Forty Years Ago, Xeriscaping Started Changing the Landscape of #Denver — Westword

Xeriscape landscape

From Westword (Claire Duncombe):

Liz Gardener remembers how some people worried that a new water-saving landscaping concept could alter Denver’s image as the Emerald City of the Plains. “We have to keep it green,” they warned.

The concept “is green,” replied Gardener, a former Denver Water conservation officer who so enjoyed gardening that she’d changed her name to reflect that passion. “But it’s also red and yellow and purple.”

Spurred by the droughts of the late 1970s, a task force led by Denver Water employees had set out to create a new kind of gardening, one that would counteract the effects of a growing population on Denver’s water supply. One novel idea was a landscaping technique that prioritizes water conservation.

In 1981, Denver Water adopted the concept and named it “xeriscape landscaping,” or xeriscaping.

“Nancy [Leavitt] came up with the term,” Gardener recalls. “She had a background in botany and biology, and she knew about xeros.” The Greek word means “dry,” and Leavitt thought to combine it with “scape.” But others immediately said, “People are going to hate that word,” she remembers. They worried that “xeri,” similar to “zero” in pronunciation, would be equated only with rocks and cacti — gardens that didn’t need water at all.

People don’t always see the connection between water supply and water demand, Gardener continues. And they often have different perceptions of what makes a beautiful garden — especially if they previously lived in lush places that receive more than Denver’s 14.5 inches of rain a year.

But over the past forty years, xeriscaping has inspired a cultural shift in Colorado. The practice has become part of the city’s ecosystem, enshrined in ordinances and included in planning documents, and can be credited with helping decrease Denver water usage even as the city’s population has exploded over the past four decades.

Xeriscape was not an easy sell in the early days, however, and its confusing name was only part of the problem…

Xeriscape has served as “a powerful teaching methodology,” says Kelaidis. It illustrates how thoughtful planning can conserve water, which leads to conversations about where the water comes from and why it’s important to be prudent with its use…

The seven principles of xeriscape take into consideration how a garden might most efficiently use water. For example, families may choose to keep a portion of their yard covered in grass. But they can plan to irrigate the lawn so that runoff water hydrates other plants instead of trickling into the street. They can also plant flowers, shrubs and trees that need less water to begin with…

Along with Denver Water, the Denver Botanic Gardens, Colorado State University and the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado have worked to get the principles of xeriscape out through books, seminars, demonstration gardens and plant cultivation…

Mrs. Gulch’s Blue gramma “Eyelash” patch August 28, 2021.

The Denver Botanic Gardens has one of a number of demonstration gardens meant to connect these concepts and create a blueprint for ways to garden beautifully yet consciously. When people first enter the grounds, the plants and design reflect European and coastal environments, but farther down the pathways are more native and drought-tolerant gardens. “People end up saying, ‘Hey, these are beautiful, too,’” says Kelaidis.

But a sizable portion of those native plants weren’t available when xeriscaping principles were first adopted forty years ago. “Many of these plants were out there, but they’re kind of rangy and look a little scruffy,” Kelaidis explains.

So Kelaidis personally brought back native plants such as “red birds in a tree” and a hardy form of Arizona cypress from Cookes Peak, New Mexico, as well as the Pawnee Buttes sand cherry that grows northeast of Denver. He also traveled to similar semi-arid and steppe regions around the world, such as South Africa, where he found the “ice plant.” Kelaidis explains that while some believe in only cultivating native species, there are many garden flowers that originated in steppe regions, including lilacs, bearded irises, peonies and the Persian rose.

Kelaidis and others at the DBG also teamed up with CSU, as well as local nurseries, garden centers and gardening professionals, to create Plant Select in 1997. The nonprofit helps to educate gardeners and sell and distribute plants that grow well in high plains and intermountain regions. In addition to finding species with beautiful blooms and textures, Plant Select cultivates plants that can better handle fluctuations in temperature, lack of water and different kinds of soil; many are also more pest-resistant.

Although Plant Select caters primarily to Colorado, it also provides plants to out-of-state retailers in Wyoming, Montana, Texas, Oregon, New Mexico, South Dakota, Nebraska, Utah and California.

According to Plant Select’s Demonstration Garden Survey Summary in 2020, seven of its 24 gardens were watered three times a week, seven were watered bi-weekly, and seven were watered once a week. “They’re always coming out with new native varieties, with a new list of plants that are adaptable to the Colorado environment,” says Phil Steinhauer, president of the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado board of directors. “They’re marketing it so that people are asking for it.”


The more water-wise gardening there is, the more xeriscaping becomes normal — which is exactly what proponents hoped for when they coined the concept forty years ago.

Still, there is work to be done. Xeriscaping gets a boost every time there is a drought cycle, such as the years from 1999 to 2003. But afterward, the demand recedes.

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