Friday, August 16, 2019

Creating a Colorado-friendly Garden: 1a. Drawing a Base Map

Base Map in progress: Mother Nature's Montrose Garden

The first step in planning any garden is to develop a good map. A base map or base plan shows the layout of the property and accurately locates the permanent site elements on a residential lot. In urban areas and developments, lots have typically been surveyed.  You may already have a copy of your deed map or property survey (or can obtain one from your local municipality). 

Property Survey: Mother Nature's Montrose Garden 

If a property survey has been done, it should show all property edges, setbacks and right of ways, building and pavement locations, and other permanent site elements.    If no property survey exists, you may want to have a survey conducted by a reputable surveyor.   This will help you correctly locate permanent structures on your property as well as adjacent property lines, fences, pavement, etc.   Having a recent survey map will save you time and effort constructing your base map. 

Previous owner's hand-drawn map (not to scale)
Mother Nature's Montrose Garden

If you don’t have a survey map, you’ll need to take the measurements yourself.  A quick way to get the layout and measurements is to access Google Earth.  Simply type in the address in your browser to access.  Click on ‘satellite view’ to get an overview of your property.  You can measure distances by right-clicking and choosing ‘measure distances’.  You can also measure distances by hand with a tape measure.   If you use distances from a satellite image, you should verify key distances with a tape measure; satellite images can sometimes be off by several feet.

Satellite view: Mother Nature's Montrose Garden

Constructing Base Map 1:  

To construct a Base Map, start by redrawing the property survey to scale at a larger size.   For properties under an acre in size, a scale of 1"=10' is an appropriate scale.  For smaller urban properties your scale may be even larger.   You want a scale that is large enough to show details, but small enough to be photocopied.  If you have a large garden, you may want to map it in sections. This allows you to create your design in greater detail.  We chose to divide our garden area into quarters, and map each quarter separately.

Key features drawn on NW section map

You may find it easiest to use simple ruled (quadrille) paper to help you draw your base map.  If you want to draw it freehand, we suggest using an architectural ruler or an engineer's scale (these supplies are available at most drafting, art or business supply stores).   We recommend drawing your plan first in pencil; then ink in the lines for the final base map.

We used plain ruled paper with 5 lines per inch. Since Mother Nature’s Montrose Garden is an acre in size, we chose a scale of 2.5 inches equals 30 ft.  Thus, each square on the map represents a 2.5 ft. square on the ground.

Mapping each quadrant separately allowed us to map an area 95 x 120 ft. on an 8 ½ by 11 sheet of paper.  This size is convenient to work with, allows adequate detail for planning and can be easily photo-copied or scanned.  Below is an example of the SE quadrant of Mother Nature’s Montrose Garden.

The base map should show the following information:

·         all property lines.

·         bodies of water (streams, lakes, ponds, low areas with seasonal flooding)

·         buildings, including basic floor plan with doors and windows noted

·         downspouts

·         outside water spigots

·         outside electrical outlets

·         decks and overhangs

·         air conditioner units

·         all walls, fences, utility boxes and poles, fire hydrants, etc.

·         roads, drives, parking areas, walks and paths, patios, swimming pools

·         on and off-site utilities including electric, telephone, gas, water, sewer, septic tanks and field drains.

·         off-site elements including adjoining roads and drives, bodies of water, and structures that may influence your design.

·         compass directions showing north, east, south and west (or just north).

·         the scale size of the base plan.

Many people like to design their garden using copies of their hand-drawn Base Map.  We prefer to do most of our work on the computer, using either a photo editing program (like Adobe Photoshop) or PowerPoint.   We first scan our basic Base Map into Photoshop, using a home office scanner.  We then add details such as utilities, spigots, etc.   We also like to fill in areas of hardscape, such as house, walkways, etc., making them easier to visualize. 

If you’ve mapped your garden in sections, the scanned images can be used as is, particularly when larger scale is needed for planning.  The images can also be digitally ‘pasted’ together for a map of the entire garden (see below). 

Base Map 1: Mother Nature's Montrose Garden
Some features still need to be added

The ease with which one can add or change features is another reason we like working digitally. For example, we realized that we don’t know the exact dimensions and placement of the septic tank and leach field (alas, the prior owner left us no plans).  We’ll add these to the Base Map 1 once we’ve seen if the local licensing agency has approved plans.   We also need to verify the location of underground utility lines, since the map the previous owner drew was not to scale.  

We strongly suggest you read the helpful article ‘Drawing a Landscape Plan: The Base Map’ before drawing your base map. It’s available at: .  

Once your Base Map 1 is completed, make 3 or more photocopies of it.   Store the original in a safe place. 

