Lots of people want to go “green,” or at least greener. But what does that mean when it comes to your yard?
If you decide to make your yard more friendly to nature—using no chemicals—will you end up with nothing but weeds? Or can you be gentle with the earth and still have an artful garden?
Increasingly, the answer to the second question is yes. It can actually be easier and cheaper to nurture a nature-friendly yard than to insist on carpets of perfect grass.
In a yard that’s green, the lawn might harbor a few weeds. But it will be a place where kids and pets can play without having to wait 24 hours after an application of weed killer. Sure, the garden might host a few bugs—but most are harmless and some are helpful.
In this garden will be a range of plants, all happy and healthy. They’ll have beautiful flowers that attract butterflies and pollinating insects. They’ll have berries to attract birds, which will eat pesky bugs. The soil will be fertile and alive with earthworms, and it won’t harbor harmful chemicals.
Landscape designers say they’re seeing greater demand for eco-friendly yards. But arguments are going on in the horticulture world about what it means to be “natural.” Knowing a little about the arguments is a good way to figure out what kind of garden you want to have and what kind of gardener you want to be.
The most contentious argument is about the use of “native” versus “introduced” plants. Purists believe that only native plants—ones that originally sprang up here—are acceptable and that only gardens containing native plants are truly green.
It’s undeniable that there are some nightmares among introduced plants, the most obvious example being kudzu, the rampaging vine that takes over whole forests seemingly overnight. Introduced with good intentions from Japan in the late 19th century, the vine now covers large portions of the southeastern United States.
The problem with the only-native-plants idea is that there are thousands of wonderful non-native trees, shrubs, and flowering plants that will never do anything except sit there looking gorgeous.
Would you like to do away with your forsythia, peonies, and butterfly bush? And what does “native” mean? Does it count if a bird brought the seed from one state over?
Until recently, nurseries sometimes sold non-native plants that turned out to be invasive, like kudzu. But there’s now widespread awareness, and no good garden center would sell a plant it knew to be trouble. Still, be alert for labels like “rapid spreader” or “multiplies quickly.” Such plants might be too robust for your yard.
How Green Is Grass?
One of the least green things a yard can have is a lawn.
In nature there are meadows and fields, prairies and steppes, but no lawns. Still, most of us want one.
Americans spend some $30 billion a year maintaining their lawns. This includes chemicals to keep a lawn free of weeds, disease, and insects as well as fertilizers to keep it green and lush—even in the middle of summer, when sensible plants have gone dormant. Then there are mowers, trimmers, edgers, and blowers that spew noise and use gas or electricity.
And water. It’s estimated that, depending on location, 30 to 60 percent of municipal water supplies are used to quench lawns. Most lawn grasses have a natural dormant period in summer when the grass stops growing and may turn a little brown. Left on their own, the little blades will come to life again in late summer. Watering throughout the summer, except in periods of serious drought, means demanding that they keep performing when nature is telling them not to.
Why these extreme measures to hold Mother Nature at bay?
It’s not a choice between lawn and no lawn. There’s another way, and the possibilities of the other way apply to most of gardening.
Right Plant, Right Place
The first rule of the other way is to fit the plant to the place. This applies to everything from grass to trees. A plant growing where it wants to grow is a plant that will be happier and stronger, that will be less susceptible to bugs and disease, and that will need less water and fertilizer.
Try to learn what you can about your location and about the locations within your location, called microclimates. Even small gardens have microclimates. Pay attention to where the sun is and where there are shadows. Know where the ground stays soggy and where it dries out quickly, where it’s compacted and where it’s airier.
Know your soil. Pay attention to how much clay there is when the ground is wet, whether the soil has sand in it, and whether water drains easily after a rain. Most plants thrive on soil that drains well, and some require it.
Sometimes you can tell what kind of soil you have by what grows well in it and what doesn’t. If azaleas and rhododendrons thrive, your soil is probably moderately acidic, as is most soil in our region, and has a pH—the measure of acidity to alkalinity—around 6.5. Moderately acid soil is good for most plants, but some, such as lawn grass, prefer alkaline soil, meaning soil that has more lime or calcium. Lawns often need applications of extra lime. If you have lots of clover in your lawn, chances are the soil’s too acidic.
To determine acidity, you can get a soil test kit at a garden center or hardware store. This is usually not as accurate as a lab test, but it’ll do if you want a general idea of what you’ve got. Some garden centers offer professional laboratory soil testing, which measures attributes besides pH and often comes with recommendations for fertilizer or other soil additives.
If you live in the city and want to grow vegetables, you might want to get your soil tested for lead. Although most experts say little lead from soil will transfer to vegetables grown in it, there’s no point eating locally if what you’re eating includes even a little heavy metal.
If you’ve planted the right plants in the right place and are willing to give the grass a bit of a rest in the hottest part of summer, you won’t have to do much extra watering. And here’s another glory of compost: Mixing it with soil helps the soil stay moist.
In times of drought, water only the plants that need it, such as newly planted ones. Local and mail-order nurseries now note which plants are drought-resistant.
To avoid waste by evaporation, try to water each plant thoroughly by hand. Never let a sprinkler run for hours on everything, including plants that don’t need it. Drip irrigation, from hoses made for the purpose, is another water-saving measure, as are the green bags you set around new trees and fill with water. Treegator is one brand.
Another way to be green: Don’t let rainwater go down the drain. Runoff from a 1,000-square-foot roof will yield 600 gallons of water from one inch of rain. To catch that rain in a barrel for later use requires a little expenditure and some rejiggering of downspouts, but the water is free. And it’s not chlorinated like tap water.
Rain barrels are available at garden centers, big-box stores, and online. Gardener’s Supply Company (gardeners.com) has one called the English Rain Barrel for $149; it’s medium size, comes in three colors, and has an opening at the top big enough to dip a large watering can in.