Protecting clean water at home

  • Backyard Garden

The return of rain means it’s time to start thinking about fall yard and garden maintenance – and where all of that rainwater or excess irrigation is going to go when it runs off your lawn and into the storm drain or deep into the soil.

The choices you make in your yard can make a big difference to the health of local streams, wildlife and our drinking water. So before you spray weed killer or reseed your lawn, consider designing a low-maintenance landscape that conserves water, reduces pollution, and attracts beneficial wildlife.

Even after the wet winter we had last year, parts of the state still faced potential water shortages this year, and as of last week, 43% of Oregon is experiencing drought, with streams running lower than normal. Our water is limited, and in some places, more water has been promised than our rivers and aquifers can deliver. With hotter, drier summers on the horizon, yards that are less thirsty will survive better, cost homeowners less and help protect our streams and underground water supplies from drying up.

When we use more water than our plants need or when it the rains, excess water on our yards and farms can wash fertilizers and pesticides into local waterways – either directly or through the storm drain in your street. These excess “nutrients” in the water are the cause of increasingly frequent toxic algae blooms, and they can harm fish and other aquatic life, and contaminate our drinking water.

But a trend is growing across Oregon – landscaping with native plants and incorporating water-wise yard maintenance is now the preferred style in many neighborhoods. If you’re ready to lead or join the movement on your street, try these simple steps from Katie Meckes, Urban Outreach & Education Specialist for East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District:


Include native plants
Planting in the fall gives new plants plenty of time to establish healthy root growth over the winter. Native plants are adapted to our climate and naturally resistant to local pests and diseases. Once established, they do well with very little water and can thrive without the need for fertilizers. Native plants will also attract birds, butterflies and other pollinators into your garden.

Reduce lawn
Replacing your grass with groundcovers or other lawn alternatives can be more functional and less demanding. They also provide habitat for birds, beneficial insects and small mammals. Start with your tough-to-grow or hard-to-mow areas, and continue from there.

Be water wise
Not only is overwatering wasteful, it can actually make your plants more vulnerable to pests. Water early in the morning (before 9am) or late in the evening (after 7pm) when temperatures are cooler and the air is still (less evaporation). Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses for more efficient watering. Wait to put new plants in the ground until a few rainfall events saturate the soil. Use mulch to retain soil moisture.

Mulch it up
Leave fallen leaves on the ground or add a thick, 3-inch layer of mulch over the surface of your soil to hold in moisture so that your plants need less water. Mulch also prevents erosion and helps keep weeds out, reducing the need for weed killers.

Right plant, right place
Every plant needs sun and water, but some need more or less than others. When you are ready to plant a section of your yard, first make note of how much sun and moisture the area gets, then choose a plant that matches those conditions so there’s less need to use additional irrigation. Group plants with similar needs to make watering more efficient.

Retain stormwater on your property
A rain garden is a “sunken garden bed” in your yard where you can direct runoff from your roof, driveway, and other impervious surfaces on your property. The rain can then soak into the ground naturally rather than running off into storm drains, reducing the amount of pollution that gets into our streams. Rain gardens are typically planted with hardy, native perennials that filter pollutants found in stormwater runoff.

Avoid pesticides
When pesticides go off-target, they are bad for people, pets, wildlife and waterways. Healthy plants are better able to resist and recover from insect damage, so be sure to put the right plant in the right place and build healthy soil with compost and proper mulching. Flowers that provide nectar, pollen and shelter will attract beneficial insects that will provide free pest control. If you must use pesticides, use the least toxic option that’s right for the job, and only buy what you need to avoid storing unnecessary chemicals at home.

It’s easy to landscape for clean water and healthy habitats. Learn more with these resources or find a free class near you:

Statewide:Safer Pest Control Inside and Out
Rain Garden Guide

Classes and workshops in Portland Metro:
East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District
West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District
Tualatin Soil & Water Conservation District

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