We Get Greener Kit Cassingham & her Bigger Half

Xeric Landscaping

I have loved playing with landscape design for years. When we built our house I had a fresh palette to work with. It was an exciting opportunity for me. And a challenge, a challenge that I faced with enthusiasm.

The theories I entered into my new challenge with included:

  • low-water loving plants

  • deer and rabbit resistant plants

  • sun-loving plants

  • plants for the high altitude

  • plants that could survive our cold winters

  • fire mitigation

  • dust mitigation

Xeric means "dry" in Greek. Xeric landscaping means water-wise landscaping through the use of native or low-watering plants. It doesn't mean rock -- as in gravel, though rocks -- as in stones -- can be a bonus addition to a xeric garden.

I started my plant-planning with High Country Gardens, a wonderful nursery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I had used them for xeric plants when I was in Boulder so felt they were the right nursery for me in Ridgway.

I scoured their catalog and emotionally bought $3,000 worth of beautiful plants! And then ordered about $500 worth of plants for about 750 square feet of garden. I chose four different ground covers of veronicas and thymes, and lavenders and hirpicium, a grassleaf mat daisy.

Next I ordered mulched top soil and pea gravel. I shoveled the top soil on top of the bentonite-like soils (it's powdery when dry and clay-ish when wet) we have, and then the pea gravel on top of that. My first goal really was to cut down on the blowing dirt; it's windy here until June, even July, and anything that can blow does. The pea gravel also created the mulch layer I wanted to keep moisture in the soil.

I also terraced the yard a bit with small rocks I found around the property. I like the visual it gives with layers and short walls for the veronicas to cascade (can 1-2 inches create a cascade of plants?) from. It's a nice landscape design touch.

I quickly realized the soil we have is low on organic matter. Organic matter helps reduce the amount of watering you need to do to keep plants alive by holding water in rather than letting it seep away, and nourishes the plants too. In hind sight I should have rototilled the top soil into the native soil to loosen the base for improved plant growth. Oh well! Next time.

The planting technique I used I got from Lauren Springer, a renowned western gardener, was to soak the plugs in a bucket of water while I dug their holes. When the holes were dug as deep and wide as they needed to be I filled them with water and waited for the water to be absorbed. Then, and only then, did I plant the plug which I pulled from the bucket of water. This approach ensures the plants are well watered before beginning their new life in my harsh environment.

Once planted I hand watered the plants to keep from wasting water "blowing in the wind". Initially I watered them daily. As they matured and started growing I watered them less frequently. By the end of the summer they were watered only every couple of weeks. This approach gave them a strong start so they would grow bigger and faster than if I left them to nature's watering plan.

The second year I watered them less frequently, and by fall had cut back to not watering at all. The third year I watered them only once or twice, during really hot, dry spells. I haven't watered my plants since the third year. Granted, they haven't grown as big as they ultimately will, but they are looking good and I have a bloom of color from May through September -- pinks, whites, and shades of purple.

I added more plants to "the yard" the second summer: veronicas and thymes, and for height at the edge of the planted area I bought tanacetum, or partridge feather, and achilleas, Siberian yarrow -- with yellow and white blossom, respectively. That's when I also expanded my lavender collection and made a "fence" of them along the edge. They are all looking good -- or were before this bitter cold winter.

I have tried other plants around the property but only the Russian Sage and mountain mahogany have survived. Our winters can be harsh. The deer don't help a lot either. This garden has been a learning experience.

"Experts" say that deer don't like lavender. Somebody forgot to tell them what lavender looks and smells like! I've had the deer bite off a lavender, at the roots, only to spit it out -- probably saying "Yuck! That was lavender!!" as they walked away.

The lavender at the edge of the house have done the best. They are more protected from the cold and probably have a bit more solar gain, keeping their toes warm. I tried creating that for the lavender fence by laying and stacking rocks behind them, but I don't think it works as well as the house walls do. I have also noticed that the plants that were placed below the exhaust for our gas fireplace don't last. The exhaust is 3-4 feet above them, and points up, but nothing I have tried so far will grow there. I think an ornamental sculpture is in order.

As my garden and attitude mature I have tried other plants too, with varying success. The cat mint thrives, and makes lots of babies; the arctostaphylos (manzanita) isn't thriving; the vinca doesn't make it past two winters either. But the self-planted sunflowers and mullein do quite well. And of course I'm always fighting the grasses and bindweed.

And finally, my approach to "the blast zone" -- the scared land where the soil from digging the foundation was dumped, and where the septic system was installed: Native grasses. My family gave us several pounds of grass seed mix as a house warming present. After scattering it I watered it by hand, again to keep from wasting water, according to instructions. I didn't get a high enough germination rate to cover my scarred land, so I went to the local nursery to buy more. I bought medium-grass prairie grasses, mixed with flowers. Wrong! We have short-grass prairie grasses here, not medium. These seeds sprouted fine and my blast zone has filled in, but it doesn't look the same as the surrounding areas. Some lessons are less fun to learn than others. I hope I haven't thrown off the ecology of the area with that mistake.

The other big mistake I made in selecting plants was with the hirpicium. Since it's not native -- it's from the mountains of South Africa -- it didn't have natural controls to keep it in check. I found the plant growing far from where I'd planted it. I ended up ripping the plants out and throwing them away; I didn't want to have them take over and chase the deer away because their food source was depleted.

