By Linda McDonnell, CSU Extension – Denver Master Gardener since 2013
Many Coloradans are swapping out their bluegrass lawns for less water-hungry and more regionally appropriate landscapes. This change in attitudes may be motivated by this summer’s brutal heat, need to conserve water, wildfires, desire to support pollinators, or the goal to spend less money on lawn upkeep – or a combination of these factors.
Governments are also getting behind the concept. Aurora recently approved legislature limiting the installation of turf grass in new housing developments starting in 2023.
The state of Colorado is developing a turf replacement program for homeowners to go into effect next year, possibly with monetary rebates, and administered by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. (Keep up with the board’s progress by subscribing to their newsletter.)
If you are considering converting all or part of your turf grass to a water-smart landscape, fall and winter are good times to begin the planning process.
Here are some practical suggestions to help you get started.
Form follows function is a time-honored design principle. Applied to a yard rehab it means considering how your yard is used before you ever think about how it looks. Do you need space for kids to play? Dine or entertain outdoors? Have dogs? Consider practical needs such as wide pathways to doors and seating areas (36-42” is recommended), storage for trash carts and clearance to roll them to the curb, and landing spots for passengers getting in and out of cars.
Lawn conversions don’t have to be all-or-nothing. Consider starting with a back or front yard, or a difficult to irrigate section of the lawn. Xeriscaping: Retrofit Your Yard offers excellent suggestions on selecting a site.
Keep what you can. Take a hard look at the plants in your yard and how they fit in the new scheme. You can’t move a 25’ conifer but relocating shrubs and xeric herbaceous perennials is doable and budget-friendly.
Hardscape – pavers, gravel, and rocks – may already be in place or can be relocated. Think about it: hardscape doesn’t need to be watered or mowed! If the budget allows, be generous with the use of hardscape in your new plan.
Gather inspiration and knowledge. Visit public gardens with xeric gardens such as Denver Botanic Gardens, Aurora’s Water-Wise Garden, or The Gardens at Spring Creek. Take photos and note plant names and combinations. If you need help identifying plant names, send your photos to the Denver Master Gardeners at the Denver Botanic Gardens for identification (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Be realistic. Consider how much time you have to devote to this project, your skill level, and your budget. Will you do all or some of the work, hire help, or enlist family and friends? If you are not sure where to start, you may want to consult a garden designer who’s in sync with your goals.
Expect less work, but not no work. Xeric plants need to be irrigated until established, which could run one to two seasons, and during periods of prolonged drought. It is also critical, especially in the early days, not to let weeds take over. Initially there will be a lot of open ground and weeds would love to fill it up.
Don’t forget community regulations. If your neighborhood has covenant restrictions or a review process for landscape changes, you will need to submit your plan with enough lead time to have it approved before the project begins.
Once you’re armed with your plan you can tackle removing grass. Fall is a good time to start, particularly if you want to use the solarizing process, an herbicide-free method to kill grass. Find instructions here. CSU also provides instruction on the proper and safest use of herbicides to eliminate turf here.
Exchanging traditional lawns for creative, ecologically sustainable landscapes is a smart practice that is likely here to stay. If you’ve converted a traditional lawn and have additional tips, we welcome your input in the comment section.