Making Your Landscape More Sustainable

Want to do your part for Planet Earth, but you aren’t sure where to start? Here are some simple ways to contribute to the sustainable landscaping movement without getting too overwhelmed. You could take on just one new project every year and know you are making a difference.

sustainable landscaping

Using native plants to support native pollinators

Native plants are naturally low-maintenance and often help to restore native ecosystems. The easiest way to find out which plants are native to your area is to check with the National Wildlife Federation.

One of the most important functions of native plants is to provide food for native pollinators, who are unable to consume “exotic” (non-native) plants and pollen.

Native insects serve as food for native birds (they need it for their young especially), and this is what the food chain is all about.

Non-native species can also be invasive and quickly destroy existing natural environments. You can find out which plants are invasive in your geographical location from trusted sources like the U. S. Forest Service.

Shopping locally for plants and gear

Use locally-sourced plants and materials whenever possible. “Buying local” reduces shipping pollution and packaging waste. 

But it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. You could purchase hard-to-find plants online and look for the rest in local nurseries and farmers’ markets, for example.

Or you could pool together with your neighbors and do one big order for online plants, thus reducing the number of UPS deliveries to your street. It all adds up.

Preserving existing trees and topsoil

Caring for existing soils and trees reduces erosion and supports wildlife habitats. Along the same lines, disturbing existing soil grade can negatively affect trees, whose feeder roots are generally in the top 12″ of soil and extend far beyond beyond their trunk.

One tree can support up to 150 native insect species! Work with a certified arborist to evaluate your trees’ current status and develop a care management plan to make sure they will enjoy long lives in your landscape.

Some landscape contractors offer to remove topsoil as a way to get rid of weeds. Don’t do it! Topsoil is a complex element of the landscape that takes years to develop. Soil is alive with many beneficial organisms that might not be developed in the “fill” you might replace it with.

Finding alternatives to toxic pesticides and herbicides

There’s always a non-toxic way to solve a landscape issue, even if it means taking a step back and rethinking your overall plan. For example, mass planting, groundcover, and shredded bark mulch are all great ways to manage weeds in between your main landscape plants.

And there are beneficial insects who love to eat some of the common pests in your landscape. Ladybugs love to munch on aphids, for example. You can create shelter to attract them, and then simply give them enough time to find and consume the offenders.

Enriching soils naturally

It’s very inexpensive to do a soil test to learn if your soil is missing any nutrients, and to amend the soil with naturally. Your local cooperative extension services office is a great resource for soil testing information.

Using natural mulches like shredded bark, shredded leaves, and so forth provide organic matter for your soil as they break down in the soil.

Creating organic compost is another easy thing to do even in the smallest of spaces, and it is excellent way to add nutrients to your soil.

Choosing plants that are most suitable to a given site

Use drought-tolerant shrubs and perennials in dry, hot areas to reduce the need for supplemental watering. Use salt-tolerant plants near roads, driveways, and walkways where salt is used as a de-icer in winter.

Some shrubs and trees are best for alkaline soils, and some are best for acidic soils. Keeping this in mind when choosing plants can reduce the need for soil amendments down the line.

Sun, wind, and water drainage are other major considerations when choosing a plant for a specific location. The point is to reduce the need for extra watering and extra care as much as possible to conserve resources.

Eliminating large lawn areas

Power-guzzling lawn mowers are not particularly earth-friendly. Nor are the chemicals needed to maintain large weed-free lawns. Opt for smaller, simply-maintained lawns where you need them, and plant ground covers and no-mow grasses elsewhere.

Reducing the need for power tools

Choose plants that will be the correct size when fully-mature, so they won’t require shearing. Establish mulched areas around trees and gravel strips along buildings to eliminate trimming. 

Use a snow shovel instead of a snow blower if you can. We have two snow shovels and with three of us taking turns, we can clear our driveway of snow very quickly.

Every now and then after a particularly large storm, one of our neighbors comes over with a snowblower to give us a hand. We appreciate it so much that we do not have to own this machine and send back a coffee gift card or bottle of wine as a small thank-you.

Detering water runoff

The goal is to keep rain and storm water in your landscape rather than having it run into the public water system, which just requires more energy to process and get it back to you.

Here’s where a rain barrel can help, if you are sure there is no chance of lead or other toxins coming off your roof and downspouts. Other ways to retain water in your landscape include permeable paving for your driveway or walkways, rain gardens in low areas, and dry creek beds to redirect water where you need it.

Using recycled and reclaimed materials

It can be a lot of fun to repurpose found objects for use in the landscape. A quick search on Pinterest can show you creative ways to use old fencing materials, lamps, bicycles, wooden chairs, doors, and window frames to create trellises, porch decor, and more.

Sustainable landscaping is not only good for the environment but can save money, time, and headaches. It’s a win-win for everybody.

This post previously appeared on The Simple Landscape blog.


Elizabeth Douglas is the founder of Pocket Meadows. She holds a degree in landscape architectural studies and is a member of the NY State Nursery & Landscape Association.

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