This High Desert City Proves That the Right Landscape Can Be Beautiful and Save Water

Demonstration xeriscape gardens help a Colorado city encourage residents to replace grass with water-conserving vegetation.

This High Desert City Proves That the Right Landscape Can Be Beautiful and Save Water

The focal point of the xeriscape garden is the public art piece on the berm of the reservoir, integrated into the colorful mix of blooming flowers and contrasting grasses, shrubs and trees which surround the sandstone pond.


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Despite receiving just 15 inches of precipitation each year, the Colorado city of Greeley has found a way to promote gardening to its residents while emphasizing water conservation.

Since 1997, when Ruth Quade was hired as a part-time water conservation specialist, the city has planted more than a dozen xeriscape gardens, and citizens have planned and planted many others at their homes.

“Our first challenge was to dispel the idea that xeriscape gardening is just gravel, rock and cactus,” Quade says. “We had to get people to recognize the beauty they could create and the benefit it would provide.” The cornerstone of that effort is a nearly three-quarter-acre demonstration garden along a heavily traveled roadway, between the curb and a 20-foot berm that leads to the city’s four treated water reservoirs.

Diverse vegetation

“We started by digging up the existing bluegrass, then used a master plan designed by a landscape architect to guide us in planting native and low water-need plants, flowers and grasses,” Quade says. “We added trees for shade and contrast and throughout applied the seven principles of xeriscape gardening, as we do in all our gardens in town.”

Referred to as the Oasis garden, the site includes a complementary blend of annuals, such as petunias, marigolds, geraniums and pansies, and perennials, such as gaillardia, Jupiter’s beard, yarrow and Mexican hat.

One section features various colors of day lilies, including Stella de oro, which blooms longer than others. Another section sprouts early-spring-blooming tulips and daffodils, while Veronica, purple coneflower and Russian sage fill in later during spring. Still another section blazes with pink, white and yellow potentillas. 

Flash of inspiration

Several well-placed trees, such as linden, oak, Canadian choke cherry, serviceberry and sumac create shade and visual balance to the garden, roughly 600 by 60 feet. Theme gardens consisting of ornamental grasses such as miscanthus, feather reed and clumping blue fescue create contrast.

Other areas are pollinator and rock gardens with three types of warm-season turf. Benches and an information kiosk add to the garden’s parklike atmosphere. Seasonal employees maintain the gardens with help from community volunteers.

The idea for the xeriscape garden came in mid-1990s from Paul Wood, reservoir and instrumentation and control superintendent, and his staff. Inspired by the vision of an attractive garden that would still conserve water, Wood, Quade and staff built a meandering walkway of stamped concrete through the garden area.

“We set the forms for all of it, brought trucks in with colored concrete and then released the stamps that make the 650-foot path look like cobblestone,” Wood says. “But Ruth made it attractive with her selection of the plants, trees and flowers.”  

Augmented with art

The focal point of the garden, and the source of its name, is a sculpture installed in 2000 as the first item financed by Greeley’s 1% for Public Art initiative. Located on the berm in front of the reservoirs, the art includes a larger-than-life image of Greeley’s early water pioneers and leaders. Painted on Lexan and mounted on an 11-foot-tall security fence, the image has a wire-mesh background that shows the Rocky Mountains, the city’s water source.

The other portion of the public art sculpture, in front of the image and in the garden being overseen by the pioneers, is a circular sandstone structure containing a pond. Inside the 8-foot-diameter pond are a dozen 12-inch-diameter stainless steel plates mounted at staggered heights on poles. Each plate represents a month of the year.

The depth of the plates varies according to the average rainfall received for that month. The shortest plate, representing February in Greeley’s semiarid climate, is 0.43 inches. The plate representing May, the wettest month, is 2.4 inches deep. A pump recirculates treated water to keep the trays full and cascading back into the pond.

Conservation works

Wood is proud of the xeriscape garden, his staff, his facility and the entire water treatment operation. He observes, “In 2017 we won the Best of the Best Tap Water in the nation award from the AWWA.” 

The source of that water is Rocky Mountain snow that melts into the Cache la Poudre River. “Our Bellvue plant is located at the source and treats an average of 37 mgd before it gravity-flows nearly 40 miles to our floating-roof reservoirs behind the Oasis garden,” Wood says.

Community support for water conservation is strong, Quade says. The water department has a robust program to promote conservation. Each January through October, a lecture series helps residents learn about xeriscape gardening principles. A major program promotes rebates to residents who replace turf with xeriscape and demonstrate the savings. Tours are conducted at the Oasis garden. 

“Believe it or not, as Greeley’s population has almost doubled and is still growing, our water conservation program has kept demand flat,” Wood says. “So, the conservation program must be working, and we are very proud of that.”   


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