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Outdoor Area

Our yards provide us with beautiful spaces for fun and relaxation. By taking care of our lawns, gardens, and outdoor spaces properly, we can save money, time, and help the environment. Below, we first describe practical ways in which you can green your landscaping and lawn care practices. Next, we provide information on how you can reduce stormwater runoff from your home and property. We then discuss opportunities to green the structural components of your outdoor spaces, such as lighting, decks, fences, and sheds. Finally, we briefly discuss a few ways to reduce water use from common outdoor activities.

Landscaping and Lawn Care


Renaturalized lawn areas

Renaturalized lawn areas reduce the amount of lawn that needs maintenance, restore habitat for birds and other animals and provide privacy buffers between properties.

The typical suburban lawn consumes 10,000 gallons of water above and beyond rainwater each year. You can take some simple steps to improve the water efficiency of your landscaping:

  • Choose climate appropriate, drought tolerant, and native/adapted plant species - Using native plants and landscape designs that optimize local conditions can reduce irrigation water use, as well as reduce soil erosion, lower maintenance costs, and preserve natural resources. By making your landscape a GreenScape, you can save time and money by eliminating unnecessary watering. Select plants that grow well in your area of the country and are appropriate given the amount of sun, rainfall, and soil type. Because native plants are adapted to local soils and climatic conditions, they typically do not require fertilizers, and are more resistant to pests and disease. In most climate zones, it makes sense to use low-water plants to save the time and expense of watering. Also, when renovating or building a new home, focus on preserving as many existing trees and shrubs as possible, because established plants typically require less water and maintenance. When selecting plants, avoid those labeled "hard to establish," "susceptible to disease," or "needs frequent attention," as these types of plants frequently require greater amounts of water, fertilizers, and pesticides. Be careful when selecting non-indigenous species, as some may be invasive, which may require more water and could choke out native plants.

  • Reduce turf and grass areas - How and where turf is placed in the landscape has a significant impact on the amount of irrigation water needed to support the landscape. Turf lawns require a large amount of supplemental water and generally more intensive maintenance than other vegetation. Use turf grass where it has a practical function, such as in play or recreation areas. Grouping turf areas can increase watering efficiency and significantly reduce evaporation and runoff. Select a type of grass that can withstand drought periods and become dormant during hot, dry seasons.

  • Re-naturalize your lawn - Reduce the amount of lawn in your yard by re-naturalizing certain areas (i.e., allowing the lawn to grow as it naturally would). Don't mow, apply fertilizers and pesticides, or rake leaves. Spread mulch if you want to help kill back the grass within the naturalizing area. With time (2-5 years), this will allow native plants to take root, re-establish their presence through succession, and help restore natural habitat. This also means you'll use less fertilizer and pesticides and you won't have to mow the re-naturalized area. Re-naturalized areas help to absorb rainwater better than lawns and can lead to less storm water runoff from your property.

  • Plant shrubs, trees, and other vegetation in place of lawns or bare, eroding areas - Trees, shrubs, or other leafy plants help absorb, intercept, and slow down rainfall, thereby reducing storm water runoff.

  • Group plants with similar watering needs together - This avoids over-watering some while under-watering others. Also, use a layer of organic mulch around plants to reduce evaporation, retain moisture, reduce weed growth, and save water, time and money.

renaturalizing an area of your lawn

To start renaturalizing an area of your lawn, mulch a grass area with lawn clippings, leaves or other mulches to kill back the grass. Follow with plantings of native plants and ornamentals, or by just letting the area naturally re-vegetate.

For information on how to Greenscapes and water efficient landscaping, go to:
http://www.lrconline.com/Extension_Notes_English/pdf/Naturalize.pdfExit EPA Disclaimer

Other environmentally friendly landscaping practices include:

  • Shred untreated wood and leaf wastes and use them as mulch on garden beds to prevent weed growth, retain moisture, regulate soil temperature, and add nutrients back to the soil.

  • When you mow, "grasscycle" by leaving grass clippings on your lawn instead of bagging them, or use a mulching mower. The clippings will return nutrients to the soil instead of taking up space in landfills.

  • Recycle used oil from lawn and garden equipment. If you have only an occasional need for lawn and garden equipment, such as tillers or chainsaws, you can reduce waste (and save money) by renting or borrowing the equipment.

  • Consider using electric lawn mowers, trimmers, and leaf blowers (or manual alternatives) rather than gas-powered equipment. This will not only greatly reduce the emission of air pollutants, but electric (and manual) tools are much quieter and less expensive to operate.

  • Keep your lawn mower and other equipment in efficient operating condition by performing regular maintenance according to the owner's manual.

