What happens when lawns are replaced with thriving plants? #1

The people responsible for the change win awards.

A few years ago, mainly due to the efforts of one resident, a homeowner’s association in Colorado organized residents to change how they landscaped. The neighborhood converted 250 private gardens from lawn and pruned shrubbery to native plants, replaced turf grass in sidewalk strips with alternative plantings, and added vegetable gardens. After making this change in their own neighborhood, community leaders engaged in advocacy work to persuade homeowners in other neighborhoods to do the same thing.

These leaders, through their homeowner’s association, won no fewer than three awards, including one from a wildlife-focused non-profit, one from a non-profit that focuses on conserving water, and one from Colorado’s state government.

The property owners see tremendous savings on their water bills.

It was actually the water issue – not concerns about wildlife or about sustainability in general – that first prompted these local leaders to do something about their landscaping. By replacing lawn with less thirsty plants, and by watering the remaining lawn through more efficient methods, the homeowner’s association reduced their water usage by a staggering 15 million gallons per year. The residents of the neighborhood, who had been splitting the total cost of the community’s water usage, saw dramatic savings on their utility bills. Plus, the local water company rewarded them with additional rebates for their conservation efforts.

Property values go up.

After slashing water consumption and changing the look of the neighborhood by adding vegetable gardens and native plants, the homeowner’s association noticed that the sale prices of condos in the community were going up. And this was not a coincidence or an unusual experience: a community in Illinois called Prairie Crossing was designed from the outset to incorporate native plantings and other lush vegetation, and people there remain in their homes for much longer than is typical in other communities. When residents of Prairie Crossing do move, it’s often just to a bigger or smaller house in the community as their life circumstances change.


Non-lawn alternatives are still unfamiliar to many people, prompting fears about the negative impacts they may bring about. But in reality, people who have given up their lawns find that they enjoy huge financial savings, a more beautiful community, and broad appreciation for their efforts.

What happens when lawns are replaced with thriving plants? #1

What should we do with water?

The availability of clean water is becoming an increasingly pressing problem in many parts of the world, including some areas of the United States. We need water; we also need to be mindful about how we use it.

Many practices in conventional American yards are not water-wise. We plant grasses that are not suited to our local climate and, in some parts of the US, shower them with twice as much water as is used for the people in our household. We do this sprinkling un-carefully, letting the water splash onto sidewalks or evaporate directly into the air. We point our downspouts onto paved surfaces, diverting precious rainwater to areas where it will do nothing but contribute to street flooding.

Permaculture practitioners have five better ideas for how we should manage water on our land.

Slow it. As water comes onto our property, we want to slow it down. If we let it move quickly, this valuable resource will continue straight on to someone else’s property, likely taking good soil with it. Our loss, our neighbor’s gain. It is to our benefit to hold on to as much free water as we can.

Spread it. Water is a powerful force, and too much of it in one place can lead to unhelpful outcomes. We want to spread out the water instead of letting it pool in one area. We can do this by observing how water moves on our property, and then making small adjustments to change its flow.

Sink it. The best place to put water is in the soil. Soil can hold a tremendous amount of water, and when water is in soil, it is a beneficial, rather than a destructive, force. Once we have slowed the water down and spread it out, it will naturally seek to move downwards. This is good.

Store it. Of course, it is also handy to store water in a form that we can access whenever we need it. Rain barrels or cisterns can hold many gallons of water, fill quickly in even a modest rainstorm, and provide us with a source of water in times when rain doesn’t come.

Share it. In line with the three pillars of permaculture – Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share – we are not slowing, spreading, sinking, and storing water in order to hoard it for ourselves. If the water is in a tank, we can and should share it with those who don’t have enough. If the water is in our soil, we can share the produce that grows from it. There is enough water to go around, if we use it mindfully to take care of ourselves and others.


As you follow these principles, be aware of your water rights. In some parts of the United States, it is not legal to divert water from following its natural course downhill onto your neighbor’s property. If you live in the western part of the country, you may be limited to only small changes in your water management, or you may need to work with neighbors to agree on how water will be shared.

