Every owner of a traditional detached single-family home in Colorado Springs knows that great landscaping improves both one’s property and the surrounding neighborhood. That’s abundantly clear in neighborhoods such as the North End and Briargate, where private and publicly maintained landscapes create green, leafy inviting spaces.

On July 31, 1871, General William Palmer’s men drove the first stake of Colorado Springs at what is now the southeast corner of Pikes Peak and Cascade avenues. Contemporary photographs show a treeless prairie, broken only by cottonwoods along Monument and Fountain Creeks.

Palmer wanted to attract wealthy Easterners to his freshly-minted real estate promotion, so he dug irrigation canals, diverted water from upstream sources and used it to water hundreds of cottonwood seedlings that he planted along streets that had just been platted.

His legacy endures. He created the beginnings of a vast oasis in the high desert, one that would grow, endure and be renewed to this day, more than a century after that first stake was driven.

The oasis may have started with Palmer, but it has become in effect a vast, multigenerational community art project, one supported annually by millions of tax dollars and many more millions in voluntary homeowner contributions.

According to Colorado Springs Utilities, “nearly half of the water used by Colorado Springs households is for landscapes.” Such use isn’t mandatory — indeed, a few have opted for all-natural landscapes that need no additional water. But many of us continue to maintain traditional landscapes with lawns, non-native deciduous trees, shrubs and flowers.

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After a projected 3.6 percent rate increase, slated to be approved by the Utility Board on November 13, Colorado Springs Utilities’ 132,472 residential customers will have to cough up $99.02 million annually for water service, slightly less than half of the net revenue required to support CSU’s total cost. Average year-round residential demand for water is calculated at 26 million gallons per day. All residential customers pay an annual service charge of about $20 a month, which should bring in about $31.8 million, leaving about $67 million supported by water sales.

The city’s three-tier rate structure means that water for landscaping is charged 1.5 to 2.5 times as much as water for ordinary residential use, so landscapers likely pay significantly more to help support our verdant oasis.

Nonresidential customers do their part as well. Colorado College, UCCS, the military and many businesses and non-profits maintain green space. The Broadmoor Hotel’s 3,000 acres, with its elaborate landscaping and multiple golf courses, makes it the largest single contributor to the city’s irrigated landscape.

While CSU relies upon water sales to service debt and maintain the system, it also encourages aesthetically pleasing and efficient landscapes, while steering customers away from barren landscapes of rock and mulch.

“Of the water used by Colorado Springs, much is wasted by inefficient irrigation practices, inadequate soil preparation and improper plant selection,” according to CSU’s website. “[Our] Demonstration Garden shows that xeric landscapes transcend native plants and unplanted rock mulch, to gardens that include a wide diversity of plants with attractive colors, textures and forms.

“In addition to saving water, investments in efficient, beautiful landscapes have generated significantly better financial returns than all other home improvement projects, including kitchen and bathroom remodels. Every $1 invested in landscaping yields a return of as much as $1.12, while $1 spent on a bathroom or kitchen remodel only yields about $.68 in return.”

Of Palmer’s cottonwoods, only one remains (at least to this reporter’s knowledge). It’s located on the parking on Cascade Avenue, about 60 feet south of the southeast corner of Cascade and Willamette avenues. It’s a fine old tree, but the city hasn’t planted cottonwoods since Palmer’s time, nor have homeowners.

Cottonwoods still line sections of Fountain and Monument Creeks, but our urban forest is dominated by introduced species. In an urban tree canopy assessment scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, City Forestry hopes to “understand what percentage of the city is covered with trees, where gaps exist and how tree coverage can be planned more cleverly both now and in the future.” One section of the study, completed in April, is a sample street tree inventory from two areas.

The old settlers

Fed up with their invasive, shallow sidewalk-cracking root systems, the city nixed silver maples as street trees decades ago, but they’re still one of the dominant species, comprising 14 percent of trees surveyed. Green ash trees lead all others, with 20 percent, while Norway maples, American elms and honeylocusts each account for about five percent. The remaining 51 percent is accounted for by 80 different tree species, including lindens, catalpas, hackberries, aspens, Ohio buckeyes and Kentucky coffeetrees. It’s quite a diverse mix, but one relentless species stands out.

The invader

Siberian elms comprised 10.9 percent of the total street trees surveyed. First brought Colorado Springs sometime in the 1950’s, they’re fast growing, drought and disease resistant and unaffected by elm blight. But they’re the dandelions of trees, shedding thousands of seeds annually that will sprout up almost anywhere. In unmaintained public and private spaces such as the western edge of I-25 north of the Lake Avenue exit, along West Uintah between Uintah Gardens and I-25 and on formerly barren hillsides, Siberian elms have grown into tangled, barren forests. When the city completes its canopy study, it’s highly likely that Siberian elms will be found to be the largest contributor to our urban forest.

Yet they have their defenders. Siberian elms were planted as street trees in the Westside in the mid-20th century, and many have grown into massive shade trees. Their limbs are brittle, but the trees can grow to become 60-foot monsters.

Silviculturists have no use for them. Their deep-rooted seedlings are almost impossible to pull up from a garden, and clipping them off just slows them down – they’ll sprout up again. Horticulturalist Michael Dirr says the Siberian Elm is “one of, if not the, world’s worst trees…a poor ornamental that does not deserve to be planted anywhere”.

However, this reporter pleads guilty. Fifteen years ago, I allowed a dozen seedlings to grow along the boundaries of our house on West Bijou. They’re big trees now, offering shade and privacy — but their roots have dislodged the low stone wall that borders part of the property and created havoc with a newer wall. It’s time to cut most of them down, dig up the roots and stumps and admit error.

The future

While green ashes, silver maples and Siberian elms together account for almost 50 percent of the street trees in the two surveyed neighborhoods, none of them are recommended by city forestry. All ash trees are threatened by the spread of the emerald ash borer, an invasive insect species that has severely damages urban forests along the Front Range. Shallow-rooted silver maples heave sidewalks and can damage sewer lines and Siberian elms are, as far as the city is concerned, unwanted volunteers, unwanted volunteers.

“Slower growing, long-lived trees are ideal street trees,” according to Forestry’s website, “because they promote a continuous, low maintenance urban forest.” Recommended trees include hackberry, linden, four oak species and black walnut. All are well adapted to our capricious local climate, and all can be expected to live for more than 100 years.

So if you want a gracious, long-lasting and water efficient landscape, start with three or four of the trees recommended by the city. But be aware that they’ll take many decades to mature, so consider your options.

You can plant ashes and silver maples on your lawn, or you can do as Jane Fonda has often done, and transplant bigger trees.

“The tree-transplanting bug is a trademark of mine,” she wrote in My Life So Far. “I justify it now by pointing out that I’m too old for saplings.”