50 Ideals For Sustainable Landscapes
I originally created this list back in the autumn of 2012, when I first launched A Cultivated Art Inc.
Reading over them again, having had nearly 8 years of accumulating more knowledge and experience, they hold up surprisingly well.
I'd change a couple of them, like replacing #40 on lawn aeration (not very effective) with recommendations for breaking up deeper level soil compaction.
I would have a bit less about materials and products and include more on the importance of soil biology and how most of the carbon sequestered in the landscape comes from plant roots feeding sugars into the soils, where the fungi stabilize and sequester it.
I'd also suggest only adding mulch when a landscape is heavily disturbed since I now recommend planting in densely enough that the foliage from the garden protects the surface of the soil once the plants are established.
But all in all, these are still a good place to start. 50 neatly encapsulated ideas and ideals to consider and apply in your projects.
#1 Observe What Is
Before making changes to your yard, take some time to observe existing conditions. Note how sun and shade shift during the course of a day. Look for windy versus calm places, where water flows or collects and where snow collects or takes the longest to melt.
All of these things present challenges and opportunities for your landscape. Sunny areas are great for vegetables, wet places for rain gardens, snow cover for plants which require winter protection and the shaded spot for your hammock.
#2 Ask 'Why?'
Why do I have the same pest problems year after year? Why does my garden soil fertility decline over time but in natural areas it improves? By identifying and addressing underlying imbalances, problems can be corrected, eliminating the need for ongoing maintenance and interventions.
Correct pest problems by identifying insects and selecting plants to attract predators or competition. Keep soil fertile by covering it with 3” or more of organic mulch and allowing it to compost in place. Small changes can have significant results.
#3 Start with the Facts
We frequently assume that if our plants aren't thriving, we need to fertilize them. Most fertilizers are formulated to include nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Nitrogen depletion can occur, if it isn't being replaced, but unless you have been harvesting a crop the other two nutrients are very slow to deplete from soil.
Before applying fertilizer, have a soil test done. The cost is only about $20 and it will tell you what nutrients are present so you don't risk of over application and fertilizer runoff.
#4 Create a Habitat
Outdoor spaces are part of our habitat. They can increase our stress and require ongoing inputs or they can be calming, nurturing places which provide clean air, water and fresh food. Often we share our habitats with other people and creatures, who's needs, if considered right from the design phase, can be easily accommodated along side our own.
When considering the possibilities of a space, think about how it will function as part of a habitat for everyone who will use or interact with it.
#5 Use Less – More Efficiently
The lowest impact material is the one that isn't produced in the first place. Careful planing of your space can help ensure that you only include what is needed. This can help reduce environmental impact and project cost at the same time.
A well thought out plan, built around how the space needs to function, can help ensure that you have just enough - be it a deck, patio, parking, or something else - and not more than you really need.
#6 A Cool Landscape for a Cool Home
On a sunny day, our homes can collect a lot of heat on the south and west sides. By limiting how much direct sunlight strikes walls and windows you can limit the amount of heat buildup.
Planting a shade tree on the south or west side is a great long term solution. For faster results, a properly designed pergola can block the summer sun but allow the winter sun in. An open pergola with vines can have a similar effect and can cool the air at the same time by evaporating water from its leaves.
#7 Protect Rivers by Reducing Runoff
Rain water which flows away from yards and into rivers or lakes without filtering through soil and plant roots can raise water temperature and can carry silt and other pollutants that stress aquatic ecosystems.
Allowing water to filter into the ground, either through rain gardens, permeable paving or carefully designed grading, can refresh the local water table and reduce stress on delicate ecosystems.
#8 Just Enough Lawn
Lawns have a reputation for being bad for the environment. This isn't entirely fair, since in our climate a well planed and planted lawn can be healthy and organic. The real problem is that they are often put in inappropriate places, such as on south facing slopes or under large trees, where they struggle and are prone to weeds and pests.
