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Earth Friendly Design
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Earth-Friendly Design
How to make your yard more earth-friendly

By George Weigel, Pennsylvania Certified Horticulturist (PCH)

Erase what you might envision as an "environmentally friendly" landscape.

It's not a weed- and bug-infested jungle with a wildflower meadow for a front yard and an organic herb patch out back.

The new earth-friendly yard is colorful, diverse, good-looking, drought-tough, friendly to birds and butterflies, and in the long run, less work than the clipped-shrub, lawn-dominated yards we've known for decades.

Much more than the "hippie" organic-gardening movement of the 1970s, this latest landscape trend already is going mainstream.

Eco chic moves into the mainstream
Susan McCoy, president of the Garden Media Group in Chadds Ford, Pa., calls it "eco chic" and says it's a trend that goes well beyond gardening.

"Eco chic is not just a green movement," McCoy says. "Eco chic is a lifestyle fueled by an interest in protecting ourselves, our families and our pets from harmful substances that endanger society and the environment. It is now 'in' to be green, and there is a growing social perception that living an earth-friendly lifestyle is chic."

It's being fueled by a wide range of concerns, including polluted water, global warming, contaminated-food scares, health concerns about pesticides, plant and animal species dying off from habitat destruction, water shortages in droughts and more.

Bruce Butterfield, research director for the Vermont-based National Gardening Association, says enough concerns are coming together that it's motivating people to make lifestyle changes.

"I think some of it comes down to the notion that if I can't control what's going on in the world, at least I can control what's going on in my own backyard," he says.

An NGA survey found that only 5 percent of Americans were using only natural products in their yards and gardens as of 2004.

"But when you ask them about the future," says Butterfield, "9 percent said they definitely plan to begin using all natural (products) and another 13 percent said they probably would begin using all natural (products). That's fairly good movement."

That movement has caught the attention of companies that make fertilizers, pesticides and other chemical landscape fare. Motivated by changing consumer preferences and more governmental rules on landscape-chemical use, even the nation's biggest chemical companies are rolling out earth-friendlier alternatives, such as vinegar-based weed-killers, soaps and oils for bug control, and no-phosphorus and organic versions of lawn fertilizer.

"When you see Wal-Mart carrying 400 organic products and Sam's Club having a 'Go Green' gathering, we have reached the tipping point," says McCoy.

She says eco chic consumers "are not extreme. They are mainstream. They range from soccer moms and dads to corporate executives, from college students to senior citizens, from Republicans to Democrats."

Landscape choices are environmental choices
As new homes replace woodlands and wetlands, these ecosystems are being replaced by big swaths of turfgrass with a couple of trees in the yard and a few clipped shrubs around the foundation. That's bad enough news for wildlife, but our long-held ideal of the weed-free, green-carpet lawn and pristine landscape has meant lots of spraying to get it and keep it that way.

Many homeowners also use large quantities of fresh water to keep those big lawns green despite droughts. And when heavy rains do hit, all of those houses, driveways, sidewalks and compacted lawns add up to system-stressing water runoff into storm sewers and ultimately into streams. Along with the runoff goes excess fertilizer from the lawn and the pesticide residue from the bushes we've just sprayed.

Especially alarming: Even though less than 10 percent of all bugs are harmful to plants, the average gardener uses pesticides at a rate 10 times per acre more than farmers, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Much of it is applied at wrong times or "just in case" to ensure that totally blemish-free landscape.

More homeowners are beginning to rethink the wisdom of this approach.

"People are realizing that our lawn and landscape choices are really environmental choices," says Dale Hendricks, owner of the wholesale North Creek Nurseries in Landenberg, Pa.

He says it's going to take some "re-education" for homeowners to get comfortable with the idea that an acceptable landscape can be more than just a couple of trees, a few foundation flowering shrubs and the rest as wide-open lawn.

Alternatives to lawn

"It might involve a different vision of beauty," he says, "but it doesn't have to be overgrown ugliness. There are perennial borders of all kinds and sizes and shapes. There are a lot of creative ways to have a landscape with less lawn."

