Tales from the front (yard)

Confessions of a first-time landscaper                          

September 22, 2015 | By: Kim Unger
Author's home in 2011.
The curb appeal in 2011 needed some major attention.

The curb appeal when I bought my house in 2011 was less than desirable.

When I purchased my home in 2011, it was a bank-owned mess, complete with 5-foot tall weeds, dying grass and parched trees in the yard.

I had no experience in lawn care or landscaping, and naively thought that with a little weed pulling and water, a beautiful lawn would appear. Boy, was I wrong.

I spent the first two years pulling endless weeds, fighting bug infestations, planting grass seed and cutting down trees. My homeowners association consistently reminded me that my front yard was less than acceptable.

In 2014, I received seven different warnings about weeds, brown spots, bare spots and more weeds. It was exhausting and frustrating.

The worst part was, I was doing all that work and dumping thousands of gallons of treated drinking water on a yard I never actually used. And because I work at Denver Water, I knew that this was completely wasteful.

So this summer, I set out to rip out my lawn completely, replace it with a landscape my neighbors would envy — and reduce my water footprint.

I entered the spring with the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning. I scoured Pinterest, Colorado State University’s PlantTalk Colorado and Better Homes and Gardens seeking inspiration, ideas and instructions. I drew up a plan and submitted it to my association for approval.

They signed off, and I was on my way. Or so I thought.

Mulch bed with Mexican Feather Grass
Mexican feather grass is a great water-wise plant that provides year-round interest.


Sure looks easier on TV … er, the Internet

My energy and gusto deflated like a balloon as soon as I started ripping out the lawn, thanks to the unrelenting spring rains that gave my grass the will to hang on.

I watched countless YouTube videos of people digging out their grass with a shovel. It looked so simple. It wasn’t.

After removing a mere 25 square feet of grass, I started working on the mulch bed that would border my driveway.

Have you ever tried to lay newspaper and weed barrier in the wind? Not one of my finer moments. The scene felt like something out of an “I Love Lucy” sketch. I was rolling fabric over newspaper and pinning it down just in time for the wind to lift it up and shift it out of place.

It took a while, but I finally mastered that task, then recruited my husband to help me empty bags of mulch and plant Mexican feather grass before the rain dumped on us.

We finished in the nick of time. This task only took six hours, but I needed a break. The following weekend I continued to pull up more turf. By the time I’d removed a patch of green big enough to fit the sidewalk I wanted to lay, I abandoned my plans to pull up the rest of the grass.

Mounds of dirt and trench lines for author's landscaping project
Building level trenches was a bigger job than I anticipated.


Wait, this has to be level?

Next, I tackled the sloped mess outside my front window. It was originally home to juniper bushes and a cottonwood tree, and much of it had been covered over with mulch. After running wild with ideas, I settled on flowerbeds and purchased a Garden In A Box to fill the barren spot with low-water-use flowers and grasses.

I started digging trenches for the wooden walls only to realize I was digging myself into bigger problems.

The rain kept filling in my trenches. The roots of the giant cottonwood tree blocked my every attempt to level the ground for the flower box walls. After failing to cut out the roots, I ended up building around them.

I finished the walls, scooped dirt back into the boxes, amended the soil with compost and tried to level it all out. I eventually gave up on that last part, figuring a little slope wouldn’t hurt. The water needs to drain somewhere, right?

My plants finally went into the ground a month later than I had hoped.


Throwing in the t(r)owel

A Missouri Evening Primrose flower in bloom
Missouri evening primrose was the first to bloom. The flower lasts only a day but offers a bright pop of color.

At last, my yard was starting to look pretty nice. My plants were thriving, and my neighbors complimented me on my handiwork. I was feeling pretty good, but I still had one last task: the dreaded sidewalk.

My initial plan was to use a plastic mold to create a concrete walking path that looked like paver stones. I considered the work ahead of me, my complete inexperience in building sidewalks, and my crazy work schedule.

I bailed. Instead, I racked up some quotes from professionals to get the sidewalk done. Despite the initial sticker shock, I am actually looking forward to having someone else do the hard work.


Was it worth it?

Now that the summer is coming to a close and my six-month project is complete, I can stand back and say it was worth it. My curb appeal is now fantastic.

But what about the bigger question: Did all this effort actually save any water?

I expected to water frequently this year to help establish all of the new plantings, but Mother Nature did most of the watering for me. When the August heat came, the plants thrived, doubling in size. I watered them once a week, but I had to water the grass more often to keep it green.

Comparison of author's water consumption over the past three years.
My summer consumption over the past three years. You can find your consumption chart on your bill, or by logging into your account.

And even with all of that, I saved 3,000 gallons of water in July and 2,000 gallons in August, compared to last year.

I can’t wait to see what the blooming flowers and lower water use looks like next summer!

Take it from a first-time landscaper: If you find that the only time you step onto your lawn is to mow it, you may want to convert that lawn to a vegetable garden, xeriscape garden or other use that suits your lifestyle — and puts our most precious resource to better use.

For more tips, ideas and inspiration from homeowners who have successfully remodeled their yards and lived to talk about it, visit denverwater.org/remodelyouryard.

Author's home after landscaping makeover.
I still have some work to do, but my front yard is looking much better and receiving thumbs-up from the neighbors.

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