If you want to live a greener more environmentally friendly life then there’s no better place to start than in your own backyard…or front yard. Being deliberate about what we plant and how we design our outdoor space can make a big difference in our carbon footprint and also how much we enjoy our space.
So if you want to create a more environmentally responsible yard that you’ll be able to enjoy rather than be a slave to, here are 10 steps to get you there.
1.Ditch the Ideal of the “Perfect Green Lawn”
The large beautiful green lawn behind the white picket fence is an image that became popular way back in the 1950s when folks started moving out of the cities and into the suburbs. But the aesthetic ideal of an expanse of flat green surrounding our humble castle actually started with, yep, castles.
Back in the 1500s if you had a piece of land you wanted to defend you might put a castle on it. But to make the castle a more effective defense it was important to cut down any trees, bushes, etc. that would allow your foes to sneak up on you.
A nice wide grassy field was just the thing to have surrounding your castle because it allowed you to see if any of your enemies were getting close. There was no place for them to sneak up on you and hide and there was no place for them to escape your archers’ arrows. So for the 16th century, a wide grassy “lawn” was a great idea. But for today…ummm, not so much.
Lawns today are pretty much the standard if you have any land around your house. If you want to deviate from that standard you may well irritate your neighbors or even end up getting a fine from your city or town.
The problem with lawns, or I should say ONE of the problems with lawns is that they are generally a monoculture. They are one type of plant planted and cultivated to the exclusion of all others. You want a perfect lawn? You have to keep it to one kind of grass, whether that’s Kentucky Blue Grass that’s so popular in the northern areas of our country or Centipede Grass in the south.
No other plants are allowed in a perfect lawn. If other plants come up they are considered weeds. You have to eradicate them at all costs.
Why are monocultures bad? Having only one kind of plant in a given area isn’t “nature’s way.” Dandelion and other seeds will blow in and plant themselves and then, EGADS! our perfect green lawn has been invaded, and we have to go all out to remove the weeds.
Since it usually isn’t just one dandelion seed, or whatever the invading plant is, it’s often just easier to use an herbicide to kill off everything that isn’t “grass” and herbicides are often bad for the environment.
Herbicides can contaminate the soil and our water sources if there is runoff. They can harm pollinators, like bees and butterflies. I know we normally think of pesticides harming the bees but herbicides can do damage as well. You can read more about that on the YaleEnvironment 360 website.
The other problem with monocultures is that they end up replacing the natural habitat for bees, butterflies, birds and other small critters that make our ecology work. Loss of habitat is a huge problem with the expanding urban sprawl and suburban monoculture lawns.
But you can bring some habitat back by skipping the standard lawn and planting alternative plants, like those mentioned in some of the steps below.
2. Go No-Mow
So if you are going to skip the old fashioned idea of a wide expanse of green monoculture that has been promoted for so long (and is still being promoted by many municipalities) you need to do a little research to see what your town or city will allow.
Many municipalities have some pretty stiff fines if you decide not to have a standard lawn that you mow. So it’s best to know the rules. For example, in the city of Fond du Lac, WI which is near where I live the rule is stated as follows in regard to nuisances:
” Height. No person shall permit any weeds, grass or plants, other than trees, bushes, flowers or other ornamental plants, to grow to a height to exceed six inches anywhere in the City. ” City of Fond du Lac website.
And if you think that that’s strict then you should know that some towns and municipalities actually require that your yard have a certain amount of grass in it. In the city of St. Peters, MO, for example you need to have at least 50% of your yard be comprised of turf grass. Here’s the law from the St. Peters, MO website:
All landscaping shall be properly maintained according to City ordinances presently in effect. A minimum of fifty percent (50%) of all yard areas shall be comprised of turf grass. Turf grass refers to all species of grass that are perennial and are typically used for lawns such as, but not limited to, Kentucky Bluegrass or perennial ryegrass. Trees shall not be planted within six (6) feet of a property line in the side and rear yard. The individual property owner shall be responsible for such maintenance.[Ord. No. 6865, 11-9-2017]St. Peters, MO Supplementary Regulations
So even if you have an allergy to grass, like Ms. Janice Duffner of St. Peters, MO, and even if you plant your yard carefully with roses and other flowers and perennials (like she did), so that it looks nice and shouldn’t offend your neighbors, you could still get fined (and a hefty fine it is!) if your city has an ordinance like this.
