Elements of a sustainable backyard

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A well-designed garden provides the link between indoor and outdoor living areas. When designing your garden, ask what you want your garden to achieve. Do you want: an edible/productive garden? a garden that helps to improve the thermal comfort of the house? to enhance your privacy? or, to encourage wildlife?

Whatever your goals, draw up a plan after analysing your site and slowly work your way towards achieving the backyard of your dreams.

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Grow your own food

A vegetable garden, home orchard, poultry, aquaponics, compost bins and worm farms, are some elements of a home food production system. Even a small herb or vegetable garden can be very satisfying and provide savings on your grocery bills.

Food waste can be effectively recycled with compost bins and worm farms. This provides free and rich organic fertiliser for your decorative plants, fruit trees and vegetables. Another good source of fertiliser is weed tea. This is made by drowning garden weeds in water. The resultant 'liquid gold' contains the nutrients these weeds were sucking from your garden and you can return them to the soil by applying this tea. 

To reduce the use of water in your productive garden, mulch around plants. Mulching also helps to prevent weeds and keeps the soil temperature constant. Organic mulches add to the soil's nutrient content.

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Rainwater collection systems

Rainwater can be harvested for use in gardens, flushing toilets, topping up pools, washing cars and washing clothes. Water supply from rainwater is calculated based on the roof area connected to the rainwater harvesting system, and rainfall data for the selected area.

You can locate rainwater tanks above ground in lesser used spaces on the western or southern parts of the house. A first flush diverter that collects and diverts the majority of the first flush of roof contamination away from the tanks will keep the water entering the tanks as clean as possible.

Systems such as RainBank or Waterswitch allow the priority sourcing of rainwater for toilets and laundry, only using mains water as a back-up. You can make sure the rainwater is clean and bacteria-free by using filters that can include a micron pleated filter, a silver carbon filter, as well as a UV filter.

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Stormwater run-off controls

Buildings and hard ground covers create impervious surfaces causing stormwater to run off more quickly. This causes problems with local flooding and drainage infrastructure capacity. It also reduces water quality in our creeks and bays. During dry weather pollution builds up on driveways and roofs and this is washed into waterways with the first rain (the ‘first flush effect’). There are steps homeowners can take to minimise water run-off.

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Assess the pervious and impervious surfaces around your home and consider how the water run-off can be treated. Roof area run-off can be captured in rainwater tanks. Landscape design can reduce stormwater run-off from the site through permeable paving, pebble paths, infiltration trenches, soak wells, lawn, garden areas and raingardens / swales and the like. 

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Pools and ponds

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Swimming pool pumps are among the most energy-hungry appliances in a home. Replacing existing inefficient pool pumps with an energy efficient pool pump (7, 8 or 9-star rated, as listed by EnergyRating.gov.au), can help you reduce your household’s electricity use and carbon footprint, while also saving money on running costs. Ku-ring-gai Council is currently offering $250 rebates towards the cost of upgrading pool pumps to highly efficient models.

Where pools or ponds are installed, they can be designed to reduce reliance on potable water through a backwash recirculation and treatment system, cartridge filtration system or with rainwater top-up. A pool blanket on swimming pools helps saving water in warmer weather.

Swimming pool pumps are among the most energy-hungry appliances in a home. Replacing existing inefficient pool pumps with an energy efficient pool pump (7, 8 or 9-star rated, as listed by EnergyRating.gov.au), can help you reduce your household’s electricity use and carbon footprint, while also saving money on running costs.

A natural pool system could be a chemical-free option that also uses less energy than a conventional pool. In this system water is pumped into a separate filtration zone where it is cleaned by passing through gravel, akin to what happens in natural lakes and waterholes. Aquatic plants can be added for additional filtration.

Unused existing chlorine or saltwater in-ground pools can be converted into natural pools. A pool converted to a pond requires less maintenance, acts as a native fauna refuge and can be switched back to a normal pool at any time.

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Outdoor water use

The watering of gardens can account for a significant portion of a household’s water use. A few ways to cut down on water use without affecting your plants are:

  • Take a measured approach – if you use sprinklers, measure their output to optimise use. An easy way is to place same-sized empty cans around the garden and measure the time it takes to fill in one inch of water. This can indicate where watering is high due to overlaps in sprinkler arrangement and how long you need to run.
  • A rain gauge, or a few around bigger open areas, can help in measuring how much rainfall is getting to your lawn and thus indicate how much you need to supplement.
  • Use drip irrigation systems. Bigger gardens can benefit from a centrally controlled irrigation system, incorporating both soil moisture monitoring and weather monitoring to maximise water efficiency
  • General mulching of new and proposed garden beds will greatly reduce water requirement. Aim to achieve foliage cover for all beds with layering of plants and ground covers. This will help to reduce the impact of weeds too.

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Dry clothes naturally

A clothesline which receives sunshine minimises or negates the need for electric dryers. This not only saves electricity but the sun's rays will kill also some disease-causing germs and parasites.

You can also use indoor clotheslines or portable drying racks, where space is available. Fold-in clotheslines for smaller indoor spaces are also available.

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Native plantings and water-wise gardens

Xeriscaping is the art of natural landscaping using indigenous plants or plants from similar climates that require little water or nutritional inputs to keep them healthy. They also provide valuable habitat for native fauna.

Within a single yard, there can be different climate zones depending on shade, ground contours, orientation to sun, nearby outdoor structures and plantings. Choose locally adapted plantings suited to these microclimates. By grouping plantings by water needs you can water efficiently. Consider solar access to your house and roofs when planning new tree plantings.

Soil is a vulnerable resource. One hectare of topsoil (the most productive soil layer) can contain up to five tonnes of living organisms and because it can take more than 500 years to form a two centimetre thickness of top soil. In practical terms it is considered to be non-renewable. Topsoil should kept separate from fill and construction waste and re-used in landscaping works on completion.

Limit lawns to recreation areas such as play areas or the outdoor entertaining area. For strictly decorative areas consider alternatives such as drought-resistant ground covers and native grasses as conventional turf requires lots of water and fertilisers to stay healthy.

Minimise use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilisers. If you have created a microbial-rich soil with compost and manures, your plants will be healthy and more disease-resistant. Companion planting can help attract beneficial insects to prey on the nuisance ones. Make your own fertiliser and pest remedies. 

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Ecological corridors and native fauna

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Before you construct, undertake a site analysis to ascertain and manage key features such as flora and fauna, water and land forms. More green space in your home means not only a space for you to recharge batteries but also providing a habitat for other creatures. Your commitment towards ecology means protecting and enhancing existing native ecosystems and encouraging biodiversity.

If your property borders the bush, you can help in preserving ecological corridors by limiting fences and providing appropriate fauna crossings, bridges or tunnels.

You can attract wildlife to your property by providing appropriate structures to facilitate native fauna habitation, e.g nest boxes and tree hollows.

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Green roofs and growing walls

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Green roofs and green walls can add to the biodiversity of an area and also stop rainwater from running off very fast.

Shrubs and trellised vines close to walls provide insulation in all seasons. However, watch out for those with invasive root systems that might affect the house foundations and footings.

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