How to Xeriscape Your Colorado Lawn

house in Colorado

Coloradans should know better than anyone how to xeriscape to create a water-wise, sustainable landscape in place of a traditional lawn. After all, xeriscaping was invented right here in Denver. In case you need a refresher or you’re new to Colorado landscaping, the main principles of xeriscaping include surveying your land and distinguishing hydrozones, testing and amending your soil (if necessary), choosing the right plants, and using mulch.

Climate affects plant growth, so where you live in the state determines which xeriscaping plants will thrive in your area. Colorful Colorado is drier and hotter in the eastern and western regions, while the mountainous areas are cooler and tend to get more snow. Keep reading for resources to help you xeriscape your Colorado lawn, no matter where you live in the state. 

How to xeriscape your Colorado lawn 

Denver Water coined the methods of xeriscaping in 1981 to address the need to reduce water use in drought-ridden regions like Colorado. Then and now, xeriscaping encourages homeowners to use less water on their lawns and landscapes by using plants that thrive in the Centennial State’s semi-arid climate with little to no water beyond rainfall.

Here are the basic steps Denver Water developed to help you start your own Colorado xeriscape: 

1. Evaluate and map your yard 

Evaluate how sunny and shady different areas of your yard are and what sections get or retain the most water. Divide your property into different zones based on similar sun-shade ratios and amounts of rainfall (this is known as hydrozoning). 

Create a map of your property, including existing structures, such as your patio, driveway, or tool shed. Delineate the different hydrozones you identified. Be sure to include where utilities (underground water lines and power lines) are located. You can call 811 or visit the Colorado 811 website to find out where your utility lines are located if you don’t already know.

The zones on your map will help you determine which plants go where based on how much water they’ll need from irrigation. Most homes have about three zones. One zone is for plants with high water needs and includes turfgrass if you decide to keep any. Another is for plants that require less water, aka medium water needs. The third zone has the lowest water needs.

Infographic by Juan Rodriguez

If your yard isn’t large enough to have three zones, that’s fine. The important thing is to group plants with similar watering needs to make irrigation more efficient.

Pro tip: Plants with higher water needs should be placed in lower areas at the bottom of slopes since water moves downhill and tends to collect in these spots. Planting a rain garden in low-lying areas can help control stormwater runoff on your property while reducing water use at the same time. 

2. Test your soil 

Your soil type affects plant growth. Test your soil to which type it is, how well it absorbs water, what plant nutrients it has and which ones it’s missing, and if you need to add any soil amendments before planting. You can test the soil yourself at home or send samples to CSU’s Soil Testing Lab for more in-depth results and expert recommendations. 

Colorado soil tends to be sandy or clayey, each of which presents its own challenges. Clay soil prevents plants from establishing deep roots and doesn’t circulate water very well, while sandy soil is bad at retaining water. Various soil amendments can help with these issues and need to be worked into the soil before you plant anything. 

3. Choose the right plants

Ice plant (Delosperma cooperi)
Photo Credit: Alexander Klink. | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 3.0

Now, it’s time to choose which plants will go in the different zones of your yard. The goal is to choose plants that will get all the water they need from natural rainfall and won’t need supplemental irrigation. 

Select Colorado native plants that are drought-tolerant and grow well in your region of the state. All the plants you choose should be in your USDA hardiness planting zone. Hardiness zones distinguish which plants are most likely to survive the area’s coldest temperatures. 

If you live in the Rocky Mountain area, check out the program Plant Select, a non-profit initiative designed to help you find plants that will thrive in your region. 

The goal is to replace as much grass as possible with drought-tolerant plants because traditional turfgrasses use up immense amounts of water. Your xeriscape might include:

As you can see, xeriscaping offers a ton of options. Water-wise landscaping doesn’t necessarily mean dull and barren. It just means choosing the best plants for the amount of rainfall your region gets. 

Here are some of the best xeriscaping plants for Colorado:

Native plants:

  • Claret cup cactus 
  • Colorado blue Columbine
  • Antelope bitterbrush
  • Little bluestem
  • Creeping phlox
  • Woody yarrow
  • Rabbitbrush

Non-native plants:

  • Russian sage
  • Apache plume
  • Broadleaf stonecrop
  • Largeflower tickseed
  • Ice plant
  • Mojave sage

If you decide to keep some grass, choose a drought-tolerant turfgrass suited for your region of the state. For example, the best grass types for Denver and Colorado Springs that are appropriate for xeriscapes are buffalograss, blue grama grass, and tall fescue. 

You don’t have to do it all yourself. Take advantage of the non-profit conservation organization Resource Central, located in Boulder. Resource Central provides DIY xeriscaping advice and offers discounted xeriscape garden kits available for pre-order in March and June.

Denver Water also has xeriscape plans on its website, which include low-maintenance tips, various maps for different types of home layouts, the types of plants to include, and even a breakdown of how many of each type of plant is needed for each hydrozone per design type.

4. Install a water-saving irrigation system

drip irrigation system in a vegetable garden
Photo Credit: Jasmina Andonova | Canva Pro | License

Although your landscape design will be filled with drought-resistant plants, they may require some watering. For example, many plants are drought-tolerant once established but need routine watering when they’re first planted.

