Dec 16 2014

How to Make Your Lawn More Eco-Friendly in the Bay Area: An Interview with Brett Graf of Habitat Gardens

Published by at 10:01 pm under Blog

Considering the environmental impact your lawn and lawn care practices have on the earth is an extremely important aspect to being a homeowner. That’s why we interviewed Brett Graf of Habitat Gardens to learn more about environmental issues as they relate to lawns and landscapes, and how you can make your lawn more eco-friendly.
– See more or the interview at:

Harmful Gardening Practices:

One of the goals of ecological landscaping is to reduce waste, our dependency on fossil fuels, chemicals other resources and promote the health of people, pets and the environment. Some of the most common mistakes made today is over watering, unnecessary use of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers.

Most people would be surprised how often people over water the plants in their landscape or garden. When plants are over watered, they show almost the exact same symptoms as plants that are not getting enough water. It’s important to know your soil type and the watering needs of each plant. Especially in times of drought, we want the most efficient watering system that delivers water to the plants that need it, without watering the weeds too. I recommend installing a drip system or using low-flow sprinklers, like MP Rotators. Drip systems have come a long way since they were first developed and rarely have the old problems of clogging up like they used to. When they are designed and installed properly, they are very effective and inexpensive. The low-flow sprinklers deliver water at less than half the rate of typical sprinkler and allow the water to soak in instead of running off into the street or sidewalk. You can compare it to a light rain that lasts 1/2 hour to a heavy rain that lasts 15 minutes. You are actually using less water and keeping it in the place it is intended to go.

People often jump to extreme measures to solve simple problems, such as pest problems. There are many ways to get rid of those aphids without using pesticides, or killing weeds without using Round Up or another herbicide. Even if it’s a Certified Organic Product, an herbicide or pesticide should be the last resort to solving our problems. At Habitat Gardens, we use Integrated Pest Management practices (or IPM) to manage weeds and pests. IPM solves pest problems with the least risk to human health and the environment. A healthy plant depends on a healthy landscape. Few people know that there is an abundance of life in the soil that imperative to the health of the landscape. Build the soil with compost and mulch and you will building the health of your landscape and all the life in it. Most pesticides and herbicides tend to deplete the soil, kill the soil life, drift off site and poison the water supply and/or kill the wrong plant or animal. You can physically remove the pest, create barriers or plant “beneficial plants” that attract “beneficial insects” that will eat the pest, like the aphids. We like to think of Nature as a partner, not an enemy.

Here are some questions we ask with every pest problem:

  • How can I modify the habitat to discourage the pest?
  • How can I change the way I manage the landscape?
  • How can I physically remove or exclude the pest?
  • How can I encourage biological controls (like ladybugs)
  • How can I use chemicals legally, safely and with the least harm?

Know your plants and put the right plant in the right place. A plant in the wrong place will become stressed and weak. Pests attack weak plants first. If you put a plant that likes full sun in the shade it will surely die no matter how much you spray the aphids that attack it. If you put a plant that likes good drainage in heavy clay soil, it will rot away and wilt. If you put a plant that grows quickly and gets 15 feet tall and wide in a place that you only want it to get 4 feet tall and wide, you will be paying for unnecessary maintenance and use of resources for the life of the plant. It would be better to plant a plant that naturally grows to 4′ tall and wide.

The last thing I would like to mention on this topic is the overuse of synthetic fertilizers. Giving your plant a big dose of high nitrogen fertilizer is like giving a person a shot of heroin. They may feel good for a while, but it doesn’t last and they become addicted. Plants that use high nitrogen synthetic fertilizer grow too fast for their own good and become susceptible to pest problems. Also, these synthetic fertilizers tend to run off into the creeks and get into the groundwater and end up poisoning the water supplies and kill fish and frogs. Organic fertilizers are typically “slow release” and last a lot longer. They release the nutrients at the same pace that the plant can use them.

Where to Start:

To make a landscape more eco-friendly, I start with these questions:

  • How will the landscape be used (functionality)?
  • i.e. Do you really need a lawn, or do you just want something green to look at? Lawns are not “bad” if they are being used and maintained with organic products, etc. However, if you’re not really using the lawn frequently, there are many other wonderful options that are more beautiful, use less water and resources and are easier to maintain.
  • How can we water the landscape more efficiently?
  • How can we build the soil and make the landscape healthier and more resistant to pests and weeds?
  • This will also reduce our need for chemicals and fertilizers.
  • How can we attract and support the native wildlife with fruits and flowers, and without having a garden that looks all chewed up?
  • What can we plant that is already adapted to your microclimate (soil, sun, annual rainfall, ocean exposure, etc)

We find the balance between the function of the landscape, impact on the environment, and the beauty you prefer.

