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The Backyard Environmentalist: How to Make Your Yard Eco-Friendly


Most homeowners desire an attractive, healthy-looking lawn and landscape, whether they are willing to work at it or not. The benefits of such a lawn are self-evident: thick, neatly-trimmed grass, shady ornamental trees and colorful hedges and flower beds provide curb-appeal in the front yard and a comfortable place in the backyard to enjoy barbecues and family get-togethers.

But there are untold downsides to having a luxurious lawn. Besides the exorbitant time and money it sometimes requires to maintain one, the pesticides, fertilizers and even some of the plant species chosen for your landscaping can often pose a hazard to the environment. So if you’re interested in being a good steward of the planet, there’s no better place to start than your own backyard.

Following are some hints and tips to make your yard eco-safe while retaining its attractive appearance for visitors and the pesky homeowners’ association.

Pesticides and Fertilizers
Since the Agricultural Revolution thousands of years ago, humans have successfully been keeping gardens without the use of modern-day pesticides and fertilizers. These sprays and granules are all-too-often an unholy concoction of dangerous chemicals and other materials that have the potential to pollute the groundwater, cause allergic reactions in children and adults alike and, if used improperly, damage your lawn and gardens. Sure, they may keep the pests at bay and your grass green, but there are better, smarter alternatives out there.

Consider also how much the U.S. spends on these products. According to the EPA, Americans annually spend $700,000,000 on pesticides and $5,250,000,000 on “fossil fuel-derived fertilizers.” Somewhere along the way, we have been led to believe that we need these products to have a beautiful yard, and it’s just not true.

Making your own eco-friendly pesticide using household items is cheap and easy, and the resultant solution works just as well as the science-experiment-in-a-bottle found at hardware stores. In a spray bottle, combine three hot peppers, half of a medium-sized onion, one garlic clove and four quarts of water — such a pungent solution should be adequate enough to keep away large mammals, let alone common pests. Best of all, it’s safe for both your plants and your family, and it can keep for up to a year. A video showing you how to mix the pesticide for optimal usage can be viewed here.

As for fertilizers, you must become a savvy consumer. Read the packaging to determine what nutrients are included — as a rule, a healthy lawn needs nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium — and whether they are synthetic or organic. Although synthetic (that means artificial) products generally lead to greener, thicker grass, they are harmful to the environment and can actually pose a risk to your soil’s food web. They also kill beneficial creatures like earthworms, who are natural aerators of the earth. As much as your pocketbook will allow, choose to buy organic.

If you’re interested in making your own fertilizer, a simple method is to compost your organic matter. Composting is beneficial to the environment and your pocketbook in a number of ways:

  1. You’re reusing material that would otherwise be thrown away and sent to the municipal dumpsite.
  2. You’re saving on packaging by not buying fertilizers — and not polluting the soil and groundwater by using fertilizers in the first place.
  3. Compost is a natural filter, removing harmful oil, grease and heavy metals.
  4. Compost amends damaged and dry soil.
  5. It might stink a little, but it works just as well, if not better than, synthetic fertilizers. Grass thrives with just a thin top layer of compost.
  6. Composting saves money. You’re not having to buy anything extra to get rich fertilizer in return.
  7. Composting saves water. Lawns containing compost require less watering, which is good news considering that, depending on the city, between 30 and 60 percent of fresh water is used for watering lawns.

Maintaining a compost pile in a corner of your yard couldn’t be easier.  With few exceptions, most fruit and vegetable waste can be mixed into the pile, along with other waste like coffee filters, tea bags, cotton and wool rags, lawn trimmings, leaves, fireplace ashes, eggshells and dryer and vacuum cleaner lint. Things you want to avoid are meat from any animal, dairy products, cat and dog droppings, coal or charcoal ash and trimmings treated with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers (another reason not to use them!). On a regular basis, turn the contents with a shovel and sprinkle the pile with water.

Much like composting, mulching around trees, shrubs and in gardens reduces water usage. Mulch retains moisture and prevents evaporation. Aesthetically, it looks attractive. Just be sure to buy untreated, natural organic matter. Avoid mulches with built-in fertilizers and pesticides.

Xeriscaping simply means landscaping your yard with your region’s climate and ecosystem in mind. For instance, if you live in a hot, arid region of the U.S. where droughts are prevalent, it might be a good idea to choose plant species native to that area. Otherwise, you’re placing a tree or shrub in your yard that requires excess amounts of water and possibly fertilizer. When you xeriscape, not only are you saving on water by choosing drought-resistant flowers and plants, but it also requires less maintenance and is pollution-free, since pesticides and fertilizers are generally not needed.

One of the biggest benefits to xeriscaping is that it eliminates the need to mow so often, since many people choose to fill their yards with mulch, rock gardens or native groundcover. Not bad, considering that Americans annually use up to 580,000,000 gallons of gasoline to power their lawnmowers, and that a gas-powered lawnmower in use for an hour can generate as much air-pollutants as an automobile driven for 45 miles.

An easy way to find out what plant species are best for your region is to contact your local Cooperative Extension System Office, paid for by your tax dollars.

More Suggestions
One other method to greenify your home is to install a rain reservoir or two in the backyard. Some of them collect up to 100 or 130 gallons of rainwater, which you can then use to water your gardens and plants.

Another way is to use a reel mower instead of a gas-powered one. Reel mowers require no gas, do not pollute and, except for sharpening the blades at the beginning of the season, need very little upkeep. Plus, at close to $100, they are a much cheaper alternative to a gas-power mower. The only downside is that with thicker lawns, you might have to make an extra pass or two.

If you follow some of these pointers, you can easily turn your yard into an ecological wonder your neighbors will envy. Get gardening!