Edible, Cold & Drought Tolerant Plant List for Western Colorado Landscapes & Gardens

 Edible Landscaping and Forest Gardening in the High Desert Steppes – Arid, Cold Climate

Forest gardening, or as I like to think of it, “Forage Gardening,” is a fun way to plan and plant your landscape. The main objective is year round abundance for all involved, the people, land, bugs and other critters.  The list below outlines many of the plants I am currently growing.

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Functional groups of mutually beneficial plants form a guild. Conceptually, guilds mimic the plant communities of ecosystems, but are focused around species that are useful for people. Most of the plants in my list seem to work well together. Comfrey, yarrow, lovage, clover and crown vetch are my main under-story plants. The shrubs and berries fill in above them with a fruit tree, mulberry or nut as the over-story. Here’s an example of a simple guild: comfrey around a pear tree with strawberries and asparagus underneath. This is a semi-drought tolerant guild.

Drought tolerant guild: mulberry with siberian pea shrub, nanking cherry, yarrow and crown vetch. (Watch out for crown vetch, it spreads!)

Getting Started with Perennials

Direct seeding is best in the fall or early spring as soon as the ground thaws. Transplanting can be done in the fall or early spring as well, however coniferous trees and some deciduous trees and shrubs require winter water and are prone to failure if planted in the fall and left without water.

All drought tolerant plants need water to get established. The only exceptions are the ones that are able to self seed and some cactus cuttings.

Plant Zones

For reliable cold tolerance choose zone 5, borderline is zone 6b, some frost risk and  protection required in some years in zone 6a. With ambitious micro-climate creation and protection, low-water zone 7 plants can survive, for example: figs, rosemary.

Cold and Drought Tolerant Plants

A drought tolerant edible hedge in Western Colorado. Plants visible in this photo include: Choke cherry, buffalo berry, chives, clovers, salsify, holly hock and comfrey

A drought tolerant edible hedge in Western Colorado. Plants visible in this photo include: Choke cherry, buffalo berry, chives, clovers, salsify, holly hock and comfrey

These are all plants which I grow at 5,600 ft in Western Colorado. Annual rainfall is 8-10 inches and winter temp extremes can reach -20F.  The top soil is mostly heavy clay, sometimes over shale, sometimes over caliche, sometimes over river gravel deposits. It is often very alkaline.

I use supplemental irrigation for establishment and to speed up growth. Most plants are also mulched when planted to suppress weeds, retain moisture and create long term fertility. Some earth works and structures are helpful: berm and basin for water retention. For trees, snow-fences or planting on the north side of structures can help keep roots moist through the winter and delay flowering to escape late frost.

Here’s the list of plants, in no particular order:

