Small Acreage: A back yard reconsidered |

Small Acreage: A back yard reconsidered

Janice Benedict
CSU Extension Master Gardener in Larimer County

It started last August, with a water bill.

We agreed quickly that improvement was needed, and being unwilling to cut down on showers and laundry, the conversation soon came around to “The Lawn.”

With no dogs or small children, a turfgrass back yard seemed a natural water user to eliminate — an easy decision to reach, but implementation proved to be a bit more complex.

Up came the turf, and it became, along with a load of topsoil, three berms of varying heights and eccentric shapes. The spaces between berms became pathways made of crushed gravel, with landscape fabric beneath in the hope of forestalling some of the weeds. Well, perhaps the bindweed will be slowed down a bit.

Optimism is a necessary ingredient in these matters.

The berms were covered with a thick layer — about four inches — of shredded cedar mulch, and then the real fun began: what to plant? As cooler weather approached, we settled on a load of mid-sized, decorative rock, which we arranged, and rearranged, and finally augmented with several low, spreading Scotch pines.

Done, for the winter.

The cold months became study time. One of the berms, the one with the most direct sunlight, was to be truly “xeric,” that is, designed to survive without additional water, once established. Of the remaining two, both would be “low water,” needing occasional irrigation during extended dry periods. One of these is partly shaded. With this general plan in mind, the search began.

Several books proved to be invaluable. “Dryland Gardening: Plants That Survive and Thrive in Tough Conditions,” by Jennifer Bennett (Firefly Books, 2005) was helpful for general information and background. Specific plant recommendations were detailed enough to discuss cultivars appropriate to specific zones and circumstances.

Newer and more local is “Durable Plants for the Garden: A Plant Select® Guide,” edited by James E. Henrich (Fulcrum Publishing, 2009). This is truly the go-to source for High Plains gardeners.

Plant Select is the collaborative output of CSU, Denver Botanic Gardens, and Green Industries of Colorado. The book was recently updated with a booklet describing their selections since 2009, and each spring a new flier announces the latest choices. The booklet, “A Guide to Plants for Western Gardens and Beyond,” and the annual fliers, are available at garden centers, through your local Extension office or online at

One other work deserves mention because of its local emphasis and inclusion of current (and therefore likely to be available at your favorite garden center) varieties and cultivars — “Waterwise Plants for Sustainable Gardens: 200 Drought-Tolerant Choices for All Climates,” by Lauren Springer Ogden and Scott Ogden (Timber Press, 2011). Since we wanted to emphasize ornamental grasses on the new berms, this reference was invaluable for its extensive selection and good pictures.

After all this reading, what did we choose?

Here’s the shopping list, with more choices than we’ll need, since availability is always a question:


• Blue Grama, Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’. A candidate for the xeric berm.

• Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii. A tall, bluegreen centerpiece.

• Feather Reed Grass, Calamagrostis acutifolia ‘Karl Foerster’ or ‘Overdam’.

• UndauntedTM Ruby Muhly, Muhlenbergia reverchonii. A delicate, colorful Plant Select® choice for 2014.

• Japanese Blood Grass, Imperata cylindrical ‘Rubens’ or ‘Red Baron’.

• Blue Fescue, Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’ or ‘Sea Urchin’. Just eight inches tall – something for the foreground.


• Chieftain Manzanita, Arctostaphylos x coloradensis. Evergreen, spreading, xeric. A 2013 Plant Select® choice, perfect for a south-facing slope.

• Daphne, Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’, for the part-shade, low-water berm.


• Basket of Gold, Aurinia saxitilis. Good for the slope, around some rocks, on the xeric berm.

• Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa. Lovely orange flowers, beloved of bees and butterflies.

• Desert Four O’Clock, Mirabilis multiflora. Too tall to be called a ground cover, but mounds nicely to fill spaces. Purple to fuchsia flowers, xeric.

• Hummingbird Trumpet, Zauschneria californica or Z. garrettii. Long-flowering, into fall. Combines well with grasses.

• Blue Flax, Linum narbonense. Mounds nicely and can tolerate part shade. Another 2013 Plant Select® choice.

If you need visual images of what these plants look like, just type the name into your favorite search engine.

Wish me luck this summer with my plant installation! ❖

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