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About 12 years ago, Joan Brown started introducing native plants into her Shelbyville lawn. Now the grass in her tennis court-size back yard is completely gone. In its place are dozens of native Kentucky plants like goldenrod, viburnum, Dutchman’s britches, New England aster, stinging nettles, jewelweed (which takes care of the sting should you accidentally brush up against stinging nettles), and trillium.

Because they’re natives, the plants are well-adapted to living in this climate and are more resistant to drought and insects. They don’t need a lot of fertilizer to thrive. Brown doesn’t have to spray any chemical insecticides, and her plants need little watering. She collects rainwater in an old whiskey barrel for the minimal watering she does do. And she mows her small front lawn with a cordless electric mower.

Brown has truly gone green in her landscape. Her yard, certified as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat through the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and the National Wildlife Federation certification program, is home to butterflies, hummingbirds, and even an occasional groundhog.

Even if you’re not ready to rip out all your grass just yet, there are many simple steps you can take to help your landscaping be more environmentally friendly. Here are six ideas to get you started:

1. Opt for Native Plants
Selecting the right plant for your landscape can go a long way in reducing the amount of water, fertilizer, and pesticides needed to keep it healthy. Many native Kentucky plants–like the ever-popular purple coneflower and butterfly milkweed–are extremely drought-resistant and need little or no watering after they’re established, says Natalie George, manager of Georgetown’s Shooting Star Nursery, which specializes in plants native to Kentucky and the eastern United States.

Natives are also great for attracting birds, toads, and other natural predators, so they reduce the need for chemical insecticides in battling non-beneficial insects, George says. Implementing natives can be as easy as opting for an inkberry holly instead of a non-native shrub, like a boxwood, when it comes time to landscape.

2. Compost
Wanda Morgan of London has been composting for nearly 12 years. And while she has one of those fancy composting bins–the kind you fill and turn daily that promises to have compost ready in 14 days–she actually prefers doing it the old-fashioned way. “I just make a big pile of stuff–leaves, grass, weeds, chicken manure–and add some soil to it,” she says. “Anybody can compost. You don’t need a big elaborate setup.”

Composting is a great way to get essential nutrients back into your soil organically, says Richard Heller, certified landscape professional, a green speaker, and CEO of Greener by Design, a New York-based landscape design firm. If you don�t see worms in your soil, he says, then something is wrong. The soil is likely dead, either from lack of food or because chemicals have been overused. It takes at least a year to nurture inert soil back to life, he says.

“You can juice up a plant with a chemical fertilizer really quickly, but the bad news of that chemical fertilizer is that you’re bypassing the whole relationship with the soil, which is very important to the plant,” Heller says. Live compost has active microorganisms in it, which reintroduce organic material into the top two inches of the soil, called the humus. That helps keep the soil rich and alive–and helps plants growing in it to stay healthy, reducing the need for excessive chemical fertilization or pesticide spraying. “A healthy plant is an insect- and disease-resistant plant,” Heller says.

3. Switch to Electric or Manual Lawn Care Equipment
According to the EPA, gasoline-powered landscape equipment accounts for more than 5 percent of urban air pollution. The EPA estimates that each weekend in the United States, about 54 million Americans mow their lawns, consuming some 800 million gallons of gas each year. It’s estimated that an additional 17 million gallons of fuel, mostly gasoline, are accidentally spilled each year and run off into underground water tables as owners fill their lawn care equipment fuel tanks.

Opting for electric or manual equipment over gas-powered not only cuts down on air pollution, but also saves fuel and reduces groundwater contamination and noise pollution. Many major brands, as well as smaller, independent brands, have lines of electric mowers, trimmers, blowers, and chainsaws.

Joan Brown loves her cordless, battery-powered Neuton mower, which retails for around $350. “It’s a whole lot easier to maintain” than a traditional gas mower, she says. Since its introduction in 2003, the Neuton has become the top-selling battery-powered mower in the country. Their use has prevented more than 7,000 tons of CO2 emissions, says Ned Van Woert, president of Neuton Power Equipment (www.myneuton.com
).

And if $350 for a mower seems too steep for you, there are always the old-time, manual push mowers. What could be more green than that? Many are available for around $100 to $150.

4. Adopt Natural Pest Control
Instead of spraying her vegetable gardens and flower beds with chemical insecticides, Wanda Morgan does her part to attract natural predators to her lawn. Several bat houses, birdhouses, bird feeders, and birdbaths dot her yard. She also plants marigolds, long touted as an effective natural insect repellent, and uses companion plantings within her vegetable gardens to help stave off bugs.

When spraying is needed, Morgan opts for an organic insecticide she orders through a gardener�s supply store. Utilizing an array of approaches to combat problem insects–from proper plant selection and maintenance to encouragement of natural predators–before utilizing chemical pesticides, usually as a last resort, is the backbone of what’s known as Integrated Pest Management, or IPM.

