18 steps for going zero waste in your garden or yard

No yard waste
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Katherine has been explaining how to go zero waste at home, in your bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen, and now we step outside to explore how we can move toward zero waste gardens and yards.

Reduce water waste:

It should go without saying here on TreeHugger that as we approach peak water, conserving water and using it smarter is incredibly important for all of us to work toward, even on the household level. Sure, water is relatively cheap and abundant right now from many municipal water systems, but that shouldn't be license to waste it, either through poor watering practices or by using it inappropriately. And because it appears we're all moving to hotter, drier weather in the near future, pressure on our clean water supplies is only going to increase, so our own efforts to waste as little water as possible can help us to not only save money and reduce demand from the local water system, but can also help us build resilient garden and yard systems that are more drought tolerant.1. Smart watering: The standard lawn and garden sprinkler systems, even with smart timing for the watering length and frequency, can end up wasting quite a bit of water just through evaporation and overspray, but by properly adjusting the rate of flow, the spray patterns, and the timing of your watering system (you do know how to program your irrigation controller, right?), you can increase the efficiency of the system. For gardens, flower beds, trees, and other non-lawn areas, installing a drip irrigation system can reduce water waste and increase that efficiency even further, by putting the water right into the soil, right where you want it, at a slower rate (which is better for the plants) and at the right length and frequency for optimal growth, specific to that bed.

2. Grey water reuse
: Capturing and reusing water that's only been 'slightly' used in your home is another method of moving toward a zero waste yard, as grey water systems can divert a former waste item (sink, tub, washing machine water) from the water treatment system and put it to use to watering your landscape. Using grey water will reduce your municipal water consumption in the yard, and in the case of shade trees or shrubs, watering them with grey water can also help cool your home in the long run.3. Rainwater harvesting: Harvesting rainwater, whether it's in rain barrels or in mulched basins or swales, can help your yard and garden to thrive, while also reducing the amount of water needed from outside the property in order to grow your landscape. Designing yards and garden beds with rainfall and runoff in mind is a great place to start without having to purchase or build rainwater tanks, as is running the gutters on the house into mulched basins that can fill up and then slowly percolate the water into the soil.4. Mulch it: Reducing evaporation is another key component to using less water in the landscape, and in many locations, a heavy mulch of leaves, straw, or chop-and-drop green manures will not only help to feed the soil, but will slow down the evaporation of water from soils in growing beds. The mulch can be gathered onsite as another element of a zero waste yard, from fallen leaves, yard prunings, compost, and lawn clippings, or it can often be sourced in the community during the fall leaf collection period.


The types of plants growing in your yard and garden, as well as their location and size, has an effect on waste and water and yield, so when moving toward zero waste, it's worth considering the purpose, function, yield, and maintenance of the plants already in place, as well as those of future plantings.

5. Native plants: When looking for garden or yard plants that grow well in your climate and in your soil, as well as ones that thrive with minimal care, native plants are often an excellent first choice. Plants that have been traditionally grown in your area in the past, and those that are considered to grow wild (even if they were once a cultivated variety) are uniquely suited to your location, and can serve as anchors in the landscape, providing shade, wind protection, habitat, and even food, while also supporting the health of the entire yard.

6. Drought tolerant plants: Non-native plants also have a place in a zero waste yard, especially when those plants are more drought tolerant than some of the varieties you may already be growing. Drought tolerant trees and shrubs are especially helpful, as they can help to create more of a protected (from sun and wind and evaporation) area for other useful plants, such as garden crops, to grow in.

7. Appropriate design for climate: To reduce garden and yard waste, not only is it important to have the most appropriate types of plants growing in the garden, but it's also important to grow them in the right place in the landscape, based on your particular sun orientation, local weather patterns, and climate. Planting a shade-loving groundcover on your open, south-facing yard, or one that prefers moist soil in a bare sunny spot all by itself, can be not only cause for extreme frustration on your part, but is just plain wasteful in terms of the amount of resources necessary for its survival. But when a plant is put into a location that meets its needs, it can thrive with little to no care, saving you time, resources, and stress.

8. Divide and multiply: Many perennial plants can be dug up and divided into multiple plantings, which enables you to populate more areas of the yard with them, as well as to trade them, give them away, or sell them. Certain plants lend themselves to propagation through cuttings, and both root divisions and rooted cuttings can be potted up and grown for future planting in your own yard, or to swap with other gardeners for varieties that you don't have, while also helping to clean out your garden.

