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A Snake in the Grama Grass

Weeding out the good plants from the bad can leave horticulturalists blowing in the wind.

Gardeners tend to be an unobtrusive breed, most often found grubbing in soil and mumbling in Latin while presenting their rumps to a peaceful blue sky. But threaten a garden and you find in its creator an opponent as implacable, as blindly persistent, as any plant pushing its roots through the cracks in a granite mountainside.

Horticulturalist Katherine Hamilton lives on Perry Street, near the old Elitch Gardens, in a neighborhood of small, unpretentious houses. She selected her modest white home, she explains, because it constituted the least house with the most garden available, "and this place has great dirt."

She has lived here for three years and spends almost all of her time in the garden. The prairie environment she's creating consists of blue grama grass scattered with wildflowers--many of them collected and grown from seed by Hamilton. She places a sheaf of photographs on the kitchen table to illustrate. Gayfeather. Blue gentian. Pasqueflower. Mariposa lily. Harebell. Blue mist penstemon. Colorado grape holly. Whirling butterflies, which present delicate white blossoms floating over twisting stems. According to Hamilton, they will "bloom and bloom and bloom.

"I choose plants that I love," she says, "ones that seem especially sensorially rich."

At this time of year, the prairie grass outside is a mass of subtle shifting colors: beige, bronze, straw, chestnut, tan. It will green up for two short months in summer (when the Kentucky bluegrass used in conventional lawns would fade without copious infusions of water); even after it's started to brown, there will still be some green glimmering at its heart. The autumn seed heads--intricate golden blurs waving against the sun--will be borne on stems twelve to eighteen inches tall. "They look like little eyebrows," Hamilton says.

Where a visitor observes a stand of slender fastigiate English oak saplings, Hamilton sees a grove of trees that will flame red in fall. She points out ornamental pear trees; Peter Davis thyme in a stony wall; Turkish veronica; hidcote lavender. She's no purist, she remarks. Not every plant in her garden is a native.

Hamilton, who has a master's degree in landscape architecture from the University of Colorado at Denver and an undergraduate degree in art, cooks the seed she sets out for the birds so it won't sprout after falling to the ground. Unrecognizable green things popping up in her garden are not immediately pulled out but rather left until "they express themselves better."

The garden is a patchwork quilt of mini-environments, each suited to particular plants. There are hillocks, plots at different levels. A blossoming redbud tree frames the front of the house, and an old-fashioned moss rose bush stands by the gate. "I put it there for the mailman," says Hamilton, "so he'd have something nice to look at."

But for the City of Denver, those waving prairie-grass heads proved too much. Suburban homeowners are free to pave over their plots with sun-blistered asphalt, but a city ordinance forbids vegetation over six inches high in residential neighborhoods. Last August, Hamilton got a notice from the Neighborhood Inspection Services. She was to "cut down and remove all unattended vegetation exceeding six inches in height." The penalty for not mowing, she was told, could be as much as a $999 fine and a year in jail.

"I have this vision," she says of her garden. "I see how it's going to be, and then the City of Denver climbs down my throat as if it's hideous." She also noticed that neighbors whose vegetables or perennials grew well over six inches high weren't being penalized.

Hamilton phoned inspector Barbara Coffman, who had issued the notice, and Coffman brought Carl Wilson, horticulturalist for the CSU cooperative extension service, to look at Hamilton's garden. Wilson said Hamilton knew what she was doing. "I'm avid and rabid," Hamilton says, smiling. "I'm righteously wrathful."

This was an apparently minor dispute, one between gardener and city, artist and bureaucrat, but for horticulturalists, it's one with large and continuing ramifications. They see it as pitting people who desire a modest existence in harmony with nature against those who insist on maintaining the kind of preternaturally green lawn that graces aristocratic houses in rainy England--and is achieved with Kentucky bluegrass.

Jane Shellenberger, publisher and editor of the newsmagazine The Colorado Gardener, notes that for many people, there's something sacrosanct about bluegrass. She once used a quote by nineteenth-century Kansas senator John James Ingalls on the cover of her publication: "Bluegrass does more than nourish splendid horses," Ingalls stated. "It supports a whole society of muscular men and voluptuous women; upon its foundations rest palaces, temples, peaceful institutions, social order."

"It doesn't matter if you're in the suburbs of Chicago or Denver or Hartford--they all look the same," Shellenberger says. "Suburbs represent a mythical land that exists apart from the natural landscape. And I suppose for some people, there's comfort in that. It's kind of like going to McDonald's." She also notes that "people come to Colorado from somewhere else. They miss the green. They miss the trees. They re-create the whole thing here."

Denver's founders saw the city as a green oasis in a savage plain, but maintaining such an oasis has its costs. It requires huge amounts of scarce water and heavy infusions of pesticides and herbicides at a time when concern about their effects on humans and wildlife is growing.

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