(Originally published in the Denver Botanic Gardens’ Mountain and Plain Magazine with illustrations, this article has been recently revised for this web site.)

Today, with renewed emphasis on all kinds of conservation, especially water and maintenance, landscapes need to be carefully considered for their appropriateness.  In considering your own landscape, ask yourself some of the following questions.  

  • Does your landscape meet your needs?
  • Does it use inappropriate amounts of water for the type of plant being watered?  
  • Do you need all the turf area you have or could less be used to better advantage?
  • Are plants of similar water need planted together?  
  • Have you taken measures to enrich the soil thus reducing the need for water and fertilizer while improving the general health of the plants?  
  • Are you mulching your planting beds?  
  • Is irrigation being accomplished in an efficient manner?  

Renovating an existing landscape to save water can seem an overwhelming task.  One starting point is to analyze your lawn area and decide how much of it you actually use.  There are variations in people’s perception of the term “use.”  Some obvious uses are athletic activities or games such as croquet.  Some people use the lawn to stretch out on or in which to bury their bare toes.  Others regard the lawn as an area of green upon which their eyes can travel and don’t really “use” it at all.  All these uses are legitimate.  Now, how much lawn does it take to satisfy your use requirements?  Can you get by with less??  How many “funny” little pieces of lawn do you have in your yard that serve no real purpose other than to occupy time and money in maintenance and water consumption?  What else could you do with that space?

Xeriscape VS Zeroscape

People often use the term “zero”scape instead of Xeriscape.  The common perception seems to be a landscape consisting of rocks and cactus.  Certainly in parts of Arizona, southern California and other desert-like areas, rocks and cacti may be appropriate for a Xeriscape garden.  Properly planned, those elements can be the basis of a beautiful landscape.  In Denver, generations of settlers have altered the environment to echo that of an eastern town, as much as is feasible in this semi-arid, high plains region.  The attitude was to “conquer” the environment rather than to learn to harmonize with it as the American Indians had been doing for centuries.   Even in the natural environment around Denver, rocks and cacti were not common and, especially in light of today’s altered micro-environment, are probably not the appropriate treatment of the land.  Our native landscapes contain interesting texture in the variety of grasses, perennials and shrubs of the high plains and the naturally occurring trees in the creek beds providing needed shade.  In many parts of Colorado it may be more appropriate to leave the natural landscape as it is.  This concept could be considered “zero”scape in that the owner didn’t “do” anything to it.  In most of our metropolitan areas, a “zero”scape would be inappropriate.  A site may reflect the character and style of other cultures or parts of the country and still have an efficient, sustainable landscape. A native “dryland” design may appeal to one person while an eastern forest appeals to another.  There are few limits other than those imposed by our climate.  The design must be carefully considered to utilize water savings and low maintenance principles.  Not only will a good design reduce water and maintenance costs (up to 60%,) it will also add beauty to your home, enhancing its value up to 15%.  If the landscape is planned with your needs in mind it will be used and appreciated.

Things to consider when planning your landscape:

Before deciding on a new landscape concept, whether you are doing the design or you plan to hire a professional, consider what is really important to you in the landscape.  How do you or would you like to be able to use your outdoor spaces?  If you have children, do you want a space for their special activities?  If they’re young consider swings, sand box, climbing structure, tree house, play house or fort.  Do you want to maintain a larger piece of lawn where you and your children can play ball, turn somersaults, or play volleyball?  Older children and teenagers often want a place where they can have friends over to shoot “hoops,” have a barbecue, giggle in a hammock or sun themselves on the patio.  If you have pets you many want a space where they can be isolated from visitors.  Many adults like a space where they can retreat from the problems of every day life.  A quiet retreat in a leafy green oasis may seem like heaven to some while a space to entertain friends is of importance to others.  Also consider the practical aspects of your landscape.  Do you need a path to the trash area, the garage or the garden shed?  What are the routes you normally follow when wandering around your yard?  Are you dying to have a vegetable garden or berry patch but have no sun??  Are your plants overgrown or occupying more space than you ever envisioned?  Are there plants that have outgrown their usefulness?  Is your patio/deck large enough – or do you even have one?  How do you get in and out of your house?  Is it an easy experience or do you have steep or shaky steps with no landing at the door?  Other things may be included as part of your “wish list.”  You may want to consider outdoor lighting, a sculptural element, water feature, bird feeding area or gazebo.  Also consider unsightly views both from and to your yard, privacy and security.  Check in magazines for pictures of landscapes you like.  Look around your neighborhood and write down the addresses of places you find appealing.  Keep in mind, however, that many of these ideas may not be directly transferable to your property.  They are places to begin.

Short and long term considerations:

Monetary considerations are always important.  One reason many landscapes include large expanses of bluegrass lawn is because it’s an easy way to cover a large area and have “instant” landscape for a low square foot price.  The long term costs in terms of water and maintenance make it a more costly proposition than other solutions with a higher initial outlay.  Your project may be phased over time to spread out the initial costs.  Usually it is cheaper to install paving and other hardscape items at one time but if you can’t afford to do it that way then spread it out, choosing the most important areas to concentrate on first.

What have you got?

What does your property have to offer?  Do you have a totally flat space or steep hillsides, lots of existing plants or just a few, a large space or small, interesting views or horrible eyesores?  Any of these extremes can be worked into the landscape.  Problem areas may become amenities.  For instance:  a steep hillside, covered with grass that is difficult to water and mow could be terraced into levels and planted with water conserving ground covers, perennials and shrubs that will enhance your property, providing interest in all seasons.

Water conserving considerations in the design:

When considering options that help you conserve water keep in mind that cutting down turf areas, adding patio or deck space, arranging plants with similar water needs together, separating turf from other plantings and using retaining walls or other terracing devises on slopes are all important to consider.  If you want special, exotic or high water using plants in your landscape confine them to areas where you will appreciate them and can more easily care for them such as: near your patio or entry instead of spreading them indiscriminately throughout the site

While you may be incredibly talented and have very good “vision” for the landscape you wish to create, many people are incapable of visualizing an improved landscape on the site.  These people may need professional help.  Even a design professional can have difficulty designing his/her own property.  Perhaps it stems from being too close to the subject to be able to see it objectively.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  It may save you money in the long run and time and frustration in the short term.

This article has been prepared by Gail Barry of GBLA and Cathe Mitchell  formerly of Land Mark Design Inc. Gail Barry Landscape Architect LLC (GBLA) works on a wide variety of landscape projects including residential work and is particularly interested in designing appropriately for the Colorado environment.  .