Vail Valley gardens inspired by nature

COLLEEN SMITH,  – August 13, 2005

It’s hard to improve on a heavenly setting like Beaver Creek, in Colorado’s Vail Valley. Yet here in the high country ― at an elevation of 7,800 feet ― gardening is a daunting challenge: Snow may fall as late as June and as early as August, summer temperatures swing from 40° to 90° in a single day, the slopes are steep, and hungry deer and elk graze on plants. For almost 25 years, landscape designer Glen Ellison has been taming the wilds of Vail Valley to create gardens inspired by nature.

Kaye and Cheri Pearson’s backyard, for instance, rises steeply up-slope. Ellison altered the grade by cutting and filling in places to create horizontal terraces and extend gardening space. Elsewhere, he designed a watercourse that rivals an alpine stream. “People who have to work with flatter sites have a difficult time making a water feature seem to occur naturally,” says Ellison. Beginning about 16 feet above the sight line, the recirculating water feature includes cascades and pools that add sound and motion as well as a tranquil mood.

The garden’s northeastern exposure provides enough sunlight to support vibrant flowering perennials. A stacked-stone stairway leads to a patch of grass just big enough for two people to enjoy the vista.

DESIGN: Glen Ellison, Land Design by Ellison, Vail ( or 970/949-1700)

Landscape lessons

Lay out the lawn first. Glen Ellison limits the use of high-maintenance turf to small patches. “A lot of people add the lawn last, but once you carve out that space, it sets the tone,” says Kathy Aalto, a landscape architect at Ellison’s firm. Think of lawns as area rugs for garden rooms, she suggests.

Take cues from nature. Soil-filled planting pockets mimic the way wild species grow among scree in the alpine zone. In the planting pictured at top, Shasta daisies, pink Jupiter’s beard, yellow ‘Stella de Oro’ daylilies, and blue catmint grow in scattered clumps and clusters, as they would in nature.

Vary textures. Mix small-flowered plants with large-flowered ones, flat-topped bloom clusters with mounding ones. Here ‘Paprika’ yarrow creates horizontal splashes of orange, while catmint makes vertical brushstrokes of blue. Between them are mounding Artemisia ‘Silver King’, white salvias, and white Shasta daisies.

Mix heights. Low ground-covers, including pink-flowered Sedum ‘Dragon’s Blood’ and yellow moneywort, surround taller deep blue salvia.

Create alluring spaces. Design areas away from the house that “invite people to become part of the landscape,” says Ellison. In the Pearsons’ backyard, steps lead to the top of the falls, offering beautiful views down into the garden. Yellow-flowered moneywort grows between the flagstone. Paths wind through this garden and around the house, beckoning guests to wander. Stone-slab bridges offer access over the water feature.


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