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Elements of an Eco-Friendly Landscape

An eco-friendly landscape doesn't just replace one "product" or "plant" with a better one. It requires a holistic look at the site, surrounding area, and property users, along with better material and management choices. Let's look at elements of a traditional landscape and then see how we can improve our landscapes to support the environment and reduce overall inputs.


shady garden with pine needle mulch
Eco-friendly gardens focus on 3 main elements

What's wrong with the traditional American landscape?


A lot of "traditional" landscape practices can actually do more harm to the environment than the designer, installer, or property owner ever intend.


Do some of these landscape "features" sound familiar?


  • Large expanses of lawn or groundcover

  • Colorful exotic species

  • Neatly sheared hedges

  • Clean sweeps of mulch between each plant

  • Mulch mounding up around trees

  • Irrigation systems throughout lawns and gardens

  • Downspouts directed toward the driveway or street


Unfortunately, many traditional plant selections do little to support wildlife. They may also escape cultivation, becoming "invasive" in surrounding natural areas, displacing the more desirable native vegetation. Invasive plants add to the billions of dollars the United States spends on invasive species control each year.


Additionally, these landscapes also tend to be water intensive while doing little to infiltrate stormwater from our increasingly frequent large-event storms. When stormwater is directed offsite, it picks up sediment, fertilizers and pesticides, washing this nonpoint source pollution into local waterways.


And the maintenance of these is time and resource intensive, relying heavily on fossil fuels and herbicides used at frequent intervals. These maintenance practices are hard on the environment as well as one's time and wallet.


How did we get here?


Some of these common landscape elements are rooted in mimicry of European estates. Expansive lawns, imported plant species and highly manicured landscapes are reminiscent of the gardens at Versailles, which were later brought to America by Thomas Jefferson and showcased at Monticello. Many of the modern landscape features Americans adopted are literally miniature versions of grand landscapes that require intensive care and maintenance.


yard with hedges and lawn
Sheared hedges and 8" of mulch are commonplace in a traditional landscape

Others, are a byproduct of ignorance or incompetence. Directing stormwater from one's house onto the street may be the only option a homeowner can imagine for handling the unwanted water. Or adding mulch year after year around a tree is a guaranteed source of revenue for some landscape contractors even if it is detrimental to the health of the tree.


When we step back and reassess our values, needs, and desires, we can then start to design and manage beautiful landscapes that support the environment and reduce maintenance.



home with native groundcovers and a tree
Eco-friendly landscapes cover the ground with plants and allow plants to grow to their natural size and form

It all starts with planning


A thoughtful design begins with assessment of the site and its users. In residential landscape design, I interview the family for whom I'm designing, getting to know how they use (or want to use) the property daily, how they entertain both inside and out, how often and long they travel and what type of design aesthetic resonates with them. We talk about their goals for the next 1-3 years as well as 10-20 years and beyond.


I then meet them on site to see how they move me through the space; what existing elements on the site need to be preserved or removed; and what views are noteworthy (both positive and negative). I'm also documenting the site through digital photos and noting sun/shade characteristics, soil conditions, and more.


Through these information-gathering sessions, I gain a better understanding of who I'm designing for and how I can transform the site from the existing condition to one that can meet the needs of the family and environment for years to come.



colored garden design with rain garden and firepit


For more details on how to develop and residential landscape design, see my post How to Start a Residential Landscape Design.


But even with everything I learned about the client and the site, I could still potentially apply traditional landscape design features to their site. How do I make a landscape eco-friendly?


The big three eco-friendly landscape elements


garden with colorful fall foliage

Design considerations aside, designing an eco-friendly landscape requires us to look differently at three main elements of the landscape. Those three elements are Plants, Water, and Soil.


While we can design in the style of contemporary or natural or cottage garden, attention to these three landscape elements takes a basic landscape to one rich with life and purpose.



PLANTS


To most people, landscapes are synonymous with plants. But it's not just which plants we choose, but how we choose the plants that matters in eco-friendly landscaping. Then, strategic plant choices can turn a lifeless, high-input landscape into an eco-system powerhouse.


