A. Plan for the long term.
Most of us don't realize how daily landscape maintenance decisions affect the surrounding environment. The impacts of landscape decisions reach far beyond individual property lines affecting our neighbors, area wildlife and the natural resources found throughout surrounding communities. By planning the management of our home landscapes over the long term with these concerns in mind, each of us can make a positive contribution to the local and regional watershed, to fish and wildlife habitats and to the quality of our own lives.
Through long-term planning, we can reduce the need for unnecessary chemicals and create landscapes that require less money and time to maintain. For the most part, planning translates into looking at the big picture, or thinking ahead to the landscape that you may envision in 5, 10, or even 20 years. It is important to ask such questions as "How much grass do I want to mow now and in the future?" " Can I afford to water my lawn during droughts or during times of water restriction, given its current size?" " Will my landscape mature into an outdoor living room?"
After asking such questions, it will be easier to envision a landscape designed and created to meet your needs, expectations, budget and time. With some careful thought you can incorporate many of the principles of conservation landscaping and create a beautiful, as well as environmentally sound, landscape.
B. Minimize the use of supplemental watering.
Supplemental watering removes water from ground and surface water sources, thus impacting both water quantity and perhaps quality. By minimizing watering, the landscaper/homeowner can maintain a healthy landscape without a dependence on supplemental watering.
Steps to water use reduction.
1. Know your plants and soils. Before beginning your landscape, have your soil tested so that you understand the qualities of that soil. Observe areas on your landscape that are dry or wet. Once you know your soils, choose plants appropriate to the soil conditions. For example, a species that typically grows in wet conditions will require a great deal of effort and water to grow in dry soils.
2. Mulch your plants thoroughly with an organic mulch, preferably one made from backyard compost. The mulch will capture soil moisture and reduce the need for supplemental watering.
3. Use drip irrigation or spot irrigation when supplemental watering is necessary. This eliminates unnecessary watering.
4. If it is necessary to use a sprinkler, water only as needed, watering in the early morning hours and on cooler days to prevent evaporation. Water deeply to six inches to encourage root growth.
5. Recycle water by using gray water and captured rainwater.
C. Use plants that are suitable to the area, and make use of natives in natural areas.
We are not "native only" but, use all plants with care and consideration.. Over the past several hundred years humans have imported plants from around the globe, sometimes intentionally and sometimes by accident. A number of these species have reproduced aggressively, becoming what is commonly called an "invasive plant." These invasive plants may take over a landscape, suppressing the native plants that were once present. Many exotics create little diversity and are often not utilized by wildlife.
Native plants have adapted to the growing conditions of an area and are better able to handle stress. Native plants are available for landscaping and often require less work to maintain than exotic plant species. Plants grown from local seed sources or taken as cuttings from existing native plants are best suited to the soil and climatic conditions of the area.
Because a native plant garden does not require mowing (remember, gas powered lawn engines contribute 5% of the nation's air pollution), they actually help to reduce air pollution. Combine this with the air cleaning ability through photosynthesis, and it is a win-win situation.
D. Place plants in suitable growing conditions.
When purchasing plants, ask yourself the following questions:
- How much moisture does this plant need?
- Is this plant local to my area?
- What is the height and width of the mature plant? How much space will it need? How does the plant spread? Are there any hazards associated with this plant, such as prone to dropping limbs, or dropping large nuts in an area where cars or people might be?
- What sunlight conditions does this plant need?
- What type of soil does this plant prefer?
E. Minimize the amount of lawn.
While lawn isn't inherently bad, a lawn of exotic grasses requires large quantities of fertilizer and pesticides to maintain a green and healthy appearance. American homeowners apply ten times more fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides to their lawn than farmers do to their crops. These chemicals make their way into our water systems and into our bodies and the bodies of wildlife. By reducing the amount of lawn or by switching to grasses that are native to the area and appropriate to growing conditions, dependence on a regime of watering and chemicals can be reduced or even eliminated. Additionally, the incorporation of a variety of plant species creates an attractive area for wildlife, such as birds and butterflies.
