Urban Garden Denver Blog

Category Archive

The following is a list of all entries from the Water Responsibly category.

Spring & Springs

Yesterday was the first day of spring – and I spent a little time in my garden, cleaning out leaves, trimming back perennials and enjoying the bulbs that are blooming now.

Tete-a-tete minature daffodils

Tete-a-tete minature daffodils

But I also wondered about water while I was in the garden. Spring is our snowiest season here in Denver, and the spring snows are helpful in moistening the soil and causing the grasses to turn green and the flowers and shrubs to emerge from dormancy with healthy growth. But my garden is somewhat dry. The snow that was forecast for last Tuesday did come, but barely. The little bit of snow hardly compensated for the drying winds. Snow is forecast again for Saturday. Will is come and water the soil, or will it just blow through? As I was in the garden celebrating the first day of spring, I wondered if I should turn on my water and give the garden a drink.

World Water Day is tomorrow, just 2 days after the first day of spring (in the northern hemisphere). Water is always on my mind in my Colorado garden, because we live in a semi-arid environment, and because I feel responsible for conserving water. The truth is, I could water my garden much more than I do. I have never even consumed water up to the first tier pricing level that the water department instituted to encourage conservation. And if I did decide to water more, we could accommodate that expense in our budget. But being able to water more is different from being free to water more. Because I am compelled to conserve. Compelled out of responsibility for stewarding a scarce resource. And also compelled out of respect for my sisters and brothers around the world who don’t have unlimited access to tap water, who are dependent on walking great distances to carry precious water to their homes every day.

Sometimes it is hard to stay committed to conserving water. I wonder how my small stand for water conservation can make a dent in the shortage of water in our region. Does my compulsion to conserve make any difference to anyone? Why shouldn’t I treat the Denver Water pipes that come to my home like springs of water, bringing unlimited access to water to my home and garden?

Deep down, I can’t shake my view of water as a sacred resource. I can’t stop caring about conservation. And the actions of each individual, when taken together in total, can make a difference. If I conserve, and you conserve, and my friends conserve, and your friends conserve, then together we can reduce water use. And when we turn on our hoses or taps, perhaps we can pause and consider our fellow humans who don’t have such luxurious access to water.

If you are interested in learning more about how to use less water in your landscape, I have several blog posts on conserving water. And if you are interested in some facts about World Water Day, view the infographic that I scripted on this topic.


Water Now!

While it is off-season for gardening and for my garden blog – this weekend is a great time to give your trees and shrubs a drink of water. We have had so little moisture this winter, the small skiff of snow that was so pretty on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day did little to moisten our dry soil. And that was more than a month ago. With daytime temperatures in the 50’s, it is a great time to drip water slowly around trees and shrubs.

Normally this is also a great time to plan and dream about the coming garden season, but I have to say that the dry weather has me discouraged. If we are truly in another drought phase, then it will not be a good year for new planting, because even low-water perennials and shrubs need more water the first season or two to get settled in well. I am also worried about the perennials and new rose bushes I planted last year. Even though they are hardy varieties, they are not desert plants. Of course, water for landscaping is a bit of a luxury. I was reading in the paper today about the high cost of hay for ranchers due to the drought, and that affects more than just beauty, it affects their business.

I would love it if we received some winter and spring snowstorms to increase our soil moisture, not to mention the beauty of covering our brown dirt with white snow. There is a little snow in the forecast for Tuesday, but I am skeptical. While our warm, dry weather has been great for hiking this winter, it may hurt us in the coming growing season. So water on a warm day and hope for snow!

Water Matters … Everywhere

At the risk of turning this garden blog into a travel blog, I am offering reflections on water issues in two more areas that I had the opportunity to visit this fall – India and the United Arab Emirates. Then I’ll get back to more familiar topics, like the pansies and bulbs that I am planting this week.

On my first day in India, I was planning on visiting the botanic gardens in Bangalore before I started my work teaching a magazine editing course. However, there was a general strike that day over water policy, so we stayed in rather than venturing out, on the advice of our group organizers. The particular water issue is that the Supreme Court had ordered the region around Bangalore to release water to a neighboring state, and the locals were  opposed to this transfer of water. Ironically, I was unable to visit the botanic gardens, because of a dispute over water policy.

Water matters, all over the world. Whether it is access to clean water, irrigation for agriculture, or water for industrial uses, we cannot function without adequate water supplies, and they are at risk all over the globe. After this inauspicious beginning, I had an amazing time in India and was able to learn and observe a few small parts of a complex and layered culture.