  • Raise your lawn mower cutting height - longer grass blades help shade each other, reduce evaporation, and inhibit weed growth.

For more information on sustainable landscaping practices, go to:

Fertilizers and Pesticides

Fertilizer Use

Chemical fertilizers applied to lawns and gardens wash off and pollute streams and water bodies. In addition, yard clippings and leaves can wash into storm drains and contribute excessive nutrients and organic matter to the watershed. Use chemical fertilizers sparingly and always in strict accordance with the application directions. Use compost and other non-toxic alternatives whenever possible. For more information about pesticide use in your lawn and garden, go to: http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/controlling/garden.htm.

Safer Pest Management: Insecticides, Herbicides, and Fungicides

A variety of approaches are available to control pests (e.g., insects, vermin, weeds, and fungus) in your yard, however many common insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides can contain toxic chemicals. As with fertilizers, chemical pesticides can wash off and pollute streams and waterbodies. The best way to manage pests is to try to prevent them from appearing in the first place. For outdoor landscapes, check out EPA's Greenscapes program, which provides information on adopting a preventative and holistic approach to pest management. Also, consider natural or less-toxic alternatives to chemical pesticides.

If pest prevention does not work, and you decide to use chemical pest control products, use them safely and correctly (and do not use any more than is needed). Always carefully read and follow the pesticide label's instructions and safety warnings.

For more information on safer pest management, go to:
What is a Pesticide? GreenScaping: The Easy Way to a Greener, Healthier Yard


Compost makes an excellent fertilizer and improves the soil. For instance, it helps sandy soils hold nutrients and water, loosens clay soils, and feeds the beneficial soil life so it can feed and protect your plants. You can make your own compost at home (e.g., composting yard and some kitchen wastes), or buy it in bags or bulk.

For more information on composting, go to:
http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/rrr/composting/ www.epa.gov/composting


Mulch is a layer of organic material like leaves, aged wood chips, or grass clippings that you spread around your plants. Mulch stabilizes soil temperature, prevents weeds, adds nutrients to the soil to help feed plants, and helps to conserve water. Mulch can be used in and around:

  • Flower beds and vegetable gardens

  • Trees, shrubs, and woody perennials

  • Lawns. Leaving the clippings on the lawn after mowing reduces the need for fertilizer by 25 to 50 percent. The clippings quickly decompose and release valuable nutrients back into the soil to feed the grass,

For more information on using mulch to improve your lawn, go to:


The average single-family suburban home uses at least 30 percent of its water for outdoor purposes such as irrigation, and as much as 70 percent in dry climates. With common watering practices, a large portion of the water applied to lawns and gardens is not absorbed by the plants; it is lost through evaporation, runoff, or by watering in excess of the plants' needs. Efficient irrigation systems and practices reduce these losses by applying only as much water as is needed to keep your plants and lawn healthy.

Water efficient irrigation system

Although not watering your lawn, garden, or other landscape is the most water-efficient practice, sometimes irrigation is necessary. Irrigating lawns, gardens, and landscapes can be accomplished either manually or with an automatic irrigation system.

Poor Watering

Over-watering a lawn and adjacent paved areas not only consumes unnecessary water, but also wastes energy, since it takes energy to produce and distribute clean water to our homes.

  • Manual watering - Manual watering with a hand-held hose tends to be the most water-efficient method, as households that manually water with a hose typically use 33 percent less water outdoors than those who use an automatic irrigation system.

  • Automatic irrigation systems - Drip-type irrigation systems are considered the most efficient of the automated irrigation methods because they deliver water directly to the plants' roots. In-ground sprinkler and drip irrigation systems need to be operated and maintained properly to be water-efficient. Install system controllers such as rain sensors that prevent sprinklers from turning on during and immediately after rainfall, or soil moisture sensors that activate sprinklers only when soil moisture levels drop below pre-programmed levels. While controllers come in all types of shapes and sizes, the most important features are how well they can be programmed to handle diverse landscape and weather conditions. Consider purchasing one with a weather-based controller. It is also important to revise your watering schedule as the seasons change. Over-watering with automated sprinklers is most common during the spring and fall because irrigation schedules are set to summer watering needs.

For more information about water efficient irrigation systems, as well as WaterSense irrigation partners, go to:
Water- or sensor-based irrigation controls
Landscape irrigation services
Water efficient irrigation brochure

Water-efficient irrigation practices

Did you know that watering too much or too little is the cause of many common plant health problems? You can have healthier plants, save money on water bills, and conserve water resources by learning to give your lawn and garden just what they need, and no more. Just follow some of these simple tips:

  • Less is more - If you step on your lawn and the grass springs back, it does not need to be watered. When soil is dry or compacted, it will not absorb water quickly. If water puddles, stop watering until the water has time to soak in. In addition to wasting water, over-watering can increase leaching of fertilizers into ground water and can harm your lawn and plants. Watering plants too much and too frequently results in shallow roots, weed growth, disease, and fungus.

