X-rated gardening
Xeriscaping offers colorful, unique options for becoming a water miser

Sidebar: Top picks (or going beyond columbine and lupines)

Durango resident Debra VanWinegarden hand-waters part of her newly xeriscaped yard Tuesday. Since ripping out her lawn in favor of native and xeric plants, she estimates she uses about one-tenth of the water she used to use to maintain
her yard./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

About a year ago, Debra VanWinegarden decided to end it all – the miles of hoses, the endless watering, the backbreaking mowing. She xeriscaped her downtown Durango yard.

“I had a lawn, and it was in bad shape,” she said. “And I felt really bad using all that water – it should be going downstream.”

So VanWinegarden decided to do something about it. A hobby gardener who has undertaken about half a dozen landscaping projects over the years, she drew up a plan for the 1,000-square-foot space that involved native and xeric plants, and set about removing her Kentucky bluegrass lawn.

“I brought in all these native plants,” she said. “I shopped around at all the nurseries in town to find the best prices, and then I just brought them in and started filling the holes.”

VanWinegarden said she is delighted with the results. In addition to using about one-tenth of the water she used to maintain her lawn, she said her new yard is much more visually interesting.

“I’m doing very little watering, and it looks adorable,” she said. “The lawn was ugly and this xeriscaping is beautiful.”

For more information on xeric plants and retrofitting yards to be more waterwise, contact Greg Vlaming, of the La Plata County Extension Office, 247-4355.

Local nurseries and landscapers say VanWinegarden is among a growing group of local residents planting or retrofitting their yards to be more waterwise – particularly in light of last summer’s fires. And they are finding that the possibilities today have come a long way from the stereotypical lava-rock-and-cactus yardscapes of yesteryear.

“It took a year of drought and water shortages to get people to start thinking about it,” said Lisa Bouray, manager of Durango Nursery and Supply. “This year we’ve had a flush of phone calls from people calling for natives and xeric plants.”

Allison Scarpella, owner of Down to Earth Landscaping, also has noticed a sway in clients’ mindsets.

“I have gotten a few clients so far this year who are really dedicated to planting xeric and being waterwise,” she said.

Scarpella said whenever possible, she tries to use xeric and native species in her plantings.

“I try to emphasize xeric as much as possible,” she said. “And if they give me the go-ahead, I use all xeric.”

The turf dilemma

Although many people believe the use of turf is taboo in the xeriscaped yard, Scarpella said it is not completely out of the question, particularly for people who have underground sprinkler systems.

“Most people want a little lawn, which is OK, especially if people have irrigation, it’s so much more efficient,” she said.

Lisa Bouray, of Durango Nursery and Supply,
arranges pots of sedum, a xeric succulent, at
the nursery Monday./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Greg Vlaming, a horticulturist with the Colorado State Extension Office in La Plata County, agreed.

“Xeriscaping doesn’t mean no turf, it just means efficient use of that turf,” he said.

Scarpella even said the water-hungry but ever-popular Kentucky bluegrass, often considered a taboo in the Southwest, has some benefits over native grasses, which can die without water.

“When we go into drought, Kentucky bluegrass goes dormant, but it comes back,” she said.

Scarpella also said there are options for people who want a softer look than that afforded by rock gardens, which conserve water but may not be so easy on the eye.

“The other thing I encourage people to do if they’re not into rock is mulch,” she said. “It’s good for the soil, retains water and keeps weeds down.”

Bouray, who also runs her own seed company, Edge of the Rockies, on the side, said great strides have been made in cultivating drought-tolerant plant species and that she is always on the lookout for something new and different.

“I’m always searching for new and interesting plants, not just your typical columbine and lupine,” she said. “Our idea is to carry hardy plants that will grow well in this region.”

And sometimes this includes plants from locales as far flung as Africa.

“The Denver Botanical Gardens are doing a lot with imported plants,” she said. “They have gone to an area in South Africa that is similar to our climate and done plant collection and are coming out with new plants that grow well here.”

One such plant is the gazania, a mounding, yellow flowering plant that thrives in the arid Southwest. Closer to home, Bouray said research and cultivation in Nebraska have yielded prairie plants, such as white salvia, or sage, that also do well here.

Location, location, location

While finding plants that do well in our area is half the battle, Bouray said where they are placed in the yard is equally important.

“There is so much you can do by planting plants in the right area. It’s all about matching the right plant for the right place,” she said. “Do this, and the plants will take care of themselves.”

To accomplish this, plants should be “hydrozoned,” or placed according to water needs. Vlaming said. For example, low-water plants should be placed in areas that are hardest to reach with water while higher-water plants should go in low-lying areas where drainage will help with their maintenance.

In order to help with the plant-selection process, Bouray has implemented the “Triple X” plant rating system. Developed by Green Co., a group of landscapers and plant producers in Denver, Bouray said she has modified the list for our climate.

“Instead of using the Denver list, I compiled my own list,” she said. The list groups plants, shrubs and trees according to water needs, with X-rated needing moderate water, XX-rated needing low water and XXX-rated needing the very least water.

Bouray also said that when and how the watering is done plays a big role in success or failure. Drip, micro-spray or bubbler emitters should be used for trees, shrubs and perennials. Hand watering also is acceptable, but oscillating sprinklers or those that produce a fine mist should be avoided because too much of the water evaporates before reaching the plants. To further reduce evaporation, watering should be done between 6 and 9 a.m., when the air is cool.

Furthermore, Bouray and Scarpella said that although spring is the traditional time for planting, those who can wait to plant until the fall, when plants are dormant, will be better off.

“Dormant planting is really good for plants because they have less of a struggle to establish themselves,” said Bouray.

VanWinegarden, who xeriscaped her lawn last year, agreed.

“Last spring, I got rid of the lawn and did all the hardscaping,” she said. “I didn’t do a thing with plants until the fall. I went out when we had a week of rain and planted then.”

And while going xeric may seem overwhelming at first, Bouray said if done right, ultimately it will pay off. According to Vlaming, of the Extension Office, xeriscaped yards reward their owners with low maintenance and low water bills once established – usually after a couple of years.

However, Bouray noted that not all gardeners may want to – or have to – stop at this point.

“It should be a one-time investment,” she said, “unless you have an addiction problem.”









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