Drought and climate change news is not new; however eco-friendly yard and gardening techniques still may be a bit of a head-scratcher, especially if you’ve got a brown thumb. The benefits are worth the effort though. Not only can using less water for your outdoor space save money on your monthly water bill, it also means more water kept in Colorado’s mountain reservoirs and rivers.
The average single family residential household in Denver Water’s metro area service uses about 105,000 gallons a year—that’s how much a 15-by-30-foot pool can hold. About 50 percent of that, 52,500 gallons, is used on those homes’ landscaping. According to Denver Water, an average homeowner can save 25 percent of their water use per year by switching from a lawn to a xeriscaped (requiring little to no irrigation) yard. Saving water is just the beginning, sustainable gardening techniques also support vital pollinators and divert compostable trash from landfills.
Truth is, turning a grass-dominant lawn into an eco-friendly beauty takes effort and planning. If you’re ready to get started, there are actions—some just right for kids—that will help your family take a step closer to being resource-wise, and have some fun along the way.
“(Kids can) make connections that hopefully will offer them the opportunity to be more healthy, involved, Earth science citizens,” says Lee Lee Newcomb, director of summer at Kent Denver School, which includes a series of environment-focused day camps. “I think as a parent, it’s the whole idea of giving back to the cycle of sustainability and to the earth so that kids are mindful and have an understanding of their individual impacts.”
Dig in with these transformational ideas and kid-friendly activities.
Toss the Turf…Where It Makes Sense
Grass, when well placed and maintained, can be helpful in serving as a filter for water runoff, according to horticulture experts with Colorado State University Extension. It’s also a soft surface for playful kids and dogs. However, grass requires a lot of water, and it isn’t appropriate for all areas of the yard, particularly places that are tough to keep up: along fences, on slopes where water runs off, narrow strips between cement, irregular patches of grass that don’t fit sprinkler patterns, and hot sun locations.
Consider removing turf from these spots and prepare the ground for native plants that are better suited for Colorado’s semi-arid climate. If you’re attempting xeriscaping, don’t over-commit. Start with small areas and have a plan for the required upkeep. (For areas where you would like to keep something soft underfoot, consider buffalo grass, which is a native, drought-resistant and cold tolerant option.)
Once you’ve decided what area you’d like to revamp with plants, start by pulling weeds, then do some light tilling or roughing up the soil with a rake. Denver soils are typically sandy and clay-filled, which is not conducive to deep root growth. Increase your ground’s water-holding and root growth capabilities by working compost into the soil, and layering mulch on the surface to shade the dirt and slow evaporation.
For the Kids: Soil art
Aside from getting kids digging up grass and turning soil—set little ones up with a piece of paper, paint brushes, a sieve for sifting, and cups of water; they can paint using fine dirt mixed with water and glue (enough to form a runny paste). Coarser bits of earth, bark, and grass will add textures to their art.
Enrich the Play Space
If plants aren’t your thing or you want a larger lawn area repurposed, lay down mulch and set up a picnic table, or build a swingset, playhouse, or sandbox
for the kids.
Welcome Your Native Neighbors
When you think about it, picking native plants to create efficient landscapes makes a whole lot of sense; they’re made to live here.
Native wildflowers, most of which prefer around seven hours of sun per day, are popular for being easy to maintain, showy, and attractive to birds and insects. Sherry Fuller, curator at Gardens on Spring Creek, a botanical garden in Fort Collins, suggests planting annuals in your yard for flowers all summer long, as well as perennials that are slower to get started, but longer lived.
After rolling out the welcome mat (or plot, pot, or planter), don’t wait too long to get planting. Depending on the plant, it will likely need extra TLC, such as watering or raking, up front to get its roots established, and you may need to get the process going before the summer heat.
Ready to dig in? Pick your varieties and map out where they’ll go in the yard. Group plants with similar water needs together. If there’s a spot where water collects, choose H2O-loving plants; put hardier ones uphill and in southern and western facing areas, which tend to get more sun.
Elena Shtern, a horticulturist for the Denver Botanic Gardens Mordecai Children’s Garden, suggests planting the following species in April; each has a sensory characteristic for kids to enjoy:
- Upright prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) displays deep color contrast, with petals that look like a skirt.
- Chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata) gives off a sweet, chocolaty smell.
- Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla patens) dons wispy, tactile seed heads.
- Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) stands tall with bright and uniquely shaped flowers.
- Tufted evening primrose (Oenothera caespitosa) puts on a show with large flowers you can
watch as they open in the evening.
