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Creating a Sustainable Landscape: Part 1 – Leaves and Mulch

leaves and mulchThere are several traditional landscaping practices that lack environmental benefits and are creating a lot more work than necessary. Among those are the conventional ideas that all leaves need to be removed from a yard and the garden beds in the fall and then a thick layer of mulch needs to be added to the garden beds in the spring. We have become accustomed to the visual appearance of these practices, however, there is a much simpler way to approach this aspect of landscape maintenance – leave the leaves.

The basic goal of mulch is to retain moisture, moderate temperature, and suppress weeds. It also adds organic matter to the garden beds, although the quality of this organic matter depends on where your mulch is coming from and how it’s made, which is an important question to ask. One of the problems with mulch is that there is a right and wrong way to use it and frequently, it ends up being used the wrong way. If you are getting the same amount of mulch applied to your garden beds year after year, chances are there is too much there.

Excess mulch inhibits the movement of air and moisture in and out of the soil, which has negative impacts on the health of the trees and plantings in your landscape creates an avenue for rodents to cause damage by giving them an easy way to tunnel through and feed on the bases of plants (this most commonly happens in the winter).

Another tree-specific mistake that is commonly made is the application of “volcano mulch.” This is when it is piled high around the base of the tree. This practice can:

  • cause girdling roots
  • cause surface roots
  • lead to disease and insect problems

Consequently, it is extremely important to monitor the depth of the mulch to ensure that it’s not actually hurting your landscape.

One solution to this common issue of over-mulching is to utilize the leaves that fall onto your property each year. Nature has a way of regenerating and promoting healthy growth. Leaves are there for us to use. They are full of minerals that their trees soaked up from the soil and promote soil health. Earthworms and microorganisms are waiting to break down leaf mulch and turn it into organic matter. As the leaves are broken down, they:

  • Improve soil structure
  • Add organic material to the soil food web
  • Protect against compaction and erosion
  • Retain moisture

Additionally, leaves provide habitat for insects and critters. These critters are essential to your yard’s ecosystem as they provide pollination for plants and food for birds.

Lastly, leaves on the lawn should be mowed using a mulching deck so that they may be returned to the soil where they provide the same benefits discussed above. If your yard is heavily treed and it is impossible to incorporate all of them into the lawn, they can be raked to the nearest garden bed.

Sustainable landscaping practices, such as leaving the leaves on your property and reducing or eliminating the need for additional mulch, are both environmentally beneficial and responsible. Not only are you creating healthier conditions for your landscape by utilizing the readily available pre-existing organic matter, but you are also reducing the need for carbon-emitting equipment such as backpack blowers.

How to have a low maintenance property

grassHave you ever felt burdened by the never ending list of chores that come with owning a home? Any homeowner will tell you that the work never ends. There is always something to do, and if you can’t find something to do inside, there’s surely some maintenance that can be done outside whether it’s mowing a lawn or pulling weeds from the garden beds. Lawns can be visually appealing, but they are also a high maintenance component of any landscape. Not only do they have to be mowed weekly during the growing season, but if you want a lush, green lawn you’re probably also applying fertilizers, watering fairly regularly, and potentially paying a pretty penny to have someone do it for you. Similarly, extensive garden beds featuring exotic shrubs and trees require time, energy, and money to maintain. So if you’ve ever found yourself asking the question, “How can we have a lower maintenance property?,” this will provide you with some answers.

The #1 tip for decreasing property maintenance is to reduce the amount of turf grass. This means keeping only what is necessary or truly desired. For example, if you have an acre of backyard but you really only use half of it for activity, the other half could be transformed to something lower maintenance. Not only does it reduce maintenance costs, but it is better for the environment, as well. Below is a list of options for a lower maintenance landscape in place of part of your turf grass.