  • Apricot (Prunus armeniaca) – Plant from local seed  or see: Burnt Ridge Nursery and  Trees of Antiquity
    • Fruit is prone to spring frost damage
    • Can self-seed
  • Mulberry (Morus sp.) – The white varieties are more drought and cold hardy
    • Reliable producers
    • Can self-seed
    • Birds love it
    • Can be shaken out of the tree and dried
  • Cherry (Prunus sp.)
    • Nanking Cherry – See Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS)
      • Drought tolerant, long flower period for reliable production.
      • Extreme bird damage to crops
    • Sweet cherry – somewhat tolerant, prone to frost
    • Sour cherry – more reliable fruit
    • Western Sand Cherry (Prunus besseyi)- native, low growing. Very alkaline tolerant.
    • Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana – native, spreading, astringent berries make great jam. Birds love them.
  • Buffalo Berry  (Shepherdia argentea) – (CSFS)
    • Nitrogen fixing
    • Western Colorado Native, drought tolerant
    • First flowers in the spring for bee food
    • Edible, but astringent berries
  • Golden Current (Ribes aureum) (Native) – (CSFS) Cold hardy, drought tolerant, reliable fruit
    • Black Currant (not as drought tolerant)
    • Red Currant
    • Birds love them
  • Gooseberry – Needs some irrigation, cold hardy, shade tolerant
  • Lavendar
    • Drought tolerant once established
  • Curry Bush (Helichrysum tianshanicum) – Extreme drought tolerance, fragrant, not edible
  • Goji Berry  Burnt Ridge Nursery and  Trees of Antiquity
    • Drought tolerant once established
    • Reliable fruit 2x per year (extreme bird and wasp damage)
  • Yellow Horn (Xanthoceras sorbifolium) – Drought tolerant, dislikes transplanting
  • Crab apple (Malus sp.)
  • Pear  (Pyrus sp.) – Standard (standard and self-seeded, full-size varieties are more hardy and drought tolerant.)
  • Apple (Malus sp.) – Standard
  • Hawthorn – Drought tolerant, cold tolerant, reliable production
    • Black, Douglas (Crataegus-douglassi)
    • Crataegus sp.
  • Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)
    • Not necessarily edible but highly drought tolerant tree
  • Service berry (Amelanchier alnifolia) – Cold and drought tolerant
  • Black Locust – Nitrogen fixing, coppices well. Great for ground contact applications like fence posts. Good firewood.
  • Russian Sage
    • Bee forage
  • Oregano
  • Culinary Sage
  • Chives
  • Thyme
  • Asparagus
    • Can self-seed
  • Dandelion
  • Burdock
    • Deep rooted, annoying ‘burrs’, bee favorite, biannual, delicious and medicinal root
    • Self-seeds
  • Italian Dandelion (chicory)
    • Edible leaves and roots
  • Clumping onions – Perennial, sweet flavorful greens in the spring. Dies back through the summer.
    • Note: these are not the same as bunching onions.
  • Lovage – Needs some water, edible seeds, leaves, shoots, medicinal roots related to osha.
    • Every beneficial insect in the garden flocks to lovage flowers.
  • Yarrow – Native, medicinal, drought tolerant, compaction tolerant, attracts beneficial insects.
  • Grapes
    • Dependent on variety – Cold and drought tolerance
  • Jujube (borderline cold tolerance= zone 6)
    • Surviving but struggling… Needs a long  growing season to ripen fruit.
  • Comfrey
    • Likes a lot of water, but thrives in our poor soil. Will survive drought for several years after 5+ years of establishment.
    • Excellent soil builder, mulch plant, dynamic accumulator, medicinal, bumble bee favorite.
  • Prickly pear and other cold hardy edible cactus varieties see: http://www.coldhardycactus.com/
    • Puntia phaeacantha ‘Paradox Form’
    • Opuntia ‘Plum’, Opuntia macrocentra
    • Opuntia gilvescens
    • Coryphantha vivipara
    • Echinocereus stramineus
  • Plums, Native – (CSFS)
  • Native flowers and grasses see: WesternNativeSeed.com
    • (At some point, I will have to make another post on the amazing plants in this category.)
    • Juniper Pinyon Sage Ecosystem
    • High Plains Ecosystem
    • Short Grass Prairie
  • Almond
    • Halls Hardy – thrives with some irrigation
    • Other varieties – variable
  • Peach – Cold tolerant, prone to spring freezing, no drought tolerance.
  • Hazelnut Varieties: Cold is not a problem, winter drought is an issue. Some irrigation needed. Suffer in alkaline situations.
  • Raspberry – Not drought tolerant, native to nearby mountains. Some varieties thrive with irrigation.
    • Primocane varieties are my favorite for ease of management.
  • Blackberry
    • Himalayan – thorny, amazingly vigorous, will suffer if not watered, but holds on for a long time
    • Cultivars: Natchez, Chester, Triple Crown (early, mid, late) thornless, not drought tolerant.
    • Use deep mulch and drip irrigation with lots of comfrey and clover nearby to keep fertility up.
  • Walnut
    • Black Walnut thrives with some irrigation
    • English Walnuts thrive with irrigation.
  • Sea berry – Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)
    • Nitrogen fixing
    • Cold and drought tolerant
    • Amazingly alkaline tolerant
  • Oaks – Drought tolerant, cold tolerant, nuts
    • Gamble oak (Quercus gambelle) – Native, drought tolerant
    • Burr Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) – drought tolerant, faster growing
    • Burr/Gamble crosses
      • Vigorous, faster growing,  produces crops of acorns at a young age.  Combines the drought tolerance of the Gambel oak with the cold tolerance of the burr oak.
  • Siberian Pea Shrub (Caragana arborescens) (CSFS)
    • Nitrogen fixing
    • Extreme drought and cold tolerance
    • Edible pea
    • Bumble bee favorite
Edible Western Colorado Native: Golden Current, with bright orange berries.