9. Return or reuse pots: Old plant pots and trays can easily be reused over and over again in your own garden, but if they start to pile up beyond your own needs, contact your local nursery or plant center to see if they can be returned, or your local recycling facility to see if they can be accepted there.

10. Reduce your pot habit: Starting your own seedlings in DIY containers is one way of reducing the use of pots in the garden, as is repurposing other household items as plant containers.

11. Make reusable plant labels: Plant markers can be cut from plastic cups, broken window blinds, used popsicle sticks, or other common household waste items, and used in the garden to keep track of plant varieties, planting dates, or breeding and seed collection.

Compost and mulch:

Relying solely on importing organic matter to your yard or garden isn't very sustainable, but by concentrating on turning household wastes such as food scraps, yard prunings, or lawn clippings into a resource, you can build soil fertility and reduce waste in the garden and yard.

12. Compost pile: If you have the room in the yard, a compost pile or composting "machine" can be used for converting food scraps and yard waste into richer garden soil, without being messy or smelly. Fallen leaves and grass clippings are a great feedstock for a compost pile, and are handy to have nearby to use as a cover layer after food scraps are added to the pile.

13. Worm composting: Vermiposting, which uses worms to do the composting, turns food scraps into worm castings, a highly desirable soil amendment that is rich in plant nutrients. Worm composting is a great choice for those without the yard space for a compost pile, or as an inside addition to your composting efforts.

14. Take your neighbor's leaves: Many homeowners just want the leaves gone from their yards as quickly as possible, and go to great lengths to bag them up to be hauled away as soon as they've fallen. They don't want to use them for mulch or compost, or don't know how or why, which is a boon for folks like you and I, who can drive around in the fall and pick up massive amounts of leaf litter for free, building soil through composting and mulching with it. Some municipalities host leaf collection programs in the fall, where bagged leaves can not only be dropped off or picked up from homes, but can also be collected by gardeners for mulch.

15. Buy in bulk:
If you are going to need to buy a lot of inputs to get your yard and garden going, such as topsoil, mulch, compost, or other soil amendments, investigate the option of getting it in bulk instead of in plastic bags. Some suppliers will deliver a truckload of yard material, or may allow you to load it into a truck bed or in large containers when you purchase it, so you may not have to deal with a bunch more plastic packaging.

Tools and equipment:

Buying a cheap tool may seem more affordable in the short run, but if it breaks right away, or doesn't do the job well and needs to be replaced, you'll end up spending more time and more money and more resources on the cheaper tool than a quality one. And it isn't necessary to buy everything new (or even to buy one of everything) to get the jobs done in the garden and yard.

16. Buy for quality: That $1 plastic hose nozzle seems like a great deal at the cash register, but the first time you step on it, you'll wish you had bought the brass one. There's always a bargain bin of tools and equipment at the local hardware or garden store, but choosing the lowest priced items doesn't always make the most sense. A tool that you'll be able to rely on year after year is a wiser choice, in terms of not only your personal finances (I don't think any of us likes having to pay to regularly replace something that wears out prematurely), but also when it comes to reducing the waste involved with producing and disposing of the item, as well as the amount of time wasted in dealing with shoddy tools or replacing them.

17. Share with others: For an item you may only use once a year, such as a tiller, or a couple of times a year, such as a weed-eater, it doesn't really make sense to buy your own if you can work out a deal with your neighbor to borrow theirs, or can borrow it from a tool library or other sharing resource. Even for those tools and equipment you need to own, it's not necessary to buy them new, as plenty of used garden and yard tools can be found at garage sales and thrift stores, and at a much lower cost than buying them new. Many times, the older tools you can find at garage sales may end up being a much better quality tool than the same item bought new from the store, so you'll often get a better tool at a cheaper price, and one that will last for many more years.

18. Donate your excess: If you've already got a garage and garden shed full of old but usable tools or building and growing materials, consider donating them to a local organization that will put them to good use. I like to shop at my local Habitat for Humanity ReStore, which sells used furnishings, building materials, tools, and appliances at low prices, keeping items out of the waste stream and putting them back in the hands of people who will reuse them.

While many modern yards and gardens are set up to need a lot of outside inputs, and to generate a considerable amount of "waste," it's certainly possible to be more sustainable at home, and to move toward a zero waste yard, with some careful thought on our gardening habits and behaviors.

What would you add to this list of steps toward going zero waste in the garden and yard?

18 steps for going zero waste in your garden or yard
Katherine has been explaining how to go zero waste in your home, bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen, and now we step outside to explore zero waste gardens and yards.

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