  • Use alternative sources of water - To further reduce your water consumption, consider using alternative sources of irrigation water, such as gray water, reclaimed water, and collected rainwater via rain barrels . Most of the water we use to irrigate landscapes is treated, potable drinking water. By reducing the amount of drinking water used for landscape irrigation, we reduce the burden on water treatment facilities. In addition, homes with access to alternative sources of irrigation water can reduce their water bills significantly.

  • Make every drop count - - Some experts estimate that more than 50 percent of landscape water goes to waste due to evaporation or runoff caused by over-watering. Easy ways to lower water bills and get more water to plants include:

    • - Water your lawn or garden during the coolest part of the day (early morning is best). Watering when it's hot and sunny is wasteful because most of the water evaporates before the plants have time to absorb it. Also avoid watering on windy days.

    • - Water lawns separately from other plantings.

    • - Water new trees and shrubs. Once established, trees and shrubs generally do not require any watering. Shallow rooted plants need less intense, but more frequent watering.

    • - Position automatic sprinklers to water the lawn and garden only-not the street or sidewalk.

    • - When using a hose, control the flow with an automatic shut-off nozzle.

    • - Amend your soil with compost and mulch to hold water and reduce evaporation.

  • Check for leaks - Do not forget to check the outdoor hoses, sprinklers, and faucets for leaks at least once per year.

  • Other Smart Watering Practices
    • - Minimize or eliminate chemical fertilizing, which artificially promotes new growth that will need additional watering.

    • - When outdoor use of city or well water is restricted during a drought, use the leftover water from the bath or sink on plants or the garden. Don't use water that c ontains bleach, automatic-dishwashing detergent, fabric softener, or other chemicals.

    • - In a dry spell, you can also allow an established lawn to go dormant. Water just once a month and brown areas of the lawn will bounce back in the fall.

For more information on water saving practices from EPA's GreenScapes program for homeowners, go to:

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Stormwater Management

Rain rushes off roofs, pavement and compacted soil in developed areas. This rush of stormwater causes flooding downstream, erodes soil and stream banks, and muddies the water, which harms fish and other wildlife. Stormwater picks up chemicals, debris, dirt, and other pollutants and flows into a storm sewer system or directly to a lake, stream, river, wetland, or coastal water. Anything that enters most storm sewer systems is discharged untreated into the waterbodies we use for swimming, fishing, and drinking water. Reducing irrigation water use, in combination with reducing impervious surface areas and pollutants such as pesticides, helps to minimize the negative impacts of stormwater runoff. You can also slow runoff, and help the soil hold the moisture plants need in summer, by directing downspouts out into lawns, rain gardens, or rain barrels rather than onto pervious "hardscape" surfaces. Bigger steps you can take to help reduce the amount of stormwater runoff in your neighborhood include:

Porous paving bricks

Porous paving bricks and pervious parking areas can help reduce storm water runoff by allowing rainwater to soak into the ground.

  • Reduce impervious surfaces - By installing porous pavement, gravel paving blocks, or other pavement options that let rain seep into the soil, in place of asphalt and traditional concrete, you can reduce stormwater runoff. Porous pavement is a special type of pavement that allows rain and snowmelt to pass through it, thereby reducing the runoff from a site and surrounding areas. In addition, porous pavement can filter pollutants from the runoff. For more information on porous pavement, go to: http://www.epa.gov/npdes/pubs/porouspa.pdf.

  • Install a raingarden - Raingardens are landscaped areas designed to soak up rainwater from your roof, driveway, and/or lawn. These gardens collect rainwater runoff and filter and slowly release it into the ground, and typically can retain 30 percent more rainwater than a conventional patch of lawn. By reducing the volume and velocity of storm water runoff, rain gardens help reduce soil erosion, filter fine particulates, and capture fertilizer and excess nutrients that can pollute rivers and lakes.

  • Use rain barrels - Rain barrels are mosquito-proof containers that collect and store rainwater that would otherwise wind up in storm drains and streams. The rain taken from barrels provides free "soft water" to homeowners-containing no chlorine, lime or calcium-making it ideal for gardens, flower pots, and car and window washing. A rain barrel can also be used to collect water and store it for when you need it most-during periods of drought-to water plants, wash your car, or to top off a swimming pool. A rain barrel will save the average homeowner about 1,300 gallons of water during the peak summer months, or 40% of total household water use. For more information on rain barrels, go to: http://www.epa.gov/Region3/p2/what-is-rainbarrel.pdf

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Outdoor Lighting

Outdoor lighting provides safety, security, and aesthetics for your home. When designing outdoor lighting, you need to consider the purpose of the lighting along with some basic methods for achieving energy efficiency, which are discussed below.

