Observation: Light, Temperature and Wind

  • Light

Throughout the day note how the light moves through your space. I know from experience that the light in your space is never exactly what you think it is. You can either note shady spots throughout different times of the day, or note the sunny spots. Be sure to note the softscapes (gardens) AND the hardscapes. Is a certain spot shaded by a deciduous tree in the summer, but warmed by the winter sun? Is there a spot that stays shady all year causing ice to collect in the winter?

  • Temperature

Chances are good that your space has little microclimates. I have a small yard and can reliably winter things over well in the pocket of space between my house and garage. Look for little areas where plants stay green longer or green up sooner in the spring. Hardscapes are great at absorbing heat during the day and releasing it at night, so you likely have temperature differences close to your hardscapes. Don’t forget to highlight these areas on a map.

  • Wind

Is there a specific pattern to the way the wind blows through your property? Is your space like a punishing wind tunnel, or does a slight breeze work to cool things off? When it snows, does it drift in certain areas? Which direction does the wind come from? Are there areas that are absolutely still? Powdery mildew and other fungal infections are a good indicator of stagnant air.

Observation: Water

The best way to find out what water is really doing in your space is to go out and observe during and after a rainstorm. Were some areas shedding water as it fell? Did some areas seem to absorb every drop that landed? What areas are still dry? What areas are puddled, and what areas are wet with no sitting water? Was water moving somewhere unexpected? Now go back out 24 hours later. Are the puddles still there? Do you know where the water table is?

Where are the downspouts? How much water is coming down them? Is that water going somewhere useful, or is it flowing into a hardscape or the street? 

Don’t forget about winter calculations. Are there areas of your space that freeze over with ice all winter until spring thaws them out? Where do you shovel your snow? Do you use de-icer? Are there areas that seem to dry out over the winter? Does ice skip the liquid phase and go straight to vapor (the technical term is sublimation)*? (It does that in the Rocky Mountain region and can actually cause damage and desiccation to plants.)

*Sublimation happens when a substance in a solid phase transitions directly to a gas phase, completely skipping the liquid phase. It is an endothermic reaction that takes energy (in the form of heat) from the surfaces touching it. Even though it happens at warmer temperatures, sublimation can cause more damage than melting at near freezing temperatures. While water going through the process of freezing RELEASES heat to surfaces, sublimation REMOVES heat from surfaces. Irrigating crops in freezing temps has been used as a way to limit the damage from a freeze. The freezing water actually protects leaves and buds from freezing to deeply.

Observation: The Five Senses


What do you feel? Is the space warm and comforting, or cold? Is it exposed to the neighbors, or private and tucked away? Is it breezy or stuffy? Dry or humid? Do you feel the urge to leave the space, or to stay? Does time seem to stand still, or fly by while you’re in the space? Could you comfortably read a book, write, doodle or entertain in it? Spend some time just being. Don’t think, don’t react, just be.

What do you hear? Are there birds chirping? Can you hear airplanes or cars? Water trickling? Can you hear the neighbors going about their day? Is there a dog barking in the background? Hear leaves rustling in the breeze? Are there chirping crickets, locusts or squirrels? What about woodpeckers? Are your neighbors constantly mowing or using a leaf blower? Do you hear marching band practice? Have a path that sounds crunchy? Close your eyes for awhile. Do you hear things off in the distance? When you walk in certain areas can you hear the bees buzzing around? Is there a particular shrub that the birds chirp from in the winter? When I let my mind go, I can hear the skydiving plane off in the distance, and while sitting outside at night, my husband and I can hear the nightcrawlers rustling in an adjacent bed.

What do you see? What is the light like? Do you see leaves twinkling in the breeze? Is anything backlit in the morning sun? In the evening sun? Is there an area that is always sunny or always shady? What kind of shade? Light, dappled or deep? What plants seems to be flourishing and which ones seem to be floundering? What kind of birds do you see in your space? Insects? Are there differences in leaf texture and color? Plants and elements of different sizes and shapes? Are there a lot of straight lines in your space, or flowing curves? What is immediately outside your space? Open space? Mountains? A meadow? A gas station or school? Is there a lot of pedestrian or cycling traffic past your place? Is your street busy? Do you watch your neighbor run out to the mailbox in his undies every morning?

