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With an increased emphasis on sustainability and environmental responsibility - beginning at our own front doors - more and more folks are making or considering making changes to become more eco-efficient in their own homes.

There are a handful of household modifications and behaviors that are almost effortless – efficient light bulbs, weatherization, and water conservation, for example.

But, when it comes to landscaping, undertaking a sustainable approach can be intimidating. Many people question the expense, and are uncertain of where to start. The truth is, it doesn’t have to be a sizable investment, nor does it have to be more difficult to maintain. In fact, over time, a sustainable landscape costs less and becomes easier to maintain as the natural ecosystem is restored.

Here are five simple and relatively inexpensive ways to boost your lawn’s eco-savviness:

1. Test Your Soil

First thing’s first, testing your soil is a good start. Many local universities offer free testing of soil samples and there are also home soil test kits to assess soil nutrient levels, which give you insight to what your lawn actually needs. Otherwise, you could be spending money on formulas and fertilizers that aren’t, in fact, nourishing your property.

2. Grass Cycle

Secondly, go natural with mulch by leaving grass clippings put. Grass clippings make a fantastic natural mulch that also prevent some degree of weed growth. Most importantly though, is that grass clippings contain 58 percent of the nutrients your lawn needs.

The practice of leaving grass clippings on the lawn is called “grass cycling” and it not only saves on the cost and reduces the impact of using chemical fertilizers, it saves you work. There are no clippings to gather and deal with. Some mowers come with a mulching attachment which is used instead of the grass catcher. As the grass is being cut, it is directed into the mulching chamber where it is chopped and dispersed evenly across the lawn as you mow. You can achieve the same effect if you don’t have a mulching attachment by just removing the grass catcher from your mower. The clippings will be a little bigger and take a bit longer to break down, but your lawn will still benefit from this practice.

To learn more, read our article Grass cycling – the easiest way to nurture your lawn.

3. Collect Rainwater

Rainwater collection is a good way to water your shrubs. Shrubs are an important part of a sustainable landscape since they replace space given over to grass, which has a higher maintenance impact. Collecting rainwater makes sense today since so many regions of the country have periods of drought during the summer. Rainwater collection systems are very easy to set up, but there are a few steps to take to ensure safety for young children and pets, and the barrel should be set up strategically so that it is easy to run a hose from a spigot at the base of the barrel. For more information, read our article Tips for Installing a Rainwater Collection System.

Some communities have bylaws which prohibit the use of rain barrels, so be sure to check before installing a rainwater collection system at your home. These bylaws are being rescinded in many communities which are coping with seasonal water shortages, so it is likely that you can proceed. You can invest in a commercially made rain barrel that will look attractive against your house and be set up with spigots and leaf screens, or you can make your own using a garbage can or suitable collection vessel.

4. Avoid Pesticides

Stop using pesticides altogether. Americans use 70 million pounds of pesticides annually, which the National Audubon Society suggests is primarily for aesthetic purposes. And given the range of illnesses, diseases and birth defects that have been linked to herbicides and pesticides, it only makes common sense to stop exposing ourselves and our environment to these chemicals.

Relying on chemical controls also creates a cyclical need for expensive lawn amendments that can impact the health of your family and pets. Lawns become dependent on fertilizers once the regimen has begun. In most cases, there are safe alternatives to using these chemical controls.

The secret to pest and disease-free lawns, shrubs, vegetable and flower beds is vigorous plants. Using natural fertilizers like compost for gardens and shrub beds, and corn gluten for lawns, will build natural vigor in your landscape and replace the need for chemical controls. Planting low-maintenance, drought-resistant eco-lawn grass seed is great if you are planting a new lawn or replanting bare spots. Lawn grubs can be effectively controlled by using milky spore, which multiplies in your soil and may be effective at killing grubs for up to 40 years.

5. Xeriscape

Lastly, xeriscaping practices are being used by more people who rely on water-saving methods to achieve an attractive landscape. Xeriscaping refers to any creative landscaping techniques which save water. There are also added benefits associated with xeriscapes, such as reduced maintenance, lower cost (since mostly native plants are used), and no dependence on fertilizers.

The key to xeriscaping is to think ‘native’. Local plant species have evolved to thrive in the conditions of a given region, so it makes sense to use these species in shrub beds and landscape displays. The reason non-native plants are used in many landscapes is because they are interesting to look at, since they are ‘exotic’. You can enjoy the benefits of a xeriscape landscape and have an interesting visual appeal by incorporating a few exotic plants or flowers in the xeriscape bed.

In our community last year, all the California lilac bushes were killed due to an unusual cold spell. People had to replace large shrubs and, in many cases, entire hedge lines which had died. This is the result of using non-native species for landscaping. The best advice is to not invest heavily in non-native plantings. Use primarily local species and interplant with a few exotics.

By aligning your landscaping strategies to your region’s natural climate, you’re minimizing the amount of upkeep necessary to maintain your lawn and planted beds.

The initial cost of converting your yard to a more natural landscape may be slightly more than standard yard maintenance, but over time this will certainly repay itself. Saving money, lessening maintenance needs, having a healthier yard, and contributing to a less toxic environment are all very powerful reasons to consider taking ‘greener’ steps for an earth-friendly lawn.