A lawn can be a useful surface if appropriately located. The problems occur when grass is treated as a default option and planted in a location where it can not thrive.
#9 Plant a Tree – in the Right Spot
Trees are wonderful. They provide shade and shelter, filter air and water, help keep our cities cool in the summer and generally make us calmer and happier (really, there have been studies). The challenge is that urban trees are often stressed because of confined areas for their roots, dry and compacted soils and wounds from excessive pruning to fit them into available spaces.
Before choosing a tree evaluate the space and select a variety which is suited to the location and conditions in the long term.
#10 Keep Your Distance
One of the primary stressors for mature urban trees is damage to roots from excavation or soil compaction. If you have a tree that you will be working around, keep any equipment or excavation back 12" for every 1" of the trunk diameter.
For example, if you have a mature tree with a trunk diameter of 18”, install a construction fence 18' out from the trunk in each direction and don't drive or work in this area or use it for storing materials or excavated soil.
#11 Stay Loose – Avoid Soil Compaction
If you have to make a temporary access path on your property over the root zone of a tree, take steps to reduce soil compaction. This will help see your tree through the experience with a minimum of stress or injury.
Lay down a heavy grade landscape fabric, top it with at least 8" of wood chip mulch and top that with 3/4" plywood. Once the access is no longer needed remove the wood, mulch and fabric. Top dress with compost and water well if the soil has dried out.
#12 Looking Up – Planting in Layers
Natural plant communities often consist of several overlapping, complimentary layers of vegetation, including canopy trees, understory trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, and ground covers.
You can mimic this in your own garden by thinking about your landscape vertically as well as horizontally. In this extra volume of space, you can significantly increase productivity and biodiversity even in a small yard.
#13 Reduce Soil Erosion
When soil washes into storm drains and streams it causes problems. It impedes flows in drains, which can lead to costly repairs or maintenance. When it flows into rivers, it is damaging to most aquatic systems, especially fish spawning areas.
Allow as much rain water to soak into the soil as possible. Where it does need to flow across a surface consider providing it with a stone or pebble lined path. Cover sloped areas with densely rooted pants which stabilize the slope and catch soil.
#14 Think Outside the (Blue) Box
Recycling Materials in the Landscape
Taking apart an old deck this summer? Thinking of building a new shed, a storage cabinet for recycling bins or anything else you need around the yard? Any lumber in good condition can be salvaged from the former for use in the latter.
Used building material stores, online classifieds and 'free cycle' sites are all great sources of materials for the creative landscaper. They allow us to reduce strain on the environment and our budget at the same time.
#15 Close to Home
Sourcing local materials Soil, lumber, stone. These are often shipped far further than necessary because of large supply contracts with retailers.
When purchasing materials, especially heavy or bulky ones, ask where they came from originally. If something that is available from a local producer has been sourced from across the province or even across the country, it is worth looking around of an alternate retailer.
#16 Where to go From Here:
Can your Landscape be Recycled?
When selecting materials or products we often consider cost and durability. What is often overlooked is what will happen to materials at the end of their lifecycle.
Stone, concrete and untreated wood can be composted or recycled. Many plastics, treated woods and composite materials cannot. When choosing materials remember to consider the entire lifecycle from a sustainability standpoint.
#17 Permeable Paving
Urban areas shed a lot of surface water every time it rains. It flows into storm water systems and surface drains and pours into lakes and rivers. Wouldn't it be great if, instead, we could let it seep into the parched soil so often found in built up areas?
Permeable paving can help to achieve this. Spaces between pavers allow water to flow through to a specially constructed base where it is held until it soaks into the soil below.
#18 Summer in the City
Cities are hot. The combination of limited vegetation and materials which retain heat raises the ambient temperature and increases cooling costs and stresses plants, animals and people.
By using light coloured materials for surfaces such as driveways, patios and decks heat accumulation can be reduced, limiting the urban heat island effect and leading to more comfortable outdoor spaces.
