How to Create & Maintain an Eco-Friendly Outdoor Living Space
When designing a new outdoor living space or redesigning your yard to create a private oasis, eco-friendly features should be considered. Going green in your landscape design is, of course, good for the environment, but it is also good for your wallet, the health of your family and pets, and your peace of mind. This is an easy way to lower the environmental impact of your home, lower your water bill, and reduce the amount of unnecessary toxins to which you, your family, your pets, and your guests are exposed.
When some folks think of eco-friendly landscaping or making their home greener, common misconceptions can lead them to think this means they have to rip out all of their current landscaping and replace it with succulents, fill in their swimming pool, install a field of solar panels, or never again turn on their garden hose.
These are all options that can lower your home’s environmental impact, but they are not the only options available to you. This is your home and your outdoor living spaces, and they should look and function as you want them to so that you can fully enjoy your home and property. There is no need to sacrifice function, visual appeal, or your personal style as you take steps to make your home a little greener. Plus, just how green you go is completely up to you.
You can start with easy things like swapping out chemical-laden cleaning products for all-natural options or asking your pest control service to start using organic sprays. You can make a do-it-yourself solar oven as a fun family project or you can implement a recycling system for when you host social gatherings.
If you start with these smaller changes and build on your successes, it probably won’t be long before you are considering bigger steps like replacing your natural grass lawn with artificial turf or replacing your barbecue grill with an option that is more earth-friendly. Some of these changes are going to feel like an investment, but you might be surprised and just how cost-effective and easy it can be to take these types of bigger steps towards eco-friendly outdoor living.
10 Tips to Create Eco-Friendly Outdoor Living Spaces
1. Start with an Overall Design Plan
You know you want to go at least a little greener in your outdoor living areas. You also know you want these outdoor spaces to look good and function in a way that meets your family’s needs and supports their hobbies. Therefore, whether you are redesigning a single patio or you are coming up with an eco-friendly landscape design for your whole yard, the first step is having an overall plan. This is the only way to ensure that your overall design is cohesive and is going to meet your needs. This will also help you determine your budget and will help you more easily find opportunities to go green.
Make a list of must-have features and a second list that is more of a wish list. Your must-haves are going to include the features that you cannot live without – or at least really wouldn’t want to. This might be a built-in barbecue grill, an outdoor television, an expansive patio for entertaining, a putting green, a pond, a playground, or a vegetable garden.
Your wish list can include things that would be nice to have but that you can live without. These are the things you will fit in if there is space and if your budget allows.
The scope of your design will help you decide if you will be taking this on as a do-it-yourself project or if you will be hiring landscape professionals to help create eco-friendly outdoor living spaces that fit your needs and include environmentally conscious features wherever possible.
This will also help you know what to consider or include early on. For example, if you are planning on installing an outdoor kitchen, you will need to run plumbing and electricity before you lay your patio.
2. Include Eco-Friendly Hardscapes and Ground Covers
Hardscapes and ground covers are the foundation on which the rest of your design is built. The choices you make here will significantly impact whether or not you end up with eco-friendly landscaping. This is also where you can see a big difference in water usage and your carbon footprint.
Remember that part of saving water with non-living hardscapes is not having to irrigate them, but another important part is to clean them with a broom instead of a garden hose to save even more water.
If you choose an expansive, natural grass lawn, you are not choosing an environmentally responsible ground cover. Natural grass requires tens of thousands of gallons of water every year and it requires electric- or gas-powered equipment to maintain it. Therefore, if this is your foundation, it will be challenging to create an eco-friendly landscape.
On the other hand, if you choose a low-water, low-maintenance ground cover that can function like natural grass and provide the same look and feel, then you are choosing a foundation on which you can create green outdoor living spaces. The best example here would be artificial turf. This long-lasting ground cover requires no irrigation, no mowing, no aerating, no edging, and no pesticides to control the pest population. It also looks and feels like natural grass but comes with the added benefit of always looking lush and green like your dream lawn even if your dogs use it as a restroom or if there are high-traffic areas.