F. Plantings to create windscreens, create wildlife habitats, and protect less hardy plants.
Plantings in the landscape can provide multiple benefits: wildlife habitat, windscreens, energy conservation, and a visual and natural buffer. Most of the benefits are interconnected but one must think about the main features and functions of their backyard landscape. For example, if one would like to attract butterflies to the backyard, research what is found in the local area. What will it eat as a caterpillar versus as an adult (i.e. monarch caterpillar eats the leaves milkweed (any kind will do) and the adult needs nectar such as goldenrod, New England aster, and zinnias.
For windscreens or windbreaks, the landscape should contain a mixture of deciduous and/or coniferous trees (white pine, hemlock, spruce. Shrubs should be planted along the windward edge of a windbreak to increase its density. Tall growing species with narrow columnar habits of growth such as red cedar and should be interplanted among denser species of trees. These windscreens or windbreaks could also provide a multiple benefit: wildlife corridor from one property to the next and/or from a surrounding natural area; energy conservation for the home (protection from summer and winter winds); and depending on location, a buffer from the neighboring property. Reductions in wind speed of up to 50% are possible by addition of tree canopy. If the overall neighborhood is tree shaded, the area will be 3-6 degrees cooler than treeless neighborhoods.
G. Reduce the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Having your soil tested will help you choose the right plants for your soil conditions. This is the first step in reducing the use of chemical applications to the landscape.
According to the Natural Lands Trust, there are other steps that can be taken:
- Use a natural enhancer, such as lime, to balance acidic soil. Available in powder and pellets, lime is best applied in the fall for maximum incorporation into the soil.
- Dress your soil with 1/8-1/4 inch thick top dressing of organic matter, such as garden compost, well seasoned manure (never use fresh) or municipal leaf compost. Check with the supplier to be sure that it is mature compost and does not contain other materials. The organic matter adds nutrients, holds water and improves drainage.
- If fertilizer application cannot be avoided, apply after the last mowing of the year and before Thanksgiving, as this will feed the roots, helping to establish a strong lawn. Spring fertilizing feeds the leaf and weed species, which means growth, not strength or health.
- Follow the instructions on the labels when adding chemicals, it is erroneous to assume more is better. Also, ask yourself if it is really necessary or if a more natural alternative could be used.
- Consider using integrated pest management to control unwanted species.
Aerate soil to reduce the amount of compacted soil, which often inhibits root penetration, as well as the amount of nutrients and water reaching the roots.
Dethatch your lawn to keep it in optimal shape.
Use a mulching mower to not only reduce lawn waste, but to add nutrients to soil. Mulching mowers DO NOT contribute to a thatch problem.
Reconsider the definition of a perfect lawn. Are dandelions and violets really bad? Does your lawn have to look like your neighbors?
- Dig out unwanted plants by hand. Discard properly so they don't spread.
- Place landscape fabric on bare soil around shrubs and trees and anchor with mulch. This will reduce unwanted plants.
- Introduce beneficial insects to control unwanted insects.
- Try biological or physical controls to treat unwanted pests. For example, a plate of beer in the garden will reduce the number of slugs.
H. Protect stream banks by planting water loving trees, shrubs and perennial plants that reduce soil erosion and stabilize streambanks.
Areas that link the land and local waterways together are known as a riparian or streamside buffer. These buffers can provide many benefits if planted with native species of plants that are water loving. The following are a few of the benefits of buffers:
- reduce the volume of sediments, nutrients, and chemicals running off the land by trapping and filtering these pollutants before they enter the water;
- provide ecological benefits for fish and aquatic insects by providing food, cover, and protection from temperature changes;
- slow runoff and allow it to soak into the ground,
- recharge wells and reduce flooding;
- provide a physical barrier for nuisance species such as geese; and
- provide seasonal blooms and autumn color to beautify the landscape while attracting butterflies and birds.
The most effective backyard buffer is comprised of three zones. The first zone, or streamside, from the water to the top of the bank, protects and stabilizes the bank and provides habitat. The best buffer for this zone is a mature forest but large shrubs and perennials with deep roots may be a better choice where trees have collapsed a bank. Let it grow and let it go wild for the best protection. The second or middle zone, from the top of the bank inland, protects stream water quality and offers habitat. This varies in width depending on size of stream and the slope and use of nearby land. This zone can be planted in trees, shrubs, and perennial plants. The third or outer zone, the yard, garden, or woods between the house and the edge of the buffer, traps sediment.
