Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Xeriscape offers alternative to thirsty lawns

By R. Scott RAPPOLD srappold@gazette.com Published: May 4, 2013 0

You won't find a blade of Kentucky bluegrass in Kim Korytowski's Monument lawn.

Water is precious in the West, and she prefers a landscape more appropriate for the foothills of the Rocky Mountains: native, drought-resistant grasses, wildflowers and, of course, rocks.

'You pay water bills every month, but if you invest in rocks, it's just a one-time cost, ' she said. 'Mowing and fertilizing and watering a lawn is a monthly cost and a time-wise cost, too.

'To me, it's a waste of time, a waste of water and a waste of money. '

According to Colorado Springs Utilities, 44 percent of water use at a single-family home goes to irrigation. With city reservoirs at 48 percent of capacity from two dry winters, officials this spring restricted watering to two days a week, raised rates for higher-volume users and required permits for people who want to plant lawns.

As of last week, 153 people had bought $50 permits to establish lawns. With the drought continuing and memories still fresh of the hot, dry summer of 2012, water managers hope more residents embrace an alternative to growing thirsty grass, known as xeriscaping - not to be confused with 'zeroscaping, ' which involves impervious surfaces.

Xeriscaping reduces the need for irrigation with low-water plants and shrubs, usually planted in a bed of mulch or rocks to fight weeds. Plants are selected for their water needs and are often grouped in zones with similar plants.

The concept was born on Colorado's Front Range, where cities must divert water from the far side of the Continental Divide. Utilities operates two xeriscape demonstration gardens, on Mesa Road and Dublin Boulevard. With more than 1,000 labelled perennials, shrubs, grasses and trees, grouped into water use zones, they make a great place to launch an adventure in xeriscaping.

Before you begin, evaluate your lawn. Sunny or sloped areas might be good candidates for rocks or cacti. Shady areas or spots where runoff lingers offer more flexibility.

If you visit the demonstration gardens, grab a map by the front door and get a look at what grows in irrigation zones: very low, 0-7 inches of watering a year; low, 7-13 inches; moderate, 13-25 inches. That's on top of the average of 17 inches of precipitation in the city, because as last year's 8 inches showed, that can vary widely.

Next, tailor your plant and ground cover selection to how the area will be used. Playing kids? Maybe try an area of buffalo grass or blue grama. Curb appeal for the front yard? Maybe something more decorative. Have a lot of yard with which to work? Maybe get larger rocks to mimic Colorado's geography. Don't want a 'wildland ' look? Plan a row of one of a flowering perennial.

'Grass can be appropriate in small areas where you're going to use it. It's matching that use of the landscape to the right planting and the right material, ' Utilities conservation specialist Catherine Moravec said.

Once you have settled on a scheme based on how much you want to irrigate, remove existing vegetation, prep the soil, put the plants in the ground and cover the area with 3-4 inches of mulch, rocks, pebbles, wood chips or another cover to suppress weeds. Moravec doesn't recommend using a fabric weed barrier.

Utilities has a database of plants adapted to Colorado Springs' climate at its website, and experts teach free classes on xeriscaping and drought-resistant lawns on Wednesdays and Saturdays through June. Visit csu.org for more details.

Even the hardiest plants at the demonstration garden need to be watered once a month, or the barren prairie will reclaim your lawn. And while wood mulch usually can be picked up for free, courtesy of the city's Forestry Department, plants and rocks cost money, which can lead to some sticker shock for large projects, especially considering Kentucky bluegrass can be planted for about 20 cents a square foot.

But in our climate, bluegrass needs 40 inches of water a year.

'If you do use rock and decorative materials, you are going to have a higher up-front cost, but the payback will be there, ' Moravec said.

Like Korytowski, Leslie Flanigan spent a morning last week doing volunteer yard work at the Mesa Road demonstration gardens.

She said she has 'not a bit ' of grass in her yard but native plants and rocks.

'You can't eat it. It's not pretty, ' she said of grass. 'You just fertilize and cut it, fertilize and cut it. '

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