Archive for the ‘Lawns’ Category

Four Shades of Green

An update on our grass alternative beds

EcoHouse is getting greener — four shades greener to be exact!  Last summer we established four small test plots for different types of lawn alternatives, right in our own front yard.  We wanted to understand the benefits of each type firsthand, and be able to show visitors exactly how each would turn out.  This has been an exciting project right from the get-go.  There was much debate amongst staff and board as to which alternatives we should choose, and the four finalists that made it into the exhibit were:

White Clover
Elfin Thyme

White Clover, EcoLawn, and EcoAlternative were planted as seeds.  The Elfin Thyme was purchased in small established plugs.

After the first month, White Clover and EcoAlternative were off to a great start.  They sprouted up quickly and established well.  Hardly any weeding was needed, as the growth happened so quickly.  Both were lush and green, and needed to be mowed within a few weeks.  On the other hand, the EcoLawn and Thyme were growing very slowly, and in constant need of weeding and attention.

By the end of the summer, we were paying more attention to the EcoLawn.  It had filled in to be thick and dense, and the vibrant green colour was particularly appealing.  Aside from some early weeding (ok, a lot of early weeding), maintenance on this plot has been low and we haven’t needed to mow at all over the whole summer.

As for the Elfin Thyme, it is still too early to tell how it will fare in relation to the others.  We’ve spent the summer weeding because the plugs that we started with haven’t spread very far, and we expect it will take another two years or so until we see it filled in.  On the plus side, because of its low profile, we know this one won’t need any mowing, ever.

A quick staff poll indicates that the favourite so far is clover.

Stay tuned for an update in the spring of 2016, and we’ll let you know how each of the alternatives fared through the cold weather.


Case Study: A RAIN Home Visit

Main water related concerns:
• Multiple downspouts connected directly to aging storm sewer laterals
• Back and side yard area graded towards the house
• Moisture and effervescence in basement
• Downspouts emptying too close to the house
• Rain barrels often overflowing
• Worn asphalt driveway is graded towards the house

This house was chosen as a case study because it shows many of the issues that are address through the RAIN Home Visit program. I enjoyed my visit at this house, mostly because the homeowner was very friendly and welcomed my suggestions with an open mind. But on top of that – this home was a classic example of how mismanaging water outside can and will lead to issues inside.

This home is built in a neighbourhood where downspouts connect directly into the municipal sewer system. Connected downspouts are concerning from an environmental as well as a safety perspective. The bottom line is that I do not trust what I cannot see and there is no guarantee that those 80 year old sewer laterals are working properly. Over time they get clogged and cracked by things like leaves, soil, animal burrows, and tree roots. Most homeowner assume these underground pipes are doing their job, but moist basements tell a different story.

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This homeowner recently had the eaves and downspouts replaced. However, the grading of the eaves and position of the downspouts was not changed and they were connected right back into the municipal system. When replacing eaves and downspouts, take a look at the roof area and consider an ideal drainage method. Downspouts should be positioned 8-10 feet and downhill from the foundation onto a permeable area. Where possible, avoid placing downspouts on driveways and patios. During the tour of the basement I saw exactly what I was expecting to see – moisture. The area where the walls met the floor was damp, and the walls were covered in a white mineral deposit known as efflorescence.

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If you have efflorescence in your basement don’t worry, it is not toxic, but, it is a definite sign that there is moisture in the soil surrounding your foundation. Excess moisture in the soil applies pressure against your foundation, which is one of the causes of pressure cracks. Water is always looking to flow where there is less pressure – and over time can force itself through your foundation. Efflorescence is not a toxic concern, but it is a sign that action is needed to keep your foundation safe and dry.

The ground surface in the back and side yard being graded towards the foundation was another concern. The lowest point in the backyard was where the lawn met the foundation – an immediate sign that the area needs regarding. I noticed that about 6 inches away from the house the vegetation had changed sharply from lawn to a low growing yellow flowered ground cover. Sharp changes in vegetation means that the moisture pattern in this area is not what it should be (in this case the area next to the foundation was too wet for lawn to grow).

