How to Transform a Landscape into a Xeriscape

frontyard xeriscapeAbout 16 years ago, after months of house hunting, the realtor stopped in front of a little ranch-style house and I instantly knew I was home. This one definitely had curb appeal and it spoke to me.

The house was shaded by a large ash tree on one side of the yard and a small maple on the other. The lawn was lush and emerald green. In my excitement I failed to notice the yard had no sprinkler system.

I might as well confess, I’m a really lazy gardener, so I had no idea the amount of hose-dragging that lawn would need in order to stay green.

This is Colorado after all. Despite the amount of snow that falls in the mountains each winter, the state’s average annual precipitation is only 17 inches. That means we almost qualify as a desert. But with average precipitation, and a little irrigation, our lawns can be just as rich and thick as any to the east.

The summer after I bought the house, there was less precipitation than the year before. I found myself spending more time dragging the hose around the yard. It was difficult to water the corners without watering the sidewalk, too. That beautiful turf began to turn brown around the edges.

The next year was even drier and I was still dragging the hose. I had a nagging feeling that it was only a matter of time before mandatory watering restrictions would be imposed.

The idea of taking care of a lawn during a drought spurred me to action. I would transform that thirsty sunburned landscape into something more colorful, more water wise, and a lot less work. I would xeriscape that yard.

Armed with a plan, a can of orange spray paint, and a long-handled shovel, I dug in. Following the orange, peanut-shaped outline I had painted on the lawn, I dug up large chunks of that once lovely sod.

Shovelful by shovelful I dug up the lawn, piled it into an old red wheelbarrow and wobbled it across the street to a neighbor’s house. As quickly as I was digging the grass up, he was laying the grass down. Every piece of turf delivered to my neighbor meant less lawn for me to water, weed, rake, fertilize and mow.

This process continued every weekend that May. I’d pull on my worn leather work gloves early each Saturday and start digging until the sun made it too hot to continue. I worked in phases. Phase one, dig up a large section of grass. Phase two, plant the water-wise native flowers and shrubs. Phase three, spread the mulch. Then I’d move on to the next section.

I grouped colorful, low-care perennials according to their water needs from moderate to xeric. Downspouts were positioned to flow directly into the garden, just in case it ever rained again. A transition zone of hardy plants was created between the remaining small area of lawn and the sidewalk to capture water before it could runoff.

It was back-breaking work and whenever I took a break I thought about how dragging a hose around the yard wasn’t that strenuous after all.

During each shift I spent in the yard, neighbors would stop to chat. While kneeling in the soil trying to calculate the distance between planting holes for the Western sand cherry shrubs, I had to stop and answer questions.

“Are you putting in a sprinkler system?” they asked. “No,” I replied. “I’m xeriscaping.”

“What does that mean?” they asked. “It means a lot less work for me,” I replied.

“Well, what you’re doing looks like a lot more work to me,” they said.

Some people think a xeriscape resembles Death Valley, bone dry and sparsely planted with prickly plants. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A xeriscape can look as refreshing as any oasis. My small area of turf gives the illusion of a lawn, but it means a lot less hose dragging.

The next summer (2002) turned out to be one of the driest on record and mandatory lawn watering restrictions were put into place. By then my xeriscape was well-rooted. While other yards turned from green to brown, my hard work paid off in bunches of blossoms.

The fact is there will always be a drought somewhere in Colorado so it doesn’t make sense to keep irrigating large swaths of Kentucky bluegrass. I’ve now become fanatical about saving water in my landscape, but being a lazy gardener will always be my first priority.


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Can you post your yard now for a better perspectiVe of Before and After? Thank you.

Hi Dawn:

The picture on this blog post is the after version. The before yard was just a sea of grass with a lilac bush and two trees.

Thanks for stopping by,

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