The garden path (on the right) leads up the hill to the ridgeline that was so challenging in the landscape’s construction phase. The flagstone patio’s circular pattern with spiral carvings (on the left) helps cushion the home’s angularity. “I wanted to create a softer feel,” homeowner Rob Lee says.
Nature and boulders inspired this garden’s rugged beauty
Story By Carol Brock
Photos by Paul Hartmann/Changing Landscapes
When Rob Lee moved here from California 15 years ago, he heard the rocks calling his name. As a climber and avid outdoorsman, Lee knew Boulder was a natural fit for him. So it’s not surprising he felt the rocks speak to him when he purchased a boulder-strewn lot in Pine Brook Hills in 2005.
“I enjoy looking at rocks and climbing on them at the same time,” says Lee, who was immediately drawn to his property’s abundance of natural boulders and rock formations. After his home was finished in 2008, Lee tackled the landscaping a few years later.
And what’s a rock whisperer to do, but add more rocks? Which is exactly what Lee did, although it was more challenging than he imagined due to the ridgeline his home sits on and the property’s steep slope.
Lee was a landscaping newbie who knew he wanted to create boulder formations that blended with the landscape. Beyond that, he had to rely on professionals, due to the project’s scope and technical issues.
Ultimately, he chose Changing Landscapes for his landscape firm and Altgelt & Associates for his garden designer. “I wanted to make sure someone had experience with mountain projects,” Lee says, “and it was clear [Changing Landscapes] had very skilled landscapers, especially when it came to setting stones.”
Just how skilled the construction crew was became apparent when the project got underway. Massive excavation was required for the water feature Altgelt designed, and given the garden’s close proximity to the home, blasting was not an option. Instead, Changing Landscapes had to use jackhammers to strip away the rocky hillside. “It was, and probably still is, the most memorable—and infamous—project they undertook,” Lee says.
In fact, the project reaped two 2018 Elite Awards from the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado. “It was a difficult site that provided us with unique construction challenges,” says Changing Landscapes owner Paul Hartman. “I’m proud of how hard my crew worked to craft the owner’s vision of serene spaces.”
Indeed, Hartman’s crew probably didn’t suspect they’d have to employ rock-climbing skills for the memorable and infamous project. “I lent some of the crew rock-climbing harnesses and rigged anchors on the trees,” Lee says, “so they could hang down the slope and be better positioned to jackhammer the rock.”
And though his garden features many boulders native to the site, the design called for new boulders to be situated. “The largest was 4,000 pounds, and it pushed the crane to its limits,” Lee says. The crane operator lacked a clear line of sight to the garden, so he had to work by hand signals from another crewman.
“It got pretty hairy! At one point, I wanted a boulder placed farther out and the crew used a wench against a tree to get that extra distance. That worked, but I said, ‘Can you bring it over another foot or so?’ and the reply was, ‘The crane’s boom is 6 inches off your roofline.’ To which I replied, ‘Set her down!’”
Lee was an active participant in his landscape’s evolution, and decided on the curved shape for a few stone benches, which the crew masterfully created. He also designed the concrete natural-gas fire pit, where he enjoys s’mores with his 10- and 13-year-old daughters.
Bears & Frogs–Oh My!
Lee’s “pseudo-Zen garden” gives him a sense of peace, he says. “It composes rocks and water and plants together in a way that feels calming.”
But he does have one do-over: the water feature. “When the designers presented the idea of a water feature, I immediately embraced it,” he says. “It added a whole new dimension to making the garden feel alive.”
A few years into it, though, he’s reconsidered. The feature is a headache to maintain and an environmental guilt-trip. The original design had water pouring down a 20-foot slope and “I literally had a raging creek in my backyard,” Lee says. “While beautiful, I had no idea what I was getting into, and it wasn’t always calming. I’m an environmentally conscious guy, and once I understood that I had to drive all that water with big pumps, it made me feel guilty about the power I needed to use.” Not to mention the water and utility costs.
Although Lee tried to mitigate those effects by running the feature for only certain hours of the day, the steep hill caused the pond to fill up and algae was becoming problematic. After bears realized his pond was an excellent dipping pool, the water feature developed leaks. This fall, Lee plans to convert to a pond-less system, using basins and holding tanks to more easily operate and maintain the system.
Yet, one aspect of the water feature surprises and delights Lee: the mountain frogs that journey to his pond every spring. Their joyous croaking “is a welcome annual event,” he says.
But Lee is at a loss to explain it. “I still cannot understand how frogs found their way up to my garden. There are no natural water features around here, and I live 800 feet above Boulder! How’d they get here?”
Could it be a case of ‘build it and they will come’?