4 Water-Wise Landscape Designs Created Just for Denver-Area Homes

Feeling inspired by the change of season—and the changing climate—to reconsider the plants in your yard and garden? In particular, how much water those varieties soak up when the temperatures soar?

The most practical choice is clear: Swap out moisture-loving plants for less-thirsty xeric options. But selecting the varieties best suited to your Colorado property and your aesthetic preferences can be daunting, and misconceptions about xeriscaping abound.

There’s a wealth of information available to help you tailor a water-wise design to your needs—online and in many metro-area garden centers, where employees are eager to share their expertise—but we thought we’d take the easy route by sharing some ready-made plans that have already been implemented by local homeowners. For these, we turned to Tilly, an online platform that designs custom landscapes for homeowners across the country—for less than a traditional landscape architect or designer might charge. (One of the company’s four female founders, Alexis Sutton, calls Denver home.)

For each of the projects highlighted below, the homeowners began by talking with a dedicated Tilly designer about their wish list and design vision. Then, they chose from one of three design packages—which range in price from $375 to $2,200, depending on yard size and selected add-ons—which provided them with a customized plan, plant list, and installation and care instructions. Some homeowners handled parts of the installation themselves, but most hired local pros to do the heavy lifting.

The properties here range from tight city lots to roomy plots, but each one includes design features and plant varieties well-suited to the metro area’s increasingly warm and dry climate. No matter your outdoor space or style, there’s a water-wise option here for you.

A Longmont backyard designed to maximize every inch of its small square footage—and every drop of irrigation water. Image courtesy of Tilly

Project 1: A Private Oasis in Longmont

The Challenge: When the owners of this Longmont home moved into their new build, they were literally starting their landscape from scratch: a dirt lot with nothing to screen the small backyard from the neighbors. Their outdoor living goals included privacy, a large deck with plenty of seating for guests, a vegetable garden, and minimal upkeep (which meant no back lawn!). They also wanted a budget-friendly plan that they could install in phases.

Custom plan and image courtesy of Tilly

The Plan: Tilly designer Stephen Ulman maximized every inch of the backyard, incorporating an elevated deck with space for dining and lounging; a ground-level gravel patio with firepit; and raised garden beds for fresh produce. On one side of the property, he placed a trellis planted with pink, climbing Bourbon roses (Rosa ‘Zephirine Drouhin’); on the other, he specified an apple tree (Malus domestica ‘Fuji’), dwarf mountain pines (Pinus mugo ‘Ophir’), a dwarf Colorado spruce (Picea pungens ‘The Blues’), and pollinator-friendly lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). Along the back of the property, there’s a row of columnar evergreen conifers (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’) that will grow into a privacy-providing hedge.

Water-Wise Plant Picks

Delosperma ‘Fire Spinner’: This cold-hardy ice-plant cultivar is originally from South Africa. “The flowers appear in late spring and have a spectacular ombre of orange, red, and lavender hues,” Ulman says. “The rest of the year, it is a great evergreen groundcover that is easy to grow and retains water in its fleshy leaves. In this design, it is employed as an edging plant for the bed, creating the first row of the composition with taller plants behind it, allowing it ample room to show off when it is in bloom.”

Gaillardia pulchella: The garden bed also includes this adaptable native known as indian blanket or firewheel, which is often seen along roadsides throughout the southern Great Plains and into the Southwest, but is also found along the East Coast and into Canada. “The colorful daisy-like flowers naturally vary from almost entirely red to yellow, but usually have one or more shades of red with yellow edges,” Ulman explains. “It is a short-lived perennial or annual, but it freely self-seeds, making it a nice addition to naturalistic or cottage-style gardens where its free-spirited nature can roam unimpeded.”

An up-close look at this plan’s firepit patio, planter boxes, and garden beds. Image courtesy of Tilly

Liatris spicata: “This is a great vertical addition to any plant palette; the tall stalks are covered in whorls of pinkish-purple flowers during the later summer months,” says Ulman, who placed it alongside the ice plants for a pleasing color contrast. “Although this species [commonly known as dense blazing star or prairie feather] is native to the eastern prairies, its native cousin, Liatris punctata [a.k.a. dotted gayfeather or dotted blazingstar] is a bit smaller and less showy, but it makes up for it by being even more adapted to thrive in xeric gardens,” he notes.

