Protecting our water, one yard at a time

Property owners can greatly impact the quality of our water through relatively easy landscaping techniques. Landscaping with native plants helps to keep water clean by filtering storm water runoff before it enters local waterways. It also alleviates flooding and drainage problems. Not to mention, landscaping will make your yard and community beautiful!

Yards, lawns and landscaping take work, water, and money to maintain.  Read on to learn how you can reduce the amount of time and money it takes to keep your yard maintained while reducing your impact on the environment.  

Test Your Soil

It all starts with the soil……..Build and maintain healthy soil that allows air, water, and plant root growth and prevents problems before they happen.  To build healthy soil you have to know what your soil needs.  A soil test will help answer the question, “What does my soil need to grow the best grass and plants?” 

Soil samples are processed and analyzed at specific laboratories. The results are then mailed back to you and include a brief description of the results and recommendations. 
 
OSU Extension soil testing fact sheet - How to collect and where to send soil samples for analysis
 
Once you know the condition of your soil and what it may need to stay healthy, it is time to look at your landscaping and plant choices. By selecting plants that grow well in this area of Ohio, they will be better suited to resist the pests and handle the dry periods we experience each year.  This will also save maintenance time and the expense of watering and pest control after the plants are established.  
 

Maintain a Healthy Lawn

To start, think about lawn care as a preventive health care program, like one you would use to keep up your own health. The idea is to prevent problems from occurring so you don’t have to treat them.  As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A healthy lawn can out-compete most weeds, survive most insect attacks, and fend off most diseases before these problems ever get the upper hand.

Easy steps to a healthier lawn for you and the environment:

  • Fertilizer Basics. Click here for the 4Rs: Right Type, Right Rate, Right Time and Right Place
  • Aerate your lawn.  Annual lawn aeration allows more water and fertilizer to soak into the root zone.
  • Mow lawns to the proper height, 3” for most lawns with a sharp blade, and never cut more than one third of the existing grass height at one time.  Cutting too low leaves the lawn vulnerable to stress and disease.
  • Use a mulching mower and leave clippings on the lawn.
  • Test the soil to see if fertilizer is needed.  Be sure you are using the right type and amount of fertilizer at the right time of year.
  • Never apply fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides when rain is forecast.  For example, herbicides should not be applied if rain is expected with 6 hours of before or after application.  Be sure to follow the product directions. Nitrogen and phosphorous in fertilizers help grass grow.  But using too much or applying it just before rain can cause it to run into our waterways where they spur oxygen-depleting algae blooms that kill fish and block sunlight from reaching underwater plant habitats.
  • Reduce the amount of actively mowed lawn and create a meadow or rain garden in your yard. 
  • Reduce water useage. Trickle and drip irrigation systems can reduce water use by as much as 50 percent.
  • Compost.  It is a practical and convenient way to handle yard trimmings such as leaves, grass, thatch, chipped brush, and plant cuttings.  Compost also improves your soil and the plants growing in it.  If you have a garden, a lawn, trees, shrubs, or even planter boxes, you have a use for compost. Mix 2 parts green to 1 part brown for the ideal carbon-nitrogen ratio needed to “cook” the pile.  Stir the pile frequently and keep it moist to quicken decomposition.  See also Composting at Home  and How to Make Compost
  • Instead of planting grass in that wet spot in your lawn, consider landscaping with plants that grow well in wet areas. Water-loving plants offer great possibilities for interesting easy-care gardens and help soak up that extra water.  It is important to first determine how large the area is, how deep the water gets and how often it remains wet. Some varieties of plants require very shallow water and others, deeper water. Plants that can tolerate short periods of standing water as well as fluctuating water levels are good choices for the lowest zone because the soil may dry out during dry periods. Species that can tolerate extremes of wet soils and dry periods are also appropriate for the middle zone, which is slightly drier. For plant species information and garden design principles visit the Native Plants section of this page. A rain garden is another possibility. A rain garden is used to intercept water before it gets to a low area and pools. See the Rain Gardens section of this page for more information on how to install and care for a rain garden.   

