Native Plants are Good for the Environment

Offer native plants a place in your yard.

Native plants give you beauty, a sense of place, and an environmentally friendly yard that does not need fertilizers, pesticides, or intensive watering.

Unfortunately, it took me many years to gain an appreciation for native plants (which includes trees and grasses). Now, it just makes sense to me that native plants should be our go-to plants, not the thirsty turfgrass lawns brought to the United States by wealthy European landowners or the exotic plants that colonists and immigrants brought with them from their far-flung homelands.

Trying to force plants to live in areas that they are unsuited for is not good for the plants or the environment. Why not reimagine your yard and try native plants? If you give them a chance, native plants will find their way into your heart.

Reimagine Your Yard

When I was a kid growing up in Southern California, my family and I lived in a new subdivision of ranch-style homes near the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Landscaping varied from house to house but every front yard and most backyards had a swath of lawn, a few trees, and whatever ornamental plants the homeowners fancied (which might have included native plants).

A few streets away, rebels must have been living in the white house with black trim because their yard did not comply with the neighborhood norms. It looked weird, out of place. Small speckled rocks covered the front yard interspersed with groupings of hardy-looking yet attractive plants. Years later, I realized that these rebels had chosen an easy-care drought-resistant yard well suited for the low rainfall and warm climate of Southern California.

Later as an adult still living in Southern California, my spouse and I maintained landscaping that fit in with our neighborhood including two turfgrass lawns, two dozen rosebushes, several hydrangeas, a handful of azaleas, and an array of pots that we rotated with seasonal flowers. Possibly the only native plant on the property was a lovely old oak tree that had taken up residence in a corner of the backyard long before we arrived.

Sprinklers Water Turfgrass Lawn and Sidewalk
Sprinklers Watering a Turfgrass Lawn and the Sidewalk – Photo Credit iStock/marcutti

Moving to the Central California Coast, eleven years ago, during a drought, caused me to reimagine what makes a yard beautiful and stirred my interest in learning about native plants. Instead of green lawns and flowering ornamental shrubs, our yard here is mostly wild and is frequented by mule deer, wild turkeys, and a variety of birds searching for water, food (plants and bugs) and a place to hang out.

I began observing the plants and trees noticing that some seemed to do well even during our dry summers and others died without irrigation. Some plants coexisted with a variety of different plants and some like ice plant and Italian thistle seemed intent on taking over the yard meaning they are invasive. I got an idea into my head that we could restore our land to a happier and more environmentally sound state appropriate for our location.

Mule Deer Bucks Napping in Our Yard
Three Mule Deer Bucks Napping in Our Yard among Native Monterey Pine Trees in June 2013 (see the patch of invasive ice plant in the background).

Armed with a pair of clippers and a shovel, beginning with ice plant and thistle removal, I embarked on an amateur yard restoration project that is still in progress. I knew that to be a good steward of our yard I would need to learn about both native and invasive plants. If you want to, you can read about some of my experiences as a native plant novice in various posts including Wood Chip Mulch Mountain, Weed Whacking – Do it Yourself, Adopt a Native Plant, Arbor Day 2018 – Join Millions of Tree Enthusiasts, and Making Water Conservation a Way of Life – Outdoors.

Pause and take a moment to reimagine your own yard as a place where native plants, bees, butterflies, birds, and other wildlife can thrive and so can you.  If your yard is already full of flourishing native plants, please share your story.

What is a Native Plant?

While I was working on this post, I found myself returning to a question I have often pondered, “What constitutes a native plant?” I wanted to find out and I thought you might want to know, too.

The answers I found on the Internet varied quite a bit and left me wondering, “How am I supposed to plant native plants if no one seems to know what defines a native plant?” I discussed it with my family over dinner. They did not seem to understand why I was having a dilemma or why I felt the need to ask the question. Undaunted, I plucked up my courage and posted my question on the Facebook group page for the California Native Plant Society.

California Native Plant Garden with Bench
California Native Plant Garden with a Bench – Photo Credit Jeff Silva (click the photo to open it on Flickr).

Apparently, I was not the first person to have asked for a native plant definition and it created a small flurry of responses including “Not this again!” and “We are sworn to not be crabby towards newbies, remember?”

I did receive some useful responses but not a definitive answer. Some people suggested that a native plant (at least in the U.S.) is one that was growing here before European colonists brought plants from home and other distant lands. Others said that a native plant is a plant that evolved in a particular area or region over thousands of years. Several people said that a native plant is able to survive on its own without human intervention.

Okay, I accept that science is not black and white. I came away with the general understanding that a native plant is one that has evolved over a long, but indeterminate amount of time, adapting to the climate, terrain, soil, wildlife, and other plants in a particular place and requires little or no care from humans.

Botanists and other plant scientists use historical records, field observations, and scientific testing to determine whether a plant is native to a certain location.

