BY LINDSAY CUTLER
Postage stamp backyards are a physical manifestation of freedom. When you remodel, you pay by the square foot, the knob, the cabinet. The more you have, the more the cost and daily maintenance add up. Opt for the smaller space and reallocate resources to nicer, smarter choices. With a small yard, you need less of everything, from plants to patio to ongoing maintenance, allowing for a greater attention to detail, nicer finishes, and more ecologically sound choices. Major bonus, on a daily, weekly, monthly basis, you spend fewer hours on upkeep and more on enjoyment. One technique perfectly suited to these smaller yards is xeriscaping, which demands an initial investment of time and money to create a detailed design (either yours or a professional’s) and in high quality plants.
Xeriscaping, simply put, is a garden with low water needs. Xeriscaped gardens can embrace the sparse, succulent design motifs of New Mexico and Southern California, or they can be more full and lush, using native and locally adapted plants. A stellar outcome depends on knowledge of design, horticulture, and Denver’s environment; high quality plants grown for and adapted to the Front Range; and native rock or wood mulches to suit the growth needs of the plants and give the design a genius loci.
CSU Extension, in concert with Denver Botanic Gardens and professional horticulturists, has crafted a selection of plants that thrive in the high, dry, and arid inter-mountain west. They release new additions every year that have been extensively tested throughout the region. Many local nurseries now have a Plant Select section which is awesome but good design goes way beyond that.
Genius loci, or the spirit of the place, is what makes your yard fit with the architecture of your house, the characteristics of the neighborhood, and the regional ecosystem. Denver is the Queen of the Plains – there would be no trees here, excepting along waterways, had people not planted them. New development should respect this and use a limited number of carefully selected and placed plants. But in Wash Park, shade is the norm, after all the neighborhood houses some of Denver’s grandest specimen trees. Wash Park is established, rich with texture, and resonating with style and character. A colorful, quirky design may look fresh along Santa Fe but here, variations of emerald, olive, and silver with variations in texture and size complement the lush feel of the neighborhood.
Select one or two plants to serve as the fabric of your landscape. Grasses or broadleaf evergreen shrubs such as Standing Ovation, Little Bluestem, Dwarf Pinyon, or Sungari Redbead Cotoneaster should occupy 70% of the garden bed at maturity. Beneath them, incorporate a low canopy of ground-covers which will spread to become a living mulch, reducing water loss, adding nutrients to the soil, and attracting local pollinators. Various manzanitas and desert moss are a few of a wide selection of great ground-covers. In the remaining spaces choose colorful perennials to provide a full 8 months of seasonal interest – bulbs are notoriously drought tolerant and early blooming, followed by many corms and tubers such as foxtail lily and iris. In the height of summer hyssops, salvias, and penstemons thrive and fall wouldn’t be fall without all the asters, which can last into late October. Plant in clusters of 3-5 for a great, full bloom, even in the early years of your garden.
Plants here can take awhile to get established. Make sure to use supplemental irrigation, preferably applied through a drip system to the root zone of each plant in the first three growing seasons and keep the system in place permanently to water in times of extreme drought. To have an attractive landscape off the bat, use a nice mulch. Thick Cascade Cedar is the best to improve soils, smother weeds, and retain water but a gray or sand colored gravel mulch can benefit heat loving plants such as iceplant, yucca, and sedum. Expect some loss and plan to replace plants in May to avoid most freezes, take advantage of Spring thunderstorms, and give new plants the longest time possible to get established.
Some trial and error is ok. As you drink your morning coffee and admire the blooms, butterflies, and bumblebees that now share your space, you’re likely to mentally move that plant over to the sun over in the front and put in something slightly more wispy or bright in its place and that is how gardening stops being a tedious to-do list of weeding and mowing and becomes an addictive hobby.