You can find out more about Ms. Duffner’s ongoing battle here in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
So do your research ahead of time. If you have an HOA you may find you have even more restrictions when it comes to what kind of yard or lawn you need to have.
But if you have a little bit of leeway and a space to work with, there are many different options.
You could try planting a “no-mow” lawn that is comprised of low growing ground cover plants like creeping thyme. This plant grows to about 3 inches. It is hardy in zones 4-9. It can actually withstand foot traffic quite well. It’s happy in sun to light shade and when it flowers it actually can attract bees and other pollinators.
Bonus! A creeping thyme yard – although it attracts the pollinators, it is actually deer resistant! WIN, WIN, WIN!
Oh, and you can even harvest the creeping thyme leaves to use in cooking and teas!
Get the scoop on the ins and outs of how to use creeping thyme as a groundcover here on the Mountain Valley Growers website.
Another possible “no-mow” option is Roman Chamomile. It grows about 3-6 inches high and when it flowers (late June-September) it’s about 8 inches high. It’s hardy in zones 4-9. This won’t hold up to foot traffic like creeping thyme. So maybe reserve it for lower traffic areas.
You can trim Roman Chamomile with a mower later on in summer to remove the dead flower heads and keep it looking tidy.
If you want something that looks more like “regular grass” you can try Now Mow Seed This is a blend of fescue grass seeds that can grow in full sun or even shade and requires very little mowing.
If you aren’t required to have any grass in your yard at all, consider making raised bed gardens and surround them with mulch or gravel. There is no end to the possibilities here so get creative!
If you can find a way to do it in your city or town, you might as well go “no mow.” Why spend time, money and add pollution to the air each week by being a slave to manicured perfection and the boring mediocrity of a monoculture lawn?
3. Plant Native Species
To keep your yard environmentally friendly it helps to plant native species. A native species is a plant that normally lives in a given ecosystem. Native species have so much going for them. Not only are they more likely to do well in your area (because they were made for it!) they will need less watering, fertilizer, pesticides, etc.
Native species end up being much lower maintenance because you don’t need to try to artificially alter the environment to get them to grow well. Plus, they usually help support native wildlife as well.
If you’re not sure what plants are native to your area there are some terrific books out there that can help and they are worth the price for sure because they will save you time and money by not having to try out plants that just won’t do that well in your area.
If you live in the Midwest this book is a great resource: Native Plants of the Midwest: A Comprehensive Guide
If you live in the Southeast this book can be a big help: Native Plants of the Southeast: A Comprehensive Guide
Both of these books have ideas for native flowers and also shrubs, vines, and trees. Just because a plant is offered in a local nursery doesn’t mean that it’s well suited to your area. So it pays to do your research.
4. Conserve Water
Choosing to plant native species is a great way to conserve water. When plants are native to your area they are suited to the “usual” amount of rainfall and precipitation there so it’s less likely you’ll need to water as often (or at all!).
Some additional things to do to conserve water include:
Use drip irrigation.
On lawns, drip irrigation can use 20-50% less water than standard irrigation systems. So that will make any part of your yard you’ve left as “lawn” more eco friendly.
Drip irrigation systems are also great for raised bed gardens and even containers and hanging plants. And if it sounds complicated to make a drip irrigation system work, it really doesn’t have to be.
If you can connect hoses and lay out some tubing then you should be able to install your own drip irrigation system. There are even handy kits like this one from Amazon that work in a wide variety of garden situations and are priced well under $100. If you add a timer you can forget worrying about watering your garden. It will water itself and with very little waste.
You can also buy soaker hoses like this one that will do the trick as well.
The reason drip irrigation is so great at conserving water is that it doesn’t spray it into the air and all over the leaves of the plants. When you water that way a lot of the water will just end up evaporating without ever going to the soil.
A drip system delivers water right where it needs to go – directly on the soil. By watering this way you can also avoid things like fungal and bacterial diseases that can spread when a plant’s leaves are wet for longer periods of time. (See below for the best time of day to water.)
Water by hand.
If you can’t install a drip irrigation system and don’t have a situation where a soaker hose will work then try watering your garden by hand rather than with a sprinkler. Again a sprinkler puts a lot of the water on the leaves of the plant and can be a bit random.
If you go through or alongside your garden with a hose with a wand you can focus the water more towards the soil and you can also put more water on the thirstiest plants and less water on those that don’t need it as much.
Water at the right time of day
It seems pretty obvious that it’s not a great idea to water at high noon when the sun is at its peak and much of your water will evaporate. But there is more to choosing the right time of day to water than that.