#19 Sustainable Harvest
Many materials used in landscaping are harvested from nature. Most materials can be harvested responsibly, including lumber, soil and mulch, if sustainability is a priority.
Look for certified product and ask how materials were sourced. It has become increasingly easy to find sustainably harvested lumber. Ask if soil was taken from an area already under development or if it was it stripped from agricultural areas or a living bog. Is mulch from a local mill and sustainably harvested timber or was it shipped long distances?
#20 Look Beyond the Advertising
Are plastic solar powered garden lights that break after two years really better for the environment than high quality but traditionally powered LED ones which last 10 to 20 years?
Often a single fact about a product is promoted as being green without consideration for its entire life cycle. Look beyond the claim and question how deep the 'green' really goes.
When choosing an investment, or even an indulgence, look for quality. A well made product, be it a patio, a planter, a table or a path light, will outlast a cheaply made alternative.
Products that can be used for longer, without replacement, have lower annual environmental impacts over their lifetime. Even at a higher initial price, a well made product will often cost less per year than a poorly made one if you consider its lifespan.
#22 The Right Plant in the Right Place
Urban conditions can be challenging for many plants. Native species are often thought of as a responsible choice for sustainable landscapes but when dealing with non-native conditions such as salt exposure, compacted soils and dry or high use sites, many native species fail to thrive and require ongoing watering, fertilizing or pest control.
Consider the realities of the growing conditions. If there is a native variety which is appropriate that's great, but if not, it may be more responsible to consider other possibilities.
#23 Support Pollinators
Most gardeners strive to have flowers blooming from spring though fall. Local pollinators, including an impressive array of native bees, share our urban environment and need flowers all season as a food source.
When selecting flowering plants, try to include a nectar source for each season. Not only will you have happy bees, any nearby crops which require pollination are likely to have more consistent yields.
#24 Will Work For Food
Beneficial Insects in Your Garden Outdoor spaces are part of our habitat. They can increase our stress and require ongoing inputs or they can be calming, nurturing places which provide clean air, water and fresh food. Often we share our habitats with other people and creatures, who's needs, if considered right from the design phase, can be easily accommodated along side our own.
When considering the possibilities of a space, think about how it will function as part of a habitat for everyone who will use or interact with it.
#25 Seed Money
If you have the patience and a sunny window you can save money and energy by starting plants from seed.
Growing plants in spaces which are already heated for our own comfort reduces the need for heating another place for their production. Just remember that seedlings need as much light as possible so keep them in a south window and don't start them too early in the season when the sun is still low.
#26 The 100 Mile Garden
Choosing Locally Grown Plants Many nursery plants are shipped long distances these days. Often from as far away as British Columbia or Oregon.
To reduce the environmental impact of all of this transportation look for locally grow or locally finished plants. Locally finished plants are shipped as plugs or bare root plants and are potted up (ideally with local soil) and grown locally until they are ready to plant out.
#27 Flights of Fancy
Birds are lovely additions to the garden and an important part of a healthy ecosystem. During the spring and summer they can keep may pest infestations in check as they capture insects to feed to their chicks and fledglings.
Planting shrubs and trees which provide food for birds will help attract them but they also need shelter, both from predators and from sun and wind. Including a couple of dense evergreens such as spruce or cedar in your landscape will encourage them to make your garden their home.
#28 For a Song
Creating a habitat for birds in your yard doesn't have to mean giving up on making it beautiful. Many ornamental plants are great food sources for birds, including dogwood, currants, sour cherries and junipers, winterberry holly, and elderberries.
All this food will help keep them fed through the summer and fall and will encourage a diverse population which will help keep any insect outbreaks in check and will bring one more source of beauty to your landscape.
#29 The Trade Off
Plant Swaps are Great for the Environment As gardeners we sooner or later end up with more of some plants than we need. We also seem to be always looking for one more interesting addition to our collection.
