Outdoor Living: Back to Nature

More gardeners are recycling rainwater, using organic pesticides, and choosing low-maintenance plants. Here are ways to have a “greener” yard.

By: Linda Greider

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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.

Go Native?

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.

Saving Water

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.

Natural Weed Control

Whether you take care of your own lawn or hire someone, it’s good to do some homework on lawn treatments.

When a lawn company says “lime and fertilize,” what exactly does it mean? What’s in the fertilizer? Some organic, non-synthetic fertilizers are as good or better for lawns, though they may be slightly more expensive. Espoma makes good lawn and garden products, all organic.

When the lawn company “treats” a yard for pests and diseases, what is it using? Ask for product names and ingredients, then research them online, beginning with the Environmental Protection Agency (epa.gov). Keep in mind that definitions of what a safe chemical is can change over the years. Many chemicals used liberally in the past—DDT being a prime example—turned out to be deadly to more than just pests.

The chemical now used most for weed control on lawns in this country is 2,4-D. Some European countries have banned 2,4-D, and it’s the subject of ongoing studies questioning its link to cancer, reproductive problems, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

There are other ways to get rid of weeds and pests. Corn gluten can be used as pre-emergent weed control. Applied in early spring, it prevents the germination of weed seeds. Several annual applications might be needed, but it’s organic and safe.

Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, is a naturally occurring good bacterium used as a pesticide on all kinds of plants and in water to kill mosquito larvae.

For other green ideas, see the Web site joegardener.com. Joe Lamp’l has a wide following on the Today show. A former user of chemicals, he offers reasonable arguments against their use on his Web site and lists alternatives.

Each gardener has to balance the need for perfection with the question of what perfection costs. Personally, I’ve learned to love my patchy lawn the way it is.

You could replace some of your lawn with no-care shrubs. Viburnums are easy to grow, beautiful, and not susceptible to pests. Some varieties have fragrant flowers; most have berries for pest-eating birds, gorgeous flowers and leaves, and lovely fall color. Viburnums come in sizes ranging up to 12 feet tall and wide. Another lovely shrub or small tree is serviceberry, or Amelanchier. Or consider one of the deciduous holly hybrids such as sparkleberry (Ilex serrata x verticillata), developed by the National Arboretum. Their bright berries last through fall.

Leave Those Leaves

Trees, a part of any green yard, are underappreciated as air purifiers. They also stop rapid water runoff and provide shade to lower air-conditioning costs.

A 2002 DC law prohibits residents from removing any tree with a diameter of more than 55 inches unless an arborist deems it dangerous or unless the homeowner pays a fine and/or plants trees of equal diameter. For a list of trees that do well in this region and fascinating interactive maps of DC’s trees, check out CaseyTrees.org.

If you have trees, you have leaves. And leaves are the great unappreciated bounty of nature. If not raked up, bagged, and removed, leaves can feed the soil in your garden and enrich the plants that grow there.

Most people have trucks bring in loads of mulch or they buy bark mulch in plastic bags. Mulching around plants and trees is a good idea; it keeps down weeds and maintains soil moisture. But chopped-up leaves do the same thing, only better. Leaves put nutrients back into the soil while they’re also working as mulch. Could there be a more elegant biological equation?

Instead of letting your leaves get blown away or sucked up, save them. Pile them up on the lawn and run the lawnmower over them a time or two. Then rake them into a corner or bag them until spring, when you can use the resulting mash for mulch.

Lawn companies can do this for you, and they’re increasingly familiar with the process. Many jurisdictions now offer ground-up leaves for pickup or delivery.

Ultimate Recycling

Leaves can also become the basis for the most magnificent component of nature-friendly gardening: a compost pile.

Composting defines the natural cycle of a garden. Plants gather nutrients from the soil and grow. Then they get pruned or they die. If the cuttings or remains are composted, those nutrients again feed the soil.

You can make compost by layering the following ingredients in a pile: leaves, grass clippings (if you don’t chemically treat your grass), prunings, produce peelings or leftovers, eggshells, coffee grounds (some cafes save their grounds for customers who compost), and horse, cow, or sheep manure. Some people also use fish parts, but never meat.

You want the pile to heat up sufficiently to decompose its contents. The best compost will steam a bit when it’s turned and will feel hot if you plunge your hand into it. Turning the pile frequently helps in decomposition, as does watering it every week or so. Smaller items such as fruits and vegetables decompose faster and help the process. There are also compost-heating concoctions available at garden centers.

If you worry that a compost pile will attract varmints, you can use a closed bin. Garden centers and hardware stores sell different kinds; a good one called the Deluxe Pyramid Composter is about $170 through Gardener’s Supply Company in Vermont (gardeners.com). It comes with a top to let in water and an optional rodent screen.

The Rolls-Royce of compost bins is made by Mantis. It has two barrel-shaped bins that are varmint-proof and can be rotated to redistribute contents. But it’s pricey, at more than $500. It’s available at compost-twin.com, where there’s also lots of good information about composting.

When it’s done, compost is dark, moist, and crumbly. It smells earthy but not rotten or sour. Once you have compost, which takes anywhere from six months to a year, you have the most magnificent soil conditioner and fertilizer on earth.

Good bagged compost is available for sale. If you don’t want to bother with compost, some organic soil additives made by Espoma will fertilize soil naturally. But nothing improves the texture of soil like compost. Texture is important for drainage and moisture retention.

For every gardener, there’s a garden. What it looks like, and what it uses up or pollutes or adds to the natural world is infinitely adjustable. You can be green and a garden artist at the same time.