Having a lush, green lawn and a vibrant flower garden don't require use of potentially dangerous chemicals. In fact, growing the green way can be safer and more successful when you allow nature to do its job.
Experts recommend starting simply.
“I encourage people to take it one step at a time, do one or two things every year and eventually you’ll transfer your whole yard over to a more sustainable approach,” said Risa Edelstein, a green landscaping consultant and president of the Ecological Landscaping Association.
Here are some easy tips to get started.
1) Get rid of chemicals
By looking at a lawn and garden as a natural system starting with healthy soil -- then fertilizers -- herbicides and pesticides won’t be needed. That will reduce health risks for family members and pets and also reduce environmental impact on waste water and the surrounding environment.
“Getting rid of chemicals is most impactful thing you can do,” Edelstein said. “They’re not really necessary.”
Tom Lupfer, owner of Lupfer Landscaping and chairman of the sustainable landscaping committee for the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association, agreed.
“We’ve killed all the biology in the soil with modern home lawn,” said Lupfer. “If the soil is beautiful and healthy, the roots will be four inches deep. That means it can soak up twice as much water and therefore needs to be watered half as much. The whole idea is to get the soil healthy so the plants can produce what they need on their own. And then just add some organic material and some food as you go.”
2) Heal the soil
Chemical fertilizers kill the natural organisms in the soil that create nutrients to feed plants, requiring ongoing applications to keep plants looking good. Lupfer calls a fertilized lawn a “drug-addicted carpet” because it continually needs a fix of nitrogen to function.
To wean a lawn from chemical fertilizers, Lupfer suggest having soil tested so that a homeowner can add only what the soil needs.
Soil test kits are available at many home and garden stores, or many county extension offices offer the services as well. Scott Lawn offers a mail-in soil test kit that includes recommendations for improving the soil.
“Instead of doing a five-step program with weed sprays and so on, you can do only what you need to do,” Lupfer said.
3) Grow healthy turf grass
Lupfer recommends some simple steps to improving the health of grass. First, raise the lawn mower to leave about 3 inches of grass blade.
“There’s more leaf surface and the grass will get more water on its own, especially during the heat of the summer,” he said.
With the results from the soil test, plan what to add to the soil. First, use a core aerator that extracts plugs from the ground, which allows the soil to decompress. Then, add the items recommended from the soil test. With the core aeration, the material will mix well with the dirt.
“The whole idea is to get the soil healthy so the plants can produce what they need on their own, and then just add some organic material and some food as you go,” Lupfer said. “A strong stand of turf is weed free by definition.”
Composting was one of the first green gardening steps Edelstein took 10 years ago. Now it’s her first recommendation to her clients. It doesn’t require complicated equipment, either. Instead, she uses a simple one-pile method to turn yard and food waste into fertilizer.
“You don’t need anything fancy,” she said.
Also, use leaves in the yard to feed the soil.
“Mow over your leaves and throw them back in the garden beds and you have free fertilizer and mulch,” Edelstein said.
5) Manage water
If you have an irrigation system, Lupfer recommends taking it off the automatic setting. Instead, water only when and where the lawn requires it. “You can save 50 percent to 70 percent of your potable water usage,” he said. “The money you save is worth the few minutes you spend on it.”
To manage storm water runoff, Edelstein recommends a rain garden. Essentially, this is a flower garden planted in a depression or lowered area of the yard. Then, direct water from gutters and runoff from the driveway into the depression. “It’s a great way to not only water the garden, you’re also doing a service by keeping that water in place on your site and it goes back into the groundwater instead of running into the sewer system,” she said.
6) Develop a new attitude
Get used to a less-manicured look in the garden and less grass in the yard.
“People are embracing a much more natural look for the garden, rather than lots of sheared evergreens from the 1970s,” Edelstein said. “It’s better ecologically, and it provides a better habitat for bees and birds, so people are ready to have a little messier aesthetic.”
Look to reduce the amount of grass in the yard, by expanding rings around trees, adding flower beds or converting to low-maintenance ground covers, Lupfer said.
“Don’t try to grow grass under a maple tree or in the shade where it doesn’t want to grow,” he said. “If you can reduce your turf by 20 or 30 percent you don’t notice it functionally, but it’s less to take care of.”
For more information, see our Sustainable Landscaping Research Center.