Green Outdoor Living

Incorporate plants to enhance your landscape, lower utility bills and give back to the planet.

By Chloe Chapman

Are you looking for outdoor projects that make your yard more beautiful and environmentally friendly? Here are a few suggestions for how you can exercise your green thumb, and enhance the biodiversity of your landscape, while also lowering your utility bills and being kind to the planet.

Plant Selection

Planning and plant selection. Before you introduce new plants into your yard, learn a little about your local climate and soil conditions.  This will also help guide you to choosing drought tolerant plants appropriate for your climate that will use less water, create less excess debris and use less fertilizer to flourish. If you’re in California, California’s Native Plant Society has created an easy to use tool to help select native plants for your locale:  https://gardenplanner.calscape.org/

Avoid invasive species that may cause problems like crowding native plants, degrading wildlife habitats and increasing wildfire fuel loads. To check to see if a plant in your region is invasive, you can visit this list: https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/us

Minimize turf. Lawns require frequent watering and fertilizers to stay green and healthy. Consider replacing grass with water-conserving native ground covers, especially when planting on a slope or in irregularly-shaped areas. Check to see if your local water municipality offers any incentives for this project. 

Plant shade trees.  Large shade trees can keep direct sunlight off the roof, walls and windows in the summer, which lowers home cooling costs while providing an attractive landscape and a cool retreat outside in your yard. In more developed urban areas, these trees can also help reduce the impact of residential heat build-up or urban heat island effect. Here is a list of some fast growing shade trees to browse: https://arbordayblog.org/landscapedesign/12-fast-growing-shade-trees/. Also, This Old House has a great resource with tips on where to plant and how to care for your shade tree here: https://www.thisoldhouse.com/landscaping/21017530/all-about-shade-trees.

Planting Locations

Hydrozoning, or grouping plants by water needs is a helpful way to cut down on watering your yard. Begin by dividing your landscape into zones of low, medium and high water use areas for efficient application of water. If you really want high water use plants, keep them in small, high visible areas and spots that naturally collect water. Low water use plants are recommended in the larger perimeter areas that are often farther away from water sources. 

Use mulch. It’s recommended to add 3-4 inches of mulch to slow evaporation of water from the soil. It also helps inhibit weed growth naturally and increases nutrients entering the soil through the mulch decomposition. When sourcing mulch, make onsite or buy locally.

Garden Care and Maintenance

Install efficient irrigation systems. When choosing an irrigation system, select drip, bubbler, and/or low-flow sprinklers with a smart irrigation controller that is WiFi enabled so it can access local weather station data and adjust based on local weather conditions and seasons. 

Rainwater harvesting. Cut back on how much you spend to water your garden. Instead explore installing a rainwater harvesting system that will capture rainwater from your roof and store it in a cistern for landscape irrigation. 

Electric lawn care appliances. You can stop making extra trips to the gas station and improve your air quality by investing in an electric mower or push mower. 

Outdoor Ambiance

Electric appliances like fireplaces, barbeques, home spas and heaters are becoming cheaper and more accessible to provide your outdoor space with added convenience and ambiance. Electric barbeque grills heat more quickly than charcoal or gas grills and are safer to use because they do not emit harmful fumes. Check out Redwood Energy’s Pocket Guide to All Electric Retrofits to find a product guide with a range of budget options. 

Chloe Chapman is a Program Manager of Build It Green and can be reached at cchapman@builditgreen.org.

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