Landscaping in Colorado Springs’ Unique Climate

Written by Andy Stauffer

June 5

landscaping in colorado
This is a guest blog post by Roger Haywood from Accent Landscapes. His company was the landscape contractor on our 2014 Parade Home, which won the “Best Landscaping” award, and we’re happy to share some of his advice on how landscaping works here in Colorado Springs’ unique climate.

Q: What are some of the unique challenges for landscaping and growing things in Colorado Springs?

A: Every area has its own challenges, and we have two big challenges for landscaping in Colorado Springs: the first is that we typically only get 13-15 inches of precipitation annually. So we’re living in a semi-arid climate, and that can be a problem for plant material. The second is the freeze/thaw cycle we have here, which creates challenges not only for plants, but also for to seating walls, outdoor fire pits and fireplaces: you have to make sure they’re built well and can withstand the forces of freezing/thawing action. I’ve seen retaining walls, patios, and seat walls buckle because they weren’t properly built to withstand our weather.

Q: What kinds of things do you get requests for in a landscape, but that don’t grow well here in Colorado Springs?

A: Because Colorado Springs is such a beautiful place to live, people move here from all over the country, and a lot of those people are coming from warm weather climates, (especially Southern California). There’s a large list of plant material that people love from other parts of the world that just won’t grow here. For example, for turf grass, we have Kentucky bluegrass here, which is not grown in places like California. Also, many houseplants from warmer climates won’t grow here either: I was born in Southern Florida, and poinsettia is a popular outdoor plant there, but we can’t get it to grow here. (The US Dept of Agriculture has a great website where you can find out what your Plant Hardiness Zone is based on your zip code. Check it out here.)

Q: It seems it’s harder to grow a lawn here than in othear areas, especially since Colorado Springs sometimes has water restrictions. What can we do about that?

A: Growing grass here can be a challenge for some people, mostly because of their expectations of their lawn. Some places have grass that stays green all year long, but in Colorado Springs, our turf grass will green up in April, but then go dormant some time in November. So during the winter months, the lawn can look horrible, and I can see how that would look startling to someone who’s lived in a climate where the grass is green all year. The thing to remember though, is that when a lawn goes dormant, it looks dead because it’s brown in appearance, but the roots stay alive.

With water restrictions, that’s tough. But what I’ve seen over the last few years with water restrictions is that most lawns go dormant, but they don’t actually die. So when the water restrictions are lifted, or we get rain again, those roots start pushing up new grass blades. I’ve seen that in every case where the homeowner didn’t “give up” on their lawn and took good care of it. On the other hand, one thing that can kill your lawn during water restrictions having poor soil. Lawns without good soil preparation (or yards that don’t have a good sprinkler system) don’t fare well during water restrictions. Because you can’t get enough water applied with an inefficient sprinkler system, and you can’t get enough water to stay without proper soil preparation, so those are usually the lawns that end up dying. So if you do have adequate soil and a good sprinkler system, your lawn may not have that nice “golf course green” look to it during water restrictions, but it can survive.

Q: Watering restrictions or not, what is the best way to maintain a nice, healthy lawn?

A: Watering is very important: the goal is to keep the roots moist to a depth of about 6 inches, because that’s how deep the roots generally grow. It’s okay for roots to dry out for a short period of time, but if you let it go for too long you’ll start to see death on the top of the plant.

One big thing a lot of people don’t know is that you still need to water your landscape in the winter time. But think about it: if you turn off your sprinklers in mid October and turn them back on in April, (as most people do), your lawn is going without water for nearly six months. It can’t last that long, so you should water at least once a month in winter. This obviously depends on precipitation, and snow counts too by the way—if we get a good wet snow, you don’t have to worry about watering that month. Even though your sprinklers are turned off in winter, it’s easy: bring out an oscillating sprinkler for the grass, and hand-water your shrubs. It’s amazing how much faster plants bloom in the springtime if you irrigate during winter. The same goes for your lawn: if you water your lawn in the winter time, you’re be happy at how much quicker it will green up in the spring and how much fuller it will be.

On top of water, which everyone thinks about, you need to fertilize a lawn too. I like to say that plants are like people: we need to be watered and fed. A fertilized plant will grow and bloom so much better than a non-fertilized plant, and the same thing goes for with turf. Your lawn needs regular fertilizer, usually 4-5 times per year. You’ll want to add nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and the trace elements iron and sulfur. Home Depot and other hardware stores sell Scott’s products, which is a tried and true brand and their products are excellent.

Q: One option people talk about in Colorado Springs’ dry climate is xeriscaping. But some people feel xeriscaping is unattractive. What are your thoughts?

A: Xeric landscapes don’t have to look ugly. Really, I think a dry climate gives us a great opportunity to create the best landscapes possible. Some of the most attractive landscapes are ones that have a very small turf area. I believe in having lawns, and I think turf is a nice ground cover, but it’s a poor choice to use over large areas because of the maintenance and water requirements, and also because as I mentioned before, it goes dormant for so many months where you lose that nice beautiful green appearance.

