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Reduce Waste in the Garden

Caring for all the green and growing things in your yard can have a big effect on how much waste your household creates. From grass clippings and leaves to pesticides and water, the eco-impact of your lawn and garden can be significant.

Your lawn and garden's effect on the environment

Your lawn and garden can add a lot to what your household needs to discard and recycle. Yard waste and food waste make up 13 percent of what's thrown into the garbage in Minnesota — nearly 400,00 tons in 1998. Composting sites around the state took in an additional 400,000 tons. (Yard waste and tree waste have been banned from garbage here in Minnesota since 1992.)

And when it comes to lawn and garden wastes, "waste" goes beyond what you throw away.

  • Careless use of fertilizers with high phosphorus and nitrogen content creates nutrient-rich runoff, polluting nearby watersheds — lakes, streams, wetlands, and rivers.
  • Pesticides—which include insecticides, herbicides and fungicides—are used to control weeds, insects and other pests. These chemicals are toxic to some degree and can pose a threat to people and pets if overused or carelessly applied. They can also kill beneficial earthworms and organisms, disrupting the ecological balance of your lawn.

Cut down on yard waste. Healthy lawns and gardens can be maintained in ways that produce less waste, and you can easily manage what's left by composting at home. A healthy lawn and garden can naturally resist weeds and pests. You don't need a lot of chemicals to keep your yard looking green. Learn to read the signs and find out what's really wrong with your plants. Solve your lawn and garden problems by applying some brainpower before you use pesticides and herbicides.

Need more time? Mow, fertilize, water and rake less

You don't have to spend so much time maintaining your lawn. Sound incredible? Mowing, watering, fertilizing and raking it less and using no pesticides may be your way to a healthy, environmentally friendly yard.

  • Mow only enough to keep your grass length at 3 to 3½ inches high. Mowing your grass to the proper height is the single-most important thing you can do to improve the health of your lawn.
  • When you mow, don't rake clippings — leave them on the lawn instead. However, be sure to sweep up your sidewalk, driveway or street so clippings don't pollute nearby lakes or streams.
  • Get your soil tested to determine the right mix of fertilizer for your lawn. You may need less than you think.
  • Water only when it hasn't rained for seven days. The best time to water is in the early morning hours before 10 a.m. Grasses naturally grow slower in the summer, so brown grass usually means your lawn is just dormant, not dead.
  • Weeds can tell you something about what's wrong with your lawn. Take time to identify your weeds and treat them appropriately to strengthen and improve your lawn. A weed-free lawn is not necessarily a healthy one.
line Sweep up grass clippings

By taking time today to figure out exactly what your lawn needs, you will help keep it healthy in the future. This will decrease the amount of time and money you will have to care for it tomorrow. By keeping your grass length longer, the roots of your grass go deeper and can reach more water during dry periods. You save water. money, and time. Longer grass also creates more shade and makes it harder for weeds to get established in your lawn. By leaving your clippings on the lawn you will fertilize your grass throughout the summer. Control weeds by interrupting the cycle of seed production instead of relying on chemicals. Dig weeds up or cut off flowering stalks.

Phosphorus and Minnesota lawns

Fertilizers, leaves, and grass clippings from lawns contribute to phosphorus problems in our lakes and rivers. Homeowners can protect water quality by using lawn fertilizers that do not contain phosphorus—look for a middle number of zero—and sweeping up grass clippings from streets and sidewalks after mowing and trimming.

Restricting the use of phosphorus

Routine phosphorus use on lawns is now restricted statewide. Starting in 2005, by law, Minnesota homeowners cannot use fertilizer containing phosphorus, with exemptions when establishing new lawns or when a soil test indicates a need.

Minnesota soils are naturally high in phosphorus, so our lawns usually don't need any extra.

PDF - 200KbPhosphorus fact sheet (250Kb)

Minnesota law bans the use of phosphorus fertilizer on most lawns. When shopping for your turf needs, be sure to buy a brand that has a middle number of zero.

Zero Phosphorus

Cutting the grass? Trim air and noise pollution, too!

Gasoline-powered lawn mowers contribute more than their fair share to air pollution. A new mower would emit 93 times more pollution on a gallon-per-gallon basis than a brand-new automobile; older models have even fewer emission controls, may run on messy oil/gas fuel mixes, and are generally overdue for a tune-up. And then there's the noise—the little engine that could... drive you crazy!

Electric mowers offer many benefits over their gas counterparts. They produce less air pollution, and those emissions are more easily controlled at a single source: the electric utility. Electrics are quieter, lighter-weight for better maneuverability, and with no fuel they are cleaner to store and easier to maintain. Rechargeable battery pack models give you a wide range, but corded versions may be your speed.

