CO-Horts Blog

Thursday, March 17, 2022

When Dryish Eyes are Smiling


Posted by: John Murgel, Horticulture and Natural Resources Agent, Douglas County


Looking for some green in your life, but concerned about landscape water use?  Then let me tell you about extremely dry gardens.  Gardens without supplemental water.

 If you’re shuddering now, I don’t blame you.  You’ve probably seen xeriscapes that hardly inspire enthusiasm.  But whether you’re interested in dry gardens for sustainability, economics, aesthetics, or because (like me) you’re just tired of dealing with the sprinkler system, I have some solutions and suggestions that go beyond rocks, a steer skull, and a wagon wheel.

 To succeed with a dry garden, understanding how plants cope with drought is a great way to begin.  Annuals take advantage of favorable conditions to sprout and flower quickly, set copious seed, and then perish as conditions get drier.  Their seeds will rest until conditions are right again.  Bulbs use a similar strategy, but rest as a perennial plant, hidden beneath the soil surface.  Both annuals and bulbs can be extremely showy additions to gardens, filling spaces between perennials—but the display is usually short-lived--maybe a month.  A few annuals will flower for a longer period if conditions remain favorable—California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata) are two examples of plants that can flower all summer if conditions don’t get too harsh.  Both grow easily from seed sown outdoors in spring.

Dry Garden with annuals in Arizona
Desert Marigold (yellow, front) growing happily in Southern Arizona without water.  It can handle Colorado drought, too!

Perennials, shrubs, and trees cope with drought by various methods of tolerance, including morphological adaptations to leaves and roots, by “aestivating,” or going dormant during hot dry periods, and physiological adaptations (like CAM photosynthesis, used by succulents when the growing gets tough).

Choosing plants for your garden should begin with an evaluation of the type of drought you’re dealing with.  A gardener in Castle Rock, for example, will be facing a very different drought than a gardener in Grand Junction or Lamar.  Geography will tell you about your “normal” precipitation patterns.  Then factors like soil (its nature and depth), microclimates, shade, tree roots, wind, and salt will all play in as well.  Once these are known, at least approximately, you can begin choosing plants. 

no-water garden with full flowers
No-water gardens can include native and non-native plants.

In general, the only soil improvement that you should undertake is to reduce compaction by “forking”.  Do everything you can to maintain soil structure--if you're using machinery, don't overdo it!  As a general rule, drought-tolerant plants prefer stony, coarse, well drained soil that is low in organic matter (you know, the stuff that we all like to complain about as "terrible Colorado soil").  Use mineral mulch (like pea gravel or crushed granite) or low berms to ensure that moisture drains away from plant crowns quickly.  Plant perennials in wide, shallow bowls so that they can be watered deeply and infrequently during their establishment year.  After a once a week-ish drink the first summer, you can let the plants fend for themselves.  The bowls can be disguised with the mineral mulch if you don’t want your garden to look too lunar. 

A quick aside—don’t put weed fabric below your mulch, just use deep enough mulch.  4” of gravel will suppress weeds and won’t impede air- and water-flow like weed fabric does.

Perhaps the most counterintuitive principle for starting with plants is to plant small!  Large tender plants straight from the cushy conditions of the nursery will quickly shrivel in the tough conditions of your new drought-tolerant garden.  Start with small plants, or even try planting perennials from seed (check the seed packet for the best planting time).  Plant your plants early to take advantage of spring moisture.  Hardened plants can go out in early April along the Front Range, for example, as long as the soil workable. 

Be patient.  Your plants will grow slowly in their first year, but they’ll reward you each successive season with bigger displays.  Maintenance often includes only cutting back spent flowers (if you like). 

First year xeric garden
This first year xeriscape is small on plants, but be patient

For more information (including design, maintenance, trees, weeds, and fire)—please join the April 1 webinar about no-water gardening! Registration is required, but the webinar will be recorded and posted in the webinars page of this blog.

Third year xeriscape with bigger plants
The same garden in the spring of year 3, having received no watering other than rain for 2 years!

Update: It's true that perennial beds can look shaggy in winter and dry gardens are no exception.  BUT--careful garden design and strategic use of evergreens (including evergreen succulents) can provide season-long interest without looking unkempt.  Just be sure to mow or cut everything back before the bulbs come up!

Yucca plant in winter
The same garden, from a different angle, in winter


  1. Will you please post a link to the webinar?

    1. Hi Jan,
      We just linked the registration page for the April 1 webinar. It's also pasted here:

  2. love it! Thank you, Will look into desert marigold - I live in the Western Slope area

  3. Thanks, and how about a picture in the winter?

  4. Laughed out loud at this line: I have some solutions and suggestions that go beyond rocks, a steer skull, and a wagon wheel.

    Great article!

  5. Thank you for this particular Blog post and I love the title that you used!