The last place you’d think would need an eco-makeover is your landscaping. After all, it’s just trees, plants, dirt and ceramic lawn gnomes… all perfectly natural, right? Well, not quite.
Many modern landscape designs look nice but aren’t suited to the local climate. Because of this, they need a lot of extra watering, fertilizers and pesticides to survive. All that maintenance can add up, both for your wallet and the environment.
But there’s a way to green your greenery that’s low maintenance and Mother Nature-approved. Read on to learn more about sustainable landscaping practices and to find some sustainable landscaping ideas for your own backyard.
There is no single definition, but in a nutshell, sustainable landscaping is a way to beautify your home while letting nature do the heavy lifting.
Sustainable landscapes are designed to thrive in local temperatures, rainfall and weather patterns. A good sustainable landscape works with nature, not against it, and does well with little or no human help. By reducing the amount of resources needed to keep up your landscape, you can create an outdoor area that is both beautiful and eco-friendly.
Besides being environmentally responsible, sustainable landscaping has many benefits for homeowners looking to cut down on the time, effort and resources needed to maintain a lawn and garden.
With the right sustainable landscape design, you can give your lawn and garden the power to thrive on Mother Nature alone.
Creating a sustainable landscape takes some planning. Before diving in, make sure to read up on your own local climate to find the most efficient landscaping solutions for your environment. Once you’ve got that information, use these tips to bring sustainable practices into your own backyard.
The plants you choose have to be well-adapted to your local environment. Here are some quick tips for choosing the right foliage for your landscape:
Get Rid of Problem Plants: Every landscape has them – those plants that just won’t thrive. If you have plants that need a lot of nurturing, it might mean they’re not right for your climate. Replace them with plants that will do better with your local weather patterns.
Use Native Plants & Trees: Native plants often need less water than foreign species, as they're used to the local rain levels. They also have developed strong defenses against local pests and diseases. As an added bonus, they tend to attract helpful neighbors like butterflies and bees who keep your flowers alive and well.
Beware of Invasive Species: While not all non-native plants are harmful, some can disrupt the natural balance of your landscape. These are called invasive species and they are nature's bullies. They grow so aggressively that they can push out local plants and pollinators, upsetting an entire ecosystem. Be sure to check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s What to Plant list before choosing your plant-life.
Create Layers to Reduce Pests: Layering is essential to creating sustainable landscaping. It mimics natural plant growth and provides a lush environment for nature’s best pest control: birds. Invite them to stay by providing various shrubs, trees and other plants for them to call home.
Pay Attention to Tree Sizes: Regular tree trimming is both costly and often requires power tools which use gas or electricity. Choose trees and shrubs that will fit in at their tallest without extra pruning.
Consider Lawn Substitutes: If you're tired of mowing the lawn, ditch grass altogether. Moss, ground cover, or even turf are great no-mow lawn solutions. If you’re partial to grass, try a meadow lawn. These need mowing just once or twice a year, and give your landscape a beautiful, natural look. For the best results, be sure to use grass that is native to your local area. Another alternative to traditional lawns is a practice called xeriscaping, which urban gardening expert Kevin Espiritu says is often found in places like his southern California home.
What is Xeriscaping?
“Xeriscaping is landscaping that has extremely low water needs. It's critical in places like my home, San Diego. Lawns are simply wastes here, unfortunately. A lot of homeowners are doing gravel, stone, and succulent or cacti landscapes that actually have quite a beauty of their own. It's not as lush and green as a lawn and shrubbery, but it has its own appeal.”
Kevin Espiritu | Epic Gardening
Xeriscaping with succulents, cacti and gravel creates a low water landscape with a surreally beautiful desert vibe.
Healthy soil is the foundation of a great, sustainable landscape, as it nourishes your plant-life and prevents erosion.
Aerate Your Lawn: Aeration puts small holes in your lawn to allow water and nutrients to get to your grass roots more easily. Aerating once or twice a year will improve your soil quality and keep your grass healthy and strong.
Start Your Own Compost Pile: Composting is an eco-friendly way to keep soil moist and healthy year-round. To give your flowerbeds a sustainable glow, start your own at-home compost pile.
Set Your Mower High: Set your mowing deck around 3.5 inches for a more sustainable lawn. According to Purdue University, mowing just the top 1/3 of your grass keeps roots strong, which prevents soil erosion and nutrient loss.
Rainwater runoff is a common problem in landscape designs. It can cause erosion and carry pollutants to your community's watershed.
Use Porous Surfaces: Concrete walkways can’t absorb water and can create mini-rivers that can damage your land. Choose absorbent materials like pea gravel or decomposed granite to reduce your rainwater runoff.
Keep Your Yard Clean: Whatever you leave in your yard will make its way to your local water system via rainwater runoff. Keep lawn clippings, pet waste and other unsavory materials off your lawn to keep your community’s watershed clean.
Make Your Own Rain Barrel: Put that excess rainwater to good use with your very own rain barrel. You’ll create a sustainable water supply for your landscape, helping you cut down on your water bill.
Create a Swale: A permaculture swale is a small depression designed to redirect rainwater runoff. These are usually situated at the lowest point in your yard and absorb excess water during downpours. The extra water collected in the swale keeps the rest of your yard moist and healthy in the days following a rainstorm.
Example of a grass-lined swale. Swales can also be lined with rocks to help filtrate rainwater before it reaches the soil.
Another important aspect of sustainable landscaping is using environmentally responsible hardscaping materials.
Solar Lights: Looking to light the way through your new landscape? Opt for solar powered lawn lights to cut down on your electricity use.
Use Reclaimed Materials: One man’s trash can be another man’s landscaping materials. Visit your local salvage store or browse the ‘Free’ section on Craigslist.com to find anything from lumber to scrap metal and even used patio furniture. You’ll save yourself the cost of purchasing brand new materials and you’ll prevent the items from winding up in a landfill.
Avoid PVC: PVC pipes are made using an inefficient, high emissions process and they are not biodegradable. If you’re looking for sustainable piping for landscape irrigation or drainage, try recyclable HDPE pipe instead.
HDPE piping is a more sustainable landscaping alternative to PVC.
No landscape is totally maintenance-free, but here are a few eco-friendly switches you can make to keep yours beautiful and functional.
Eco-friendly Fertilizers: During hot or cold spells, even the most sustainable landscapes can use a little extra love. After a tough summer or winter, use organic fertilizers like bloodmeal, cow manure or compost to help your plants and soil bounce back. It will also encourage earthworms to make their home in your garden, which will help your soil stay aerated naturally.
Non-toxic Pesticides: Though sustainable landscapes are great at handling pests on their own, some bugs don’t know how to take a hint. To keep them at bay in a sustainable way, you can make your own non-toxic pesticides right at home.
Man-Powered Tools: Lawn mowers consume over 1 billion gallons of gasoline in the U.S. every year. Cut down on your gas usage by using manual tools like push reel mowers and manual clippers.
Go Electric: If your lawn is too big for a manual mower, switch to an electric version. In addition to being emissions-free, electric mowers use only about $5 of electricity annually, so you can save some green by going green.
Sustainable landscaping is a unique way to let nature beautify your home. It may take a little extra planning, but by using sustainable landscaping practices, you can spend less time working on your lawn and more time enjoying it. For more tips on going greener at home, check out a few of our favorite free conservation landscaping resources or head over to our Sustainability section.