Chapter 10

Outdoor Spaces

Year-round maintenance made easy

Creating a Sustainable Showcase

Deck and green lawn

Green is the goal when it comes to lawns and landscaping, and it can also drive plans for design, planting and maintenance. You’d expect nothing less, and you can actually get a lot more with a sustainable approach to outdoor spaces.

A yard or garden of any size can be a sustainable showplace when you trim water use, redesign for natural beauty and find new ways to care for your back 40 or quarter-acre. Harvest your favorites from our tips for a greener, greater outdoors.


Decks and Patios: Going Green Outdoors

Wood deck being constructedA well-designed outdoor room adds to the enjoyment and value of your home, and the right scale and materials choices also make it a sustainable haven. A patio or deck can serve as the base for comfortable, flexible outdoor living, and there are great green options for either outdoor project.

A paver patio is a simple DIY project, and a perfect fit if you’ve got a slope-free leisure space right outside your back door. Paver options include earth-friendly cement blends, natural stone, brick (either new or reclaimed) and even recycled plastics, and all are installed in a bed of sand.

Whatever paver material you choose, the key to a beautiful, long-lasting project result is proper preparation. Start by carefully assessing the space and planning for necessary drainage, then excavate, level and line the patio area for stable, trip-proof results. Preparation counts! Rush through this step and you’ll invite maintenance hassles like loose pavers and weedy intruders in an otherwise easy-care outdoor space.

Decks make the grade for outdoor spaces where a grade or slope that makes a flat patio surface impossible. A deck requires vertical space for posts, beams and joists to be built, whether it’s a few feet or a few levels’-worth of deck space. And speaking of levels, the number of levels impacts the sustainability of your outdoor room: multiple levels are attractive, but each one increases maintenance chores while reducing the amount of usable space since furniture can’t be placed near step-downs.

Decking material is your other sustainability consideration. Favorite natural woods like cedar and redwood are green options when locally and sustainably forested, and are pest-resistant. Just remember that they require periodic finishing and sealing to retain their beauty and fend off rot. The greener approach is to choose a composite decking material. These easy-care blends of wood and recycled plastic are available in a range of colors and styles that imitate both classic and exotic wood varieties. Although composites are more expensive than natural wood, the marginal cost difference is offset by the material’s maintenance-free features. Whichever deck surfacing you select, use pressure-treated lumber for the major structural elements and stainless steel deck screws for strong, rust-free fastening.

Landscaping: Getting Off the Lawn!

There’s no way around it—lush, green landscaping requires care and a steady supply of water. The good news is that you can adjust your outdoor plans for attractive results that combine curb appeal, color and affordable maintenance. Consider these easy ways to make a green space even greener.


Desert landscape

Reduce turf

The more lawn you have, the more water and time needed to maintain it. Transform turf from the majority of your landscaping to a design element by reducing the area devoted to it. You’ll then be able to irrigate more efficiently and with a whole lot less water.

Work topography to advantage

When designing your landscape scheme, take into account the existing vegetation and topography of areas you plan to plant. Proper drainage is a positive, but extensive runoff can cause problems elsewhere on your property. Correct any grading issues that send water toward your home and other structures, and plant in phases to control irrigation patterns.

Create a xeriscape

Amp up natural beauty while ticking down water use with a xeriscape approach to landscaping. This use of indigenous, drought-tolerant plantings makes maintenance easy, provides a creative show of color, and attracts birds and butterflies to your outdoor habitat.


Drip irrigations

Irrigate with WaterSense

Work with a WaterSense-certified irrigation professional to design a sprinkler system that keeps things green while reducing water use by 15 percent or about 9,000 gallons annually. WaterSense-labeled irrigation controllers bring extra smarts to your yard and garden, acting like thermostats through use of local weather and landscape conditions to tailor watering to actual needs—a big water savings over traditional clock-set irrigation controllers.

Maintain watering systems

A lot of valuable water is lost when irrigation systems and components get out of tune. Don’t rely on smart controllers to do all the work. Get the most out of your system by keeping an eye out for straying sprays, leaks and clogs, and repair them immediately.

