Jim Tolstrup works to grow beautiful native plants for local gardens in the HPEC greenhouses. (Tim Seibert/At Home Colorado).

The lush, manicured lawns and non-native plants and trees of the eastern United States have never quite been an appropriate fit with Northern Colorado’s arid climate.

And as water becomes a more precious and expensive commodity, homeowners, developers and local governments are beginning to see the value in restoring the environment to include plants more suited to Colorado’s seasons.

A dynamic and practical example of truly Colorado-specific native plants can be found at the High Plains Environmental Center (HPEC), located on the western edge of the Centerra development at I-25 and U.S. 34 in Loveland.

The center, which offers an interactive experience on 275 acres of Open Space and an extensive trail system, is designed to provide both backyard horticulturalists and community leaders with a hands-on spot to see the flowers, brush and other plants that once covered the entire Northern Front Range region.

As center executive director Jim Tolstrup explained, it’s also a chance to understand the value and advantages of protecting and integrating natural vegetation into our ever-expanding and increasingly urbanized Northern Colorado corridor.

“We offer ways to restore nature in a built environment,” he explained. “It’s part of building and designing nature as a component of our communities. Doing so puts nature in people’s lives, which is particularly important to children, as well.”

With ongoing historic drought conditions and the growing recognition of the threats of wildfires and even the impact of the loss of pollinating insects, the center’s “living laboratory” can offer plenty of advice – not to mention plants for sale – to help create a more natural and water-efficient experience, even in your own yard.

The center offers more than 150 species of natural prairie and Rocky Mountain plants, which are cultivated and offered monthly through online sales. HPEC’s online catalog looks like something straight out of a John Fielder photography book, with buffalo grass, milkweeds, gaillardia and sagebrush that Tolstrup said provide a more water-efficient approach than store-bought, non-native species.

“Our demonstration gardens show what native plants look like in a natural context. We also have a free online series of educational programs on the various benefits of natural plants.”

In the 20 years that the HPEC has been operating, Tolstrup said both local governments and builders and developers have shown more interest in ways of integrating Colorado’s native plant life into landscaping and park environments. The center actively collaborates with Loveland’s Open Lands and Trails department, conducting surveys of plants at newly acquired properties, and has hosted tours of groups from the Denver Botanic Gardens to various regional parks departments.

And while some might see Northern Colorado’s ever-expanding subdivisions and commercial land development as the antithesis of environmental protection, Tolstrup argues that builders are actually taking a leading role in maintaining a more natural native biosphere.

“I see how the business community is doing much of the heavy lifting and is doing a lot to restore the environment,” he said. “It all comes down to some big aesthetic questions: What is beautiful, in terms of landscape? How much does a developer [have to do] at the front end of a project. There’s a big learning curve to all of this.”

Tolstrup is the author of “Suburbitat: A Guide to Restoring Nature Where We Live, Work and Play,” an illustrated guide that embodies much of the spirit and message of the environmental center.

“I look at the primordial past and the relationship that native tribes had with the environment, and the impact of how Colorado has grown. It discusses how to treat our landscape in an ecologically restorative style, and how we can work with wildlife. If we create an environment that’s going to draw wildlife, we have to learn to tolerate wildlife, at least.”

Ultimately, Tolstrup said he sees a future where a signature landscape that accurately reflects Colorado’s natural biodiversity becomes the norm for homes and commercial development – much in the same way that California, England or even Austin, Texas have their own identifiable gardening and landscaping style.

“Cedar bark mulch doesn’t make much sense here, nor does the idea that Kentucky bluegrass that needs 18 gallons of water per square foot is our go-to choice. If something actually comes from your area, that’s sustainable.”

And while Tolstrup said there is nothing wrong with the notion of xeriscaping – “especially if you like gravel and yuccas in your front yard” – the HPEC expertise can help homeowners create gardens and yards that are “lush, dense, colorful – and never need to be watered,” he added.

“We can work with the natural hydrology of your house. Your downspouts are a constant source of water, and if you create hydrological zones in your yard based on that, you can start to think of landscape design as environmental restoration.”

Tolstrup’s own background includes work as the land stewardship director at the Shambala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes and, interestingly enough, work doing gardening at former President George and Barbara Bush’s “summer White House” in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Low- to no-water gardens can be beautiful and native as these examples show. (Courtesy HPEC).


High Plains Environmental Center
970-622-9676 • suburbitat.org
2698 Bluestem Willow Drive Loveland, CO 80538

By Andy Stonehouse, At Home Colorado. Photography by Timothy Seibert.