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How to restore your yard's natural balance

How to restore your yard's natural balance
Our ecosystem is in trouble. The land we live on has been poisoned by fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide use. Urban sprawl is destroying millions of acres of unique habitat, separating animals from their breeding grounds, and polluting the air and water we breathe. Invasive species of exotic plants and animals have wiped out many species and unprotected areas are threatened with forest fires, landslides, and floods. The natural balance has been disrupted by human activity, and our actions are key to restoring the natural order.

Organic lawn care gets to the root of the problem by undoing decades of damage. It starts by improving the soil, which in turn boost the productivity of plants. Vegetation filters the air we breathe, and strong roots reduce erosion while controlling floodwater. A diverse landscape with many species of plants not only supports an abundance of wildlife, it is also less prone to large scale devastation from disasters, insect pests, and diseases.

The first step in repairing the damage is to evaluate the landscape around our homes. Evaluate the flowers, shrubs, and trees and determine which elements are in sync with their surroundings. Are all of the plants in areas with the right amount of sun and shade? Is there a variety of species, or is your yard a monoculture? Is your landscaping native or invasive?

Native plants grow all around us. They pop up through cracks in the sidewalk and fill vacant lots with wildflowers. They spring up in old hay meadows and quiet woods where few of us see them, and when we do see them, we often dismiss native flora as 'weeds'. Native plants are able to thrive in extreme weather conditions because they are the product of thousands of years of adaptation to the local soil and climate. You can harness this adaptation by planting a few native plants in your yard to help control erosion and runoff, or using them as border plants that repel insect predators.

Properly placed trees and shrubs can save home heating and cooling costs. Planted on the west or southwest side of a home, large deciduous shade trees will shelter the home from the onslaught of the hot summer sun. In the winter, the trees will lose their leaves and allow the sun's rays to warm the house. Shrubs close to the house help insulate the house from hot and cold temperatures. Layers of plants of medium to tall size will help eliminate street noise.

While certain plants can be helpful, many plants used for landscaping are not. Non-native grasses use a huge amount of water and they can leach nutrients out of the soil. Depending on the type of grass, watering lawns in the summer accounts for 40 to 60 percent of residential water consumption! When the grass is cut and the trimmings are thrown into the landfill, valuable nutrients are lost from the soil. That's why it's important to practice grasscycling. To grasscycle, simply leave the grass trimmings where they fall and the nutrients they contain will quickly break down into the soil again. Make sure that your mower height is set to the right level, and for the quickest results, set the mulching size as fine as possible. Different species of grass do best at different heights, with heights from 1.5" to 3" producing the thickest, healthiest grass.

One way to reduce the water use in your yard is to reduce the area covered by grass. Here are some suggestions for alternative groundcover. Removing grass can also help your trees and shrubs, because their roots no longer have to compete for water or nutrients. Instead of grass, why not try mulch? Mulch can help block sunlight from reaching the ground, which stops weeds from germinating and reduces the need for mowing. Mulch will also help insulate exposed roots, and can help the ground absorb rainwater. More water retention means reduced nutrient loss from runoff and reduced erosion. Some good mulching materials are dried grass clippings, shredded leaves, old straw, wood shavings, and bark chips. Avoid using plastics, fabric, or gravel. They are unattractive, and don't break down into humus for the soil.

If your yard is dry and lifeless, it may help to test the soil. The pH should be between 6.3 and 6.8, and healthy soil has high levels of calcium, magnesium, and potassium. The target ranges are 65 to 70 percent Calcium, 12 to 22 percent Magnesium, and 4 to 5 percent Potassium. There are also many micronutrients found in healthy soil that you wont find in a bag of fertilizer.

Compost is another great way to improve the quality of soil, and it can be used just like mulch. Compost contains plenty of bio-accessible nutrients in the same balance that they are found in organic matter. As plants sink their roots into compost, compost releases nutrients at a rate that matches their needs. It is also light and fluffy, which accelerates root growth and allows the soil to hold high levels of moisture. By reducing runoff, compost also reduces erosion. Compost is easy to make at home with a compost bin, and it even neutralizes soil pH.

Efficient watering will also make a huge difference. Careful use of water resources can cut your irrigation bill, extend the life of local water sources, and prevent contamination of drinking water. Excessive water washes away soil and causes erosion. Runoff also harms nearby streams and lakes - it often triggers algal blooms. On the other hand, an efficient watering system can cut the utility bill and help plants establish deep roots. Grass, trees, and shrubs do best with infrequent but deep watering. Once a month, the ground should be soaked all the way down to a depth of 10 inches.

Sprinklers can be organized to match watering zones and avoid watering walkways, pavement, or walls. Timers and/or moisture sensors are useful for preventing over-watering, along with drip irrigation systems. Soaker hoses deliver water directly to the base of the plant, reducing moisture loss from evaporation. To avoid evaporation, run your sprinklers early in the morning, with the droplets set for minimal dispersal. Fine mists evaporate before they reach the ground, and watering at night can cause root rot.

Inorganic fertilizers have a salt base, which causes imbalance in the pH of most soils. These fertilizers cause a toxic buildup of nitrates in drinking water and killing off animals that rely on clean water. Organic fertilizers are gentler on the soil, and they also require less frequent application because they release nutrients into the soil gradually over time.

Using non-toxic fertilizers will also protect the helpful insects that protect your yard from pests. Of all the insects in the world, less than 2% are harmful. Other insects, such as ladybugs, fireflies, green lacewings, praying mantis, spiders, and wasps eat harmful insects and can be relied on to control pest populations. Instead of using pesticides, you can invite predator insects by providing water, planting shrubs and herbs that attract them, and ensuring that shelter is available. Or, you can use herbal extracts that are tailored to control certain pests. Other non-toxic options include manual bug traps, diatomaceous earth, soapy water, and mineral based pesticides. These treatments can be layered on top of each other: to minimize the side effects, just use the least-disruptive protections against a pest before resorting to stronger controls.

As the old saying goes - "A journey of a thousand miles starts with just a single step". Preserving our environment is a journey, and it begins in the backyard. Steps that protect the health of our lawns and promote diversity in the garden have effects that reach out into the wide world. To start the ball rolling, plant some native plants, start a compost pile, and replace your sprinklers with a drip irrigation system.