The development of agriculture is viewed as a crucial turning point, with the ability to grow domesticated plants for food sparking the birth of human civilization itself. As such, it can be really, really frustrating when you can’t even get your simple backyard garden to produce. After all, if some guy in ancient Mesopotamia managed to grow fields of wheat and barley despite having no earthly clue what a “tractor” is, why can’t you get these stupid tomatoes to sprout no matter how many YouTube videos you watch? Not to mention, with your total bill for fertilizer, seed, plants and equipment starting to run into the thousands, your picture-perfect yard is proving to be pretty expensive.
Fortunately for you, getting that yard that’s the envy of the entire neighborhood doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. In fact, if you’re ready to work with your yard and not against it, a lot of great tips can create a perfect storm of saving money, getting better results and practicing more ecologically sound gardening that will keep your soil healthy year after year.
So, here are some tips from professional gardeners about how you can get the backyard you want this summer without breaking the bank.
Forget About the 'Perfect Lawn'
While most people’s image of the perfect, Norman Rockwell-style suburban home includes an immaculate green lawn, it’s a choice that’s aesthetically a little boring and has proven to have serious environmental consequences over time.
“Many yard-owners have been sold on the myth of the perfect lawn as solid grass that is always green, always weed-free, no matter what,” said Dr. Linda Anderson, Master Gardener and co-founder of Urbandale Farm — a Lansing, Michigan-based urban farm.
“The myth of the perfect lawn leads to excessive fertilization (which leads to runoff of nutrients into the water — think ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico); excessive water use (think depletion of water tables in drought-prone parts of the country); a decrease in biodiversity (think about the die-off of pollinators and evolution of invasive plant species); and frequent mowing (think air pollution by gas mowers). ‘Perfect’ lawns are contributing to the destruction of the environment,” Anderson said.
One solution from Anthony Smith, owner of Nursery Enterprises, is as delicious as it is simple: Plant brambleberry bushes. The raspberries or blackberries from your backyard will be fresher and tastier than anything you’ll find at the grocery store, not to mention free once the bushes are in.
“Some of the most nutritious, enjoyable, and expensive foods at the grocery store are brambleberries,” said Smith. “Don’t let the mystique of brambleberries intimidate you; they can be grown almost anywhere in our entire country — for cheap! And they can be grown successfully in as little [as] one square foot in the ground. They are perennials, so that means they will continue living year after year. They need annual trimming and fertilizer, but beyond that, if you choose a variety that won’t sucker, then they will be a rewarding and relatively simple addition to your garden. The fresh berries from your garden are much [tastier] than those from the market; they won’t be bruised, and you’ll pick them at the peak of perfection, not when they’re still unripe.”
Take Care Of Your Soil
While it’s easy to fixate on the grass in your lawn, the plants themselves are only one part of the story. Your soil will play a huge role in your success with any gardening, so be sure you’re thinking about how healthy your dirt is before you start blaming the grass.
“You can still have a lush green lawn without adding to environmental degradation,” said Dr. Anderson. “The key is to feed the soil, not the grass. If you have a limited budget, spend your money on compost (decomposed organic matter — anything once living that has broken down into ‘black gold’ that looks like soil). Or buy organic fertilizers that will stay in the soil longer than chemical fertilizers, less likely to run off into our precious water sources. Aerate the soil every year or so by renting a machine that will remove small cores of soil to allow better penetration of air and water. Or, pay a lawn company to do this, but don’t succumb to their sales pitches for chemical fertilizers and pesticides.”
Invest In Lawn Structures
While the plant life is what most yards will feature, don’t forget that some tasteful structures can also play an important role in creating the outdoor space you desire — especially when they compliment the plants you’re growing.
“A beautiful pergola, canopy, gazebo or arch will become your yard’s focal point,” said Margaret Williamson, a New Orleans florist and owner of Leaf + Petal. “They can also serve as interesting and creative planters and trellises that your flowers and vines can grow on.”
Overseed Your Lawn
It’s good to remember that the grass in your lawn is fighting for its share of the water, air, sun and nutrients in the soil with other plants. So, taking action to boost the prospects for the plants you do want can be the best way to get rid of the ones you don’t.
“If you want fewer ‘weeds,’ help your grass be a better competitor by seeding more grass on top of that compost you have added to improve the soil and after you have aerated,” said Dr. Anderson. “Once seeded, keep it moist until it has sprouted. The best time to do this is fall or spring, not mid-summer.”
Rake and Aerate Your Lawn
While some might insist the only way to keep your lawn looking great is with pricey treatments or chemicals, there’s a lot you can accomplish with just a simple rake.
“Rake and aerate your lawn if you haven’t [already] done so in early spring,” said Pol Bishop, a gardening expert with Fantastic Gardeners. “By aerating the area outside, the grass will be able to consume water and nutrients better and it also allows it to breathe. You can easily get rid of debris and thatch all over your lawn by raking it. It’s important not to skip this step as clearing the entire area will make sure the soil gets enough sunlight.”
While landscapers and gardening services will probably try to sell you on pricey treatments that are bad for the environment, there are some very simple steps you can take to improve the health of your lawn that won’t cost you a dime.
“Set your mower to three to four inches to keep the grass at a height that will shade weeds and therefore outcompete them,” Dr. Anderson said. “This also reduces the frequency of mowing. Unless you live on a golf green, you don’t need your grass to be shaved.”
Before you start spending money on expensive compost, it’s worth remembering that a lot of the same nutrients you’re paying top dollar for at the store are getting tossed out with your trash. From the leaves you rake up in the fall to the peels from your carrots, organic material you’re tossing in the trash could be feeding your yard — saving you money and limiting how much trash you leave at the curb every week.
