Creating an Eco-Friendly Yard

Photo: istockphotos

Green is good. It's what everybody seems to want. We want green living, green homes, green office buildings, green cars, green urban spaces, green rolling hills and more than enough greenbacks to cover it all. But there is one aspect of green living in which 'green' is not the best, and it defies one of our most well-known platitudes, the grass is always greener...

For when we turn our eco-friendly attention away from the walls and windows, when we look down from our solar rooftops, we are likely to see a green yard that for all its verdant color is not as green as it could be.

Overall, less focus is given to greening up our yards in favor of greening up our homes, which is fine, really. Grass is much more eco-friendly than a blacktop driveway or a leaky house. But much can be done to make our yards more eco-friendly, more in tune with our local environment and much less of a burden on urban water supply and treatment. Here are 7 tips for creating an eco-friendly yard this summer...

The Grass is NOT Always Greener.

Rule number-one for a green yard is less grass. Grass is a relatively poor absorber of water. It actually impedes the flow of rainwater into the soil—less so than pavement, but more so than mulch and the deep root system of shrubs, trees and other natural plantings. The EPA tells us that a typical suburban lawn has less than 10 percent of the water absorption capacity of a natural woodland—woodlands usually cut down to build that suburbia.

Grassy lawns also require more use of mechanical equipment—typically gas-powered—as well as fertilizers that leech into the soil and water table. Solution? Plant woodland-type plants, especially native varieties, and use mulch, which has excellent absorption properties, instead of grass turf plant meadow plants, wildflowers, etc. In other words, go more for the English garden than the cultivated suburban lawn.

Eliminate Pesticides

In the relatively short time since the onset of industrial farming, we seemed to forget about planting without pesticides. Even now, corporations like Monsanto are selling genetically modified seeds devised solely to resist the pesticides Monsanto also makes to kill every living thing in the field except the crop. The damage done by operations the size of Monsanto is a story for another time, but the dumping of pesticides even on a small front yard does enough damage on its own—contaminating soil and often leeching or running off with rainwater into the municipal water supply. It's time to remember the art of integrated pest management. Certain plants planted together will protect each other from pests and feed each other essential minerals. The truth is there are a number of non-invasive, chemical-free ways to protect your garden and landscape. (Did you know that an open beer can will distract garden slugs from eating your snow peas?)

Plant Native, Plant Natural

One good way to avoid pesticides in your landscape is to plant native species. Not to imply that the planting of exotic plants is always bad, but native species have spent the entirety of their evolution (millions of years) adapting to local conditions and tend to be mightier opponents to pests. Better yet, so have the local, native wildlife grown to love these plants.

Conserve Water

If you live in the desert, plant desert vegetation. Wherever you live, plant drought-resistant varieties, thus conserving your need for watering. When watering is necessary, as it inevitably becomes, consider installing an efficient drip or soaker hose system that gently and slowly injects water into the ground surface. If you have a sprinkler system, install a rain or solar sensor that detects when watering is or isn't necessary and tells the system to turn on or off accordingly. Think of this as a “Smart Garden.” You could also attach a rain barrel to a gutter downspout, collecting free fresh water for irrigation.

Composting is King

Earlier I mentioned using mulch to retain water. In some cases, a local wood or municipal yard waste processor will offer to dump mulch at your house for cheap—even free. That's great, but through composting you can create your own mulch on-site. Simply throw all your veggie waste from the kitchen into a proper bin or other composting structure (instructions for composting are easy to find online). This eliminates solid waste, and the resulting soil-like mulch is absolutely excellent for your garden and landscape.

Permeable Pavers

There's more to the modern yard than plant life. We've got to park those cars somewhere and nobody wants to hang out in the backyard on a pile of mulch. For this reason, we build decks, patios and driveways. But if you've ever gone outside during a heavy rain shower, you may have noticed water running like a river down the edge of the driveway and into the municipal drain. You may have even seen it puddle up on the grassy lawn (see tip #1). The reason for this is that rainwater and most paved surfaces do not get along. However, a successful peace accord has been devised, called permeable pavers. They provide a strong surface while allowing water to percolate through to the soil beneath, contributing to the health of your lawn's ecosystem and easing the burden on wastewater management.

Efficient Lighting

Finally, manicured landscapes often come with accent lighting, or more functionally, just about every yard will have some porch, patio or entry lighting to provide safety after dark. Lighting our yards efficiently is the best way to make our lawns green in terms of energy consumption. The best option: solar lighting. Solar garden lights are ubiquitous and affordable these days. There are solar options for motion sensor and porch lighting. At the least it makes sense to install energy efficient light bulbs in outdoor fixtures. Compact fluorescent (CFL) and LED lights save energy and money while lasting up to 10 times longer than conventional incandescent bulbs.

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Dan Harding is a well-versed veteran of solar critique, commentary and reporting.  He has published well over 1,000 articles on a wide variety of solar industry topics, ranging from cutting-edge technology and gadgetry to political satire and powerful editorials. CalFinder is proud to tout Dan as our resident solar expert. He holds a B.A. in English from Michigan State University, and enjoys reading, writing and home construction.