How to Green Up Your Landscaping

Rain barrels are a great place to start in the greening of your landscape.
Rain barrels are a great place to start in the greening of your landscape.
Jakob Fridholm/Getty Images

­These days, everywhere you turn are tips and tricks to lead a greener lifestyle. You can go green with your transportation by purchasing a hybrid car, sharing a ride, taking the subway or using your feet. Your home can be green in its design, its materials and with the appliances that bathe, feed, heat and cool you. And of course there's the old standby -- recycling. You can recycle everything from a soda can to your motor oil to an outdated cell phone. It's all about reducing your carbon footprint -- basically, the amount of wear and tear you take out on Mother Earth in your everyday life. Reduce, reuse, recycle.

A part of your life that's already green can get even greener -- your landscape. A tremendous amount of time, money and materials go into the average homeowner's landscape. Front and back yards packed with lush grasses and flower beds can come at a cost -- to your pocketbook and to the environment. The National Garden Association says that Americans spend more than $10 billion a year on lawn care. By going green with the design and maintenance of your landscape, you can save time in upkeep and money in the long run, all while doing the environment a favor.

­The ultimate green landscape should have little or no negative impacts on the environment, and there are many ways to make this happen. Choosing all or even just a few methods ca­n go a long way toward enriching the natural environment around your home. Just learning the basics of composting, planting and watering can help reduce your environmental impact. If you want to go really green, you can completely redesign the land around your home for maximum results.

Green Landscaping Concept and Planning

The before and after image of a former grass lawn that was xeriscaped to save water and labor.
The before and after image of a former grass lawn that was xeriscaped to save water and labor.
Peter Essick/­Getty Images

­The first step in the greening of your green space is to spend some time on your game plan. With a well thought out plan, you can determine how far you want to go in your green quest. Every little bit helps, so don't think you need to completely rework your landscape or spend a lot of money up front to make a difference. With some research and a little bit of hard work, you can save time, money and help protect the environment.

At its core, green landscaping is about choosing the right kinds of plants for your yard. Native plants are typically the way to go because they can thrive more easily with less time and resources invested in their care. They're also probably a little more resistant to the pests you have in your neck of the woods, which means less time and money spent getting rid of them. Choosing plants that require less water has the obvious effect of saving water and money spent on it.

­First take a big picture look at your landscape. Is it heavily sloped?­ Is it partially shaded? Does it get full sun? What kind of soil do you have? Then find plants that fit the bill, and you've started greening your landscape. If you live in a state where ivy thrives as a hearty, drought resistant ground cover, use it as an alternative to grass. If you have a substantial slope, you may want to go with raised beds built into the hill made from reclaimed materials. Don't try and get a full sun plant to grow in the shade or to get a sandy soil plant to grow in red clay -- it'll only lead to wasted time and money. Work with what you've got.

Also plan for some wildlife areas. Native trees and plants are more likely to attract birds and butterflies than non-native species. You can learn about which invasive species will harm your landscape by checking with your local cooperative extension office. It's typically sponsored by a local university and is a great resource for information about the agriculture and forestry in your area.

Green Mulch and Compost

A homemade compost bin
A homemade compost bin
Mark Douet/­Getty Images

­Mulch and compost are two key ingredients to a green landscape. Whether your landscape and garden areas will be healthy and fruitful depends on the quality of the soil more than any other factor. The best way to improve the quality of your soil is through the addition of organic matter. The best kind of organic matter on earth is compost -- organic matter that's been broken down with the help of microorganisms and oxygen.

What makes it super green is that the base ingredients are the waste products in your own home -- newspapers, coffee grounds, food waste like banana peels and discarded vegetable matter, leaves, grass clippings, wood chips, you name it. There are thousands of items you can add to your compost mix. These items, along with some soil, water and air will leave you with a rich mix of organic fertilizer you can add to your landscape.

Here are a few ways it'll green up your landscape, both literally and environmentally:

  • You're recycling organic matter that normally goes into your waste bin.
  • Compost insulates the soil and helps it to retain moisture, saving water.
  • It acts as a natural fertilizer, so you avoid purchasing chemical varieties.
  • It helps protect against pests and disease, so no more harmful pesticides are necessary.

Once you have your homemade or store bought compost mix, till 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) of it into new planting beds or when you're trying to establish a new lawn. The easiest way is to use a lawn tiller, but that means gasoline and harmful emissions. The green way is to do it by hand with picks and shovels. The choice is yours. If you already have a lawn, add about a half inch (1.27 centimeters) of compost to your grass each spring or fall before it rains. Sandy soil will hold more water and prevent runoff. It also helps to loosen hard clay soils, again saving water.

­Once you have your soil mixed with rich compost and your plants are in the ground, you need to mulch the area. Mulch is an organic layer added to the top of the soil around plants -- a blanket that aids with insulation and moisture retention. The ideal mulch is made up of about half compost and half woody material like wood chips, sawdust, straw or grass clippings. It helps keep weeds away, which means less money and time spent on chemical weed killer, and the insulation it provides keeps your plants' root systems strong in the winter.

