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Starting a water-wise garden that glows in hot, dry conditions

In 2021, Denver-area Garden In A Box customers planted 100,000 sq. ft. of low-water gardens instead of grass.

Editor's note: Fall is a great time for water-wise planting. Sign up with Resource Central to be notified about Garden In A Box fall garden kits available for sale starting June 21. And register to join Alison O’Connor from CSU Extension on June 22 for a free webinar on perennials and fall planting. 

Do you recognize these plant names? Moonbeam coreopsis. Autumn joy stonecrop. Blonde ambition. 

They may not be well known among most homeowners, but they are examples of water-wise plants gaining popularity in Colorado every year.

Water-wise plants mostly rely on what Mother Nature provides, requiring either no additional water or only a few inches during the growing season. 

Plant Select, which promotes low-water plants that thrive in Colorado’s climate, describes this plant as an “impressive, highly ornamental form of Western native grass with tall, upright stems.” We think it lives up to its name: Blonde Ambition. Photo credit: Denver Water.

The plants are an alternative to thirsty Kentucky bluegrass and thrive in Colorado’s semi-arid climate. Water-wise plants also offer additional benefits such as low maintenance and added color. Many also attract birds, bees and butterflies.

Denver Water promotes water conservation efforts in customers’ yards and encourages them to learn about incorporating water-wise plants into their landscapes. 

Check out stories and advice from Denver Water customers who have added Garden In A Box kits to their landscapes.

Good sources of information include Resource Central, which offers the popular Garden In A Box program, and Plant Select, which promotes plants that need less water and thrive in the high plains and Rocky Mountain regions. 

Elie Zwiebel and his partner, Laura, stand in front of their home in Denver’s Athmar Park neighborhood showing off results of their Garden In A Box. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Resource Central

Since 2012, Denver Water has regularly supported Resource Central, a nonprofit organization based in Boulder that promotes water conservation programs.

One of its programs, Garden In A Box, offers a variety of water-wise plants along with plant-by-number garden designs from landscape professionals. The kits also come with information about the care and maintenance needs of the plants. 

A Garden In A Box, after a few years, will delight homeowners and those who pass by. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Customers can choose from gardens with names like “Naturally Native” and “Painted Shade,” indicating the kind of plants in each garden and the type of conditions they thrive in. 

Programs like Garden In A Box are important to Denver Water because among its customers, outdoor water use accounts for about 50% of single-family residential water use. Converting a section of lawn into a water-wise garden is one way to reduce a home’s outdoor water footprint. 

“Garden In A Box started in 2003 and we’ve sold more than 41,000 kits through fall 2021,” said Elisabeth Bowman, conservation engagement manager at Resource Central. 

“Interest in the gardens has grown every year in the metro area so we’re happy to see so many people looking for water-wise landscapes.”

Between 2003 through 2021, Resource Central estimates it’s helped plant 3.1 million square feet of low-water landscapes, saving 228.6 million gallons of water over the lifetime of the gardens sold to customers across the Front Range. 

A homeowner near Denver’s City Park removed grass from his front yard and planted a Garden In A Box. Photo credit: Denver Water.

Denver Water pays Resource Central more than $15,000 a year to set up four garden pickup events in Denver every spring, so customers who live in and near Denver Water’s service area don’t have to go far to get their gardens. 

 More than 10,000 gardens have been sold to Denver-area residents since 2014. 

Garden In A Box offers water-wise plants and professional designs in each kit. Image credit: Resource Central.

“Denver Water is a huge partner for us, the support they provide makes it easy for Denver residents to pick up their kits. Over 1,000 of our gardens go to Denver residents every year,” said Melanie Stolp, manager of Resource Central’s Garden In A Box and its water efficiency Slow the Flow programs.

And the results of the customers’ purchases are amazing. 

Just take a look at Resource Central’s 2021 numbers for Denver Water: 

  • 1,834 Garden In A Box kits sold to customers who live in Denver and the surrounding suburbs of Centennial, Edgewater, Greenwood Village, Lakewood, Littleton and Wheat Ridge.
  • 100,000 square feet of low-water gardens planted, according to Resource Central’s estimates. 
  • 9.5 million gallons of water saved over the lifetime of those new gardens, according to Resource Central’s estimates. 
A Resource Central employee loads a Garden In A Box kit during the spring 2021 pickup event. Photo Credit: Denver Water.

“The Garden In A Box program helps people start small, converting a section of the lawn from turf to low-water plants,” said Jeff Tejral, Denver Water's former water efficiency manager who guided the partnership with Resource Central. 

“It helps people learn about these plants, how to care for them and the beauty they can bring to their home. From there, they often convert more sections of grass to water-wise landscapes.”

Customer surveys indicate about two-thirds of Garden In A Box buyers have little or no experience with water-wise plants, according to Tejral. 

The Garden In A Box kit comes with a plant-by-number guide for a landscape designed by professionals using water-wise plants. Photo credit: Denver Water.

That’s why each garden comes with a guide that helps customers through the planting and early years of the garden’s life. 

Gardens have been sold in the spring and typically sell out quickly. Resource Central continues to increase the number of kits available each year to meet the growing demand. The organization has also conducted a fall sale for about four years and in 2021 increased its offerings by 35%. 

Plant Select helps gardeners find water-wise plants that thrive in Colorado and the retailers that sell them. See their Top 10 plants from 2020.

The fall 2021 sale sold out. Another fall is planned for 2022.

Bowman encourages anyone interested in purchasing a Garden In A Box to check out Resource Central’s website and sign up for their newsletter.

A Garden In A Box kit planted in southeast Denver’s Hampden neighborhood. Photo credit: Denver Water.

In addition to Garden In A Box, Resource Central also offers other water conservation programs through its water utility partners, including: