About 40% of Boulder’s water use is for outdoor purposes, like lawn irrigation. Resource Central's "Garden in a Box" (seen here) offers a way to conserve with native grasses. Courtesy of Resource Central

For those who survived the Marshall Fire — either losing their home or sustaining significant damage — a free lawn replacement is now available from a local nonprofit. But it isn’t just rebuilders who should consider grass alternatives. As Colorado water becomes more scarce, lawns are one of the easiest places to conserve. 

Resource Central, a nonprofit based in Boulder, has saved the Front Range roughly 1.5 billion gallons of water in its 20 years in operation, according to president Neal Lurie. (For context, the average American uses about 82 gallons of water a day, or nearly 30,000 gallons a year.)

The “Garden in a Box” program is one of the main contributors to this conservation. Offered as a replacement to a traditional grassy lawn, the array of native species — covering anywhere from 60 to 200 square feet — uses half the water as a normal lawn. 

“Most people don’t think about their landscaping choices. They just pay their monthly water bill,” Lurie said. “But those landscaping choices can make a huge difference on the amount of water people use over the course of a year.”

The free “Garden in a Box” for Marshall Fire survivors is offered through a partnership with the Community Foundation Boulder County. By providing the lawn kickstarter, Resource Central is trying to help people take advantage of the “blank slate” the fire created — albeit via catastrophic means. It’s easier to plant native vegetation the first time rather than tearing up an existing lawn. Yet many along the Front Range are choosing to do just that.

“Increasingly, people are looking to replace their high-water grasses,” Lurie said.

This comes as some Colorado communities are instituting bans on traditional grasses in the face of water shortages. Castle Rock, a suburb of Denver, has banned turf lawns and is offering a discount for landscaping that includes plants like those offered by Resource Central. Castle Rock is in Douglas County, where much of the water comes from a fast-depleting aquifer. Aurora also proposed banning new lawns along with new golf courses, which use an immense amount of water.

“There was a time when all new developments had to have X percentage of Bluegrass,” said Kim Hutton, the City of Boulder’s water resources manager. “I think it’s recognized now that’s not sustainable.” Kentucky Bluegrass is a common landscaping grass in this area. The vegetation known for its lush foot feel needs 35-40 inches of rain to thrive each year. The average precipitation in Boulder is 15-20 inches.

Boulder is better situated than other communities in terms of water rights. We don’t pull our water from an aquifer. Much comes from the mountains above. Yet some is pumped through the Continental Divide from Colorado River on the Western Slope. And should current trends on the Colorado River continue, Boulder will feel a pinch. Lawns are a place to conserve.

According Hutton, about 40% of Boulder’s water use is for outdoor purposes, like lawn irrigation. This is consistent with findings out of Utah State University that said a third to nearly half of municipal water use in the Mountain West is for irrigating landscapes, excluding agriculture.

The Garden in a Boxes went on sale March 1, yet the window of opportunity isn’t large. According to Lurie, last year Resource Central sold out in a matter of weeks, a trend that has continued year after year despite the nonprofit increasing their offerings. 

“We expect to sell more than 10,000 gardens throughout the [Denver] metro region this year,” Lurie said.

When asked why they don’t make more box gardens, Lurie said they’re tapping out just about every plant nursery they can find to meet demand.

Pollinator Pathways coming

Replacing a lawn with native plants isn’t just about conserving water. Though climate change is the most often discussed existential threat to humanity, biodiversity is its partner in crime. Where sprawling agricultural fields of a single crop come to mind for a lack of biodiversity, lawns are just as bad, and much closer to home. 

The City of Boulder is aware of this, and has initiatives in place to try and educate the public on the benefits of choosing natives over traditional grasses. One is the Pollinator Pathways initiative through the Cool Boulder campaign. 

Coming later this spring, the Pollinator Pathways will offer a Pollinator Advocates Training to educate a group of Boulderites about the need for biodiversity so they can then pass it on to their neighbors. The gist is by planting natives in our yards, we offer insects and birds nourishment throughout our communities.

“Every patch of native plants that each of us grows in our yards, schools, businesses and public spaces adds up,” the City of Boulder states on its website

If you’re able to land a Garden in a Box before they sell out, they’ll be available for pick up in May. If you want help removing your lawn for a blank slate of your own, Resource Central offers that as a service as well. Several cities offer discounts, so check the website to see if you qualify. The gardens are also sold in the fall.

Tim Drugan is the climate and environment reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering wildfires, water and other climate-related issues for Boulder with a focus on explanatory and solutions journalism. He also is the lead writer of BRL Today, our morning newsletter. Tim grew up in New Hampshire and graduated from UNH with a degree in English/Journalism. Email: tim@boulderreportinglab.org.

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