Grass Guzzling

Growing and caring for an eco-friendly garden and lawn helps the planet.

By Jodi Helmer

May 2011

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As far as Peggy Brisbane is concerned, one of the best things about Starbucks is not a vanilla frappuccino but the packages of used coffee grounds the store leaves out for its customers. “Coffee grounds are great for the soil,” says the 60-year-old photographer and avid gardener.

Adding coffee grounds to the soil is just one of the efforts Brisbane makes to ensure the garden at her Mount Pleasant, Michigan, home is as eco-friendly as possible. She also collects rainwater, gardens with native plants, adds compost to the soil and mulches her gardens to help them retain water.

“Our job is to take care of the soil and the water and to garden as an extension of nature,” she says. “We need to be very careful with what we have been given.”

Brisbane is careful with resources: She never waters her lawn, refuses offers from companies who want to spray her yard and chooses plants that are suited to her Midwestern landscape. Her efforts have earned Brisbane a reputation for having one of the most sustainable and beautiful landscapes in her neighborhood.

Growing with Intention

Organic fertilizers, with ingredients such as manure, worm casings, blood or bone meal and compost, are another eco-friendly option. Based on USDA standards, all are permitted in organic production as soil amendments. Unlike the USDA Organic seal used to identify foods that are grown organically, there is no national logo for organic fertilizers. Look for labels that read, “Suitable for organic farming” or “Meets the requirements of the National Organic Program.”

Conserving water and reducing or eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides starts with choosing the right plants. Beth Babbit Wallace, horticulture specialist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, recommends using plants that are native to your area and adapted to your growing conditions or are drought-tolerant, looking great even when Mother Nature is stingy with moisture. Local garden centers will have recommendations for appropriate varieties.

Instead of watering on a schedule, look for signs that plants need water—drooping leaves are a good indicator—as a gauge before dragging out the hose. Even then, water only the plants that need a drink.

Wasted Water

A concern for the planet has led to increased awareness of the environmental impact of landscaping—with good reason. According to the US Geological Survey, Americans use an average of 7.8 billion gallons of water per day outdoors.

One of the first things Tom Girolamo, author of Your Eco-friendly Yard (Krause), recommends to clients who want to lessen the environmental impact of their landscaping is to reduce the size of their lawns.

“Our culture is very lawn-oriented,” he explains. “Watering the recommended one inch per week on a quarter-acre lot would require up to 80,000 gallons of water during the summer alone. How do we justify that?”

It’s not just the water that is cause for concern: Chemical fertilizers and pesticides applied to lawns leach into waterways and pose health hazards; mowing the grass requires gas and creates pollution. Switching from a gas-powered to a reel mower will keep 80 pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere per mower on an annual basis.

Brisbane has reduced her lawn area by about one third, replacing grass with gardens filled with native plants that require little water. When she cuts the lawn, she leaves the grass clippings, which act as natural fertilizers and help the lawn retain moisture. Instead of watering the grass, she lets it go dormant—even if that means there are brown patches. “It dries out but it bounces back with the next rain,” she says.

Brisbane knows all about conserving water. She has installed a 55-gallon rain barrel beneath one of her downspouts and she collects water in her kitchen sink as often as possible.

“I never drain the sink after washing the dishes,” she says. “I fill watering cans with the dishwater—it doesn’t matter if there is a bit of soap in it—and use it to water the plants.”

Collecting water helps Brisbane meet some of the watering needs in her garden but she still has to supplement with fresh water in order to keep her garden irrigated. She has installed a drip irrigation system—a series of narrow hoses with small holes that deliver water right to the roots of the plants.

Babbit Wallace says drip irrigation systems use up to 50% less water than traditional hoses and sprinklers.

When it comes to using water efficiently, Babbit Wallace says timing is everything. “It’s better to water first thing in the morning,” she says. “The cooler temperatures earlier in the day reduce the amount of water that is lost to evaporation.” Adding a layer of mulch also helps retain moisture.
“Gardens are nature; we just try to give them a little direction,” Brisbane says. “It’s about stepping back and watching things grow.”

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