Collecting runoff from one good rain shower makes it work like 10. A rain barrel under a downspout (left) provides a reservoir of chemical-free water to tap as plants need it. Most hardware stores and nurseries sell barrels ranging from $60 for plastic to $300 for oak.
Species naturally suited to our region require less water and maintenance and no pesticides. Good native plants for most Midwest gardens include goldenrod, little bluestem, Russian sage, zebra grass, butterfly weed, switchgrass, columbine, coneflowers and dwarf fountain grass. Check with your local garden center for more. Pictured at left: coneflowers and Russian sage.
One penetrating, weekly soaking (1 to 1 1/2 hours) encourages plant roots to grow down in search of water. Frequent, brief waterings leave water on the surface, encouraging shallow roots that make plants much less drought-tolerant.
Drip irrigation (left)--slowly applying water directly to plants' root zone--doesn't waste a drop through evaporation and prevents molds that can develop with droplets on plant leaves.
Replace your gas mower (which produces as many pollutants in an hour as a new car driven 340 miles) with an electric or an old-fashioned reel mower (left). When you do mow, set the blade high (at least 2 inches) and leave the nutrient-rich clippings.
These are some of the dirtiest devices around, spewing as much hydrocarbon pollution in 30 minutes as a 1995 car does in a 100-mile trip. Use a rake if you feel compelled to gather up leaves, and compost or mulch your yard leftovers.
"There is nothing worse than having lawn-care companies spray chemicals five times a year to rid the yard of every dandelion," says Jeff Gillman, associate professor of horticulture science at the University of Minnesota.
Learn to live with a nemesis: clover (left). "Once upon a time, clover was encouraged to grow in lawns because when it was cut, it would supply nitrogen to the grass," Gillman says. Pet lovers might even consider it as an option to grass; clover is impervious to dog urine.
If you can ignore the peer pressure on your block, let cool-season lawns like bluegrass (left) and fescue go dormant in summer; they'll green up again in September.
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® March/April 2009.)