Where Aspen Meets Eden
A high-country landscape designer enhances the serenity of an Aspen dwelling, with land-healing plants in subdued hues
Somewhere between the hubbub of daily life in downtown Aspen and the meandering climb toward Independence Pass lies a quiet basin, wrapped by wetlands and grassy meadows. Resting near a small lake and a winding tributary, the aptly named Stillwater Homestead is an exhilarating tapestry of quaking aspens, painterly compositions of ornamental grasses, and meticulously placed shrubs and blossoms.
At the core, a pair of barnlike structures contains the main house, an art studio and a guest cottage. Clad in wood selected to weather, as well as stone in tones of gray, the unpretentious architecture melds seamlessly with the natural palette. “The landscaping had to equal the quality of the architecture,” says landscape designer Kim Ballard, who five years prior was charged with envisioning a landscape for the homeowners: a contractor and his artist wife.
Ballard began the project as she always does: by apologizing to the earth for any ensuing harm and promising to heal what she can along the way. “I once met someone who dedicated his life to repairing damaged places. I believe he was an agent of Eden, and the depth of his view was nutrition for my soul,” says Ballard, whose mindful approach to all she touches would earn her a similar title by project’s end.
Repairing the property began with replacing trees moved during construction with a variety of conifers and lots of aspens. “When I first saw the grading for the driveway connecting the lane to the main residence, I knew the link from public to private required an identity all its own,” Ballard recalls. In response, she built a grand avenue of aspens that provide an elegant frame around an otherwise utilitarian stretch.
Meanwhile, wildlife activity, sun intensity, a short growing season and heavy snow loads were among the laundry list of variables that affected plant choices. The homeowners also had priorities regarding color and texture. The husband envisioned swaths of tall grasses as the most serene complement to the clean-lined architecture, while the wife shares, “We didn’t want any bright colors to derail the tranquil experience.”
Both acknowledged that whatever was chosen needed to thrive at 7,200 feet. With so many caveats, the vetting process ultimately centered on what not to plant. Berry producers, for example, were out because of bears, as was anything that attracted deer. The request to eliminate vivid hues further narrowed the field.
Unlike the scarlet paintbrush and deep-blue columbine that typically invigorate high-country gardens, here, layers of green, subtle pinks, rusty burgundies and dusty blues, the latter courtesy of numerous spruce species, soothe the soul. “The eye moves gently from one place to the next, inviting the feet to follow, with hints there is more to come when turning a corner,” Ballard says.
True to her healing philosophy, she advocated for long-term soil management that translated into no synthetic fertilizers, as well as soil improvement via compost and red worms. “Glistening leaves and insectless leaves require chemicals. Bugs and yellow leaves are an expression of health.”
In her never-ending search for unique species, Ballard took several forays to even higher elevations. “In 2017, I found an entire valley of muhly grass in bloom at 10,200 feet and knew the floating pink and purple clouds they send up when in bloom would make a major contribution to this landscape,” she says. So she gathered seeds, started them in pots and one year later planted 50 of those grasses. “They bloomed for the first time in 2019, and the beautiful result justified the time, expense and effort to get them there.”
Varieties of rhubarb also proved to be propagation-worthy, high-elevation plants, and those in turn attracted cow parsnip, Queen Anne’s lace and other woodland species. “Different views at Stillwater have the effect of calming the breath, easing the mind and pleasing the heart,” says Ballard, who has more than earned her agent-of-Eden stripes. “It is an ongoing place of repose and restoration.”
BALLARD’S PICKS FOR HIGH-COUNTRY GARDENS
FOR SCALE: Chinese rhubarb. Its large, deeply veined leaves lend much to mountain landscapes, making it one of Ballard’s favorites.
FOR HEIGHT: Flame willow is mountain-hardy and multicolored, and it can reach 20 feet in height. It thrives in nearly any condition.
FOR COLOR: Julia Rose Itoh peony. This coral-pink variety is hardy, fragrant, long-lasting and, best of all, sturdy.
FOR TEXTURE: Atlas fescue grass. It makes for a lovely kinetic flow in any garden and is an excellent choice for hot, dry slopes.
FOR SPREAD: Ground ivy. It’s notoriously invasive but when used selectively on slopes, in gullies and on retaining walls, its long strands can drip over edges like an emerald waterfall.
LANDSCAPE DESIGNER Kim Ballard, Soiled Gloves