We need not venture out to city or regional parks to benefit from spending time in the natural world: many of us have access to green space right outside our homes.
Studies have identified various benefits of gardening, including decreased risk of dementia and improved mood. And given that lawns themselves pose environmental hazards due to wasted water to keep them green, use of pesticides, and water runoff, rethinking your yard space is another way to boost your home’s environmental performance.
Replacing grass, adding pollinator-friendly plants, and building food gardens are a few ways to improve your personal green space in addition to water conservation methods.
Grass requires a lot of water to keep green (the EPA estimates that about a third of public water is used to water grass: that’s 9 billion gallons a day). Trimming that grass requires 200 million gallons of gas. And maintaining a lawn without weeds requires pesticides that harm birds and bees.
But there are many alternatives to a traditional lawn. Clover provides good low groundcover—this option is best if you don’t need to worry about attracting deer to your yard.
Other types of groundcover that sprawl rather than growing tall will create a low-maintenance, attractive yard. For sunny areas, try dwarf mondo grass, moss, Japanese sweet flag, barberry cotoneaster, Asian star jasmine, creeping jenny, or creeping herbs like thyme and oregano.
Shady spots can host sweet woodruff and lily-of-the-valley. In dry climates, choose lantana or stonecrop succulents that are drought tolerant.
If you don’t have legal limitations imposed by your town or homeowner association, there are many other options for an alternative yard. Picture stone paths that wind between ornamental grasses, shrubs, native perennials, or patches of wildflowers. These green spaces will attract pollinators and local birds.
Start your lawn replacement with a natural grass-killing process. Cover the lawn with thick black plastic weighed down with rocks or kept in place with stakes and leave it for a few weeks. Prepare your plan while you’re waiting for the grass to die—it’s best to consult a local environmental landscaper so you know what makes sense for your soil and your local ecosystem.
Bees may be the best-known pollinators, but this group of creatures also includes butterflies, bats, hummingbirds, and certain flies. And many of these species are endangered. Given that at least 80% of crops we consume are pollinated by bees and other wildlife, this poses a significant risk to our food system. Fortunately, homeowners in urban and suburban areas can directly support the health of pollinators through making changes to your yards.
To start, make sure your planting includes native plants that provide pollen and nectar.
Plant a variety of types of flowers and food to support pollinators throughout the growing season. Different color flowers will help attract a diversity of pollinators.
If you’re also growing a food garden (more on that in the next section), making your yard as friendly as possible to pollinators will help ensure successful harvests.
Another way to create a pollinator-friendly yard is to build shelter and nesting sites. This could be a beehive, but even natural features like hedges, compost piles, or a pile of grass cuttings will offer shelter. And add a water feature somewhere near the garden to complete the pollinator ecosystem. Butterflies, for instance, will go to muddy puddles to get salts and nutrients in addition to water.
Building a Garden
One of the best ways you can support a sustainable food system is by growing your own produce and herbs. Turning lawn space into garden space accomplishes multiple goals: getting rid of harmful grass, creating a pollinator-friendly yard, and providing some of the physical and psychological benefits of spending time outside.
Start by finding out what Plant Hardiness Zone you’re in, so you know what will grow well in your climate. Also consider what’s harder to find in stores (or more expensive) and what just tastes better homegrown—tomatoes and lettuce, for example. You’ll need an area that receives a lot of direct sun but also has some protection from strong wind.
For home gardeners, raised beds that are small enough for you to reach all the rows are a more efficient choice than many rows of plants. You can use a garden planning tool to lay out the space and keep track of where specific crops are each year for proper rotation.
Once you’ve decided what and where to plant, the most important thing to focus on is soil health. In raised beds, start with a rich compost. You can provide your plants with nutrients by using coffee grounds, eggshells, and banana peels, or even your entire compost pile if you keep one. If you do have grass, use clippings when you mow the lawn (assuming it’s organic). And give those weeds a second life by soaking them in water for a week or two to make weed tea: it’s an excellent fertilizer for your plants.
Organic Pest Control
If you have a garden, you’ll certainly need to deal with pests. Mammals like deer or rabbits can usually be kept out with good fencing, but insects prove harder to manage. And there are many common garden pests, from slugs to squash vine borers to beetles. If you don’t manage them effectively, pests can destroy your plants. But chemical pesticides hurt pollinators and can be harmful to your health.
There are a number of natural substances to use for general pest control. Diatomaceous earth sprinkled around the perimeter of the garden will kill anything that crawls. Neem oil spray will repel aphids, mites, and other small insects. Even soapy water can help deter pests. Common Sense Home has a detailed list of pests and natural repellents.
If you aren’t ready to give up on your lawn or your homeowners association won’t allow you to replace it, there are still ways to make your lawn care more environmentally friendly. Start by reducing your mowing; this creates a more friendly habitat for bees. And when you do mow, choose an electric lawn mower (or a manual push mower) over a gas-powered one.
Get used to leaving the lawn clippings where they fall; they will fertilize the soil. The most conservation friendly way to keep a lawn is to accept that it will be brown for part of the year. If you do water, water deeply but less frequently. Also consider installing a smart watering system that will monitor weather conditions and adjust your schedule accordingly to conserve water. If you can, make sure the grass in your yard is suited for your climate, which will lead to a healthier yard with less care.