As mentioned above, when you water plants from the top you tend to get a lot of the water on the leaves and this can spread fungal and bacterial diseases. The less time the leaves are wet, the better it is.
In general dew forms on plants between 10:00 PM and is usually dry around 8:00 AM. So if you can water in the early morning, before 8:00 AM is ideal because temperatures are still rising, that’s great. Up until 10:00 AM is still pretty good. If you need to water in the evening, as a lot of us do because it’s not convenient to water before work, then doing it before 8:00 PM so the leaves have a chance to dry before the dew sets in is a good idea.
If you’re using a drip irrigation system or a soaker hose then timing isn’t as critical because you’re not getting much (if any) water on the leaves anyway.
Water deep and less often.
If you water a little bit every night it’s likely that you are just wetting the top of the soil rather than getting the water down deep. The problem with that is that kind of watering doesn’t make the roots of your plants go deep. They just stay near the surface and then if you get a hotter or dryer spell as soon as the top couple of inches of soil dries out your plants will wilt.
One inch of water a week is a good rule of thumb for most gardens. So if it rains an inch of rain in a week you may be all set. If not, you may need to water.
To check how wet or dry your soil is you can use something like a bamboo stake or really anything long and narrow. Slowly stick it into the soil. It will go easily into wet soil but when it gets harder to push in that means the soil has gotten dryer. So then you can pull out the stake and see how far down your soil is still moist.
If you’re making raised beds you can even install soaker hoses near the bottom to get the water where you want it. But that’s a project for another post!
If you keep your garden mulched it will keep the soil from drying out as quickly and keep down weeds as well. Mulch! Mulch! Mulch! is my garden motto.
5. Use Only Organic, Nature-Friendly Fertilizers
If you want to give your plants a boost by using fertilizer, then be sure to use a natural one that won’t harm your yard or any of the wildlife in your yard. Some of the chemical fertilizers have a lot more nitrogen or other “growth-boosting” ingredients than your plants actually need. And if this excess gets washed away into rivers, streams and even storm drains then this can become a pollution problem. That’s definitely not eco-friendly!
Well composted chicken manure or cow manure are great. But definitely don’t use the manure without it being composted or “aged” because it will be too strong and can burn your plants. You’ll also want to search out organic manure from farms that aren’t using antibiotics on their animal because residue from those antibiotics can come out in the animal waste and end up in your soil.
Adding your own compost can also greatly benefit your soil (and reduce landfill waste)! You can find out a bit more about how to compost in this post I wrote.
6. Use Only Organic, Safe Pesticides
Limit pesticide use if at all possible. Our bees are counting on you! If you need to use something to stop an infestation, then try neem oil or insecticidal soap.
Neem oil is made from the Azadirachta indica tree which is an evergreen native to India. It not only repels mites and aphids it can also take care of powdery mildew which is a fungal disease. It breaks down quickly and doesn’t harm bees and other pollinators. The key thing is to dilute it properly and follow the instructions. As with most things, if you use it incorrectly it can be harmful to your plants.
Insecticidal soap can take care of aphids, mealy bugs, spider bugs, and whiteflies. You can buy insecticidal soap or you can make your own.
To make your own you’ll need 1 cup of vegetable oil like soybean oil and 1 Tablespoon of liquid dish soap. BUT don’t use just any dish soap. You don’t want anything with a degreaser or any kind of bleach or anything like that. You want a “pure soap.” Castile soap can work for this instead of liquid dish soap as well.
Mix this up and keep it handy. Then when you need to use it you can just mix 2 teaspoons of this insecticidal soap with 1 cup of warm water in a spray bottle. Discard any leftovers once you’ve applied it to your plants and mixt the water soap combination just as you need it.
7. Plant Bee and Butterfly Friendly Plants
Butterflies and bumblebees are fun to see and have in our yards just for their own sake because they are so beautiful to watch. But butterflies and bees also act as pollinators.
But our pollinators are in trouble, particularly our bees. So if we can create a little “bee oasis” in our yard maybe we can help.
First, let’s give a virtual round of applause to bees and a big thank you. Without them and some other key pollinators, we wouldn’t have many of the foods we love to eat like almonds, cherries, blueberries, apples, peaches, strawberries, onions, cocoa…the list goes on and on.
What’s killing the bees? According to Greenpeace, “pesticides, drought, habitat destruction, nutrition deficit, air pollution, global warming.”
