Definition and Impact of Sustainable Landscaping
Before I started working for Waterwise Consulting in 2007, I'd never heard of a sustainable landscape. Among other things, Waterwise, a water conservation consulting company, conducted workshops in sustainable landscaping for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. When I first started working with them, I attended several of those workshops, learning how to redesign irrigation systems and convert lawn space into native plantings that use less water.
Being a hobby photographer, I couldn't help but wonder if I could take better photos than what they had in their Powerpoint presentations. Yes, a distraction (albeit minor) that actually deepened my interest and eventually gave me an eye for what a sustainable landscape really looks like.
Since then I've conducted workshops and water use surveys, interviewed neighbors and water suppliers, and written several articles, using my own photos as illustrations. Some of those I will share with you here, but first let me give you a basic definition of the term "sustainable landscape."
Definition of Sustainable Landscaping
A sustainable landscape is one that conforms to the environment surrounding it, requiring only inputs (e.g. water, fertilizer) that are naturally available, with little or no additional support. It is self-sustaining over long periods of time. It exists in harmony with its local ecosystem––if bad weather hits, or wildfires or rockslides devastate your neighborhood, your garden recovers quickly. The landscape is diverse enough to remain resilient and productive indefinitely.
When evaluating your landscape for sustainability, there are three main areas to consider: How it responds to the local ecology (ecological), how much it costs to maintain (economic), and how it affects your family and neighbors (socio-cultural).
- Ecological––How well does your design match the local ecology, utilizing similar plants and mimicking local landforms? You'll want your garden to help feed, and give shade and housing to local birds and insects, as well as humans.
- Economic––How much does it cost to maintain your landscape? You'll want it to thrive with available, natural resources, instead of having to spend extra on water or chemicals to be healthy and look good. If you have a landscaper, the landscape should be easy for them to maintain with well paid, but minimal effort.
- Socio-cultural––How does the neighborhood like the way it enhances or blends with their yards? Your landscape should reflect what you, your family, and your neighborhood like best about your local environment.
I had fun climbing the hills and hiking the canyons, looking to see what the natural environment in my area looked like. Some of the photos you'll see below show local wildflowers and land forms that can be mimicked in my neighborhood's landscapes.
Let's look at these pillars separately and I'll give you tips for actions to take, so you can see how well your landscape fits the definition of sustainability.
Pillar #1––Ecological Sustainability
There is a concept called Low Impact Development (LID) where local environmental factors are prominent considerations when designing a landscape (or a building). Sustainability is an integral part of that––that an environment, planted or natural, should be able to sustain itself over time with a minimal amount of care. This means that one strives to create beauty in the landscape with the lowest possible impact on the natural environment, perhaps even utilizing or mimicking some of the local land forms (like hills and dales).
Some of the environmental factors that affect what will grow in a particular area are sun, water, and soil. But the shape of the land, and the insects and other wildlife in the area, also affect what will grow in your yard. They are, in turn, affected by what you plant there.
I took the photos below in the San Gabriel Mountains above Pasadena CA, near where I live. In spring the hills are covered with wildflowers. Although they are not necessarily the plants one would use in a local landscape, there are related cultivars that do well, but are hardier in one's yard––especially considering that most yards don't have natural soils anymore. Many local plants will not grow in soils that have been enriched with fertilizers.
LID Elements That Can be Applied in Landscape Design
To prevent a sustainable landscape from being boring, pay attention to the different locations on your property that have their own micro-climates. You can design these sections to look and behave differently from the others, yet still be sustainable. In fact, planting in semi-independent sections that way provides variety in plant material and increases overall sustainability.
Here are some examples of micro-climates:
- Buildings and trees nearby create shady areas that can support different types of plants than do full sun areas.
- In a hollow on one side of a fence you may have a water-hungry section of tropical ferns that soaks the soil and creates its own micro-climate on both sides of the fence with richer, wetter soil.
- Or a former resident may have dumped a sand pile in one corner of the property, changing the soil type and supporting a different type of planting there than elsewhere.
To discover less obvious micro-climates, you'll want to measure soil composition, check sun/shade availability at different times of the day, and look to see how much water each section gets naturally.
Before you plant, either in a micro-climate section or your yard overall, you'll want to list all environmental factors on paper first, to make sure everything is covered––like soil type, amount of sun and shade, water availability, seasonal temperatures. Here are other reminders:
- What you choose to plant in each section should grow easily there––supporting and being supported by resident insects and small animal life.
- The soil should be self-sustaining, with plant and animal residue continually building up its quality, even as plant growth uses nutrients from it.
- Irrigation systems should be minimal and appropriate to the type of planting.
- Any softscape added, like mulch and leaf cover, should easily bio-degrade and contribute to the health of the clime.
- And any existing or added hardscape (rocks, concrete, bricks) should play its role in providing shade, shelter, and pockets of extra moisture.
Pillar #2––Economic Cost of Landscaping
Planning and planting landscapes is a lot of work. Therefore, before encouraging it, I decided to make sure that the work was really worthwhile. In Southern California we go for drought tolerant landscapes. I'd already noticed that some of the early landscapes grew up to look pretty ugly, and that the nicer ones cost a lot to design and plant. So I did some research on the benefits.