Golden Currant – Ribes aureum. The berries taste a bit like oranges.

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  1. Katharine Able · October 13, 2015 Reply

    What a great list! Thank you for putting this together

    • Aaron Jerad · October 14, 2015 Reply

      There are more that deserve to be on the list and suggestions are welcome! Glad you find it useful.

  2. Seth · May 19, 2016 Reply

    This list looks GREAT!!!

    Do you know of any similar resources for other states?


    • Aaron Jerad · May 19, 2016 Reply

      Hi, thanks. It would depend on the state…

      • eva luna · October 21, 2016 Reply

        Hi and thanks for posting this list.
        I live in Steamboat Springs Colorado and planning to create edible forest and orchards using beneficial plant guilds. Do you have further suggestions on nitrogen fixing trees that would survive this altitud?
        Are the plants and trees in your list all good for this area?
        I know most and use some already…..but I was wondering what your thoughts were

        • Aaron Jerad · October 21, 2016 Reply

          You should double check the hardiness zones of the plants on this list, I am in 5b and I think Steamboat is going to be colder. In addition to nitrogen fixers on the list you could look at Black Locust as a great nitrogen fixing tree, which can be coppiced and is great for in-ground applications like fence posts. Also for your area: Alder, Lead Plant, Silverberry.

  3. Keith Cooper · June 15, 2016 Reply

    Thank you soooo much this is EXACTLY what I’ve been looking for.

  4. K Woods · March 10, 2017 Reply

    One thing on list you DO NOT WANT to get started is burdock — invasive weed that goes crazy , terrible burrs to get out of any animal that gets in them or in your hair. Bees might love the flower stage but difficult to get rid of . Has long tap root that if you cut off or dig but don’t get most of it , it comes back double and can get very tall. Have to spray to kill and I don’t like spray.

    • Aaron Jerad · March 26, 2017 Reply

      Agreed that Burdock can go wild, however… I use a Japanese variety and control the seeds. In my climate it doesn’t really go wild, it still needs a little supplemental water to thrive. It is bi-annual, so not too difficult to control. I let it set seeds, then cut the main stalk and toss it to the chickens. For the benefits: food/nutritional, bee food, soil building and control of grass I find it is worth the work of keeping it under control.

      Crown-vetch on the the other hand… I may regret planting.

  5. lka · March 26, 2017 Reply

    I dont comment much on websites, but felt the need to say thanks for this list, there is precious little quality info on the internet about useful plants for high dry and cold. We’re at 3500′ in the Idaho panhandle. A bit lower and (theoretically) a bit more rainfall than you, but a bit colder too. I need to expand my plantings beyond locust and Siberian pea shrub and this has given me some nice ideas.

    Happy planting!

  6. Sam · June 6, 2017 Reply

    Sir you left an amazing gift for the world in the list above thank you for the time and effort you have saves a lot of people time and headaches I am sure.

  7. Prieski · April 1, 2019 Reply

    I just wanted to let everyone you DO NOT want to plant Himalayan Blackberries. They have been considered and invasive species in all of the Pacific Northwest for decades and are rapidly becoming invasive in multiple other locations. They will grow in any soil, any light condition, are heat, cold and drought tolerant. They rapidly spread and form an impenetrable thicket, and well actually try to grow into your house if given the chance. If you want to know more, you can read all about it here.

    • Aaron Jerad · April 1, 2019 Reply

      Indeed, you do not want to plant Himalayan Blackberries in many places, but here in Western Colorado, it takes some work to keep them alive. (But less than many other varieties of blackberries) They need irrigation to survive and the iron is often locked up in the soil so if they are kept in one spot, they will become iron deficient.

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