PDF 150KbCordless Electric Mowers (2006)

Push the envelope: the reel deal. For eliminating pollution, you can't beat today's push mower. Modern "reel mowers" are lightweight and easy to store, with a power source that's readily renewable—you (or the kids). A final note: Sweat is not a pollutant that we're worried about...and the exercise will do you some good.


line Electric lawn mower

An old idea Mower than you wanted to know ?
While the earliest "lawn mowers" were likely sheep or cattle...
* The first mechanical version was designed and patented during the 1830s in England. * Motorized mowers first appeared in the 1890s. * Electric lawn mowers were first used in the 1920s.
source: King Features Syndicate

Compost yard waste and other organics

Composting is nature's way of recycling organic mateials. Items that readily decompose – leaves, grass and vegetable scraps – are broken down by bacteria and other organisms to provide nutrients and structure to the soil. Composting provides a free soil amendment that you can use to keep your lawn and garden healthy.
Keep your yard wastes out of the trash! It's against the law in Minnesota to mix in yard wastes with your regular garbage.

  • Composting should be done in a container or structure, either homemade or store-bought, which can be made from wire, bricks or wood. It should be at least three feet deep and five feet across.
  • Put equal parts of "browns" (carbons) and "greens" (nitrogen-rich) into your bin. Brown materials can be leaves, straw, cornstalks and sawdust. Green materials include grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps and clippings from your garden. Do not put meat, fats, oils, dairy products or pet feces in your bin.
  • Turn your compost frequently to get the pile to decompose quickly and with little odor. Keep your compost bin's contents moist, like a damp sponge.

Benefits: Backyard composting reduces the amount of waste you create in your yard and kitchen by converting it into a useable soil amendment. Composting saves you time — no more bagging and hauling leaves and grass clippings to the county compost site or paying someone to pick up your yard waste. In Minnesota, it is illegal to mix your yard waste with the trash. Adding compost to the soil increases its organic matter, which in turn enhances the soil's ability to hold nutrients and water. Using compost in your lawn and garden reduces dependence on fertilizers. Compost also makes good mulch for protecting and establishing new plants.

Visit our section on composting — How to Compost your Organic Waste — for more details on composting at home. It's an easy way to reduce your family's trash by hundreds of pounds each year.

Do you need to fertilize your lawn? A soil test will tell you more.
About U of M Extension

Weed between the lines
       What are your weeds telling you?
Hawkweed Plantain
Moss Creeping Charlie Dandelions
May indicate that the
site is too shady or wet
for grass to survive.
May indicate that the site
is too shady or the soil
drains poorly.
May indicate that
the grass is too thin.
May indicate that the
soil is low in nutrients.
May indicate that
the soil is compacted
or drains poorly.

source: The Green Thumb Project (Duluth, Minn.)

Double-duty landscaping

When you consider all of the work you put into landscaping your yard, it just makes sense to put that landscaping to work for you. Your garden and landscaping can provide habitat and food for birds and butterflies. The types and location of trees in your yard can reduce heating and cooling costs.

Healthy plants create less waste, need fewer chemicals and require less watering. Learn about the condition of your soil, and consider factors like sunlight and moisture. Native plants will reduce the need for extra watering, fertilizers and pesticides.

Get to know your garden site. For example, how long is it exposed to sunlight? What is the soil type? Does the soil hold moisture well? What will you keep and what will you take out? How will your plants influence wild native plants, or be influenced by nearby weedy exotics? Answering these questions will help you better plan your garden and landscaping to fit your needs and budget.

Garden to encourage wildlife

    Native plants often require less water, fertilizer and pesticides. Select plants that can provide habitat, food, water and shelter to birds and other wildlife.

    Your backyard flower garden can become a lively butterfly, moth, and hummingbird garden if you choose the right flowers. Here's just one design idea.

Native woodland wildflower garden for butterfly, bee, moth and hummingbird use. For sunny to partially shaded sites.
Butterfly garden
Butterfly garden
source: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources  

Landscape to decrease energy use

    Landscape for energyProper selection and placement of your trees can help reduce your use of energy year-round.

