Picture a healthy lawn and garden. For many people, what springs to mind is an iconic image of green grass bordered by colorful flowers. But a healthy garden does so much more than look pretty or provide a place for tossing a ball around.
In a healthy landscape, plants and soil absorb and sequester carbon dioxide, helping counter the rate at which humans are pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. A healthy landscape slows stormwater runoff, allowing rain and snowmelt to percolate into the soil where pollutants they’ve picked up can be broken down by soil organisms instead of carried into waterways. In a healthy garden landscape, plants and soil keep outdoor air temperatures cooler in the summer and trees shade buildings, reducing air-conditioning energy use. A healthy landscape provides habitat and food for wildlife, and can even feed your family, friends, and neighbors.
What does it take to create a healthy landscape? First and foremost, attention. Before making major changes to your garden or lawn, take time to observe deeply. Get to know the area’s weather patterns as well as the microclimates in your yard. Learn where the sun falls, how rainwater flows, which spots are sheltered and which exposed to the wind. Think about what’s already in the landscape that’s working well–plants, animals, walkways, fences, buildings, views, places to play, and places to relax. Also take note of what’s not working and what might be missing.
This kind of careful attention sets you on a path to creating a garden that’s healthy because it’s in harmony with nature. But once you’re on that path, how do you make the transition from observing to digging holes and planting seedlings? Whether your garden consists of a window box, a postage-stamp plot, or a sprawling estate, the basic principles for creating a healthy landscape are the same:
Some organic farmers say they don’t grow crops, they grow soil. That’s because productive land begins and ends with healthy soil. A teaspoon of high-quality soil teems with 100 million to 1 billion bacteria, as well as worms, fungi, protozoans, and other beneficial critters.
Think of healthy soil not as inert dirt but as a living organism that benefits plants by feeding them minerals and organic matter, protecting them from diseases and pests, making water available, and breaking down pollutants.
To nurture the soil, steer clear of synthetic pesticides and herbicides that can disrupt soil life. Add compost to increase the amount of organic matter, and keep unplanted areas of soil covered with mulch to retain moisture and prevent erosion. In areas where you plan to grow plants, don’t compact the soil by walking or driving over it.
When designing your landscape, take the time to identify plants that not only look attractive but that are also appropriate to your area’s climate and your yard’s microclimates. Climate-appropriate plants are more likely to thrive with little or no irrigation and resist pests and diseases. Aim for biological diversity in the landscape. A monocrop–whether it’s a field of corn, a grassy lawn, or a solid bed of petunias–is more likely to attract pests, invite disease, and deplete the soil than a variety of plants.
Choose plants that won’t be crowd their space when mature. Right-sized plants won’t encroach on their neighbors and won’t need extensive pruning that takes a lot of your time and leaves you with excessive plant waste.
Aim to maximize the benefits of each plant and the overall landscaping design. Trees absorb CO2, add beauty, and can increase your property value. What’s more, deciduous trees can be positioned to shade the house in the summer, reducing air conditioning costs. Come fall, they’ll drop their leaves, allowing the winter sun into the home and reducing heating costs (if you’re planning a solar electric or solar hot water system, be careful not to shade the roof). Trellises planted with deciduous vines can shade your patio, keep your house cooler, and maybe even provide you with food. Fruit trees and vegetable beds can feed your family as well as add beauty to the landscape. Many types of flowering plants will attract birds, pollinators, and beneficial insects. Plants can be used to screen out views you don’t want and enhance views you do want, mute noise from roadways and neighbors, and filter air pollution.
No matter how small or large your yard, be sure to provide some habitat for wildlife: this could be a butterfly garden tucked into a side yard, a hedge of berry bushes for birds, or a back-forty of grasslands or woods left in their natural state.
The climate is changing, and for many parts of the country, that’s likely to mean more frequent droughts and water shortages. High-efficiency irrigation systems go a long way toward reducing water use, but there are many other ways to conserve water, including mulching, creating swales to slow rainwater runoff, harvesting rainwater, and recycling gray water. Read more in our Water Conservation article.
Of course, water isn’t the only resource we use (and sometimes overuse) in our yards. Consider shrinking your lawn or eliminating it altogether. Less mowing saves time (a precious resource), fossil fuel energy, and CO2 emissions. Consider planting perennials instead of annuals that need replanting every year. When it comes to reducing waste, the only limiting factor is your imagination. Here are just a few ideas: compost kitchen scraps and yard trimmings, “grasscycle” your lawn waste, reuse plastic pots from the nursery to grow seedlings, use pruned branch trimmings as stakes, make borders for beds by partially burying upside-down wine bottles, use broken slabs of concrete (also known as “urbanite”) for path steps, and build garden beds with recycled-plastic lumber.
Also favor locally made materials when possible to reduce transportation energy. Instead of buying plastic bags filled with mulch and compost shipped from hundreds or thousands of miles away, look for local sources. Some cities give away mulch made from chipped urban trees and compost made from green waste and sewer plant “biosolids” (which, unsavory as they may sound, have undergone a process that makes them safe for your garden). Check with local stables for bedding straw and manure, and ask neighbors if you can have their bags of raked leaves.
The shelves in garden stores are stacked with heavy-duty chemicals promising to solve your pest problems. Beware of falling for the lure of the easy fix. These chemicals may temporarily knock down the species you’re targeting, but may also poison people, pets, beneficial critters, groundwater, rivers, lakes and streams, and the soil that’s fundamental to a thriving landscape and healthy planet. Whether your aim is to rout out weeds, fend off bugs, or keep pesky gophers and rabbits at bay, always try the least toxic methods of pest control. To learn more, check out our articles on lawn care and pesticides.
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