Two things jump out at me from this list: habitat destruction and a nutrition deficit. Habitat destruction is something that you are probably well aware of already. More concrete and less green space is something we are all pretty familiar with.
The nutrition deficit stems from a couple of issues, but a big one is the monoculture type of farming that is often done. Sure in a field of sunflowers, for example, there is a lot of food for bees (unfortunately often a lot of pesticide exposure as well). But if bees only have access to one type of food source they aren’t really getting a balanced diet.
It’s like if we were only able to eat peanuts or potatoes for a year. We’d get by, but we wouldn’t be as healthy as if we had eaten a wide variety of foods. Eventually, our immune systems would be weakened and we’d be more likely to get diseases.
If I can add a bee safe zone in my yard that provides bees with a beneficial habitat where they are safe from pesticides and where they can find a wide variety of foods from spring to fall, then that can make a difference.
To be bee and butterfly friendly I let the dandelions bloom in my yard. Especially the first ones in spring because they are often the first source of food for bees and butterflies as well. I have a lot of clover in my “lawn” as well as other little flowering “weeds” that can help feed the bees. I make sure that I am not buying starter plants that are treated with pesticides. And I plant flowers that bees and butterflies are attracted to.
But if you can’t go all out and plant garden beds full of bee-friendly perennials you can still help the bees. Even a few pots of herbs that flower placed on a balcony can provide the bees with more food to eat and more variety in their diet.
Find out more about how planting flowers can help the environment in this post.
8. Provide Water
All living things need water. We’ve talked about watering your garden efficiently It’s also a good idea to provide a watering/bathing spot for birds, butterflies, bees and whatever other wildlife you’d like to attract to your yard.
Birdbaths are a great way to attract birds and it gives you a chance to watch them drink and go about their washing and preening. There are so many different types of birdbaths out there that there is a style for just about any garden aesthetic.
It’s important to keep your birdbath clean to keep things healthy for the birds and keep bugs at bay. So change the water every other day or so. You can just tip out the old water and use a sprayer nozzle on the hose to give it a good rinse. When you need to do a more thorough cleaning the Audubon Society recommends using 9 parts water and 1 part vinegar to give your birdbath a good scrub.
If you can include some type of fountain this will cut down on mosquito breeding because mosquitos don’t like to lay their eggs in moving water.
If you find your birdbath isn’t being visited by many birds it might be that it’s too deep or the bottom is too slippery. Smaller birds don’t like to go into deeper water. To remedy this you can add a few stones to the bath so they have something to stand on. Keep it simple or else you may find it harder to clean than you would like.
Birds aren’t the only wildlife that appreciate a good watering hole. Bees and butterflies do as well. For these little guys you just need a very shallow watering hole. Think of it like creating a puddle for them. A shallow dish with marbles, pebbles, or stones allows them a place to sit and drink without the possibility of drowning.
9. Keep it Dark
Many birds and animals migrate, hunt, eat and do their breeding rituals (like frogs croaking) at night. They need it to be dark. Increasingly on this planet, there are fewer and fewer dark spaces. If you’ve got yard lights keeping them low to the ground and shielding them will help with the disruption they cause. Using lights with lower frequencies (think amber lights or even red ones) can also help.
Turn off lights at 10:00 PM or even earlier if you can to give animals who “make their living” in the dark a safer place to be and minimize the disruption of the natural cycles of animals like songbirds and even bees.
To learn more about the effects of light pollution check out this really interesting article by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
10. Plant Edibles
I talked quite a bit about how we can be more eco-friendly by growing our own food in this post. 20 Edible Plants you Can Grow – Even if you Live in an Apartment.
It makes perfect sense that if you want a more eco-friendly yard, instead of having that wide green monoculture that isn’t doing anyone any good, why not map out some space where you can plant raised beds and grow food for your family as well as provide a nice variety of plants that the bees and butterflies can enjoy as well.
Need some inspiration? You can find fantastic garden ideas and designs that will look gorgeous in any part of your yard in this book by Tara Nolen called Gardening in your Front Yard: Projects and Ideas for Big and Small Spaces. It has beautiful images to inspire you and also how-tos and DIYs for projects to enhance the beauty of your yard. I read a lot of eBooks these days. But for gardening inspiration and ideas I prefer a physical book. This one comes in both hardcover and Kindle editions. So definitely check it out.
Thank you for reading! And thank you for caring about our environment and wanting to make a positive difference. Every choice we make matters. Our gardens and yards are the perfect places to start working to create a healthier planet!