Landscapes and gardens that are NOT sustainable take a lot of extra nurturing––with water, fertilizers, pesticides, replacement plants, and grass seed––which costs extra money and unnecessary time and effort. Sustainable landscapes, on the other hand, are designed to require very little extra nurturing, which should keep the costs and effort of maintenance down. But does it really?
In March 2004, the City of Santa Monica teamed up with Santa Monica College and the Metropolitan Water District to run an experiment. They planted, nurtured, and compared the costs of running a sustainable landscape versus the more traditional, semi-exotic landscape commonly seen in Southern California. They found that, although it did cost more to install the native garden than the traditional garden, those costs were recouped over time. When they compared results in 2013, this is what they discovered:
- The native garden used 83% less water on average,
- It generated 56% less green waste,
- And it required 68% less maintenance.
A native yard reduces the cost of hiring a landscaper and requires no fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide expenses. Native gardens in wetter country will likely grow their own local grasses, which will reseed themselves. In drier country you can design the garden without grass, thereby also eliminating the cost of weekly mowing and seasonal reseeding, in addition to reducing the cost of water used. These are substantial savings, especially when you consider them over a period of years.
In addition to the financial cost of sustainability, your planning should include the social cost of whether or not your yard "fits" the neighborhood.
Pillar #3––Socio-Cultural Impact of Landscape Design
I walked around my extended neighborhood to see how I felt about the neighbors' gardens, focusing especially on the native and drought tolerant ones. What I noticed is that:
- Such gardens make my neighborhood more interesting to wander through (or walk my dog).
- The plantings brighten the neighborhood, making it less brooding and mundane than it used to be.
- I often meet new neighbors when I'm photographing their yards and they are out working in them.
- These landscapes give me examples to show my friends who want to change theirs.
- It makes my neighborhood feel more like Southern California––friendly and open, and blending with the hills.
- Most of the gardens are fairly new, but they are already starting to attract more bees and some butterflies. As they mature, they'll send out a stronger scent and will attract more of the local fauna.
Here are some questions for you: How do you want your landscape to affect the people around you? Do you want to be seen as conforming or different?
Landscapes in most neighborhoods look pretty similar, based either on the existing climate and what survives it, or on a "look" created by the original developer and maintained over time by the neighborhood's inhabitants.
What is the general style of your neighborhood? How does your landscape fit in? Let's look briefly at some different landscape styles.
A Very Few Landscape Design Styles
Neighborhood Landscape Style
Just as every element in your landscape combines to form an overall "style" for your landscape (including areas with micro-climates), so every garden in your neighborhood combines to form an overall "style" for the neighborhood. Therefore, a good landscape designer should address the neighborhood look as a whole first, before planning for an individual yard and its various micro-climates. And a choice should be made about what overall look or "style" is desired.
Common styles chosen in Southern California, not all of them sustainable, are:
Exotic (non-native)––the tropical garden in Southern California that also supports our exotic parrot population. Other examples of exotics elsewhere are the English country garden in Kansas, or the Hawaiian flower garden in the desert of Las Vegas.
The golf-course mimic––mostly turf with a few trees and flowers, and often a swimming pool or two. Turf (grass) uses more water than any other type of landscape. This is common in SoCal.
The conditional garden––drought tolerant when water is hard to find, tropical when water is temporarily in excess. Expensive in its constant changes.
The native garden––sustainable over time, based on local plants and supported by bird and insect life and climate. Every region of the world has its own, particular native look.
The herb garden––providing food, shelter, and other attractants for animal and insect life.
The vegetable garden––primarily growing food for humans.
Each of these styles can be mixed and matched, with a shady downhill spot being planted with ferns and a sunny, dry spot being planted with Mediterranean cultivars; or a flower garden in one area and vegetables in another; or flowers and herbs mixed together in the same location, as long as their growth requirements are the same.
But the one type of garden that is truly sustainable in any area is the native garden––based on local, naturally growing plants (flowers and food) that have adapted over time to the environment's unique weather, soils, and fauna (animal, insect, and bird life).
Does Your Landscape Match the Neighborhood?
Because one person's landscape can enhance or detract from the overall appearance of a neighborhood, it would be wise for you to engage the neighbors (to a certain extent) in planning. You never know what types of things neighbors have tried before or what they are planning for their own yards currently.
Neighbors could also have ideas, contacts, or resources that could prove helpful in design, and they might even be willing to help out with the labor. At a minimum, neighbors who know what you are doing and who support it, can act as a buffer with other neighbors who might not understand and would worry.
Never underestimate the value of this. Anyone who tries to create a sustainable landscape in a neighborhood that has been deliberately planted and/or developed and maintained in an unsustainable way will be watched––probably talked about or criticized, as well.
At the same time, creating an attractive, sustainable look in your yard that shows how much can be saved in effort, money, and time, could be a great way for you to improve the economics of your neighborhood. Neighbors who recognize that value will support and often mimic your efforts, thereby extending the sustainability of the entire neighborhood, creating great goodwill, and making your own work worthwhile.
This video will give you some basic tips for how to plant a garden that requires little or no maintenance––a sustainable garden that will save you time and money.