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Main lessons learnt:

• Disconnect downspouts from sewer laterals and direct them onto a permeable surface 8-10 feet and downhill from the foundation.

• Make sure the land surface is always graded away from the house to ensure water is flowing away from the foundation.

• Where possible, try to maintain an 8-10 foot ‘dry perimeter’ around your house where no water is soaking into the ground. Water can be safely absorbed into the ground beyond this 8-10 foot perimeter.

• Fully empty all rain barrels after each rain so the barrel has full capacity for the next rain event.

RAIN Home Visit Series – Getting water off the roof

This is the second post in the RAIN Home Visit series. It will answer that ‘where do I start’ question. Even though each property has its own unique drainage situation, there are still general guidelines that all homeowners should follow.

As mentioned in the first post – the most important questions for homeowners to answer is: when it rains – where does the water go?

Answering this question starts on the roof with the eaves troughs and downspouts. Before worrying about where and how to direct the water on the ground, you first have to make sure water is draining off the roof properly. During a heavy rain, take an umbrella outside and walk around the perimeter of the house, taking note of places where water is spilling over the eaves. Spillage and leaks may be from
i) old eaves that have moved, cracked, or pulled away from the roof,
ii) clogging caused by leaves, debris, and/or ice,
iii) not enough downspouts to properly drain the water.

Make note also of any water that is spilling out of the downspouts, which is the pipe that will take water from the eaves to the ground.

If either the eaves or downspouts are not working properly, water can spill out and pool beside the foundation. Allowing water to soak into the ground too close to the foundation is one of the main causes of moist/wet basements. On your walk around the house, make note also of any water ponding or pooling on the ground. In best practice, no ponding is acceptable, but a general rule of thumb is the closer this ponding is to the foundation, the more damage it can do. It is best to try and keep the area within 8-10 feet of the foundation as dry as possible.

Once the eaves and downspouts are working properly you have taken the first steps in protecting your property against water damage. From here, the next steps focus on what to do with the water once it makes its way through the downspouts.

The next post in the series will focus on i) ‘connected downspouts’, and why they are now widely considered malpractice in the industry, as well as ii) the importance of lot grading for adequate drainage, and iii) where and how to direct your downspouts on the ground.

Clean Air is a Yard Away 2012

Recycle your old gas powered lawnmowers and get a discount on a new, more efficient model with Green Venture and RONA.

Green Venture in partnership with Hamilton-area RONA Stores, with support from Clean Air Hamilton, Hamilton’s, and Green Circle Recycling, is hosting another ‘Clean Air is a Yard Away’ lawnmower recycling event.  On these days gas-powered, walk-behind lawnmowers emptied of fluids can be exchanged for a $50 instant rebate on a new, eco-friendly model and a chance to win a cordless weed trimmer.

Recycling old gas powered lawnmowers at RONA

Each year in Canada, around 80,000 tonnes of harmful emissions are released by gas-powered lawn equipment. By properly recycling old, polluting gas powered lawnmowers for a $50 instant rebate (limit of one per person) on selected new, eco-friendly models at a ‘Clean Air is a Yard Away’ event, consumers can save money and decrease air pollution in their community.  In 2011, Green Venture and RONA helped recycle enough highly polluting lawnmowers to save over 1 Tonne of greenhouse gas and smog forming emissions.

Green Venture lawnmower recycling booths will be open:

  • Friday, April 27 from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. at RONA Parkdale (633 Parkdale Ave North Hamilton, L8H 5Z1, 905 547-3444);
  • Saturday, April 28 from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. at RONA Waterdown (52 Dundas Street East, Waterdown, ON, L0R 2H2, 905-689-8700);
  • Sunday, April 29 from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. at RONA Hamilton Rymal (1245 Rymal Rd E, Hamilton, ON L8W 3M8, 905-383-3355)

For more information on ‘Clean Air is a Yard Away’ events, please contact 905-540-8787 ext 113 or email

Replacing Lawns with Native Species

We recently received the following question from Josh on our Facebook page:

“Hey Green Venture, Do you have any info on Hamilton’s Long Grass and Weeds by-law? I’m interested in planting native plants this year but wondering if the city will stop the plants from growing to their full height. Thanks in advance!”

