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Smart Yard Landscapes

1. Be Smart–Have a Plan

Create an overall design plan that considers your family’s needs for this landscape. A well-conceived landscape design is based on 1. Having a plan. 2. Choosing the right plants. 3. Understanding and nurturing your soil. 4. Respecting the power of water.

Plan for Maintenance

Installation and maintenance should be included in your design. A smart design is only as good as the quality
of its installation and the practicality of its maintenance plan.

Aim for Diversity

Create a mosaic of trees, shrubs, ground covers, grasses, and flowers. Monocultures, or large areas of fewer plant species, are more prone to pest problems than diverse landscapes.

Planting diversity, especially with native plants, also brings birds, pollinators, and beneficial insects into your yard. Hosting a variety of plants and animals provides interest and brings balance to the landscape.

Limit Turf and Consider Substitutes

Turf is a beautiful landscape element when reasonably sized, but it proportionately requires more maintenance and inputs than well- designed mixed plantings. Mixed plantings and alternative ground covers are smarter options for large expanses. Design turf areas with a purpose rather than as a space filler.

2. Right Plant, Right Place

Choosing the right plant for the right place minimizes maintenance extras. Once these plants are established, most require little, if any, supplemental water, fertilizers, or pesticides. Choose plants that tolerate our climate’s large variability in moisture and the soil type in your yard.

Native Plants

Southeastern native plants are increasingly available at local garden centers. Native plants offer many benefits without sacrificing beauty.

Choose Turf Wisely

Turfgrasses vary in their adaptability to climate, soil type, fertility needs, drought tolerance, pest susceptibility,
and maintenance requirements. Research their specific needs before making a final choice.

Avoid the Quick Fix

While the quick fix of fast-growing plants seems appealing, such plants often have extra maintenance problems. Slower growing plants are a smarter choice in the long run. A mixed border of native and other tried-and-true plants provide a more interesting and trouble-free option.

3. Soil is a Living Environment

Boy crouching, holding dirt in hands, high angle viewAn incredible array of living organisms inhabit the soil environment. Inch for inch these bacteria, fungi, insects, and other soil dwellers account for more life underground than above it. Their life activities clean the water, create spaces for soil oxygen, hold nutrients for plants, increase water infiltration, and reduce drought.

Don’t Waste It

Maintenance chores might be measured in terms of waste, but yard debris is a much overlooked resource. Recycle valuable nutrients by mowing without the bag or composting leaves and chipped branches. These activities nourish the soil environment and your plants.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Test first. Many landscapes only need a pH adjustment or additional organic matter rather than additional fertilizer. A few doses of nitrogen through the year are necessary for select plants, but it’s wasteful to blindly apply fertilizers without soil test recommendations (www.aces.edu/anr/soillab/).

Proper Planting

Shrubs and trees are best transplanted in fall and winter. A sturdier, deeper root system develops faster during this dormant period when the aboveground part is resting. Always dig the planting hole wider, but never deeper than the transplant’s root ball.

4. The Power of Water

After spending time and money to create a smart landscape, water will be a critical consideration during the first 6 to 12 months after installation. Even drought-tolerant plants need frequent water during the establishment of new roots in their new location. Plan, install, and maintain watering systems so they target thirsty plants in a timely manner. Poor planning and maintenance can lead to overwatering, useless runoff, and water lost to evaporation. Consider drip or other micro-irrigation devices.

Make an Impact

Limit the number of plants or plantings with high water requirements. Group these together for greatest visual impact. Harvested roof water is a smart way to irrigate these special and modestly sized areas.

Promote Infiltration

Keep your soil covered; preferably with plants. Roots hold soil in place and increase water infiltration as it passes across your property. A rain garden temporarily holds water on site, and decreases the problems of extreme runoff flows to neighboring streams, rivers, and lakes.

Be Aware of Unseen Pollutants

Dissolved pollutants such as pesticides, fertilizers, and soil sediment might be unseen but are harmful to aquatic habitats. Landscapes contribute to water pollution when stormwater causes soil erosion or carries unused, loose fertilizers and other chemicals. Limit your use of pesticides and fertilizers and always read the label first. Use slow-release fertilizers and keep them off sidewalks and driveways where they easily wash into storm drains.


Kerry Smith, Administrator, Outreach Programs, and Eve Brantley, Extension Specialist, both at Auburn University; Tony Glover, County Extension Coordinator, Cullman County.

Reviewed September 2022, Smart Yard Landscapes, ANR-1441

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