Foothill gardening. It has a nice ring. As home developments spread outward and upward, the challenges start to surface. Steep hills, rocky soils and, of course, the displaced tenants (deer, squirrels and other creatures) only add to the difficulties.
Kathy Lillywhite has risen to the challenge and created interesting and innovative ways to deal with the problems she faces in her yard near the foothills in the southeastern part of the Salt Lake Valley She has modified most of the traditional gardening methods to accommodate her needs.
"When we built the home 12 years ago, it was done with a very traditional landscape with very common plant materials," she said. "They simply did not work. Our planting plan may have worked in some locations, but most of it turned out to be expensive deer feed. They came in and fed on the plants and destroyed the landscape."
Furthermore, the Lillywhite didn't think the landscaping was innovative, and they got tired of the plants the deer didn't eat. She replaced most of the plants they started with.
Lillywhite's interest in the yard began when she started to mow the lawn.
"Almost all the landscape was lawn, and on the steep hills it was very difficult to mow," she said.
One corner, in particular, had very steep slopes.
"When I tried to mow that area, the mower would get away from me on the steep slope. I ended up being dragged down the hill trying to save me and the mower from destruction."
She felt the large areas of grass were hard to mow and maintain. That's when she decided to redo parts of the yard.
For someone who began as a novice, Lillywhite has become involved in gardening big time. She serves as president of the Sandy City Centennial Garden Club and has completed the Utah State University Advanced Master Gardener program. She volunteers at Temple Square, where she helps with garden design. She also has a thriving garden accessory business.
Her own yard had a different purpose to begin with.
"We started growing some edible plants and a few fruit trees. These were also tasty morsels for the deer and the squirrels," she said. "I still have the trees, but the vegetables are mostly gone. We grow some artichokes and some rhubarb, and that is about all the edible plants we try to grow."
The native vegetation is scrub oak, sagebrush, a few grasses and little else. This presents some challenges because you want to keep the oak, but you have to add other plants to make it look more lush and filled in.
Scrub oak presents two challenges: It creates shade and it competes with other plants for water and nutrients. Plants that will grow in these conditions include the bishops weed (both the green and the variegated) and creeping Oregon Grape.
"After I got started replacing the grass, I started taking out more and more," she said. "I wanted someplace to grow roses. I finally filled everything except down the steep part of the hill."
She has thought about terracing the hill and filling it with plants. But that may happen only in her dreams. It is very steep, and they have pretty well blocked off the back garden.
"If we want to do anything now, it will all have to be done by hand and everything wheeled in and out, so it will probably never get done," she said.
In addition to the steep slopes, deer offer a special challenge. Anyone attempting to garden in the foothills must be aware that the deer will feed on the plants. Most gardeners want to find deer-proof plants, but in reality the deer will feed on almost anything when they are really hungry.
"A few years ago the deer were even eating the thorny barberries," said Lillywhite.
She's found a few plants they don't like. Snapdragons are one annual they leave alone. Perennials they probably won't include in their supper include monarda (bee balm), penstemon, coreopsis, echinacea, daisies and artemisias. They don't seem to bother peonies and poppies, either.
The list of foods they like is longer than the list of ones they don't.
"I always find them munching on the fruit trees, the honeysuckle and most of the annual flowers," she said. They also dine on some of her favorite plants: roses and daylilies.
Like the deer, Lillywhite has some favorites. She particularly likes flowers that are tall and upright. "I love digitalis or foxglove," she said, "although they are past their bloom. I am also partial to the tall salvia spikes. Other tall flowers that grow well in foothill gardens are the delphiniums, monkshood and larkspur. Deer avoid most of these."
She likes water so she added a little pond. The tall cattails, the sedges and some other water plants add to the delightful upright effect.
Another trick to discourage deer is to string lightweight fishing line across their path. They seem to avoid areas where the line is.
"My best defense against the deer is to have plants that take care of themselves," she said. "I still have a little grass left. I figure that as long as we have a nice edge on the grass I can let everything inside the beds reseed itself. That makes it easier to take care of."
Her favorite trees include the forest pansy redbud, which the deer occasionally nibble on. On the other hand, the tricolor and columnar beech don't seem to be bothered much by deer.
She also loves the sub-alpine fir because of its slender, upright shape. Deer don't bother the oak, and they leave the spruce trees alone most years.
Foothill gardening is not always easy, but the changes in elevation, the native vegetation and the spectacular views make the foothills a wonderful place to garden. Designing a landscape that accommodates the creatures and the area is a great way to expand your garden enjoyment.