Instead, we can create hardscapes with beautiful patios, sitting areas, walkways, and more, and the plant material selection we can fill those in with gives so much more seasonal interest than just turf. We can get a real nice bloom in the spring and summer, and we can get a beautiful bloom with wonderful fall colors, then even have interesting evergreens for the winter months. So I think that low water use landscaping is actually more beautiful than having a large lawn.

We receive calls at Accent Landscapes, especially during the drought years, where people ask us to rip out their lawns and just put down rocks instead. We won’t do that, because it’s not good for surface runoff, it creates a lot of heat, and it’s not attractive. Some people call that xeriscaping, but really it isn’t. I would encourage anyone who wants to know about xeriscaping to look at the xeriscape gardens on Mesa road put together by Colorado Springs Utilities. They’re beautiful and they show a wonderful combination of hardscapes and plant material that do well in Colorado Springs, and have low water requirements.

Here’s another benefit: if you have a lot of turf, you’ve got to mow it weekly—there’s just no getting away from that. But if you have a xeric landscape, you can get in your motor-home and leave town for three or four weeks and not have to worry about it.

Q: What kinds of pests cause issues with landscapes in our area, and what can we do about it?

A: In our mountainous region, we see a lot of deer damage in landscapes. The easiest way to work with that is to choose plants that the deer don’t like to eat. It’s just not worth having plants that deer like to eat, because you’ll have to protect the plantings by putting up wire cages, which is a maintenance challenge, and it’s unattractive. Aside from that, there are different sprays and things that can deter the deer, but those need to be applied constantly, so that’s a hassle too.

The real trouble with deer is that they like to eat a lot of plants! There’s actually a pretty narrow list of things they don’t like. They mainly like to eat plants with big broad leaves, especially during the winter months when their natural source of food starts to dry up. Some of the plantings they like best are:

  • Manhattan euonymus
  • Lilac
  • Red twig dogwood
  • Rose bushes
  • Tulips

In truth, you can’t really have a deer-proof landscape because even on the list of things they don’t like, they’re still grazers, so they’ll come through your yard and take a nibble of something here, and a nibble of something there. They’ll take a bite of a plant they don’t like, then they’ll drop it out of their mouth, so if a large enough herd comes through and each one of them takes a little taste of a plant they don’t like, they can still do a fair amount of damage. So choose your plantings wisely, but still be prepared for some damage from time to time. The good news is that almost everything will grow back after deer damage.

Outside of that, the single best deterrent against deer is to have a dog. If you have a dog in your yard, it will either scare them off in the first place or chase them off.

Q: Are there any kinds of plants you can add to your yard to attract animals that are desirable?

A: Sunset Hyssop and Sage will bring in hummingbirds, and Butterfly Bush will bring in both butterflies and hummingbirds. If you really like birds, you can provide cover for them with dense shrubbery, and you can install a bird bath in the landscape. It’s very enjoyable to look out your window and see birds splashing and bathing and bouncing around for hours.

Q: Can we have koi ponds or other water works in Colorado Springs?

A: Actually, you can have a koi pond here. You’ll need to run your pond with enough water both in the basin and also in the pump to recirculate so it runs all year long. During the cold winter months, you need to drop a small pond heater into it which will float and keep a small opening in the ice. This keeps the air moving which keeps the fish alive. The pond will freeze over and it won’t kill the fish—it’s amazing, actually: they stay at the bottom of the pond and their metabolism slows down to next to nothing, and they just survive all winter and pop back to life in the springtime.

The challenge with koi ponds is that they bring in wildlife. Some can be pretty, like deer, but ponds also attract raccoons and bears, both of which to eat the fish. That can be traumatic for some people, because a bear will come in and literally reach into the water and pluck out every single fish and eat them. So when we design koi ponds, we create little caverns off to the sides, so the fish can at least have a chance to hide from predators.

I always advise people who want a water feature in their yard that they really need to love it, especially if they have koi or plants, because that puts another aspect of maintenance into their landscape. First of all, the pump that powers a pond needs to run 24-7 to keep the water moving, and that normally adds about $50/mo to your utility bill. Second, if you have a pond, it is a pool of sorts, so it requires cleaning, as leaves and debris will fall in, and you have to manage the algae. So people either need to really enjoy maintaining a water garden, or they’ll need to bear the expense of having a company come in and provide that pool-type maintenance.

Q: Trees are often a major part of a landscape. Which kinds of trees do well in our climate, and which kinds don’t?

