Xeriscape to Conserve Water

Create a low-maintenance, lovely landscape that’s drought resistant.

| July/August 2009

On a 7,200-foot-high hillside above Basalt, Colorado, grapevines burgeon despite snowy winters and short summers. Two-thousand feet lower, in a south-facing, sloped Denver yard, desert denizens yucca and manzanita bloom. And in between, on the east side of a Boulder house, a European dogwood bursts into soft yellow blossoms while winter still holds sway.

Your state – and even your property – is full of microclimates, though their extremes may not be as far apart as those of the West. Temperature, precipitation amounts, seasonal changes, humidity and soil properties can vary county to county, street to street and house to house – and more importantly, within your own fence line. Even a condominium balcony can have microclimates.

Getting to know those quirks like an old friend can be the key to gardening successfully, not just a reason to gloat as your south-facing, exposed driveway shrugs off a five-inch snow that your neighbors down the road have to dig out the heavy machinery to remove.

While Western microclimates are pronounced, they offer a model for any homeowner to contemplate. Horticulture experts recommend taking a while to get to know your site before planning any major landscape or crop investments. Notice where the snow stays longest, which low spots become waterlogged and which are well drained. If you have walls, terraces or rock ridges, check how warm they become at the height of summer – and how cold they get in winter. As well as assessing the range of temperatures, scope out how early in spring things warm up and how late into fall they stay warm. Will future beds be shaded by evergreens, or allowed to bask by deciduous trees that lose their leaves in winter? Take stock of seasonal shade, wind protection (or lack thereof) and any heat-reflecting walls.

Denver Water, the city utility, is famed for having coined (and trademarked) the concept of xeriscaping during a period of drought combined with sudden population growth. Xeriscaping refers to gardening with plants that are highly adapted to low-water conditions. But basically, xeriscaping is a specialized form of microclimate gardening. It takes into account that Colorado’s Front Range is a high desert that experiences weeks of little rain during summer. Such gardens can be beautiful – if the gardener chooses tough plants.

Irene Shonle, Colorado State University extension agent for the state’s high-altitude Gilpin County, watches microclimates play out every year in her roses. A tough Canadian cultivar that’s supposed to be hardy to Zone 2 but lives on her home’s northwest side gives her maybe 10 blooms a year, she says. Meanwhile, a white rose that’s sheltered from the roaring mountain wind blooms spectacularly.

Elizabeth Stevens_2
6/19/2009 8:10:15 AM

Some people misconstrue the term xeriscaping to mean "zeroscaping," as in "zero irrigation required." This, of course, is not true and so "drought resistant" should not be misconstrued as "drought impervious" nor should "low- maintenance" be read as "no maintenance."

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