Sowing Seeds of Resiliency with Mark Tardiff
As the monsoon clouds softly release some light raindrops, a hillside of colorful patches of Blue Flax, Showy Goldeneye, Yarrow, Scarlet Gilia, Showy Fleabane, Rocky Mountain Penstemon, and a wealth of other wildflowers sparkle in the cool morning. Intermixed with them are tall shoots of Western Wheatgrass, Slender Wheatgrass, and Smooth Brome in blues, greens, and browns. The display is rounded out with aromatic Big Sagebrush, Rabbitbrush, and Snowberry.
Tourists from all over the world travel to the Upper Gunnison River Basin to witness such beauty firsthand each summer, but all Mark Tardiff and Terre Mercier have to do is glance out their windows in Crested Butte South. When they built their home in 2017, they used the excavated rocks and small boulders that were dug up for their foundation to line the sides of their driveway creating retaining walls. On the hillside above these walls, they planted a mixture of wildflower seeds and native grasses for their landscaping.
“I’ve been interested in water since I was a small child playing in puddles, ponds and creeks, much to my mother’s dismay when I came home soaked and covered in mud,” said Mark Tardiff, now retired from working for over 40 years as a research scientist, mostly at the Department of Energy National Laboratories in Tennessee, New Mexico, and Washington state. “As stewards, we need to be a part of this landscape and not just on it. Over the last few decades, more people are awakening to the reality that climate change is real, and we all have a responsibility for conserving water, especially during our persistent drought.”
For his landscape, Mark researched drought resistant flowers and grasses and enlisted the advice of the Gunnison Conservation District to purchase a custom mix of native wildflower seeds and grass seeds from them which he sowed by hand on his property.
“I spent some time hand raking the construction scars and packed soil to loosen it up a bit and then sprinkled the seed by hand over all our areas of bare soil,” said Mark. “I used a rolled straw mulch product to help hold the seeds and soil in place and to absorb and hold water. I watered the seeds maybe once every three or four days for about three to four weeks just to get them to set in the ground and start germinating.”
Mark said that he planted the seeds in the fall so that they could soak up the moisture from the melting winter snowpack to start growing the following spring. Since their initial planting, Mark said he has never watered his property since, and that the xeriscaping requires almost no maintenance.
“In the spring, I take a weed whacker and spend maybe an hour total just cutting back the taller grasses and growth that have died over the winter and that’s it,” said Mark. “There’s no mowing, no weeding and no watering.” There’s also no fertilizers or herbicides, with the exception of Milestone to remove Canada Thistle which is an aggressive invasive plant that is almost impossible to remove otherwise.
Mark noted that it’s been really interesting to see the varying types and sizes of wildflowers and grasses that sprout up each year depending on how much snowpack accumulated over the winter and the prevalence of spring rains. Every year has been different. Patience is definitely a virtue when developing a natural landscape. It takes about five years for most of the plants to get established.
“Mother Nature knows how to adapt to drought conditions and temperatures,” said Mark. “Native plants and grasses tend to be very resilient as they’ve grown here for thousands of years. We just need to learn to work with Mother Nature to not obstruct her natural processes and protections.”
In addition to the drought resiliency qualities of his xeriscaping, Mark said it has also been a sanctuary for pollinators in the area, particularly hummingbirds and bees. Mark pointed out that the trumpet like blooms on the Scarlet Gilia are the perfect size and shape to fit the hummingbirds’ tiny beaks. Bees are especially attracted to Penstemons and the bright red Indian paintbrush, which Mark noted is a “hemiparasite” meaning that although it can photosynthesize, it also draws nutrients from other organisms, in this case, from the neighboring perennial grasses or Sagebrush. Like the pollinators, Mark said that deer and other wildlife are drawn to the xeriscaping.
On the opposite side of the Tardiff/Mercier property there is a small wetland area including an ephemeral small creek that runs through it in the early spring as the snow melts. In this area, there is a tall stand of aspen, Corn Lilies, Cow Parsnip and a variety of other wetland native plants and shrubs. Mark notes that with the steeper slope of this area, Mother Nature is again using the native flora to store water as long as possible throughout the warm, dry summer months. According to the US Forest Service, since aspen have moist green leaves and thick twigs, they do not burn easily, unlike conifers which have dry needles and may use three to seven inches more water per year than aspen.
“Water and elevation are everything in the West,” said Mark. This is why he encourages property owners to do some research and carefully consider what they plant on their property for the best resiliency and impact on the environment. “I am happy to share what I’ve learned with other property owners considering xeriscaping. I also highly recommend visiting the Gunnison Conservation District office. They have lots of experience with vegetating natural landscapes and are pleased to help you with seed selections and methods”
During Mark’s career as a research scientist, he studied first-hand how contaminants from historic land disposals can degrade groundwater and surface water quality and how these hazardous environments can affect our well-being and impact our natural resources. Because of this, he has made a commitment to conserve water, reduce carbon emissions, and participate in initiatives to become a community in a carbon neutral county, state, and nation.
Mark is currently running for a seat on the Crested Butte South Property Owners Association (POA) where he seeks to preserve “a weird and wild rural Rocky Mountain lifestyle.” Mark intends to keep environmental issues in the discussion mix as the POA makes decisions that influence future development.
“I will be a voice for the values we share that drew us here,” said Mark. “While the forces of change for both the environment and our built human communities are daunting, we need to remember who we are.”
As such, Mark will just keep sowing the seeds of resiliency for the beauty and protection of our basin.