Nibble Away at Turf and Water Usage

Here’s what my front yard looked like last year after my second round of turf removal and installation of new plants.

Many homeowners, especially non-gardeners, take a set-it-and-forget-it approach to landscaping.  That approach is fine, as long as those homeowners realize that as plants mature over the years, some adjustments may be necessary.

Then there are some of us gardeners in semi-arid climates who dislike high water bills so much that we nibble away at our turf year after year. Kentucky bluegrass is, after all, one of the thirstiest plants you can grow. Two years ago, for example, I reduced the turf area in my front yard by about 33 percent.  Last year, I trimmed the remaining turf by about 25 percent.  And this year, I’ve decided to decease the existing turf by another 20 percent or so.

As you can see, there was turf galore in the front yard when I bought the home 2 1/2 years ago. The yard wasn’t water-wise, to put it mildly.

“Why not remove all the turf at once?” you might sensibly ask.  Well, removing turf is time-consuming and labor-intensive.  So, I like to spread out the effort.  Also, I like to propagate plants for filling in the newly expanded beds.  If I’m propagating from cuttings, it may take several months or more to grow a new plant.

I like a small expanse of green in my front yard, but ideally, I would like to eliminate grass altogether.  That’s why I plunked a small rupturewort (Herniaria glabra) plant in my perennial bed last spring.  I’m waiting to see how it performs as a potential turf replacement.  So far, I haven’t been wowed.  Perhaps rupturewort is one of those plants that sleeps in the first year, creeps in the second year and leaps in the third year.  I’m hoping to see some leaping this summer.

This year’s turf-removal effort involves increasing the beds at the front edge of the yard by another two feet. This expansion will enable me to grow my top-performing, 5-foot-wide red fire Meidiland ground cover roses in the space. The smaller purple rain roses that I planted last year were a major disappointment.

If that doesn’t work, I might consider soapwort (Saponaria ocymoides), which I’ve grown successfully for years.  It’s evergreen, and it’s a solid, drought-tolerant performer.  I need to decide, though, whether I can live with a bright pink lawn for the two to three weeks that it’s in flower.  Also, when It’s all fluffed up, it can reach six inches tall, which is high for a lawn.

Don’t talk to me about thyme.  I’m simply not a fan.  It can brown out in the center and turn leggy.

The same goes for Turkish veronica (Veronica liwanensis).  I’ve seen it brown out in my west-facing Denver yard.  Also, it doesn’t spread as quickly as I would like.

Ajuga?  I’ve never liked the looks of it.  Its growth habit reminds me of broad-leafed weeds.

Woolly speedwell (Veronica pectinata) has all the characteristics I’m looking for.  It’s attractive, low-growing, fast-spreading and evergreen.  Unfortunately, it would burn up in my south-facing Fort Collins lawn without shade.  So, I have to be content with growing it under my autumn brilliance serviceberry.

So, the search for the right ground cover continues as I nibble away at my turf.

For those of you who are customers of Fort Collins Water, please be aware that the City of Fort Collins currently is sponsoring a Xeriscape Incentive Program (XIP), which offers generous rebates to homeowners who remove turf and install water-wise plants.


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Winter Watering–Boring, but Important

Evergreen trees, such as this magnificent blue spruce, especially require water in fall and winter because they retain their foliage year-round. Evergreens lose water as moisture moves from the roots, up through the trunk, and out the leaves. Also, newly planted trees need more water in fall and winter to help them get established.

With the snow we’ve been receiving in Colorado over the winter, many gardeners think it’s unnecessary to water their plants.

Not so.  On average, 13 inches of snow equals only one inch of rain, according to the National Severe Storm Laboratory, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

So, this means you need to haul out your hose once a month when winter temperatures rise above 40 degrees, and give your yard a good soak.  Otherwise, you could lose some of your valuable trees and shrubs–especially evergreens, which require more water.

This year, winter watering is more important than ever, because Colorado’s 2017-2018 snowpack is the worst that it has been in 30 years.  So, we could be facing a drought for the upcoming growing season.  If you keep  your plants healthy now, they’ll be in better shape to withstand drier conditions.

I watered my entire yard about a week ago, even though the soil looked moist from melted snow.  I was amazed at how quickly the water from my sprinkler sank into the soil.

Yes, it’s a pain to water in cold weather, but just do it, as soon as the snow from yesterday’s snowstorm melts.  And keep doing it until rain kicks in around April.

For more information on winter watering, visit Colorado State University’s website.

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Spring Creek’s Garden of Lights Emblazons Winter Sky

Oversized watering cans and sparkly trees greet visitors as they enter Garden of Lights at The Gardens on Spring Creek.