“If you haven’t already set up a compost pile or bin, now’s the time,” said Zach Morgan, a horticulturist and gardening expert who works for Gardening Services London. “If you don’t know what compost is, it’s basically a mixture of different organic materials that have been left in a specific place to decompose naturally. Composting is a great way to provide your crops with much-needed nutrients. Aside from fallen leaves and cuttings, you can also add fruit and vegetable trimmings from your kitchen. Thus, composting is not only ideal for improving the quality of the soil in your garden to grow healthier plants but also for reducing your green waste volume. Some materials to avoid adding to your compost bin are meat leftovers, dairy products, diseased plants, bones, plastic products or pet waste. Composting is also very cost efficient and can save you heaps of money. Once you start your compost pile, you will never need to buy fertilizer ever again. Best of all, the only investment you’ll need to start composting will be buying a garden compost bin (which costs between $20-30).”
A nice expanse of green grass might have its benefits, but you’re also missing out on a lot of what makes your yard really enjoyable. Not only can planting other types of plants improve the look of your yard, but it can also play a role in keeping things healthy and green throughout the summer and into next year.
“Live with some plants in your lawn that are not grass,” Dr. Anderson said. “Notice how many more insects this attracts, and celebrate the fact that you are helping maintain pollinator populations. If you really want a lawn without dandelions, there are some iron-based products that will kill broadleaf plants but not grass and that are healthier for the environment than most commercial herbicides. However, these are expensive to apply on a large scale, so you might pick a small area where you’d like to have only grass.”
Statues, Wind Chimes and Bird Feeders
If you want to charm all the senses with your beautiful yard, the sound of wind chimes or songbirds can help put the perfect final touch on the beautiful sights and smells of your flower beds. And the right artwork can be combined with your garden to create your own little patch of heaven.
“Choose tasteful outdoor statues that match your aesthetic,” said Williamson. “If you have a tree, take full advantage with wind chimes and bird feeders. They will create a great ambiance while attracting songbirds that will bring even more life into your yard.”
Pruning Is Important for Bushes, Trees and Other Plants
While there’s always a temptation to skip out on yardwork, don’t overlook the benefits of regular pruning to keep your plants healthy.
“Pruning is another gardening task that shouldn’t be ignored,” said Bishop. “It is actually quite beneficial for the trees and shrubs in your garden. Removing dead branches ensures they stay healthy. Also, pruning stimulates new growth and keeps your trees and shrubs thriving for a long time.”
Replace Your Lawn With Flower or Vegetable Beds
Of course, if you really want to celebrate biodiversity, giving up the sod is one of the best paths to get there. What’s more, you can start saving money on your grocery bill (and most likely significantly improve the quality of your produce) with a vegetable garden. Or you can plant the sort of flower bed that will stop traffic on your street. Not to mention, if you really enjoy gardening, this will likely be a lot more interesting than just growing grass.
“Eliminate the need to mow a space by removing grass and adding beds for diverse plantings,” said Dr. Anderson. “It won’t eliminate the labor needed to maintain the plants, but it’s more pleasant work, in my humble opinion.”
Use Sheet Mulching for Your Beds
If you do go with flower or vegetable beds, you can save a lot of time and money — while simultaneously improving your soil — by using a simple process for mulching that involves leftover newspaper.
“One easy and inexpensive way to replace grass is sheet mulching with newspapers and compost,” said Dr. Anderson. “Lay at least six pages of overlapping newspaper on the space you want to turn into a bed. Spray with water as you go so the paper does not blow away. Then shovel on at least two inches of compost if you have it, or cover with other organic material like wood chips or straw. The paper will shade out the grass and kill it, and the dead grass will decompose and improve the soil. You can either wait for this to happen (a good idea if the soil was poor to start with), or plant directly into the paper/compost area by cutting plant-sized circles into the paper/compost. Voila! Instant bed with no tilling or sod removal and you have improved the soil while saving yourself a lot of work.”
Choose Plants Wisely for Your Beds
While you might have some very specific ideas about the types of plants you want in your garden, it’s important to keep in mind that your garden is just one corner of the larger ecosystem of the area you’re living in. Selecting plants with the local flora and fauna in mind can make for a much easier time and a much healthier garden.
“Plants that are native to your area will attract more native pollinators and may require less water and work than plants that originated on the other side of the world,” said Dr. Anderson. “There are lots of websites that will help you choose plants that suit your locale and will thrive without constant attention and intervention.”
Don’t Skip the Upkeep
If you really want to maintain a great yard throughout the summer, don’t neglect the day-to-day upkeep that will keep your garden and lawn healthy until winter rolls around.
“Regular lawn maintenance and mowing will ensure your grass is green and lush throughout the year,” Williamson said. “Do the same with your foliage; pruning, trimming and watering will do wonders to the yard’s aesthetic. It will also ward off unwanted pests and other insects.”
Whether you’re living in a desert climate where water is scarce or you’re barely able to find a day for working outside because of all the rain, being strategic about your water use can pay dividends beyond just conservation.
“Eliminate the need to water too often by caring for your soil,” said Dr. Anderson. “Soil with sufficient organic matter retains water better and also supports deep root growth so that plants can use available water more efficiently. When you have to water grass, water deeply and less often rather than shallowly every day. Choose native plants that will need less watering than alien species. For beds, install soaker hoses or drip irrigation to target water to the ground, not the foliage, which reduces evaporation and diseases that can come with wet leaves.”
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