No Yard? No Problem

If you live in an apartment or townhouse it may not seem like you have the space or resources to become a backyard habitat steward. Maybe you do have a yard or green space nearby, but the landscaping decisions are made by your landlord or the complex owners, etc. There are several space saving solutions you can implement in order to grow xeriscape and native plants around your home! Hanging Garden

The hanging garden pictured here was planted by elementary students during a camp I taught over spring break. I purchased a hanging shoe organizer from Target (here’s an even fancier bamboo one for under $19) and we filled the pockets with potting soil mix and herb seedlings. This project could easily be adapted with native grass or wildflower seeds (pollinators will thank you!), and can hang on a balcony or fence. You can trim off layers of pockets to best fit your space, or purchase a different sized shoe organizer. Make sure that it is canvas or a similar fabric material so that the soil can drain.

If you have space on a small front step or patio, pots and container gardens are a great option. Plant Select has a petites collection of water smart plants that are small in size and would be perfect for containers. Many of these tiny plants are used in rock garden designs at the Denver Botanic Gardens, such as Fire Spinner® ice plantSilverton® blue mat penstemon, and Blue Jazz® pinyon pine, a dwarf conifer.


Landscape Design Tools


So you’re ready to transform your yard into a water-smart, native plant paradise, but don’t know where to start? Here are some tips and steps to take:

  1. Measure the yard area you want to transform – this will help you decide how many plants/what size plants to get.
  2. Check your USDA zone (I’m in zone 5) and consider doing a soil test. Local garden stores or nurseries sell soil test kits and some even come out and do the test for you.
  3. Prep and amend your soil. Clear away any undesired plant material and add compost or other amendments based on your soil test results.
  4. Select or create a plant design (see pics and links below for ideas). Too overwhelming or expensive? You can also start small and scarce in the spring, and add a few more plants every month or so. If you consistently add plants that are in bloom throughout the growing season, you’re guaranteed to have a colorful yard all year!
  5. Buy or order your plants – planting trees, shrubs and perennials in the spring after the last hard freeze date is a safe bet, but others can be added throughout the year. Bulbs should be planted in the fall.
  6. Plant! Get some dirt under your nails and then sit back and enjoy your plants all summer. Perennials may take a season or two to fill out, but are worth the wait!

The Center for Resource Conservation’s Garden in a Box program is a wonderful tool for garden designs; you can order a set of hand-picked plants that come with suggested layouts and planting tips. Choose a themed native or veggie garden like “Xeric Greatest Hits,” “Butterfly Dream” or “Spaghetti Dinner” then select a pick-up site and get planting!

Plant Select’s website offers free downloadable garden designs from award winning horticulturalists, and they recommend local retailers for plants as well as landscape professionals. Implement a design as is, adapt them to fit your space, or use them as a template to create a custom garden bed.

garden ideas

Image from


Image from

Xeriscape, not Zeroscape

adjective; ECOLOGY
  1. (of an environment or habitat) containing little moisture; very dry.

Xeriscape is a term used to describe landscape designs that utilize certain materials and plants in order to reduce the amount of water needed (Lyons 2016). Xerophytes are plants that require very little water to survive – they are adapted to arid climates and can tolerate long periods of drought (Ozkur et al. 2009). Many plants native to the Colorado prairie are naturally xerophytes; they are often perennial plants with lots of helpful adaptations, like deep root systems, to help them thrive on just a few inches of rain. Filling your yard with native xerophytes also helps out our native insects and animals!


Butterfield sculpture in the grasslands at Denver Botanic Gardens

Lots of suburban landscapes have started to integrate xeric practices in order to save water, which is an awesome trend. However, PlantTalk reports that the use of rocks, bare mulch and other surfaces has become a popular method, and one I like to refer to as Zeroscape. While saving water is great, rocks, bricks and concrete landscapes offer zero resources for wildlife. Rocks and similar surfaces also give off significantly more heat than plants, causing any retained moisture to evaporate even faster (Lyons 2016).

Using water smart plants not only saves water, but also provides rich habitat for native birds, pollinators, decomposers and more! Plus, having deep-rooted plants in the ground helps keep your soil healthy. Check out Plant Select’s New Plant Guide to learn more about plants they recommend. Here’s one to get you started: SONORAN SUNSET® hyssop is a beautiful flowering perennial, native and great for pollinators.


Lyons, L. (2016). How Surface Properties Partition Isolation Differently (Xeriscape vs. Turf). Retrieved from

Ozkur, O., Ozdemir, F., Bor, M., & Turkan, I. (2009). Physiochemical and antioxidant responses of the perennial xerophyte Capparis ovata Desf. to drought. Environmental and experimental botany, 66(3), 487-492.

Photo Challenge and Contest!

Have you been creating a beautiful backyard habitat? Or is your yard in serious need of some habitat inspiration? Either way, I’d like to see pictures of your yards!

