Updated: Feb 11, 2021
If you live in Colorado, you’re no stranger to drought conditions. These past, oh I don’t know… 20 years have been dry ones and municipalities are becoming more rigid regarding non-essential water use. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to design a drought-tolerant landscape in our arid state that can yield a lush and interesting look with minimal water consumption.
Xeriscaping: Born in the Mile High
Denver Water coined the term xeriscape in 1981 by combining “landscape” with the Greek prefix xero-, from xeros, meaning dry. Public perception of xeriscaping has frequently been negative, as many assume that these types of landscapes are ugly expanses of cactus and gravel. And sometimes they can be. But that is certainty not the standard. It’s not a specific look or specific group of plants. Rather, xeriscape is a combination of seven common-sense gardening principles that save water, time and resources while creating a gorgeous landscape, for any environment.
These Seven Principles of Xeriscape are:
Plan and Design… for water conservation and beauty from the start. A design makes it easy to complete your project in phases.
Create Practical Turf Areas… of manageable size, shape and grade.
Select Low-Water Plants… and group them according to their water needs. This is also known as hydrozoning. Then experiment to determine how much and how often to water.
Use Soil Amendments… as you plant. Compost is the best choice.
Use Mulches… like wood chips or cobble rock to reduce evaporation and to keep the soil cool.
Irrigate Efficiently… with properly designed systems (including hose-end equipment) and by applying the right amount of water at the right time.
Maintain the Landscape Properly… by mowing, weeding, pruning and fertilizing properly.
Breaking down some common misconceptions:
Xeriscape is NOT anti-lawn. Even though xeriscape landscaping can be spectacularly colorful, even lush, limited areas of more highly-watered landscape like grass lawns are consistent with wise water use. Sometimes a lawn is the best option. For example, turf grass is the best option for an athletic field since it stands up to heavy use. Xeriscape is “less lawn landscaping” rather than “lawn less landscaping.”
Xeriscape is NOT just rocks and gravel. Plants are a vital part of a beautiful xeriscape. And although rock gardens can be truly marvelous, there are many wonderful choices other than rock for Xeriscape designs. There are dozens of kinds of organic mulch to choose from. Xeric implies no added water. By definition, Xeriscape means some water applied in well-controlled amounts and locations in the landscape.
Xeriscape is NOT native plants only. Although there are vast arrays of wonderful plants indigenous to all regions, non-invasive introduced plants, that are well-adapted to the local regional climate, are wonderful additions to landscaping that uses water frugally. For example, many iris, tulips, and even roses are examples of introduced plants that are well adapted to non-irrigated landscaping in the Rocky Mountain region.
Xeriscape is NOT a boring monoculture of spiny plants. On the contrary, well planned Xeriscapes are splendid examples of the beauty and diversity that make neighbors envious.
So, now that you know the basics, how in the heck do you go about implementing them? Here are some simple tips:
Evaluate site conditions. Patience is a virtue for landscape designers. Use a season or two to evaluate your site, noting which areas tend to get the most and least water, as well as sun and/or shade. By evaluating your landscape, you can make better choices about which plants should go where. For example, the more moist areas of your yard — around downspouts or at the base of slopes — can be used for plants that require more water. You can save sandier, dryer patches for drought-resistant plants.
Amend your soil where needed. If you aren’t sure how a particular section of soil will react with water, dig a hole at least 12-inches deep and fill it with water. Should the water drain immediately, you’ll need to amend it with organic materials, such as compost or leaf mulch. If the water pools and stays put for 30-minutes or more, you’ll need to add sandier soil amendments to increase porosity.
Replace or reduce your lawn. While America has had a long standing love affair with lawns, unfortunately they are just not considered drought tolerant. If replacing your entire lawn is not in the cards, then consider alternative lawns to typical bluegrass, such as tall fescue, buffalo grass, and blue grama types. Or if you’re comfortable going the whole 9 yards, replace your lawn with colorful stone and ornamental plants. Ornamental grasses will provide a burst of green, while requiring significantly less water than a lawn.
Add color with native drought tolerant plants. It’s possible to create a colorful drought-tolerant landscape simply by selecting the right assortment of succulents and colorful grasses. But if you love seeing flowers in your landscape, go for perennials that are sturdier and require less water. 5 of the most commonly used are:
Yarrow – These native perennials are extremely drought resistant and require almost no watering once they have taken hold in your landscaping. Yarrow plants comes in a variety of colors, and they produce flowers on tall stalks throughout the summer, providing color to your xeriscape landscaping.
Apache Plume – These large native deciduous shrubs are extremely hardy and disease and drought resistant. Their whitish stems and branches are accented by the single white flowers that are produced in mid-summer, followed by rose and pink colored plumes. The shrub keeps some of its leaves in the winter, making the tree even more versatile.
Mojave Sage – These large perennial shrubs produce purplish-blue flowers throughout the summer, which along with their silver-green foliage, makes them a popular choice for xeriscapes in Colorado. They also remain semi-evergreen throughout the winter, are drought and disease resistant, and can withstand high temperatures while still flourishing.
Prairie Winecups – This native perennial produces a large number of cup shaped wine-red colored flowers from spring through summer. The plant grows in a low mound of trailing stems that are covered with large round dark green leaves. Prairie Winecups requires little care and is extremely drought resistant.
Coral Bells – These extremely hearty plants produce leaves that come in a variety of colors and hues, ranging from light green to burgundy to blue and silvery green. Coral Bells produce flowers of many colors as well, ranging from white to red. These plants grow well in shade and partial sun, making them a great xeriscape plant for more shaded areas.
Xeriscape is not just a garden, but a system that incorporates conservation techniques with educated design choices that lead to a beautiful yet environmentally responsible finished product. There’s no ZERO in that.
We’re here to help!
We know that not everyone has the time or the desire to spend their days toiling away in their yards and gardens. But that doesn’t mean you should miss out on the beauty and bounty of a well maintained landscape. No matter your location and tastes, Plant Escape has solutions for you. Our landscape design company has created, installed and maintained thousands of beautiful interior and exterior plant arrangements, earning us over 25 years of awards on a local and national level for color design, landscaping and customer service. If you’re interested in hiring our Denver landscape designers for a residential project, visit our website or give us a call today at 303.584.0496 for a free consultation and estimate.