Instead of traditional sprinklers, install a drip irrigation system or soaker hose to make your design more low-maintenance and water-efficient. Drip irrigation and soaker hoses deliver water directly to plant roots, which is where vegetation needs moisture the most. Drip irrigation systems also eliminate the water waste that happens when traditional sprinklers water hard surfaces like a sidewalk or driveway instead of grass and plants. 

5.  Use mulch and hardscapes

In addition to filling your property with plants that are drought-tolerant, you can xeriscape your yard with mulch and hardscapes. Hardscapes are non-living landscape elements, like patios, gazebos, walkways, and seating areas.

Mulch can be used to replace turf areas, create walkways, and reduce runoff because it absorbs water. Eliminate the difficult task of mowing areas that don’t have easy accessibility by placing mulch around trees, shrubs, and other hard-to-reach areas. Mulch not only protects plants, it also slows down evaporation and helps with water conservation. There are many different types of mulch to choose from, so you can pick one that fits your landscape design. 

Check out our list of xeriscape ideas for a water-wise yard for more ways to get creative with mulch, hardscaping, and other xeriscaping materials and features.

How to maintain your Colorado xeriscape

After you’ve gone through the work of xeriscaping your property, you want to ensure you maintain it, which is the seventh xeriscape principle. Practice these habits to sustain your water-efficient design:

  • Replace mulch when it wears down. Organic mulch needs replacement more often than inorganic mulch, typically yearly.
  • Maintain any turfgrass still left. This includes mowing at the correct height and interval for your grass type and treating grass for diseases and pests.
  • Fertilize your grass at the right time and with the right nutrients for your grass type and your soil’s specific needs. 
  • Provide grass and plants with the right amount of water, and always water in the early morning. 
  • Aerate the lawn and garden at least once every few years to break up compacted soil and ensure water reaches your plants’ roots
  • Learn and follow the care instructions for the specific plants growing in your landscape. This includes learning your plants’ watering, fertilizing, and pruning needs. 

Why xeriscaping your Colorado lawn is worth it 

front yard of house in Colorado
Photo Credit: rafalkrakow | Canva Pro | License

Xeriscaping provides benefits for homeowners and the environment. These are some advantages of a sustainable landscape: 

  • Almost 50 percent of home water usage goes toward lawn and plant maintenance. Water use is reduced significantly when your property is xeriscaped, which leads to a reduced water bill.
  • Hardscaping like patios, outdoor kitchens, fireplaces, and other xeriscaping features can add curb appeal and increase your property value.
  • Eliminating or reducing turfgrass reduces or eliminates costs and time associated with mowing, fertilizing, and weeding the lawn. It also reduces the amount of chemicals that contaminate the water supply from synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides running off with rainwater.
  • Xeriscaping allows homeowners to maintain a healthy and attractive landscape during droughts. Rising temperatures result in restricted water use. Grass and plants that require more water suffer under these conditions, but xeric plants thrive. 
  • Native plants, which are usually the best options for xeriscaping, provide habitat and nourishment to local wildlife, which helps sustain and support biodiversity and your local ecosystem.

FAQs about xeriscaping in Colorado

What are the seven principles of xeriscaping?

  1. Plan your design and hydrozone your yard
  2. Know your soil type
  3. Use efficient irrigation systems
  4. Reduce or eliminate turfgrass
  5. Use mulch
  6. Choose drought-tolerant plants
  7. Maintain your xeriscape design

How can I xeriscape on a budget?

The Boulder non-profit conservation organization Resource Central has DIY garden kits at a discounted price that homeowners can preorder in March and June. Denver Water is also working on programs that make sustainable landscaping more accessible.

You can also save money by doing as much as you can yourself. Do your research and plan ahead of time. These things will help:

  • Ask people you know for seeds. 
  • Buying seeds is usually cheaper than buying plants, so avoid purchasing mature plants. 
  • Buy perennials instead of annuals since perennials grow back for multiple seasons, while annuals need to be replaced every year.
  • Collect and use mulch materials you already have, like grass clippings from mowing, leaves, and pine needles that fall off of trees. 

What is the best grass for Colorado?

The best grass seed for Colorado consists of both cool-season grasses and warm-season grasses. 

Cool-season grasses for Colorado:

  • Kentucky bluegrass 
  • Perennial ryegrass 
  • Tall fescue
  • Fine fescue

Warm-season grasses for Colorado:

  • Buffalograss
  • Blue grama

The most drought-tolerant of these are buffalo, blue grama, and tall fescue. 

Let’s xeriscape, Colorado

What are you waiting for? Get in on the trend some people are calling ColoradoScaping. It’s easy and affordable to plant seeds for native drought-tolerant plants, install organic mulch sourced from your own backyard, and build your own simple hardscapes. 

We understand that planning and creating a whole new xeriscape may be too much for your busy schedule. But Lawn Love can help. Whether you’re in Denver, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, or anywhere else in the Centennial State, our online platform can connect you with the best lawn care and landscaping pros in Colorado to handle all your yard chores for you.

Main Photo Credit: rafalkrakow | Canva Pro | License


LaShonda Tucker

LaShonda Tucker’s passion for maintaining a healthy lifestyle through organic herbs, fruits, and veggies leads her to research and learn about plants and insects. She loves sharing her knowledge to help others achieve their lawn care and landscaping goals.