Plant swaps are a great solution to both of these problems. They are also a wonderful source of plants which have been locally grown and come in recycled containers.
#30 Free Fertilizer
Nitrogen Fixing Plants in the Landscape
Before the advent of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, gardens and agriculture depended on nitrogen fixed by bacteria which lives in symbiosis with certain plants. These plants are often referred to as nitrogen fixers and include the white Dutch clover often recommended for lawns.
By including as little as 5% clover in your lawn you can provide your grass with as much nitrogen as is lost each season.
#31 Eat Your Garden
Decorative Plants with Edible Parts
Sour cherries, blue berries, red leaf lettuce, variegated basil, chives, bronze fennel and hot peppers: All of these plants are both ornamental and edible.
Even if you don't have the space in your yard to dedicate to a vegetable garden you can incorporate many edible plants right in with your ornamental landscape without detracting from its beauty.
#32 Elbow Grease Instead of Crude Oil
More and more often manual labour is being replaced by power equipment. While machines are often practical for large projects, many smaller tasks can be effectively completed using manual methods.
For example, use garden shears to trim your shrubs rather than a power trimmer, or a push mower rather than a gas powered one. You will end up with a lower carbon footprint and a quieter neighbourhood as well as cleaner pruning cuts and less tearing to your grass leaves.
#33 Let it Rot
Keeping Your Compost at Home
The green bin system which the city has implemented diverts tonnes of organic waste from landfills. This is a wonderful step forward but it does still require transportation and processing.
When possible, composting at home is a good way to reduce the moving around of materials and allows us to build up the organic and nutrient content of our soil without purchasing additives or transporting soil from place to place.
#34 Much ado about Mulch
Mulch is amazing. It stabilizes soil moisture, limits weed seed germination, reduces erosion and soil compaction and, as it composts, provides nutrients and carbohydrates to the extensive biologic network which exists in healthy soil.
A 3" thick layer of organic mulch, such as shredded bark or leaves, over your soil can help rehabilitate compacted or depleted soil and keep healthy soil thriving.
#35 Home Scale Carbon Sequestration
Healthy soil, rich in organic matter, has high levels of available nutrients and plenty of voids for air exchange and water retention. Organic matter contained in soil is approximately 58% carbon. When you frequently till soil the biological activity stimulated will result in the release of carbon.
The application of organic matter such as mulch or compost will both help build up the organic matter and will return some carbon to the soil, capturing it rather than releasing it to the atmosphere.
#36 The 100 Meter Diet
While most urban gardens can't come close to feeding an entire family, we can include some of the most perishable vegetables, such as tomatoes, or the most heavily packaged edibles, such as basil, in our gardens.
Including a few edibles in an otherwise decorative landscape is simple. Even a balcony can include a pot of favourite herbs or leafy vegetables and a couple of tomatoes or cucumber plants. Salad, just outside the door.
#37 Pennies from Heaven
Save Your Rain and Save Your Money
We pay for water as it comes into our home and we pay for it as it leaves, regardless of whether it goes down the drain or onto the landscape.
By collecting rainwater for use as needed, water and sewer costs are reduced. Barrels, water features which collect and circulate rainwater, or old fashioned cisterns are all options for storing this resource until we need it.
#38 Make Every Drop Count
City water has a carbon footprint. It is treated with chemicals to make it safe for use in our homes and it is transported significant distances under high pressure.
If municipal water has to be used in the garden it should be applied as efficiently as possible. Water in the morning or evening and apply it at soil level, either with a long handled watering wand or with drip irrigation, to reduce the amount lost to evaporation. Water deeply, but less often, to encourage plants to develop drought resistant root systems.
#39 As Above So Below
When you Cut Grass you Cut the Roots Too
When plants lose foliage or are stressed they shed root tissue. When you cut your lawn too short you actually limit the root depth.
By setting your lawn mower to cut at 4" or higher during the summer you not only shade out weeds, you allow a deeper, more drought resistant root system to develop.
