This couple lost their entire landscape to the 2013 flood, but they lovingly restored it keeping Mother Nature in mind.
By Lisa Truesdale
Like most gardeners, Mary Stewart has always enjoyed getting creative with her yard—scouring the seed catalogs that arrive each spring, browsing at the garden center, trying out new plants and rotating existing ones, and adding unique decorative touches. As an active Boulder Garden Club member and former Master Gardener, she’d spent more than three decades making small changes in her Niwot garden at her home just south of Left Hand Creek.
Changes aren’t quite as fun, though, when they’re not your choice.
On the rainy morning of Sept. 12, 2013, Mary’s husband, Kirk, was about to leave the house for his weekly Rotary meeting when he heard shouting from one of his neighbors. There was barely time for the words “Get out!” to register before he saw (and heard) water rushing through his front fence toward the house. Kirk alerted Mary and they hurried to place some sandbags around the garage. But there was too much water, so they quickly abandoned that plan and began moving their cars out of the garage, through the rising muck and up the street to where it was completely dry just two houses to the south.
When Kirk and Mary were finally able to return to their house to assess the damage, they discovered that not only had their entire septic system failed, backing up into the lower-level family room, but their 1.37 acres of land were inundated with mud and rubble. The bushes along the front fence had trapped or slowed down tons of debris, which then took out just about everything in its path as it moved northeast.
“My world collapsed,” Mary says, remembering how they lost more than 50 trees, prized rosebushes, a mature vegetable garden, an extensive irrigation system and so much more.
The yard, though, would have to wait while they dealt with the home’s interior. Miraculously, with hundreds of other flood survivors across the county desperately needing a contractor at the same time, they found one on short notice. A neighbor had already retained Timberline Builders for another project but had decided to wait, so he gave his time slot to the Stewarts. Thus began a long, tedious and frustrating process of estimates, insurance adjustors, FEMA representatives and county inspectors. Kirk and Mary housesat for friends for five weeks until their home was habitable again, although the restoration work took until January and wasn’t finished by the holidays as they had hoped.
Major repair of the landscape had to wait another 18 months, mostly because the ground was still too saturated to handle heavy equipment, but also because Kirk and Mary were growing weary of how quickly their hard-earned retirement savings were dwindling. They didn’t have flood insurance, and their homeowners’ insurance had covered only the septic-system failure. That was just about a third of the total cost of the indoor restoration, which also required new carpeting and drywall, a furnace, a hot water heater and a washing machine.
“I also lost most of the equipment I needed for yard work,” Kirk adds, like mowers, chain saws and other tools.
With the help of dedicated friends and neighbors, they first had to get eight dump-truck loads of dirt and debris off the property. “We also had to cut down dozens of damaged trees,” Kirk says. “I’ve been through three chain saws since the flood, even though I only buy Stihl—the good kind.”
Mary really wanted her garden back, though, so they slowly started the long process, enlisting Paul Hartman of Boulder’s Changing Landscapes and Nancy Loving of Boulder’s Loving Gardens to help with the design.
Kirk, who has a doctorate in civil engineering, also assisted with the landscape plans. He knew that the burning bushes along the front fence that had trapped the debris (and amazingly survived the flood) couldn’t stay where they were. But although moving them would cost more than simply planting new ones, Mary was adamant about keeping them and relocating them to the back.
“I really wanted something to hang onto from the old yard,” she says.
They also salvaged a cherub garden statue that had been Mary’s mother’s, and a birdbath that’s still visible as it pokes up from the ground at about half its original height. Two apple trees survived as well. “They’re tough,” Mary says.
When designing the new landscape, “we had to think differently,” Mary says, explaining that the design is meant to mitigate future drainage and flow issues. Some dirt and mud deposited by the rushing water was left in place to create berms to help divert water if it ever floods again, and a new dry river-rock channel courses through the property. “Kirk has always wanted texture,” Mary adds, “so those elements give him that.”
And, Kirk says, the new design thankfully requires less work than before. “We’re older now, and we don’t want to maintain expensive things like water features and fancy walkways,” he says, recalling several ideas the landscape designers came up with that he marked out from the plans “with a big red X.”
Although they had “flat, manicured Kentucky bluegrass” before the flood, they now have buffalo grass in the back—“because it’s soft on the feet,” Mary says—and a mix of prairie grass and wildflowers everywhere else. She also took care to choose only Plant Select varieties that are perfect for dry or very dry conditions, and that also attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
The front yard is a pleasing mix of dozens of colorful, hardy perennials like penstemon, black-eyed Susan, stonecrop, goldenrod, alyssum and coneflowers.
“Now that the bushes are gone from along the front fence, people can see into our yard,” Mary explains, “so I want it to look pretty.”
She also planted a mixture of grasses, like little bluestem, big bluestem, feather reed grass and blue fescue, and a miniature ‘Blue Jazz’ pine tree. More prairie grasses cover the new berms on all sides of the yard, including blue switch grass, Indian grass, maiden grass, northern sea oats and prairie dropseed, interspersed with shrubs like barberry, blue mist spirea, lilacs, quince, snowberry and red yucca.
The backyard rose garden, which once had a figure-8 shape, is now a circle, and features mostly resilient, own-root David Austin roses from Boulder’s Harlequin’s Gardens.
The new vegetable garden is close to the previous one’s site on the north side of the house, although Kirk says the raised bed’s original timbers are still buried somewhere. “I also keep finding golf balls from Haystack [golf course, just to the west],” he laughs. And the plants in the vegetable garden were updated. Since Kirk can no longer handle the spicy onions and peppers he used to grow, he now tends a variety of squash, bell peppers, pumpkins, zucchini and herbs.
Mary doesn’t look at flood photos often, but when she does, it brings back all the memories of how her garden used to look. “When it first happened, it seemed like it would take forever to get things decent again,” she says. “But nature does repair itself—with a little help from us humans—amazingly well. There is hope after a disaster.”
“I think it’s even better than before,” Kirk adds.
“Not better,” Mary says, clearly still emotional about watching all her years of hard work get washed away. “Just different.”
All before and flood photos courtesy the Stewarts; all now photos by Lisa Truesdale and Carol Brock