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Tips for creating an eco-friendly garden and greening your outdoor landscape

Greener Pastures

Creating a sustainable outdoor space is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

It’s official: Outdoor spaces and gardens are hot! A recent survey by the Washington-based American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) found that gardens and landscaped spaces are two of the most popular outdoor requests among consumers. The two trends, it seems, intersect at a sweet spot for Americans.

"In this uncertain economy, homeowners want to get more enjoyment out of their yards," said Nancy Somerville, executive vice president and CEO of ASLA. “They want attractive outdoor spaces that are both easy to take care of and sustainable.”

Most people enjoy the outdoors, so these findings aren’t all that surprising. But it appears consumers are now interested in creating sustainable outdoor spaces that consider water usage, pesticide runoff, bio-diversity and the local ecosystem.

"The services people enjoy from healthy ecosystems are the unobtrusive foundation of daily life," said the Washington-based Sustainable Sites Initiative. "Yet people often underestimate or simply ignore the values from these ‘ecosystem services’ when making land-use decisions—only to realize later how difficult, expensive and sometimes impossible it is to replicate services once they are lost."

Landscapes, the group said, have the potential to improve and to regenerate the natural benefits and services provided by ecosystems in their undeveloped state.

So where do you start in creating a sustainable landscape? You have to first consider your geographic region—the Mid Atlantic. This requires more effort than you think. According to Michigan State University’s Native Plants and Ecosystem Services, you’ll need to determine whether the plants you are considering historically grew near where you will be planting them.

"Next, you’ll need to be sure the species of plant will thrive with the amount of sunlight and moisture at the site," the university wrote. "Finally, you’ll need to make a decision about whether you buy native plants or seed from a source near where you’ll be planting them, known as 'local genotype'."

This may sound like a lot of work, but it’s worth the effort. Native plants are naturally acclimatized to the local weather, soil and rainfall patterns and may not need supplemental watering, said the site Green Building Advisor. Plus, once native plants are established, they require little water beyond normal rainfall.”

Curbing water usage is a good thing. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American household uses 320 gallons of water per day, and about 30 percent is devoted to outdoor uses (more than half for watering lawns and gardens). In dry climates, a household’s outdoor water use can be as high as 60 percent, EPA added. In addition, the agency says inefficient irrigation methods and systems waste water even further.

Once your eco-friendly garden is planted, you don’t want to ruin it with chemicals. So it’s time to start thinking about developing healthy soil and keeping bugs away. Natural compost, pesticides and insecticides are safer alternatives. Organic products reduce poisonous runoff that can contaminate groundwater, but they are cheap and can be assembled with household ingredients. If you spritz your plants with two tablespoons of dish liquid and 1 quart of water, you can get rid of insects. And a combination of table salt, vinegar and dish liquid make a great weed killer.

There are other ways to achieve a sustainable garden— even if you live in an urban location where space is a premium or the backyard is paved. Growing vegetables or flowers in containers such as window boxes, pots and planters instead of in the ground is a great workaround for adding color and texture.

Additionally, more manufacturers are developing products that allow consumers to grow plants in vertical applications. So-called green walls—either cotton pocket-like setups or metal “green” screens—help absorb carbon dioxides and particles, soften harsh brick walls, or offers noise abatement. These products ensure anyone can create and enjoy their outdoor spaces.

"A landscape is more than a bunch of plants arranged to look good," Green Building Advisor said. "A well-designed landscape can lower heating and cooling costs, reduce stormwater runoff and recharge local aquifers. And it can be good for birds, bees and neighboring trees." That’s a win-win for everybody.

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