A Guide to Green Building Outdoors
Constructing and caring for a sustainable landscape on your backyard
The ultimate suburban living is not complete without lush green lawns and vibrant backyard gardens that serve as a calming slice of paradise amidst the parade of concrete houses and asphalt streets.
Being surrounded by greenery and flowering blooms can certainly feel energizing. Breathing the fresh, crisp air and walking barefoot on a field of dewy grass is a great way to commune with nature.
But, your lawn and backyard may not be as environmentally friendly as you think.
Ask yourself- is your landscape working with nature, or against it? Is your garden setup mother nature approved? Do your plants thrive in the local landscape? How can you reduce your environmental footprint, and make nature do the heavy lifting?
Enter Sustainable Landscaping– a wonderful, environmentally friendly, cost effective alternative to traditional landscaping that is not only costing you big bucks in maintenance and upkeep, but is detrimental to the environment.
In this guide, we will discuss the principles of sustainable landscaping and how you can apply these principles in your own backyard.
But first, what is sustainable landscaping?
Understanding the basics of sustainable landscaping
There are slightly varying definitions of what sustainable landscaping is, but generally, it touches on various environmental issues related to how a residential or commercial landscape is designed, constructed, implemented, and managed.
A sustainable landscape is one that conforms to the environment by utilizing naturally available materials and inputs, from plants, to hardscapes, even water and fertilizer. Your landscape should be in balance and harmonious with the local environment and climate.
Simply put, it is low impact to the environment, and largely self-sustaining.
3 facets of sustainable landscaping
When we say sustainable, we mean it- sustainable landscaping is sustainable on three fronts: the ecology, economy, and socio-cultural relations.
In terms of ecology, a sustainable landscape mimics the local ecology (specifically the flora and landform), enabling it to provide food, shade, and housing not just to the local wildlife, but even humans.
When it comes to the economic aspect, since this type of landscaping only uses available resources, it requires significantly lower maintenance, making it lighter on the pocket, especially since this can rack up hundreds or thousands of dollars over a span of a few years.
Then there’s the socio-cultural aspect. Since a sustainable landscape mimics the local ecology, it blends in well and represents the neighborhood better. It’s bright, looks seamless and natural, and feels like home to both the local wildlife and human population.
Short and long term benefits
When you opt for a sustainable landscape, a lot of wonderful things happen, such as:
- You save valuable resources, such as water for irrigation, money for fertilizers and pesticides, and general maintenance costs, not to mention loads of time and effort that goes towards a high maintenance landscape.
- Your landscape does not act as purely decorative (although a sustainable landscape can definitely look more vibrant and blends better with the surrounding neighborhood), but becomes more functional, both for you and the local flora and fauna.
- You get to enjoy low maintenance, resilient plants that live a long, healthy life, have a strong immunity against pests and diseases, and recover quickly from harsh climates.
Cost comparison of sustainable vs traditional landscape
Depending on the availability of resources and how far you want to take your journey with sustainable landscaping, the initial installation costs of a sustainable landscape may be considerably higher than a traditional one.
However, the sheer costs of maintenance and upkeep on a traditional landscape will, in no time, surpass what you have to spend on a sustainable one. Plus, with all the benefits of a sustainable landscape, the return on your investment is just that much better.
Here are some numbers to convince you further:
- A sustainable landscape requires 83% less water for irrigation because plant types and locations are optimized for water needs (among others), and any irrigation needs can be sourced from rainwater, runoff, and gray water.
- A sustainable landscape needs 68% less maintenance since it requires minimal irrigation, little to no fertilizer and other additives, and lives in harmony with the local wildlife, which takes care of pests and pollinates the plants for continuous growth.
- A sustainable landscape produces 56% less green or yard waste.
A high maintenance landscape setup and design requires a lot of water, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, replacement plants, and grass seed, among others, in order to simply survive from season to season. That’s a lot of work, money, and environmental footprint just to keep your backyard looking nice and pretty, isn’t it?
How to build a sustainable landscape
For a landscape to be truly sustainable, every aspect must be taken into consideration, from the types of plants to be used and where to plant them, where and how to source water for irrigation, the types of fertilizer (if any) that are suitable, even the building materials for additional and supplementary structures.
