CONSUMER REPORTS: Easy ways to enjoy your yard more
April 28, 2013 3:40 AM

America’s love for lawns is alive and well, but more of us are letting other features into the yard. In a nationally representative Consumer Reports survey, almost a third of homeowners who made changes to their lawn in the last year reduced its size in some way — for example, replacing grass with patio space, ground cover, flower beds or even artificial turf.

Consumer Reports spoke with lawn and garden pros from around the country, plus major retailers and manufacturers, to learn exactly how residential landscapes are being reimagined.

-- Cut the size of your lawn. Grass needs a lot of water and fertilizer to stay thick and verdant. Plus there’s all that mowing. So reducing your lawn’s size saves work, time and money, especially with rising water costs and rebates that some municipalities offer homeowners who trade their lawns for a low-water alternative. In Glendale, Ariz., for example, residents can earn $150 to $750, depending on how much grass they remove.

-- Bring in native plants. Plants that are used to the local climate and soil conditions can survive without lots of water and fertilizer. Contact your local cooperative extension service (www.cs rees.usda.gov) to get ideas about climate-appropriate species. Or go to the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense website (epa.gov /watersense) for a state-by-state plant selector. Those sources might lead you to hardy ornamental grasses that change with the season; shade-loving ground cover, such as hostas or autumn fern; or species that withstand foot traffic, such as ornamental thyme.

-- Plant an edible garden. Growing your own vegetables is cost-effective and easier than ever. Home centers now carry large assortments of packaged seeds and starter plants of herbs and vegetables.

It’s a good idea to have your soil tested before cultivating vegetables at home, especially if you live in an urban area where lead may be a concern. Container gardening, in pots or raised planters, allows you to control the soil if testing turns up a problem. Vertical gardening, wall-mounted planters in which you grow beans, strawberries, tomatoes and more, is another option.

-- Create an outdoor room. Outdoor “rooms” are growing in popularity, with the lawn playing an integral role, according to Jule Eller, Lowe’s director of trend strategy and communication. Consumers are looking beyond the usual folding chairs and grill, equipping their open-air gathering spaces with weather-resistant furnishings, fire pits and even televisions and other media. Retailers are making such projects easier by selling modular kits for fire pits, benches and more.

-- Follow sustainable practices. About half of the homeowners in Consumer Reports’ survey mulched when mowing, depositing clippings on the lawn instead of bagging them. That deposits nutrients back into the soil, reducing fertilizing needs by as much as 30 percent. When buying fertilizer, almost 40 percent considered the environmental friendliness of the ingredients, though ease of application and price were more important to most.

When changing their lawn, survey respondents favored seed over sod by more than 4 to 1. Seeding is cheaper, and it lets you tailor the mix to your yard conditions and choose from a wide variety of species, including less-thirsty ones, such as tall fescue. Garden pros suggest more alternate practices. Jennifer Horn, a landscape architect and garden coach in Washington, D.C., persuades clients to fight lace bugs with horticultural oils rather than chemicals. And in Chicago, industry-certified landscaper Ed Furner releases lady beetles into aphid-plagued gardens.

Drip irrigation systems, which put water directly onto root systems, are also catching on.

So are weather-based sprinkler controls, which use climate sensors, Wi-Fi communication and other technologies to monitor local conditions and irrigate more efficiently by, for example, turning off when rain is due.

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