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Getting more out of your yard

How I reinvented my yard to create my own urban oasis and save water.

I’ve owned my home in northwest Denver since 2000, and my front yard has changed quite a bit since then. 

Over the years, I’ve removed around 1,000 square feet of Kentucky bluegrass and replaced it with plants, trees and patio space.

All that yard work has taught me a lot, and I wanted to share my story about the all the water-wise landscape renovations — in the hope of helping others learn from my experiences.

A corner of my yard that was converted from grass to an area with Garden In A Box plants. Photo credit: Denver Water.

The dreaded, sun-parched, southwest corner

The southwest corner of my yard has always been a challenge to grow grass. It gets hit with lots of sun, and I always struggle getting good irrigation coverage with my sprinklers. As a result, it alwasy was filled with brown patches and weeds.

After many attempts at keeping the grass green, I started making changes in 2005. Here’s a look at some of the changes.

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Garden In A Box

In 2021, I ordered a Garden In A Box from Resource Central, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation and efficient water use in Colorado.

This is the corner of the yard before the grass was removed. The area had dry patches and weeds. Photo credit: Denver Water.

I ordered the Rocky Mountain Retreat kit from the Garden In A Box program. The kit came with 25 water-wise plants chosen by landscape professionals. It featured 11 different plants, a plant-by-number design showing me where to plant them and care instructions for the plants.

Resource Central offers a discounted rate on grass removal, so I had their crew take out a section of grass for the new plants.

Resource Central crews remove grass from my yard in summer 2021. The area was converted into a water-wise garden. Photo credit: Denver Water.

The Rocky Mountain Retreat kit features plants designed to do well in Colorado’s soil. They are drought tolerant once established, needing very little additional water beyond what falls from the sky.

The Rocky Mountain Retreat kit from Resource Central’s Garden In A Box program features 25 water-wise plants in 11 varieties. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Functional space

Back in 2005, I had another section on the southwest side of my yard near the house where the grass didn’t do well. I also didn’t use the grass in this corner of the yard, so it really served no purpose. 

I felt I was just wasting water trying to keep it green. So, I decided a new seating area would be a better use for that section. 

I took out the grass in this section and added a flagstone patio with a couch, chairs and a fire table. I also added a tree and some plants.

This corner of the yard was transformed from grass into a patio area. Photo credit: Denver Water.

New trees

I’d lost a large pine tree in the big snowstorm of March 2003. And in 2010 I had to cut down some aspen trees that were dying. 

This left the yard looking empty, so I planted a Washington hawthorn, Hot Wings maple and ash trees to provide some shade and vertical interest to the yard. With these changes, I also took out some additional sections of grass and added mulch and a few more plants.

I planted a Washington hawthorn tree in an area where a pine tree used to be. The area around the tree was grass that I converted to water-wise plants and a path. Photo credit: Denver Water.

End result

The end result of my projects is that I added a lot more interest to my yard with a wide variety of plants, flowers, trees and — of course — the patio. 

These changes took place over 22 years, so it’s been a work in progress — with more changes planned down the road.

Try these simple strategies to cut your water use and save money

When I look back at my reasons for making these changes, there were five main factors:

  • Certain areas of my grass struggled in the hot sun and didn’t look good.
  • I wanted a variety of plants to enjoy.
  • I needed a seating area.
  • I wanted to save water, and the plants and trees use less water than the grass.
  • I kept some areas of grass where the kids like to play.
This is a Santa Fe Aster, a Colorado native plant from the Garden In A Box kit. The plants in the kit will need very little water once they are established. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Tips for success

While I’m not a landscape professional, after years of learning from my own experiences, I wanted to offer some simple tips for successful landscape transformation. 

  • Dream big about what you’d like to have your yard look like, then break it down into manageable projects.
  • Have a plan for what you will replace your grass with if you decide to remove it.
  • Do your research. Denver Water, Resource Central, Colorado State University Extension and Plant Select have great websites with information about water-wise plants and landscape designs.
  • Talk with experts at your local garden center. Also check with your neighbors if they have great-looking yards. They can share their experiences.
  • Be careful of “spontaneous” plant buying. I’ll admit, I’ve gone to a nursery and bought a plant or two that looked great there, but I didn’t research how it would do in my own yard or where I’d put it. 
  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Make sure you have the time and resources to do your project. It’s better to complete a small job than never finish a large one.
  • Check your budget. Make sure to plan out your project and include things like grass removal cost, new plant costs, soil amendment, weed barrier, landscape materials and labor (unless of course that’s you).
  • It’s OK to fail. I’ve lost plenty of plants along the way. I learn from each mistake on what I could have done better.
  • Sign up for Resource Central’s e-newsletter. Garden In A Box kits sell out fast in the spring and fall, and the newsletter will tell you when the sales begin.  
  • Have fun! Yes, landscaping is work, but think of the rewards of your new yard. Try and involve your friends and family to make it a team effort that you all can celebrate.

Editor’s note: Jay Adams works at Denver Water and is a Denver Water customer. He writes stories for Denver Water’s TAP news site and works with landscape professionals and water supply experts to gain knowledge and write stories about water-wise practices.