Gravel, Mulch, Bark and Wood Chips
Low-maintenance, low-water grass alternatives like gravel, bark, wood chips, and mulch are also great options for eco-friendly ground covers. These options require no water, are easy to keep looking good, and generally just need to be replenished every couple of years.
Gravel, in particular, is a good choice for seating areas, for use around fire pits, and for walkways. There are lots of sizes and colors to choose from, so you should have no problem finding an option that fits your needs.
Mulch, bark, and wood chips are good for affordably covering large areas and for covering bare earth around trees and plants. These eco-friendly ground covers help the soil retain moisture, which helps conserve water. They also help to regulate soil temperature, limit weed growth, and reduce erosion.
If you prefer a living ground cover, make sure to look for low-water options to lower your water bill and reduce your overall water consumption.
Concrete and Paving Stones
Choosing hardscapes over natural grass is already an eco-friendly move. The smaller your lawn or any other living ground cover that requires water, the better. Therefore, creating functional spaces like patios and walkways made from concrete, bricks, wood, composite, or paving stones is a great step.
Larger patios cover more ground with non-living hardscapes, which means cutting down on your water bill while creating some great spaces for outdoor living and entertaining. Wood or composite decks, or concrete or paving stone patio is ideal for this. Among these options, pavers may be the most eco-friendly choice.
Wood decks are good looking and provide a great area for entertaining guests. As far as the environment goes, cutting down trees to make the wood planks is not as great. Neither are the chemical-laden stains and sealers that need to be regularly applied. There is also the issue of termites, wood-boring beetles, and dry rot. Woods decks do last a long time, but they do not last forever.
Next, we have concrete. This is not a bad option for an eco-friendly outdoor living area. Concrete is considered a sustainable building material and can be recycled. The manufacture of conventional concrete does give off more than its fair share of greenhouse gas emissions, but there are now greener options available that produce less carbon dioxide and require less water if the manufacturer recycles their wash water.
While slab concrete is a good option for eco-friendly landscape design, paving stones are better. Paving stones can be made from brick, flagstone, slate, other natural stones, or concrete. Concrete pavers, like poured concrete, are building materials made from sustainable ingredients and can be recycled. However, it is less likely that they would ever need to be recycled.
There are a couple of reasons for this.
First off, paving stones can last the rest of your lifetime, and then your children’s lifetime, and then their children’s lifetime. So, there is no problem with longevity.
Secondly, if your patio or driveway gets damaged somehow, the way paver installations are put together allows them to be taken apart to replace just the damaged paving stones. If a slab concrete patio is damaged, you may need to replace the whole slab, which means breaking up and recycling the original slab. Recycling is great, but it is still better to not have to recycle something, since recycling requires transportation, water, and energy.
3. Choose Eco-Friendly Outdoor Lighting
Landscape lighting is an important part of designing your outdoor living areas. This is how you will safely guide your guests through your yard, how you will accentuate special features, and how you will be able to see what you are doing when you are grilling those perfect steaks.
It is very easy to make greener choices with your outdoor lighting. Really, all you have to do is avoid older, halogen lights and choose either solar lights or LED outdoor lights.
Solar lights use no electricity, can be placed anywhere where they will get sun, are great for lighting pathways, and are inexpensive to maintain. They do require some maintenance and are not the right choice for folks who need lights that last late into the night or that can still be on when they leave for work early in the morning. Solar lights might be right for you and are clearly an eco-friendly choice, but be sure to read our solar light guide to get familiar with the pros and cons to see if this is the right choice for you.
The other option is LED outdoor lighting. With LED landscape lights, you will have wires and they will require electricity throughout their lifespan. They use much less electricity than halogen lights, which makes them an eco-friendly option. LED bulbs also have long lifespans and offer more consistent lighting than solar lights. LED lighting is more versatile and can be used in more places, such as under trees or near structures where a solar light might not get enough sun to charge.
Schedule an outdoor lighting demo to see if this might be the right option for you.
4. Choose Greener Barbecue Grills or Outdoor Ovens
Most folks in Southern California either grill in their backyard regularly or wish that they could. This means that barbecue grills are essential to designing functional patio kitchens and outdoor living areas. The issue is choosing outdoor cooking options that are safer for you and your family and that are better for the environment.
