If you live in a house, you have a yard to take care of, whether you own or rent it. Americans have a love affair with a lush grassy yard. In fact, counting parks and golf courses, we grow more grass than any other irrigated crop. We don’t like taking care of an expanse of grass as much as we like having it. The good news is that you don’t have as much grass with an eco-friendly lawn and garden.
Who really needs a big grass lawn these days, anyway?
When I was growing up, we kind of did. Most people spent a lot more time outside than we do now. After all, few of us had air conditioning. No one had cell phones and other electronic gadgets. I’m not sure that even science fiction writers had thought of a lot of the stuff that keeps us inside so much now. We used the lawn for badminton, croquet, and other games.
Now, newer homes, at least, have larger yards, but hardly anyone uses them as much.
Grass and an eco-friendly lawn
I remember visiting a town that outlawed grass lawns. Every house was surrounded by wildflowers or something. More home-owners associations probably require grass lawns. Grass doesn’t have to be bad for the environment.
Most important, choose the right grass. And that depends on your local climate and soil type. Whatever grass grows the best under those conditions needs less water. And probably less fertilizer.
And you don’t need to try to limit your lawn to one species, either. Unless you have a homeowner’s association that thinks clover is a weed, welcome it in your yard. Some other plants may volunteer to live there, too. You probably won’t like all of them. But remember: crabgrass is grass. It’s easier to accept it than try to control it. More eco-friendly, too.
Prefer an electric, battery-powered, or reel mower to a gas one if you’re in the market for a new mower. Or if your yard isn’t so large you need a riding mower. Gas lawnmowers spew much more exhaust fumes into the air than cars.
For an eco-friendly lawn, leave the clippings on the lawn. They’re much better fertilizer than anything you can pour out of a bag. And if they should happen to wash into a stream, they won’t do as much damage as chemical fertilizers.
Use a mulching blade. That way, you can even mow over leaves in the fall. Also, use the bag attachment. Empty the bag on your compost pile. Isn’t that a lot easier than raking? And skip the leaf blower. A few leaves left on the lawn after you’ve mulched most of them don’t hurt anything.
If you have clay soil, it needs to be aerated. You can rent a heavy, noisy machine. Or you can make sure your yard has plenty of earthworms to do it for you.
Beyond grass—an eco-friendly garden
Plant as little grass as you can get away with. Other groundcovers, trees, shrubs, vegetables, and flowers need less water and no mowing.
You can make any kind of garden you like. There are more possibilities than I can mention here. But follow a few general principles.
First, prefer native plants. They have perfectly adapted to the climate and soil conditions in your area. Nurseries will sell all kinds of non-native plants, some of which will do quite well. Others will take more work than they’re worth.
Find plants that will attract the kinds of wildlife you want. Especially birds and the kinds of insects that eat the bad kind. You don’t need to poison the bugs that eat your plants if you have plenty of their natural predators around.
Group plants that have similar sunlight and water requirements together. A plant that needs a lot of sun might look good next to one that needs a lot of shade, but one of them won’t do well.
Also, some plants need good drainage. Others grow naturally in swampy conditions. They will be your friends if you have a soggy spot in your garden.
The best fertilizers
The clippings and leaves you leave on the yard become compost. That’s the easy way to get it. For the rest of your gardening, you need to make your own compost. It’s not hard.
Find a shady place that’s well drained––and probably out of sight––for your compost pile. You can get or make a compost bin or frame, but you don’t have to. Make sure you have a good variety of materials and let both air and water flow through it. Turn it from time to time.
What can you put in your compost pile besides leaves and grass? It needs twigs or wood chips, too. Beyond that, almost anything organic.
- Most kitchen scraps––including eggshells, tea bags, and coffee grounds
- Hair, yours or your dogs’
- Ash from your fireplace or grill (unless it’s really greasy)
- Paper towels and napkins, if you use them at all
- Shredded paper
- Fabric scraps (so long as they’re not polyester)
But there are some things that don’t belong on a compost pile:
- Diseased plants
- Weeds, unless they haven’t gone to seed. Composting may not kill the seeds.
- Large sticks or branches, which take too long to break down
- Meat, bones, dairy, or basically any animal product
- Oil or grease—even if it comes from plants. Grease repels water, and composting needs lots of water.
- Dryer lint, unless you have no polyester or other plastic fabric. Microplastics aren’t good for earthworms.
Besides compost, composted sewage sludge makes a great fertilizer. Sound gross? The city of Milwaukee has been selling its sludge nationwide with the brand name Milorganite for years. Since that name is a trademark, no other city can use it, but more cities may compost and sell their sludge.
Watering your eco-friendly lawn and garden
Most people use sprinklers. They’re not the best choice, though. For one thing, it’s hard to water plants without also watering the street, sidewalk, or driveway. For another, a lot of water from a sprinkler will evaporate. The lawn and garden don’t benefit.
The grass probably needs more water than other plants. But it doesn’t need it every day. You can water every other day provided you water deeply. And, of course, only if you don’t get enough rain.
Speaking of rain, put in a rain barrel. You will sometimes want to use a bucket or sprinkling can instead of a hose. Why run potable water into them that plants don’t need. Beware, though. Some western states outlaw rain barrels.
If you can afford it, install an irrigation system. It will be designed especially for your property. A drip irrigation system uses water the most efficiently. It’s especially good for trees and shrubs. Soaker hoses are good for that, too, if awkward and annoying to use.
If you live in a desert or drought-prone area, look into xeriscape for an eco-friendly lawn and garden. That is, landscaping that doesn’t use grass or other really thirsty plants. You’ll have a wide choice of plants to use, but I saw my favorite example one summer I spent in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It rained a lot more than I expected, but the soil there is so sandy and the water table so deep that people with grass lawns didn’t bother to turn off their sprinklers in the rain. Others had dug up their grass and put in river rocks instead.
One imaginative homeowner put a circle of darker stones in the middle of the front yard. And in the very center? An old reel mower, spray-painted gold.
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