What should we do with water?

What is xeriscaping?

Xeriscaping (from the Greek xeros, meaning dry) is an approach to gardening that specifically focuses on conserving water.

Xeriscaping is growing in popularity in the Southwest, where water is scarce and native plants have evolved to tolerate long dry periods. These drought-resistant species include cacti, as well as other plants with adaptations like waxy coatings on their leaves to reduce evaporation, spines to deter thirsty animals, and wide-reaching root systems that can absorb lots of water in a rare rainstorm.

Xeriscaping is about more than just choosing plants that need little water, though. It can also include arranging those plants in and around swales that funnel rainfall towards roots, making maximum use of the water that’s available. Water can also be channeled into rain barrels or cisterns – people in the driest regions of the country, receiving just 2 inches of rain per year, can store over 1,000 gallons of free water by collecting what falls on their roof.

While Wisconsin does have a native cactus, xeriscaping doesn’t necessarily mean limiting yourself to the plants with the lowest water requirements. Instead, it means planting species that can thrive with just the amount of water that comes to them naturally as rain – in other words, planting natives! We create the need for watering when we fill our yards with non-native species adapted to rainier regions.

What is xeriscaping?

What is the best way to water plants? (How much?)

As explained in the last post, an “average” plant needs an inch of water a week. But how should that be distributed across the seven days?

In general, plants prefer to receive water in big doses, rather than in little sprinkles. Don’t worry that the plant won’t be able to absorb and store a lot of water all at once – a mature tree can take up hundreds of gallons in a heavy rainstorm.

A good rule of thumb is to water the plant, wait a minute for the water to sink into the ground, then water the plant again. If the second dollop of water isn’t quite fully absorbed after another minute, then the soil is well-saturated, and the plant has plenty of water.

If a rainfall provides half an inch of water, there’s no need to rush out and provide the other half-inch right away. But it’s not necessary to water a little bit every day, either. Plants are more than capable of dealing with a somewhat irregular watering schedule.

What is the best way to water plants? (How much?)

What is the best way to water plants? (How often?)

Plants should be watered when they need it.

How do you know when a plant needs water? An “average” plant needs an inch of water a week. Of course, some plants can get by on much less, while others need to be constantly wet. Knowing the plants in your garden and the different site conditions they require will tell you how much water they need each week.

But that is not how much you should water them. If it has rained recently – or if it’s expected to rain soon – subtract the amount of rainfall from the amount of supplemental water you give your plants. Your local weather forecast may tell you how much rain your area has received lately. Or, you can set an empty tin can in the ground as a simple rain gauge. (You can also use the can to track how much supplemental water you’ve given nearby plants.)

If your plants are watered automatically by a timer system, be sure to turn the system off when the plants have already received enough water from rainfall! Too much water can harm a plant, just the same as too little.

What is the best way to water plants? (How often?)

What is the best way to water plants? (What time?)

The best time to water plants is in the morning or evening, rather than in the middle of the day. There are two reasons for this.

First, it is usually warmer in the middle of the day, leading to more evaporation. Watering in the cool morning or evening means that more of the water will stay on the soil, rather than moving into the air.

Second, as mentioned in the previous post, plants don’t like their leaves to be wet. In the morning and evening, plants are often wet anyway because of dew. Watering around noon leaves the plants soggy for more of the day, increasing the risk of disease.

One way to water on a schedule is to use a sprinkler system on a timer. The next post will cover a downside of that approach.

What is the best way to water plants? (What time?)

What is the best way to water plants? (Where?)

We often think of watering plants by pouring water over the top of them. Plants, in fact, don’t like this. They need water at their roots, and can be harmed by water on their leaves, since the dampness can invite mold and other diseases.

But wait. Aren’t plants watered in nature by rain falling on top of them? Yes! Plants have evolved to deal with this by developing various strategies for moving water off their leaves and down to their roots. These strategies also work pretty well when the water is coming from a hose, sprinkler, or watering can, rather than from rain.

