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Xeriscape Landscaping Ideas & Sustainable Gardening Tips to Conserve Water

By Heather Levin

xeriscaping yardDid you know that according to NASA’s investigation of satellite images, the U.S. grows enough residential grass to equal the state of New York? That’s 53,000 square miles…of grass.

The water all this grass requires to stay alive is astronomical. One-third of all residential water use is dumped on the lawn, where it picks up any pesticides and fertilizers you’ve laid down and then trickles down into your local watershed.

Now let’s look at the lawn mower you’re using to cut all that grass each week. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), lawn mowers account for 5% of all U.S. air pollution. That’s a hard figure to wrap your head around, so try this one: over its life, your mower will emit as much air pollution as 43 cars, each being driven 12,000 miles. Each year, we use 800 million gallons of gas just to power our mowers.

As you can tell, I have a bit of beef with lawn mowers – and grass. Although these are staples in most American homes, they not only wreak havoc on the environment but they’re also a constant drain of money. Think about how much you spend each season watering your lawn, buying gas and oil for your lawn mower, and buying fertilizer. It really adds up.

So, is there another option? You bet there is.

Xeriscaping and Sustainable Gardening

Xeriscaping is the practice of landscaping your yard that reduces or eliminates the need for imported water (such as water from your city’s water supply).

Sustainable gardening is just what it sounds like – a way to design and maintain your lawn in a way that eliminates the need for harsh chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and lowers the impact on the environment. So, using a push mower is a great way to get into sustainable gardening because it definitely lowers your overall environmental impact.

Both of these are fairly broad topics, and it’s impossible to lay out a detailed approach because so much depends on where you live, how much yard you have to work with, and how much rain you get. However, there are some basic projects that will work anywhere in the country. But before we get into those, let’s quickly discuss some of the main benefits of xeriscaping and sustainable gardening.

Benefits of Xeriscaping and Sustainable Gardening

So why should you bother redoing your lawn to make it more eco-friendly? Well, there are a ton of benefits:

  1. By avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and lowering your water use, you’ll make less of an impact on the earth. You’ll also emit less pollution if you don’t use your lawn mower.
  2. You’ll save money. You’ll no longer have to buy grass seed, fertilizer, gas; all those expenses will disappear.
  3. Sustainable lawns are also often a haven for wildlife and insects. And, they’re interesting to look at.

I’ve worked to design my own yard with xeriscaping and sustainable gardening in mind. And to me, my yard is the coolest in the neighborhood!

With spring on the way, you might be itching to get outside and get planting. Just making a few different choices this year could make a big difference for the environment.

Ways to Implement Xeriscaping and Sustainable Gardening

Getting into xeriscaping and sustainable gardening might sound like a huge project. But it’s truly not; there are plenty of small projects you can take on that will make a positive impact on the environment, as well as on some of your monthly expenses.

1. Get or Make a Rain Barrel

The water where I live (Michigan) is astronomically expensive, and I’m not wasting any of that expensive water on my plants. Why not? Because I use two rain barrels and collect the water Mother Nature is giving me for free.

Here’s a picture of one of my rain barrels.

rain barrel

Now, don’t think you have to pay a fortune for a rain barrel. You don’t. I made this one for $30, and that includes the big blue barrel, which I got, brand new, from a warehouse in Ohio for $25.

My other barrel I bought from my city township, which sold them last spring for $55 each. Many municipalities are starting to order rain barrels in bulk, and then sell them to city residents at a reduced rate. Check with your local city to see if they’ll offer this service in the spring. And if you want to build your own, there are plenty of free tutorials online. It’s actually really easy.

2. Ditch Your Lawn Mower

I ditched my gas-powered lawn mower years ago, and I’ve never looked back. What do I use instead?

A Scott’s Push Reel Mower.

scotts push mower

I love this mower so much. First, it’s quiet. I don’t have to listen to the annoying, constant blare of a lawnmower engine. It emits zero pollution, it costs zero dollars to operate, it was cheap (around $100) and it takes up almost no space in the garage. I also get more exercise using this mower because I have to work a bit harder. But since most of us could use the extra workout, I see this as a very good thing.

If you want to get into sustainable gardening and lawn care, go with a reel mower this year.

3. Ditch Your Grass

I’ve always had a very small lot. But every year, my grass area gets smaller and smaller. Why?

Because I keep digging it up. I do keep grass in the backyard because I have two dogs. As you can see in the pictures below, Pep and Gunther would miss having at least some grass to roll around in…

dogs rolling in grass

The front yard, on the other hand, is slowly being turned into a wild fairyland of native Michigan species, herbs, flowers, and vegetables. It looks wild and untamed, like a summer meadow, and nothing like the trim and perfectly color-coordinated yards many of my neighbors have. But that’s OK by me.

You can easily make your yard more sustainable by lowering the amount of grass you have and planting native species instead. Head over to Wildflower.org, a site run by the University of Texas, to find out what’s native in your area. They have a wonderful database that allows you to search for native plant species by your state.

For instance, I have several native species to Michigan growing in my yard: lady fern, downy phlox, prairie coneflower, black-eyed susan, prairie iron weed, and blue violets. Planting native species means that those plants will require less water to thrive.

You can also easily slip herbs into your yard. Herbs like lavender, rosemary, thyme and parsley do wonderful in most yards. I have all of these growing in my yard each year. My lavender especially has done extremely well; in late summer I harvest tons of lavender, and use it all winter in my olive oil, and to scent my carpets.

4. Create a Garden

Of course, I have a lot more in my yard than 100% native species. I have a wide variety of flowers, as well as herbs and vegetables that we eat during the summer months.

Don’t forget, all that space your grass is currently taking up could be turned into a home garden to grow food for your family. Fruits and vegetables do require extensive watering, however, but this is where having a rain barrel or two will really benefit you. Again, the rain I collect in my barrels is never wasted on grass. It’s used on my garden first, and then my flowers.

5. Start Composting

Instead of buying expensive fertilizer for your plants, you can easily make your own compost at home. Composting is where you turn organic matter such as leaves, grass clippings and food waste into thick, rich dirt that plants love.

I vermicompost in my own home by utilizing red worms to break down food waste. The worms turn my food waste into “worm tea” (i.e. organic liquid fertlizer) and compost, which I then use in my garden.

Final Word

Are you interested in making your yard less dependent on “bought” water? Or, do you already have a yard that is sustainable?

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please write in if you have an tips or advice. I’m going to be doing a lot more work on my own yard this year to make it even more sustainable, so I’d love to hear any insight you have!

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a freelance writer based in Detroit, MI. She's passionately committed to living green, saving money, and helping others do the same in their life.

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