Native Plants

We all love the look of a nicely landscaped yard.  Native planting can be a beautiful, low-cost alternative to traditional landscaping that uses turf grass and ornamental non-native plants.  Native plantings can be practical nearly anywhere in your yard, and can be designed specifically to best enhance and beautify your property. 

What’s the difference between a native plant and a non-native plant? 

The plants present in North America at the time Europeans arrived are typically considered native.  Plant species that have been brought in are called non-native, or introduced species.  Native plants have many benefits over non-native plants, both for your pocketbook and your environment. 

Native plants have adapted to our local conditions over thousands of years, and can survive our wet springs and dry summers with little maintenance needed.  Turf grass roots only grow to about 4 inches deep; native plant roots can grow 5-10 feet deep and even up to 15 feet deep in some soils!  Their deeper roots make them much more drought-resistant than turf grass and make spaces in the soil for water to soak into, which lessens stormwater impacts. 

Once established, native plants usually require little to no irrigation or fertilization so you can spend less money on watering and fertilizing your yard while protecting our water quality and quantity.  Native plants are resistant to most local pests and diseases, reducing the use of harmful pesticides and fungicides.

Many native plants also produce beautiful flowers that attract the butterflies and other native pollinators our fruits, vegetables, and other garden plants need.  Native plants are an excellent choice for attractive, low-maintenance gardening and landscaping that benefit and protect our local natural resources.

Tips to consider when using native plants

  • Plan a Landscape Design:  The purpose of developing a landscape design is to give a feeling of order to the landscape around us. Orderly environments are appealing.  Native gardens can look orderly by following a few simple rules.  Do a quick “bird’s eye view” sketch of your yard.  This is a sketch of the yard as if you were looking down on it from a tree.  Estimate relative dimensions, rather than measuring. For example, the backyard might be twice as deep as it is wide. Add in the house, existing gardens, trees, and bushes.  A quick sketch has the important benefit of being disposable. You can be creative and try many ideas in just minutes.  If you don’t like the sketch erase it and try again. Think about developing a theme for the landscape as well, such as using the same planting pattern or colors throughout your yard.  
  • Grouping Plants:  Group plants together with similar light and water requirements.  This will save time with maintenance and watering. 
  • Edges:  A crisp edge or border around the garden gives it a sense of order.  You may also try putting the garden towards the edge of your yard, rather than in the middle. 
  • Plant Size: Avoid plants that are too tall!  Make sure to look at the plants expected height and choose accordingly.  You can use naturally tall plants to block your view of the neighbor’s house or in the backyard to set a backdrop.  
  • Mix Edibles in Your Landscaping:  Think about placing vegetables, herbs and other edible plants with and the flowers.  They can add interesting textures and colors to the garden.  Rhubarb has lovely cream-colored flower stalks that fit in nicely with flowering plants.  Herbs such as thyme and oregano can planted as groundcovers.  
  • Cues of Care:  Add garden accessories such as s split rail fence, garden gnome, or bird bath.  Mix and match native and ornamental plants together in your landscape.  Using these tips will help cue the neighbors that the new landscaping bed is a planned garden and part of the scenery.  Make sure to ask your local building department about any permits or limitations to including these items in your landscaping.
  • Avoid planting these non-native plants:  Japanese honeysuckle, Japanese knotweed, autumn olive, glossy buckthorn, purple loosestrife, common reed, reed canary grass, and English ivy and privet.  These plants can take over and push native plants out. For a more complete list see Ohio’s Invasive Plant Species

Links to Resources on Native Plants Recommended for Landscaping:

Replace Invasive Plants with Natives

Suggestions from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Native Plant Society of Northeastern Ohio

LEAP

USEPA GreenScaping resources for homeowners

Native Plants for Wet Areas

Trees in the Landscape

Trees are some of the hardest-working plants on your property.  A medium-sized tree can capture as much as 2,300 gallons of rainfall every year!  Trees can improve air quality, reduce hot temperatures in summer, increase your property value, provide habitat for wildlife, and add recreation and aesthetic value. 

