Eco-Friendly Landscaping 101

Dear EarthTalk: Is it possible to landscape my property in a green-friendly way? I would like to create a more natural and wildlife-friendly backyard, but I don’t want to break the bank doing it. Are there any tax incentives for completing such projects?

—Michal Avraham, Olive Branch, MS

Residential landscapes need not be dominated by carpets of lawn. Naturescapes and  xeriscapes instead fill space with native plants that attract wildlife and require little water and maintenance. © Theorris, courtesy Flickr

One common misperception about adopting green practices around the home is that doing so will cost more money. But this may be true only in the short run. There are certainly some up-front outlays to converting a conventional backyard into a more environmentally friendly space (like any landscaping job), but homeowners should be able to make their money back within a few years through savings on their water and yard service bills alone.

Landscapes designed with the principles of nature and wildlife habitat in mind are often referred to as “naturescapes” (or “xeriscapes” when they also require little water to maintain). They usually replace most lawn grass and instead populate space with native plants that are attractive to wildlife for food or shelter.

According to the nonprofit PlantNative, maintaining a green backyard can cost up to 90 percent less than keeping up a traditional lawn-based landscape. “Since naturescapes effectively take care of themselves, there is little or no maintenance and hence little or no maintenance cost,” says the group. The average American lawn costs about $700 yearly to maintain, says PlantNative, which also points out that the average household lawnmower is used upwards of 40 hours a year, the equivalent of a full work week.

Melissa Santiago, a researcher with Ohio State University who authored a fact sheet on the benefits of managing property for wildlife, couldn’t agree more: “Maintaining wildlife habitat or other natural areas can be a cost-effective approach to land management.” She recommends that landowners with room to spare plant one or more rows of native trees and shrubs as so-called “shelterbelts” that provide wildlife habitat and also provide shade in summer (to reduce air conditioning costs) and wind resistance in winter (they have been shown to reduce heating costs by as much as 30 percent).

Tax breaks for greening up your residential landscape are few and far between, but do exist. The state of Indiana offers tax breaks to landowners who convert a minimum of 15 acres over to habitat suitable for native wildlife. Many other state governments offer landowners similar assistance for maintaining habitat for threatened wildlife. And municipalities across the arid southwestern U.S. offer various incentives for homeowners who cut water use, whether through xeriscaping or any other means.

To get started converting your yard over, contact a local nursery well-versed in native landscaping to lend some informal or professional expertise. To find a nursery in your area that fits the bill, consult PlantNative”s free online directory of native plant nurseries. Or, if you want to do your own homework, check out the National Wildlife Federation”s free online Native Plant Guide (which covers the 50 U.S. states) or the Canadian Wildlife Federation”s guidebook Backyard Habitat for Canada”s Wildlife (available in print for $19.95 plus shipping).