But this is a case where we can do better than nature. We can water plants directly at their roots, keeping their leaves dry.

It might seem intuitive to do this by watering at the base of the plant’s stem, but that’s not quite what the plant wants. When plants water themselves by moving rain off their leaves and down to their roots, that water doesn’t end up next to the plant’s stem. It falls along a circle defined by the plant’s outermost leaves. That circle is called the drip line.

Pouring water on the ground in a circle that approximates a plant’s drip line is the most efficient way of putting the water where the plant can absorb it.

What is the best way to water plants? (Where?)

What is the best way to water plants? (With what?)

The last two posts were on the topic of water. As we move into the hottest part of the year, this post continues that theme, kicking off a five-part series on how to effectively water plants.

“What should you water plants with?” may seem like a silly question. With water, of course! But not all water is the same.

Typically, we water our plants by connecting a hose or sprinkler system to a spigot and drawing from municipal water supplies. This water has chemicals added to it, including chlorine to kill germs and fluoride to promote dental health. Whether these chemicals are actually good for people is still a topic of debate, but it is generally agreed they are not good for plants.

Plants do better with chemical-free rainwater, which also happens to be less expensive than municipal water. All we need to do is catch and store the rain as it arrives. A single rain barrel, connected to a downspout, can collect many gallons of water in a single rainfall.

Over the next few weeks, That Blog will cover other aspects of how to water plants, and then look at plants that may not need to be watered at all.

What is the best way to water plants? (With what?)

What is a watershed?

watershed is a geographical area in which all the water – from rainfall, snowmelt, garden hoses, or anything else – finds its way to a particular river, creek, or lake.

Everyone lives in a watershed. If you live in Madison, you might be in the watershed of Lake Mendota, Pheasant Branch Creek, or the Upper Sugar River.

Those water bodies, of course, drain into other water bodies. Watersheds are nested inside bigger watersheds. All the watersheds in and around Madison ultimately flow into the Mississippi River, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

What this means is that what we put into our water in Madison affects a lot of people who live downstream from us.

Many residents of Madison don’t know that the storm drains along our roads connect directly to our lakes and rivers. The water is not filtered or cleaned along the way. So, if we want to keep our local waterways – and the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico – clean and safe, we need to be careful about what’s flowing down our streets and driveways.

One reason that Madison sends streetsweepers around is to clean up the leaves, dirt, and other gunk that would otherwise wash down the storm drains. But doing this task with streetsweepers costs taxpayers moneys and consumes fossil fuels. If homeowners swept their curb lines manually – especially before rainstorms – we could keep our rivers and lakes clean in a way that is quieter, cheaper, and more environmentally-friendly.

What is a watershed?

What is a greywater system?

In plumbing terms, there are three kinds of water. White water is the water that comes in through your faucet and is safe for drinking. Black water is the water that goes out through your toilet, and isn’t safe for anything. And grey water is the water that goes down your drains after being used to wash your dishes, your clothes, or yourself. While you shouldn’t drink it, it’s still good for many other purposes.

For example, some buildings route the greywater that goes down the bathroom sink into the toilet tank. Then, the toilet can be flushed with water that was already used for washing hands, instead of with clean, drinkable water.

Similarly, water that’s been cycled through the dishwasher or washing machine can be used to water plants. Some people have plumbed their houses to drain this water into a rain garden or similar system. The water then gets filtered by the plants, instead of being filtered by a municipal system on the taxpayer’s dime.

Greywater systems are a great way to use resources more efficiently, conserving water and saving money. Unfortunately, they are not legal in many cities, because health departments worry that the slightly-dirty water could transmit disease if drained into yards instead of into pipes.

These fears are largely unfounded. If a greywater system is set up properly, and care is taken to not put toxic soaps or other harmful substances into the system, then recycling greywater is safe for people and the environment.

As water shortages become more severe, greywater systems are likely to become legal in more places. Citizens can ask their elected officials to not delay legalizing this simple way of using resources more wisely.

What is a greywater system?