Developing and Enjoying Ecosystems in your Gardens

I think one reason my gardens are so successful is because I simply adore the plants that grow here in Colorado!   I know them well –  and have become very familiar with what they like and where they like to grow. A good friend of mine once said, “You think like a plant.”   What a compliment!  I do think about what each plant would enjoy and spend quite a bit of time studying my various garden ecosystems in regard to my plant choices.

We have done a lot of work amending the soil in our gardens and yard.  When we moved in 15 years ago, the existing garden beds were planted with junipers and the soil was covered with black plastic weighed down with river rock  They had probably been there for 30 years.  We were ambitious back then, and shoveled and hauled away the rock, pulled out the junipers with a tow chain and our truck and proceeded to add soil, manure and plants that we actually liked.  Over the years,we continued to improve the growing conditions, and our most recent and significant additions have been glacial rock dust, mycorrhizal fungi, mushroom compost and goat manure from an organic dairy in town.  These have been fundamental in creating successful gardens.

The front of the house has a southern exposure, and the front yard has two large trees, so the south and east gardens receive some shade and some sun each day, with a very bright indirect exposure all day.  We have pruned one tree to allow some direct sun to reach the shade-loving roses I planted in the eastern-most front garden, which we will talk about next week.  All in all, the front gardens have developed into ecosystems that support shade loving plants that can also enjoy or tolerate some direct sun as the summer progresses.

My front garden is quite beautiful in the Spring – It has developed into a moist and shady ecosystem.  It’s mid-April, and I have violets, Geum Prairie Smoke, Veronica, and Sweet Woodruff beginning to bloom.  Coming soon will be many more of my favorites – species iris, campanula, Lily of the Valley, Norton’s Gold Oregano, Lady’s Mantel, Meadowsweet, and the lovely and unusual Ligularia.

What do these plants have in common?  All are durable, moisture-loving, adaptable, partial shade plants.  The plants in the very front border of this garden are the most adaptable, and can take some hot sun, which reaches this garden in the afternoon, once the sun gets higher in the sky.  This garden has a thick layer of mulch on it all winter – made up of compost, wood mulch, and leaves raked from the two large trees in our front yard.  After years of adding the leaf mulch to these beds, the soil is quite rich.  I pull back and re-arrange some of the mulch once things start growing in the Spring, but leave a generous amount around the moisture-loving plants, and I leave about 4  inches of mulch all over this particular garden all season long. This creates a rich and fairly moisture retentive ecosystem perfect for the plants that grow here.

Herb Garden, back yard, full sun

Contrast this to my gardens in the back yard that receive full sun, are planted in raised beds or above rock walls in well-drained soil.  These gardens are filled with summer-blooming sun-loving herbs, roses and flowers that enjoy the well-drained, hot ecosystem that makes up about 2/3 of my back yard.  Many of these areas are mulched with gravel instead of leaf mulch because the plants simply like it that way!  The hotter the better!  Gravel mulch reflects heat and allows for good drainage while still holding in moisture.  Larger rocks in the garden hold moisture in the soil and provide stability for root systems.

Back to the front garden:

Geum triflorum

Geum Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum) is a stunning and long-blooming prairie perennial.  Once it finishes blooming, seeds begin to form, and the styles elongate to create the “smoke,” or feathery seedpods, which gives this plant its common name of prairie smoke.  Pretty in all seasons.  While this Geum would thrive happily in a hotter, more well-drained ecosystem, Geums in general are quite vigorous, and I placed it in a location where it will receive considerably more direct sunlight than some of the other plants in this garden.

Galium odoratum

Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) is an extremely attractive and durable ground cover for shaded areas. It also does well in the crevices of walks or as an edging plant.  It does spread pretty aggressively when happy, is quite adaptable, and very pretty both in and out of bloom.  Can happily co-habitate with violets, geraniums, oreganos and other durable ground covers.  Strongly scented when dried, it’s very nice in potpourri, dream pillows, or as a relaxing tea.  In a hot, well-drained ecosystem, this plant would seek shade and shelter from taller plants and would probably shrink or fail completely during the hot summer months.

