Building your own sustainable backyard can help combat feelings of helplessness in the face of environmental doom news. It can seem impossible to make a difference when larger forces are at work and you can’t change them.
Buying local food means helping your local community and voting for change with your money. Using your money for good may seem like a small change, but it certainly helps.
Yet sometimes it feels too small. Rather than doomscrolling scary news, find new ways to make a difference. Building a more sustainable backyard can help your local wildlife, build soil, improve the Chesapeake Bay, and encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same.
There are a lot of things you can do in your own backyard to help the environment. While your yard might be small, making those changes can encourage your neighbors to make similar changes. Your activities can create a ripple effect to improve your local environment.
There are lots of small tweaks you can do in your life that could have a huge impact if everyone did them. Today we are going to focus on a sustainable backyard. How can you improve your soil, capture water on your property, and improve habitat for insects and small animals?
Improving these three items means healthier soil and local environment, slowing erosion and pollution of the Bay, and capturing more carbon out of the atmosphere.
In fact, each year in the US lawns require more than 3 trillion gallons of water, 200 million gallons of gas, and 70 million pounds of pesticides. There is a better way!
Build Soil in your Sustainable Backyard
When new homes are built, the top soil is removed, leaving no fertility behind. Trees are cut down, and bare soil ends up replaced with grass on unhealthy soil. New homeowners need to rebuild their soil.
Our fascination with lawns means we fight nature to keep a monoculture in our yard. This grass-only lifestyle requires pesticides, irrigation, and a lot of maintenance to keep it looking pristine.
Wanting a lawn isn’t bad, but wanting a grass-only lawn isn’t good. Allowing other species to grow in your lawn can help diversify it. Clover, for example, naturally fertilizes the lawn with nitrogen. Diverse plantings lead to healthier soil microbiology, and a more sustainable backyard.
Diversity means that you have less pest pressure as there are fewer of each type of plant to be attacked. Diverse microbiomes in the soil feed those plants better. Mixing up lawn species means you won’t have an expanse of dead looking grass in the summer or winter.
I’ll admit, my lawn is not the neatest. It is full of “weeds” that I love enjoying throughout the seasons. Violets, henbit, false strawberry, wood sorrel, and clover abound. They have different flowers throughout the seasons, and don’t grow too high.
We still have to mow, but I enjoy the contrast of different colors and textures in my lawn. I have two septic fields, so the lawn I have isn’t going away.
If you want a lawn, have one. Growing a low maintenance diverse planting means it needs no pesticides, no irrigation, and instead has a lot of low growing groundcovers.
While a diverse lawn that requires less work can improve soil, there are many other things you can do to help it along. Ways to add organic matter include leaving yard waste in place (or composting it and returning it later), growing plants that capture nitrogen and return it to the soil, and planting lots of perennial plants that require less work.
Adding mulch to your gardens will help keep the soil in place. In time, the mulch will break down and feed the soil. Low growing plants also function as mulch!
Mixing up animal manures and compost into your soil will help. If you have chickens or rabbits, their manure can be used as well (rabbit immediately, chicken after it has been composted).
Keep your leaves and yard waste in your sustainable backyard! Compost them, use them to make brush piles for wildlife, chip them up or simply leave as is to break down as mulch over time. Don’t bag your leaves, mow over them and leave on your lawn each fall.
Perennial plants are easier to take care of than annuals, as you don’t have to replant them each year. Look towards natives to help wildlife and use plants that are acclimated to your region, but consider non-natives if they work better for you. Find plants that grow well in your soil and climate that require less work for you.
Capture Rainwater in your Sustainable Backyard
Slowing down rainwater can really help keep your soil in place. It can also allow rain to better penetrate your soil, storing it for dry periods and requiring less or no irrigation later.
Keeping your rainwater on your property means not causing problems for people downstream from you. The Ellicott city floods were partially caused by all the development upstream. When the heavy rainfall hit the area, it had fewer places to soak in to the ground.
Homes built now and in the last few decades have had to adhere to the stormwater regulations in Maryland. Your yard isn’t supposed to create runoff and erosion problems downstream. Your yard should have been graded to keep some runoff on site, and the rest shunted to a stormwater facilty of some type.
Unfortunately, those stormwater regulations are meant for smaller storms, not the mammoth ones that are more and more common. The better your soil, the more rainwater it can hold. The more water the soil can absorb, the less that remains to flood streams and communities during larger storm events.
Those ponds so many newer neighborhoods have are stormwater ponds. They capture smaller storms, and allow the water to infiltrate into the ground, keeping it from eroding the land and taking pollutants and sediment into our streams and the Bay.
However, if your property is graded so the water simply runs off to a stormwater pond, then you aren’t getting that water to stay in your soil. Larger storms will continue to pollute streams.
Keeping as much rain water in your soil as you can is good for your plants, good for the environment, and allows you to weather drought periods much better. Keep the rainwater away from your foundation, but if you can grade or plant your yard to capture your runoff, your soil will improve.
