and layer
Over time, Jane has come up with her own way of describing her gardening style: alpine color collage.

By that she means her gardens include a variety of colorful annuals, biennials and perennials that over time have proven tough enough for alpine conditions. Intentionally free-flowing and a bit wild looking, the gardens can be deceiving, Jane says. They give the impression of being somewhat chaotic, but in truth they require quite detailed planning.

Imagining her raised beds as frames in which she creates paintings, Jane likes to change the character of some areas of the garden every year by adding different annuals and biennials to her existing perennial beds and focusing on layering. As she eyes her gardens in search of places to introduce color and considers her options, Jane always keeps in mind the time-tested garden design rule to organize plants shortest to tallest, with the tallest plants toward the back of the garden — or middle if the garden is viewed from all sides.

Before planting the gardens, Jane and her husband Bob brought in topsoil and boulders to create the raised beds that surround the house.

After years of trial an error, she has anchored her gardens around several perennial mainstays, including Icelandic poppy, sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), Asiatic lily (such as ‘Connecticut King’ and ‘Gran Paradiso’), Russell hybrid lupine (Lupinus Russell hybrids), geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’, snow in summer (Cerastium tomentosum), catchfly (Lychnis x arkwrightii), Jacob’s ladder and several varieties of columbine and delphinium.

The latter two are among her favorites; she’s made it a point to zero in on the varieties she likes best. In the case of columbine, she has repeatedly planted seeds from her favorite variety, McKana’s Giant, an All-America Selections winner with large blooms in a variety of colors.

Calling delphiniums “the queens of my gardens,” Jane says she’s tried different varieties but now only grows them from seeds she orders online from Dowdeswell’s Delphiniums Ltd. in New Zealand.

“They’re by far the best delphiniums I’ve ever had, with big florets that hold their blooms, and some got to be 7 feet tall this past year,” she says, adding that she likes to buy a mix that includes pinks, lavenders and purples.

Because of the short, six-week growing season, everything blooms at one time, creating a short-lived but intense profusion of color each summer.

Pansies do so well in Jane’s gardens, she uses them as borders in most of her raised beds, as well as in containers.

Delphiniums are “the queens” of Jane’s gardens, and she likes to buy seed mixes that include varieties in shades of pink, lavender and purple.

Oriental and Icelandic poppies thrive in Breckenridge’s cool climate.

Combining colors
While perennials are the backbone of Jane’s gardens, annuals are what really make things pop. Favorites include bacopa, pansy, marigold (especially ‘Lemon Gem’), cosmos (‘Gloria’, ‘Gazebo’ and ‘Sonata’), ‘Orange Prince’ nemesia, flowering kale, trailing lobelia (Lobelia erinus), rose mallow (Lavatera trimestris ‘Silver Cup’) and creeping daisy (Chrysanthemum paludosum).

Beds bursting with color are always eye-catching, but what gives Jane’s gardens their wow factor is her ability to design using complementary and contrasting colors. Pairing contrasting colors, which involves combining colors that would be opposite each other on the color wheel, like orange and blue, is the trickiest task, she says.

Inspired by the vibrant flowers in nearby summer gardens, Jane set out to create stunning raised beds that she could see from her home-office windows.

To keep things looking bright, she steers clear of muddy hues like rust in favor of reds, oranges, purples and yellows that pop.

Jane’s learned what she likes over time and is now particularly partial to blue and yellow combinations interspersed with white, hot pinks and lavenders. To keep things bright and dramatic, she advises against using “muddied” colors like rust, maroon or brown.

“The thing about gardening is it allows you to live out a fantasy,” Jane says. “You look out at a flower bed and you ask yourself, What do I visualize? And then you do it.”

Meleah Maynard is a writer and master gardener who blogs at everydaygardener.com. Photos by Tracy Ann Walsh.