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August 19, 2013

Home on the Range

Amid barren lawns in the foothills of the Rockies, a Colorado couple cultivates an oasis

All Animals magazine, September/October 2013

Variegated fritillary butterflies dine on nectar plans.  Matthew Jonas/For The HSUS

by Ruthanne Johnson

The mid-June temperatures along Colorado’s Front Range are pushing into the 90s. Cloudless skies on afternoons like this are merciless, with an eerie quiet punctuated only by the distant drone of mowers and sprinklers repeating an endless cycle: crew-cutting expansive, barren lawns, only to water them all over again: “Tic-tic-tic, tschhh … tic-tic-tic, tschhh …”

Standing in stark contrast to those sun-beaten monocultures is the animated symphony of Larry and Mimi Elmore’s vibrant landscape in Lyons, just north of Boulder. Finches, wrens, and tiny bushtits sing and ruffle their feathers in the deep green shade. Ring-necked doves coo to each other under a maple canopy before flying to a man-made pond for a cooling sip. And then there’s the hum and delicate flits of bees and butterflies, foraging nectar from native honeysuckles, purple coneflowers, and verbena.

Larry ambles through his garden, fingers intertwined behind his back, and stops in front of a linden tree. “It’s alive!” he exclaims with a chuckle. Giggling, Mimi echoes the phrase; it’s one they often repeat while listening to the prolific buzzing of honeybees amid the foliage.

  • Black swallowtail caterpillars munch on dill plants. Mimi Elmore

Out of the Weeds:

Their third-acre lot wasn’t always so booming. When the couple moved from Boulder 15 years ago, much of the neighborhood—built atop an old rock quarry—had been scraped bare, making room for weeds that flourished when the land became cattle pasture. “I really wanted to have wildlife, and there was just nothing here,” says Mimi, who fondly remembers watching tent caterpillars, lightning bugs, and butterflies as a child in rural Iowa.

The couple spent the next five years pulling invasive plants like burdock and knapweed after every ground-softening rain. They brought in healthy soil and landscaped in stages to limit expenses. In Boulder, they’d done the same thing to establish their water-guzzling English garden. But increasing drought called for a different approach.

  • Prairie wine-cup feeds gray hairstreak caterpillars. Matthew Jonas/For The HSUS

A Beautiful Food Chain:

For their first plot, the Elmores used plants recommended for conserving water but not necessarily optimal for wildlife. After reading Douglas Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home, Mimi decided to plant for native animals. She created a database listing nectar sources and host plants of Boulder County butterflies. The winged creatures attract birds, “giving them protein and fat to raise their babies,” Mimi explains. “And then the other animals will come.”

The couple planted evening primrose and Mormon tea, plus goldenrod for goldfinches, dill for swallowtail caterpillars, and chives—“an early bloomer that the bees and butterflies just adore,” notes Mimi. “Volunteers”—gifts from the birds—also began sprouting, including a locust tree and two types of currants.

  • Native grasses such as Indian ricegrass give food and shelter to wildlife. Matthew Jonas/For The HSUS

Habitat Heaven:

It hasn’t all been sunshine. “Most gardeners learn through mistakes,” Mimi says. Two meadows the Elmores planted are a study in contrasts: One seeded with wildflowers gave way to Canadian rye and other invasives that wildlife shun. But the other, planted with a mixture of native grasses and wildflowers, attracts birds, mule deer, and foxes.

During butterfly season, the couple dampens patches of bare soil and their crushed gravel walkways. Butterflies “love to land on these areas and drink the nutrients,” Mimi says. The Elmores leave decaying leaf matter for overwintering butterflies and bumblebees, and an anthill as food for the flickers.   

  • Mimi and Larry Elmore. Matthew Jonas/For The HSUS

Check the Facts:

Some plants labeled “native” may be indigenous to a region thousands of miles away, but a quick search of websites such as plants.usda.gov and wildflower.org can narrow the field. After striking out on a bag of supposedly native seeds from a local hardware store, Mimi Elmore found a list of native grasses on the Boulder County Open Space Management website. She then worked with a local seed company to create a mixture for her south meadow, including Indian ricegrass, big bluestem, and sideoats grama. On a recent day Larry Elmore pointed excitedly to evidence of the meadow’s success: “That’s fox scat right there.”

The Species Connection

Mimi Elmore first noticed the lemon-yellow splendor en masse at a New Mexico campground. “The roadside was just full of rabbitbrush in bloom and covered with butterflies,” she remembers. In the Lyons foothills around her home, she noticed the plants again—this time covered in painted lady butterflies.

Drought-tolerant Ericameria nauseosa’s leaves, flowers, and seeds 
are an important food source for deer, antelope, elk, rabbits, and birds, also providing cover for jackrabbits and other small animals. It’s
 a significant 
nectar source for butterflies and native bees, and a host plant for the rubber rabbitbrush beetle and a small, prehistoric-looking insect called the balduza una. 

Though some think the bush is scraggly-looking, annual grooming keeps it a “sweet, nice-looking plant,” says Elmore.

Rabbitbrush benefits birds, insects, and other animals. Jim Lane/Alamy

Other Wildlife Favorites

Plains cottonwood (Populus deltoides): These stands provide habitat for an array of birds and food for porcupines and for mule deer browsing in the fall. Alongside red osier dogwood, they stabilize streamside habitats for fish. Beavers forage on and build dams and lodges with the wood.

Prickly pear (Opuntia): Walk into any prairie dog community and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a prickly pear patch without a burrow opening smack in the middle. It’s their protection from predators. On Colorado’s short-grass prairie,
 the plains variety feeds grazing animals 
in winter and drought. Coyotes also relish the sweet fruit.

This article is part of a 4-piece feature story.
Mid-Atlantic | Rocky Mountains | Southeast | West

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