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Cheat Sheet

Sustainable Landscaping For Dummies

If you want to create a sustainable landscape, examine your yard to determine what eco-friendly improvements can be made right away. Start conserving water and select plans that have similar temperature, sun, and water needs — and use environmentally-friendly landscaping methods — and you will be on your way to a beautiful and sustainable lawn

Identifying Ways to Make Your Landscape Sustainable

Getting to know your yard is the first step toward improving the sustainability of your landscape. You have to gather some information about your property, so grab a lawn chair, get comfortable, and consider these questions:

  • How big is your lawn? The lawn has the most negative impacts of any landscape feature. So, if you can, make it smaller, or replace it with a low-care meadow that requires little water. Or at least tune up your sprinkler system and consider using a push mower.

  • What materials are available on your site? Do you have stones, salvageable concrete, used lumber, trees, or bamboo that could be made into a structure? Even the soil beneath your feet can be used to make beautiful earthen landscape elements.

  • Where does the water go? Follow the path of rainwater as it moves across your land. See if you could harvest rainwater from the roof of your house or elsewhere using dry streambeds and other site features to let it soak in to the soil. Or perhaps you can even store rainwater in a cistern.

  • How could you cut down on maintenance? If you’re spending a lot of time and resources on laborious but unnecessary garden tasks, learn how to redesign your landscape to eliminate troublesome gardening work.

  • How’s the climate in and around your house? Trees and shrubs can shade the house, intercept and lift wind over your property, and cut down on heating and air conditioning bills. Shade structures can create cool zones.

Simple Strategies for a Water-Thrifty Landscape

A key component of a sustainable landscape is water conservation. Ideally, creating a landscape that requires no, or very little irrigation, is the most sustainable option and it’s certainly possible. Use the following water-saving practices when planning your landscape:

  • Pay attention to design. Group plants into hydrozones (areas containing plants with similar water needs) to ensure you aren’t wasting water.

  • Choose drought-tolerant plants. Select species that are climate-appropriate and that will thrive on rainfall alone or with very little supplemental irrigation.

  • Downsize your lawn. The lawn is the big water-sucker in your landscape. Try reducing the size of your lawn to just what you actually use.

  • Harvest rainwater. The best water for your garden falls out of the sky, so why not gather it? Even something as simple as digging a swale to channel your rainwater or connecting a rain barrel to your downspout can help save water.

  • Irrigate efficiently. Drip irrigation (a type of watering system that applies water directly and slowly to the soil) or judicious hand watering are the best ways to irrigate.

  • Use mulch. Mulch is a layer of organic matter, usually wood chips or bark, that’s placed on top of the soil surface. It conserves water by reducing evaporative loss from the soil surface, keeping the roots of the plants cool, and reducing weeds that compete with desirable plants for water.

  • Manage your landscape with conservation in mind. Run your garden the smart way. Keep weeds down. Top off mulch as needed to maintain a 3- to 4-inch thick layer. Check your irrigation system monthly for proper operation, and then make any necessary repairs as soon as you can. Reprogram your irrigation controller as needed to adjust for seasonal differences in water use.

Selecting Sustainable Plants for Your Yard

Selecting and combining the right plants, trees, and shrubs will contribute to a beautiful, sustainable landscape that you can enjoy for years. Ask these key sustainability-oriented questions when mapping out plants for your yard:

  • Is it adapted to your climate? Make sure your plants will tolerate the temperatures, winds, humidity, and seasonal rhythms that occur where you live.

  • Is it the right size? Plants that grow too big for the space they’re in need constant pruning to keep them in bounds. Give your plants (and yourself!) a break by allowing them room to grow.

  • Is it resistant to pests and diseases? Why create trouble by choosing wimpy plants? Opt for sturdy varieties that never need to see the doctor.

  • Is it long-lived? This question is especially important with trees and shrubs. Replacing “permanent” plants all the time is definitely not sustainable.

  • Is it safe? Avoid poisonous or highly flammable plants, thorny plants, and trees that tip over or break apart in windstorms.

  • What does it do? It’s best if your plants are more than just pretty faces on your landscape. Try to use plants that provide food for you or the neighborhood critters, make habitats for wildlife, improve the microclimate around your house, or create privacy.

Choosing Sustainable Landscaping Alternatives

Skipping over conventional landscaping practices and moving to sustainable techniques will help the environment, save you money, and still deliver beautiful landscaping results. Try these alternatives for sustainable landscaping methods:

Alternatives to Power Equipment
Power Tool Sustainable Alternatives
Gas lawn mower Push mower, electric mower, sheep, alternative lawn such as a meadow
String weed and grass trimmer Hand shears, scythe, hoe, goat, mulching, knee-high plants to suppress weeds
Gas hedge trimmer Hand or electric hedge shears, natural unclipped hedges
Chain saw Hand pruning saw, lopping shears
Rototiller None (tilling isn’t recommended; use a spading fork only when starting new beds)
Gas blower Rake, broom, allowing leaves to remain in place as mulch
Lawn tractor Hand cart, wheelbarrow
Alternatives to Harsh Chemicals
Harsh Chemical Sustainable Alternatives
Fertilizers Installing low-demand plants, composting, applying green manures, planting cover crops, allowing leaf litter to remain in place, practicing chop and drop pruning, applying organic fertilizers
Pesticides Selecting pest-resistant plants, improving growing conditions to make plants less susceptible, washing the pests off with a jet of water, releasing beneficial insects that feed on harmful insects, using the least-toxic pesticides such as insecticidal soaps and oil sprays
Herbicides Blocking out weeds with tall dense plantings, sheet mulching, applying organic herbicides such as corn gluten meal or vinegar, using a drip system to reduce wetting of soil, pulling weeds before they set seed
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