Armeria maritima ‘Splendens’: Below the conifer hedge, Ulman placed these showy perennials, more commonly known as thrift, which grow best in dry soils and full sun. “It’s another low-growing plant that can spread out to form dense mounds covered with pink flowers in the spring and periodically throughout the rest of the growing season if deadheaded,” he says. “Although it is native to the West Coast, its salt tolerance and preference for poor soils make it a good choice for areas near salted roads or walkways.”

This Lakewood backyard prioritizes hardscaped outdoor living spaces and drought-tolerant plantings. Image courtesy of Tilly

Project 2:  Laid Back and Low-Maintenance in Lakewood

The Challenge: Like many Lakewood homes, this one sits on a generously sized lot, which the homeowners wanted to enjoy with as few strings attached as possible. That meant no lawn to mow and weed, water-efficient plants, vegetable garden beds that they wouldn’t have to bend over to maintain, and lots of space to entertain, dine, and relax year-round.

Custom plan and image courtesy of Tilly

The Plan: Tilly designer Katie Tutt carved away some of the property’s existing lawn (the rest will be replaced with artificial turf) to make way for a roomy concrete patio shaded by a wood pergola at the back of the house; flanking it are grids of concrete pavers (set into the turf) that create separate seating areas in the sun. Along the sides of the backyard, she created wide garden beds planted with Blue Mist bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Blue Mist’), Heavy Metal blue switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’), and Goldsturm black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’). A Shademaster honeylocust tree (Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Shademaster’) shades a seating area at the back of the property, while across the yard, a pair of Greenspire linden trees (Tilia cordata ‘Greenspire’) supports a hammock. Concrete pavers set into a gravel path lead to the back of the property, where string lights twinkle from an overhang attached to a garden shed and the honeylocust tree, creating an inviting outdoor “room.”

Water-Wise Plant Picks

“All of the plants selected for this yard are drought-tolerant, low-maintenance, and friendly to bees and butterflies,” Tutt says, “but the plant list was also chosen with a color palette in mind: green, blue, yellow, and white to complement the red brick house.”

Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Blue Mist’: Blue Mist bluebeard shrubs, which Tutt placed around the perimeter of the backyard for color, “were chosen for their drought-tolerance, low-maintenance, and long-lasting blue flowers,” the designer says.

Masses of Blue Mist bluebeard border an outdoor seating area formed by concrete pavers placed atop artificial turf in an eye-catching grid. Image courtesy of Tilly

Picea pungens ‘Globosa’: Known commonly as dwarf globe blue spruce, these join other plantings in a border to add “year-round structure and interest,” says Tutt, who chose the variety for its size, blue evergreen color, and drought-tolerance.

Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘CrazyBlue’:  Tutt placed Crazy Blue Russian sage alongside the raised vegetable garden to attract beneficial pollinators—“and because of its success in Colorado landscapes, its drought-tolerance, and its low maintenance,” she adds.

Juniperus scopulorum ‘Moonglow’: “Three Moonglow Junipers—a narrow evergreen that is drought-tolerant—were placed adjacent to the back fence to add year-round privacy for the backyard,” Tutt notes.

A classic Highland home gets a fresh update with this made-for-Colorado landscape design. Image courtesy of Tilly

Project 3:  Functional Beauty in Highland

The Challenge: The owners of this Highland home had a property that will sound familiar to many Denver residents: Long and narrow, with a hodgepodge of lawn, garden beds, patio pavers, and mulched areas, it offered plenty of space, but lacked functionality. And with square footage at a premium inside their house, these owners needed outdoor rooms that worked hard to accommodate their family, which includes a toddler, and guests. Their wish list included a larger, winterized garage; a pergola that would allow them to enjoy a new firepit year-round; multiple areas for guests to gather; a kid-friendly play area; and artificial turf instead of a natural lawn.

Custom plan and image courtesy of Tilly

The Plan: Tilly designer Carolyn Mulnix created a selection of shaded seating areas, including an expanded flagstone patio that has a large cover, a barbecue area with a counter, and a raised garden bed/seat wall for additional seating and privacy planting. There’s also an intimate gravel firepit area where a vintage Malm fireplace is surrounded by a built-in wood bench and raised planters that double as seating; above, there’s a U-shaped pergola with café lighting. In addition to a variety of perennials with varying bloom times and flowers in shades of pinks and purples, with pops of white, Mulnix proposed evergreen shrubs, a deciduous shrub with winter interest, and trees with distinctive bark and form. Not included in the plans? A water-guzzling lawn. In its place, Mulnix placed swaths of artificial turf.