The recent record-breaking warmfront has some folks thinking about spring, gardening, and how to make the best of our seasonal outdoor “play time”. As most of us know, maintaining lawns is time-consuming and has some real, avoidable environmental costs in terms of water, soil, and air quality. An overview of these issues can be found on our factsheet Healthy Lawns and Healthy People.

Green Venture is however, quick to point out that lawns make wonderful outdoor play areas for families and pets. So, the trick is limiting lawn areas to what you need – this will mitigate damage to the environment and provide a great space to play outdoors. Remember that nearly all grass varieties used for lawns are non-native, and therefore require much maintenance as they are not used to our local climatic conditions. If you do need a “lawn” area, then check out some healthier alternatives below that will still provide a great outdoor playing surface (groundcovers including clover, and eco lawn seed mixes).

If you find the only time you are spending on your lawn is cutting it, then you might want to think about alternatives to lawns that would allow you more time to spend with family and friends. Alternatives include food gardens, shrub gardens, edible gardens, groundcovers, trees, and even permeable (porous) hardscaping such as paver stone (interlock) patios, or gravel areas.

Josh is interested in replacing his lawn with native species – we say hurray!

Weed Law Battles

Josh’s question is not uncommon – the battle between weed laws and folks trying to reduce their carbon footprint by using alternatives has been going on for some time. One of the most interesting reads in this subject includes examples dating back to the 50s including some Canadian examples. You can find this article on the US EPA’s webpage entitled “A HISTORY OF WEED LAWS AND THE BATTLES OVER THEM” (1/3 down the webpage).

My favourite is Lorrie Otto’s story:

Lorrie Otto – The High Priestess of Natural Landscaping Movement

The modern suburban natural landscape movement’s roots are traced to the efforts of one woman, naturalist-teacher Lorrie Otto. When the Otto’s moved to their suburban Milwaukee home in the 1950s, the front yard was an acre and a half of lawn with a bed of tulips and 64 spruce trees. It looked like a swiss chalet surrounded by Christmas trees. Mrs. Otto wanted her children to learn first hand about the wonders of Nature so she planted some blue and white aster (Aster azureus), yellow goldenrod (Solidago canadenis), fragrant bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), and some ferns.

In the early 1960s, Bayside, Wisconsin, officials viewed her wild fern garden as “weeds” and cut it down. An enraged Lorrie Otto took up the fight and convinced village officials that a natural landscape was a public good and not a health hazard. She went on to become the director of the “Wild Ones – Natural Landscapers, Ltd.,” a non-profit organization whose mission is to educate and share information with members and the community at the “plants level” and to promote bio-diversity and environmentally sound practices. By 1992, the Wild Ones boasted five chapters in Illinois and Wisconsin and more than 1200 members.

Mrs. Otto, now in her seventies, has received national awards for her environmental efforts. Her naturally landscaped yard is considered one of the best gardens in America. It contains 80 wildflower and grass species reflecting the diversity of a native Wisconsin prairie.

In a poetic turn of fortune, in the village that once sent a mower to level Mrs. Otto’s wildflowers, there are now sold-out bus tours of a dozen naturally landscaped homes including her now famous yard.

Hamilton Lawn Maintenance By-law 10-118

Although the “battle against weed laws” may seem out-of-date and somewhat ironic to folks today, it is still a very real issue to some. There are recent examples in Burlington and Hamilton that suggest people (and complaining neighbours) are coming around. In fact, Hamilton’s revised Lawn Maintenance By-Law No. 10-118 is a reflection of this changing trend.

Among the dated provisions from the repealed by-law were those that required all lawns to be “weed-free” (whatever that means), and required a buffer-zone of cut grass around naturalized areas.

