How a relentless gardener turned his tangled underbrush into a paradise

Ralph Hart didn’t let an unruly landscape get the best of him. Instead, he relied on gumption, grit and fearlessness to turn his slippery slope into a paradisaical retreat.

By Carol Brock • Photos by WeinrauchPhotography.com

When Ralph Hart moved to Mapleton Hill in 1995, he was undaunted by his home’s unruly landscape. Overgrown, neglected and seriously sloped, the yard was, quite frankly, a mess.

20100619_ralphhart_0032-2But that didn’t bother Hart and his wife, Amy. “I’m pretty fearless when it comes to projects I don’t know anything about,” Hart says of his then-fledgling gardening skills. So he cracked open a few books, including his favorite, The Undaunted Garden by Lauren Springer Ogden, and relied on his physician skills to turn a slippery slope into a shady oasis.

A doctor at a local urgent care, Hart routinely assesses patients and decides how to fix them. So it wasn’t much of a leap to remedy a landscape. Being a thrifty do-it-yourself guy, Hart relied on his powers of observation instead of professional landscape help. During lengthy foothills hikes, he would notice the wild plants. “I wanted to mimic stuff I saw in the mountains to create a more natural kind of landscape here.”

Mother Nature gave Hart answers to landscape dilemmas, too, like when he was trying to figure out a ground cover that could withstand the acidic soil beneath his towering pine trees. “Last year I noticed that phlox grows like crazy in the wild in a pine-needle mulch like I have.” He planted it, and reports it’s thriving.

He also observed sloping yards and drew up a design to correct his. An avid cyclist and frequent racer, Hart typically heads up Fourth Street out of town, where many houses have sloping lots. He knew he needed to terrace his property, and that he loved stonework. “I just looked at what other people have done, and what types of plants go with rocks.”

Hart also studied his garden space in different seasons and times of day to develop an overall garden plan that “made sense for this yard.”

Hart’s plan beautifully incorporates flagstone stairs and walls, which he designed himself. Its three terraces include an upper and a lower patio, with a lawn in between for the couple’s 11-year-old son, Oliver.

After completing the excavation work and placing heavy boulders with the help of Renaissance Gardens—“it was fun playing with the Bobcat”—Hart set about creating his shady retreat. Since he’s not one for weeding, his landscape philosophy helps avoid that chore: “Overwhelm the space with an abundance of plants.” And Hart did just that. More than a hundred trees and shrubs pepper the nearly 1-acre property, including evergreens like yews, junipers and pines—“to maintain winter interest”—aspens, and perennials like roses, brooms, forsythias, irises, snow-on-the-mountain, basket of gold, spireas, privets, rhododendrons, hibiscus, host-as, mock orange and more.

When he ran out of planting room, Hart cultivated massive rosebushes along the adjoining alleyway for passersby. “Why not make it look nice?” he says. A recent pedestrian asked Hart if he tended the roses. “He told me he loves walking through here and takes this path to work each day because of the roses. I think it’s nice when people can appreciate the plants. When I hear people say ‘Look at all those roses!’ it just motivates me to plant more.”

But Hart’s forays haven’t always worked out so well. “Basically, I just plant a lot, but sometimes I make big mistakes,” he admits. Like the traditional lilacs that didn’t do well in the shade, so he replaced them with Japanese lilacs that like a bit less sun. “For me, it’s mostly trial and error, and I’m not afraid to just rip out things that aren’t working.” He also toppled a 70-foot-tall tree with his father’s help. “It’s kind of like an example of everything else,” he says of the tree felling. “I didn’t know anything about it; I didn’t know anything about gardening, but I’m willing to take a chance.”

Another tenet is not doing things the way they’re supposed to be done. “Like if you dig a hole the size that they recommend for a plant, it’s too much work,” Hart says. “If it grows, it grows; if it doesn’t I’ll try something else.” But most everything has grown, and the couple’s garden has even been featured on the Whittier-Maple ton Garden Tour.

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Accidental vs. Carefully Considered

Though Hart claims his plot is “an accidental garden,” it’s hard to believe that when you experience the skillfully placed stonework, the hundreds of plantings and the quiet peacefulness emanating from this shady retreat. A large part of that peace stems from the welcoming shade that pairs nicely with the cooling waters in Farmers Ditch humming along the property’s rear.

“The ditch, I thought, was ripe for something really spectacular,” says Hart, who picked up a pamphlet titled “Farmers Ditch: A History and Guide” from Carnegie Library. “In it is a quote from Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. about how Boulder was missing an opportunity, because there were all these little ditches around town, yet they weren’t being taken advantage of and planted like people do in Europe. And I thought, ‘Yeah, we are missing an opportunity.’”

So he and neighbors to the east and west lined their ditches with Old World–style rock walls and planted the north side with irises, roses and other flowers.

In Hart’s yard, you’ll also find a couple of birdbaths and sculptures of a pineapple, an egg, a dragon, an elf and a flower—all of which were discards that Amy found. If you look closely, you’ll notice a few cracks in them here and there. “I just glued them back together,” Hart says. “So we got a lot of nice things for free.”

After more than 10 years of fussing with his garden, Hart says all the hard work is pretty much completed, “but it seems kind of weird to me, to have a ‘done’ garden,” he adds. “If you’re a homeowner who is willing to fiddle, you have the advantage of watching your garden evolve and you learn from that. I’ve learned a ton.”

But one thing he always knew is this: “To me, anything green and growing, I’ll pretty much love it.”