As a civil engineer, I understand how water can flow, how to measure it, and how to size a swale or rain garden to capture it. Your average homeowner doesn’t have this specialized knowledge. And honestly, most aren’t going to regrade their property unless they have a flooding problem in their yard.
Yet simple observation can tell you a lot about your own property. Look at it and see where the slopes go. When it rains, go outside and look around. You can see easily where problem spots are.
There are some great tutorials out there for creating rain gardens. You don’t have to capture all your rainwater, but strategic berms, swales, or just elevated planting beds can slow or capture a lot of it.
One way to slow water is to plant diverse garden beds where water flows. Thick plantings with lots of mulch or understory plants will certainly slow down any rainwater.
Water flows fastest on flat areas like pavements and slowest in forested areas. Grass is better than pavement but nowhere near as good as forested areas. More plants and mulch means slower runoff, leading to more infiltration into the soil, leading to less erosion and flooding.
Better soil also absorbs more water, even without changing the flow of water.
An older home might not have the current restrictions in place for runoff. Older suburbs often have curbs in place to route stormwater along streets into streams directly. Removing curbs could help slow the runoff from the neighborhood, but likely the yards are graded away from homes already.
If you live in an older neighborhood, adding plantings, removing curbs, and even regrading parts of your yard can capture rainwater.
Ultimately, keeping your rainwater on your yard leads to both healthier soils for your sustainable backyard and a healthier Bay for all.
Improve Habitat in your Sustainable Backyard
Adding habitat to your sustainable backyard to help insects and small animals will both help your natural environment and give added protection against undesirable pests. Bats, birds and insects eat mosquitoes. Bees and other pollinators mean more fruit on your trees and bushes. Predatory insects fight the insects that want to eat your plants.
The sad truth is that as we develop more land, there is less habitat for wildlife left behind. Birds, bats, insects, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals all suffer when there are only expanses of grass, fences, and no habitat to shelter in or food to eat.
Fortunately, building habitat can mean less work as a homeowner over time. Letting your yard get messier definitely helps. Growing more native perennials, letting them grow wilder, and leaving your leaves to stay on the soil in the fall all help.
Animals need places to shelter, and native plants provide food and shelter. Grow a diversity of shrubs and trees, and choose natives where you can. Have less lawn, and mow high. Add some clover into your lawn, and stop fighting weeds.
Offer water sources if you can. Don’t use pesticides at all. Allowing more diversity into your yard via plants and animals means you can have a balanced ecosystem. Some losses may occur, but when you stop poisoning the pests, the beneficial insects and animals will take care of the majority of your pest problems.
If you have space, let some parts grow wild. Make rock piles or brush piles as well. Adopt a woodland or cottage garden theme rather than a large manicured lawn.
For insect habitat, make sure you have something blooming all season. When you have a lot of weeds in your yard like I do, that isn’t hard to do. If you prefer something more manicured, you have to make sure you have enough different plants that you have blooms to attract insects all season.
Growing a diversity of plants is good for the soil and for wildlife. It also means that if a particular plant isn’t doing well, you can replace it with something that does grow well.
Rather than using pesticides on a diseased plant, find out what is wrong with it. That type of plant may just not grow well in your area. Don’t grow plants that require a lot of work, find something else that works better instead. Bonus points if it is a native plant.
Honey bees get all the love when it comes to pollinating. Yet honey bees are not native to the US. Pollinating also happens with our native bees, insects, and birds.
In fact, honey bees are important to agriculture because so much is grown as a monoculture, only blooming for a short time. Large monoculture fruit and vegetable farms aren’t growing the diversity to support pollinating insects year round, and those farms depend on transported honey bees each season to ensure they get pollinated to grow fruit.
Grow your own fruit, for yourself and for wildlife. Find fruit that grows well here (apples and peaches grow poorly in Maryland thanks to imported pests). Blueberries are native, pawpaw as well. Many other nonnative edible plants grow well here.
Adding habitat to your yard makes it more beautiful, offers a chance to balance the ecosystem, and reduces pest pressure on your plants.
Measuring Your Sustainable Backyard
Maryland is committed to improving our yards with the Baywise Yardstick program. You can have your yard certified to show you manage stormwater, add habitat, and are building soil at home.
The Yardstick program is a great starting point for Marylanders to measure how well they are doing, and get good ideas on where to improve.
Do you live in an HOA neighborhood? Are there restrictions on what you can do with your yard? Start small, and plant within guidelines. Challenge the HOA rules at your neighborhood meetings. Keep your yard looking nice, showing neighbors that your sustainable backyard is an asset, not an eyesore.
HOA rules are usually in place to make sure everyone’s property is kept neat. Educating your fellow neighbors on why a more sustainable backyard is valuable will help.
Improving your yard helps everyone. Your example encourages others to follow your example. Rather than getting scared about environmental problems, do your part to ensure that you are part of the solution!