Water-Wise Plant Picks

Populus tremuloides: Commonly known as the quaking aspen tree, this native was chosen for “its narrow form, white bark, bright yellow fall color, and the sound the leaves make when the wind blows,” Mulnix says. One tree was placed toward the back of the rear yard, “where it is providing privacy from the neighbors while maintaining an open and airy feel because of its narrow and open form,” the designer explains.

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi: This native plant known as kinnikinnick—which Mulnix placed in the planter between the street and front sidewalk—was chosen for its adaptability, evergreen leaves, and tolerance of drought and foot traffic. “These features made it a perfect addition to the planter that was requested to be low-maintenance and drought-tolerant, while still providing year-round interest,” she says.

Pyrus calleryana ‘Jaczam’: The plan includes ornamental pear trees, “which are known to be hardy, have low water requirements, and provide beautiful seasonal interest, including white spring flowers and orange-ish fall color, but without the maintenance of a fruiting pear tree,” Mulnix says. This variety, known as the Jack Flowering Pear, is a small, dense tree “that is perfect for placing along the fence line for additional privacy from the neighbors.”

Helictotrichon sempervirens: This species, commonly known as blue oat grass, was added to garden beds at the front and back of the property “for its range of adaptability in handling cold, drought, heat, and even some shade, while remaining evergreen,” Mulnix says. “In addition to these traits, its blue tone, form, and texture made it a great addition to all of the planting beds to provide repetition, contrast, and year-round interest.”

Hardscaping materials and plantings that vary in color and texture make this Highland home’s grass-less backyard far more interesting than a typical lawn. Image courtesy of Tilly

Project 4:  A Turf-Free Design in RiNo

The Challenge: The owner of this RiNo home loved his backyard, but felt that the use of space was extremely inefficient and needed to be optimized. A lawn was not on the wish list, but garden beds for vegetables, a hot tub terrace, grilling area, and dining patio were.

Custom plan and image courtesy of Tilly

The Plan: “The lawn was entirely removed from this backyard to create a more water-efficient and low-maintenance design, expand the entertaining areas, and create an outdoor living room,” says Tutt, who also designed this property. Though the new design is almost entirely hardscaped, a variety of materials, textures, and shapes keeps things interesting. A bed planted with common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Pink Drift groundcover rose (Rosa ‘Meijocos’), and May Night sage (Salvia nemorosa ‘May Night’) separates the property’s original flagstone patio from a new, matching hot tub terrace, while Blonde Ambition blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’) and pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) surround an existing cherry tree and lilac shrub. A pathway of clean-lined concrete pavers set in gravel leads from the back porch to roomy raised planters and an existing Eastern redbud tree.

Water-Wise Plant Picks

“All four of the following species are great for Denver’s climate and can be mixed together to create an attractive and colorful perennial garden that is beneficial to bees and butterflies,” Tutt explains. “These species were chosen to attract pollinators to the raised vegetable garden.”

Achillea millefolium: Common yarrow, which was placed between the two patios to create separate outdoor “rooms” without blocking sightlines, “was chosen for its upright structure, long-lasting white blooms, and drought tolerance,” Tutt says.

Echinacea pallida: “A group of [pale purple] coneflowers was placed behind the grama grass to add height and a pop of color against the fence,” Tutt says of the blooms, also known as echinacea, which she also chose for their drought-tolerance.

An Eastern redbud tree and cherry tree shade the backyard’s drought-tolerant plantings. Image courtesy of Tilly

Salvia nemorosa ‘May Night’: A row of May Night sage lines the walkway leading from the house to the garage, separating the walkway from the adjacent patio while providing color. “This species was chosen for its small size, drought-tolerance, and long-lasting purple blooms,” Tutt explains.

Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’: Planted along the outside edge of the two patios, a row of this blue grama grass—“chosen for its texture and drought-tolerance,” Tutt says—softens the look of the adjacent fence while “adding movement to the backyard.”

To learn more about Tilly services and design packages, visit tillydesign.com.