What do you smell? Is there a fragrant tree nearby? Other fragrant plants? Does it smell like smoke? What does the soil smell like? What do you smell after a rain, wet soil, or wet concrete? Can you smell exhaust? Are there herbs that you brush up against as you walk through an area?

What are your habits in the space? Do you have a specific path that you follow? Do you walk through just to get to another space, or do you linger? Does your dog beat a path through the space? Cats? Do you feed the birds or the squirrels? Are there deer or other pests that damage the space? Do you cook there? Entertain? Relax, or tense up and curse it’s very existence?

So did you do all of that in the morning? Now do it in the afternoon and the evening. Observe during the week and over the weekend. Ask your loved ones to try it and compare notes. Do it during the different seasons. I promise you’ll notice different things. One spot that is uncomfortable in the hot summer sun may be a warm reprieve on a sunny winter’s day. A spot may be noisy in the early spring before the shrubs leaf out, but perfectly peaceful during the summer. That hedgerow of chanticleer pears may glow red in the fall, but make the entire block smell of sweaty socks in the spring.

Now take some time to think about all of those observations. What do you enjoy, what do you dislike, and what are you indifferent about? (I really don’t mind the plane in the background, it adds to the soundtrack of my space.) What things that you can disguise, what must you live with and what can you change? What aspects must be worked around?

Those are observations based on emotions and senses. As “woo-woo” as that may sound to some, emotions anchor us to a space. We don’t long for our childhood homes because we love the teeny-tiny bedroom we had. We long for the sentimentality, memories and emotion in the space. Your outdoor space should hold the same emotional values because with any luck (and good planning) you will be building memories and sentimentality in it.

Observation: Site Mapping

Time to put everything you’ve observed down on paper.

Make a map of your space. You can easily go to Google Earth and take measurements of your property and the features on it. (Find true north while you are at it.) In order to make your drawings consistent with the actual measurements, choose a scale* before beginning your map. Some easy ones are 1”=10’, 1”=4’, 1”=2’. Larger spaces will need the smaller scales (1”=10’), and smaller spaces will be just fine with something like 1”=4’. It doesn’t matter so much what your scale is, as long as you keep it consistent and have a map large enough to capture some details in the space. Make several copies of that map so that you can add different elements to it as you observe the physical properties of your space. These maps will be immensely helpful as you begin to plan your space.

When you are mapping these areas, try to only map one thing at a time so that you are focused on each component. When you come back at the end and look at all the maps together you may have some serious ‘ah-ha’ moments that solve some of your garden riddles. Try to save that as the reward at the end of all your hard work so that you don’t get side tracked during the mapping process.

Find samples of property mapping here.

*Quick ways to calculate scale- Calculating scale is easier than you think. First, know your paper size. If you are using a standard 8×11, you’ll have to make sure that your scale fits. If your property is 75’x 80’, the best scale for you is 75/10=7.5” x 80/10=8”  -Whereas- 75/4=18.75” x 80/4=20”

Designing Your Space: Step One- Observation

The first thing to do in any space worthy of your attention, is observe. That doesn’t mean walk out, look around, jot down some notes and come back inside. It means be present in the space. Go ahead, grab a cup of joe, throw on a robe and walk outside. Go out first thing in the morning. Find a comfy rock or grab a camp chair to sit on. What is going on around you?

Observation takes time. The easy things will be observable right away, but sometimes the most important observations come to you when you are not looking for them. Patterns in nature may take time to recognize.

Sustainable Landscape

So what are the main characteristics of a proper sustainable landscape?

Sustainable landscapes are planned as complex ecosystems. Similar to nature, sustainable landscapes (also called regenerative landscapes) consider even the smallest niches to ensure the health and function of the complete system. These considerations start at the soil, move through the plant canopy and touch everything in between.

