The city will pay you to replace your water-guzzling lawn with beautiful bloomers. Start now!
BY PETER MOORE
IN EASTERN PENNSYLVANIA, my home before we moved to Fort Collins, we received 44 inches of rain every year. That’s as much as Fort Collins receives in 3 years. Heck, in our old neighborhood, FoCo’s annual allotment of 16 inches of rain is simply known as a bad weekend. That really isn’t a problem, unless you’re married to a woman who loves plants almost as much as she loves her husband. But who am I fooling? The plants outnumber me 700 to 1!
So you can imagine the scene, back east, when we were stuffing our CRV with transplants for the drive to Fort Collins: It was like loading Noah’s ark, with Mrs. Noah worrying that her two-by-twos might die of thirst upon landfall. Northern Colorado’s sparse rainfall qualifies it as semi-arid, while its temperature swings–50 degrees in 24 hours!–suggest a psychological disorder. And this was the growing zone I prodded my wife to join me in. A bad sign in the daisy game of “She loves me, she loves me not.” Thank goodness daisies grow here, so I have a chance!
We arrived here on May 17th, 2017, which might jog your memory of a “freak” spring snowstorm that dumped 8 inches of wet white stuff on Fort Collins. It anointed everything from our moving truck with soggy splotches. Three “Hot Wings” maple trees in our yard were in full leaf that day, and all three of them cleaved into pieces under the heavy snow. We hadn’t been here for 3 hours when they began self-destructing before our eyes.
Can this marriage, until plant-endangerment do us part, be saved? Well, yes: With the help of the Fort Collins utilities department.
Not long after our snowy moving day, we caught wind of a spring beer-party at the Gilded Goat Brewery, just down the parking lot from Trader Joe’s. The opportunity: Drink beer, and talk about climate-appropriate gardening with the city’s water-conservation staff. For most people, only half of that sounds like fun. For my wife and me it’s a perfect evening: I go for the beer, she goes for the gardening advice. So while I kept on running to the bar for delicious Sour Wits, she was being tutored in the advantages of xeriscaping (pronounced ZEER-i-scape-ing), a form of low-water gardening first innovated (and named) by the Denver water department. It sounds like zero-scaping, and in fact, some people use it as an excuse to dump a bunch of rocks in their yard and sell their lawnmowers. But that’s more akin to moonscaping or carpet bombing, and not nearly as pretty, as those earnest city servants were eager to tell us.
The fine art of low-water gardening arose in the early 1980s when the city of Denver began grappling with explosive growth and the demands on scarce water supplies. In his book Where the Water Goes, author David Owen points out that when regional officials were measuring the amount of rainfall in the Colorado River watershed, they did so during a period of extraordinary precipitation. That’s like gauging the Rockies’ offense during an inning when they score seven runs: exciting, but not representative. So as water was divvied up to slake the thirst of the western states, they were vastly overestimating how much there was to go around. Add explosive Front Range population growth to that equation, plus the American appetite for acres of green lawn surrounding water-guzzling households, and you have a water glass that’s not only half empty but leaking on all sides.
And then, to make matters worse, we (and millions like us) show up from out-of-state, with water-hungry plants in our trunk, a taste for showy blossoms, and a liberal hand on the spigots. Can it possibly work out? Yes, according to Denver Water, who saw people like us coming 40 years ago. Their innovative system of xeriscaping emphasizes plants that are adapted to the scant rainfall we receive here, grouping plants with like water needs, reducing (but not eliminating!) turf, and using efficient watering techniques.
The city of Fort Collins wasn’t far behind our parched neighbors to the south, instituting own city’s xeriscaping program. It was all inspired by a severe drought in the area in the early 2000s, which sobered people up to the reality of life in a dry zone that was nonetheless increasingly popular as a place to live. And in fact, through city-mandated reductions in water use, we have begun to tame our colossal thirst, even in the face of burgeoning migrations of plant-a-holic Pennsylvanians choosing the Choice City. And a surprising as it seems, our fair city has been reducing water use, even as the population rises. Conservation measures like xeriscaping are leading the way.
On that first night at the Gilded Goat, we watched a slideshow with plenty of before-and-after photographs demonstrating that a xeriscape can be every bit as flowery as the yard we left behind, just with new varieties of plants that aren’t quite as greedy with natural resources. So in the place of the green sponges we’d invested so heavily in back east, we were moving toward such native water-sippers as kinnikinnick, prairie dropseed, sulfur flower, penstemon, and blue cranesbill.
Of course, we didn’t come up with that plant list out of thin air. The city supplied us with copious online resources to learn about the beauties that would be happy in our parched yard, and we took a Saturday morning class series led by the city’s xeriscaping chief Katie Collins, to teach us how to design our new garden, and importantly, how to give it enough water to thrive, but not endanger the population of Colorado going forward.
And as if saving the planet isn’t enough, there was a financial incentive to boot: With the successful installation of up to 1,000 square feet of xeriscaping, Fort Collins would gift us a 75-cents/square foot rebate on our utility bills.
We had no problem finding 1,000 square feet of sickly sod to yank out. The “hell strip” in front of our house–a persistently ugly stretch next to the street–was the first to go and provided 750 square-feet toward our total. And I’d always hated mowing the scraggly lawn to the south of our house. That’s what Katie Collins calls “awkward turf,” and it was gone in our new garden plan.
The really fun part was planting it all last fall. My wife has a nose for garden bargains, and she haunted the end-of-season sales at the Fort Collins Nursery, Bath Nursery, and Gulley’s Greenhouse, picking up xeriscape-friendly specimens as the summer faded. She also managed to beg and borrow, but never steal, plants from people in her online garden groups, who maybe had more bearded iris than strictly necessary. So we wore ourselves out planting some 300 new residents in our various xeriscape plots in the front and back yard and watered them whenever the temperature rose above 40 degrees. We managed a kind of bucket brigade, filling one with cold water in the shower while we waited for the hot stuff to arrive. Two gallons a day, in the service of our xeriscape! We also had our irrigation systems checked, and reconfigured for low-emission drips, rather than pop-up spray water wasters. All things are possible when you swap Kentucky bluegrass for mulch and native water sippers.
Now we hang in anticipation: spring has sprung. Will our new xeriscape spring up, as well? A few more warm weekends, and we’ll know. But we paid our utilities all winter out of the rebate, and the herbaceous collaboration that is our marriage is greener than ever, even in the dry zone. That’s a beautiful harvest from our new gardens in Fort Collins. Who needs rain, when you’ve got the City of Fort Collins xeriscaping program?
YOUR XERISCAPE TO-DO LIST
- Verify that you’re a Fort Collins Utilities customer
- Sign up for the xeriscape design classes this spring, by contacting Katie Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Take the XIP online orientation, and two two-hour classes: Irrigation 101, and XIP DIY. They’re fun and interesting, plus there are great snacks and door prizes for attendees!
- Take “before” photos of your water-guzzling landscape, take the seven principles of xeriscaping (they’re at fcgov.com/xeriscape) to heart, plan your garden with specimens from the awesome plant list, make appropriate irrigation or hand-watering plan, and submit your design proposal by the end of July. (That all sounds complicated, and it is, but that’s the purpose of the XIP course: to walk you through all of this and teach you to be an expert xeriscaper.)
- Yank out the grass, and replace it with native bloomers and water-conserving mulch.
- Invite Katie Collins over, to eyeball your transformation. Upon approval, you’ll qualify for the rebate: .75 x however many square feet you xeriscape, up to 1,000. Maximum rebate: $750.
- Enjoy the xeriscape, and your water stewardship, and lower utility bills, and higher property values, from then on.