The practice of waterwise, or xeriscape, gardening has become very popular in the last few years. It is an effective way to have beautiful and colorful gardens while conserving water, reducing pollution and protecting the environment.
Waterwise gardening is particularly important here in Colorado because we are a semi-arid state, averaging only 12 to 20 inches of precipitation a year.
Despite its popularity, misconceptions remain about Xeriscaping. Xeriscape does not mean “Zeroscape.” You do not need to rip out lawns and replace them with sand and rocks. An effective xeriscape landscape uses a wide variety of native and other water-efficient plants to create a beautiful oasis of color, texture and interest. Xeriscaping produces attractive landscapes because they utilize designs and plants suited to our local conditions. And since the plants are native to Colorado, they require little to no fertilization or pesticides, as they’ve already grown accustomed to soil with little fertility, and that toughness has made them less attractive and susceptible to insects and diseases.
Seven Principles of Xeriscape
Xeriscape has seven principles if you are planning on converting your yard:
1. Proper planning and design: This is the first and most important step. The plan should take into account the climate conditions of the region, existing vegetation, topography, intended use of the property, and most importantly, the grouping of plants by water needs. For example, group tough, drought-tolerant plants together in areas exposed to sun all day, give less dought-tolerant plants some partial shade and keep the most delicate or demanding plants near your water source.
2. Soil analysis and treatment: The ground that lies beneath the top soil in this region of the country is clay-based, often referred to as “heavy-soil.” Clay soil holds water too tightly, usually resulting in runoff. When water is absorbed by the clay soil, plants cannot extract it from the ground. The best way to make sure plants thrive in clay soil is to mix in one to three inches of compost or another organic material. Please read the section below about composting.
3. Appropriate plant selection: Choose plants native to Northglenn. Once established, they require very little to no additional water beyond normal rainfall. Try to preserve as many existing plants as possible because established plants usually require less water and maintenance. Plants that are native to areas with climates similar to our own should work well also. Select the strongest looking plant from the nursery. Look for plants that do not have any breaks or cuts.
4. Practical and appropriate turf areas: Most of us still want some lawn in our landscape. Lawns require a large amount of supplemental water and generally greater maintenance than other vegetation. Place turf where it has practical function, like in play or recreation areas. Try and keep all the turn together and in a shape that will make it easy to water. Also, plant a grass that can withstand drought periods and becomes dormant during hot, dry seasons.
5. Efficient Irrigation: The goal with efficient irrigation is to reduce water loss through evaporation, runoff or by being pushed beyond the root zone because it is applied too quickly. For clay soils like on the Front Range, it’s better to water less deeply but more frequently. As a general rule, provide 1 to 2 inches of water per week in the summer, per two weeks in the fall and spring and per month in the winter.
6. Use of Mulches: Mulches are essential in semi-arid climates like ours. They aid in greater retention of water by minimizing evaporation, reducing weed growth, moderating soil temperatures and preventing erosion. Mulch can be organic or inorganic. Organic mulch includes wood and bark chops, straw, shredded leaves and pine needles and improves the the condition of the soil as they decompose. Organic mulch should be applied on top of soil in a 2 to 3-inch layer. It’s best to apply in the early summer and then around new plants in the fall to protect from frost in the winter. The city’s Green Waste Recycling Center often has free organic mulch available for residents. Call 303-450-8800 for more information.
Inorganic mulch is any kind of stone, such as cobblestone and river rock. They are best for plants that like things really hot and dry.
7. Appropriate maintenance : As your xeriscape matures, it should require less maintenance and water. Water and fertilize only when necessary. Try to avoid cutting grass until it really needs it. Allowing it to grow to 2 to 3 inches promotes deeper root growth and a more drought-resistant lawn. Just try not to cut off more than one inch during a single mowing.
Removal of dead leaves and spent flowers will stimulate production of new growth.
• Myth No. 1: Xeriscapes are dry only....NO!
Even though dry-only landscaping can be spectacularly colorful and even lush, limited areas of highly watered landscape are completely consistent with wise water use, if the return justifies it—for example, heavily irrigated athletic field turf.
• Myth No. 2: Xeriscapes are rocks and gravel only...NO!
Although dry (xeric) rock gardens can be truly marvelous, there are an unlimited number of other choices for the xeric portion of xeriscape designs, even in the driest climates.
• Myth No. 3: Xeriscapes are lawnless...NO!
Some lawn can be consistent with the concept of overall waterwise landscaping...”Less-lawn,” not “lawn-less” is a more appropriate phrase.
• Myth No. 4: Xeriscapes are native only...NO!
Although there is a vast array of wonderful native plants for any region, introduced plants that are well-adapted, and not invasive, are an important addition to native flora for waterwise landscapes.
• Myth No. 5: Xeriscapes cost too much to build and maintain...NO!