Low maintenance ground cover like pussytoes and fringed sage are great fillers to tuck between larger, ornamental plants. And although trees and shrubs are the most efficient at draining excess Earth-warming carbon dioxide from the air, their roots are trickier to establish, according to CSU Extension horticulturists. Denver Water offers fast facts to find the right type of plants for your yard, in the Xeriscape Resources section of their website.
For the Kids: Pressed wildflower journal
Kids can preserve memories from the garden by keeping a journal full of colorful pressed flowers. Sandwich freshly picked florals between tissues and place them between pages of a heavy book. Let them sit under a weighty object for two weeks. Arrange the flowers on a blank journal page and glue them in place, then press clear contact paper over the area to protect the petals. Have your child write (or tell you what to write if they’re young) about the flowers and their experiences in nature.
Make a Pollination Station
An estimated one out of every three bites of food eaten across the globe is a result of pollinators; however their populations are in decline because of habitat destruction, chemical pollution, parasites, and pathogens, according to experts at Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster.
If you’ve got a relatively sunny spot, consider creating a home for bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and the “forgotten pollinators” like soldier beetles and hover flies. A garden bed or pot is suitable for nurturing blooming plants that these creatures like to snack on. If possible, plant several that bloom at different times from late spring to fall for consistent feeding—perhaps Rocky Mountain penstemon, rose milkweed, and switchgrass.
Keep things simple by picking up a Native Nectar bundle that includes a design, starter plants, and fact sheet, from Resource Central, a Boulder-based conservation nonprofit. Just remember, avoid pesticides (even organic ones) as they could hurt pollinators; even herbicides can harm nectar and host plants.
For the Kids: Build a bee house
Using a tin can, construction paper, tape, and glue, you can build a buzzworthy home for bees. Make long paper rolls (about 30) by wrapping 2-inch wide strips of paper around pencils and securing them with tape. Line the can’s inside with glue, then tightly pack the rolls upright, trimming the tops to match the height of the can; let dry. Decorate the outside of the can—knowing the home will be exposed to the elements. Secure the finished product at least three feet off the ground in a sunny spot well away from areas where the kids regularly play, then watch and wait for bees to move in. You might see the holes get plugged up with mud; that means baby bees are growing inside. Remind young kids to quietly observe the bee house, but not get too close.
Bonus: Kids love having a job and being “official.” Task your child with managing a certified Monarch Waystation, which provides resources for monarchs to reproduce for generations and sustain their migration. Register your pollination station online (there is no minimum area requirement, though at least 100 aggregate square feet works best), and make an upkeep plan for mulching, watering, and deadheading so the monarchs—and many other beautiful butterfly species—that migrate through Colorado will have a great place to rest and refuel.
Complete the Circle
Remember, Denver metro area soil often needs help with water retention. You can keep moisture in flower beds, gardens, and potted plants using mulch. No need for wood chips from the store; grass clippings, straw bales, shredded paper, pine needles, and leaves will do. Sustainability, to Newcomb of Kent Denver’s summer programs, means taking a circular economy approach to resources. Ask your family what you already have that can be used to promote growth.
For instance, try diverting food and yard scraps from the landfill—where they have a hard time decomposing—by creating compost, which returns nutrients to the earth. Choose between an open pile or a bin, and begin gathering carbon and nitrogen materials—the ratio should be two-thirds carbon (cardboard, cotton, dry leaves) and one-third nitrogen (fruit and vegetable peels, coffee, non-meat food scraps). Denver Urban Gardens provides a valuable beginner’s guide to composting at dug.org/composting-basics.
For the Kids: Two-liter bottle composter
Get kids interested in the breakdown of natural materials with a simplified composting experiment. Rinse a two-liter bottle and peel off the label, then cut the top off about one to two inches below the neck. Set the top aside. Use a nail to punch eight to 10 air and drainage holes on the sides and bottom of the bottle.
Add dirt, shredded newspaper, and old leaves to the bottle. Use a spray bottle to moisten. Add things like fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells, and grass clippings. Turn the scrap bottle top upside down and place it in the open top of the bottle. Place the composter in a sunny spot and cover with a kitchen towel when not in use.
Have your child check the composter regularly and note the changes that they see. Every day add a little water to keep the contents damp, and every few days have kids stir the compost. As the compost breaks down, add more kitchen scraps or plant litter, plus soil from outside. Spread the resulting soil on plants for a boost of nutrients.