While there are far more design-oriented considerations to make; we must balance those design considerations with these eco-friendly considerations:


Plant Size
  • Select plants based on their mature size

  • Space plants away from buildings and walkways based on their mature size

  • It's ok to plant plants close to each other

  • Embrace the natural form of the species and layout accordingly


Native habitat and range
  • Do not install species on the Invasive Species List; Check your own state for additional species

  • Remove invasive species from your property

  • Identify your site conditions and choose plants that naturally grow in those conditions (wet, sunny sites; dry sandy soils; etc.)

  • Choose native species whenever possible


Seasons of interest
  • Strategically place evergreens for winter protection for birds and visual interest

  • Use early and late season flowering plants (preferably native) to provide nectar for early and late season pollinators

  • Layer plants for visual interest as well as to slow and use rain water

  • Avoid monoculture planting, which makes plants more susceptible to disease/pest pressure and supports fewer wildlife species


bee balm in snow
Dry perennials in the winter garden provide visual interest and habitat for insects

Wildlife value
  • When possible, and if conditions are right, plant an oak- it supports the most caterpillar species which equals more food for birds

  • Explore adding plants that support unique or declining insect and animal species- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has detailed information on specific plants and the wildlife connections of each

  • Allow seedheads to stay up in winter for food for birds

  • Allow perennial stems to stay up in winter so insects can overwinter in the hollow pith

  • Select flowers of different shapes and sizes to support more types of pollinators and wildlife


WATER


milkweed in rain garden
A rain garden cleans stormwater & helps recharge ground water

Water is critical to supporting life, but both "using" and "having" too much puts a strain on the community. In eco-friendly landscaping, we want to minimize the use of water from municipal sources, while simultaneously keeping stormwater runoff on-site to infiltrate the soil and recharge our groundwater. Our goal is to protect the natural water sources that flow through our regions by reducing the volume of stormwater that enters our waterways as runoff and keeping the runoff that does occur free from contaminants. A few of the ways you can do this in your own yard are:


Right plant, right place
  • Select plants that will thrive in site conditions

  • Do not provide supplemental water to landscape plantings after the second growing year

  • Allow lawns to go dormant in the summer months


Keep stormwater on site
  • Add rain barrels to downspouts; use the water around the site instead of municipal water; empty rain barrels on dry days

  • Direct downspouts to outlet into rain gardens or over flatter areas of lawn, giving the water a chance to infiltrate into soil

  • Reduce impervious surface where practical

  • Consider permeable solutions for new hardscapes


Provide a water source for wildlife
  • Use a bubbler or water feature to attract birds to your site

  • A ground-level water source may even provide habitat for reptiles and amphibians

  • Keep water moving or change standing water frequently; if you know you won't get to it, keep a Bt dunk in standing water to keep mosquito populations down


Protect on-site water sources
  • Maintain a planted edge along streams and ponds, preferably with deeply rooted species

  • Shade water sources with trees to keep the water temperature cool

  • Remove invasive species on site; invasives may travel downstream

  • Avoid broadcasting herbicides and fertilizers over a site, which will run contaminate water and impact wildlife


SOIL


log in soil with organic matter and small plants
Healthy soil is alive

Surprised to see soil in the big three list? I include soil because it's integral to supporting both healthy plants and clean water. Although we don't see soil regularly (or at least we shouldn't), an eco-friendly landscape works to ensure that the soils under our landscapes are full of beneficial microbes and open pore space.


That's right, there's a whole world of living organisms in healthy soils that breakdown minerals and organic matter for plants to use. Soil should be thought of as a sponge, which feels solid but actually has tiny pockets of air that benefit plants and provide space for water to infiltrate. Additionally, healthy soil has the ability to sequester carbon, which is something I'm in entirely familiar with, but is certainly worth noting.