Let’s take a look at some options.
Charcoal Barbecue Grills
Conventional charcoal is not eco-friendly and is not healthy to burn around your family, friends, or pets. Therefore, it should be avoided by anyone who is trying to take steps towards greener, healthier living. However, if you already have a charcoal grill, you do not necessarily have to replace it. You might choose to replace it with an eco-friendlier option, but you can green your grilling routine and keep your favorite grill at the same time.
To do this, stop buying conventional, additive-laden charcoal and switch to natural lump charcoal. Natural lump charcoal is made from natural or processed wood and will give you the smoky flavor you love without releasing all those added chemicals into the air that comes with burning conventional charcoal.
You will also want to get a charcoal chimney starter to get your grill going so that you can avoid using chemical-laden lighter fluid.
You will still be burning wood, which is not the best choice, but it is a step in the right direction.
Gas Barbecue Grills
Propane and natural gas grills produce less pollution than charcoal grills and are far more energy efficient. Propane is the more popular choice and is readily available at almost every gas station, grocery store, and convenience store. If you choose propane as your gas, you also do not have to run a gas line to your patio, since you purchase it in returnable tanks and canisters. With natural gas, you will need to run a gas line for your grill.
Natural gas grills are the greener option, since they produce less carbon dioxide, but do keep in mind that both of these options, while better than charcoal, do burn fossil fuels.
Electric Barbecue Grills
Electric barbecue grills can be a greener option, depending on how you get your electricity. If you run your home on green energy generated from solar, water, or wind, an electric grill can be an eco-friendly choice; however, if your home runs on conventional energy, the manufacturing of the grill plus the fossil fuels burned to run it makes this not a good choice.
Pellet Barbecue Grills
Pellet grills burn pellets made of compressed scraps of wood. This makes them an eco-friendlier option for backyard cookouts. Pellet grills do require electricity but not a significant amount, which becomes even less significant if your home runs on a green power source. It should be noted that you will need to run electrical wiring, so be sure to do this when you are installing your patio.
Pellet grills are also easy to use, easy to clean, and will impart that smoky flavor we all love.
Solar ovens require no energy source aside from natural sunlight, which they use to cook food in one of the eco-friendliest ways possible. You can purchase a pre-made solar oven that will have you cooking outdoors the day it arrives. Or, if you are just a little crafty or handy, you can make your own solar oven or even make it a fun project to do with your family.
General tips for purchasing and maintaining a grill include choosing a quality product that will last and keeping it clean. Like so many things manufactured now, cheaper grills are often not built to last. This increases waste and the need to manufacture more products. Choosing a better grill that will last for many years to come is a greener choice. Keeping your grill clean results in less smoke, which means less pollution caused by your cookouts.
5. Find Sustainable Patio Furniture
Once you have installed your hardscapes, your outdoor kitchen or built-in grill, and most of your landscaping features, it is time to focus on creating an eco-friendly outdoor living area. The first step in this will be finding eco-friendly, sustainable options for patio furniture.
Look for quality products that are built to last and made from sustainable materials or recycled materials. If you are shopping for wood patio furniture, look for products that have independent certification showing that the wood was grown and harvested in an environmentally responsible, sustainable manner.
Teak and eucalyptus are two popular options to consider. Teak, in particular, is a favorite among eco-friendly wood choices and is known for its strength, durability, and beauty. Teak is usually more expensive than other options, though, so, if you are working with a smaller budget, you may need to look for less-expensive, eco-friendly patio furniture options.
Other options to consider include stainless steel, aluminum, or eco-friendly, synthetic wicker products. Whenever possible, seek out local, independent makers or local companies that make and sell eco-friendly outdoor furniture. This avoids the carbon emissions of transportation and supports the local economy.
6. Look for Eco-Friendly Textiles
The textiles you choose are what will bring your outdoor room together and provide the finishing touches needed to create the desired environment. Whether you are shooting for an outdoor man cave or a relaxing, spa-like retreat, it is the textures and colors of fabrics and rugs that will tie the look together and solidify the overall feel of the space.