Hamilton’s revised Lawn Maintenance By-law No. 10-118 states:

3(1)(a) Every owner or occupant of property shall keep vegetation in the yard of their property clean and cleared up.

3(1)(c) …”clear” or “clear up” means:

3(1)(c)(i) for property located inside the urban boundary that is equal to or less than 0.4 ha [43,056 sq ft] in area, to keep all plants cut to a height of equal to or less than 21 cm, except:

1. ornamental plants;
2. shrubs or trees,
3. cultivated fruits or vegetables; or
4. plants buffering or otherwise protecting a natural feature such as a watercourse.

[There are other requirements if your property is larger than 0.4 ha.]

My Interpretation of the By-law

I am no lawyer, but as far as I understand, Josh, you can go right ahead and replace all of your lawn with beneficial native species (if you think or know I’m wrong, please let me know!). I am basing this interpretation on the following (remember, I am no lawyer!)

“Ornamental” is open to interpretation. Hamilton’s by-law provides the following definition: “‘ornamental plant’ means a plant deliberately grown for beautification, screening, accent, specimen, colour or other aesthetic reasons but does not include any variety of turf grass.” If you are anything like me, you feel that native plants fit very easily into this definition. Heck, they’re beautiful! Not just their flowers, which last for a precious short time, but for their foliage and other attributes.

However, common sense should be used here– although it appears you could technically replace the lawn with some “ornamental” native species from your foundation to the sidewalk edge, I think it would be safer to plan your design and carefully select the species you decide to plant. I would consider creating a large “garden” area (or several smaller ones) with clearly defined edges, and a metre-or-so wide buffer area of ecolawn, clover, or other groundcover that grows below 21 cm in height between them and public sidewalks (as per by-law heights above). You could also make it look attractive with a border of paver stones, potato stones, or other permeable hardscape, instead of something that may require maintenance. This way, your natural areas will clearly be “ornamental gardens” (you might want to talk to you lawyer about this interpretation!)

There are also landscape designers that have experience in using native plants (and best methods of presenting them to keep neighbours from complaining). We have used Paul O’Hara from at EcoHouse for many years.

Look Out! Noxious Weeds

You should also be careful when selecting native plants for your garden. Section 3(1)(c)(iii) of the Lawn Maintenance By-law states “to remove noxious weeds and, in the case of poison ivy, treat the poison ivy with an herbicide…”.

There is a Provincial Act called the Weed Control Act, which regulations list a number of noxious weeds (you can find a list of these noxious plants here). This provincial act provides a list of plants that present dangers to grazing animals and some species like poison ivy (a native species by the way), which pose some threat to humans. Many municipal property standards by-laws reference this act, including Hamiltons.

One plant that is listed in the act is Milkweed (a native species). As most of us are aware, milkweed is vitally important to monarch butterfly populations! Sure, it might kill a cow if it ate enough of it, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a cow grazing along King St in Westdale or Stoney Creek!

Years ago I contacted the by-law department to express my concern with urban lawn maintenance by-laws integrating the noxious weed act, which was developed to protect the agricultural sector. I was pleasantly surprised when the by-law representative stated that they would be happy to meet and begin the process of amending the by-law, and make provisions for certain plants to be used in urban settings. Unfortunately, I didn’t have funding at the time to pursue the issue and was too busy to follow it up – perhaps I can reopen this file sometime soon…

In Summary – Go For It!

I believe Josh, that you could, and should go for it! Although…be prepared to run into some troubles with complaining neighbours or by-law officers who have yet to be enlightened on the benefits of native species and the detrimental effects of traditional lawn care.

However, if you do go for it, and do run into trouble, I’m sure there are some lawyers, councilors, and community groups that would help you in your efforts to convince folks that your native garden (as beautiful and ornamental as it might be) actually contributes to a healthier community!

Bottom line – our society is moving in this direction, and frankly we need folks like you to be early adopters – if you don’t do it, who will!

All the best in your efforts. I have included some resources that may be helpful below. Please let me know if you have any other questions or comments.


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