No matter how small or large your backyard, you and every person in your neighborhood has a profound impact on the health of your local streams. These streams feed into the Chesapeake Bay and collectively determine the ability of this great water resource to support wildlife, support recreation, support sustainable Bay dependent industries, and support the region’s local economy.
Baltimore County is invested in helping our citizens learn, plan, and act to restore habitat and improve conditions in the Chesapeake Bay.
Americans manage approximately 30 million acres of lawn, spending $800 million per year on grass seed. In managing our yards and gardens, we tend to over apply products, using 2.5 to 5 million tons of fertilizer and more than 70 million pounds of pesticides annually. Grass clippings consume 25 percent to 40 percent of landfill space during a growing season, and 30 percent of water consumed on the east coast goes to watering lawns.
Is your backyard composed entirely of lawn? While lawn absorbs more water and pollutants than paved surfaces, converting just a portion of your lawn to a native garden or a tree bed can dramatically reduce the influx of pollutants to local streams.
Compare vegetation types on your lawn and how much runoff and stormwater discharge is produced.
Lot Discharge (cubic feet)*
Percent Stormwater Discharge Reduction
50% of Lawn Converted to Native Garden
25% of Lawn Converted to Tree Cover
50% of Lawn Converted to Native Garden and 25% of Lawn Converted to Tree Cover
*Discharge calculated for an average suburban lot size of 1.5 acres after a semiannual storm event dropping 2.95 inches of precipitation. This information was generated from the Green Values Stormwater Management Calculator.
Does your backyard already have trees and shrubs? If so, are they providing habitat for birds and other wildlife? Identify the trees, shrubs, and wildflowers in your neighborhood.
Native trees, shrubs, and ground covers are just one type of responsible surface management known as “Green Infrastructure.” Other examples that provide substantial benefits to your community include downspout disconnection; rain barrel and rain garden installation; permeable pavements; green roofs; and composts. For more information on these practices (and others) visit the EPA website on Water Infrastructure.
Once you understand the potential benefits of conservation landscaping, it is time to evaluate your personal backyard and determine what plants are best suited to thrive there. Take these steps to narrow your search:
- Check the sun exposure, soil moisture and soil type where you plan to plant. For a few dollars, your state or local cooperative extension office can analyze a small soil sample you send them. The results will include soil type (sand, clay, loam, etc.), pH, fertility status, and recommendations for amending the soil to make it into “average garden soil.”
- Choose plants native to your region. Consult “Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping” for the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This comprehensive resource offers information on plants native to each physiographic region and includes the optimal growth conditions, native habitat, and wildlife value of each species.
- Choose a habitat type. Try to create or emulate a specific habitat, like woods, wetland, or meadow, and choose plants that are appropriate to both your site and the habitat.
- Avoid invasive species. Non-native plants can be invasive. They have few or no naturally occurring measures to control them, such as insects or competitors. Invasive plants can spread rapidly and smother or out compete native vegetation. They are not effective in providing quality habitat. Download a copy of the publication “Plant Invaders of Mid Atlantic Natural Areas."
After you have evaluated your site conditions and chosen your favorite native trees and shrubs, consider involving your friends, family, or community in the planting. Explain your process and your choices, and spread the word about the importance of conservation landscaping.
Your new landscape will require some upkeep, but these alternative measures are usually less costly and less harmful to the environment. New plants need watering and monitoring during the first season until they become established. Disturbed soil is prone to invasion by weeds, requiring manual removal instead of chemical application. Over time, desired plants spread to fill the gaps and natural cycles help with pest control. Garden maintenance is reduced to minimal seasonal cleanup and occasional weeding or plant management. The savings realized by using little or no chemicals and less water and gas can more than make up for the initial costs of installing the landscaping.
In caring for the remainder of your yard, keep these tips in mind to lessen your impact on local waterways:
- Use minimal amounts of fertilizer only if needed, and keep it off of sidewalks and driveways. Fall is the best time to fertilize, and (if fertilizer is needed at all) it is generally not necessary to apply it more than once a year.
- Mow at the proper height (about three inches) to allow the grass to shade out weeds, and leave your grass clippings on the lawn. They provide the soil with many nutrients and keep unnecessary yard waste out of landfills.
- Use compost as a fertilizer for your new garden. You can create healthy compost from a mixture that is two-thirds food waste (fruit peels, vegetable scraps, etc.) and one-third yard waste (leaves, grass clippings). Rotate the pile occasionally with a rake or in a designated compost pale or bin.
- Choose not to water your lawn. Grass lawns naturally go dormant during the drier seasons. When wet weather returns, so will your lush green lawn.
Examples of Planting Plans
Bayscapes, from the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, offers a Homeowner's Guide to Designing Your Property (PDF) with plant types and quantities for different areas of your property. It also includes a list of plants best suited for the design.
- Chesapeake Bay Foundation “Bay-Friendly Landscaping”
- Maryland Native Plant Society
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Maryland Native Plants List
Revised September 17, 2013
Revised April 6, 2016