Hendricks believes that smaller lawns and more plants is a good place to start when making a landscape more earth-friendly.

"Lawns have kind of gotten out of proportion," he says. "They're our default aesthetic ... I'm not anti-lawn, but I think most people can easily give up some of it."

Rebecca Wertime, project coordinator for the Pennsylvania office of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, says most people automatically plant lawns without giving much thought to alternatives.

"It's just what we're used to," she says. "I think it makes sense to ask what do you really want to use the space for? Do you have children or grandchildren and need play space? If you're not willing to give up the mower, how much space do you really want to mow?"

Turfgrass offers many advantages — not the least of which is its ability to withstand heavy foot traffic — but it can easily become a net drain on the environment when used to excess.

For one thing, it doesn't offer food for wildlife as shrubs and flowers do, and it doesn't offer shelter, as do evergreens.

When it comes to shading our houses and cooling our yards, a grove of trees underplanted with groundcover is far more effective than grass.

But the biggest issue is the resources a lawn eats up in order to maintain it to the standards we've come to expect. That includes untold gallons of water to keep it green in sweltering summers, lots of gas (and gas fumes) to keep it neatly mown and literally tons of pesticides to head off bugs, weeds and disease.

"People use way more products on their lawn than on trees and shrubs," says Joseph Ascenzi, a Pennsylvania Certified Horticulturist and owner of the Laurel Hill Gardens garden center and landscape firm in Philadelphia.

One alternative to lawn is other low groundcovers, such as pachysandra, liriope, lamium, thyme, ajuga, mazus, blue star creeper and creeping thyme. These and many others offer similar advantages as grass and even take varying degrees of foot traffic but without the mowing, water and pesticide demands of grass. (Read more on lawn alternatives.)

Groundcovers don't have to be ground-huggers, though, says Ascenzi. "You can have 2- to 3-foot-tall groundcovers. They inhibit weed growth, prevent erosion and cut down on chemical use, too.

A little variety keeps bad bugs away and good ones at play
Even better are island beds and border beds made up of mixed plantings of all sizes and textures. That kind of diversity not only is much more interesting to birds and butterflies, but it attracts beneficial insects that naturally keep pest bugs in check.

What so often drives pesticide use in less diverse landscapes is that homeowners unwittingly load up on the same few pest-prone plants. One study by the University of Maryland found that only 10 types of bugs cause 95 percent of our landscape damage, and the vast majority of that damage occurs to only 20 types of plants (i.e., roses, rhododendrons, dogwoods, cherries, pines and euonymus, to name a few).

The lesson is that better and more diverse plant selection not only benefits wildlife, it can greatly reduce and maybe eliminate the need for pesticides.

"When you get the right plant in good soil, it won't be stressed out, and you won't get to the point where you have to decide what you're going to spray," says Ascenzi. "Then you're not forced to make a choice."

"Soil consideration to us is the first thing," says Chris Snavely, a Pennsylvania Certified Horticulturist and owner of Snavely's Garden Corner in Chambersburg. "After that, we try to determine how much energy people want to invest in a project."

Then, he says, it's a matter of asking enough questions to ensure that the homeowners take home the right plants to match the site.

"Plant selection is a vital part," Snavely says. "If you can reduce disease and bug problems up front by the plants you pick, you're well on your way to holding down maintenance."

Tips from garden center pros will save you time and money
Good choices don't always happen because most homeowners aren't very familiar with many plants, plus they tend to be in a hurry to get their project done. Plant-selection homework is often next to nil when the typical homeowner shows up at the garden center on that first or second sunny Saturday in May.

"A majority of people come in ready to fill up the SUV with plants," Snavely says. "They've designated today as landscape day at home, and they want to get it done."

At a minimum, homeowners should pay attention to things like sun and shade exposures; the type of soil; what kind of drainage the site has; whether there's root competition nearby; whether the site is protected or out in the wind, and especially the size of the space to be planted.

"One thing that's helped immensely is digital cameras and cell-phone cameras," Snavely says. "Snapping pictures is a real plus because now we can see something. It also helps with diagnosing plant problems."