Importance of Eco-Friendly Landscapes:

With the loss of most of our open space and wildlands, it’s more important than ever to create landscapes that are designed to have a positive environmental impact. This requires thinking about how we use our resources, such as water (not just irrigation, but how storm water moves throughout our landscape), waste (leaves, compost, stormwater, etc), and where our hardscape products come from (e.g. Flagstone being trucked across the country or shipped overseas is less sustainable than local materials). What is the environmental impact of a product when it’s created, installed and maintained? How long will it last … and then what? An artificial lawn will last 10 or more years, then it goes into the landfill. A landscape can be installed in a way that is more eco-friendly by planning it out and being efficient. Consolidate trips to the dump, deliveries and avoid unnecessary driving and use of power tools. I would rather pay for more labor than use power tools when it’s unnecessary and makes financial sense. It’s good for the economy, too. We don’t want to be selfish … we want to create things that are the best for everyone and everything involved. Its great to have a garden that produces more than just flowers, like food for people and the wildlife. We also want to help create a landscape that will be easily maintained and have a positive environmental impact in the future. We know that everyone is on their own path to finding sustainability in their own lives and that everyone is “good” by nature. We are here to help you, not to judge you. It’s important to accept people where they are at and help them make the next step towards a sustainable and healthy future. Small steps are better than no steps.

Soil Fact:

  • One teaspoon of healthy soil contains 2 billion (2,000,000,000) microorganisms
  • One teaspoon of depleted soil contains 5 hundred (500) microorganisms
  • In a healthy soil, many more organisms to control or out-compete disease organisms. A healthy soil is better protected against a disease outbreak.

How to Make Your Lawn Eco-Friendly:

If you don’t know the answer, don’t be afraid to ask or do some research. Hire a landscape designer or other landscape professional. A landscape designer may seem expensive at first, but if you don’t have a good plan, your landscape will cost you and the environment a lot more in the long run.

Get to know your watershed. Find out where the creeks, streams and rivers are in your area. When it rains, put on your rain gear and follow the water to see where it goes, all the way to a nearby creek, river, lake or ocean. It will give you a greater awareness of how you and your yard is connected to the environment. Most of the pollution to our water supply happens during a storm. Learn how you can manage your storm water and clean it up before it leaves your property. We often install “seasonal creek beds” with river cobble that goes from the downspouts of your roof to the end of the property. This looks nice and helps slow the water down, filters it and lets it percolate back into the groundwater supply. We have some of our work published in < a href=”” rel=”nofollow”> Check with your local water department for more info for your neighborhood.

Take a walk in your neighborhood and see what plants are doing well and which ones are not. Network and share ideas with your neighbors.

Leaves are called leaves because they are meant to be left. Leaves are great compost and every tree was designed to live with their own leaf litter. You can rake or blow leaves out of pathways and patios, and put under the trees they came from or compost them.

Use a mower and blower as little as possible. We use propane blowers, when necessary. They are as loud as the gas ones, but are 95% less polluting than a gas blower.

Mow lawns on the highest setting of your mower. This will help to retain moisture in the lawn and allow the roots to grow deeper and become more drought resistant.

Water lawns deeply and less often to help them become more drought resistant. Start a compost bin and grow something you like to eat. Your plants will become your new friends.

Contact Info:

The best way to reach us is via email at The second best way is to text or call my cell phone at 831-359-7918. Sometimes I communicate through our Facebook page

About Habitat Gardens:

Helping to lead the way to sustainability, Habitat Gardens is a small locally owned business in Santa Cruz that offers an ecological, sustainable, and innovative approach to landscaping and gardening services. We offer a wide range of design packages, complete maintenance services and landscape installation. We specialize in creating beautiful landscapes that are drought tolerant, low maintenance and full of abundance. Habitat Gardens donates 10% of profits to other organizations that promote social justice and a healthy environment. Brett Graf is currently the lead instructor for the Green Gardener Certification Program in Santa Cruz County

Mission Statement:

Habitat Gardens is determined to be a thriving business that will help to improve the health of the community and the environment, provide employees with meaningful jobs and fully satisfy our customers. Habitat Gardens offers an ecological, sustainable, and innovative approach to landscaping and gardening services. We work together to create dream gardens that are beautiful, low-maintenance and save money.

Vision Statement:

Through offering appropriate landscape and garden services, Habitat Gardens is a leader in the industry, creating environmental sustainability and a strong community.

Values Statement

Habitat Gardens is determined be a thriving business that will help to improve the health of the community and the environment, provide employees with meaningful jobs and fully satisfy our customers.

Habitat Gardens’ Services:

We offer a wide range of design packages, consultation, complete maintenance services and landscape installation, including: big clean-ups, planting, edible and medicinal gardens, all types of irrigation, rainwater catchment systems, graywater systems, hardscapes like flagstone pathways and patios, raised veggie beds, greenhouses, retaining walls, fences, arbors … just about anything you can think of, but we do not do any major concrete work or large decks or extensive carpentry projects.

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