Living in a sustainable home doesn’t stop at the front door — or the back door, for that matter. But, in an effort to achieve a zero-waste home, a lot of people forget the outdoors. And that’s a big oversight, because this area — particularly the backyard — is filled with opportunities to be more eco-friendly, from your lawn and garden to the building materials used in your deck.
5 Zero-Waste Gardening and Backyard Tips
With that in mind: here are five of the best zero-waste ideas for outfitting the eco-friendly yard of your dreams.
Use sustainable decking materials.
A deck for your zero-waste backyard has several options for lumber materials: sustainably sourced wood, post-consumer recycled plastics or a composite of both. Whatever option you choose, source your lumber from as close to home as possible for the lowest carbon footprint.
A Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo guarantees that your lumber was sourced with forest conservation in mind. An “FSC 100%” label means the product is made from virgin materials from an FSC-certified forest. A “FSC Mix” label means the product is a blend of recycled materials and virgin materials. This excellent infographic from BuildingGreen explains what each forestry label from FSC (as well as Sustainable Forestry Initiative) means.
Post-consumer recycled plastics are another decking material option. A report from the Health Building Network recommends you use plastic lumber made from high-density and low-density polyethylene (HDPE and LDPE), high recycled content, and resins sourced from local recycling programs. Avoid plastics made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which Greenpeace calls “the most environmentally damaging plastic.” PVC releases chlorine-based toxins, as they pose health and environmental risks.
Another sustainable decking option combines both wood and plastic products. A composite brand, like the brand Trex, uses a mix of reclaimed sawdust and recycled plastic film from plastic bags and wrappers.
Plant native perennials, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees
You may not think of your own backyard as part of an ecosystem. But it is home to trees, plants, dirt, animals and insects — and, of course, you. Humans have lost 150 million acres of habitat to urbanization in the continental U.S., the Audubon Society notes. The choices that we make in our own backyards matter, which is why you should consider planting native perennials and wildflowers in your zero-waste backyard.
“A plant is considered native if it has occurred naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat without human interaction,” according to the National Wildlife Federation. The native plants in your region supported flora and fauna that lived there before and still do now.
Exotic species are the opposite of native species. Exotic species, which originate in other regions and ecosystems, may be sold at nurseries or available online. These plants can replace food that insects and animals rely upon, including pollinators such as bees. Alien species can even overtake native species in growth.
If you live in the U.S., you can search native species to your area on the Audubon Society website. It will even tell you what birds your new shrubs may attract!
Make your own mulch
Not many things in life can be had for free — but one thing that is, is mulch.
Mulch is the organic material that is laid atop the soil. A layer of mulch is like a protective covering to keep the soil nutritious and robust. Nutritious soil keeps plants healthy, retains moisture and reduces weed growth. Home improvement expert Bob Vila explains that organic mulch can be composed of shredded leaves, cut grass, twigs, and wood chips from branches.
Stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s sell organic mulch bagged in plastics, which occasionally contain dyes. Fortunately, mulch is created naturally every time leaves fall from the trees and decompose on the ground. You can create your own organic mulch pile anywhere in your zero-waste backyard and add materials to it yourself after yard work.
For example, mulch is commonly made from dried, fallen leaves. A lawnmower with a mulching feature will shred the leaves for you, which you can allow to decompose in a mulch pile or add the mulch to a garden immediately. (When applying mulch to your garden, make the layer 2 to 4 inches thick.) Organic mulch can take anywhere from a few months to a few years to fully decompose, depending on the material. The good news is that once you apply organic mulch to your garden beds, you can let it be.
You might be wondering if compost is the same thing as organic mulch. The answer is no: Compost is mixed with soil, while mulch is layered atop the soil. Fruit and vegetable scraps, nutshells, and coffee grounds can all be composted. While mulch can lay in a pile in the yard unattended until you need to draw from it, a compost pile or compost bin requires more attention to keep the composting process on track. The Environmental Protection Agency explains how to compost from home, either outdoors or indoors, with a worm composting bin.
Opt for an electric lawn mower
One more reason to plant a large garden? Not only are gardens beautiful to look at, but they also do not need to be mowed or weed whacked. Nearly a decade ago, the EPA tightened fuel emissions on small machines, including weed whackers and lawn mowers. There are more environmentally friendly gas mowers available today.
But your best option may be an electric lawn mower containing a lithium battery, such as Greenworks’ 40V cordless 16” lawn mower. Experts at Consumer Reports say electric mowers can run for 20 to 40 minutes on a single charge (the Greenworks mower comes with a charger), and you’re likely to recoup their cost from not paying for engine maintenance or fuel. And for those of you who live in snowy climates, there are electric snow blowers on the market, too.
Keep weeds under control naturally
Weeds can be a nuisance in any backyard, which can lead gardeners to weedwacking or herbicides (weed killers). Consider planting ground cover plants as an easier alternative. Plants For A Future, a British charity dedicated to sustainable horticulture, recommends ground cover plants to prevent weeds from germinating and existing weeds from growing into your garden. Ground cover plants can include perennials like hostas and edible plants like thyme, garlic cress and oregano.
Another option for natural weed control is corn gluten meal. According to the sustainable living site Eartheasy, corn gluten meal is a byproduct of the corn milling process that is fed to pigs. But it may also prevent the roots of weeds from taking hold. You can use it to prevent weeds in your garden without killing existing ones.