Backyard Habitat: Making Dollars and Sense In Your Yard

Recent studies demonstrate that eco-friendly gardening practices not only can reduce utility and maintenance costs but also increase property values

  • Janet Marinelli
  • Jul 15, 2011

WHEN LAURA SAMPSON and her husband Chris moved into their Clermont, Florida, home in 1998, they wanted a beautiful lawn and curb appeal, just like everyone else. They filled their garden with the plants they wanted, but not the species best suited to their central Florida climate. To keep their garden alive, the couple used chemical weed killers and fertilizers. One day they sprayed herbicide in a large planting bed and a small rabbit came running out. Later that day they found a small rabbit dead in their yard. “This was the first time we visibly saw the repercussion of our actions,” says Laura. “We decided then and there to become a friend to our own ecosystem.”

Today the Sampsons’ garden is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat™ and Laura is a certified Habitat Steward, after being trained by Federation staff to teach her neighbors how they can nurture wildlife in their yards. As a certified green home stager, she also helps families “green market” their homes and helps businesses make eco-friendly improvements.

Sampson is among a new breed of real estate professionals. In a 2010 National Association of Realtors survey, 88 percent of buyers said environmentally friendly features were an important consideration when purchasing a home. As the interest in sustainability has grown, so have the number of green builders, certified eco-brokers and green home stagers like Sampson.

The greening of the real estate industry hopefully will be a boon for both the environment and the pocketbook. Recent studies demonstrate that eco-friendly practices not only can reduce home operation and maintenance costs but also increase property values. And nothing improves environmental performance and curb appeal more than a wildlife-friendly, sustainable home landscape.

In 2003 the city of Santa Monica created two demonstration gardens in the front yards of adjacent bungalows. One was landscaped in the traditional way, with nonnative plants inappropriate for Southern California’s semiarid climate. The other was filled with native plants such as hummingbird sage and showy penstemon that are adapted to local conditions and provide food and shelter for wildlife. Over the next two years, city authorities tracked each landscape’s water consumption, yard waste and maintenance costs. The native garden used 77 percent less water—a big bonus in the perennially drought-prone region. It produced 66 percent less yard waste than the conventional garden, and it cost 68 percent less to maintain.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average U.S. household uses about 30 percent of its water outdoors. In arid areas, the figure may be as high as 70 percent. Using native plants appropriate for a property can reduce outdoor water use by 20 to 50 percent, reports the agency. In addition, strategic planting of trees and shrubs to cast cooling shade in summer and insulate against cold winter winds can slash the amount a homeowner spends to heat and cool a home by as much as 40 percent.

Sustainable landscapes have more subtle economic benefits as well. By calculating how much money property owners save by avoiding flood damage, recent studies have demonstrated the value of rain gardens, bioswales and other “low-impact development” measures designed to reduce storm-water runoff. Other research has shown how sustainable landscaping strategies can help lower taxes by reducing the cost of storm water infrastructure. For example, a 2007 study of the 73-square-mile Blackberry Creek watershed west of Chicago projected that by the year 2020, municipalities would save between $3.3 million and $4.5 million by employing low-impact development measures rather than conventional storm-water construction. It also estimated that by avoiding or reducing flood damage, the low-impact measures would increase area property values by $4.6 million.

Sustainable landscapes also are growing the value of homes. In one study released four years ago, University of Michigan researchers reported that people are willing to pay more for well-designed yards with mostly native plants than for properties dominated by lawn. The Michigan residents surveyed preferred a front garden that was 75 percent prairie wildflowers and grasses to one that was 50 percent prairie. The least favorite landscape was a conventional lawn.

Realtors have long recognized that attractive landscaping, especially with trees, can increase property values by as much as 20 percent. In Minneapolis, according to a U.S. Forest Service study, trees increase property values by $7.1 million while saving $6.8 million in energy and $9.1 million in storm-water treatment costs annually. In fact, in 20 cities where he and his colleagues have studied costs and benefits, says Greg McPherson of the U.S. Forest Service’s Center for Urban Forest Research, “trees provide $2 to $5 in benefits for each $1 spent maintaining them.” Given these impressive numbers, it’s not surprising that the number-one green home improvement recommended by realtors is planting native trees and flowers—the foundation of a healthy and beautiful backyard habitat.

In short, growing a green landscape is a win-win proposition. The old expression “money grows on trees” may not be literally true, but a sustainable landscape comes close.

Janet Marinelli’s most recent book is The Climate Conscious Gardener. To learn more, visit

How to Entice Wildlife With Your Garden

NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program provides gardeners with the information they need to create inviting outdoor spaces for birds, butterflies and other animals.

Learn how to garden for wildlife and turn your outdoor site into a Certified Wildlife Habitat >>

Good Ways to Grow Green

Want to minimize your expenses while maximizing your property value? Consider the following tips:

A quick way to reduce your home’s cooling bills is to plant native shrubs to shade your air conditioner. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, doing so can increase the unit’s efficiency by as much as 10 percent. 
You can double the bang for your buck by not only planting native trees, but locating them on the south and west sides of your house. Trees that grow large enough to shade the roof from the afternoon sun can reduce indoor temperatures by as much as 8 to 10 degrees F. If you live in a cold climate, plant deciduous trees that drop their leaves, allowing winter sunlight to warm your home. 
To minimize your water bills, replace most of your lawn with prairie, woodland or other regional native plantings. 
To impress potential buyers when you decide to sell your home, be sure to document your green upgrades and savings. 
Studies have shown that landscapes perceived as “messy” can turn off buyers, so make sure your garden is well designed. Use regionally adapted turfgrass judiciously to neatly frame the wilder plantings. 
When it’s time to sell, consider seeking out the advice of a certified eco-broker or green stager to help market your home. 
To locate native plant suppliers near your home, consult the National Suppliers Directory on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s website.

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