Here are ten ways to craft a yard that will use fewer resources, preserve habitat, contribute less to landfills, pollute less, cool your home, and bring you the satisfaction of making responsible choices for the future of the planet.
1) Leave mature trees standing, unless they are invasive species such as Mimosa, Tree-of-Heaven, and Chinaberry. For more info on identifying invasive trees, google "invasive species" or go to the U.S. Forest Service's Invasive Species Program and click on Plants in the right column. Or the USDA's National Invasive Species Information Center, which lists invasive plants. Mature trees add to your property value, also keep your home and yard cooler in summer. In addition, they provide habitat for birds and other wildlife, and help your yard retain rainwater without eroding and adding sediment to streams.
2) If you plant shrubs and ground cover, choose native species. See the interactive map from the Nature Conservancy and U.C. Davis about invasive species, "The Global Invasive Species Initiative." When you click on your state, it tells you about invasives shrubs and weeds in your area that you should avoid planting, because they spread aggressively and displace native species.
3) If you are shopping for a new home, look for a neighborhood that was designed using "conservation development" principles. The book Practical Ecology, and this web page about it, explain the principles. The conservation supervisor in my county recommended the book to me. Typical and more destructive development involves extensive grading of road beds and road sides to eliminate or reduce slopes, and creating wide straight roads with "long sight distances." This usual kind of development destroys large amounts of native habitat. A conservation development can, in contrast, preserve as much as 86% of the existing natural habitat by making narrow roads, preserving topography and natural vegetation, and clustering homes that will share green space.
4) Create a "raingarden" or bioretention area in your yard, that allows rainwater to percolate through the soil rather than running off into a storm drain that feeds a stream. Allowing rainwater to filter through soil recharges ground water, which in turn feeds streams with water that has been filtered and cooled. The streams ultimately flow into the lakes that provide our drinking water. For the same reasons, don't use a commercial lawn service. The chemical and fertilizer applications pollute streams, lakes, and groundwater.
5) Consider replacing your lawn with a native meadow or native woodland. For more info on that, see our previous post. Native meadows and woodlands require no watering, fertilizing, or trimming. In contrast, maintaining a yard with lots of manicured ornamental plants uses fossil fuels, creates noise pollution, and generates waste for landfills. Yard waste is one of the major components of landfills. The EPA has a good web page about "Beneficial Landscaping" that helps the environment.
6) If you have a vegetable garden, mulch your plants to reduce watering needs. Don't use mulch that has been dyed red to simulate redwood - the dyes will wash out quickly and into streams, etc. Grass clippings or dead leaves or newspaper provide good mulch.
7) If you do water your yard or garden plants, use a dribble hose perforated with holes to deliver water straight to the soil, without shooting it into the air first. This uses far less water, reducing your water bill and helping our water resources. If you must use a sprinkler, avoid midday when the sun will maximize evaporation.
8) Create wildlife habitat in your yard. See the National Wildlife Federation for guidelines, which include choosing native plants that provide food for wildlife, and providing water and shelter.
9) Keep your cat indoors to protect wildlife. See our previous post for data and several links to studies about dangers to the cats themselves, as well as the astonishing volume of songbirds and small mammals killed annually by prowling housecats. The links suggest solutions too.
10) Consider leaving dead trees standing. Dead trees provide excellent habitat for woodpeckers, many of which are declining because of the scarcity of suitable habitat. Consider leaving the rodents in your yard alone (mice, chipmunks, cotton rats, etc.), rather than trapping or poisoning them. They are food for birds of prey such as owls and hawks.
If you do even one of the things on this list, you're making a difference. Every little choice helps.