In order for you to arrive at the best possible plan for your landscape, start by identifying these things:
- Amount and direction of sunlight, and areas that get shade on certain times of the day
- Local climate, weather patterns, and seasonal temperatures
- Water sources, precipitation levels, rainfall, and runoff
- Soil composition, health, and moisture levels
- Shape and slope of land
- Wind flow and direction
- Presence and type of local insects and wildlife
- Size and shape of the house and the lot
All these things will determine what types of plants are sustainable, where you can plant them, how much you can plant, and even what hardscape elements you can build.
The most important decision that you are going to have to make when it comes to landscaping (sustainable or otherwise) has to do with what type of plants you are going to put on your backyard.
The main rule here is, the plants should suit the area and harmoniously thrive in the local ecosystem. Having said that, the best practice is to start by preserving whatever existing native plants you already have, and work your way from there.
Always keep in mind two things- native, and non-invasive. Your best bet is on native plants that are easy to source, blends well with the surrounding environment, have strong defenses against pests and diseases, and attract butterflies and bees which help the plants grow.
If you still prefer to add some exotic plants, choose the non-invasive ones. There are many kinds of exotic plants that are highly invasive, meaning, if they manage to thrive in the local ecosystem, they have the capacity to negatively affect local flora and fauna.
When it comes to irrigation, the ultimate goal is for most, if not all, of it to be naturally sourced. Sure, water is a renewable resource, and plenty of it goes around, but that does not mean it’s fine to waste unfathomable amounts of water just to keep your plants alive, especially given that wasteful irrigation accounts for one third of all water waste in the US.
There are many ways to collect, save, recycle, and use water for irrigation. But, before we get to that, let’s talk about setting up your landscape in such a way that you won’t need much water in the first place.
Aside from opting for plants that are drought resistant or require minimal watering, it might be smart to explore the practice of xeriscaping, which is a water wise garden technique of grouping together certain plants with the same watering needs. This means that each group receives the appropriate moisture they require and each plant gets watered evenly.
Another idea would be to maximize sloping areas by creating bio-swales or pockets of soil to collect and redirect runoff, or to build terraces so the water from the top flows freely and irrigates everything down below.
In terms of irrigation itself, the best way to source water is through rainwater harvesting and utilizing gray water from your sinks and showers. When practicing these, however, it is important to keep track of the water’s pH levels and use it on appropriate plants (for example, gray water is high in alkaline, making it unsuitable for acidophile plants).
Other ideas include installing green roofs and walls, opting for a drip or sub surface irrigation system, or constructing rain gardens.
The thing with native plants is that they are designed to grow on the natural existing unworked or unfertilized soil. The local soil has just the right nutrients, minerals, and even moisture content to support the native flora.
Having said that, there is no harm in improving the quality of the soil in your backyard, especially if you are planning on mixing things up with a couple of exotic (but non-invasive) plants. However, the best fertilizers to use are those that come from nature themselves- all natural, organic, not harmful to the environment.
You can practice soil management techniques, like composting your kitchen and yard waste, or you can construct a wetland to bio-filter your waste. You can also use organic mulch as a nice fertilizer supplement.
Mulch has a lot of different amazing benefits, such as reducing water loss due to evaporation, making it a handy help in terms of irrigation. It also has the effect of minimizing erosion, as well as the dispersal of dust and mud.
More importantly, mulch has the capability to reduce weeds, and add nutrients to the soil as the mulch decomposes, especially if you use existing yard waste such as grass clippings, plant trimmings, and so on.
When you make mulching a habit, you reduce your costs on fertilizers, weeding efforts, and landfill waste disposal, among others.
On the subject of landscaping materials, we are referring to both the softscape and hardscape elements including the ones already mentioned above. All of these things should be locally sourced, energy efficient, and produce little to no waste and runoff.
For softscapes, these include mulch, leaf covers, and other elements, and should be easily biodegradable and actually contribute to increasing the soil’s quality and composition.
Hardscapes, on the other hand, which includes everything from decks and patios, to pathways and driveways, retaining walls and fences, pools, ponds, and fountains, gazebos, pergolas, and other fixtures, should not only be decorative, but be functional to both humans and the landscape itself.
A good measure is if the hardscape element is able to provide shade to plants that shy from the sun and require cooler temperatures, as well as to you and your family, whenever you want to lounge outdoors without being sunburnt.