While they do generally require less water than a traditional landscape, the reality is more nuanced. They are designed with specific features and species that are able to thrive in the ecosystem in which they are placed. We have all seen soggy spots and dry spots in our own yards. Sustainable landscapes address these features as separate microclimates that require different materials. The soggy spots would house plants that require more water, while the dry spots would be populated with species acclimated to more arid conditions.

Soil Health

Sustainable landscapes place a high priority on soil health. Without healthy soil you cannot have a healthy ecosystem. Regenerative landscapes add organic matter and soil biology to the soil. Critters like bacteria, fungi and other microbial creatures are the most important part of the soil. These creatures and the soil they create are the “immune system” of the planet. Regenerative landscapes passively build soil health as they mature, strengthening the entire system.

Native Plants

Native plant species are another big part of regenerative landscapes. Natives are perfectly adapted to local conditions like precipitation, temperatures, pests and seasonal changes. If natives don’t pack enough punch for your space, many great cultivars have been developed for superior color and foliage displays.


What can sustainable landscapes be?

Sustainable landscapes can be anything. They can carry almost any aesthetic; natural and wild looking, or clean and compartmentalized. -Even with the same plant palette. They can display blocks of color, or show off muted textures. Turf can also be installed and maintained sustainably. Harvard Yard has been doing it that way for years!

The quickest way to build a truly sustainable landscape is to start from the beginning, but with enough foresight and thought, existing landscapes can be transitioned to a regenerative space.

Pockets can be carved out of a commercial landscape to keep the budget under control, or entire campuses can be transitioned to make a bold statement to your clients and your employees.


Permaculture Design In The Landscape

Permaculture Design In The Landscape

Many people ask us if we practice permaculture. The answer is no, but kind of. Technically… no. (As a student of the sciences I always default to the absolute.) If you look at the things that are important to us they are very closely aligned to permaculture practices. Our eyes are constantly on the world of permaculture, where we glean lessons and inspiration. We absolutely respect permaculture and admire the work being done by our brothers and sisters out there in order to design a better, more natural world.

So we love it, but we don’t practice it. There is one simple reason for this. Our designs may not follow all of the rules of permaculture to perfection. This gives us a bit more freedom and technical accuracy.

To better quantify how our work relates to permaculture, here are the twelve principles of permaculture as stated by co-originator David Holmgren, followed by the ways we do or do not incorporate them.

