Increased consciousness of human impact on the environment has many of us looking for ways we can cut back on carbon emissions, waste production, and pollution. From electric cars to LED bulbs, solutions are becoming easier to find. But what about your yard? Can you design an environmentally friendly backyard?
The short answer is: yes, absolutely! While it might seem like your lawn, plants, and patio can’t make that big of an environmental impact, the sheer number of lawns, plants, and patios throughout the world amplifies their effects. Shifting to a more environmentally friendly backyard model not only reduces your own ecological impact, but it can also influence others to do the same, encouraging a domino effect of more mindful backyard design.
But how can you get started? In this blog post, we’ll cover some of the various ways that you can transform your outdoor space into an eco-friendly paradise, ranging from complete overhauls to smaller mindful purchases.
Environmentally Friendly Lawn Care
First, some bad news: lawns, though they’re made of plants, are far from eco-friendly. They produce greenhouse gases rather than absorbing them thanks to the maintenance required (lawn mowers, herbicides and pesticides, removal of biodiversity and native species), and take up about as much space in the US as the entire country of Greece. Lawns are a common status symbol, with the great amount of care required for a perfectly manicured lawn suggesting that the owner has enough free time and money to care for them. Though they may have once served as a way to feed livestock, the majority of people aren’t keeping cows or goats in their backyard—a once-practical feature of American homes has now become a resource drain. Unfortunately, grass just isn’t an eco-friendly plant as it’s used in the US.
But I Like My Lawn
That’s okay! You don’t have to get rid of your lawn entirely to have a more environmentally friendly backyard (though it certainly doesn’t hurt—you can read more about that below!). Switching to environmentally friendly lawn care is a great step toward eco-friendliness. If you’re not ready to let go of your green space yet, consider implementing some of these changes instead.
One of the biggest reasons that grass isn’t eco-friendly is the amount of resources required to keep it thriving. Homeowners associations and social norms encourage us to have short, manicured green lawns free of weeds. If you remove just one of those adjectives, you already have a more eco-friendly lawn.
Let’s start with length. Short lawns are the ideal vision of a lawn, but keeping your grass short makes it thirstier. Set your lawnmower higher—let’s say three or four inches—and you’ll find your grass is healthier with less frequent watering. Higher grass can also shade out many weeds, meaning you’ll have less work to do to keep your lawn healthy. Also consider swapping your gas-powered mower for a battery-powered one or even a push mower. Less time spent mowing with a gas mower means less emissions, which is better for the environment.
That characteristic bright green of a nice lawn is hard to keep up. Watering less frequently will result in dry, brown grass, but it’s important to note that dry and brown doesn’t necessarily mean dead. Reducing your watering to once every two weeks or so is probably enough to keep it alive. Grass has a dormant period before it dies, meaning that it will more or less go to sleep for a while. Keeping it in that state rather than letting it die or watering it constantly lets it come back with natural rainfall and moisture. Yes, dormant grass will lose its vibrance, but if you’re trying to reduce your water use, this is one way to do it.
And then we have the idea of being weed-free. A lawn with weeds can look unkempt, but weeds are a sign of natural biodiversity—something that’s crucial to protecting the environment. If you let weeds grow, your lawn might not look quite as put-together, but it can contribute to better soil quality, reducing erosion, and, of course, a whole lot less work for you. If you do plan on removing weeds, do so manually or with eco-friendly herbicides.
But What Can You Replace a Lawn With?
Good question! Replacing your lawn is a big step, but it can make a big difference in having an environmentally friendly backyard. Some of the most common options for lawn replacement include:
Replacing your lawn with clover is easy, cheap, and very low-maintenance. Like grass, it provides a nice green carpet for walking on, and can easily be mowed to keep height down, though clover rarely grows above a couple of inches tall. Clover is also a great choice for pets, as urine won’t change its color. However, clover isn’t without its downsides—it may need more frequent reseeding, is more prone to staining clothing, and isn’t as durable as grass.
Traditional lawns usually need moss removed, but if you replace your lawn with moss, you no longer have to worry about it! Moss thrives in all kinds of environments and can be an indicator of clean air. It’s also great for absorption, so if you’re prone to lots of water, especially if the water makes your soil particularly soggy, moss may be a good option. One downside is that moss simply isn’t as durable as grass, which may mean problems if you have kids or dogs, who can easily tear patches out.