Moreover, it should be able to offer shelter, especially for the local wildlife such as friendly insects, pest eating birds, and so on. And, it should also be a source of moisture. Using permeable paving materials, for example, enables rainwater to infiltrate the soil and replenish the groundwater.
Other hardscaping materials include sustainably harvested wood and composite wood products for decking purposes, recycled materials such as glass, rubber, and brick to serve as planters and paving stones, and renewable energy sources like solar powered lighting for night time illumination.
Any landscaping project requires intensive planning and design- perhaps all the more for a sustainable landscape, because you are not only accounting for what looks good in what areas, but also how to make everything as functional, cost-effective, and sustainable as possible.
Sustainable landscaping is all about working from the outside- taking in the bigger picture before plotting all the tiny details. Survey the area and take a look at how the neighborhood looks like, such as what styles and landscaping designs your neighbors have, what plants are present in which locations, and so on.
This will make everything more cohesive, plus, you will have a better idea of just how sustainable the neighborhood’s landscape is.
Afterwards, that’s when you can decide on what style you want for your own backyard and front lawn. A general rule to follow is to create layers of trees, shrubs, and plants in such a way that mimics natural plant growth, so that it not only looks natural, but more importantly, attracts the birds that are more than happy to take care of plant pests.
Do take into account tree sizes at maturity before you decide on what trees you want and where you want to place them, because this will affect factors such as sunlight and shade, windflow and temperatures, and the maintenance required for pruning.
Finally, consider the micro-climates on your property. Which areas are noticeably cooler and get more shade than others? Which parts of the soil are sloping, and which are flat? Where does water runoff tend to pool? Which parts of the soil retain more moisture?
When you take these things into account, you give way for more plant variety, and create a more sustainable landscape.
For example, areas right beside the walls of your house and under trees are cooler and shady, so it’s ideal for growing cool temperature plants, as compared to right in the middle of the open backyard, which is better for cultivating, say, sunflowers.
In terms of moisture, areas around fences and right below sloping lands tend to be rich in moisture, making it perfect for water hungry ferns and other plants that require consistent heavy waterings, while high rise areas can be where you put succulents and cacti.
When it comes to soil composition, every homeowner with a backyard has that designated spot where you bury all your compost, and other where you stock your sand piles, and so on. These are the perfect areas to create your mini oasis and desert.
A couple of useful tips before you start
Here are some proven and tested tips and tricks so you can make the most out of your sustainable landscaping project:
- Install a grass lawn only if you live in a relatively wet climate, and use native grass so that it largely grows and reseeds on its own. A dry climate or foreign grass will require a lot of money for watering, mowing, reseeding, and so on.
- If you don’t like the idea of a bare lawn, try out moss, ground cover, turf, or meadow lawn. You can also use other plant species such as herbs (thyme, oregano, rosemary), chamomile, creeping ivy, lantana, clover, and stone crop.
- More on dry climates and hot weathers, opt for drought tolerant plants such as succulents and cacti, which are extremely resilient. This way, you maximize their lifespan and you save costs on reseeding.
- Alternatively, if you generally experience cold, harsh winters, it’s best to install windbreaks by creating rows of trees and plants to provide shade and break wind flow, saving you up to 22% on heating costs.
- You can also try broadleaf trees placed on all sides (except the south) of the house near the walls, or strategically located dense vegetative fences made of evergreens to achieve the same effect.
- When dealing with mulch, it is best to place them in flower beds and under the trees (but a considerable distance away from the tree trunks) for maximum benefits.
- Pruning your trees and shrubs properly will effectively increase air circulation, and decrease the likelihood of plant diseases. In the same spirit, when mowing your lawn, cut only the top ⅓ of the grass, and let the clippings lie on the lawn.
- Aerate your lawn every other season by poking small holes on it so that air, water, and nutrients get to the grass roots more easily, making it healthier and stronger, while improving the soil quality.
There are many different practices you can do to improve the sustainability of your home’s landscape, but it can be hard to find one that works for you and addresses all your needs perfectly.
We hope this guide answered all of your questions about sustainable landscaping, but if you have any other concerns, are unsure how to proceed, or would like to partner with a landscaping expert, feel free to reach out to us and we will be happy to assist you.