In Fort Collins, we have a small jewel of a garden (18 acres) called The Gardens on Spring Creek.  Designed by Lauren Springer Ogden, author of The Undaunted Garden and other books, this garden does an excellent job of demonstrating practical, creative ways to incorporate tough, xeric plants into residential landscapes.

A plethora of simulated blooms light up the sky. Dormant ornamental grasses (front right) get into the act, as well.

Trellised “tomato vines” glitter in front of a cobalt tree as it’s pelted with icicles.

Each winter from early December to early January, the garden dons its holiday finery for Garden of Lights.   This year, the lights will shine at 5 to 9pm from December 1, 2017 through January 7, except for Christmas Eve and day, and New Years Eve and day.  Admission is a suggested donation of $5 for adults and $2 for children, or free for garden members.

If you’re in the neighborhood, stop in at 2145 Centre Avenue.


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Four Bloomin’ Magical Australian Gardens Offer Horticultural Delights

Lush, green vistas abound in Mayfield Garden, formerly the site of a sheep farm.

During a trip to Australia in October and November, I visited about 20 gardens, public and private.  In my November post, I described three of them.  Here are four more:  Mayfield Garden, Hunter Valley Gardens, Burrendong Botanic Garden & Arboretum, and the Western Australian Botanic Garden.

Mayfield in Oberon, NSW.  Mayfield was established as a sheep farm in 1984.  The Hawkins family later dedicated 36 acres in the heart of the property to a European-inspired public garden.  Among the garden’s notable features are a grotto with a cascading waterfall that you can walk behind; a water garden; an obelisk in a reflecting pond; dry-stacked stone walls and borders; and magnificent combinations of trees with varied foliage colors.  The family also owns a larger, private garden on the property.  That garden is open to visitors for a limited number of days in spring and autumn.

At Hunter Valley Garden, playful topiary and other compositions reflect a child-like wonder that makes this place special.  A purple jacaranda tree blooms in the background.

Hunter Valley Gardens in Pokolbin, NSW.  Hunter Valley, another family-owned public garden, is the most whimsical site that I visited.  Ten internationally themed gardens comprise this cheerful venue.  The storybook garden, with the mad hatter’s tea party and other nursery rhyme displays, is one of my favorites.  The Oriental garden, formal garden, Chinese garden and Italian grotto are impressive, as well.  It’s a child-oriented garden, but there’s plenty for adults to enjoy, as well.  In early November, the gardens were decorated for Christmas.  Because Australians don’t celebrate Halloween or Thanksgiving, retailers and service providers begin obsessing over Christmas even earlier than we do in the States.

Overhead shade covers protect plants from harsh sun in the fern gully at the Burrendong Botanic Garden & Arboretum.

Burrendong Botanic Garden & Arboretum in Mumbil, NSW.  Unlike other gardens I visited, Burrendong is not only a display garden; it’s also a research and conservation facility, dedicated to preserving rare native plants.  The garden’s small, but enthusiastic cadre of volunteers served our tour group a refreshing lunch at picnic tables beneath native trees.  Our hosts had placed a large sprig of eucalyptus or hakea, complete with blossoms or seed pods, on each table so we could examine it during our meal.  Then the volunteer guides led us through the fern gully, mallees and other areas of the garden.  The warm welcome, combined with the fascinating plants, made this visit unforgettable.

Estimated at 750 years old, this giant boab tree stands about 45 feet tall in the Western Australian Botanic Garden. This 36-ton tree earned worldwide attention when it journeyed approximately 2,000 miles from Warmun in Western Australia to Perth in 2008.

Western Australian Botanic Gardens in Perth, WA.  These picturesque, 42-acre gardens sit high on a bluff overlooking Perth’s skyline, and the Swan and Canning Rivers.  I particularly enjoyed seeing the giant boab tree, distinctive banksias, and many interesting ground covers.  Like Colorado, Perth has low-nutrient soils and hot summers.  But Perth receives more rainfall—a long-term average of 33 inches per year, compared to 16 inches for Fort Collins.  That’s why you’ll still see sweeping areas of turf in Perth and other areas of Australia that you might not see in a Colorado botanic garden.   In recent years, however, Australia’s rainfall has declined noticeably.  If the trend continues, I wouldn’t be surprised if sweeping turf becomes less predominant in this country’s botanic gardens.



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Australia’s Gardens: A Feast of Exotic Plants & Stunning Views

The ubiquitous kangaroo paw graces a walkway at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney.

Earlier this fall, I spent three weeks in Australia, where I visited gardens in New South Wales and Western Australia.  It was early spring in Australia, so the gardens weren’t in full flower.  But I saw plenty of rhododendrons, azaleas and other low-pH soil-loving plants.