Then I traveled to the UAE, where Dubai is a booming global city on the edge of historically bedouin desert areas. There I stayed with friends in their home adjacent to a historic oasis. Throughout the centuries, any source of water in the desert became a gathering place. Seeing the oasis also made me understand the biblical texts about spiritual refreshment being compared to water in the desert – a context best understood in dry conditions. This particular oasis where I was staying was surrounded by date palms, yielding their sticky harvest. However, as development has increased in the area, the water table has dropped and the springs of the oasis are no longer sufficient. In order to keep the date palms going, the government now pipes in water from desalination projects on the coast. My friends have a few trees in the small courtyard around their home, water from their laundry is recycled into the garden (gray water in technical terms). This is not allowed in some parts of the US, but is an efficient way of maximizing the value of water in a desert. Water matters, all around the world.

Date Palm Oasis, a shady spot for a walk

As I raked leaves in my dry garden back in Denver, I was reminded that the need for water is pivotal in so many regions of the world. We can take it for granted, with our organized system of reservoirs, filtration plants and water pipes throughout the city, but water matters and without it our lifestyle and opportunities would be significantly different. It’s something we take for granted until it isn’t there anymore.

Irrigation system in oasis

I know my flower garden and trees are a luxury, and I hope that I am a good steward of the water and other resources that I have access to … because it matters in a local and a global sense.

Dates ready for harvest

Once-a-year watering

The north side of my house is a narrow side-yard, with little sun. It’s not a through-path to anything, since there is no gate in the fence at the back. The goal with my north side is something to cover the ground with little or no maintenance. When we moved into our house, there was an old lilac bush on the north side, outside the den window. I love springtime when the lilac blooms. It is a white lilac, which surprised me the first year, only because I was expecting purple. With its deep shaded roots, it doesn’t require supplemental watering, which is a good thing, because the bush is a long ways from the hose.

Many years ago I started vinca on the north side, to cover the bare dirt. I watered it for the first year to get established, but now it does fine most years, just from the little rainfall that it gets. Last weekend I noticed that the vinca was looking a bit peaked, so I watered the vinca and the lilac. The leaves of the vinca have responded by perking up.

Vinca can be invasive, if you have it in a section of the garden that is competing with other plants, but a large section of vinca is a great solution for an out-of-the way part of the yard and it definitely conserves water (as long as you don’t set the irrigation system to water it). When I see side yards with a narrow section of lawn outside a fence, I always think that this is a great place for vinca. The light blue flowers in the spring are a nice bonus, but the evergreen leaves of the plant are the main attraction. If you want some vinca, don’t buy it, just come by and dig up some starts. I shared my vinca with my neighbor across the street several years ago and now she has a nice covering of vinca on the north side of her home.

I was reading about a housing development in Douglas County that was under review because the developers hadn’t secured enough water for the homes. Responsible use of water and conservation in our landscape is really essential for this semi-arid climate we live in. Replacing some turf with low-water groundcover is a great solution and this time of year is a good time to get new plantings rooted in before winter.

Watering on Earth Day

I gave the yard a thorough watering today, and was reminded how precious water is in our dry climate. I work diligently to minimize water use and water waste, but the ground that didn’t get any snow moisture in March is dry and thirsty. Our rain last weekend helped, but a hot dry week is in the forecast, so I did some deep watering this morning.

Earth Day is a great day to plant a tree or shrubs. If you don’t have lilacs in your yard, they are great hardy shrubs that brings joy every spring with fragrant blossoms. Common lilacs are quite hardy, that’s why you see them along the alleys in older neighborhoods. Last week I noticed an old lilac bush along the highway where the old 6th Avenue cloverleaf used to join I-25. It has survived neglect and drought and is blooming. Of course, you will need to water lilacs for the first few years to get them established, and periodically as they grow, but I have an old lilac bush on the north side of my house, outside the den window, that is rarely watered and does well. Considering that you could remove a 3 foot swath of lawn all along a fence line and plant a row a lilacs, the lilacs will require much less water than the lawn (assuming you adjust your sprinklers and don’t over-water the lilacs). There are many varieties of lilacs, but I am partial to the common lilac as a hardy, reliable friend every spring. If you don’t have lilacs in your yard, take a walk down the alley of an older neighborhood and breath in the lovely scent. But hurry, they bloomed early this year and will be fading soon.


Where is the moisture?

