Climate friendly yard work for those lacking a green thumb and spare time

In the months after our second son was born, one of the things we did in an attempt to make life feel less overwhelming was to hire someone to do our yard work. It was a big relief every two weeks to have our lawn neatly mowed and all the leaves blown away. I’ll be honest, Andrew had been doing the majority of our yard work so that burden hadn’t been on me anyway, but anything taken off our pile of collective responsibilities felt like a lightened load for both of us.

We didn’t fully realize at the time just how harmful gas-powered leaf blowers and lawnmowers are. They emit many times more pollution than gas-powered cars, leading many municipalities to ban them (see if you can get your city to follow suit!). Also, fallen leaves provide invaluable habitat to wildlife trying to coexist with us, and they supply rich nutrients to our yards, where they are much better off than in a landfill emitting greenhouse gases as they rot; leaving them alone is an easy way to do our planet a flavor! We can also help the Earth and our pollinator friends, while saving ourselves time or money, by saying goodbye to our antiquated idea of beauty in the form of the classic American well-manicured, frequently mowed lawn. If we see beauty through a child’s (or bee’s!) eyes, we delight in seeing dandelions and white clover flowers sprout up in our yards. The habit of hunting them down as weeds and spraying or picking them to eliminate them, or mowing too closely for them to easily grow back, starves our precious, already dwindling, bee populations, not to mention that we definitely don’t need to be sending bags of lawn clippings to the landfill to rot, emit methane, and contribute to the overheating of our planet. A good rule of thumb is to let your flower-filled lawn grow to 6 inches, then mow down to 4 inches to let the blooms regrow and feed the bees. Makita makes high quality electric tools including a lawnmower and leaf blower (for blowing leaves from the driveway to the grass, not to collect for the landfill!) that perform just as well as gas tools. And please say goodbye to chemical weed killers.

So the biggest bottom line about a climate-friendly lawn is that less is more, and you can ditch any guilt you feel about needing to “keep up” your yard. And of course, avoiding cutting down trees is one of the best and most basic things you can do to keep your yard climate friendly, as trees are one of our best resources for sequestering carbon. If you have a little time, there is more you can do to make your yard climate-friendly and an oasis for pollinators. I am definitely a beginner in all things related to gardening, and I don’t have much free time or a good track record on keeping plants alive. If you’re feeling ambitious, there are many good books on making your yard a wildlife oasis (this is one good option), and you can even make your yard a Certified Wildlife Habitat. If you’re like me and want to start small, a fun, easy, and rewarding way to start is by planting a pollinator garden of native plants. 

On the recommendation of a friend, I made an appointment last fall at Nightsong Natives in Canton, GA. If you live outside of metro Atlanta, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a native plants nursery or at least a nursery with good native offerings. Native plants (plants that existed in your area before the arrival of European settlers) have a ton of advantages over non-natives. They have deeper, more extensive root systems that reduce flooding and erosion, filter pollutants from storm water, and minimize the need for watering and other maintenance. The less water you can use on your garden and lawn, the better, especially as climate change increases the frequency and severity of droughts. Native plants support biodiversity, especially of pollinators, and do well without pesticides, which are generally harmful to ecosystems–try to avoid them, or if you really need to spray for a certain kind of insect, research eco friendly options. Thankfully, native plants are growing in popularity, and many local governments have passed ordinances encouraging and/or mandating their use (here’s one example). The helpful lady working at Nightsong Natives gave me a few recommendations each for our sunny garden bed and our shady garden bed, all pollinator-friendly native plants that aren’t palatable to deer (we have a ton in our neighborhood!). In the sunny garden, I planted Virginia Mountain Mint, Anise hyssop, and Shrubby St. Johns Wort. In the shady garden, I planted Packera Aurea and Solidago caesia. Native gardens are said to “sleep, creep, then leap” in their first three years, meaning they take some patience! Ours are still in progress, but it’s exciting to see some healthy new growth this spring, especially the Packera Aurea and Anise hyssop. I’m looking forward to when they are in full bloom and buzzing with bees and butterflies!

While it can be hard to find edible native plants, growing an edible garden, native or not, can be a fun, delicious, and environmentally friendly endeavor, as it saves packaging and the transport energy of store bought food. We have a fairly small edible garden with herbs, cherry tomatoes, and hot peppers; meals always taste extra good when we can incorporate some freshness from the garden!

One exception to the general rule of it being good to leave your yard alone is if you have invasive species present. These are non-native plants that can cause harm to a native ecosystem by growing aggressively and crowding out/taking nutrients from native plants. Common invasive plants in Georgia include English ivy, Chinese privet, kudzu, and Japanese honeysuckle. If you make the effort to remove invasive species from your yard (and/or volunteer to help remove them from public areas near you), you can clear the way for native plants and ecosystems to thrive. 

I appreciated a reader sharing this resource for alternatives to the harmful chemicals in Roundup when trying to keep unwanted weeds out of your garden.

I hope you come away from reading this post encouraged by the good news that maintaining a climate-friendly yard is, in many ways, actually easier, cheaper, and less time-consuming than what we think of as conventional yard care. If we turn away from the American dream of a gleaming, uniformly green lawn and towards viewing our yards as a haven for wildlife, native plants, and our families alike, we can experience natural harmony with minimal effort. Composting, of course, is another simple, important way we can respect nature’s cycles. If you don’t have time for anything else, leave the leaves and flowering “weeds” in your yard, and take heart that the climate and bees appreciate it!

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