Everything in your yard is connected—from the tops of the trees to the soil, and all the pretty plants in between. Treat it like an ecosystem, not individual components, and it will flourish. Here, a jacaranda tree erupts in a sea of purple flowers in the Ojai, California, garden of landscape architect Pamela Burton and her husband, Richard Hertz. The smell of cut grass, the trill of chirping birds, the coolness of a tree's shade, the scrunch of lawn underfoot, your outdoor space is a natural wonder. And how you care for it matters to it—and the world outside your fence. Here are 10 smart ways to help your plants thrive and go truly, vibrantly green.
Keep the Ground Quenched
Water your yard infrequently but deeply when needed—for an extended period each week versus just a little bit daily. This way, moisture soaks into the roots and encourages them to grow downward rather than staying near the surface, where they're more susceptible to heat and drought. Do it in the early morning, before the heat of the day hits and evaporation rates rise. Here's a helpful tip on how to test the ground: When in doubt, take a walk on your lawn. If you can see your steps, it's time to turn on the sprinkler.
Learn to Conserve Water, Too
A lawn needs about an inch of water a week. One low-tech trick is to use a rain gauge with a vial and ruler to track precipitation the old-fashioned way. When watering, send the moisture straight to the roots with a soaker hose or low-angle sprinkler instead of an oscillating one. And collect water for future use with a rain barrel, which connects to your roof gutter's downspout. If you prefer a high-tech fix, install a smart irrigation system with a sensor; it'll run only when needed. (You can even control some models remotely.) Look for one with the WaterSense label. The EPA has estimated that these systems can save an average home 8,800 gallons of water a year.
Try an Eco Mower
They don't use gas or make a lot of noise. 800 million gallons of gas are used to power lawn mowers annually, notes the Audubon Society, producing significant amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The EPA estimates that one gas-powered mower emits 11 times more pollution than a new car. A reel, or push, mower is best for small spaces. The blades work like scissors, slicing as they turn. Get them sharpened to ensure a clean cut. We like Scotts Classic 20-inch ($141, planetnatural.com). For larger lawns, go electric. Fueled by rechargeable batteries, most models cut and mulch just like gaspowered ones without the air pollution. Since the battery lasts only so long on a charge, consider buying a second one to swap in if your lawn is bigger than a half-acre. We like the Ego Power+ 21-inch ($449, homedepot.com).
Cut with Care
Adjust the setting on your mower to three or three and a half inches high. The blades of grass will have more surface area for the sun to shine on, which means more photosynthesis and a healthier, happier lawn. Try to trim only about a third of your grass's height each time you mow, so you don't cause stress to the plant.
Live with Less Lawn
If you love the look of one but not the constant care, consider a no-mow option, like a fine fescue blend; it's low-maintenance and has a plush, billowy texture. Or downsize the area and round it out with pavers, crushed stone, pea gravel, or DG (decomposed granite) for an elegant and inviting Mediterranean-courtyard effect.
Nourish Soil Naturally
Instead of bagging cut grass, mulch clippings back into the lawn (many mowers have a mulching setting). They'll help feed the earth and stay out of landfills. The magic of mulch: A protective layer in flower beds moderates soil temperature, helps the ground retain water, and suppresses weeds. Also fertilize naturally. Use compost, not chemicals, to upcycle kitchen scraps and give your plants a boost of nutrients.
Plant a Tree (or Three)
The benefits are boundless. Trees clean the air we breathe, provide habitats for wildlife, help prevent storm runoff by holding soil in place, and combat global warming by absorbing CO2 and other particles and reducing air temperature through respiration. Plus, they conserve energy at home (and save you money) by providing shade in summer and muffling wind in winter. Join the National Arbor Day Foundation, and you'll receive 10 free trees to plant. (Memberships start at just $10; go to arborday.org.)
80 million pounds of pesticides, which kill good and bad insects alike, are used on U.S. lawns annually, says the Audubon Society. Without the wildlife that pollinates plants, we'd lose our favorite fruits and vegetables, and about 80 percent of flowers (including roses and sunflowers). Invite these vital species into your yard by planting natives and avoiding pesticides. For more information, see the Pollinator Protector Pledge at xerces.org.
Get a Bat House
Don't run away just yet—some of these nocturnal creatures are pollinators, too. And most species are also voracious mosquito exterminators (they can eat hundreds in an hour!), so there's no need for chemicals. Fun fact: Bats are indispensable to agaves, the plants tequila and mezcal are made from. The next time you have a tequila cocktail, toast a bat. To bring them home: Set up a bat box to encourage nesting. Buy it at the hardware store, or build it yourself. For instructions, go to nwf.org.
Beat Pests with Good Bugs
If an unfortunate infestation happens in your garden, resist toxic pesticides—they kill indiscriminately and leach into our water systems—and instead call in this tiny but mighty task force (available at arbico-organics.com). Ladybugs are more than just cute. They also gobble up aphids, scale, mites, and mealybugs. The larvae of lacewings feast on spider mites, thrips, and whiteflies, and can devour as many as 100 aphids a day. As their common name hints, assassin bugs target hornworms, leafhoppers, and Colorado potato beetles. Last but not least, parasitic wasps may be non-stingers, but they lay eggs inside host bugs like Japanese beetles, gypsy-moth caterpillars, and cabbage worms. When they hatch, the larvae eat their prey.
Inspired? Watch Martha and organic lawn care expert Paul Tukey use an eco-friendly method to plant flowers and shrubs in the video below.