#40 A Breath of Fresh Air
Aerate Your Lawn so that it can Breath
Leaves take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. To a lesser extent, roots take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Because of this they need to have voids in the soil for air exchange. When we walk and play on our lawns we compact the soil.
Aerating your lawn each year will help compensate for this and will help keep your lawn thriving without chemicals.
#41 Let Sleeping Plants Lie
In nature soil is almost always covered with last season's leaves. This cover releases nutrients into the soil below, protects the crowns of plants and provides shelter for overwintering insects. Most insects found in a healthy garden don't feed on growing plants. They break down organic matter, pollinate flowers and, best of all, hunt the insects which do eat our plants.
Remove any diseased foliage but otherwise leave the blanket in place, at least until spring.
#42 Low Sodium Landscaping
Salt is a frequent cause of damage to landscapes near roads and sidewalks. It is also damaging to the environment and infrastructure.
Rather than applying salt or other chemical ice melters at home, build walks out of materials less prone to ice build up, such as permeable paving, or apply traction products which create a safe texture on icy surfaces without introducing harmful chemicals.
#43 Stop and Smell the Roses
Spending time in your garden will let you catch any problems while they are small and only need minimal correction. Pinching buds before they grow into branches that will need to be removed later. Catching pest or disease problems while they are in their early phases and only require limited intervention, observing the growth of aggressive plants and relocating them before they take over your garden
Small corrections, at the right time, can eliminate the need for larger interventions later on.
#44 Let Nature do Some of the Work
When faced with a problem we tend to want to jump in and try to fix it. We dig up and remove compacted soil, we treat insect infestations, we apply natural weed killers to the lawn...
There is another way. If time allows soil can be restored by applying mulch and letting it break down for a season or a year. Most concentrations of insects attract whatever feeds on them. Correcting your mower height and spreading a bit of compost on your lawn will allow the grass to shade out the weeds. Working with nature can save you a lot of hard work.
#45 Care for What you Have
Care and maintenance can significantly increase the life span of many things plants, flower pots, garden furniture, a fence. All of these will last longer if cared for properly.
The less often we need to replace something the lower the impact of that feature or item on the environment over its entire lifecycle.
#46 Share Your Tools
Many garden tools such as pole saws, hedge shears, metal rakes, etc are only used occasionally. Others are bulky and take up a lot of space such as wheelbarrows lawnmowers and ladders.
By sharing these tools with one or more neighbours we can share the cost and the storage requirements and fewer of these occasionally used items will need to me manufactured.
#47 Share Your Harvest
Sustainability goes beyond the edge of your yard. It extends into the entire community. You may have the best place for tomatoes on the whole block but your neighbour may grow many more cucumbers than they can use. Fruit trees also often produce more than we can eat or store effectively.
Sharing your harvest can help expand the ecosystem of your landscape far beyond your own yard.
#48 Take a Second Look
When you are ready to remove materials from your existing landscape, or even your house, stop and consider their potential. Sometimes those old patio stones can find new life.
It may be as a shed base, it may be as a contemporary water feature, but in either case you have created something useful or beautiful from a material which was no longer fulfilling its original purpose and kept it out of a landfill. You may also have saved yourself the expense of buying a fancy fountain.
#49 Build a Network and Share Ideas
For ideas to be sustained they need to spread and evolve. A network to share ideas and experiences will help build awareness of how sustainability can be achieved in gardens and landscapes and will act as a resource of tested techniques and experienced individuals.
Every ecosystem engages in trial and error, but many needless and costly errors can be avoided if we pool our knowledge and experiences.
#50 Get the Kids Involved
The World can Always use Another Gardener
If gardens are to be truly sustainable, the next generation needs to be involved. By creating a space for children to join in on the fun, you can plant the seeds for future gardens.
Keep it fun, grow cool and tasty plants and let them make decisions in their own spaces. After all, how else will they find out how much fun it is to dig in the dirt?