If you are reading this blog, I assume you have at least a casual interest in gardening. But even if you aren’t into gardening, all of us in Colorado need to be concerned about the lack of moisture we are currently experiencing. Colorado is a semi-arid climate, and our moisture is sporadic at best. However, the normal weather pattern includes snow in March that melts into the ground and provides a good start for our gardens. This year we did get snow in February but March is ending up as one of the driest ever. So what? We can just turn our sprinklers on sooner and run them for more months, right? Actually we can, but if you look at the mountain snowpack, where we get most of our water as it melts into reservoirs, moisture is lacking there as well. And just using more water on residential landscape isn’t the best stewardship of our limited water supply. There is a reason why water rights and water law are a big deal in Colorado, because water is our most precious resource. And I have a feeling that my recent visit to Arizona was a glimpse into the future of Colorado. I also visited some of our Colorado water, since the snowmelt from the Colorado mountains is shared across the arid southwest.

When we think about how huge the water problem is, you might wonder what difference you can make. A valid question, but if each of us do a little, collectively it adds up. And if each of us uses a little more, then we collectively have increased the problem. The water department tries to help give us incentives, because some of us need to see the pain of expensive water bills to choose to water less. But it is possible to decide to use less water on your landscape.

Blue-grass lawn is a huge culprit, not naturally suited to a semi-arid climate and each household has to decide how much lawn is enough. For our family, even when there were still kids at home, we decided a small lawn was adequate, and we would walk to the nearby park for large-lawn activities such as soccer and wiffle ball. Maybe some area you currently have in lawn could be converted to shrubs or groundcover. Start with little bits of lawn at the corners and edges of fences, or the parking strip — no one is playing on those pieces of lawn.  When I was working on my overall landscape plan, my husband would joke that I mowed with a shovel, because for me, bits of lawn that weren’t serving a landscape purpose were meant to be torn out. For example, the side of my house used to have a strip of lawn. Now it sports low water perennials and shrubs. If you have a sprinkler system, it doesn’t do any good to dig out lawn and keep the sprinklers going at the same rate, so you have to put your system on zones, some which get more water, and some which get less. I won’t go into excruciating detail on watering less, because such advice is readily available from the water department and other sources. The questions isn’t how to save water, it’s if we each individually and collectively decide that we care about saving water, and then if we match our caring with action. How about a small change like shutting off one sprinkler system section in an area that isn’t visible from your front yard or back patio? If we each do one section, it actually will add up.

As I write this blog, the wind is howling outside, sucking moisture out of our landscape and I can see and smell smoke from wildfires in the foothills — in March, our “snowiest” month. Makes me a bit worried about April through October, the gardening season.

Go Flat to Conserve Water

Even though we received some much-needed moisture this week, the reality is that Denver is a semi-arid climate, leaning more toward arid this year. So periodically in my blog I am going to deal directly with water issues. I’ve added a new category – “Water Responsibly”– and put links to related articles on a new page, but since almost all the plants in my garden are low-water, most of the garden information throughout my blog will help you water wisely and have flowers to enjoy.

Many of the bungalows in the older neighborhoods in Denver sit a few feet above the street, and the front lawns include a sloping section that is hard to mow and impossible to water responsibly. The water just runs off the slope and the grass is not lush. The ancients had this figured out and terraced their landscapes for efficient farming and gardens. All across the globe, terraced fields are a way to manage water use and farming. Of course, some may argue that sloping land should never have been de-forested and farmed, but terraces are evident in many cultures. Even landscapes for enjoyment rather than agriculture used terraces. Julius Caesar’s father-in-law had terraced gardens on the slopes of Vesuvius (Villa of the Papyri).

If you have a slope of several feet or more,  you probably need to hire professional landscapers to build retaining walls that include drainage features to ensure that they won’t bulge or slide. A slope of a foot or less can probably be handled by an amateur with interlocking bricks available at the big-box home stores. My favorite retaining walls in the neighborhood have planting pockets on several levels which add interest and soften the features of the wall.

Terrace wall with planting space

When we first moved into our house, we had a slope of less than a foot and a narrow strip of grass outside our fence. Our first landscaping project was to take out the grass and install a wooden box for a flat planting area. We used 2×16 boards so we could bury half the width for support. The planting area has stayed solid for over 10 years. It has also enabled us to do something more interesting than grass outside the fence (climbing roses, honeysuckle and ground covers).

Minimizing Turf

Minimize lawn to conserve water while enjoying beautiful groundcovers and a variety of flowers.

Watering guilt

How much water do I actually need? Trying to stay below 8000 gallons a month at the highest.

Deep Watering

Deep soaking rain is rare in Denver but so important for our soil and our souls.