By Douglas Owens-Pike
In my teen years, I cut lawns to earn money. In college I studied ecology and learned how lawn-care machines pollute. One hour of mowing produces pollution equal to driving a car 20 miles.
After earning a Master of Science in plant ecology, I became a landscape designer so I could create landscapes that contribute to better air quality and habitat for native plants and wildlife.
If you're tired of lawn mowing or wondering how your yard can contribute to a healthier world, consider these steps for conservation landscaping.
Rainwater and snowmelt are natural resources. In urban areas, roofs and pavement can quickly shed as much as half of a rainfall. The runoff rushes into street storm-water sewers, which lead to the nearest river. Home landscapes can make better use of precipitation.
Eco Yard Illustration
See an ecologically friendly yard in detail.
Rain gardens are shallow basins filled with flood-tolerant plants that hold and absorb runoff. Some favorite rain garden plants are meadow blazing star, bottled gentian, fringed brome, prairie cordgrass, Culver's root, and turtlehead. Decreased runoff from yards also means less soil erosion along waterways. The city of Burnsville credits 17 rain gardens with reducing storm water runoff in a five-acre neighborhood by 90 percent.
Rain barrels are another way to rechannel runoff and save water. Use a 50-gallon plastic container to collect water from downspouts. You can use water from the barrel to water your garden. Cover the entry with fine screen to keep debris and mosquitoes out.
Permeable paving, such as brick driveways and sidewalks with spaces between and deep gravel underneath, drains runoff. But they are typically more expensive to install and require more care than concrete or asphalt. Any new driveway can be sloped to capture runoff in a rain garden.
How much of your manicured lawn do you actually use? The maintenance cost for a lawn filled with native plants or low-maintenance turf is a fraction of conventional lawns.
Low-maintenance turf appealed to me because I wanted to reduce lawnwork while keeping some grass for romping youngsters and pets. So I removed my Kentucky bluegrass and replanted with a "No-Mow" mix of fine-bladed, drought-tolerant, low-growing fescues. The soil surface must be bare to start new seed or plant sod. The ideal time to sow this seed is early fall. Some watering is required until it turns green (about two weeks). Once my new plants were well established, I put away the lawn mower and sprinkler and stopped doctoring my lawn with fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.
Adding native plants allowed me to reduce the size of my lawn where I didn't need turf grass. I used a mix of native grasses and flowers, such as prairie smoke for early season, little bluestem for midsummer, and heath aster for fall blooms.
A border of shrubs adds privacy and blends with neighbors' landscapes while providing colorful blooms, nesting habitat, and fruit sought by songbirds. If your existing hedge is buckthorn, consider replacing this invasive nonnative species with native shrubs, such as gray dogwood, hazelnut, arrowwood viburnum, bladdernut, and serviceberry.
Perennial wildflowers and native grasses turned my lawn into a carbon storage tank, because their extensive, deep roots take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store carbon.
A few landscaping changes reduced my carbon footprint and lowered my home heating and cooling bills by 25 percent.
Planting evergreen trees northwest of the house blocks prevailing winter winds and the heat of setting summer sun.
Plant shade trees to the east of your home to block the summer sun early in the day, but not winter sun. Mature trees will shade 60 to 90 percent of summer sun.
Keep deciduous trees in line with the southern side of your home about 20 feet out from southeastern and southwestern corners. This placement ensures the best winter solar gain (when the tree branches are bare) and summer shade where you most need it.
Awnings on south-facing windows can provide better shade than trees. Trellises that hold fast-growing vines also provide summer shade and allow winter solar heat gain.
If you have areas with direct sun, consider adding tomato, lettuce, and zucchini plants, which deliver bountiful produce in a very small patch.
Imagine celebrating your healthier home landscape by harvesting your own organic produce and delighting in the diversity of birds and butterflies that now visit your garden.