A: Aspen trees are very popular here, mainly because they stay narrow and they have a beautiful color in the fall, but they’re not a long-lived tree and they have disease and insect problems. There are some longer-lived and hardier trees we like to use:

  • Maple
  • Oak
  • Colorado Spruce
  • Blue Spruce
  • White Fir
  • Autumn Purple Ash
  • Crabapple

The problem with trees is that a lot of times, homeowners will go to a nursery, see a pretty little sapling and bring it home and stick it in their yard without asking “what will this tree look like when it gets bigger?” or “how is this tree going to grow?”. For example, the spread on a blue spruce (a very popular tree here) is about 20 ft, so if you plant your blue spruce 5 ft away from your house, it’s going to grow into the structure. Or if you plant it too close a sidewalk, it will grow over the sidewalk and then you’ll have to prune the tree so it looks misshapen. So the most common mistake I see made by homeowners is simply not giving the tree enough room to grow.

The big thing to consider with trees is asking yourself what you want to accomplish with them. When we plant trees, we like to place them so they “frame in” the home—we don’t normally like to block the front of the house, mainly because a new custom home looks beautiful! Some people want trees for different reasons: maybe they want screening because there’s something across the street they don’t want to look at, or maybe they have a noise issue, so in that case, we might plant trees in front of the home. Otherwise, maybe they want want shade in the afternoon or midday, or a windbreak. I always like to look at why we’re planting something first, and then select something that fills that space and need.

Q: With trees, do you always need to start from saplings, or is it easy to get a tree that’s already grown?

A: You certainly can have grown trees added to your landscape: we’ve moved in an entire forest for some clients! We’ve brought in trees on some properties that are 20-25 feet tall, so if you do that, you get an “instant effect.” In a way, it’s more cost effective to get a bigger tree because you get so much more canopy instantly. So let’s say a 20 foot tree is going to cost you about $1,500, whereas a 6 foot sapling might only be $200: the sapling is a fraction of the cost of the larger tree, but with that large tree you’re getting more than five times the foliage.

The factor to keep in mind with larger trees is access: we’ll need to get a tree spade truck to where the tree will be planted, and a tree spade truck is the size of a semi so we need a lot of room to maneuver that tree into place. We can move in some trees up to 15 feet tall without the use of a tree spade though.

Q: What are some landscape lighting ideas that you’ve seen and recommend?

A: To me, lighting a landscape is the icing on the cake. It can make a landscape aesthetically pleasing, and also providing a function of safety, especially as you get into the winter months and the days get shorter. We can light up some beautiful stone on the exterior of a home, or we can place recessed lighting fixtures in the ground and up-light a home’s structure which washes the home with light and gives it a beautiful, warm presence. We can also add that same type of lighting on trees, or add path lighting so people can walk out to a remote area of their landscape, or walk from the driveway to the front door.

Q: What are options for outdoor living space that you install here?

A: We always try to design and install beautiful outdoor living spaces as an extension of the indoor living space; we try to make them warm and inviting. We often install patios, fire pits, fireplaces, and water features, and they add so much to the landscape—we get such positive feedback from people that really enjoy being outdoors. For screening from wind, I’ve seen some clients put up glass walls they can see through, so that’s an option though we don’t see it very often. We do often provide a wind block and some “visual block” by adding spruce or pine trees because they don’t take up a lot of room.

Q: What about having a vegetable garden? Is that a viable option for those living in Colorado Springs?

A: You can definitely have a vegetable garden in Colorado Springs, it certainly has its challenges, but I love it. The biggest thing you have to worry about is pests: deer and rabbits love to eat vegetables, and it can be hard to get an area enclosed to keep out the critters. The other sad thing is hail. I had a garden last year where my vegetables were growing nicely, but then it was hit with a heavy hailstorm that stripped the foliage off everything, so I lost my tomatoes, pumpkins and squash. Hail is something I don’t know that we can avoid unless you get a greenhouse.

If you’re into growing vegetables, I recommend lettuce, onions, corn, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, and tomatoes. But again, not only does Colorado Springs get hail, but we sometimes get hit with late frost, so you’ve got to be aware.

Q: Any final thoughts on how homeowners should plan their landscaping, or mistakes to avoid?

A: The most important factors for landscaping are: A) planning ahead, and B) proper installation. Having enough sprinklers is crucial, but if you have enough sprinklers but put them in the wrong place, it’s still not going to work. If you don’t anticipate the freeze/thaw climate, that’s a problem. Also, I’ve never heard anyone say “Gee, I wish had made this patio smaller.” But I often hear people say “I wish I’d thought about where the grill was going to go,” or “It’s too bad we don’t have enough room for all the chairs.” Sometimes they’ll forget to think about how they’re going to walk through their landscape, so people will frequently tell me “I wish we’d made this walkway a little wider.”

That’s part of what I really enjoy doing at Accent Landscapes: we do both the design and the installation, so it provides one fluid experience from the planning to the final stages which prevents mistakes like this. Landscaping is a big part of a homeowner’s total investment in their new home, and it deserves time and thought before it’s installed. If it’s done right, it can provide decades of enjoyment for the entire family.


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