I. Purify the air by planting trees, that also reduce runoff and provide wildlife habitat.
Trees are wonderful additions to the landscape. Not only can they provide shade to reduce cooling costs in the summer, and wind blocks to reduce heating costs in the winter, they also remove carbon dioxide from the air, purifying the air we breathe. Trees also provide food and nesting areas for a variety of wildlife.
Trees can be divided into six basic shapes: round, columnar, oval, umbrella, weeping, and pyramidal.
- Large trees with round canopies look great against the skyline. Because of their spread, round trees make good background plants and compliment single story houses. Round trees also offer more summer shade and erosion control. An example of a native round tree is white oak (Quercus alba) and a red maple (Acer rubrum).
- Columnar trees resemble soldiers standing at attention. Typically, these trees are about one third as wide as they are tall. These trees make good windbreaks, screens and background plants, and are particularly attractive when grouped. Columnar trees also make good street trees, as they do not spread. Two examples of a native columnar tree are river birch (Betula nigra) and the white fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus).
- Oval trees look stately in fall foliage and complement other geometric forms, such as round or pyramidal shaped trees. Examples include northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) and Allegheny serviceberry (Amelanchiar laevis).
- Umbrella shaped trees provide a graceful appearance to the landscape and complement two to three story houses. An example is the American elm (Ulmus americanus).
- Weeping trees work well as specimen plants in the landscape or along waterways, walls or embankments, where their weeping branches can cascade dramatically over the structure.
- Pyramidal shapes can be found in many of the evergreens native to Pennsylvania and provide year-round color and habitat in the landscape.
J. Minimize bare soil and stabilize slopes by planting ground covers.
Bare soil quickly erodes, carrying soil and pollutants into our waterways. Soil in the water can have a number of negative impacts, including heating the water temperature by absorbing sunlight, covering important fish spawning areas with silt, adhering to pollutants and adding nutrients. By planting ground covers, we can stabilize steep slopes, reduce the need for mowing on precarious slopes and improve habitat for wildlife. Some native ground covers include: Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), box huckleberry (Gaylussacia brachycera), cranesbill (Geranium carolinianum), creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera), creeping polemonium (Polemonium reptans), and many variety of violets.
K. Capture and detain water to prevent runoff and to be utilized by the landscape.
By reducing runoff, homeowners can conserve water, reduce pollution and reduce erosion. Water can be captured in rain barrels at down spouts, in wetlands and ponds, and by slowing the rate of flow by planting vegetation and mulching. Water can also be captured through the planting of ground covers on slopes and by terracing slopes. Limit impervious surface in the landscaping through the use of stepping stones, brick walkways, cobblestones and decks.
L. Implement sustainable mowing practices.
Sharp mower blades produce a cleaner cut that slices through the grass as opposed to pulling it as well as giving the lawn a more uniform look. Set the mower blade to remove only the top one third of the grass, typically between 2.5 to 3.5 inches. A high cut encourages root growth and shades out weeds. Keep the mower running smoothly by having regular tune-ups. This not only reduces pollution, it can extend the life of the mower and make your job of mowing easier. If your lawn is small, consider a manual-reel mower or an electric mower.
M. Reduce the amount of impervious surface.
Impervious surfaces are surfaces that do not allow water to penetrate into the ground, and include sidewalks, macadam driveways, and buildings. When the amount of impervious surface increases, so does the amount of water running directly into surface water. This not only reduces the amount of ground water, it also increases the amount of pollution in our waterways. Limit impervious surface in the landscape through the use of stepping stones, brick walkways, cobblestones and decks.
N. Reduce lawn waste.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 20% of the municipal solid waste stream in the United States is generated through landscaping wastes. This translates into 31 million tons of waste per year. As consumers, we pay to dispose of yard wastes, when in fact, they are excellent sources of nutrients. Consider using a mulching mower to convert the grass clippings into mulch for the lawn. Incorporate the grass clippings and other landscaping waste, along with non-animal based food wastes, into compost. Your county conservation agency has information on creating and maintaining composts.