Heat wilts green thumbs

Curtis Swift, with Colorado State University’s Tri-River Area Extension in Grand Junction, explains how soil in a plant’s root ball may not hold adequate moisture in hot, dry conditions. Coarse mulch helps retain water in the soil, he advises.

It’s dry.

This is nothing new on the edge of a great desert, with its million shades of red and brown, but this summer is different. This summer is a drought, one predicted to last beyond this year.

The ground in places is cracked. Lawns are yellow. Flowers droop. There’s simply not enough water. It would seem like the perfect time to turn yard and garden over to the principles of xeriscaping.

So, is that happening? Are local gardeners reconsidering their yards along xeric principles in response to the drought?

Not really, say local nursery owners and horticulturists.

“It’s mostly just people are saying, ‘Oh, I don’t think I’ll garden, it’s too hot,’ ” said Angeline Barrett, owner of Meadowlark Garden Center and a longtime landscape designer. “I suspect the longer the drought goes on, people will be more interested (in xeriscaping).”

Part of the problem, said Kathy Adolf, owner of Valley Grown Nursery, is that there are many misconceptions about xeriscaping: that it means digging up the grass and spreading gravel, that it involves forsaking green things for sinewy desert plants.

“It’s always been a hard thing to get people onboard,” Adolf said. “But there are some incredible xeriscapes in the valley, so if people educate themselves about what’s possible, I think they’d be more interested in xeriscaping.”

Rather than a radical reimagining of a landscape, xeriscape is simply a water-wise approach to growing, said Curtis Swift, an extension agent for the Colorado State University Tri-River Area Extension.

“It’s using water efficiently in a landscape,” he said. “Here, unfortunately, we tend to want to use all the water we can get.”

Since voluntary watering restrictions were put in place several months ago in some areas of the Grand Valley, officials have reported increased water usage. Barrett said she sees that in her subdivision, with people watering more than they would in non-drought years on the days they’re allowed to water.

However, CSU studies that particularly looked at evaporative transpiration showed that even bluegrass can look good getting 50 percent of the average amount of water it usually gets, Swift said. Petunias can survive on 50 to 75 percent of the water they normally get.

But watering a certain amount can be a firmly entrenched habit, as can looking out and expecting to see endless acres of verdant lawn and lush annuals. Some people move here from much wetter areas to the east, Swift said, and have a hard time adjusting their expectations to semi-arid realities.

He emphasized, though, that xeriscaping doesn’t mean digging out the lawn, but taking out unnecessary turf, shrubs and bushes and adjusting watering schedules for maximum efficiency. It also means good soil preparation and grouping plants with similar water needs together.

It means using coarse mulch to retain water in the soil and properly maintaining the plants once they’re in the ground.

“You can keep the yard you already have and simply adopt xeric principles,” Swift said.

Adolf emphasized researching xeriscaping and low-water-use plants.

“Some of these plants are so cool, just really beautiful and colorful,” she said. “You can create an incredible landscape with xeriscaping.”


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