The yard is still a work in progress. I anticipate adding a few more plants this year to fill in some gaps on my coverage. I'm also going to add a cold frame so I can have a fall crop of vegetables too. But for the most part, we get to enjoy our garden with minimal weeding or attention.

No water on the plants means they grow slowly, weeds aren't as attracted, and mowing isn't needed. The yard looks nice -- not a city yard by any means, but I don't live in the city so that's fine with me. I am enthralled with my xeric landscaping.

For more information on xeric landscaping, visit EcoNomicallySound.com.


Just a thought on compost:

I've always been into native plants, only because I'm lazy.

Here are two peaks of laziness, and you might give them a try, both for soil conditioning.

1. Save your newspapers. Put them out as mulch and cover with whatever real mulch you want to use. Over the course of several months, they will decay and over time, vastly improve your soil. I even take my parents' newspapers these days.

2. Bury your non-meat garbage. I used to compost, and truth be known still do during the winter, but found starting around March, I can bury my garbage and have it decay within 30 days. Magic.

And High Country Gardens and Plant Delights (which caters to NC climates) are without a doubt the primary contributors to my failure to become a millionaire.

Lee Paulson at April 26, 2010 6:44 AM

Lee, I've used the newspaper trick too. Cardboard works well that way too. And it helps hold down -- not eliminate -- weeds. I've even seen the suggestion to use thick piles of paper to create a path between your garden rows to help reduce weeds and give you a dry area to walk on.

The burying your compost doesn't work as well in dry areas, like Colorado, because it needs more moisture for the decomposition than we have. But I guess as the soil is improved with compost it's moisture retaining capacity improves so that might eventually work. Nice trick. Thanks!

My brother in Boston has a composting bin that rotates to stir things up. It works well at decomposing, but it doesn't get hot enough to kill seeds; he had a lovely squash garden the summer I visited. :~)


Kit Cassingham at April 26, 2010 11:08 AM

Hey Kit--I was interested in the comment about bears and compost because I'm out visiting my daughter and son-in-law in Denver and have been trying to convince them to compost. Of course, these are the children who said "Mom, please don't do a lot of yard work. We WON'T keep it up."

Sigh. I guess I will just go buy some gravel today and put down black plastic underneath. Stick a flowerpot in the middle or something.

Lee at July 31, 2010 5:59 AM


Where in Denver does your daughter live? We composted just fine when we lived in Boulder. Deer and rabbits might be problems, but bear weren't in our neighborhood, and were rarely anywhere in the city of Boulder.

Black plastic only slows the weed problem, it doesn't stop it. One, it breaks down eventually and the weeds that have been growing under the plastic burst forth with a vengeance. Two, dirt blows around, settles on top of the plastic, making a place for seeds to sprout.

But, if the plastic, gravel and potted plant make you happy, enjoy. :~)


Kit Cassingham at July 31, 2010 3:26 PM

I too love my low mantainace yard.

Now I grow grass. I tend to kill most other things but grass and I get along. I like TALL grass. So here is the short version of how my yard grew up.

The north side held lots of moisture from melting snow well into June so the grass loved it. BIG fat bunches of green happy grass started growing there all on its own. Every so often the weeds would start to bug me so I'd go to town ripping them out and leave the grass in place. Soon the grass, thanks to it's competitive edge (i.e. my weed yanking) was spreading (slowly since it's bunch grasses).
Then I got a puppy. Now the fact that it was winter and the majority of the yard was mud meant mud control became a priority in a BIG way. So I shoveled up many many bucket loads of crushed, red, decomposed granite and made a puppy potty area and some paths between the bunch grasses. My failure here was the lack of any weed cloth so the weeds do manage a VERY strong grip that makes them hard to pull. Oh well. So that was nice. About half the yard was nice and the other half still sprouted a wide variety of weeds as well as piles of construction materials, broken equipment and well intentioned ideas. And mud.
The next phase occurred come spring time. I worked at a horse ranch and as part of my job I had to clean out the ditches. Now this is done by dragging a small plow behind a tractor, turning up a strip of grass on the bottom and/or sides of the ditches so the water will flow better. I didn't want all those flipped over chunks of grass making a mess of the ditch banks so I decided to go turn them over so they were grass side up, fill prairie dog holes with them, build up a ditch bank that was collapsing and then drew down the idea of using them as sod in my back yard! With the help and enthusiasum of several friends, we moved 3 truck loads of "sod" strips to my house, lined them up across and around the yard like a huge puzzle and shoveled in more granite (this time with the weed cloth underneath!) to make a path to the shed and WOW! A real yard! Now it's a bit lumpy and uneven since the sod strips were all different sizes and I did loose a few chunks here and there but over all it has done really well. I watered it alot last year to help it take hold and dig in good roots. A DEEP watering 3-4 times a week at first and gradually tapering off.

The results this year? I watered my yard twice. And the first time is was to soften the dirt to make pulling weeds (since the empty lot behind me willing shares it's thistles) easier.

For some touches of color and variety I have transplanted some wild iris' out of those same pastures. The iris' unfortunately didn't make it. I'll try again. Also some clumps of clover and alfalfa are doing well. This year I plan to move some clumps of chicory in and see what else of interest is growing in my pastures that would fit in nicely in my little mini pasture in my back yard!

Ruth Stewart at July 31, 2010 10:50 PM

Excellent points, Ruth. Thanks for sharing your low-maintenance, nice looking yard story. I'm sure you and your dog and happier with that grass. And think of the extra oxygen you have now!


Kit Cassingham at August 2, 2010 10:51 AM
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