5. Mow Grass Higher and Use Clippings
Even something as simple as setting your lawnmower blade a little higher can have a significant environmental impact. Leaving your grass higher–recommended height is 2 to 3 inches for tall fescue and 2 to 2-1/2 inches for Kentucky bluegrass–reduces the need to mow as often, thereby saving gas and reducing air pollution, and also reduces the amount of clippings clogging up local landfills. The EPA estimates that grass clippings and leaves account for as much as 20 percent of municipal solid waste collections.

Taller grass is also healthier grass. Mowing too closely can make grass susceptible to weeds and disease and less heat- and drought-tolerant, according to the University of Kentucky’s Integrated Pest Management document Best Management Practices for the Lawn.

And instead of bagging up the grass clippings and sending them to the landfill, “grass cycle” them. If you use a mulching mower and leave the clippings on the lawn, it doesn’t smother grass as some contend, but actually helps the grass by providing nitrogen and other nutrients, says Tom Delaney, director of government affairs with the Professional Landcare Network.

6. Select Efficient Lighting and Irrigation Systems
A professional quality spray-nozzle irrigation system is 80 percent more efficient than hand-watering your landscape. And a drip irrigation system is 80 percent more efficient than even the spray-head system, says Heller.

“I think proper irrigation practice is as important as the chemical discussion and maybe more important,” given last year’s drought in Atlanta and throughout the South, Heller says.

The drip systems Heller advocates run at night and are calibrated to the needs of specific plants to allow for minimum water evaporation and maximum efficiency. When it comes time to hire someone to install an irrigation system, he advises against selecting the cheapest one. “You have to be willing to spend money up front. But we preach to people that you can pay for that (drip) irrigation system in just three years of water savings,” he says.

To save energy, Heller’s company also installs 12-volt lighting in its landscape projects, rather than 120-volt lighting.

Installing a rain barrel, like Joan Brown’s, to catch rainwater for watering plants is another great way to save water and cut down on your utility bills. Commercial rain barrels are available for less than $100.



NATIVE PLANT RESOURCES
The Salato Wildlife Education Center, www.fw.ky.gov, in Frankfort will offer its annual native plant sale from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on September 6.

The Kentucky Native Plant Society, www.knps.org, and Wild Ones Natural Landscapers, www.for-wild.org, two organizations in Kentucky that promote native plants and natural landscapes, are also good resources for learning more about native plants.



GET A SOIL TEST

Don’t just toss fertilizer and other lawn care products on your lawn out of routine. First test to see what’s really needed. Paul Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual and founder and spokesperson for SafeLawns.org, recommends that any lawn maintenance plan begin with a soil test to determine exactly what nutrients the lawn is lacking. For help with getting a soil test, contact your county’s agriculture Extension agent. Locate your County Cooperative Extension office online at www.ca.uky.edu/county.



CONDITIONING SOIL

Montrose “Monty” Justice, of Louisville-based Monty’s Plant Food Company and a lifelong rose grower, says keeping the soil profile in ideal condition–45% mineral, 25% water, 25% air, and 5% organic matter–is a challenge.

Soil remediation specialist and president of Monty’s Plant Food Dennis Stephens says, “You can do 20 things right, but if you get your soils wrong it will minimize even your best plans. The number-one ingredient missing in most lawns is oxygen. Many know what aeration is, but few do it.”

Justice and Stephens teamed up to create Monty’s Liquid Carbon, an organic soil conditioner certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute. Homeowners (as well as some large-scale farming operations) are using the product to repair heavily compacted soils and to balance nutrient levels, but also for water efficiency.

“Once the soil is opened and the hard-pan layer is penetrated by roots, water is allowed to flow easily through the entire soil profile, draining easily during wet seasons and also allowing water to reach the root zone during times of drought,” says Stephens.

The product can easily be sprayed onto the lawn and garden with a garden hose. But first do a soil test to determine the nutrient level of your soil, as well as a few other tests, such as digging with a spade to determine if the soil is compacted (if you can’t get your spade in the ground easily, it is), an “earthworm test” to determine if worms live in your soil (if not, your soil’s in trouble), and a “clump test” where you pull a patch of grass (if the roots come up easily, this indicates shallow roots and your soil is suffering from a hard-pan layer).

For more information, go to www.montysplantfood.com/docs/Liquid_Carbon.htm.



KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: MORE ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY TIPS

Click on green landscaping to learn more about:

  • How to certify your back yard or school grounds as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat;
  • Organic lawn care and sources for organic compost, fertilizers, weed killers, and pest controls;
  • Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques, home composting, and tips to other environmentally friendly lawn care practices.
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