The next section will cover why native plants are good for the environment.

Native Plants and the Environment

Native plants are good at their jobs. With no need for micro-managing bosses, native plants routinely perform their job responsibilities including using water wisely, running on renewable energy, recycling materials, storing carbon, providing food and habitat for others, keeping toxins and diseases out of their workplaces, and reproducing new generations. Each year, they take a vacation, well, actually a staycation going dormant in preparation for the next growing season.

California Yard with Native Plants and Palo Verde Tree
California Yard with Native Plants and Palo Verde Trees – Photo Credit Steve Hartman (click the photo to read the California Native Plant Society blog post).

Moving away during environmental downturns is not an option for native plants. It is in their best interest to adapt to the conditions where they find themselves not relying on humans to apply fertilizers, pesticides, or extra water. This also makes native plants good for the environment.

Synthetic fertilizers are made from fossil fuels that are dangerous to extract, disastrous when spilled or leaked, and emit greenhouse gases when burned. Fertilizers running off from yards and agricultural fields cause dead zones in water bodies where nothing can live so not using them in your own yard reduces this problem.

Pesticides are poisons created from fossil fuels to kill specific living things that humans consider pests, but their use results in collateral damage to humans and nonhumans. By not using pesticides in your yard, you are eliminating a hazard to bees, butterflies, birds, pets, and you and your family.

Using water sparingly protects groundwater basins that provide drinking water for tens of millions of people and irrigation water for hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland. Overdrawing your account at the bank is not a good idea and neither is overdrawing a groundwater basin. A groundwater basin is overdrawn when it cannot be refilled on an annual basis by rainfall, snowmelt, or a combination of both.

California Yard with Native Plant Landscaping
California Yard with Native Plant Landscaping in Bloom – Photo Credit Pete Veilleux (click the photo to read the California Native Plant Society blog post).

Maintaining biodiversity is another beneficial trait of native plants. In the wild, nature encourages a wide variety of plants and animals to live together keeping the overall ecosystem in balance. Of course, sometimes things get out of balance but native plants are better equipped to handle it than non-native plants. Evolving over a long time, native plants have experienced adversity many times and adapted to it so they have a long history of making comebacks, sort of a plant version of “Been there, done that.”

The environmental benefits of native plants motivate me to grow them in my yard. Having fun is why I grow some of my native plants from seeds. We will continue this conversation in the next post.

Featured Image at Top: California State Flower California Poppy– Citation Smith, C. 2010. Plant guide for California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plant Materials Center. Lockeford, CA 95237. I found this photo on the California Native Grasslands Association website.

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Making Water Conservation a Way of Life – Indoors

Water conservation is a gift that keeps on giving.

Once you make water conservation a part of your daily life, you can almost effortlessly save water and money, month after month, year after year. It all adds up.

During the 2012-2017 drought in California, our small town on the Central Coast worried about running out of water. The water company imposed severe water use restrictions. Residents, businesses, and visitors all contributed to a massive reduction in the town’s water use. We made it through the drought.

This is the third post in a three-part series about making water conservation a way of life.

In the first post, I shared six years of our household’s water data to illustrate how water and cost savings can add up over time. The second post focused on ideas for making your yard both beautiful and drought resistant.

The third post is about indoor water use habits and water saving devices. My intent is to show you what is possible so that you can come up with your own ideas that will suit you and your family.

To me, water conservation is like eating a healthy diet. The best approach is to make changes and do things that you can do for the rest of your life.

Changing Water Use Habits and Installing Water Saving Devices

Picture your morning routine. Chances are you do certain things each day, almost without thinking, like making your bed, starting the coffee maker, or taking a shower. You probably have water use habits you learned over years or decades that you could change or stop.

Without spending any money, you can evaluate your water use habits and implement some water saving ideas. Purchasing and installing water saving devices can substantially increase water conservation, but you can still participate even if you buy nothing.

During the drought, we experimented with various behavioral changes. Some things worked and some did not. Over several years, we adopted water use practices that we could envision ourselves doing forever.

Doing Laundry

Changing laundry habits required significant reprogramming for me. We took a two-pronged approach to conserving water in the laundry room. First, we attempted to generate less laundry and then wash only full loads. That was easier said than done.

Creating less laundry meant being more thoughtful about getting dressed and undressed. For instance, instead of automatically tossing a t-shirt in the laundry basket, I had to learn to consciously decide whether it could be worn again or not. I became accustomed to wearing the same pants for several days or purposefully wearing a pair that I had worn earlier in the week and hung up in my closet.

I began washing towels and sheets every two weeks instead of once a week and I still do.

Back when I learned to do laundry, sorting and washing by color and fabric was important. If you threw a red shirt in with white socks, you might end up with pink socks. Today’s colorfast and blended fabrics can often be washed together (read the labels) making it easier to do full loads. Nowadays, I sort laundry into full load piles and I separate items by fabric weight before I put them in the dryer to make drying more efficient.

