The weather is finally warming and I am starting to see more of my neighbours outside working on spring cleanup and gardening. Big or small, how we care for our outdoor spaces can have an impact on local ecosystems. 

Since the success of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, the significant negative impact of pesticides are well known — including disruption of natural ecosystems, harmful effects on pollinators and wildlife, diminished reproduction in fish species, as well as carcinogenic effects and organ damage in humans. Their accumulation in fat tissue means their impacts increase over time. 

In most instances we can use other means to get rid of pests such as a soap water spray, removal or other natural deterrents. For example, aphids eat pests you may not want, and nasturtiums deter them (and are a beautiful garnish to a salad!)

Avoiding the use of gasoline-powered machines is another important step. Mowers emit the equivalent of about 20 miles of driving per hour and leaf blowers are even worse. 

Consider using a push mower or at least an electric one. As for leaves, studies show they are better left and mowed into the lawn to become a mulch fertilizer. As an added benefit, leaf-covered grass has been shown to turn green first in the spring and maple leaves deter crabgrass and dandelions. 

Better yet, ditch the grass altogether. As a monoculture, it creates ideal conditions for pests and disease, which then take more resources to manage. There are many great alternatives that offer a variety of benefits and can help build diversity. Any remaining grass should be watered deeply to lengthen their roots, kept long to compete against weeds and be converted to local varieties. 

Managing water is another important facet of an ecologically positive yard. Captured water can be used on any areas that need extra water, thus avoiding the use of town water and the resources that go into bringing it to our homes, while also avoiding the damaging effects of chlorine. 

Increasingly large rain events leads to more flooding, so water management may also save you money! Proper drainage through features such as trees and rain gardens can keep the water away from your basement. Impermeable surfaces (such as paving) should be limited since many of our old city sewer systems can’t keep up with the growing needs from climate breakdown. 

A great holistic approach for yard care is permaculture, a thoughtfully designed strategy with elements that serve multiple roles, that is multi-layered, match their local ecology and eventually leading to a self-contained system. 

For example, some plants naturally provide nitrogen to surrounding plants and can replace fertilizers, which, among other issues, have lead to huge dead zones in oceans. Other types of plants can address additional nutrient needs including potassium and calcium. Plants can also attract and support pollinators, while others can repel unwanted pests. Waste is composted or used as mulch to be recycled back into the system, further improving its health over time. 

Vertical components can add shade, act as support for vines and denser spacing controls weeds. These can be built up over time and become mostly self-sustaining. Even balconies or small spaces can use permaculture practices. 

Working outside can be beneficial to our mental health, builds a connection with our natural environment and can extend our living space. It can be fun to learn new techniques, and there are many great resources in addition to online, the local Horticultural Society and REEP Green Solutions also have a wealth of information. Happy gardening!

Stacey Danckert is co-director of Waterloo Region Environment Network (WREN).