Wildflowers and Meadows
Who doesn’t want a field full of flowers with little maintenance? Making your lawn space into a meadow means you let native plants and flowers take over, reducing your need for maintenance and creating a beautiful, biodiverse piece of land perfectly suited for pollinators like birds and bees. Establishing a meadow requires some planning to ensure that it will continue for many years to come, but the results can be beautiful and eco-friendly. The primary drawback of a natural meadow is that they can look untidy to neighbors used to a kept lawn, but there are others as well—particularly that opening your yard up to natural biodiversity may also welcome in creatures you’d rather not have around, such as ticks. Be sure that your outdoor space gets enough sun to help keep unwanted insects at bay.
If you have a green thumb or just the craving for fresh fruits and vegetables, you can convert your backyard space into a food garden. Not only is it great exercise, but food gardening can cut down on expenses, provide food for your family, and be a more eco-friendly use of space. You don’t have to start by converting your whole backyard at once—start with a single small bed or patch and grow it over time. If you’re handy at DIY, you can set up a great raised vegetable or herb garden bed yourself, but if you prefer a little professional help, Transblue can help design you a garden that makes use of your unique area, including terracing, irrigation, and ideal plant placement.
If you live in a drought-prone area, xeriscaping may be the answer. Xeriscaping is a landscaping process that reduces or outright eliminates the need for watering and irrigation with native plants that can already thrive in your local climate. That typically means doing away with thirsty lawns and replacing them with a variety of local plants. In warmer areas, sand, rocks, and dirt are used as homes for water-conserving succulents or other drought-resistant plants. The results can be beautiful, making use of the natural landscape and climate to create low-maintenance but lovely gardens to relax in.
Replacing your lawn with synthetic turf hasn’t always been such an achievable and desirable idea, but advances in the materials used now make it a wonderful choice for those looking to reduce their water consumption. Synthetic turf isn’t just for sports fields anymore—it can look every bit as lush, beautiful, and homey as real grass, with little maintenance. It’s also great for pets, as urine won’t discolor or kill it, and any pet messes can be hosed away easily. Like all lawn replacements, there are some things to keep in mind—artificial turf can absorb heat, getting very hot in sunlight, and can result in increased water runoff. Synthetic turf is often made of recycled materials, but the process of making it may give it a bigger carbon footprint than anticipated. Keep that in mind as you’re looking at different options!
Eco-Friendly Plant Options
If you’re big into gardening, you may want to know what plants are best for an environmentally friendly backyard garden. Not all plants are created equal; some may have detrimental impacts on the environment depending on what kinds of care they require, including frequent watering, invasive tendencies, or nutrient depletion. More mindful planting can make a big difference in your environmental impact.
To start with, native plants are always your best option. If a plant is native to the region, it’s more likely to survive whatever conditions the area’s climate throws at it. While that doesn’t mean native plants require no care at all, they are significantly easier to keep alive than exotic plants from different biomes. That means less watering, and potentially even some resilience to local pests like aphids or slugs.
Also consider pollinator-friendly plants. These are plants that attract pollinators like bees, which are essential not only to wild plant life, but also to the human food supply. There are many beautiful pollinator-friendly plants out there that are easy to grow, including lavender, oregano, and black-eyed Susans. Add a little color and scent to your garden and help the bees—what could be better?
Also look into plants that serve more than one purpose if you’re a fan of both food and flower gardening. Fruit trees are a great choice, as most produce beautiful blooms before they transition into producing fruit—think of how beautiful cherry trees are in bloom! That way, you can use whatever garden space you have for maximum beauty and bounty. You might be surprised by how pretty some herbs are in flowering mode, too—chives, pineapple sage, and rosemary all produce beautiful flowers and taste great.
If you live in a particularly soggy area, rain gardens help redirect excess water for a great purpose: growing plants! Dedicating a portion of your backyard to rain gardening helps eliminate excess water runoff and can even filter pollutants from runoff, as the majority will be filtered through the soil rather than passing directly into drains. Rain gardens are also perfect for people who love plants but not necessarily the regular upkeep, as their design collects water and reduces, potentially even eliminating, the need for water.
Natural, Eco-Friendly Garden Pest Control
Welcoming plants into your backyard also means welcoming the little creatures that live and feed on them. Some bugs are beneficial to gardeners—worms, bees, ladybugs—but others are a nuisance at best and harmful at worst. Pesticides are the easiest way to deal with unwelcome insects, but if you’re seeking to make your backyard an ecological haven, you’ll want to opt for eco-friendly pest treatment rather than the typical chemicals, which can have negative environmental impacts.
Your first line of defense should be natural options. It might feel counterintuitive, but introducing other bugs to your garden can eliminate the unwanted ones. Ladybugs are one common choice, as they are cute, mostly unobstructive, and feed primarily on destructive aphids. Other gardeners prefer praying mantises, which are larger and feed on a larger variety of insects, with their biggest downside being that they are indiscriminate predators—they feed on beneficial insects as often as they do destructive ones.