Trees are particularly important along our waterways and streams as their root systems provide stability to stream banks and minimize erosion concerns.  Tree roots also promote infiltration of stormwater into the soil, leading to less water ponding up on your lawn and less flooding and erosion downstream.  More infiltration helps replenish the groundwater supply, which feeds many streams in the Chagrin River watershed.

More resources

See how trees tame stormwater

Calculate the economic and ecological benefits of your trees with the Davey Resources National Tree Benefit Calculator

Use iTree to find the best locations for your trees

Alliance for Community Trees Tree facts, tree guides and a tree library


Rain Gardens – Smart Stormwater Landscaping

Rain gardens are shallow, landscaped depressions that contain perennial native plants that don’t mind “getting their feet wet.”  They’re designed to catch and soak in stormwater before it enters storm drainage systems and local waterways, which prevents and controls flooding in our communities.  Rain gardens function not only as stormwater control, they also provide habitat for birds and butterflies and can be lovely and useful landscaping features to help manage those wet spots in your yard.  Rain gardens can be easily installed by homeowners in both sunny and shady areas, and can allow 30% more water to soak into the ground compared to a conventional lawn.

Directing your water to a rain garden is a natural, effective solution to water pollution.  It protects our rivers, streams, and lakes from pollution and gives you an attractive garden!

 

Common Rain Garden Questions

Does a rain garden form a pond?

No.  Rain gardens are designed and constructed so the collected water soaks into the ground, keeping the rain garden dry between rainfalls. 

Are rain gardens breeding grounds for mosquitoes?

No.  Mosquitoes typically need 7-12 days to lay and hatch eggs, and the collected water in the rain garden should drain after less than a day. Mosquitoes are more likely to lay eggs in bird baths, storm sewers and in patches of standing water on lawns than in a rain garden. 

Do rain gardens require a lot of extra maintenance?

Rain gardens can be maintained with as little effort as you would with standard landscaping once the plants become established.  Some weeding and watering will be needed in the first two years, and possibly some thinning of the plants several years out as they mature.

Is installing a rain garden expensive?

No more so than installing any other type of garden!  You and a few family members or friends can provide all the labor needed to install and plant a rain garden.  Plants are an initial cost, but you may have plants in your landscaping already that you can transfer into the garden.  

Interested in planting a rain garden?

The Rain Garden Manual for Homeowners  is a comprehensive technical guide that will take you step-by-step through planning and installing a rain garden.

View rain garden layouts and planting plans for sunny or shady conditions.

Learn all about rain gardens at the Rain Garden Network

Pest Control

Not all insects are bad.  In fact, many insects, spiders and predatory mites are considered beneficial in our yards because they eat what are considered undesirable pests.  Few insects are actually pests; over 97% of those usually seen in the home or landscape are either beneficial or are innocent bystanders.  We can manage our yards to use these beneficial insects - commonly called “natural enemies” or “beneficials” as a way to minimize pest problems, and greatly reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides. 
 
More about  “beneficials” :
 

Steep Slopes

Steep slopes can include ravines, stream banks, or any slope in your yard that can be eroded.  The best way to keep the soil in place and prevent erosion on the slopes is to plant deep rooted vegetation that will hold the soil.  
 
English Ivy, Crown Vetch, or Myrtle should NEVER be used on slopes. These plants have shallow roots and will DESTABILIZE a slope rather than help stabilize it.  

Try these plants on a shady steep slope:

Shrubs
  • Redosier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera)
  • Grey Stem Dogwood (Cornus racemosa)
  • Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum)
  • Green Twig Dogwood (Cornus rugosa) 
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
  • Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)
  • Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculusparviflora)
  • Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)
  • Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)
Wildflowers
  • Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus strumosus)
  • Showy Sunflower (Helianthus laetiflorus)
Ground Cover
  • Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
  • Checkerberry or Creeping Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)

For sunnier areas, use native wildflowers and grasses.