8 tips to cultivate a more eco-friendly backyard

Spring is undeniably here, and I don’t even have to step outside to know that people are already working on their lawns – the sounds of leaf blowing and mowing are constant reminders! So – let’s talk about lawns, shall we?

A lush and fluffy grass lawn is nice to look at and soft to walk on, but if you put a lot of work into maintaining your lawn, you can probably guess that turf isn’t so green for the environment. According to the Natural Resource Defense Council, lawns guzzle up 3 trillion gallons of water, 200 million gallons of gas (for all that mowing), and 70 million pounds of pesticides every year in the US. To quote the Scientific American: “As of 2005, lawns covered an estimated 63,000 square miles of America. That’s about the size of Texas. It’s the most grown crop in the United States – and it’s not one that anyone can eat; its primary purpose is to make us look and feel good about ourselves.” Ouch.

But here is the thing – a more sustainable backyard can look very different for different people, and it doesn’t even mean you have to get rid of grass! In this post, I present you 8 tips to make your outdoor spaces more eco-friendly, just in time for spring.

1. Try a turf variety that requires little care

If you are keen on keeping your grass lawn and need to re-seed, try to find a low maintenance grass variety. Consider your geography, the sun exposure in your yard, and your specific needs when choosing a turf variety. Does your yard get a lot of foot traffic? Do you care more about reducing the frequency of mowing, or do you live in a water scarce region where a drought resistant grass would be especially beneficial? etc.

2. Experiment with an alternative ground cover

If you are feeling a bit more adventurous, consider planting another type of ground cover instead of grass: creeping thyme, clover, sedum, creeping jenny…to name just a few. For example, lots of people think of clover as “weeds”, but it is actually an amazing “plant-it and forget-it” landscaping plant! It grows fast, adds nitrogen to your soil, and requires virtually no watering and fertilizing once established. Be sure to do your homework on the pros and cons of different ground covers before planting though. Case in point, clover would not be a good option for my backyard, because I have raised beds to grow vegetables, and clover is a major attraction for bunnies!

3. Flowers, veggies, fruit trees, oh my!

Once you forgo the idea that your entire lawn needs to be walkable…the options truly become endless! If you are just dipping your toes into gardening, I personally think herbs and annual flowers are a great place to start. They are beginner-friendly, especially if you are planting from seedlings, and pollinators love them! My favorite gardening resource is Homestead and Chill. Deanna and Aaron’s homestead in Central California is truly #gardengoals, and their posts always go in so much depth with many helpful visuals to boot!

4. Go native

Don’t have a green thumb or the time to take care of a garden? No problem – you can still add interests to your yard by planting more native plants that will thrive in your region with minimal maintenance. Native plants are annual or perennial plant species that have evolved in your local climate and soil conditions, which means they don’t require mowing or fertilizing. Compared to a traditional lawn, native plants also need much less pesticide and watering, and promote biodiversity!

Native plants come in all shapes and sizes: they might be ferns, tall grasses, wild flowers, trees, shrubs, vines, depending on where you are. If you are not sure where to start, your local nurseries are wonderful resources, as well as your regional land-grant universities. Land-grant institutions in the US are those that have been designated by the state or the federal government to receive the benefits of the Morrill Acts of 1862, 1890, and 1994. The intent of the 1862 Act was to focus on the teaching of agriculture, science, military science, and engineering (as opposed to liberal arts subjects), so these institutions have a strong agricultural program to this day. UMass, for example, is the land-grant institution in my state, and offers a variety of resources and services to residents, such as lawn care tips, plant fact sheets, and soil testing. (Going back to my first point about turf varieties, your regional land-grant university probably has great expertise on the types of grass for your local climate!)

5. Water smarter

According to the EPA, the average American family uses 320 gallons of water per day (!), and roughly 30% is devoted to outdoor uses. No matter what plants you choose, watering more efficiently can go a long way towards making your outdoor spaces more eco-friendly. Watering early and thoroughly is generally a good practice for lawns and gardens, as 1) watering mid-day when it’s warmer will result in a high rate of evaporation and possibly sunburned plants and 2) watering thoroughly will make sure that the plant roots can access all the water they need, which can be quite deep in the ground. When you don’t water enough, you are just moistening the top of the soil, which will evaporate in no time!

If you have lawn, choosing smart irrigation and the right kinds of sprinklers is a whooooole subject area that I won’t get into here, but for most people, an irrigation timer is a relatively affordable and effective gadget to invest in. It is so easy to turn your sprinkler on and forget to shut it off in a few minutes, so a timer – particularly the kind that allows you to schedule watering for early in the morning – can be helpful. If you are willing to spend a bit more, a smart sprinkler controller will give you the additional functionality of adding your zip code, so you don’t have to worry about the sprinklers automatically turning on and wasting precious water on a rainy day.

6. Get yourself a rain barrel (or two)

When it rains (but especially in severe weather events), water from downspouts usually doesn’t have time to soak into the ground and instead drains onto driveways, sidewalks and other paved surfaces. This is known as storm water runoff, and it can cause flash flooding and erosion. Often times, runoff also picks up pollutants as it moves through ground surfaces and flows into storm drains, which lowers water quality and harm aquatic habitats in your local streams. Rain barrels installed under downspouts can mitigate the impact of storm water runoff, and you can use what you collect to water your plants, lowering your water bills.

Here is an excellent 101 article on rain collection systems from Homestead and Chill. If you are on a tight budget and aren’t picky about the design, check out your local craigslist and Facebook Marketplace listings – I often see free or secondhand rain barrels for sale! Your state environmental agency or local public works department may sell them at a discount as well.

7. Use foliage and grass clippings strategically

Yard waste can provide excellent nutrients to your soil and should never be needlessly sent to a landfill! Our town actually has a wonderful yard waste program, which collects and composts leaves, small branches, and grass clippings, but still, we try to use the foliage and grass in our yard as much as we can before resorting to that option. Here are a few things you can try:

  • Foliage and grass clippings can be added to your compost pile. Fresh ones will be considered “green”, and if you let them dry out, they can be used as “brown” materials.
  • If you mow, consider getting a mulching blade so the grass can be chopped into small bits and left directly on the lawn to decompose.
  • I love using foliage as mulch! In the fall/winter, I spread fallen leaves on all bare soil surfaces (planter boxes, raised beds, flower beds, etc) and leave them there until spring time. They protect the roots of perennials against the bitter cold, and I find that animals dig a lot less in areas that are covered. Some of them will have decomposed by spring, and I simply compost whatever has not broken down by the time planting season has come.
My community garden plots last fall – all covered up!

8. Forgo power tools, when you can

If you have been a reader of this blog for a while, you probably know that I really, really dislike leaf blowers. It feels like an unnecessary tool for most people (I live in an area where yards are quite small), and the noise always turns a pleasant day into an incredibly irritating one! I recognize that power tools can be helpful and sometimes even necessary – it’s near impossible to have a lawn without a mower. (Though, ask me about the times when I used to cut patchy and super overgrown grass with scissors in our last yard…or don’t. It was time consuming and I don’t recommend it!) But if you can go without a mower, leaf blower, or weed wacker, do that when you can! You’ll save on fuel or energy costs, and your neighbors would probably be happy too 🙂

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