  1. Observe and Interact – “By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.”
  2. We spend a great deal of time observing and evaluating a space. We look for ways to improve what is there rather than fight it. It is our job to see things that the owner doesn’t.
  3. Catch and Store Energy – “By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.”
  4. We do this by diverting runoff, creating spaces that build soil naturally, using permeable hardscapes, and warming winter southern exposures, just to name a few.
  5. Obtain a yield – “Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.”
  6. Our yield may not always be for humans, depending on the clients desires. Native fauna is a big focus for us. Even more so than honeybees. Honeybees are generalists. Native pollinators are specialists. The yield from our spaces may not come in the shape of food, but as peace, entertainment or education.
  7. Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback – “We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.”
  8. Many inappropriate behaviors are performed through maintenance. By using the right plants and materials in the right place we minimize the need for such activities. A healthy system is a ‘hands-off’ system. And rather than fight or ignore the feedback we are receiving from a space, we react to it. -It is an opportunity to learn something from nature. After all, every single space has nuanced differences, even if they have the same vital components.
  9. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services – “Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources.”
  10. Aside from veggies, our spaces generally can be weaned from irrigation in just a few years. And by creating spaces that invite native fauna, biological services begin to regulate the space.
  11. Produce No Waste – “By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.”
  12. With careful observation and thought we are able to close the system in our spaces, leaving no loose ends. This eliminates the need for human control tactics. We also make sure that our clients are realistic about how the space will be used. No need creating an amazing veggie garden for someone that doesn’t have time to maintain it. -In that case, the space is better used for pollinators and wildlife.
  13. Design From Patterns to Details – “By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.”
  14. This one is a little trickier to define. We design the entire system, but probably couldn’t tell you what ‘pattern’ it follows. We could however, tell you the system that it follows.
  15. Integrate Rather Than Segregate – “By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.”
  16. We focus on multi-purpose components. A seating boulder may warm a small space for a particular plant that wouldn’t survive elsewhere in the landscape. When you create multiple purposes for a component, there is no way for isolation or segregation to occur. Functions and spaces blend into one another.
  17. Use Small and Slow Solutions – “Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.”
  18. This is how we transition soil. Passive soil building. We also opt for smaller plant material. It catches up quick enough. This creates a stronger system that is ‘built in place’ rather than ‘imported and placed’.
  19. Use and Value Diversity – “Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.”
  20. We try to build diversity into our spaces by incorporating ‘guilds’ of native plants that grow together naturally. Mother Nature is redundant, and we try to be as well.
  21. Use Edges and Value the Marginal – “The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.”
  22. The devil is in the details. We use these details no only to encourage a greater function, but a greater aesthetic, and in many cases, delight. An unexpected texture backlit by the evening sun, or a finch-attracting sunflower in front of a kitchen window. Observing the space from a distance is just as important as being in the space.
  23. Creatively Use and Respond to Change – “We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.”
  24. We start our spaces with soil building. This gets the space on the right track. We can watch weed populations to tell us the efficacy of our soil building. Or even the fungal content of our soil. With honest observation and the proper corrective action, we can fine tune a space and help usher it toward being a more independent system.

Our results are very similar to those of permaculture spaces, we just follow a slightly different recipe card. A permaculture Design Certificate may be in our future, but for now we will continue to learn from the experts and our spaces.


Lawn Alternatives

The days of turf in the arid west are coming to an end…

…at least we can hope. Bluegrass is an import from parts of the country that don’t need to irrigate it; we should be so lucky here in Colorado. Traditional turf species require around 25 gallons of water/sq ft/year to maintain compared to xeriscape landscapes which only require only 6 gallons. Not to mention all of the fuel and energy of mowing and fertilizing. Ground cover lawns require very little, if any, of either.

Established buffalograss lawn

Alternative lawns are gaining in popularity as water usage becomes part of our every day vocabulary. Ethos can completely replace sod with a water-wise alternative or we can incorporate a patch of lawn seamlessly into a xeriscape garden. Lawns can be planted with whimsical colors and textures, or can be made to visually mimic the color or texture of traditional turfgrass. Alternative lawns can become a sea of tiny flowers or smell amazing when you walk through them. There are some really fun options out there. See below for a list of tried and true ground covers that are tough as nails, or contact us today for a free consultation.

Here are some ground covers that have performed well as low-water lawn alternatives in our region.

Drought tolerant grasses

Native grasses can save up to 78% more water than traditional turf grass.* You can skip mowing and go for a more prairie type look, or you can mow them once or twice a summer for a more manicured look. Over-fertilization actually hinders these grasses. They are warm-season grasses which means that they flourish while bluegrass is struggling mid-summer. It also means that they are dormant and light yellowish in the early spring and late fall. Next time your driving around town, look for lawns that are the opposite of their neighbors. Chances are it is one of the two grasses below.


This Colorado native fills in well as a turf. It has a slightly grey-green appearance, and loves the heat. It spreads by above ground stolons and only gets about 4″ tall. Once it’s established it may only need supplemental water once or twice a summer.

Blue Grama Grass

This grass can be almost whatever you want. If you let it get tall (8-10″) it’s soft foliage blows beautifully in the breeze and it’s cool seed heads are stunning when backlit by the sun. Stunning! Or you can mow it about once a month and keep it shorter- like a tall turf grass.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to lawn alternatives, but all of these are tried and true when it comes to our hot, dry climate. If it stays low and you like the look of it, you can make a lawn area out of it (you just may not be able to romp all over it). If you long to see more options, check out Stepables.com for some really fun ideas and materials.

