It’s not too soon to start thinking about next year’s garden – particularly when it comes to creating an environmentally sustainable space.
Ross Shrigley, executive director of Plant Select, offered key insights for homeowners interested in reimagining home landscaping during a recent climate change conference hosted by Durango Botanic Gardens.
In a time of drought, a trowel can be a water conservation tool, but first, people should rethink what gardens are and how they add value to a home, Shrigley said.
“It’s not that I’m all about property values. I do know that, if there’s going to be change, somebody has to come up with a very pleasing design that is very environmentally sustainable,” he said.
Environmentally sustainable plants are non-invasive, use resources appropriately for the climate, and add diversity and food for the ecosystem.
Plant Select, a nonprofit collaboration of Colorado State University, Denver Botanic Gardens and professional horticulturists, helps connect homeowners with aesthetically pleasing plants that are environmentally suited to high plains and intermountain regions.
“If everyone focuses on reducing water – that’s going to set us on the clear path to sustainability,” Shrigley said.
Colorado’s water needs are met by winter snowfall. They are increasingly strained by growing populations dependent on the Colorado River and by drought conditions.
As of Dec. 8, the entire state had been experiencing abnormally dry conditions to exceptional drought. La Plata, Montezuma, San Juan, Dolores and other counties in Southwest Colorado are in exceptional drought, the most severe of six drought levels, according to the United States Drought Monitor.
This month, Colorado activated the municipal portion of its emergency drought plan – for the second time in history – as cities start to prepare for a “dangerously dry 2021,” The Colorado Sun reported.
“Reduced watering is really going to affect climate change,” Shrigley said during the virtual conference. “If you start to think about what we shouldn’t be doing, it’s too overwhelming. ... It’s easy to say water once a week.”
To garden sustainably, homeowners can identify small unplanted, irrigated spaces in their landscape during the winter months, Shrigley told The Durango Herald after the conference.
“Those awkward spaces that get irrigated waste water, and without plants, take away from the environment,” Shrigley said.
He recommended searching for plants that can survive with less water and filling those empty spaces with crevice or cactus gardens. Both the Audubon Society and Plant Select have searchable databases to help find the right garden addition, he said.
Plant Select’s 150-plus plant recommendations go through three-year trials to ensure they are non-invasive, disease-resistant, aesthetically pleasing and appropriate for dry climates.
During the irrigation season, homeowners can turn on their sprinkler systems less frequently, about once a week, but for longer each time. The greater quantities of water will reach deep roots in the soil, and weeds will have less water to help them germinate on the surface, Shrigley said.
“You want to try to keep the (irrigation) water on your property. It will save you water and the plants will do a lot better,” he said.
One common misconception about sustainable gardens is they have to be rocks, open spaces and cacti.
But gardens can use less water while adding value to the home with aesthetically pleasing plants, Shrigley said.
Fruit-bearing trees are pollinator plants and can add diversity to the ecosystem, but they can also attract bears or other wildlife.
“You don’t want to overuse them,” Shrigley said. “You want to be smart about using them.”
With careful plant selection, gardeners can attract wildlife, like hummingbirds and other pollinators, while deterring deer.
“It should bring joy and happiness to homeowners. It’s a matter of respect to the environment,” he said. “It’s a way to give back. ... If people look at it from those eyes, they’ll enjoy the changes they’re making.”
More than 85 people attended the “Adapting Landscapes in the Four Corners to a Changing Climate” conference. The conference featured multiple speakers about environmental topics and was held online because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“What we’re trying to do is helping people start – even in a small way – rethinking when they plant and their plant selection. All that’s important in the beginning,” said Bill LeMaire, Durango Botanic Gardens president.