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Lessons for lofty landscapes.

MOUNTAIN DWELLLRS are drawn to high-altitude settings by verdant forests, crisp air, and clear water. But home building and insensitive landscaping can have a detrimental effect on the fragile alpine environment. A recently planted demonstration garden in South Lake Tahoe, California, shows how to minimize such impact.

In the decades of development following the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, the Tahoe Basin has suffered increased erosion, bringing greater runoff to the lake. The runoff contains chemical fertilizers with nutrients that foster the growth of algae, which threaten to turn Tahoe's jewel-clear waters cloudy.

The Lake Tahoe Demonstration Garden was created by several public agencies to show homeowners how they can control erosion, irrigate less, and minimize or avoid use of fertilizers. Its precepts are applied in four different situations, with different exposures and shade patterns. These range from a relatively high-maintenance garden of adapted and ornamental plants (as well as natives) to a simple cabin's undisturbed forest understory that requires thoughtful initial siting, then needs no attention.

The garden shows mulches--from straw to pine needles to slope netting--that lessen watering needs and hold nutrients in place. In place of sod lawns, which make heavy demands for water and feeding, the garden proposes deeper-rooted low-maintenance grasses that form natural-looking pockets of mountain meadow.


This project makes widespread use of native plants, which, once established, require little watering and no fertilizing. It employs at least 150 of the 1,000 or so species native to the area. We list a few here.

Trees. Besides the conifers you'd expect, look for Western water birch (Betula occidentalis), attractive in loose groups along a stream; mountain alder (Alnus tenuifolia), useful for stabilizing soil in moist areas; quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), which shimmers gold in fall; mountain maple (Acer glabrum), a small multi-trunked tree that thrives in well-drained soil; and mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia), with ferny foliage and colorful summer berries.

Shrubs. Rabbitbrush and serviceberry, sage and spiraea all have their places, but you'll also see dwarf Arctic willow (Salix purpurea |Nana'), which can form a hedge or windbreak in wet soil; creek dogwood (Cornus californicus), for erosion control in moist areas; and greenleaf manzanita (Arctostaphylos patula), a good barrier planting or evergreen ground cover on rocky slopes.

Flowers. Columbine, creeping phlox, lupine, penstemon, and yarrow might be predicted. Others here include blue-flowered Lewis flax, for dry, exposed slopes; sulfur flower (Eriogonum umbellatum), spreading low clusters of yellow-orange flowers in sunny rock gardens; monkey flower (Mimulus guttatus), for glowing color in damp spots; and evening primrose (Oenothera hookeri), for an afternoon lift of bright yellow bloom.

Grasses. Of those in sample plots arrayed here, sheep fescue and hard fescue need the least fertilizer. Tall fescue mixes well with red fescues such as |Ensilva'.

Most of the plants you'll see in the demonstration garden are available from nearby suppliers. The garden's interpretive center has information on appropriate species.

From U.S. Highway 50 in South Lake Tahoe, drive east on Al Tahoe Boulevard. Turn right on College Drive and follow signs to Lake Tahoe Community College. From the parking lot, a sandy path leads through pines to the demonstration garden.
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Title Annotation:high altitude gardens
Author:Williamson, Marcia
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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