Rather than spray at the first sign of something crawling, homeowners are finally starting to ask themselves if a bug really is a problem or just a passing cosmetic issue. If it turns out to be a real threat, garden centers now have an array of oils, soaps, repellents and natural insecticides that solve problems with less impact on the environment and with less collateral damage to nonpests.

"There are a lot better insect controls and more products than there used to be," says Tom McCloud, a Pennsylvania Certified Horticulturist and owner of Appalachian Nurseries in Franklin County. "But spraying doesn't have to be a regular thing at all if you make good plant choices in the first place."

Local garden centers and Extension offices can help diagnose problems and target treatments — when needed — as narrowly as possible. Two good online sources for pest help are the Pennsylvania Integrated Pest Management Program at (it has problem-solving advice and links to resources that can identify pest problems) and the University of Maryland's Plant Diagnostic Web Site at (lots of photos and a nifty detective-like format to help you identify and then control a pest).

Start small
These changes and the 10 others below don't all have to be made in one fell swoop. In fact, it'll probably work best to start small, see how things work and then take additional steps as time and budget allow.

"This can be done incrementally," says Ascenzi. "You can always extend beds and add more plants later."

He says landscaped beds cost more to install up front than lawns, but the long-term cost — in terms of ongoing maintenance and the impact on the environment — is less in the long run. "Plus, beds add value to the house," he adds.

The important thing is to do something and to start somewhere, says the Garden Media Group's McCoy.

"We can all make little decisions that add up to big changes," she says. "One simple thing we can all do to change the environment for the better is to just plant something. One tree, one shrub, even one flower by itself won't make a difference, but if everyone plants something, that would make a big difference in restoring the balance of nature."

Ten more steps you can take to make your landscape more earth-friendly
1. Start a compost pile and feed it with recycled yard waste instead of sending the waste to the landfill. An estimated 20 percent of municipal waste is grass clippings, leaves and shrub trimmings that could be used on site as compost and mulch. For more on home composting, click here.

2. Switch to earth-friendlier lawn-care practices, such as mowing high, letting the clips lie, core-aerating to reduce compaction, using pesticides only as needed, letting the lawn go dormant in droughts.

3. Reduce weed problems by covering bare ground with organic mulch (i.e., wood chips, bark, leaves), by using dense groundcovers and by spacing landscape plants so they just touch when mature. Hand-pull bigger weeds instead of using herbicides, and spot-spray patches of lawn weeds instead of applying herbicide routinely over the whole lawn.

4. Don't overdo it with fertilizer. Periodically test your soil to determine what kind of fertilizer and how much you need before applying it. A prime example: Most home lawns already have sufficient phosphorus, but most four-times-a-year lawn fertilizers contain it anyway.

5. Reduce runoff by regrading to allow rain to soak in on site and/or by adding garden beds that absorb water better than compacted lawns. One of the newest and best approaches is a rain garden, a slightly depressed bed with moisture-tolerant plants designed to capture runoff. For more on rain gardens, click here.

6. When adding hard surfaces, go with water-permeable choices such as gravel or brick paths and paver-block sitting areas instead of concrete and asphalt.

7. Prevent erosion by using terraces or retaining walls. Plant steep slopes with plants that tolerate dry, upland conditions. Examples include warm-season grasses with deep roots and pioneer trees and shrubs such as Eastern red cedar and sumac (not related to poison sumac) for great fall color.

8. Do plant-selection homework before planting, not only to match the right plants to the right site, but also to pick plants that are unlikely to get serious bug or disease problems so you won't have to spray. Reduce water demands by selecting plants that are drought-tolerant.

9. Reduce heat and air-conditioning bills by planting deciduous trees to the south of the house and evergreen screens to the north and west. More trees also increase oxygen in the atmosphere and utilize carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas), slow evaporation from the ground and help cool temperatures in summer.

10. Especially if you have a streamside property, leave a rough-cut, 15-foot planted buffer (or more if possible) along the edge, and plant trees, shrubs and noninvasive plants such as native trees, shrubs and perennials to capture runoff and prevent erosion there.
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