Improve soil

Healthy soil absorbs and stores water for the benefit of your landscaping. Soil conditions can vary greatly within a backyard, so do some soil sampling and testing to find out which areas need a little help, and amend those zones with compost or sphagnum peat moss before planting or installing an irrigation system.

eliminate weedsUse green weed control

Weeds don’t have to be part of a natural approach to landscaping. Keep them at bay by covering any areas of bare soil with plants, wood chips or organic mulch. Spreading corn gluten meal over your yard in spring will prevent weeds from sprouting, and a dose of horticultural vinegar puts a stop to weeds attempting to grow through sidewalk and patio cracks.

Prune and maintain

Properly pruned, fertilized and weeded plants look better and need less water. And plantings that are well-suited to their environment will grow beautifully without the need for pesticides and other undesirable chemicals.

Rainwater & Composting: Using the land to go green

Bring a new dimension of greenness to your yard by recycling resources that nature already provides. Rainwater can be captured for use during dry spells, and a simple composting system transforms kitchen and yard waste into a nutrient-rich soil amendment for healthier plants.

Recycling rainwater for irrigation is a time-honored means of keeping landscaping green during water shortages and high-demand seasons. All you need for rainwater collection success are five elements:


Rainbarrel and spout


1. A rainwater collection area

Also known as your roof! Remember that the rainwater traveling from your roof may pick up souvenirs of that material along the way (such as toxins sometimes leached from asphalt shingles), so it should be regarded as nonpotable and kept away from vegetable and herb gardens.

2. A way to transport rainwater to storage

Clean, clear gutters and downspouts deliver direct to your rain barrel. Gutters with soldered seams are typically older and may leach lead, so gutters with riveted seams are preferred in water collection.


fix lawn problems


3. A rainwater storage barrel

We love the range of smart, stylish rainwater collection solutions now available to homeowners. Made of toxin-free resin, fiberglass or concrete, today’s rain barrels have thick walls to withstand weather extremes and opacity to inhibit algae growth. Rain barrel capacity is usually around 50 gallons, so if you need to store a lot more water, consider rainwater collection bladders that can be stowed underneath a deck. Whatever collection solution you choose, follow instructions for safe placement and secure covering to prevent drowning threats to children, pets and local wildlife.

4. A water distribution system

Rain storage barrels typically come equipped with a spigot for connection to a hose or garden soaker. Storage bladders have a pump attached, and can even power a yard sprinkler.

5. Make water work twice

Another source for garden watering is greywater, the washwater left over from dishwashing, laundry and bathing. Greywater recycling requires a more sophisticated filtration system, and its use may be restricted in your area, so check with your local water resources office for guidance.

Creating Your Own Compost Blend

Healthy soil holds moisture and delivers the nutrients plants need, and an occasional dose of compost keeps it that way. You can make your own compost blend by collecting the organic “trash” from your kitchen and yard and recycling it into a soil amendment that boosts plant growth and prevents disease.

Start by building or buying a compost bin to corral contributions and foster the environment needed to transform organic scraps into a mixture that looks and feels like fertile garden soil. To get there, you’ll need nitrogen, carbon, moisture and oxygen. Nitrogen-rich ingredients include grass clippings, livestock manure, vegetable waste, fruit scraps and coffee grounds, and you can get carbon into the mix with dried leaves and twigs. Moisture can come from rainfall or occasional light watering of the compost pile, and turning the pile with a pitchfork or spade provides the oxygen needed for decomposition. The more frequently you turn the pile, the faster it’ll turn into garden-ready compost.

What shouldn’t be in your compost mix? Anything that carries disease, like dog or cat droppings, meat scraps or infected plant matter. And don’t be tempted to tamp down the contents of your compost bin, because the microbes there need air to do their work. Just be patient, because space for additions will come naturally: a compost pile can shrink up to 70 percent as contents break down into a nutrient-rich mixture.


Woman creating compost for a garden