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What is a Sustainable Landscape?

Updated on April 6, 2016
Sustainable Sue profile image

In addition to having a masters degree in sustainable development, Susette works with water conservation and 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 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.


Low Impact Development (LID)

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.

When you choose color combinations carefully, the effect can be stunning.
When you choose color combinations carefully, the effect can be stunning.
This planter is watered with drip irrigation to make sure water goes where it needs to.
This planter is watered with drip irrigation to make sure water goes where it needs to.
Rocks and paths are called "hardscape," whereas the plants themselves are referred to as "softscape."
Rocks and paths are called "hardscape," whereas the plants themselves are referred to as "softscape." | Source

Landscape Micro-Climates

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.

Garden Components

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.

English Country
English Country
Golf-Course Mimic
Golf-Course Mimic | Source

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).

Color in Leaves
Color in Leaves
Varying Textures
Varying Textures
Line and Focal Point
Line and Focal Point | Source

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

Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony, Second Edition
Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony, Second Edition

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.



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    • profile image

      Kenneth Avery 3 years ago

      Wow! Thanks, Sue. I love your work. And I am still asking that you follow me so we can share ideas about hubs and such.

      You are so good at what you do.

    • Sustainable Sue profile image

      Sustainable Sue 3 years ago from Altadena CA, USA

      One of my earliest memories is of driving down a street where the trees met in the middle, and the sun streamed through them, turning everything to gold. It was my first memorable introduction to magic. I was only three years old.

      I took all of these photos from the neighborhood where I lived in Pasadena CA, up until a year ago. My current neighborhood is even better. Here, I'll make them bigger for you.

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 3 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hi, Sustainable Sue,

      The very top photo is my favorite. I wish I could afford to live in an old south-type home and have a long drive with these trees on each side.

      This is an excellent piece of writing. Amazing, to be quite frank with you.

      I loved every word--and the lay-out was superb. Interesting, in-depth, helpful,

      and very informative. Great job.

      Voted up and all the choices because you deserve it.

      You have such a gift for writing. Just keep writing and good things are bound to happen to you.

      I cordially invite you to read one or two of my hubs, and be one of my followers.

      That would make my day.

      I am so honored to meet you.


      Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama

    • profile image

      Sustainable Landscaping Pro 4 years ago

      Great article. I am big believer in sustainable landscaping. I have been reading another blog similar to yours at They also have great content on sustainable landscaping.

    • ducktoes profile image

      ducktoes 5 years ago from Calgary, Alberta

      This is great. You wrote a lot of good content about landscape design in this hub, put in a lot of work and good photos. Thank you. Here's mine.