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Goodbye, Grass

By Paula Aven Gladych
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — Drought conditions and local water restrictions have driven many Boulder County residents to do the unthinkable: rip out their lawns.

This has been good news for local landscaping companies, who have a booming business selling mulch, rocks and, surprisingly, water features.

“We’ve seen a fairly big jump in rock sales,” said Myranda Roys, scales/weight person at Colorado Fertilizer & Landscape Materials in Longmont. “A lot of people are getting rid of their lawns and putting the rock down to save on their water.”

The difference between five years ago and now is that people used to use rock as a border material, but now, many people are covering bigger sections of ground with it, Roys said.

“I recommend it for elderly people if they want to keep up a yard, a nice yard, and don’t want to mow,” she said. “It seems to be a popular thing.”

Even with the downpours Longmont has experienced the past couple of weeks, “people are still doing it,” Roys said.

Barb Seifert, co-owner of E.A. Seifert Landscape in Longmont, said xeriscaping has become more popular.

“People have to cover their properties with something, especially if they are in covenant neighborhoods,” Seifert said. “You can’t leave bare dirt.”

Much of the sod being ripped out is being replaced with vegetable gardens, flower beds and recreational areas, said Chris Stegall, owner of Mr. Wizard’s, an Erie-based landscaping company.

More clients want to convert their entire front yard by “eliminating anything like grass,” he said. “They are converting to xeriscape.”

Stegall said that even with water restrictions and drought conditions, people don’t have to go to that extreme.

“I can understand downsizing the amount of grass you have, for sure,” he said, “but if you do things to create shade so evaporation is decreased and then do some decorative landscaping,” homeowners can keep their yards looking nice without wasting water.

Most sod gets placed incorrectly, leading to brown lawns, he said.

Mr. Wizard’s won’t put sod down unless the ground beneath it is prepped correctly: The soil must be tilled to at least six inches and amended with composted material, with a minimum of four yards per thousand square feet, he said.

Prepping the soil allows sod to retain its moisture and gives roots a place to grow. This works very well with clay or sandy soil, Stegall said.

“In three to four weeks, you can reduce the amount of water you use (on your lawn),” he said.

This year has been a better one for sod growers, said Kelly Thornton, president of the Rocky Mountain Sod Growers Association and controller of Scien-Turf-ic in Henderson and Aurora.

Two years ago “was a real struggle, and 2003 was really tough,” Thornton said. “This year, there are still restrictions in a lot of areas.”

The association has educated water departments and customers about how to save water when tending to lawns, he said.

For the past five years, the sod growers and equipment and seed dealers that make up the Sod Growers Association have noticed a significant decrease in the amount of sod that is put down, Thornton said.

“Part of that is because of drought, and part of that is lot sizes are smaller than they used to be,” he said.

Turf makes more sense than rock or mulch because it “cools the air better,” he added. Rocks and mulch retain heat.

That hasn’t stopped people from choosing rocks for their yards. Chris Kerr, owner and president of Colorado Materials Inc., said his business has doubled each year since he opened in 1999. He attributes a large portion of that growth to an increase in rock sales.

“People are starting to swap out a lot of sod and have shifted more to hardscapes, rock, than we used to do,” Kerr said, “although a lot of sod still goes in.”

The average $250,000 home has about 10 percent of its yard landscaped with rock or mulch, Stegall said, but Mr. Wizard’s has seen that amount double and triple with new housing developments.

“The last two years, we haven’t seen any reduction in the gross (sales) we’ve done,” he said. “The gross on our company is within 1 percent of 2001, 2002 and 2003. That didn’t change.

“The things we did changed: more xeriscape, more water features.”