Ground covers


There are many varieties that grow well here, but two in particular stand out. Wooly and Pink Chintz. Wooly thyme has grey fuzzy foliage and pinkish-purple flowers. It fills in well and is soft on your feet. It can get a little wild and scraggly from time to time, but can easily be cleaned up by hand. Pink Chintz thyme has glossy green leaves with pinkish-red flowers. When this little devil blooms it is absolutely show stopping! Thyme stands up well regular to heavy traffic.

Creeping Veronica

This has a more delicate feel than thyme. The leaves are larger and the stems are a little more wiry looking. The sweet blue flowers show a blanket of color in spring, and are larger than thyme flowers. Veronica will tolerate light to regular traffic.

Creeping potentilla

These. Are. Tough. And bright green. And grow fast. They have foliage like strawberries, cheery yellow flowers, and some have bright red inedible berries. If you need to fill an area quickly these will do it, but make sure that there is a border around the space that you want to keep them in. These plants tolerate heavy traffic.


Miniature stonecrop has thicker more succulent foliage than the rest of these selections and has small yellow star-shaped flowers. They are more emerald in color and get a red tint when temperatures drop. These hate to be overwatered! Miniature stonecrop is not the only sedum that will work as a lawn substitution, but it has the most even growth habits and look lovely in a large space.


Little Brass Buttons have charming feathery foliage and stay very low to the ground. Sulfur-yellow “button” flowers appear over the leaves. The texture of these is like cashmere underfoot and some varieties will handle shade. They may require a tiny bit more water than the rest of these selections. These handle heavy traffic.

Woolly Yarrow

There are some ground covering varieties of yarrow that make fantastic alternative lawns. This one has grey foliage and bright yellow flowers. They can be a bit more “messy” looking, but have great texture. The flowers can either be mowed off, or left. Ground cover yarrows can handle heavy traffic while they are not in bloom.


Rain Gardens

Rain gardens are more than just a beautiful corner of the garden that gets supplemental water from a downspout. They can be a natural way to address some serious man-made problems such as urban runoff, habitat depletion and pollution.

Urban runoff- In the cities and suburbs property drainage is a big deal. With all of the concrete around us much of the rainwater that lands on our properties inundates the municipalities in large rain events and causes flooding of the system. (Even turf causes a great deal of run-off as the thatch layer is only slightly more permeable than concrete.) This rainwater is not only a nuisance itself, but it is filled with pollutants that are collected from roadways and parking lots. Rain gardens alleviate run-off by keeping most (if not all) of the runoff on-site where it recharges the soil and keeps it moist and healthy. Nature doesn’t have a “concrete” element of the system. Water is meant to soak into the soil where it lands. Continually sending water elsewhere dehydrates our soils and makes man-made irrigation vital to a healthy landscape. It also makes it very difficult for vital soil micro-organisms to survive and flourish.

Habitat- The lawn, shrub, flower bed standards of today’s yards do not offer a great deal of habitat for wildlife. Thoughtfully planned rain gardens offer habitat to native birds, bees and beneficial insects. Rain gardens can be filled with a variety of natives trees, shrubs and perennials that provide food, water and shelter to native fauna.

Pollution- Rain gardens offer another important ecosystem service, bioremediation. Bioremediation is a fancy way to say that they clean pollutants out of the water as they percolate through the system.

Maintenance- Man-made systems involving french drains and drainage tiles need maintenance over time. Debris must be cleared from the system and leaks may develop over time. Once rain gardens are established their maintenance involves gardening. No trenching to find the pipe or lay new ones. Just a little gardening here and there.

Installation costs- Depending upon the scope of your rain garden installation and planning costs may be very low. If you are addressing a large drainage issue, initial cost may be higher than installing a man-made system. However, the long-term services that are provided by rain gardens will offset the higher cost of initial installation.

Rain gardens aren’t as simplistic as they initially sound. Our Colorado clay soils can complicate the rain garden building process, but a few modifications make them the perfect way to slow runoff and replenish soil moisture.

If you would like to see if a rain garden is the right solution for you, drop us a line and request a free initial consultation.


Soil Building

Soils are by far the most important part of any landscape. And although it may be difficult to “see” healthy soil, it is easy to see the results of healthy soil. Healthy soils (and proper soil care) provide plants with all the nutrients that they need, help them adapt to drier conditions and fight off disease. Healthy soils also suppress weed growth. (Weeds love poor soils that ornamentals and natives struggle in.)

We offer soil rebuilding with our installation and maintenance services. With our installations we use no-till methods to keep the soil in-tact, use low-impact construction techniques and use soil inoculants to increase soil health. For our maintenance clients we offer a compost tea spraying service throughout the season.

No Till

Why is no till important? While standard practice is to till the soil to effectively mix in organic matter and break up clay, there are some negative consequences. In Colorado’s clay dominated soils, repeated tilling can create an impenetrable clay pan below the depth of the tiller blades. Clay particles are plate shaped, and repeated compacting of them by the tillers blades slipping over them, aligns them so that they make a dense layer with little to no pore space. Pore space is what allows oxygen, water and organic matter to seep into the soil.

Tilling can also destroy the soil structure because it breaks large aggregates of soil into smaller pieces. When smaller pieces settle or are compacted, they have far less pore space to allow for oxygen, water or organic matter. The larger aggregates of soil are held together by delicate fungal hyphae that are destroyed when chopped up. These fungi are important to healthy soils.

Soil microorganisms are tiny. Displacing them even a centimeter is like you or I moving to another planet. Plant roots ‘farm’ these microorganisms and have a very specific group of microorganisms that they work with. The organisms provide different nutrients that the plants need and species vary from centimeter to centimeter as they fill important niches in the soil ecosystem.

Invertebrates get chopped up. All those great earthworms, ground beetles and other beneficial insects that live in the soil, done for. Tilling disturbs and destroys the delicate soil foodweb which provides everything from disease resistance and fertilizer to greater moisture retention.

Weeds love tilling. Turning the soil exposes buried seeds to the sun and water that they need to germinate. (Bindweed, clover and buckthorn just to name a few.) It also chops up the roots of weeds that easily propagate via roots, and turns one into many. (Bindweed and cheatgrass are a couple great examples.)

Established Gardens

Soil improvement is just as important to established gardens as it is to new ones. Simply changing pruning and mulching habits can make a big impact on soil and plant health. Eliminating weed fabric also makes a big difference by allowing water and organic matter to permeate the soil rather than collect above the fabric.


New Build Construction Sites

Construction sites create several of their own soil health challenges. The topsoil is generally scraped and stored in large piles for later use, or worse, sold. This topsoil is vital to the health of the future landscape because it contains a wealth of soil microorganisms that are native to that exact location and soil type. Once the topsoil is stored in piles over 12-18” deep an anaerobic environment is created, and many of the organisms die. Often times the topsoil that is returned to the site has a great reduction in living organisms, but with proper storage and careful re-application, losses can be minimized.

After construction is complete bare subsoils may remain as the planting medium. These soils lack the organisms, nutrients and structure to support healthy plant growth. This is why turf in new neighborhoods needs to be watered twice a day for five minutes at a time. So that excessive water doesn’t runoff due to the impermeable compacted clay that remains. This turf also requires a great amount of fertilizer -See the rust streaks on sidewalks? Iron from fertilizers. And it depends on a great deal of herbicides because weeds are able to outcompete the stressed turf.

Compaction by heavy equipment and foot traffic is also a big problem. This compaction exacerbates other problems and turns the subsoil into a deep, impenetrable layer. By using a thick layer of mulch (or other preventative measures) compaction can be minimized.

Soil contaminants are another issue in construction sites. Oil from equipment, concrete and paint washouts and garbage are commonly found in these soils. With just a bit of care and designation, soils contaminants can practically be avoided.