Xeriscapes can cost far less both to build and maintain than traditional landscaping which is usually dominated by high-cost, manicured lawns that must be mowed weekly. A good water wise landscape can be designed to avoid expensive automatic irrigation, and the money saved can be used for more plants. Many xeriscape designs need little or no regular maintenance.
• Myth No. 6: Xeriscapes are a single style...NO!
Xeriscapes can be any style. There are lush tropical xeriscapes, fascinating Sonoran desert xeriscapes, delightful Rocky Mountain xeriscapes, eastern woodland xeriscapes, formal, and informal xeriscapes.
• Myth No. 7: Xeriscapes are difficult...NO!
Xeriscaping is not difficult. In fact, it can be easier than traditional landscaping. Trying to create a manicured lawn on a rocky site is far more difficult than creating a ground cover area with vines planted in only a few spots on the same site. Xeriscaping can be truly easy. Xeriscaping might mean learning a few new things, but that's not a downside, and it can be both easy and a lot of fun.
• Myth No. 8: Xeriscapes need plants you can't get...NO!
There are more than enough xeric plants for xeriscapes. It is never hard to get shrubs like junipers, or rabbitbrush, or flowers like iris or penstemons, or ground covers like snow-in-summer. Plants for xeriscapes are just as available as plants for “traditional” landscaping.
• Myth No. 9: Xeriscapes need more water to get started...NO!
Most plants in good xeriscape designs need less water (even the first year) than it takes to satisfy established high water landscapes. In fact, many low and very low water plants need only be watered when first planted. Even turf-type Tall Fescue and Buffalograss sod need less water the first year than it takes to satisfy established Bluegrass. Overall, most parts of most xeriscapes need less than half the water of established high water landscapes, even the first year.
Native Species for Xeriscape
|Botanical Name||Common Name|
|Amorpha canescens||Lead Plant|
|Atriplex canescens||Four Wing Saltbush|
|Cercocarpus montanus||Mountain Mahogany|
|Chamaebatiaria millefolium||Fern Bush|
|Fallugia paradoxa||Apache Plume|
|Foresteria neomexicana||New Mexican Privet|
|Holodiscus dumosus||Rock Spirea|
|Juniperus communis||Common Juniper|
|Mahonia aquifolium||Oregon Grape Holly|
|Prunus besseyi||Western Sand Cherry|
|Rhus glabra||Smooth Sumac|
|Ribes cereum||Wax Currant|
|Rosa woodsii||Wood's Rose|
|Sheperdia canadensis||Silver Buffaloberry|
|Botanical Name||Common Name|
|Berlanderia lyrata||Chocolate Flower|
|Erioginum umbellatum||Sulphur Flower|
|Gaillardia aristata||Blanket Flower|
|Mirabilis multiflora||Desert Four-O-Clock|
|Oenothera macrocarpa||Evening Primrose|
|Botanical Name||Common Name|
|Mahonia repens||Creeping Oregon Grape Holly|
|Botanical Name||Common Name|
|Andropogen gerardii||Big Bluestem|
|Bouteloua gracilis||Blue Grama|
|Schizachyrium scoparium||Little Bluestem|
|Sorghastrum nutans||Indian Grass|
More Water Wise Plants
• Basket of Gold - Aurinia
• Catmint - Nepta x Faassenii
• Creeping Phlox - Phlox subulata
• Daylilly - Hemerocallis
• Hen & Chicks - Sempervivum
• Ice Plant - Delosperma
• Iris - Iris
• Jacob's Ladder - Polemonium caeruleum
• Lamb's Ear - Stachys byzantina
• Mint/ Hyssop - Agastache
• Perrywinkle - Vinca
• Purple Coneflower - Echinacea
• Snow in the Summer - Cerastium tomentosum
• Stonecrop - Sedum
• Broom - Cytisas
• Butterfly Bush - Buddlera
• Cherries/ Plums/ Choke Cherries - Prunus
• Creeping Grape Holly - Mahonia repens
• Lilacs - Syringa
• Mugo Pine - Pinus mugo
• Peashrub - Caragana
• Russian Sage - Perovskis atriplicifolia
• Sage - Artemisia
• Serviceberry - Amelanchier
• Yucca - Yucca
• Blue Avena Grass
• Blue Fescue
• Little Bluestem
• Maiden Grass
• Switch Grass
• Apple/Crabapple - Malus
• Juniper - Juniperus
• Maple - Acer
• Pine - Pinus
This is only some of the many water wise plants available. For additional information or landscaping ideas, visit with your local greenhouse or speak with your landscape artist.
Information courtesy of Mary Ann Dornfeld and Suzanne Aeverman, horticulturists, City of Northglenn; Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado, www.alcc.com; The Green Industries of Colorado (GreenCo); Town of Parker, Colorado: "Xeriscape Principles for Landscaping During a Drought," www.parkeronline.org; and Plant Talk Colorado, Backyard Gardener, Greenco, Front Range Sustainable Landscape Coalition, Adams County Extension Office, Front Range Living, Denver Botanic Gardens.