We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to:

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Plant of the Month (August) : Annual (Common) Sunflower – Helianthus annuus

Annual (Common) sunflower (Helianthus annuus):
Mother Nature's Montrose Garden

Unexpected surprises (both good and bad) keep popping up in Mother Nature’s Montrose Garden.  A welcome gift, planted by the previous owner, is a small stand of Annual sunflowers.   And nothing says ‘summer’ quite like Helianthus annuus.  The scientific name is pronounced: hee-lee-ANN-thus  ANN-you-us.  And both the scientific and common names are the same – Annual sunflower.  This sunflower is also known as the Common sunflower, Hopi sunflower, Wild sunflower, and, in Spanish, as Girasol, Mirasol, Flor de Sol.

Annual (Common) sunflower: along roadside,
San Miguel County, CO

Helianthus annuus is a plant of western North America, from SW Canada to Mexico. It grows in most Colorado counties, at elevations less than about 7000 ft. (1900 m.). It’s the common tall sunflower you see growing along roadsides this time of year (above). There are approximately 50 species of Helianthus in N. America, with most species in the American Southwest and in Central America. Both the genus and species were named by Linnaeus.  All sunflower-like plants are members of the family Asteraceae; these plants are often known as composites (more on this later).

Everyone loves Annual (Common)
sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

Annual sunflower grows in places where there is adequate – but not too much – soil moisture. It’s found in sunny places in shrublands, along roads and agricultural fields and in gardens.   Common sunflower is one of the most easily recognizable of flowers.  And it’s loved – and planted - by people around the world.  In fact, it’s become a weed in some places.

Annual (Common) sunflower
(Helianthus annuus): young plants

Annual sunflower is an herbaceous annual. It completes its entire life cycle – from seed, to seedling, to mature plant, to flowering, then back to seed – in a single year.  Seeds germinate when moist soil warms up in the spring. Then the plants grow quickly as the days lengthen into summer (above).

Annual (Common) sunflower
(Helianthus annuus): growth habit

Annual sunflower is a robust plant, growing from 3-10 ft (1-3 m.) tall.  Plants can vary widely in their characteristics.  Some have a stout central stem, while others have more slender, graceful stems and flower stalks. The wild forms are usually multi-branched (see above).  The variability in form, foliage and even color have made this plant a favorite for plant breeders.  In fact, most of the sunflowers grown as agricultural crops – as well as the brightly colored orange and brown garden varieties – are cultivars of Helianthus annuus.

Annual (Common) sunflower
(Helianthus annuus): cultivar

Annual (Common) sunflower
(Helianthus annuus): foliage

Annual (Common) sunflower
(Helianthus annuus): leaves

The leaves of the Common sunflower are usually heart-shaped to oval, on long stems (petioles).  The leaves are simple and usually opposite low on the plant; they may be alternate higher up.  The leaves are coarsely toothed and the entire plant is densely covered with plant hairs (trichomes) and glands (below).  These are likely to defend the plant from predators such as caterpillars and snails.

Annual (Common) sunflower
(Helianthus annuus): trichomes

Annual (Common) sunflower
(Helianthus annuus): flower heads

The flower heads (what most people think of as the ‘flower’) are actually composed of two types of flowers.  The flat, yellow ray flowers (look like petals) surround the central disk flowers.  In this species, the disk flowers are usually dark red/purple to brown and are crowded closely together in the center of the flower head.  The ray flowers attract pollinators with their bright color; the disk flowers are what produce the seeds.  Plants bloom from mid-summer into fall.

Annual (Common) sunflower
(Helianthus annuus): bee pollinators

One good reason to plant Annual sunflower is the wildlife it attracts.  Helianthus annuus (and other sunflowers) is insect pollinated. The long-tongued bees are the most important pollinators, including honeybees, bumblebees, Miner bees, and Leaf-Cutting bees.  One of our favorites, which is commonly seen in Colorado, is the Long-horned bee (see below).   Bee flies, flower flies, butterflies and other insects also serve as pollinators.  If you like watching insects, this is certainly a good plant for your garden!

Annual (Common) sunflower
(Helianthus annuus): Longhorn bee

The seeds of Common sunflower look like small versions of the sunflower seeds we eat.  The seeds ripen in late summer or fall.  The seeds are enjoyed by a wide range of seed-eating birds, as well as by smaller animals.  They once were an important food source for native peoples where ever they grew.

Sunflowers are easy to grow.  They will grow in just about any type of soil. They do need full sun or they will get leggy and not flower well. Taller varieties should be protected from wind or staked.  And they need occasional water (once a week or so until flowering wanes).  In places with good rainfall, they may need no supplemental water.  They have a deep taproot, and are more drought tolerant than many annual wildflowers.   But don’t overwater (especially keep leaves dry) as sunflowers are susceptible to powdery mildew and other fungal diseases.  For a complete list of pests and diseases see reference 1, below.