  • Replace turf grass with “No mow” grass mixes: Naturally short-growing fine fescues which require infrequent if not zero mowing. Typically this type of grass reaches a maximum height of 10-12” when not mowed. Once established, it requires little or no watering. No mow fescues are a great option for areas with more trees and shade or hillsides.
  • Allow part of the existing lawn to grow wild: It does not have to be a major project to decrease property maintenance. By establishing desired turf boundaries and allowing the extra turf grass to start growing wild, you are creating an ecological and sustainable alternative to the high-maintenance lawn. It will also provide food and cover for wildlife.
  • Create a Meadow: Sunny areas can be planted with native grass mixtures and/or wildflowers to create a meadow. Incorporate native and naturalized plants into the mix that are both drought tolerant and disease resistant and you’ll have a beautiful, natural habitat that’s not only low maintenance, but also visually appealing and beneficial to wildlife.
  • Incorporate “Lawn Substitute:” Mass plant shade tolerant, native clumping grass varieties in areas that are shaded, in garden beds, or under trees. Once established, it can serve as a low maintenance ground cover or native backdrop for your turf area and other plantings.
  • Use Native Plants: By incorporating native grass mixes and plants into your landscape, you are increasing biodiversity and providing the landscape with a greater ability to sustain itself.

Typically when landscaping a property, the default answer when one doesn’t know what to do with a space is to make it turf grass. This has been standard practice since the mid- to late-1800s when residential lawns were first popularized and lawn mowers were being mass-produced. It was possible to have a lawn so that’s what was done. A century later, in the post-war 1950s, lawn care was taken several steps further. Having a clean cut, weed-free, green lawn became a fixture in suburban America and was a symbol of the American dream. At the time, though, the effects of these practices on the environment were not abundantly clear. We now know that a house surrounded by beautiful, green turf grass, as beautiful and visually desirable as it may be, does not provide the homeowner with long term resiliency and sustainability. If and when the time comes that regulations of maintenance equipment and chemicals are amplified, many will be left with a landscape that cannot be maintained. It is important to know that there ARE alternatives, and that they can also provide beauty and visual appeal in their own way.

Conventional vs. Organic Fertilizers

fertilizerThe organic movement has really taken hold over the past two decades. Greater awareness has led to more and more people choosing organic products over the alternatives. They are motivated by their concerns for the environment, for their own health, for the health of the workers involved, and when it comes to food, animal welfare is also a factor. The landscaping industry has also felt the effects of the organic movement as the past two decades have brought an increase in restrictions on chemical usage and certain types of equipment, especially in more populated areas. Fortunately, there is an option to take your organic lifestyle choices outside of the house and into your yard as well. While we’ve learned that organic generally means safer, healthier, and more environmentally friendly, the “Why” behind organic lawn care is not necessarily common knowledge. Listed below is a comparison of conventional/synthetic and organic fertilizers to help clarify how these two options differ from one another.

Conventional/Synthetic:

  • Made from chemically processed products, including man-made inorganic compounds derived from petroleum industry by-products
  • Water soluble – easily gets into the groundwater
  • Works quickly (even the “slow release” types), frequent applications needed to maintain benefits
  • Directly feeds the plant and leaves the soil quickly
  • Inconsistent nitrogen availability – readily available right after application, but decreases over time

Organic:

  • Made from plant, animal, and mineral nutrients
  • Water insoluble – does not get washed away into groundwater
  • True slow release over time
  • Sustained benefits over time
  • Feeds the soil, enriches the soil, and is broken down by microbes
  • Provides sustained, organic nitrogen source over time

Applying synthetic fertilizer is essentially a “quick fix” to help your lawn grow and look green for a relatively short period of time (4-5 weeks). It causes water contamination, loss of nutrients, and deterioration of the soil. Because it is water soluble, it is estimated that 30-50% of the product applied to the lawn is either leached to groundwater, potentially polluting water resources, or volatizes to the air. The remaining 50-70% of the product essentially bypasses any real interaction with the soil and is absorbed directly by the plant/grass.

Organic fertilizers, on the other hand, are added to the soil to improve biological activity and facilitate the slow, consistent release of nutrients that give you a healthier, greener lawn. These fertilizers are not in a form that is immediately absorbed by plants. They must be broken down by soil bacteria and fungi into forms that plants can then absorb. They are a sustainable addition to your lawn that adds organic matter, feeds the soil biomass, improves soil structure, and helps retain moisture and nutrients. Because they are not water soluble like their synthetic counterparts, organic fertilizers are not easily washed away during a heavy rainfall or by irrigation.

The difference can be likened to skipping breakfast and relying on coffee to get you through your day vs. eliminating caffeine from your diet and relying on nutrient-dense foods to provide you with sustained energy throughout the day. One might work for a short period of time, but because you’re depriving your body of essential nutrients, it is not sustainable or healthy in the long run. The other might take a little longer to adapt to when first implemented, but over time your body will be healthier overall and will function more efficiently.

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