A water-down approach to landscaping

Why xeriscaping is crucial to Coloradans, and how to start

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Andie Wommack, a horticulture agent for the Colorado State University Extension office in Douglas County, said the most fundamental misconception people have with water-conserving landscaping is in the wording.

“Xeriscaping does not mean ‘zero-scaping.’ There’s a misconception or tag with xeriscaping that it needs to be all rocks and cactus,” Wommack said, “and that’s not really what xeriscaping is.”

For a word coined in Colorado, many residents are still unclear what it means to xeriscape (ze-ri-scape) a yard.

Dianna Denwood, a senior water conservation specialist with Colorado WaterWise, a water conservation resource group, said the state introduced the term “waterwise” to rethink what it means to be conscientious about water use in a landscape.

According to Colorado WaterWise, 50 percent of a Western United States residents’ water usage goes toward landscaping. Xeriscaping a yard, Colorado WaterWise reported, can reduce water usage by up to 60 percent and, if done right, increase home values by up to 15 percent.

“I basically am asking folks to change their understanding of what their yard should look like and put aside their current notions of what xeriscaping is. A lot of people have this misconception that it is rocks and cactus, but it doesn’t have to be,” Denwood said. “You can have a green, lush landscape with not a single blade of Kentucky bluegrass. It’s changing the mindset and knowing what’s possible.”

Xeriscaping is a style of landscaping that significantly reduces water usage. The style is popular in particularly dry regions, like Colorado, Arizona, Utah and Nevada. Some xeriscaped yards go all the way to zero water usage, while others limit the amount of water needed. Common features of xeriscaped yards include native plants or plants that require little water, various rock formations and creative use of space to eliminate the need for a costly, green yard.

Kentucky bluegrass, the most commonly used grass in Colorado lawns, has one of the lowest water-needs of any grass. It’s managing the irrigation based on location, timing and use that can make all the difference.

“We never want to tell someone they can’t have Kentucky bluegrass. We do encourage them to think about keeping their bluegrass only where they really need it,” Denwood said. “We love Kentucky bluegrass because it’s green most of the year and it can handle high foot traffic … If there’s an area you’re not using grass that heavily, that’s the perfect area to transition to waterwise landscaping.”

How to start

Most xeriscaping experts will tell you completely transforming your yard may not be easy or inexpensive. Using a phased-in approach, Denwood said, is the easiest way to work toward a waterwise yard. That begins by replacing certain plants with water-conserving ones, identifying which spots of the yard rarely get foot traffic and developing a plan for what you want your lawn to look like.

“It can be costly, but it depends on how you go about and do it,” Denwood said. “I recommend folks start with a plan and then they can implement their plan in phases over several years and that works really well for folks who are unable to make that upfront cost for the whole thing.”

To many new Front Range residents coming from places with more average rainfall than Colorado, having anything but a green lawn can seem strange. In Denver, the average rainfall is about 15.4 inches, which is almost half the national average.

Ruth Quade, a water conservation coordinator in Greeley, said Kentucky bluegrass is a common choice for contractors because it is drought-resilient and easy to put down and maintain. Water, meanwhile, is used in excess to keep it green.

Quade said one square foot of turf requires about 18 to 20 gallons of water per year. Xeriscaping yards, Quade said, can reduce that by almost half.

“Adapting your landscape to mimic more of nature, you’re going to use less water and you’re not going to have to supply from above,” Quade said. “We encourage people to use rocks as accents in pathways, and in order to have an attractive landscape, try not to use more than 25 percent rock mulch. Natives, rock gardens and pea gravel are great, too.”

Wommack said you can have plants that require high water use in a xeriscaped yard, so long as they’re close together to conserve water. Grouping native plants and low-water-use plants together can help, but managing the irrigation system, Wommack said, is also key.

“The goal of xeriscaping is to group plants together in ‘hydro zones’ — plants with the same water needs in the same areas,” Wommack said. “That way you’re watering each area appropriately.”

For help to start xeriscaping your yard, the experts recommend people reach out to local water utility groups or conservation offices.

Colorado’s water problem

Despite one of Colorado’s snowiest winters in recent memory, Wommack said it’s still not enough to pull almost half the state from severe or exceptional draught come the summer months.

“We have had some pretty bad droughts here in the last couple of years, which is hard for people to wrap their minds around with the winters we’ve had,” Wommack said.

Colorado is the only headwater state in the continental United States, meaning the state supplies water to many surrounding states.

“If Colorado runs out of water, it’s not just us that are going to be suffering. There are a lot of people down the line that are depending on Colorado for their water,” Wommack said.

Xeriscaping, Wommack said, is a good first step.

Wommack said the CSU Extension office in Castle Rock offers a tool to tell you how much you should water your lawn based on the weather for that day. Visit CRConserve.com for more information.

“Xeriscaping does not have to be restrictive to the types of plants in your yard,” Wommack said, “it’s more about how you’re watering and being efficient that way.”

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