While the types of soil may vary from coastal sites to grasslands to mountains and everything in between, we'll look mostly at promoting healthy soils in average conditions (meaning some organic matter and a mix of sand, silt, and clay):


Reduce compaction
  • Keep foot traffic to paths

  • Aerate soils after heavy equipment has been through a site

  • Minimize lawn which requires regular mowing (compaction); additionally the short roots of mown turf grass do little to aerate the soil or infiltrate stormwater


Keep soil covered

  • Cover soil to protect the valuable organic matter in the top layer of soil

  • Cover soil with mulch or groundcover to reduce compaction by foot traffic and rain

  • Many insects, such as lighting bugs and luna moths, overwinter in leaf litter, so keeping your soil covered with material from your site helps your soils as well as wildlife

  • Use spreading and/or suckering plants to cover the ground layer of gardens and natural areas

  • Until groundcover fills in, use an organic mulch appropriate to your area (leaf mold, shredded hardwood, pine straw, etc.) to keep soils covered

  • Maintain a 2-3" layer of mulch; this does not mean add 2-3" of mulch annually


Healthy inputs only

  • Strive to keep the biological component of soil alive- make sure it has food (organic matter), the ability to hold water (no need to add water), and air

  • Avoid herbicides and strong/synthetic fertilizers

  • Avoid repeated use of horticultural vinegar on soils; the strong acid will kill the microbes and may eventually change your soil pH

  • Top-dress lawn with compost after core aeration and seeding to provide natural fertilization and organic matter


Landscape management, not maintenance


The phrase I hear from almost every client is "...and I want it to be low maintenance". Maintenance of an eco-friendly landscape design can easily be lower than a traditional landscape but it often takes some education and initial investment upfront.


Caring for an eco-friendly landscape is not a 1 for 1 swap. We don't just throw away the synthetic herbicides and pick up organic herbicides instead. We completely change the way we look at and care for a landscape.


This could be a whole post just on it's own, but a few of the ways landscape management differs from traditional landscape maintenance are:



Traditional Landscape Maintenance Instead of this...

Eco-friendly Landscape Management Try this...

Apply hardwood mulch every spring.

Maintain a 2-3" layer of mulch, particularly in the first few years after planting.

 

Only add mulch to maintain that coverage.

 

Allow fallen leaves and cutback perennials to cover the ground as a mulch layer.

 

Use low growing groundcover plants to act as "green mulch".

Pull weeds between plants

Plant densely so there is little opportunity for weed seeds to germinate.

 

Identify the weed and manage by its growth habit. For example, if it's an annual, cut off the top of it instead of pulling it to prevent it from creating new seeds while also minimizing soil disturbance.

 

Cover disturbed soil with mulch to prevent opportunity for more weed seeds to germinate.

Cutback perennials in the fall

Allow perennials to remain standing through the winter for winter beauty and habitat for beneficial insects.

 

Cutback perennials and grasses as late in the spring as possible and keep cutbacks on site.

Shear shrubs into ball or hedge shapes

Pick shrubs suitable for the size of the garden.

 

Space shrubs for their mature size.

Allow space between every plant.

Install plants closely (with consideration to their mature size).

 

Layer plants to cover the soil, preventing opportunity for weeds; reducing the need for mulch; and providing additional beauty.

Irrigate plants and lawn on a regular cycle

Select the correct plants for the site conditions.

 

Water new plants deeply and thoroughly for the first year and only during drought in years two and three. Do not water plants after that.

 

Allow lawn to go dormant during the heat of the summer.

Apply fertilizers and herbicides to lawn regularly

Minimize lawn.

 

Aerate and overseed lawn to allow the roots to grow deeper and the plant to be healthier.



woodland garden with organic mulch

Does managing an eco-friendly landscape require a bit more thought than blindly performing the same routine tasks year in and year out? Absolutely.


However, investing in proper planning and early management of an eco-friendly landscape can reduce recurrent maintenance with the added benefit of supporting wildlife, protecting water, and repairing soil.


Of course, there are many other ways to design and care for an eco-friendly landscape, but if you start off making improvements to the big-three, you're off to a great start!

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