Natural Yard Care – A Sound Solution

Rainy day oil slick in Puget Sound. Is this your parking lot?

Puget Sound is in trouble. Polluted runoff in rain water is seen as the major source of contamination in our rivers, lakes and streams, all flowing into the Sound. At the same time our urban landscaping largely does not work for us treating and infiltrating this problem. Instead we choose turf grasses and non hardy plants that are expensive to keep up, and we overuse chemicals in pest control and fertilizing.

Our region needs an intervention — a fundamental and rapid shift towards less costly and more family friendly natural yard care. These practices that use much more compost and mulch to promote healthy soils also recommend drought tolerant native plants and hardy cultivars. And we should “build down”. Plantings that are simply lower than sidewalks and streets infiltrate more rainfall and need less watering. Changing how we design and support landscaping will help us restore the natural hydrology systems that clean and protect Puget Sound land and water.

There are economic benefits as well. These changes are proven cheaper, and we can begin saving today by just being thoughtful about the plants and services we choose. Home owners and commercial real estate managers increasingly are looking towards less expensive alternatives to create beautiful, better functioning landscapes. Broadly applying natural yard care to Puget Sound lawns and landscapes is a game changer that brings exciting new business opportunities and provides needed environmental protections.

We wrote this in  2011 as an op-ed about the state of sustainable landscaping, but we weren’t able to get it published for one reason or another. So here it is. Think of this as a grand new year’s resolution for 2012.

Oil slicks that appear on the road on a rainy day may go unnoticed by many. But they’re indicators of a serious water pollution problem that’s sparked the green infrastructure movement now taking place in our yards, parks and schools. During our next big rain event, oil and contaminants will wash off our streets, untreated, into our waterways, resulting in the largest source of pollution into the Puget Sound.

Fortunately, there are ways to build and landscape that filter polluted runoff and prevent it from sullying our waterways. But this type of green infrastructure isn’t used nearly enough. We can do better. We need a new vision for urban landscapes, one that incorporates green infrastructure, which filters polluted runoff naturally and uses native plants that thrive in the Pacific Northwest’s climate. The result is landscaping that works, saving business owners money and offering direct benefits to property owners wanting to add green space and cut utility bills. One of the most popular forms of green infrastructure is rain gardens: compact, beautiful landscapes that capture and filter pollutants from rainwater rushing off hard surfaces before it enters rivers, streams and eventually Puget Sound.

When we started Rain Dog Designs in 2009, most people didn’t know what a rain garden was. Today we’ve installed more than 150 for schools, churches, libraries, homeowners, even our first industrial rain garden at the Port of Tacoma. And we’re not alone. Stewardship Partners and Washington State University Extension have launched their 12,000 Rain Gardens campaign in the Puget Sound region, Seattle Public Utilities has launched their RainWise incentive program in more and more neighborhoods, and the state Department of Ecology is updating their rules on how, when and where green infrastructure like rain gardens should be used to prevent water pollution. We’ve seen this concept flower into a profitable business model and tool for community education and engagement around the health of Puget Sound.

Our region has long been known as a leader in developing new technology, such as airplanes to software, as well as for our environmental problem-solving. The movement towards green infrastructure carries on both Puget Sound traditions. Some solutions, such as pervious concrete, will become more affordable as it becomes more widely used—delivering dividends to the environment and to businesses’ bottom lines.
In order for small businesses like ours to continue implementing green infrastructure projects, we need strong state and federal laws that value clean water. The Department of Ecology should strengthen its draft municipal stormwater permit language to reduce loopholes that allow developers to pollute our waterways. Our federal lawmakers need to stand strong in their support of funding for the Clean Water Act, which keeps our communities clean by preventing polluted runoff and sewage overflows into our bays and the Sound.

At the same time, local and county governments should have meaningful conversations with contractors and project owners and give them choices and suggestions for clean water solutions. If more governments could offer incentives, or a break in their fees if they go green, then we’ll see an industry shift towards green infrastructure.

Small businesses like ours, and nurseries, compost providers, planners, contractors, concrete and asphalt providers and engineers depend on the government to carry out proper regulations and incentives that influence the marketplace. This will increase the availability and affordability of non-polluting solutions, so that the entire community benefits from preserving our most precious shared natural resource—our water.