Selecting organic fabrics for throw pillows, all-natural outdoor curtains, and outdoor rugs made from sustainable materials will bring the beauty of nature into the space while also helping you avoid exposure to chemicals used in conventional production and dyeing processes.
Eco-friendly outdoor rug options include those made from natural, renewable materials, such as jute, bamboo, and sisal.
7. Choose an Eco-Friendlier Fire Pit or Patio Fireplace
Fire pits and fireplaces are not the most earth-friendly landscaping features. Whether they are wood-burning or gas, they use fuel and produce greenhouse gases that affect the environment and add to climate change. However, you can make some choices that will allow you to have a fire feature to gather around with friends without feeling too guilty about your carbon footprint.
Wood-burning fire pits and fireplaces are bad for the environment and bad for your health. The particulate matter they produce in the smoke can get into your eyes and lungs and cause a variety of issues. They also emit greenhouse gases. The smoke is the main issue, so you can reduce this at least a little by only burning seasoned wood, which will burn cleaner.
Propane and natural gas fire pits and fireplaces burn fossil fuels and also emit greenhouse gases, but they emit less and also do not produce the particulate matter produced by wood fires.
8. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Repurpose
Everything we buy requires water, energy, and materials during the manufacturing process, followed by the environmental impact of the product being transported to the store or shipped to us. This means that it is pretty much always better for the environment to use what we already have rather than to buy something new.
Do you have wood furniture you could refinish instead of buying new furniture? Could your patio cushions be reupholstered with eco-friendly fabrics instead of replaced? If so, this is probably the greener option. If you can reuse items you already have, this also saves you from having to figure how to get rid of them and, of course, saves money.
The next best option is to buy used. Check local flea markets, thrift stores, garage sales, and online classified ads to look for patio furniture that just needs a little sprucing up before adding it to your outdoor living area. This will also help you save money and reduces the demand for newly manufactured products.
This goes for other products as well. For example, could you build your fire pit with rocks dug up during the landscaping process? Would it be viable to purchase inexpensive dinnerware from a thrift store to have an outdoor set of reusable dishes instead of using paper plates?
9. Commit to an Organic Garden
If a vegetable garden is part of your eco-friendly landscape design, commit to making it an organic one. This is better for your family and better for the environment. Going organic in your garden means using organic methods for growing food, which includes natural fertilizers and pesticides, and either pulling weeds by hand or using organic herbicides.
10. Maintain Your Eco-Friendly Outdoor Living Spaces
After you have gone to the effort of designing and implementing an eco-friendly landscaping plan, stay true to your now-greener lifestyle by caring for your yard and entertaining spaces in an earth-conscious manner. You can keep up this green routine by continuing to avoid chemicals, choosing low-water and low-energy options whenever possible, and implementing a few household policies for everyone to follow.
Make Recycling Part of Your Plan
When hosting social gatherings, make sure recycling receptacles are readily available for cans and bottles, and consider banning plastic water bottles and using a water filter pitcher instead.
Reduce Garden Hose Use
It can be tempting to grab the hose every time our hardscapes need cleaning, but you can save water and burn a few extra calories by grabbing the broom and sweeping away dust and debris instead.
Use All-Natural Cleaners
Chemical-laden cleaners are not necessary and expose your family, friends, and pets to toxins that are bad for them and bad for the environment. Instead, make or buy all-natural cleaning products. You can find options for purchase in almost any store that sells cleaning products, as well as online. Or you can make your own with simple ingredients you probably already have, such as distilled white vinegar, baking soda, and lemon juice.
Make Small Changes
Making small changes to how you entertain can significantly reduce your environmental impact. Choose soy or beeswax candles scented with essential oils instead of paraffin wax candles. Buy compostable plates instead of paper or Styrofoam. Start a compost pile for all of your food scraps and kitchen waste from dinner party prep.
Keep Things in Good Repair
Clean, maintain, and repair your patio furniture, barbecue grill, and other outdoor living accessories to avoid the expense and waste of replacing them more often than necessary.