If adding more bugs isn’t your thing, there are other options. Garden-friendly diatomaceous earth is a safe, non-toxic pest control material that can be placed in lines where you don’t want pests like ants or slugs to cross. Diatomaceous earth is composed of ground-up fossilized diatoms, which gives it sharp edges and a drying effect that hurts small creatures without posing a risk to humans or pets. You can also make slug traps with beer, which trap the creatures without adding poisons to your garden.
There are also eco-friendly yard sprays for pests. While they vary in efficacy, there are a number of positively reviewed sprays that may help limit or eradicate unwanted garden insects. Opting for these or one of the other natural pest treatments stops the numerous ill effects from conventional pest treatments, making your yard a more environmentally friendly place.
How to Water Your Garden More Efficiently
Reducing water use is one of the biggest ways you can make your garden more eco-friendly. That doesn’t mean just stop watering altogether—there are many efficient ways to go about reducing water without resigning yourself to nothing but succulents in your garden.
You can start by watering at more opportune times. Watering between 6 and 10 AM allows more water to sink into the earth and be absorbed by your plants than watering in the middle of the day, when moisture may be lost to evaporation. It’s also better than watering at night, as the combination of moisture and cool temperatures can result in fungal growth.
Eco-friendly irrigation is another option. Drip irrigation with timers or other smart technology can help eliminate overwatering, especially when paired with other practices like using greywater harvesting and reuse (such as rain runoff or other non-drinkable but non-toxic water). You can also harvest rain in barrels, but check with local ordinances as rainwater harvesting is actually restricted in some areas.
Eco-Friendly Waste Disposal
Waste—garbage, plant trimmings, and so on—is a natural byproduct of living. Much of that waste can be put to productive use, reducing your environmental impact both in your home and in the yard.
Backyard composting is one of the best ways to reduce your garbage output and benefit your plants. Using many kitchen scraps, such as vegetable trimmings, eggshells, and coffee grounds, you can develop a nicely balanced compost to help your plants grow. These scraps are mixed with lawn trimmings, soil, straw, dry leaves, and similar materials to provide additional nutrients to your soil. Read up on proper compost composition before starting so you know what will benefit your plants best and what materials (such as meat, bones, and pet excrement) will hurt your efforts.
You can also reuse common yard waste as mulching materials. Instead of disposing of your dead leaves and trimmed grass, you can use them as a natural mulch for plants that benefit from extra warmth and protection, such as recently planted roses. While it may not look as pretty as fresh bark, lawn trimmings and leaves are biodegradable and provide extra nutrients as well as protecting plants from the elements. You can also mow without a bag to leave your lawn clippings right on the surface of your lawn, adding nutrients, shade, and moisture back where it came from. This reduces your waste output and contributes to lawn health, making it a win-win!
Environmentally Friendly Backyard Purchases
If you’re looking to spruce up your outdoor space with some eco-friendly additions, there are plenty of options. Whenever possible, aim to buy local or used. Shopping local helps reduce emissions from shipping as well as stimulating the local economy, and buying used items reduces the need for new items to be created.
When buying new, look into what materials the items you’re buying are made of. Some materials, such as durable woods, recycled plastic, and stainless steel, are more environmentally friendly than others. These materials also tend to hold up outdoors, meaning you’ll need to replace them less frequently.
You can also look into solar-powered lighting options rather than the conventional electrical lights that require you to plug them in. There are many attractive solar lighting options for all design aesthetics, which reduce your energy consumption without sacrificing backyard beauty.
Also consider working more with your natural landscape. While overhauling your backyard may provide more landscaping opportunities, working with dips, hills, and existing trees limits the amount of work you’ll have to do to maintain it and helps maintain natural biodiversity. Instead of leveling a bumpy backyard, add some texture with raised beds and plants of various heights!
Lastly, you can really put your outdoor space to work with green roofs. Green roofs include solar panels, which can be used to gather sunlight and turn it into energy to power your home, and living roofs, which covers your roof with living plants that purify the air and reduces pollutants from rainwater runoff.
Transforming your backyard into an eco-friendly paradise is an admirable goal, and smart purchasing decisions, waste management practices, and landscaping are great ways to go about it. You don’t have to scrap your lawn and go solar right away—making positive change little by little helps ease you into a routine that’s beneficial for long-term practice.
Ready to transform your outdoor space? Transblue can help! Our expert team will help match your environmentally friendly backyard goals with a design that’s beautiful and unique to you. Contact us today to learn more about how we can turn your outdoor living space into an eco-friendly paradise.
Melissa Brinks is part of Transblue’s marketing team. She enjoys relaxing outside with her dog and an ice-cold can of Cran-Raspberry La Croix.