Convallaria majalis

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) is one of my all time favorites in the fragrance and beauty categories.  In the past, I tried to grow it in other gardens and locations, but with no success.  This front garden is the winning ecosystem for this particular plant, due to consistent moisture levels (especially in the Spring), the perfect amount of sun/shade, and I’m sure enhancing the soil with organic goat manure and mycorrhizal fungi had an encouraging effect on it’s willingness to thrive here.  I can’t wait to gather some of the flowers to make a tiny bouquet!  So fragrant!!

Viola spp.

Violets (Viola spp.) are just charming.  They do reseed like crazy in some gardens, but are easy to pull up if they get out of control.  Once you know how delicious and nutritious the leaves and flowers are, you’ll be glad to have an abundance of these lovely, yet durable, plants.  Just be ready to harvest the flowers and leaves when they bloom in early spring.  Add to all your spring salads!  I have yet to make violet syrup, but I’m sure I’ll get around to it next year.  I also have violets in the back yard, growing in full sun. They don’t look nearly as lush and beautiful as those in the moist and shady front garden.  Luckily for the ones in the back, the roses will soon be coming up to provide shade for them during the hotter summer months.

Veronica Waterperry Blue

Veronica Waterperry Blue is one of my favorite ground covers.  It’s so adaptable, and seems happy whether in full sun or partial shade.  I have it growing very successfully on south-facing rock walls in the back yard.  Having seen it growing in a number of different ecosystems, I knew it was adaptable, and added it last year to the partial-shade front garden.  I know it will be happy here, twining amongst the iris, geraniums and around the Penstemons, which will begin blooming in a month or so.  Such a charming flower!  This is another plant that I placed in one of the sunniest locations in this particular ecosystem.  While it will not receive full sun, it does receive a few hours of late afternoon sun, and lots of bright, indirect light, thus making this moist ecosystem more than acceptable for this lovely ground cover.

Origanum vulgare

Norton’s Gold Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is, well, an oregano.  It’s durable, pretty vigorous and aromatic.  I love this particular oregano because of it’s beautiful lime green foliage in spring and the adorable pink flower sprays that show up later in the summer.  Contrary to most oregano varieties, this one prefers partial shade.  I planted it on the east side of a rose bush so that it gets afternoon shade from the rose once summer sets in.  It’s a steadily growing ground cover that brightens up any shady part of the garden.  Does not demand constantly moist soil, but enjoys it, and is adaptable to a fairly wide variety of sun/moisture conditions, although I don’t recommend it in full sun.

Ligularia stenocephala

Ligularia is one of those plants that probably doesn’t truly belong in the western garden.  To me, it almost falls into the same category with Hostas and Azaleas which like to grow back east where it rains frequently.  However, I have seen it do well in a very moist Colorado garden, the flowers are spectacular and fragrant, and since I was determined to have it bloom in my garden, I planted it right next to the drain pipe in the shadiest part of this ecosystem.  The environment in my front garden, with it’s heavy layer of mulch and organic soil amendments (glacial rock dust, goat manure and mycorrhizal fungi) is going to be the best location for this rather obscure plant. Sources:  Glacial Rock DustMycoGrow.

Here is what it looks like in full bloom, so you can see why I wanted to find the most desirable location for it.  Honestly, I tried it in another location, but it remained small and barely bloomed.  Then I dug it up and grew it in a deep pot the following year.  That got me more flowers and a generally happier plant, but this variety can get enormous, so I want to give it every chance to be all it can be in my garden. Hopefully the location next to the drain pipe will be the perfect place.  Fingers crossed!  I may put a large potted plant next to it to supply even more moisture as the summer goes on – this plant really likes to be moist at all times.