For flower beds and vegetable gardens, use a co­uple of inches of shredded leaves, compost and grass clippings for your mulch. Trees and shrubs can handle up to 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) of w­oody mulch like tree bark and wood chips. Never mound up the mulch. It should be spread evenly around the plants, no closer than 2 inches (5 centimeters) from the stem. You can even mulch your lawn by grasscycling. Instead of bagging your clippings, simply mow and leave them on the lawn. They decompose quickly and allow valuable nutrients to be released back into the soil. This feeds your grass and reduces the need for fertilizer.

Green Irrigation Techniques

A soaker hose can save a lot of cash and another valuable resource -- water.
A soaker hose can save a lot of cash and another valuable resource -- water.
Wally Eberhart /Getty Images

­There's no better way to green up your landscape than by saving water. Besides helping to retain moisture by composting and mulching, you need to develop a green irrigation system. One way is to work a rain garden into your landscape. These are areas specifically designed to soak up water runoff from your driveway, roof or lawn. Once it's collected, it's allowed to soak back into the ground slowly. This can help you retain 30 percent more rainwater than your average lawn [source: EPA]. It also helps to reduce soil erosion and prevent fertilizer and nutrients from finding their way into local water sources.

You can also save water in how you distribute it to your plants. Drip irrigation systems and soaker hoses are a great way to reduce water waste for plant beds. Soaker hoses have tiny holes that allow small amounts of water to soak into the soil, preventing evaporation and runoff. Drip irrigation is a system that uses a slow trickle to water the soil to allow for deep root penetration. There are many varieties of drip systems, but they all involve a network of hoses or plastic pipes with slow-release drip valves positioned exactly where you need them -- near the base of the plant. Watering the root system itself leads to a stronger plant that's more resistant to drought.

Another way you can conserve and collect water is by using rain barrels. These are large plastic or wooden containers that are attached to the downspout of your gutter sys­tem. The rainwater from your roof flows through the downspout and directly into your barrel. You're literally collecting rainwater for use on your lawn and garden. You can purchase rain barrels at most hard­ware stores these days or make your own from a large plastic trash can. Simply cut an opening in the lid of the can large enough to fit the gutter downspout. When it's full, dip your watering can for your irrigation needs. Pre-made rain barrels cost a bit more, but come with spigots for easy filling.

Here are some other green watering tips:

  • Water deeply and less often -- let plants partially dry out between watering.
  • Make sure your sprinklers aren't watering the sidewalk.
  • If water puddles, allow it to soak in before you continue.
  • Water in the early morning to prevent evaporation.
  • During heavy drought, let an established lawn go dormant -- it will brown, but won't die.
  • Established trees and shrubs can usually live on rainwater alone.

Green Fertilizer and Pesticides

This monster pesticide sprayer is pretty much the opposite of green landscaping.
This monster pesticide sprayer is pretty much the opposite of green landscaping.
Stockbyte/­Getty Images

­In most green circles, fertilizer and pesticides are bad words. The enemies here are the chemical varieties you heap on your lawn and plant beds. Fertilizer and pesticides can also be natural and organic -- that's the direction you want to go if you're greening your landscape.

Most trees and shrubs get all the nutrients they need from the soil. If you've been a good green landscaper and used mulch and compost, then you've got a great natural fertilizer already worked into your soil. Annual plants, vegetable and herb gardens and sometimes lawns need some additional nutrients you can only get from fertilizer. When it comes time to go fertilizer shopping, look for organic varieties -- it will say so on the label. Another thing to look for is slow release fertilizers. Quick release fertilizers don't penetrate deeply and often only feed the tops of the plant's root system. Slow-release fertilizer gets down deep, feeding your lawn or plants slowly and evenly. This also helps reduce runoff into your storm drain.

It's best to fertilize before a heavy rain to help conserve water. Before you add any fertilizer, pick up a soil test kit from your local home and garden center. This will tell you the levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and lime you have and how much you need. If you've worked in compost and mulch you may not need to add anything at all.

Pests can ruin any landscape. But not all pests are bad. In fact, only about 5 to 15 percent of the insects in your yard are harmful [source: EPA]. Many insects you'd kill with harmful chemical pesticides will actually help do away with the harmful pests. To green up your landscape and rid your lawn of harmful pests, start with healthy soil -- once again, compost and mulch. Choosing pest-resistant plants is another great way to start. You can find this information out by visiting a garden store in your region. Mix up the kinds of plants you have. This way, if a pest attacks a particular variety, you have other plants to continue thriving.

You should also be prepared to accept some amount of damage. No lawn and garden can be pest-free, so allow a little time to pass before you buy up an armful of chemical pesticides. Many times, nature will take its course, and the good bugs will take care of the bad bugs for you. If you notice that the same variety of plant has the same problems year after year, replace it with a heartier and more pest-resistant kind. If all else fails and your natural treatments aren't working, use your pesticides responsibly. Try organic kinds, and if they don't work and you need a chemical pesticide, only treat the area that needs it and use it sparingly. Excess pesticide washes away into your storm drain and eventually into the lakes and rivers of your region.

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More Great Links

Sources

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  • "Drought Fact Sheet." American Water Works Association. 2008.http://www.drinktap.org/consumerdnn/Home/WaterInformation/Conservation/DroughtFactSheet/tabid/199/Default.aspx
  • "EarthTalk: On Green Landscaping." The Good Human. Feb. 17, 2008. http://www.thegoodhuman.com/2008/02/17/earthtalk-on-green-landscaping/
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