Annual (Common) sunflower (Helianthus
annuus): dried foliage in fall

Annual (Common) sunflower (Helianthus annuus):
goldfinch eats seeds

We advocate leaving the seed heads on the plants until birds have had their fill. The dried plants are attractive in their own right (above).  And who can resist watching finches and other seed eating birds filling up for the journey south.   In late fall or winter, cut plants down to the ground (leave the roots – they will decompose, adding nutrients to the soil).  We’ve found that once a sunflower patch is established it can re-seed itself.  The birds don’t eat all the seed; some is left to sprout in the spring.   

Annual (Common) sunflower (Helianthus
annuus): patch has re-seeded over 5 years

Annual sunflower can be used in many ways in the garden.  It makes a nice summer accent plant, and is useful for filling in empty spots in the garden.  If you have room, the plants are spectacular when massed. They look great at the back of flower beds or cottage garden displays.  If you just have a small porch, they can even be grown in large containers. Dwarf cultivars are useful in flower beds and containers.  And, of course, you’ll want to include the sunflowers in any type of habitat garden.  Sunflowers are among our best all-round habitat plants.

Annual (Common) sunflower (Helianthus
annuus): great filler or accent plant

Annual (Common) sunflower
(Helianthus annuus): in a container

Annual (Common) sunflower (Helianthus
annuus): spectacular massed

Sunflowers add a special cheery note to the summer garden.  We suspect that’s one reason why they are so popular.  But Annual sunflower is also an important heritage plant.  It’s been cultivated for thousands of years in the Southwest and Mexico [2].  Cultivars are grown commercially for seed, sunflower oil and bird food. The stems are used to make paper and the whole plant as yellow-green natural dye.  Plant parts are used as plant-based medicinals by many native cultures, with uses ranging from diuretic, expectorant and antibiotic.  The species has often been used for colds, coughs, throat, and lung ailments and insect bites [1,3].

Annual (Common) sunflower (Helianthus
annuus): Colorado heritage plant

In summary, Helianthus annuus is a cheery, easy-to-grow summer wildflower. It is an excellent habitat plant.  It looks equally at home in the native plant garden, the cottage garden and the cultivated flower bed.  It’s fairly drought tolerant and a number of interesting cultivars are available.  It’s one of those heritage plants that’s right at home in a Colorado garden.

Annual (Common) sunflower (Helianthus annuus):
summer color in a water-wise garden, California

For plant information sheets on other native plants see:



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to:

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Designing Your ‘Colorado-friendly Garden’: Why Plan?

Introduction: The ‘Colorado-friendly Garden’      As the climate changes, so must our gardens.  Of necessity, gardens must now become sustainable; they must be tailored to local conditions - and that’s exciting!   We literally have the opportunity to create a whole new type of garden right in our own yards.  That’s a fun challenge, and we’re going to help you with our new series ‘Designing Your Colorado-friendly Garden’.

Coloradans have a long history of ‘borrowing’ plants from other parts of the world.  In the past, we chose plants we liked, then modified soils and irrigation practices to accommodate their needs. While this strategy worked for a while, many of the ‘borrowed’ plants required more water and nutrients than we actually had.   As the climate changes – and materials become more limited - this strategy is becoming obsolete. That’s why we call it the ‘Old Colorado Garden’ paradigm.

What we need now is a whole new paradigm - one that is sustainable.  We call this the ‘Colorado-friendly Garden’.  Colorado-friendly Gardens are appropriate for our climate.  They are water-wise and life-friendly, providing habitat for people, plants and creatures.   They reflect the history and natural history of our area.  They are beautiful and comfortable, suiting our tastes, values, lifestyle and even cultural heritage.  For more see:

The Colorado-friendly Garden is not about giving things up; rather it’s about making conscious choices.  You’ll need to think carefully about how you want your Colorado-friendly garden to look.  What activities will you want to do in the garden?  Do you need a place to cook and eat?  A small meditation area?  A vegetable garden?  Where’s the best place to store trash cans or locate a compost barrel or dog run?   What colors and shapes do you like?  Will you use only drought tolerant plants, or will some parts of the garden require regular water?   All of these choices and more should influence your garden design.

The Colorado-friendly Garden involves choosing plants that will thrive under existing conditions, rather than modifying the site to fit the plants.   So, you’ll need to conduct a site inventory and analysis to determine your site’s physical ‘assets’.  Next you’ll map these assets: the soil type, light & shade patterns, topography & drainage, pre-existing plants and other physical characteristics.   You’ll also need to inventory the views: the good, the bad and the ugly.  Your plant choices will be based on both the site characteristics and your personal needs and desires.  That’s what makes designing a Colorado-friendly Garden so personal, creative and satisfying.

