As the dry season approaches, the already arid climate of Colorado’s plains can give trouble to homeowners hoping to maintain a thriving lawn. For those hoping to conserve water, the problem is intensified.
Due to a wet winter and record rainfall this summer, the Colorado River has had a short reprieve after 12 years. But experts say the high flows—at one point running over 105% of normal—won’t break the decades-long megadrought. With that in mind, some homeowners are adopting new strategies in working towards an aesthetically pleasing yet environmentally conscious lawn.
Kristin Memmott, is a local naturalist and educator who just replaced her sod with a waterwise garden this summer, after her neighbor did so some years prior.
“We didn’t get enough rain to justify the type of grass we had in our yard,” Memmott said.
Kentucky bluegrass, one of the most popular sod choices for Colorado residents, requires up to 1.5 inches of water per week during the hot season. For a state that only receives an average of 18 inches of precipitation a year, that number is significant.
Resource Central, a conservation-oriented nonprofit based in Boulder, has partnered with a number of Colorado municipalities in order to promote the adoption of waterwise yards. Their program, Garden in a Box, allows residents to replace their sod with native, water-efficient plants, and many cities are providing subsidies for those willing to participate.
“We make it easy for people to transition from thirsty grass to low-water gardens,” said Neal Lurie, president of Resource Central. “Most communities at this point have water conservation goals they’re trying to reach, and they’re looking to incentivize people to use less water.”
Participating cities—like Lakewood, Arvada, and many others in the Denver metro area—have partnered with Resource Central in hopes of encouraging their residents to make the switch. Clearly, the incentives have resonated: Since 2016 Lurie and company have replaced 661 lawns with their more efficient gardens, and collectively the water saved amounts to over 12 million gallons.
“At a time when climate change is so daunting, and people are wondering what they can do, this becomes a very tangible, positive step for people to do their part and make their home more beautiful in the process,” Lurie said.
Alongside Garden in a Box, Resource Central offers a number of programs, such as lawn removal, free educational seminars, and material reuse to boost conservation.
“A few years ago, we were having just 2,000 participants a year. Now we’re having north of 10,000 per year. One homeowner will make changes to their yard and a neighbor will come by and ask about it,” Lurie said.
The program, which sends the client professionally designed and waterwise perennials for their yard, makes the conversion process relatively easy. The predetermined gardens vary in sun exposure levels, ideal elevation, garden size, pest resistance, and bloom time.
Trupti Suthar, another Colorado resident who is three years into her waterwise garden replacement, has been satisfied with the experience.
“It was easy, they provided a paint-by-numbers kind of map,” said Suthar. “The best part of this was it was curated. I didn’t have to think about what colors, what sizes, where to put them.”
Memmott, who used Garden in a Box for her own replacement, combined the native plants with a hardscape in order to create the most ecologically sound environment possible.
“It allows water to filter through and gives the roots of the native plants here enough moisture. Oftentimes using something like big wood chips actually absorbs the water that plants need,” Memmott said.
Though the prospect of a complete conversion from sod to garden can be intimidating, the kits included in the program provide instructions and the low-maintenance nature of the plants makes upkeep simple. Resource Central even offers inexpensive sod removal which is often subsidized through participating water providers.
“It’s completely hands off, after the first couple of years you don’t even have to water it because they’re drought tolerant, you don’t have to amend the soil because they’re designed for Colorado soil,” Suthar said.
Another option some residents are exploring is the conversion of grass to artificial turf, which provides a cheaper solution with noticeably less upkeep. Naturalists like Memmott, however, are skeptical of the environmental impact artificial turf lawns could have outside of water conservation.
“Yes, we need to use less water in our landscaping. Artificial turf looks nice, but when it comes to our front yards, turf doesn’t provide that habitat, the food, the water, the reproduction options for our local species,” Memmott said.
Though water conservation is a pressing issue, the sustainability of the surrounding environment is important as well. Birds, insects, and squirrels all rely on natural yards as a safe habitat to occupy amongst the bustling concrete streets of the metropolitan area.
Indya Love, program coordinator for the Foundation for Leaders Organizing for Water and Sustainability at the University of Colorado, echoes the sentiment.
“The way we’re currently doing our landscaping isn’t really beneficial,” Love said. “Creating native plant habitats would be the way to go, Creating biodiversity, creating a colony or habitat would be the most ideal.”
But replacing grass lawns with native plants isn’t always cheap. On average, landscaping a yard can cost anywhere from $4 to $12 per square foot depending on factors like size, location, condition of soil, and complexity. Some form of education and compensation may be necessary in order to integrate naturalistic and native gardens on a larger scale.
The majority of Colorado has been drought-free for four years. But with the perpetual threat of climate change residents are increasingly concerned about water use. The booming popularity of Resource Central’s services represents a larger movement throughout the Colorado River Basin to return residential landscaping to its more original state.
“It’s like a pebble that goes into a pond and ripples out. One house can change a street, can change a neighborhood, can change a community,” Lurie said.
Resource Central’s application for lawn replacement opens back up in September 2023, and when the orders are open, they sell out fast.