Lighting Controls

It is easy to forget to turn off outdoor lighting. A simple way to ensure that your outdoor lighting is turned off, when not in use, is to install lighting controls. The most common outdoor lighting controls include:

  • Motion Sensors automatically turn outdoor lights on when they are needed (when motion is detected) and turn them off a short while later.

  • Photosensors sense ambient light conditions, and prevent outdoor lights from being on during daylight hours.

  • Timers allow for lights to be turned on and off at specific times. Timers can be used in conjunction with motion sensors and photosensors. For example, the best combination for aesthetic lighting may be a photosensor that turns lights on in the evening and a timer that turns the lights off at a certain hour of the night (e.g., 11 P.M.).

For more information on outdoor lighting controls, go to:

Energy Saving Bulbs

Save money and energy by purchasing energy efficient light bulbs and fixtures for your outdoor lighting needs. Look for ENERGY STAR rated light bulbs, such as compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) and light emitting diodes (LEDs) that have been approved for outdoor uses. Consider low-level lighting for security purposes, as security lighting does not need to bright to be effective.

For more information on energy efficient light bulbs and fixtures, go to:

Solar Powered Lights

Outdoor solar lights are easy to install and virtually maintenance free. Best of all, they provide free electricity. Outdoor solar lighting systems use solar cells, which convert sunlight into electricity. The electricity is stored in batteries for use at night.

For more information on the use of solar powered lights, go to:

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Like many other parts of the home, there are a number of environmentally friendly material choices you can make when building a new deck for your home. For instance, use environmentally preferable recycled plastic or recycled wood/plastic composite lumber, rather than conventional virgin wood. Or use a wood variety that has been sustainably harvested and certified. Environmentally preferable decking options are very cost competitive with conventional decking option.

Once your deck has been constructed, choose durable patio furniture that will withstand harsh weather and time. Although durable products sometimes cost more initially, their extended life span often offsets the higher cost and saves money over the product's life. Make sure to maintain and repair your furniture when necessary, to maximize their useful life.

For more information on decking alternatives, go to:
http://www.epa.gov/wastes/conserve/tools/greenscapes/tools/decking.pdf (PDF) (6 pp, 88K, Top of page


There are a number of sustainable fencing options currently available on the market. Look for fencing made from reclaimed, recycled, or certified wood; fiber cement; or the increasingly popular option of recycled plastic lumber, which requires less maintenance. Make sure to maintain your fencing to avoid the need for replacement. If applying a finish to your fencing, consider chemical free options (e.g., no- or low-VOC paints), and make sure to follow manufacturers' directions when using paint removers or solvents.

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Sheds provide a great space for storing your outdoor equipment and tools. Adding a shed to your yard also give you a great opportunity to try your hand at constructing a mini green building! Although the do-it-yourself shed kits available in stores are easy to construct, they usually do not contain environmentally friendly materials. But other excellent options exist, such as:

  • Constructing a shed using sustainably harvested and certified lumber.

  • Using salvaged lumber, windows, doors, roofing, and other materials from a local material reuse store. Nationally, hundreds of building material reuse stores sell high-quality materials salvaged from remodeling projects, pre-demolition salvage, and the growing practice of deconstruction-the selective disassembly of buildings to reuse and recycle parts. The Building Materials Reuse Association's Web siteExit EPA Disclaimer contains a directory of member reuse stores. Habitat for Humanity operates many reuse stores around the country and their reuse store directory Exit EPA Disclaimercan also be found on their Web site. There are also online marketplaces for these materials, such as PlanetReuse.com Exit EPA Disclaimerand AmericanBuilderSurplus.com. Exit EPA Disclaimer

  • Buying a fully constructed, previously-owned shed through your local classified or material reuse store is a smart alternative that saves you time, and supports the reuse market.

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Other Outdoor Activities

  • Wash your bike or car with a bucket and sponge instead of a hose to save water. A hose can waste 6 gallons per minute if you leave it running, but using a bucket and sponge only uses a few gallons. If you use a hose, use a shut-off nozzle that can be adjusted down to a fine spray. Alternatively, consider using a commercial car wash that recycles its water.

  • Don't water the pavement! Sweep driveways, sidewalks, and steps rather than hosing them off.

  • If you own a pool or spa, use a cover to reduce evaporation when not in use. Also, when backflushing, use the water on your landscaping. Finally, consider purchasing a new water-saving filter.

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