  • East & West: You can add energy savings to your home by planting trees for summer shade on the west and east windows. In the winter when the leaves fall, the branches will let sunlight through.
  • Northwest: You can also use trees to create wind breaks and increase tree canopy.
  • South: Avoid planting trees on the south side of your house. During the winter months, you'll get more sunlight and free heat.
  • Backyard Conservation (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
    This campaign shows you how conservation practices that conserve and improve natural resources can be adapted for use on the land around your home. Ten conservation practices have been scaled down for homeowners and city residents to use in their yards. Tip sheets offer "how-to" steps and helpful hints.
  • Butterfly Gardening (U of M - Extension)
    Butterfly gardens help restore habitat to urban areas. They can be as simple as providing the appropriate variety of host plants for larval growth and adult feeding. Plants used in butterfly gardening include native plants as well as different annuals and perennials. Learn more about butterflies and their needs.
  • Green Landscaping with Native Plants (U.S. EPA)
    Landscaping with native wildflowers and grasses has a positive effect on the environment. This site contains extensive information on natural landscaping — the benefits, how to get started, plant descriptions, and case studies.
  • Natural Landscaping Source Book (U.S. EPA, Region 5)
    Local officials are in a position to advocate natural landscaping and bring its benefits to their communities. The source book explains the basic principles and benefits of natural landscaping; demonstrates the feasibility of using natural landscaping successfully; explains how local officials can provide leadership to encourage the use of natural landscaping; offers tools and techniques; and offers referrals to other sources of information and expertise.
  • Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series (U of M - Extension)
    A landscape developed with sustainable practices will conserve resources, help reduce chemical use, require less labor, and be less expensive to create and maintain. SULIS provides sustainable landscape information to the public and to the horticulture/landscape industry, from planning to maintenance.

Timely tip: A checklist for safely storing household chemicals

Household chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers can become wastes if they're not stored carefully. Follow these easy tips to keep products usable for future projects.

Read directions

  • Always store chemicals out of reach of children and pets.
  • Never store chemicals near sources of heat, sparks or flames.
  • Store chemicals in a dry place.
  • Keep chemicals from freezing. However, DO NOT store gasoline or other fuels in your house — they're a fire hazard.
  • Store chemicals in their original containers with labels intact.
  • If a container is leaking, place the whole container into a larger one and call your county for disposal advice.

Source: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

IPM: Doing your best against pests

Integrated pest management (IPM) is an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on long-term prevention of pests and pest damage through a combination of techniques such as biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and use of resistent varieties. Pesticides are used only after monitoring indicates they are needed according to established guidelines, and treatments are made with the goal of removing only the target organism. Pest control materials are selected and applied in a manner that minimizes risks to human health, beneficial and nontarget organisms, and the environment.

  • Check out the Landscape IPM Diagnostic Site by the Center for Urban Ecology and Sustainability (CUES). This Web site at the University of Minnesota offers guidance on controlling pests that affect common trees and plants. It also offers links to IPM resources.
  • Serious students can access Radcliffe's IPM World Textbook, a free online publication from the U of M's Department of Entomology. The site is dedicated to up-to-date research and information on IPM.
  • Minnesota is part of the region served by the North Central Integrated Pest Management Center, which is one of four national centers that offer assistance to agricultural stakeholders.

Greener landscaping: Alternatives to treated lumber

Avoid CCA treatedMany homeowners use treated wood for landscaping or home construction. Treated lumber contains chemical preservatives (pesticides) that inhibit fungal decay and extend the life of the wood. Some of the chemicals used in treating wood are toxic. Here are some tips for reducing the pollution from treated lumber.

  • Protect drinking water. Federal guidelines tell consumers not to use any type of treated wood where the wood would come into direct or indirect contact with drinking water supplies. (Incidental contact, such as with docks or bridges, is considered acceptable.)
  • Find alternatives. There are other rot- and insect-resistent materials that can replace treated lumber.
    • Metal and plastic dock materials, both recycled and new.
    • Untreated cedar for the portions of decks and playground equipment that people frequently touch or use.
    • Stone, brick, or landscape blocks for gardening and landscaping.
    • Steel pilings filled with concrete in place of creosote-treated pilings for underground construction.
    • Wood treated with less-toxic preservatives, such as ACQ, copper azole and ammoniacal copper citrate.
  • Dispose of treated lumber safely. Homeowners may dispose of any treated wood waste in lined mixed-municipal solid waste landfills or permitted waste incinerators. Contact your county solid waste office for local information. Never burn treated wood in stoves, fireplaces or recreational or cooking fires; open burning of treated wood is prohibited by state law. Such low-temperature burning of treated wood releases toxic chemicals into the air and concentrates them in the ash.
  • Preserve existing wood structures with coatings to protect wood, such as stains, paints and water-sealants (which are not true wood preservatives), which can be applied after wood is already in place. Apply these coatings with care to avoid spills and leaks.

CCA: Voluntary phaseout by 2004

In February 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that the wood-treating industry would voluntarily reduce and eliminate the use of chromated copper arsenate (CCA) in wood used for residential purposes by the end of 2003.

Although EPA has not concluded that CCA-treated wood poses unreasonable risk to the public or the environment, arsenic is a known human carcinogen, and they believe that any reduction in the levels of potential exposure to arsenic is desirable.

Source: Treated Wood: Use, Disposal and Alternatives for Homeowners (October 2003)

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