Colorado xeriscaping: How to make your garden water-wise |

Colorado xeriscaping: How to make your garden water-wise

Dear Eartha,

With all the water and drought talk in California recently, I would like to do my part and use less water in my landscape. I’ve heard that if I xeriscape my garden, I won’t ever have to water again.

— Lucy, Breckenridge

Every living thing — including flowers, shrubs and trees — need water and air to stay alive. Xeriscaping doesn’t mean that your garden won’t ever need water. Water-wise gardens are low maintenance but do require some care and some water. They are simply water-conscious landscapes.

Xeriscaping (zer-i-skaping) is a word originally coined by a special task force of the Denver Water Department, Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado and Colorado State University to describe landscaping with water conservation as a major objective. The derivation of the word is from the Greek “xeros”, meaning dry, and landscaping — thus, xeriscaping.

The need for landscaping to conserve water has new importance and impetus with all of the recent concern about water use and the current droughts in Colorado and elsewhere in the West. Don’t be fooled that just because we’ve had a wet spring and early summer, that we’re in the clear. Colorado has been in a drought for nearly six years! Those of us fortunate to live in Summit County need to make every drop of water count, and xeriscaping in your yard is a good place to start.

By applying the principles of xeriscape, a landscape can be beautiful and diverse while using less water. The first step is planning in order to reduce water use. The second is improving the soil. Then, choose appropriate plants and mulch and, finally, water properly.

Your plan does not have to be elaborate but should take into consideration the exposures on the site. As a rule, south and west exposures result in the greatest water losses, especially areas near buildings or paved surfaces. You can save water in these locations simply by changing to plants adapted to reduced water use. A drought-resistant ground cover can also slow water loss and shade the soil.

There are many beautiful plants available at local nurseries or garden centers that don’t require much water. Native and adapted plants from high-altitude dry climates worldwide are often available (Look for “Developed in the Andes”). The features that make plants visually interesting are often the features that allow them to thrive on little water. For example, the silver leaves of lamb’s ears and lavender plants reflect the drying heat of the sun, so the plant doesn’t lose water from its leaves. Many xeriscape plants, like poppy mallow, also develop deep roots and can store water.

After selecting plants with similar water needs, plant them into the same zone or microclimate. This is called hydrozoning. If done properly, your watering will meet the different moisture requirements for your plants and, in the long run, save water and create better plant health. As well as flowers, xeric shrubs include lilac, Apache plume and cotoneaster. There are many xeric ground covers. Unfortunately, there are few truly drought-tolerant trees.

Then select your mulch. Properly selected and applied mulches in flower and shrub beds reduce water use by decreasing soil temperatures and the amount of soil exposed to wind. There are two basic types of mulches: organic and inorganic. Organic mulches include straw (not hay), partially decomposed compost, wood chips and bark. Inorganic mulches are plastic film, gravel and woven mats. If soil improvement is a priority in your garden, use organic mulches. Wood chips and compost are most appropriate. As these materials break down, they will become an organic amendment to your soil. Earthworms and other soil organisms help incorporate the organic component into the soil. Locally-made compost can be purchased at the Summit County Resource Allocation Park outside of Keystone.

Inorganic mulches will effectively exclude weeds for a time, but they also tend to exclude the water and air essential to plant roots. And plastic sheeting often diverts the water and causes it to run away from your plants, thus wasting water.

Finally, make certain when you water that the water falls only on your landscaped areas. Water in the cool of the morning or evening to reduce evaporation. And, don’t water during rain or in strong wind.

For a list of xeric perennials and annual plants, see or check out Denver Water’s tips on remodeling your yard

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. This guest entry was written by a Summit County Master Gardener. Submit questions to Eartha at

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