A 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.
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.
A tree spade is a piece of heavy equipment designed to dig up and move large trees.
Small trees can be dug up and moved by hand, but what is a property owner to do when a mature tree is growing into power lines, standing in the way of a construction project, or casting shade on an area the property owner would prefer to be sunny? Many would respond by pruning the tree, or by destroying it entirely. Often, a better solution is to move it.
Tree spades were invented in the 1800s, and early versions could move trees more than 30 feet tall. Modern-day tree spade operators say they have moved trees well over 100 feet tall, as well as trees with trunks more than 5 feet across.
Tree spade operators don’t really recommend moving trees that large, though, since survival of the transplanted tree depends on whether enough of its root system can be picked up and moved with it. A tree’s root system can be larger than the aboveground part of the tree, but even the biggest tree spades can only dig up a chunk of soil about 7 feet across and 4 feet deep.
Medium-sized trees, though, can be successfully moved, and it is not even very expensive to do so – especially when compared against the cost of destroying the tree, including the loss of the services that a relocated tree could have gone on providing for many years.
By creatively rearranging our yards, we can have room for everything we want, while respecting the needs of many species.
The average American spends about 25 hours a year mowing their lawn. That’s about 25 mowings that take 1 hour each.
Of course, this is an average that includes Americans in southern Florida who mow their lawns year-round, and Americans in northern states who mow their lawns during a much shorter growing season.
In Levittown, one of America’s first suburbs, homeowners were required to sign contracts saying they would mow their lawns at least once a week between April 15 and November 15 – dates that line up with Levittown’s growing season. This meant that the homeowners had to mow their lawns at least 35 times a year.
Madison’s growing season is 83 days shorter than Levittown’s, lasting only from mid-May through late September. And, Madison has no requirement that homeowners have or mow a lawn. Yet, some in Madison choose to mow their lawns from mid-March through early December.
Mowing causes grass to grow faster. In other words, the more you mow your lawn, the more you have to mow your lawn.
Grass that is unmown, however, grows for a few weeks in the late spring, reaches a height of about two feet, and then dies back. If we tolerate tall grass for a couple of months in the summer, we can have short grass the rest of the year by mowing just once in the early fall.
Finally, we can plant slow-growing “eco-grasses” that remain short year-round with just two or three annual mowings – or we can seed our yards with dwarf mondo grass, a cultivar that resembles more common lawn grasses but never grows more than three inches tall.
Snow and ice are a fact of life in Wisconsin. Shoveling is hard work, snowblowers make a lot of pollution – what is a homeowner to do?
Some deal with the problem by spreading salt on their sidewalks and driveways. While this is an effective practice that takes advantage of natural processes to efficiently solve a problem, many people greatly overestimate the amount of salt that is needed to accomplish the task at hand.
Just 1 to 3 cups of salt (approximately 1 to 3 pounds) per 1,000 square feet is plenty, says Dane County’s My Fair Lakes program. Property owners can use even less salt if they wet it before tossing it into the snow.
Using an entire 50-pound bag of salt, on the other hand, can pollute 10,000 gallons of water when it eventually washes down the storm drains and into the lakes. It also quickly becomes expensive for the homeowner, and the excessive salt can cause significant damage to pavement.
While salt is effective at melting snow, it’s not meant to be the sole solution to snow removal. After salting the driveway or sidewalk, wait 15 to 30 minutes. During this time, the salt will melt its way down to the pavement and unfreeze the snow from the ground. You’ll then be able to easily shovel it, resulting in a clear driveway or sidewalk.
Finally, remember to check that the type of salt you’re using is appropriate for conditions. Each kind of salt is only effective down to a certain temperature; if it’s colder than that, the snow won’t melt no matter how much salt you use.
Use and value renewable resources and services.
Conspicuous consumption is a status symbol in America. By buying things and then throwing them away, we show that we’re rich enough to be wasteful. We do this with fossil fuels, with disposable products, and even with our time.
Lawns play into this value system. Historically, their purpose was to show that the property owner was so wealthy, he could afford to spend time and money preventing his land from producing anything.
Now, this lifestyle has reached its limits. Our wastefulness has impoverished the Earth to the point where it’s no longer possible to live that way. People who continue to waste are seen as behaving selfishly in a world that no longer has enough for everyone.
Today, most people value living more lightly on the land. Some ways that we do this are by driving more efficient cars, reducing food waste, drinking from reusable water bottles instead of disposable plastic ones, and taking shorter showers.
Some other easy ways to consume less are by changing what we do in our yards. For example:
- Gas and electric lawnmowers depend on non-renewable fossil fuels. Unmotorized mowers rely on human labor, which is renewable and carbon-neutral. Better yet, we can just let the plants grow.
- Commercial fertilizer is artificially produced through an environmentally-damaging process. Grass clippings, fallen leaves, and animal droppings contain the same nutrients as commercial fertilizer, and are endlessly renewable.
- Yard work takes a lot of time. Gardening with native plants that are adapted to the area and can take care of all their own needs allows us to spend our time on other things.
Using free, abundant, renewable resources makes us look like smart people who care about our neighbors and our planet. Living less materialistically is now a respected choice that increases our status in the eyes of others.
No, it isn’t a garden that produces the ingredients for a baked pasta dish. Rather, it’s a type of raised bed that is built in layers, like a lasagna.
The first step in building a lasagna garden is to choose a good location and put down a layer of sheet mulch.
Next, add layers of organic material, such as compost, grass clippings, fallen leaves, or old newspaper. A frame can help to hold the materials together, but isn’t strictly necessary.
A lasagna garden should stand eight to twelve inches above ground level. It needs to be built higher than this, though, because the materials will settle a lot as they break down into soil.
As with a Hugelkultur bed, a new lasagna garden should be watered thoroughly, to help the materials break down and to provide plenty of moisture for the soil. Once the lasagna garden is established, it will hold moisture well and need little additional watering.
Late summer or early fall is a great time to build a lasagna garden. Plenty of yard waste is available for building up the layers. The material will break down over the winter, and will be watered in the spring by rain and snowmelt. Then, it will be ready for planting!
Seeds and seedlings can be planted directly into the lasagna garden. A final layer of mulch – such as straw or wood chips – will help prevent unwanted plants from inviting themselves in.