Lawn and order

Sustainability begins in your front yard

SN&R buys a building, wants to make it green and pays Sena: Eco-Warrior Princess to write a weekly column about it.

Your lawn has a drinking problem. Which wouldn’t actually be a problem, except that yards are the biggest irrigated crop in the United States, soaking up 7 billion gallons—or one-third—of all residential water used daily. What’s supposed to add beauty and curb appeal ends up being a major source of water and energy waste.

Then again, you probably already knew that. But did you know that lawns are only a piece of the problematic landscaping pie? Conventional landscaping too often relies on non-native plants, and heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides. A typical yard requires frequent lawn mowing and shrub trimming. And what do we do with all the green waste? We landfill it. Californians landfill 2.7 million tons of plant debris annually, making leaves and clippings sixth out of the 10 most prevalent material types in our state’s disposal waste system. Residential green waste collection programs in Sacramento County divert 200,000 tons of plant debris every year from trash cans, but most of it is hauled away for use as landfill cover, when grass clippings could simply stay put to decompose and release nutrients into the soil. Who knew?! Oh, you did?

As I seem to be relaying passé information, I’ll turn to the experts to provide some fresh advice. On Sunday, April 20, Sacramento County’s Stormwater Quality Partnership program hosts a river-friendly landscaping workshop to educate home gardeners about creating a beautiful landscape that’s low-maintenance and respects the integrity of an important California ecosystem—the Sacramento River watershed.

The watershed spans 27,000 miles, from the Oregon border to the Delta on the western side of the Sierra Nevada. A watershed catches rain and snow, which drains into streams, rivers, lakes and groundwater; and provides drinking water, recreation, commerce and agricultural needs throughout the region. Anything that happens within a watershed affects our local creeks and rivers, meaning that mining activities and pesticide use 200 miles upstream contaminate water here.

Of course, you knew all that too. Geez, is there anything you people don’t know? Bet you didn’t know how I was over at my parents’ house the other day, hanging out and bonding, trying to weasel some money out of them, when I saw a neighbor’s teenage son pouring paint down the storm drain. Paint! And he wasn’t even trying to be a punk or release all his inexplicable pent-up teenage angst in a destructive manner. He was just helping his dad clean out the garage.

People tend to think the storm drainage system is part of a municipal sanitation system, explained Jeanette Watson, environmental specialist with Sacramento County. But it doesn’t work that way. Contaminated water runoff from parking lots, driveways and streets enters storm drains and goes unfiltered into the Sacramento River and creeks.

“It’s not that people don’t care,” Watson said. “It’s that they don’t know.” Respect waterways by not pouring pollutants down storm drains, and avoiding the use of pesticide products containing diazinon and chlorpyrifos.

“Don’t ever use pesticides unnecessarily, and most uses are unnecessary,” said Dave Tamayo, environmental specialist with the county. The easiest way to limit pesticides is to identify and address the root cause of a problem. Tamayo, for example, repeated his favorite catch phrase: “Put the right plant in the right place.” Instead of selecting flora purely based on beauty, opt for trees and plants native or adapted to Sacramento’s Mediterranean climate and growing conditions. Improper flora leads to an annoying ripple effect: The plant will likely be more susceptible to insects that cause honeydew—ants’ main grub. And ants are one of the most prevalent pests in Sacramento. Healthy plants, on the other hand, lead to fewer pests and less of a need for pesticides in the first place.

Appropriate trees, shrubs and flowers also promote water conservation. Native plants tend to be drought-tolerant, unlike water-needy exotic plants. This weekend, the Sacramento Valley chapter of the California Native Plant Society hosts Wildflower Weekend, a plant sale showcasing native plants. The event will focus on the importance of birds and bees, both tasked with the vital responsibility of helping plants reproduce by dispersing seeds and pollen.

My final piece of advice—and this is totally secretive and something I know you’ve never thought of—next time you wake up on a blistery winter day and the rain is coming down harder then you’ve ever seen, please turn off your sprinklers.