This photo challenge is also a contest, and the winners will receive a packet of wildflower seeds! I will select one habitat hero winner, and one “most room for improvement” winner, the funnier the caption the better. I will also respond to those in need of help with some advice on where to start your landscape transformation!

Send in your photos via the comments below, submit in a contact form, or upload them to Instagram or Facebook using tags #backyardhabitathero or #backyardhabitathelp.

Alternative turf grass: African Dog Tuff ™

grass plugs

African dog tuff grass plugs right after planting on June 14th, 2015

As I mentioned in my first post, the most abundant plant used in Colorado landscaping is Kentucky bluegrass, or Poa pratensis (Xeriscape turf & alternatives n.d.). Kentucky bluegrass was introduced from Europe and requires supplemental watering and chemical fertilizers in order to survive the hot, dry Denver summers (Reid & Oki 2008).

Many native Rocky Mountain grasses are great alternatives to turf and are extremely drought resistant, like blue grama or buffalo grass. However, few native grasses provide the turf mat and bright green color that we’ve come to expect from Kentucky bluegrass lawns. It’s difficult to play frisbee with your dogs or kids while dodging tufts of native grass, and most don’t stand up to dog urine.

What is a water conscious homeowner to do? African Dog Tuff ™ to the rescue!

grass w dog

Truly dog tough by August 2016

grass w straw

Straw mulch over new plugs

Dog Tuff ™ in Action: I helped my parents transform their backyard into a drought tolerant, dog friendly oasis two summers ago using this Cynodon grass derived from African varieties. While African Dog Tuff ™  is not native to the CO region, it offers many of the same benefits with the added bonus of standing up to wear and tear (i.e. backyard volleyball or a pack of adorable puppies). Plus honeybees love the pollen!

rose and grass

Dog Tuff filling in behind roses, October 4th 2015

Check out Plant Select’s site for more information about this grass, or contact me and I can help you figure out how to incorporate this awesome alternative turf in your own yard.


Reid, S., & Oki, L. (2008). Field trials identify more native plants suited to urban landscaping. California agriculture, 62(3), 97-104. Retrieved from

Xeriscape turf & alternatives. (n.d.). Colorado State University. Retrieved from

A blog for eco-friendly landscaping

My name is Katelin Gaeth and I am an educator, student and scientist of ecology. I became interested in urban ecology, specifically the plants and animals found in residential yards and city parks, as a graduate student in a biology masters program with Miami University and the Denver Zoo. As an instructor of school programs at the Denver Botanic Gardens, I have gained an understanding of and love for native Rocky Mountain plants, and the ways that plants shape and build habitat for other species.sunflower

The purpose of this blog is to provide people in Denver, Colorado and beyond with
information about gardening and landscaping with native species in mind. I will post stories about my experiences gardening in Denver, as well as resources for native plants, xeriscape and ecologically friendly landscaping. Please contact me with any questions about using native and water smart plants in your own yard – if I do not have an answer I can connect you with someone who does!

Why a blog about ecosystem-friendly landscape? Throughout Colorado, many urban and suburban communities continue to favor non-native plants in landscape designs; water-dependent turf lawns and exotic annual flowers dominate the majority of Denver neighborhoods (Xeriscape turf & alternatives n.d.). According to the Plant Talk organization, part of the Colorado State University Extension, the most abundant plant species per area used in Colorado landscaping is Kentucky bluegrass, or Poa pratensis, which is native to Europe. Non-native Kentucky bluegrass not only takes land area away from native Colorado plants, but also requires supplemental watering and chemical application in order to thrive in this climate (Reid & Oki 2008). According to a study by Robbins and Sharp (2003), the use of lawn fertilizers/pesticides has increased among residential homeowners, even those who acknowledge the risks to water quality and human health associated with chemical use.

While xeriscaping is becoming a more popular trend in Colorado as a means to reduce water use and maintenance costs, many practices do not necessarily benefit native species. The trend of hardscaping, or replacing bluegrass with rocks, mulch or other non-plant mediums helps to save water, but if native plants are not incorporated then opportunities to help wildlife are lost (Xeriscape turf & alternatives n.d.). Many backyard gardeners do not realize the importance of their role as ecological stewards (Tallamy 2009). Through this blog I hope to show urban homeowners that they have the power to create vital habitat for native species! 


Reid, S., & Oki, L. (2008). Field trials identify more native plants suited to urban landscaping. California agriculture, 62(3), 97-104. Retrieved from

Robbins, P., & Sharp, J. T. (2003). Producing and consuming chemicals: the moral economy of the American lawn. Economic Geography, 79(4), 425-451.

Tallamy, D. W. (2009). Bringing nature home: how you can sustain wildlife with native plants. Timber Press. Retrieved from

Xeriscape turf & alternatives. (n.d.). Colorado State University. Retrieved from