I would like to share a few of these treasures with you, this month and next, in case you’re ever in the neighborhood and want to visit one or more of them.

Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney, NSW.  In addition to offering gorgeous, skillfully arranged plants, this 74-acre garden offers magnificent views of the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.  I saw the rare Wollemi pine, as well as more common Australian plants, including palm trees, kangaroo paw, bottlebrush trees and waratah.  A kookaburra even showed up and provided entertainment.

The Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney offers views of the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Winterwood in Mount Tomah, NSW.  Owner Don Schofield bought this property about 40 years ago after it had been devastated by a bush fire.  Since then, he has singlehandedly transformed the area into a private garden that rivals several of the public gardens I visited.  The landscape’s sloping contours, along with Schofield’s intuitive sense of color and layering, create a magical environment.  I couldn’t  help but be impressed with Schofield’s quiet stewardship of the land.  He noted that his favorite plant is enkianthus, because of its long-lasting fall color.  Unfortunately, this plant prefers moist, peaty soils with a pH below 6, which pretty much rules it out for Colorado gardeners, but not, perhaps, for gardeners in other areas of the U.S.  Because Winterwood is a private garden, you would likely have to arrange a small group tour with Schofield if you wanted to visit.  This lovingly tended garden, however, is well worth your time.

Winterwood’s broad, grassy pathways invite visitors to stroll from one colorful vista to another.

Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre in Cowra, NSW.  In 1944, Japanese prisoners staged an escape from the Cowra prisoner of war and interment camp.  Three hundred prisoners escaped, and 250 were killed.  In 1960, the Japanese government arranged for all of their war-dead in Australia to be re-buried in Cowra.  This gesture sparked a friendship between the people of Japan and the people of Cowra Shire.  The Cowra Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre, established in 1979, recognizes and develops that relationship.  This 12-acre garden is the largest Japanese garden I’ve seen.   Unlike many Japanese gardens, the Cowra garden enables you to see long, medium and close-up views of the landscape.  Large expanses of green lawn contribute to the garden’s serenity.

The Cowra Japanese Garden commemorates the healing of relations between the people of Cowra and the people of Japan after World War II.


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Horrors! It’s Borers!

There’s the tell-tale hole where the borer entered the pith. Very bad news.

Last week while admiring my tiger eyes sumac, I noticed a hole in the pith in one of the stems.  Pith, in case you’re not aware, is the spongy material inside each stem.

I then examined the pith in two other stems that had been pruned before I bought the plant six weeks ago.  All three stems had a hole.

Omigaw! I realized that my baby tree was under attack by borers—currant borers, most likely, which attack currants, gooseberries and black elders, as well as sumacs.

According to Colorado State University, currant borers lay their eggs on the plant’s bark in June and early July.  Then the caterpillar larvae bore into the plant, drilling down into the pith and wood.  The nearly adult pest spends the winter in the base of the canes before pupating and later emerging as a full-grown adult in late May or early June.

Before I pruned it, the tree had two nice, leafy branches. Notice the two upright bare branches? That’s where the borers attacked. They also attacked at the lowest crotch of the tree.

Make no mistake—these bugs can kill the plant, if left untreated.

So I whipped out my pruners and began amputating lengths of branches until I reached non-holey pith.  The worst damage occurred on an auxiliary branch, where the borer had drilled all the way down that branch and into one of the tree’s two main branches.  I could even see the borer in the hole.  This meant I had to make the unkindest cut of all to save the plant’s life—removing a main leafy branch, leaving just one leafy branch on this 30-inch-tall tree.

It wasn’t easy, but I did what had to be done, disfiguring the tree in the process.  Fortunately, sumacs produce new branches relatively quickly, so I expect the plant to recover in the next couple of years.

After pruning, the looks disfigured, but the tree wlll likely grow plenty of new branches in the next couple of years. Notice the healthy pith where the branches have been cut. I sealed the cuts with fingernail polish.

I then sealed the three pruned canes with colored nail polish to prevent further infestation.  Some gardeners think sealing is unnecessary.  Personally, I seal canes larger than 1/8 inch.

Borers attack a broad range of trees and shrubs.  The most infamous borer in Colorado right now is the emerald ash borer (EAB), which began attacking ash trees in Boulder in 2013, and has spread to Longmont and Lafayette.  It’s just a matter of time before the EAB will reach Denver and Fort Collins.

Treatments for borers vary, depending the variety and size of a plant.  For information on borers and their treatment, visit Insects that Feed on Colorado Plants and Shrubs.

Next time you’re strolling through your garden, check pruned branches on your shrubs for borers.  Once the autumn leaves have fallen, pruned canes will be easier to spot.

