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Colorado's extreme weather makes gardening a challenge. These tips should help

“There's a pretty significant shift now to people who want to spend less time working in their yard and more time admiring it,” says a nonprofit offering low-water and native plants.
Colorado garden in a box
Posted at 10:30 AM, Jun 25, 2024

BOULDER, Colo. — As Colorado’s summer heats up, and climate change continues intensifying the state’s extreme weather, many gardeners are tearing out their lawns and trying out different plants and techniques.

“It's a no brainer,” said Rachel Staats with the Boulder nonprofit Resource Central. “You're saving water, you're supporting pollinators and not spending a lot of time out here dealing with thirsty grass.”

Resource Central helps Coloradans save water, conserve energy and reduce waste. One way they do that is by selling water-wise plants through a program called Garden In A Box.

Garden in a Box
This garden in Boulder includes several Resource Central "Garden in a Box" kits planted over the last few years.

Denver7 stopped by a front yard in Boulder where flowers in bloom, like red valerian and coneflowers, sway in the breeze and welcome bees, birds and butterflies.

“Everything here will be blooming throughout the season. So, you’re never gonna be without a pop of color in your yard,” Staats said.

Over the last few years, she has been slowly replacing her struggling lawn with a colorful array of flowers.

"I'm not a gardener, but it's really easy,” she said.

The plants are sold in curated packs of four-inch pots. In the first year, they need deep watering roughly every three days to help establish their roots. But by the second or third year, these water-wise gardens need hardly any watering at all, she said.

flower in boulder garden
Flowers in the "Garden in a Box" kits are selected to bloom at different times throughout the spring and summer.

Beyond cutting down your water bill, Staats said the plants come with another benefit. They are “resilient to high temperatures, hail, extreme sun – all of our fun weather events that happen in Colorado,” she said.

Resiliency to extreme shifts in temperature and humidity is more important heading into the future.

“Historically, Colorado has always been a hard place to garden or farm because we've always had extreme weather,” said Keah Schuenemann, a meteorology professor at Metropolitan State University in Denver. “It really is a challenge out here, and climate change is definitely making it even harder to be a gardener."

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More frequent and intense heat waves, longer periods of drought and more severe thunderstorms are all linked to climate change, Schuenemann said.

All of these conditions are hard on plants, especially young crops.

Colorado is also a hotspot for hail, Schuenemann said. This year, many gardeners on the Front Range lost their early plantings to hail storms.

Watch an extended video of Denver7's conversation with MSU professor Keah Schuenemann:

***INSERT VIDEO***

As a gardener herself, Schuenemann said she’s learning new techniques to deal with Colorado’s extremes. She grew up in the Midwest where her family tended to an apple and cherry orchard.

“The really dry and sunny skies here [in Colorado] are a big difference,” she said. But she’s still able to grow flowers and vegetables.

“Some of the things that I do at my house are drip irrigation. Early in the morning, before I wake up, I have it on a timer so it'll go off,” she said. She also uses shade cloths or outdoor umbrellas to cover her plants on the hottest days. Shade cloths can also double as hail protection when propped up before a storm.

Still, her plants aren't as prolific this year as in ones past. “They seem to be a little stunted from the heat because it just got so hot so fast this year,” she said.

Schuenemann said gardening "almost feels like a sport. Sometimes, you win and you lose.”

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That’s why more Coloradans appear to be turning to native, low-water landscaping.

Resource Central helped more than 10,000 people last year to conserve water using their Gardens in a Box and “Slow the Flow” sprinkler evaluations. They partner with local governments and water departments to offer incentives and discounts for Coloradans looking to remove lawns and replace them with water-wise gardens.

An online "inspiration hub" shows how diverse low-water gardens can look, with some xeric rock landscapes resembling desert vistas or mulched flower beds bringing bright pops of color.

waterwise gardens
Coloradans share photos and tips on how they converted their landscapes on the Waterwise Yards inspiration hub.

Staats said that her garden is now so well-established after a few years that she hardly has to do anything to maintain it.

“I do a quick little walk, once a week around my garden. I take a look and I stick my finger in the ground, and I see, is the soil wet? Is it dry? Are my plants perky? Do they look thirsty?”

She said if the plants look droopy and the soil is dry, give them a drink. If they're droopy, but the soil is really wet, it's time to take a break from watering.

“Once they're more established, the roots will be further down in the soil, and you will need to water less frequently, but more deeply,” she said.

Garden.jpg

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If you’re interested in switching over your garden, Staats said the best times to plant are in the early spring after the last frost in mid-May or in the late summer around August or September.

Resource Central is currently selling its Gardens in a Box for pick up in the late summer.

Coloradans can also check out nonprofits, plant swaps and nurseries offering help with native and low-water plants.

The Colorado Native Plant Society offers advice on which plants to go with and why. The People & Pollinator’s Action Network has a list of pollinator friendly nurseries across the Front Range. The Wild Ones Front Range hosts native plant swaps throughout June.

“There's a pretty significant shift now to people who want to spend less time working in their yard and more time admiring it,” Staats said. “Whatever your yard looks like, we can accommodate that.”