Greening Up the Yard: The Garden Remodel

Americans love their yards, and in particular, their lawns. In fact, the average American spends almost $1,200 annually in lawn care costs, which doesn’t include water. Watering lawns consumes more water than any other activity in the U.S., and as a nation, we spend over $70 million annually on pesticides and fertilizer.

Our love affair with lawns is exacting a huge financial and environmental toll. Pesticides contain known carcinogens, and are especially dangerous for young children, birds, amphibians and pets. Excessive phosphorus from fertilizers pollutes streams, rivers and lakes, causing algae bloom, a serious condition that kills aquatic life.

So, how then can we get back to nature and create environmentally friendly, financially responsible outdoor spaces? Below are a few tips to get you started:

  1. Reduce the size of your lawn, but don’t give it up entirely. Lawns offer a safe place for pets and kids to play. They also reduce soil erosion and lower the outdoor temperature, especially in urban areas where heat from sidewalks and streets builds up. But do you really need a lawn the size of half a football field? For most families, a lawn 30 feet by 30 feet is sufficient.
  2. Use organic lawn practices. Use a push or electric mower, rather than a gasoline-powered one. Plant a drought-resistant lawn grass, such as a tall fescue blend, and allow it to grow 2 to 3 inches high. Taller grass needs less water and resists diseases and weed growth better than short grass. Use organic fertilizers, such as compost, manure, or corn gluten. Dig weeds by hand when they’re small and learn to live with a slightly less perfect lawn. Water your lawn deeply and infrequently to encourage deep roots, according to Cornell University. Depending on your climate, water 2 to 3 times per week for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
  3. Go organic in the garden, as well. Select flowers and vegetables that thrive in your area with little attention. Native plants and plants labeled as “xeriscape”are usually great choices. Amend the soil with compost and manure, which cuts down on the amount of fertilizer you’ll need, and use natural mulches, such as wood chips or arborist mulch. Use natural mulches to mulch flower beds, trees and garden paths. Mulches create a natural, tidy appearance, reduce weed growth and conserve moisture. They also regulate soil temperature and can even inhibit plant diseases. Avoid herbicides and pesticides whenever possible and opt for natural means instead. Use beneficial insects, dormant oils or row covers to thwart insects. Remember, just because a pesticide is made from natural ingredients doesn’t mean it’s safe. Nicotine pesticides, derived from tobacco plants are so toxic that they’re now illegal.
  4. Make sure your yard is fire safe. Remove dried plant debris and store firewood safely away from the house.  Use care when operating an outdoor fireplace or a propane firepit table. Never operate a fire pit or fireplace on a flammable surface, such as a wood deck, but install fire features on cement or a surface specifically made for fires.
  5. Use water responsibly. Just cutting the size of your lawn will significantly reduce your water usage, but consider other water-saving options, as well. Soaker hoses are more efficient than overhead sprinklers for watering vegetable and flower gardens because less water is lost to evaporation. Soaker hoses also reduce plant diseases because the leaves don’t get wet. Plant drought tolerant plants, use mulches and amend the soil with compost and manure, which helps it retain moisture.
  6. Plant your own vegetables and herbs. Vegetable gardening is a deeply satisfying activity that can involve the whole family. By growing your own vegetables, you’ll save money, provide wholesome food for your family, and gain a sense of stewardship over the earth that will trickle into other areas of your life.
  7. Plant flowering plants and herbs that attract insects and wildlife to your garden. These animals pollinate flowers and snack on pests, reducing your need for pesticides. Leave seed heads intact during the winter for birds and squirrels.

The move from manicured, high-maintenance yard to natural, organic garden doesn’t happen overnight. Be patient and make a few changes each season. Within two to three years, you’ll have a garden that is naturally beautiful with minimal fuss from you.

About the Author

Karen Ho Fatt is an interior designer and nature-lover living in the Canadian countryside. Her website offers tips for homeowners on creating outdoor spaces, as well as information on fire furnishings, such as Strathwood St. Thomas fire pit tables.