As for trees, learn to recognize borer entrance and exit holes in the bark, so you can keep an eye out for borers there.


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Want to Attract Pollinators? Easy Fix for Sunny Yards

Pollinator plants surround a small grassy area in my front yard. In the forefront (back row, r to l), you’ll see little Trudy catmint, orange carpet hummingbird trumpet and Mojave sage. In the front row, going counter-clockwise, you’ll see dwarf broom (scruffy blue shrublet), Pawnee Buttes sand cherry, Sonoran sunset hyssop, sunset hyssop, autumn brilliance serviceberry, Rozanne cranesbill, tiger eyes sumac, more Sonoran sunset hyssop and Karalee petite pink dwarf whirling butterfly (a new Proven Winners annual).

When I headed out my front door this afternoon to pick up my mail, about 20 painted lady butterflies fluttered up from my flowers and began flitting around me.  I felt like Snow White in a Disney film!

Granted, there has been an unusually high number of painted ladies along Colorado’s Front Range this year.  I’m just delighted a small flock of them decided to visit my garden.

Don’t forget annuals when planting for pollinators. This Salvia farinacea is a huge hit with bees and butterflies. Notice the painted lady butterfly at the top of the tall spike on the right.

Nearly every plant in my front yard is a nectar source.  And some of the plants, such as butterfly weed, serve as butterfly hosts (egg-laying sites and larval food sources), as well.  Which only goes to show that your garden doesn’t have to look like a weed patch to attract pollinators.

Since installing all these plants, I’ve noticed that my yard has turned into a virtual pollinator factory, with buzzing and flitting going on throughout the day.

What are some of these critters’ favorite meals?  Well, bees go gaga over little Trudy catmint (Nepeta ‘Psfike’ Little Trudy). Hummingbirds and butterflies, meanwhile, feast on sunset hyssop (Agastache rupestris), Sonoran sunset hyssop (Agastache cana ‘Sinning’) and orange carpet hummingbird trumpet (Zauschneria garrettii).

It’s important to ensure you have flowers blooming throughout the growing season to provide a continuous food source.

So in the spring, my serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’), Pawnee Buttes sand cherry (Prunus besseyi ‘Pawnee Buttes’), Cheyenne mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii), dwarf broom (Genista lydia), ornamental onion (Allium ‘Globemaster’) and soapwort (Saponaria ocymoides) provide sustenance.  Little Trudy begins blooming in early May and keeps going till frost.  Rozanne cranesbill (Geranium ‘Gerwat’ Rozanne) blooms in May, as well, and will keep blooming into fall if you cut it back when it starts fading in late summer.

Small but mighty, this Miss Molly butterfly bush from Proven Winners adds a glorious touch of fuchsia to the garden while feeding butterflies and other insects. This shrub will eventually grow four to five feet high and wide.

Then in summer, lavender (Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead’), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa ‘Hello Yellow’), orange carpet hummingbird trumpet, hyssop, Stella d’Oro daylilies, butterfly bush (Buddleia x USPP 23423 ‘Miss Molly’), Pollypetite rose of Sharon (Hibiscus sp. ‘Rosina’ USPPAF) and snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus in my side-yard rock meadow) generate blossoms.  Except for lavender and butterfly weed, all of these summer bloomers keep generating flowers well into fall.

And, of course, I have annuals blooming in pots and in the ground to provide yet another food source.

Long-blooming orange carpet hummingbird is one of the top two plants in my garden for attracting hummingbirds. The other top hummingbird plant is agastache.

Granted, I have a few plants that pollinators don’t visit for food.  There’s my Kentucky bluegrass, for example.  It doesn’t produce nectar, but it does provide a runway, which butterflies and hummingbirds appreciate for zooming around.  My tiger eyes sumac isn’t a food source either, but its dense foliage can provide shade and storm shelter for pollinators.  As for my groundcover roses, they don’t produce nectar for pollinators, but bees will visit them to collect pollen.

In my rock meadow in the side yard, pollinators can feast on snapdragons, daylilies and columbine, as well as soapwort and prairie winecups. The potentilla in the upper right will be removed soon as part of my efforts to install a large pollinator garden near the back yard patio.

Besides food, host plants, shelter and runways, pollinators require water.  A shallow saucer filled with sand and water will enable butterflies, for example, to rehydrate themselves and ingest important minerals.

If you don’t have many pollinator plants in your garden, consider planting more next year.  You’ll be surprised at the difference they make.

For more information on enticing pollinators, check out Attracting Hummingbirds and Butterflies to Your Backyard by Sally Roth.  Or download the Colorado State University Extension fact sheet 5.504 on butterflies.


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