Green landscape techniques are smart ways to conserve water and energy while reducing your use of pesticides, herbicides and other toxins. From composting and xeriscape designs to rain barrels and water features, here are the top 10 trends in organic lawn care and green landscaping, courtesy of Stephen Shea, a landscape designer and contractor based in Los Angeles.
1. Are Native Plants the Best Plants?
Making smart plant choices means you'll use less water and fewer pesticides while spending less time and money on maintenance. First, choose plants that will need a minimum of care for your climate and soil -- and native plants are usually the best choice. Non-native plants might work, too, as long as they're not invasive species that can spread and take over, choking out native plants and starving local wildlife. Think about how much long-term care and watering any plants will need, and put plants in the right place (enough sun, no overhead power lines, etc.) to reduce maintenance costs.
2. Rain Water Harvesting and Rain Barrels
Even in rainy climates, people need to be aware of outdoor water use and conservation, since seasonal irregularities and dry spells can strike at any time. Rain water harvesting with rain barrels is an effective and increasingly popular option for conserving water, as are in-ground cisterns, an ancient water-storage trick that's making a comeback. And homes that are newly constructed or undergoing renovation can benefit from installing systems that capture and reuse "gray water" (water from sinks, showers and laundry) for outdoor irrigation.
3. Water-Wise Irrigation and Xeriscape Designs
Irrigation technology has evolved significantly in recent years. Computerized sprinkler controllers adjust watering times and amounts to local weather conditions, and underground watering systems can bring water directly to plant roots to help reduce water use (though some users complain these systems can be complicated). Drip irrigation systems and low-emitting sprinkler heads also help to conserve water, and some municipalities even offer rebates on these water-wise irrigation systems. Xeriscape landscaping practices also reduce water use.
4. Water Features
Installing a water feature -- from a birdbath to a swimming pool -- is a favorite way to make an outdoor space much more inviting, though without thoughtful planning these amenities can turn into an ugly, expensive mosquito incubator. Consider the impact your fountain or koi pond will have on your overall water and energy use, then go green by installing energy-saving pumps, lighting and other items. Some folks also favor a saline (mildly salty) pool that eliminates the need for chemicals like chlorine, or a modern swimming pond that stays clear and clean through natural biological processes.
5. Green Landscape: Keep Off the Grass
Grass lawns in the United States guzzle an estimated 8 million gallons of water every day. Yes, every day. And when you consider fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and lawn mower gasoline, oil and pollution, you can see why some environmentalists call turf lawns a massive eco-disaster. Green lawn care starts with expanding your mulched areas, garden spaces and natural, unmaintained wooded spaces. No-mow and low-mow lawns are another increasingly popular option, as are artificial grass lawns. And in semi-arid and arid regions, use of xeriscape landscaping techniques make sense by reducing water use and maintenance needs.
6. Hardscape Made Easy
Hardscape refers to the non-planted areas of your outdoor space: decks, patios, walkways, etc. Expanding your hardscape can reduce water use, and smart hardscape materials like decomposed granite or recycled glass are permeable -- letting water soak back into the ground -- and are made of recycled materials. Composite decking material, for example, is often made of recycled material and reduces use of trees in construction.
7. Patio Furniture and Accessories
Many people use their outdoor space as an extra room, complete with weather-resistant lighting, patio furniture and accessories. In outdoor and indoor spaces alike, the same basic principles of green design apply: Buy less crap, use reclaimed or recycled materials whenever possible, choose local goods over imports, and avoid the use of petroleum-based or toxic materials and finishes.
8. Living Walls, Green Roofs and Vertical Landscpaing
Back in days of yore, people put plants down in the ground and they stayed there. But for city dwellers with less outdoor space, the only way to grow is up, so vertical landscaping -- fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants that grow on vertical surfaces, trellises, "living walls" or other support structures -- has taken root all over the world. And it's not just plant walls that are getting the green treatment: Green roofs not only provide a sunny garden area, when designed and built correctly they can also provide some thermal insulation from the sun's heat and winter's cold.
9. Lawn Care and Feeding, the Compost Way
Lawns and gardens all need some TLC, but Americans use roughly 67 million pounds of pesticides and herbicides on our lawns and gardens each year, as well as some 70 million tons of fertilizer. Many of these are petroleum-based compounds that have been linked to a host of environmental and human health problems. Clearly, there has to be a better way: it's called compost, and it comes right out of your kitchen. Mulch, too, is an all-natural material that feeds nutrients into soil while stabilizing soil temperatures, keeps soil moist and discourages weed growth. And pests can be controlled with smart, safe integrated pest management techniques.
10. Solar lights and Garden Lighting
When the sun goes down, you can still enjoy your outdoor space with attractive, energy-saving lighting -- it's also an important crime deterrent. Solar lighting, of course, frees you from the electric grid and the need to dig trenches and run wires. Though the technology, design and price of solar lighting have improved in recent years, solar still has a way to go before offering the brightness and reliability of standard lighting. If you choose electric lighting, find energy-saving LED lights that use a fraction of the electricity of regular incandescent lamps and last a lot longer.