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Before and After: A front yard is transformed into a drought resistant xeric garden

Customer Garden: A Drought-Resistant Garden From Scratch In Fort Collins, Colorado

By Wendy Hatoum, Staff Writer for High Country Gardens

When Mary R. moved to her new home in Fort Collins, Colorado, she was so committed to not having a lawn that she sold her lawnmower! Her outstanding garden takes inspiration from a local botanic garden. We interviewed her to learn more.

What inspired you to create your garden?

Mary: "My house was built just four years ago, so the garden was a blank slate when I started — lots of dirt and rock with not a green thing in sight. When I moved, I sold my lawnmower, so I had committed to not having a lawn.

I wanted to do something a little different, water-saving and interesting. I had been a member and active volunteer for many years at The Gardens on Spring Creek, our local botanic garden in Fort Collins, Colorado. The inspiration for my own garden is the lovely rock garden there.

I had the opportunity to take a few classes about how to build a rock garden from the designer of that garden, Kirk Fiesler of Laporte Avenue Nursery. He kept saying that anyone could do it if they just rented a Dingo, a piece of equipment like a mini Bobcat. I thought elevation and berms were just what was needed to make my yard interesting, and I decided to give it a try."

Before: Mary's son used a Dingo to pile up soil for future garden berms.
Before: Mary's son used a Dingo to pile up soil for future garden berms.
A local landscaper placed a flagstone path between the two garden beds.
A local landscaper placed a flagstone path between the two garden beds.

What steps did you take to create your landscape?

Mary: "To have it done professionally was going to be more than I wanted to spend, so I really had to do most of it myself. I drew it out on graph paper, and asked my college-age son to help. I also asked the opinion of a garden designer friend, who made several suggestions.

I wanted to start in the spring and plant before it got really hot, but we didn’t get started until mid-June. We got the Dingo and the topsoil and positioned piles of soil for the berms, then took delivery of the rocks. My son was the Dingo operator and we spent 3-4 days positioning rock and soil.

After the rocks were in place, a landscaper came and placed flagstone between the two major beds. They also put in the basics of the drip system. So I just needed to do the planting and the rest of the drip system myself. At the end of the summer, I mulched the whole garden with gravel."

Creeping Grey Germander (Teucrium aroanium) with multiple varieties of Penstemon, Salvia, Sedums, and Delosperma (Ice Plant).
Creeping Grey Germander (Teucrium aroanium) with multiple varieties of Penstemon, Salvia, Sedums, and Delosperma (Ice Plant).

What are some of your favorite waterwise plants?

Mary: "One of my favorite plants is Creeping Grey Germander (Teucrium aroanium). The leaves are beautiful soft gray with orchid purple flowers. It has the demeanor of a spring plant, but blooms from mid summer to winter. It’s maybe my favorite plant in the whole garden, and it gets asked about the most. It has that same structure as candytuft and is a nice combination with every thing else that blooms in the summer.

I have about a dozen different varieties of Penstemon, including dwarf Penstemon virens, and Scarlet Bugler (Penstemon centranthifolius) which is huge and hummingbirds love it. I love the Grand Mesa Penstemon, which blooms earlier in the season, and the Prairie Jewels Penstemon, which has varying colors.

I’ve got lots of different types of Salvia, including May Night and CaradonnaSalvia daghestanica is one of my favorites; it requires almost no water. It is in a spot between the patio and the flagstone walkway. I have two patches, one that gets water and one that doesn’t, and they look virtually the same.

Walker’s Low Catmint, it’s beautiful all year. And I have lots of Sedum for texture and lots of Ice Plant and groundcover Veronicas, which provide tons of color.

I have one big Iris and several dwarf Iris (6-10 inches tall) that friends have given me that are sentimental favorites.

I have planted several Hummingbird Mint (Agastache) right outside my living room window, so I can watch the hummingbirds from in my house. My favorite thing about Agastache is the fragrance.

One other plant I really like is the Western Sundancer Daisy (Hymenoxys acaulis v. ivesiana). I love that it seeds around a little bit, but is never a nuisance, and has those pretty little daisies. This year I’m trying the Thrift-leaf Perky Sue (Hymenoxys scaposa)

In the "inferno strip” I have Fernbush, dwarf Rabbit BrushApache PlumePenstemonsMirabilisSulphur Buckwheat (Eriogonum), Woolly Speedwell (Veronica)Prairie Clover (Dalea)Globe MallowSalvia azureaLiatris, and a ton of California poppies. My last act before tucking the garden in for the winter that first year was to throw poppy seeds in the gravel mulch of the inferno strip. They are so prolific that I need to clean out the poppies from around smaller plants like Scutelaria every year.

This year in addition to Perky Sue, I’m adding Black Foot Daisy and Salvia Ultra Violet to the inferno strip."

Get This Look! Shop Mary's Plant List

A front yard transformed into a beautiful waterwise garden, featuring California Poppies, Penstemons, Nepeta, and many drought-tolerant perennials in bloom.

How did you choose the plants?

Mary: "I didn’t really have a good system. I knew I wanted them to be xeric (drought resistant), like the Gardens on Spring Creek. I would go to a plant sale, a local nursery, check out the PlantSelect Plants website, or read the High Country Gardens catalog and note what would be good.

Lauren Springer’s book, The Undaunted Garden, is also a favorite resource. I knew I wanted a shade tree, a serviceberry, and dwarf conifers for winter interest. I ended up just adding plants around them. Despite planting in the heat, I didn’t lose a lot of plants over the summer. (See Mary’s summer planting tip below.)

I have an “inferno strip” that is 43 feet by 12 feet, and is not irrigated at all. I chose the plants for that space using the xeric water symbols in the HCG catalog, selecting waterwise plants that I only water by hand a few times a year."

Do you have any advice for other gardeners?

Mary: "The one thing that really made the difference, because I was planting in the heat of the summer, was to use a root stimulant to help get the plants established. I really think that made a huge difference in planting during the heat.

If you’re going to use xeric plants, remember, they’re desert plants. They don’t want to have a lot of rich material. Just plant in topsoil, not topsoil with compost. I don’t feed anything in my garden except for a couple roses that I have close to the house. So skip the compost, and don’t use organic mulch. Use gravel and don’t use weed fabric.

There’s a saying about perennials: First they sleep, and then creep, and then leap. It was really true. This is year four and everything is just so healthy."

What are some of the things you appreciate most about your garden?

Mary: "People ask me about the garden all the time. Because my house is in a very public area, and my garden is in the front yard, I feel pressure to keep it looking good. But you can have a beautiful xeriscape with a lot less work than I put into it. But to me it isn’t work. I love every minute I spend out there, even the weeding!

I’ve never had a garden with fewer problems and it turned out better than I ever thought it would.

It’s full of bees. I have a neighbor that was a retired environmental scientist, just comes to watch the bees. He told be one day that the diversity of the insects in my garden is just amazing, and it’s always buzzing with butterflies, sphinx moths, and hummingbirds.

The prettiest parts of the garden are parts that I didn’t do. It’s taken on a life of its own. Plants are popping up between flagstones and boulders, and it looks very natural. I can’t take credit for all of it. You have to let it just happen and not be concerned with everything being perfect."


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Get This Look! Shop Mary's Plant List 

A view of the colorful waterwise garden featuring Penstemons, Salvias, Delosperma (Ice Plant), and many other drought-resitant plants.

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