Penstemon digitalis

A few Penstemons like partial shade and a consistent level of moisture.  One of those happens to be the Husker Red Penstemon, which has red-tinged foliage, and sends up a beautiful display of long-lasting white flowers.  This particular plant has been in this location for about 6 years.  It’s so happy and beautiful in this location that I recently added a second one.  This plant will bloom in a month or two, and is one of my very favorite Penstemons.  This particular plant had a much redder foliage when it was young, but has reverted to a mostly green color.  The flower stems are often tinged in red.  Beautiful!

Penstemon Husker Red in full bloom last summer

Penstemons that are NOT happy in moist, shady ecosystems are the tall native Rocky Mountain blue Penstemon strictus, the stately, beautiful pale pink Penstemon palmeri, the short evergreen red, orange or yellow Penstemon pinnifolius, and one of my favorites, Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Electric Blue.’  These varieties demand very well drained soil and full sun.  They will not thrive in moist or partial shade gardens – I know because I’ve tried.  If in doubt, google the name of the plant.  You can learn a lot from websites like and heirloom  There is also a lot to be learned from garden blogs and discussion groups, as these are folks who have been there, done that!  If all else fails. read the tag!

Geranium cantabrigiense

Geraniums, the true perennial geraniums, come in many shapes, sizes and colors.  It seems that the blue and magenta trailing ones most enjoy full sun and well drained ecosystems while the pastel pink, white, and the ones that grow more vertically (above) enjoy more shade and moisture.  They are all quite adaptable and vigorous and one of my favorite plants.  The above geranium is planted in the shadier part of my front garden, while another variety is planted in the very front by the sidewalk where it gets quite hot in the afternoon.  Both are perfectly happy and vigorous!  I had originally located this particular Geranium cantabrigiense in a south-facing well-drained garden, and it was not thriving.  Now it’s happy!  One of my hardier sun-loving geraniums is planted in a partial shade garden.  It reseeded into the neighbor’s gravel driveway, and is much happier there than in  my garden, even though it is still shaded for much of the day.  Go figure.

Gardening is somewhat of an ongoing experiment.  My strategy is to discover and learn about plants by reading, going to botanical gardens, visiting online gardening discussion groups and generally talking to people about their gardens.  Over time, you begin to recognize which plants thrive in the environments and ecosystems you have to offer.  There are amazing plants for every situation, even if growing plants in pots is your best option.  So garden on!  And always garden organically!




Recommended Reading:

Hartung, Tammi. Growing 101 Herbs That Heal: Gardening Techniques, Recipes, and Remedies. Pownal, VT: Storey, 2000. Print.

Hensel, Julius. Bread from Stones. A New and Rational System of Land Fertilization and Physical Regeneration. Philadelphia, PA: A.J. Tafel, 1894. Print.

“How Chemical Fertilizers Are Destroying Your Body, The Soil, and Your Food.” How Chemical Fertilizers Are Destroying Your Body, The Soil, and Your Food. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.

Lisle, Harvey. The Enlivened Rock Powders. Metairie, LA: Acres U.S.A., 1994. Print.

Western Garden Book. Menlo Park, CA: Lane Pub., 1976. Print.

“Why We Don’t Sell Miracle-Gro – Organica: Garden Supply & Hydroponics.” Organica Garden Supply Hydroponics. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.

About Sarah Wadleigh

I am a Clinical Herbalist, Organic Gardener and Nutritional Consultant for people and companion animals. I live in Madrid, New Mexico with my wonderful husband, two little dogs and a big cat. My practice revolves around helping people create health through whole-food nutrition, nutritive herbs, lifestyle and self-awareness. With more than 20 years of experience as an animal nutritional counselor, I offer consultations to improve the health and well-being of our four-legged friends, as well as their humans. We can work together via Skype, in person,or over the phone. Let's create health for ourselves and our animal companions! Contact:
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1 Response to Developing and Enjoying Ecosystems in your Gardens

  1. miriam holley says:

    Once again…just the most amazing pictures (from your grand garden) and important infromation for us all….I so look foward to all of our writings…Thank you so so much…miriam

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