Fortunately, no one in our household ever requests extra laundry loads be done because their favorite whatever is in the laundry hamper.

Washing Dishes

If you have a dishwasher, use it.

A standard kitchen faucet pumps out 2 gallons of water per minute or more so if you run it for just 10 minutes while doing the dishes by hand you will have used 20 gallons of water. Older dishwashers use about 10-15 gallons of water per cycle and new models reduce water use by 50% or more.

Using the dishwasher was not a problem for me, but I was an over rinser. It was a hard habit to break. To find the sweet spot for our dishwasher I tried by putting in dishes with varying amounts of food left on and then seeing if they got clean or not. I also learned how to load the dishwasher to make sure the spray nozzles could reach the insides and outsides of the dishes.

Water and Energy Efficient Bosch Dishwasher

Our water conservation efforts got a boost in 2013 that put a dent in our wallet. The pump on our home’s original 23-year-old dishwasher died in a puff of smoke.

We considered having it repaired but decided to buy a new water and energy efficient dishwasher. It cost $570.00 plus tax and installation.

If you do not have a dishwasher or just want to do your dishes by hand, consider switching out your old kitchen faucet to a model that saves water every time you turn it on.

Showering and Bathing

Taking long, hot showers or taking a bath in a bathtub is not consistent with living in a drought-prone area.

In 2012, I decided to time how long it took me to take a shower (on average) so I could figure out how much water I was using. A standard showerhead pumps out 2.5 gallons of water per minute or more. At that rate, a 10-minute shower uses 25 gallons of water. A low flow showerhead uses a maximum of 2.0 gallons per minute and many models use less.

Low Flow Handheld Showerhead
Low Flow Handheld Showerhead that I Installed.

We decided to try a low flow handheld showerhead and I found one that used 1.6 gallons of water per minute for $45.00, which I installed. I am not the least bit handy so this demonstrates that almost anyone can do it. A handheld showerhead makes rinsing off easier, saving more water, so we decided to replace our other two showerheads.

As the drought worsened, we had to double down on water conservation so we probably took more basin baths than showers for a time. To take a basin bath you put your bath mat in front of your bathroom sink, fill the basin with water, wet a washcloth and soap up, and then use the water in the basin and your washcloth to rinse off. I did not like this at all.

I started practicing taking showers as quickly as possible without being ridiculous and eventually, this just became a normal way to take a shower. At one point, I decided to try taking a shower every other day unless I had been doing something that involved getting sweaty or dirty. Surprisingly, the condition of my skin and hair actually improved with less showering. On non-shower days, I would wash my face in the morning and before I went to bed. I still do this.

Flushing Toilets

Toilets are water hogs accounting for about 27% of indoor household water use. Older toilets use 3-5 gallons of water per flush or more and often develop slow leaks over time that end up wasting a lot of water. Newer models use 1.6 gallons per flush and high-efficiency toilets use 1.28 gallons per flush.

In 2014, we tried the “if its yellow, let it mellow” toilet flushing policy for a while but it did not seem like a good long-term strategy. Neither did putting a brick in the toilet tank or installing one of the retrofit kits that were being marketed as inexpensive ways to make your old toilet more water efficient.

Dual Flush High Efficiency ToiletWe decided to replace our three old leaky toilets with new high-efficiency toilets. At $560 each plus tax and installation, this was an expensive investment (the water company gave us a $25 rebate per toilet).

The toilet user pushes the lever one way to flush with 0.9 gallons of water and the other way to flush with 1.28 gallons of water (there is a label on top of the toilet tank).

After more than three years, the toilets work flawlessly and are well on their way to paying for their acquisition cost in water savings. Even if we moved tomorrow, I would be happy to have provided the next occupant with toilets that will continue conserving water for decades.

If after reading this post, you feel like racing to the nearest home improvement store to buy a high-efficiency toilet, great, if not that is okay, too.

Perhaps trying some water conservation habits is right for you. All it takes is the willingness to question the way you use water and to try out water saving ideas until you find the ones you and your family can live with. In a severe drought, you can up the ante by dusting off some of the ideas you tried and decided against (like basin baths).

I realize that many people rent an apartment, house, or condominium so dealing with a landlord or facility manager may present a challenge especially if you want to convince them to install water saving devices. If anyone has experience with this, please share with other readers.

Regardless, you can reduce your water use through behavioral changes without involving your landlord. If utilities like water are included in your rent, then you might not reap the financial benefits of reducing your water use, but that does not mean it is not worth doing.

Water conservation is a gift we give to ourselves and all the living things sharing the planet with us.

Featured Image at Top: Water Drop Falling into Water Making Concentric Circles – Photo Credit Shutterstock/science photo

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