What is a Sustainable Landscape?
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 embodies the three principles of reduce, reuse, and recycle, and exists in harmony with its local ecosystem. When a resident prepares to design or change an existing landscape, the eventual success of a design will depend on keeping these principles in mind.
Climate and Sustainability
Although landscapes in a neighborhood will look different from each other, there will also be a similarity to them that is based either on the offerings of the climate and the elements prevalent in it, or a "look" created by the original developer and maintained over time by the neighborhood's inhabitants.
The look may or may not be sustainable. Non-sustainable landscapes and gardens, by their very nature, take a lot of nurturing, costing the property owner money and unnecessary time and effort. Sustainable landscapes on the other hand, matching the local environment, are built to require as little extra nurturing as possible.
There is a concept called Low Impact Development (LID) that takes local environmental factors into account when designing a landscape (or a building), striving to create beauty in the landscape with the lowest possible impact on the natural environment in which it exists.
Sun, water, and soil are some of the environmental factors that affect what will grow in a particular area - large or small, macro or micro. The shape of the land and the insects and other wildlife in the area also affect what will grow.
Sustainability is an integral part of LID, that being that an environment, planted or natural, should be able to sustain itself over time with a minimal amount of care.
These photos were all taken in the San Gabriel Mountains above Pasadena CA, near where I live. The hills are covered with wildflowers in spring. Although they are not necessarily the plants one would use in a local landscape, there are cultivars that do as well, but are hardier in one's yard - especially considering that most yards don't have natural soils anymore.
Beginning designers may worry that a sustainable landscape might be boring. But different locations on a property will have micro-climates of their own, resulting in each section of a well-designed, sustainable landscape looking and behaving differently from others.
Structures on a property and trees nearby will create shady areas that support different types of plants than do full sun areas. On one side of a fence there may be a well-established, water-hungry section of tropical ferns that soaks the soil and creates its own micro-climate on both sides of the fence. 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 the rest of the property might support.
Plants chosen for a location should grow easily there, and support and be 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.
Landscape Design "Style"
Because each of these elements combines to create an overall look, the look of each micro-climate can enhance or detract from the appearance of a landscape. Therefore, a good landscape designer should address the overall look as a whole first, before testing and planning for 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 fern garden in Southern California, 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.
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, insect life, and climate.
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 garden 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 weather, soils, and fauna (animal, insect, and bird life).
Landscape Design Elements
Just as hills covered with flowers in springtime can be immensely attractive, so can well-designed native landscapes in residential neighborhoods. A designer's success, whether with single or blended types of gardens, will depend on keeping the following landscape design elements firmly in mind:
- Color - Soft purple flowers with blue-green leaves can look gorgeous combined with bright yellow flowers, giving contrast to each. Small, delicate white flowers en masse can enhance large, showy white ones. Leaf colors can be mixed to good effect, and colors changing with seasonal blooming can attract attention year round.
Texture - Rough bark contrasted with frilly ferns or covered with sinuous climbing vines can be interesting, as can flat hairy leaves underneath arching branches of a medium to large bush.
Scale/line - Large sizes contrasting with small, long contrasting with short, straight vs curved, small leading into bigger and then bigger, each combination creates a different effect.
Focal Points - All of the above elements can be combined judiciously to create special focal points at different times of the year in any landscape location. They can also be used to create a blend or dissonance with neighboring landscapes - an overall harmony or contrast.
Does the Landscape Match the Neighborhood?
Because a location's landscape can enhance or detract from the overall appearance of a neighborhood, care needs to be taken to engage the neighbors (to a certain extent) in planning. One never knows what types of things neighbors have tried before or what they are planning currently. Neighbors could also have ideas or contacts or resources that could prove helpful in design and 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 don't understand and will 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, the willingness to try something new gives a resident a great way to affect the economics of a neighborhood by consciously creating an attractive, sustainable look that shows over the years how much can be saved in effort, money, and time. Neighbors who recognize that value will support and often mimic your efforts, thereby extending the sustainability of the neighborhood and preventing further degradation of its resources.
Useful Landscaping Book
Lawns are celebrated in America as a mark of civility and achievement. But American fanaticism about the well-kept family turf does not always serve the best interests either of the turf or of the American.
For more information:
- American Horticultural Society
One of the oldest gardening organizations in the United States, in existence since 1922.
- HOA Property Management - Water Bills
For a typical homeowners association there are three main areas where water could be monitored and money saved: The landscaping, HOA managed facilities, and the individual units that are homeowner managed.
- Books About Pool Design, Spa Design, and Swimming Pool Styles
The first step in choosing what you want in a pool or spa is to define what you already know about them, including what aspects of owning or constructing a pool are most important to you. The second step is learning the language.
More by this Author
Choosing the right kinds of plants for the type of climate you have can save a gardener lots of money. Here are the climate factors you will need to consider.
Well-planned landscapes have an overall "look" to them that can be classified as a style. This article introduces native styles from around the world that are considered exotic in other locales.
Cities across the nation are passing ordinances that make the use of gas-powered leaf blowers illegal. This is a boon for those of us who work from home, but what are the alternatives for gardeners?