You may need to plan shady places to sit,
if your garden is hot in summer

Some gardeners will want to hire a landscape architect or other landscape professional to help design their Colorado-friendly Garden.  Qualified garden designers have years of training/experience in laying out attractive, functional gardens.   They can help arrange a garden that has good traffic flow and maximizes views.  But you’ll need to be an active partner with your designer to ensure that the final design reflects your priorities, values and tastes.

If you work with a designer, you’ll want to do some background work ahead of time.  This will make the designer’s job easier; but it will also allow you to think about your priorities and choices ahead of time.  With this knowledge you’ll be able to articulate your desires – and stand up for your choices if necessary.    In this series we’ll provide some interesting exercises and questionnaires to help you do your background work.

Most designers don’t have time to conduct a thorough site analysis. They don’t live at the site as your family does.  And they don’t know your family’s tastes, desires and other personal factors important for a well-designed home landscape.    Whether you hire a landscape professional or design the landscape yourself, the background work must be done for your landscape to be successful.

Like the climate, the landscape design industry is changing to meet the future.  Unfortunately, some landscape designers are still stuck in ‘Old Colorado Garden’ mode.  You’ll likely have to search for a designer who understands the  new Colorado-friendly Garden way of thinking.   A qualified designer understands that your landscape should be water-wise and life-friendly.  They will ask questions about soil, drainage, temperature and shade patterns in addition to assessing your family’s design preferences.  They will want to work with you to design an appropriate landscape.  And they will have knowledge of native plants and their use in local gardens.

The best way to find a Colorado-friendly Garden designer is to choose a garden you like and find out who designed it.  Don’t be afraid to ask a local homeowner; they will usually be happy to recommend their designer – or give you tips if they designed the garden themselves.    Local nature centers, arboretums, colleges/universities and botanic gardens may have lists of recommended garden designers.  So may your local agricultural extension agent and/or Master Gardener Program.  Your local chapter of the Colorado Native Plant Society (or other native plant society) or Audubon Society may also have suggestions.

Example: Functional Analysis 

Why Plan?     A well-designed landscape begins with a plan.  That sounds a little scary, but the planning process actually proceeds through a series of well-defined steps.  We’re going to help you through the steps in this series.  We think you’ll find the process fun, interesting and informative.  You’ll be learning about your garden’s physical characteristics, history and potential.    At the end, you’ll have a garden plan that you – or a landscape professional – can install.  That’s pretty neat; and trust us, the alternative to planning is not pretty!

A Colorado-friendly Garden is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. It’s actually a small functioning ecosystem that includes your family.  Many gardeners understand the aesthetic part.   But thinking about how you want your garden to function is an equally important.  Selecting plants is actually the last step of the design process. Fully understanding the property's drainage, soils and ecology; locating existing site elements; developing a 'wish list' of use areas and locating them properly; and resolving all these elements into a successful design should be accomplished first.

If designing your own garden, you’ll need to learn some design tricks used by the professionals.  There are a few basic principles that can help give your garden a pleasing appearance.  They will help you create a garden that is interesting, balanced and ‘tied together’ into a pleasing whole.   We’ll talk a little about garden design later in this series.

The eight steps of developing a landscape plan are summarized as follows:

  1. Develop a base map (base plan).  (August, 2019)
  2. Conduct a site inventory and analysis.  (September, 2019)
  3. Assess your family's needs (functional analysis). 
  4. Locate the use areas.
  5. Determine your likes, dislikes, etc.  

Discovering your garden’s history

Your gardening likes & dislikes

How you’d like your garden to

  1. Develop the hardscape plan

Managing water

Other Hardscape

  1. Develop the design plan  

Introduction and hardscape design

Designing with plants

Choosing the plants

  1. Install the garden

The first step is to draw an accurate base map.  We’ll be helping you do this later this month.  You will actually develop two base maps: one with only your home and other structures and a second that includes pre-existing plants you plan to retain.     Your site inventory (September) will cover current physical features of your garden site, but also an exploration of its history.   These activities will help you determine your site’s assets - the base on which your landscape plan will grow. 

Your functional analysis will include an assessment of your needs, values and aspirations as they relate to the landscape.   You will prioritize your needs, then locate the desired features in the most appropriate landscape areas.  You will develop the use areas by choosing hardscape features (walks; walls; irrigation system) and plants appropriate to your plan and site.   Finally, you will develop a planting plan which includes a plant list, landscape map and installation schedule.

Designing a Colorado-friendly Garden is an exciting process.  You’ll learn a lot about your garden, your local area and yourself.   So, follow along as we guide you through the process over the next eight months.


We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: