Fort Collins, Colorado, a growing city on the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, supports a high number of garden centers per capita. But Jesse Eastman, owner and general manager of Fort Collins Nursery, doesn’t see the other garden centers in town as competition.

“The competition for us is people thinking they can’t garden,” he says.

Colorado has many new residents each year, and most of them settle along the Front Range, the region Fort Collins Nursery serves. They’re often coming from states with vastly different climates, but they’ll try to garden the same way — and they’ll fail. Then, instead of spending more money on plants, they’ll take a vacation or renovate their bathroom. The No. 1 factor to turning these transplants into repeat customers is giving them a taste of success. And the key to doing that, Eastman says, is educating them in the art of water-wise gardening.

“It’s really valuable to our business to have customers who are committed to learning about how to be successful gardeners here,” Eastman says. “And we feel strongly that the best way they can be successful is by really focusing on those low-water plants, these regionally-appropriate plants.”

When a customer shows up at his garden center and says they just moved here from another state, Eastman has a folder full of information for them including plant lists, soil types, low-water, and basic landscape designs. Whether they were an experienced gardener in their old state or they’re just getting started, he sees it as the IGC’s job to help them find the tools they need to be a successful gardener in Colorado. And everything they’ll need is in the “newcomer’s packet.”

“We really push the idea in that packet of learn to love the environment you have instead of trying to force an environment in your yard because you have your heart set on this one plant,” Eastman says. “Let’s figure out how to get that feeling that you’re looking for out of the landscape using plants that are going to make your life easier.”

Rainbow Gardens sets up displays at its stores featuring the plants that qualify for the SAWS coupon program.
Fort Collins Nursery participated in #PlantSomethingCO by sharing this photo with the caption “Plant Something drought tolerant.”

Partner up

Educational programs to instill the idea of efficient water use, xeriscape or drought-tolerant plantings can help, but some customers will need more of an incentive to change their gardening plans.

Eastman says the city of Fort Collins Water Department promotes efficient landscape design by offering residents rebates on their water bills. If you can prove that you attended a class on xeriscape design and show that you’re making certain changes in your landscape, you can qualify for rebates, free irrigation audits and more. It’s an initiative Eastman says is showing up in more and more Colorado cities.

“Municipalities [have been] getting behind this concept, and not just in messaging but in actions that are really meaningful to consumers in terms of reducing cost of using water and providing resources that are actually applicable to customers,” he says. “That’s been something that has really helped move things in the right direction as well.”

Rainbow Gardens in San Antonio, Texas, is a participant in the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) WaterSaver Rewards Program. For residents, the program offers a chance to earn coupons for water-saving products like plants, mulch, rain barrels, etc. by participating in SAWS-approved conservation programs. The coupons can be redeemed at participating retailers like Rainbow Gardens for products on the approved list.

Daniel Keith, green goods manager and part owner of Rainbow Gardens, says the program has helped bring in new customers and new business.

“In terms of profitability for us, it’s added tens of thousands of dollars each year in additional sales,” Keith says. “So it’s definitely a win for us.”

To take part, residents must get rid of 200 feet of turf — the thirstiest part of a landscape — and replace it with flowers, groundcovers, trees and shrubs that have been approved as water-wise. They can also earn coupons by setting up an irrigation system consultation, capping sprinkler heads and switching to drip irrigation or pressure-regulated heads.

Rainbow Gardens hosts events nine months out of the year, some of which qualify toward SAWS coupons which, once earned, can be spent in either of the IGC’s two stores.

In addition to helping with conservation, Keith says the partnership with SAWS has attracted people who wouldn’t usually visit Rainbow Gardens.

“The people that this program brings in are often not our customers; they are often people that don’t know much about plants,” he says. “Not always, but it’s often people that are looking for something for free — a good deal. But it exposes them to the concept of water-wise gardening. It exposes them to our garden center. It exposes these people to a lot of plants that you’re just not going to find at the box stores or the supermarkets that have garden centers.”

Water-wise options

Plant picks are very important to water-wise gardening, Keith says. What works in Phoenix or Tucson where the soil is sandy won’t work in San Antonio where the soils are heavy clay.

“When it’s dry, it’s like a brick and when it’s wet, it’s like gumbo,” he says. “So a lot of those cactus plants did not do well in our soil here in San Antonio. So we have to pick other choices that can handle seasonal drought and seasonal wetness.”

Rainbow Gardens sets up displays at its stores featuring the plants that qualify for the coupon program. Brightly colored signage and plasticized info cards provide information for shoppers. The SAWS-approved plant list might include a general plant like salvia and allow the customer to choose from the varieties in stock that day. He estimates there are 250 plants on the approved list, although they’re never all available at the same time. The list has been updated each year.

Fort Collins Nursery uses a plant list from Plant Select, a nonprofit collaboration of Colorado State University, Denver Botanic Gardens and professional horticulturists. The program has been going for 20 years and aims to seek out plants that can thrive with fewer resources. It started out of necessity as Colorado’s population exploded and its new residents wanted to garden like they did in their previous homes. However, heavily watered and irrigated gardens aren’t sustainable in a state that is vulnerable to drought. Because of the elevation and dry climate, general plant growing tips aren’t always relevant in Colorado. Some plants that fail elsewhere thrive in the Front Range. Others are shunned in other parts of the country because they’re invasive.

“But when you move them to Colorado, they make wonderful landscape plants and don’t spread because our climate is harsh enough that it keeps them in check,” Eastman says.

Plants are trialed for three years before they are chosen for the program. The ones that are selected exhibit certain attributes: They must be able to flourish with less water, thrive in a broad range of conditions, be habitat-friendly, stay tough and resilient in challenging climates, be unique with long-lasting beauty, resist disease and insects and be non-invasive.

Ross Schrigley, executive director for Plant Select, says he wants to partner with other universities and arboretums to make the program a nationwide resource. Currently, Plant Select has demonstration gardens to show off its plants in six states: Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Texas.

“Plant Select does a really good job of highlighting plants that are appropriate for this region and describing them in a way that’s actually consistent with our experience on the ground,” Eastman says.

Salvia greggii ‘Furman’s Red’
Scutellaria scordiifolia ‘Pat Hayward’
Zinnia grandiflora ‘Gold on Blue’
Cotoneaster racemiflorus var. soongoricus
Brightly colored signage and plasticized info cards provide information for shoppers.