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Gardening in the High Desert of the Unc Valley

Gardening in a high desert climate can be challenging, but it is not impossible. Choosing that perfect start time for seedlings might seem like gambling in Las Vegas. Uncompahgre Valley gardeners have learned through years of heartbreak to take a deep breath and protect their tender, baby plants from that final, not-so-surprising late freeze. For an additional layer of complexity, the soil for many people living east of the river is clay. Western residents may be fortunate enough to have sandy loamy soil which can be ideal for growing fruit trees and vegetables.

Gardening Zones:

Delta Zone 6b: -5°F to 0°F

Olathe Zone 6b: -5°F to 0°F

Montrose Zone 6b: -5°F to 0°F

Ridgway Zone 5a: -20°F to -15°F

Ouray Zone 6a: -10°F to -5°F

The Uncompahgre Valley contains a multitude of gardening zones. Plant selection, therefore, should take into consideration not only the garden zone a person is living in, but any microclimates that may exist. Because of these microclimates, the zones listed above are general; different zones can occur in one neighborhood or location because of elevation changes here in Colorado. A house on a hill might have a slightly different microclimate than a house a mile away at the bottom of the hill. Here are some practical tips for successful gardening in the Uncompahgre Valley.

Clay is very compact and holds water. While water retention can be good, the roots of plants also need oxygen which compacted clay soil can lack. Additionally, clay soil tends to retain salt and is often alkaline which many plants do not tolerate. Amending clay with organic matter like a quality compost blend helps loosen and aerate the soil. Even with some help from humans, the base is still clay though. Thus, plant selection should take this into consideration. There are plenty of plants that grow in clay soils – check the plant labels when purchasing to ensure that the right plant is being purchased for the right place.

Native and non-native clay loving perennials, shrubs, and annuals:


Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea)

Tanager gazania (Gazania krebsiana)

Greek Mullein (Verbascum olympicum)


Moroccan pincushion flower (Dipsacaceae)

Chocolate Flower (Berlandiera lyrata)

Red Feathers (Echium amoenum)

Filigree Daisy (Anthemis marschalliana)

Grand Mesa penstemon (Penstemon mensarum)

Red birds in a tree (Scrophularia macrantha)


Apache Plumes (Fallugia paradoxa)

Golden Currant (Ribes aureum)

Littleleaf mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus intricatus)

Cheyenne mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii ‘PWY01S’)

Silver fountain butterfly bush (Buddleja alternifolia ‘argentea’)

Raised beds can help with growing by containing the near perfect soil for many plants, easing access for gardeners, providing better pest control, and conserving water. The soil in raised beds tends to warm up faster in the spring, too,which allows for seeds to sprout sooner. There are some disadvantages of raised beds as well, like the additional expense of having to fill the beds with soil and add nutrients every year.

What about planting in the ground? For vegetables, if multiple gardens are involved on acreage, it may be more cost effective to grow straight in the ground once the soil has been amended. For these gardens, using cover crops (also known as green manure) is a popular strategy for supporting soil health between growing seasons. This strategy involves planting specific ‘cover crops’, like Sweet Clover, in between growing seasons.

For example, some gardeners will plant cover crops in the very early spring before they plant their main vegetable crop. Just before the cover crop flowers, they will mow the cover crop, till the area to mix the cover crops into the soil as organic material, then let it sit for 2-3 weeks before planting the main crop(s). Planting cover crops has a few benefits over leaving soil bare; it helps reduce erosion, adds nutrients back into the soil that were depleted by vegetable crops, and helps loosen and revitalize soil.

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The Uncompahgre Valley is fortunate enough to offer irrigation water to many local homeowners. Regardless of water supply (irrigation, county, or city), drip irrigation for home gardens is recommended. Drip irrigation delivers a slow release of water to plants which minimizes run off, evaporation, and the wind blowing water away from the plants. How often and how much to water will depend on what plants are growing and the garden layout.

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When it comes to water conservation, one way to help grow the right plant in the right place is to select native plants: plants that grow wild in the Uncompahgre Valley and surrounding areas. While native plants have a reputation for not being as pretty as nursery plants, that is not always the case. Native plants attract native insects like native bees, butterflies, and birds, like hummingbirds.

A Monarch butterfly will feed and lay eggs on the Milkweed: it is the only plant that Monarch caterpillars will eat which is why the Milkweed is known as the host for Monarch butterflies and a critically important native plant. The biggest advantage of native plants is water conservation. When native plants are planted where they belong – where they are native – they thrive in the exact conditions of that area: like clay soil and low precipitation.

Local natives that suit this area:

Mat Penstemon (Penstemon caespitosus)

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa L.)

Colorado Four O’Clock (Mirabilis multiflora)

Blue Grama (Boutleloua gracilis)

Rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa ssp. nauseosa (Chrysothamnus nauseosus var. nauseosus)

A final important tip for gardening in the high desert is the importance of winter watering for trees, shrubs, lawns, and perennials. New plants and lawns are more susceptible to drought injury. Here are some basic guidelines for winter watering. Do not use your in-ground sprinkler and water in the middle of the day, when temperatures are at their warmest, but allow time for water to get into the ground. Make sure the temperature is above 40 degrees when watering. In general, if 4 weeks goes by without snow cover on the ground, plants, trees and lawn should be watered.

The Uncompahgre Valley is an agriculture community and having an urban garden is highly rewarding. Gardening and supporting local farmers strengthens the community and local economy. “When the world wearies and society fails to satisfy, there is always the garden.” Minnie Aumonier


Written by Debra Conklin

Debra is a Colorado Master Gardener, who also works full time as an IT Architect. She is originally from Maine but has been in Colorado for over 20 years. She relocated to Montrose from the Front Range to return to small town living and to have easier access to the great outdoors. Her passion is native plants, which she grows and loves to find and photograph on the hiking trail.

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