Colorado is a drought disaster area. Much of the western state's water comes from rain and melting mountain snow. But this year, both snowpack and rainfall are at historic lows. In the national forests, the number of wildfires is at a record high, and firefighters are gearing up for more blazes to come. Cities are also bracing for the drought. Because 70 percent of summer water use goes to lawns, flowers, bushes and trees, cutting back on landscape watering has become a major priority. This has put more emphasis on Xeriscapes - a trademarked name for the technique of water conservation through creative landscaping.
The thunderclouds settling over Boulder seem heavy with water. But experienced gardeners know these clouds usually offer more rumble than rain. "When I hear thunder, I don't assume it's going to rain. Even if it's raining hard, it may only rain for five minutes, and that's not enough to water the plants at all," says Mikl Brawner, a professional Xeriscape gardener.
The landscapes he designs feature plants that use water wisely; here in Colorado, that means drought-resistant varieties. On average, Boulder receives only 43 centimeters of rainfall a year. Sunny skies and strong, hot winds add to the speed at which plants dry out. While many gardeners get around these harsh conditions by watering their lawns and flowerbeds daily, Mr. Brawner takes the opposite approach: If a flower or bush needs a lot of water, he doesn't plant it. And if a new addition proves to be a heavy drinker, he doesn't try to save it.
"A lot of plants that I planted that were not appropriate died. You know, some people thought I was very mean to not water them when I could see they were dying," he says. "But I had decided that for the purposes of demonstration for the community, that I would be a test garden and demonstrate for people what you could get, only watering five times a year."
In a small yard next to his garden shop, Mr. Brawner has been experimenting with Xeriscape plants for nearly 20 years. His demonstration garden is open to visitors, who can wander the winding pathways to enjoy its natural woodland look, with shrubs, groundcovers and trees.
The drought-tolerant pink roses, sky-blue columbine flowers and evergreens are watered only five times between June and September. While that may seem a meager amount of moisture, it's enough for those plants, as well as nubby-looking sedum groundcovers and the saucer-shaped leaves of lady's mantle. There's even an apple tree with the first blush of fruit. There's plenty of color and variety, but since plants that receive less water blossom less frequently, once spring rain gives way to summer sun, his garden contains few flowers.
"One flower, there in the midst of other foliage around it, has a very pleasing presence. It makes its statement and then leaves it at that," he laughed. While a thirsty lawn with plenty of flowers is still the norm in Colorado, here at Mr. Brawner's plant store, a steady stream of gardeners is seeking out the beautiful and hardy Xeriscape varieties.
Drought-tolerance is on everyone's mind, because Colorado is bracing for one of the driest summers on record.
"We really are facing a drought for Boulder that, probably no one alive today has really had to face," Chris Rudkin said. He directs water utilities for the City of Boulder. To weather this year's historic drought, the city has begun water rationing. Residents may water their lawns and gardens only twice a week, for 15 minutes at most each time. For gardeners with traditional landscapes, this might not be enough, but Mr. Rudkin said there's no other choice.
"Our mantra for the coming season is 'every drop counts.' It really, really does," he says.
Mikl Brawner is sympathetic toward gardeners whose landscapes might not survive this year but he said he sees a long-term benefit. "We never like to see plants die, but on the other hand, we've had some wet years here that have given us the wrong impression about what Colorado conditions are like. Maybe this year, in spite of the fact that it's going to be hard on a lot of us gardeners, is going teach us more about what real Xeriscape is and getting down to the nitty-gritty of how to garden in really low-water conditions, and still have beautiful gardens," he says.
"Hey, Mikl!" one man exclaims. "Hey! We've been talking so much about drought, it's starting to rain . . ."
As Mikl Brawner greets another customer, the thunderclouds finally release a drop or two and then, the rain stops. But thanks to his many Xeriscape plants, Mr. Brawner's garden continues to grow, a thriving example of what could be Colorado's landscape of the future.