Sustainable Landscaping

By: Brett Freeman , Contributing Writer
In: Green Renovations

Most landscaping plans are the result of tradition–a big front lawn, hedges along the front path–rather than common sense. The result is a yard that requires a lot of work and a lot of chemical help. A more sensible approach to landscaping can result in a yard that grows better, pollutes less, and requires less care. It can even lower your heating and cooling bills.

Grass isn’t Green
Grass is so ubiquitous in suburban landscaping that its use as the dominant feature is simply assumed in most cases. Indeed, for many, residential neighborhoods are inextricably linked with “sweeping lawns.” A thick, lush lawn is undeniably pretty, but it’s not really green, at least in the environmental sense. Maintaining a healthy lawn requires a lot of water, a lot of fertilizer, and regular mowing. In most cases, weed killers and pesticides are also needed, and for what?

Grass has a shallow root system that absorbs far less water than most plants. The runoff that results is replete with fertilizers and pesticides that can have a damaging effect on the streams and lakes where they end up. And mowing, in addition to being tiresome and noisy, is also dirty, with lawn mowers accounting for 5 percent of the ozone-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released into the atmosphere nationwide. Replacing significant portions of your lawn with planting beds and gardens is an alternative that can result in significantly less watering, less chemicals, and less work. It’s also attractive and definitely more “green.”

Too often, tradition dictates what is used in landscaping. English boxwood shrubs, for example, have long been a staple of landscaping in many parts of the country. They do form nice hedges. They’re also expensive, require a lot of care, and can die suddenly if conditions are too wet or too dry. Native species, on the other hand, are supposed to thrive in their own part of the world. Native plants are already adapted to the local soil and climate, meaning they need little or no water or fertilizer, and they are naturally resistant to garden pests.

A good landscaping plan can not only save you money on maintenance, but also on heating and cooling costs. Planting deciduous trees south and west of your house can keep your house in the shade during the hottest part of the day in summer. In winter the trees’ leaves are gone, so the sun is able to penetrate and provide warmth. And evergreen trees and tall shrubs planted to the west and north of your house can be effective windbreaks in winter. Such strategic placing of trees can result in heating and cooling savings of 25 percent or more.


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  1. 4 Responses  to “Sustainable Landscaping”

  2. BAFreeman
    Aug 29, 2011
    Sir Edward, you have inspired me. Look for a future post tracing the history of American lawns to Mother England (when the first real new wealth was created in the U.S., the newly wealthy had no local role models on how to be rich, so they imitated the Victorian English with their hilltop estates and rolling lawns). The folly endures: I can't tell you how many people I encounter in my landscaping business who want English boxwood hedges, despite the fact that English boxwoods are ill-adapted to the local climate and therefore require irrigation and constant care just to survive. Muggsy: I agree that trees left alone can be pricey to have trimmed, but if you simply trim the low-lying branches once a year--and with a young tree you can do this with a pair of scissors--and continue to do so, so that when the tree has grown to over 15 feet you are trimming everything from about 7 feet down, professional trimming isn't required. Also, when planting trees, the minimum distance from the house to plant it should be half of its anticipated mature height. Small Turf: hollies and rose bushes are no good as playing surfaces for soccer, but they're pretty good at toughening aspiring rugby players.
  3. Small Turf
    Aug 29, 2011
    Good points, but it sure is hard to kick a soccer ball around in a yard full of rose bushes, hollies, and hellebores! (No offense Sir Edward.) I am looking for ways to be more eco-friendly, but am not ready to abandon my beautiful, green lawn.
  4. Muggsy Briarwood
    Aug 29, 2011
    Great Post. Not to sound like a green technology advocate (I drive a non-hybrid that gets 16 miles per gallon!), but I like the outside-the-box thinking to find other ways to help the environment. The one comment I do have is that trees will eventually cost money to trim, which can run you around $500 depending on the size. Nonetheless, it still may be a cheaper alternative.
  5. Sir Edward
    Aug 29, 2011
    Sir Edward Batavia here...just finished reading your post, Brett, and I must say that although the premise (and promise) of well-manicured, thick, lush green lawns is essentially ingrained into most homeowners minds (especially here in Britain), the move toward sustainable landscaping is not only a novel concept but also a necessary one. The ills of modern chemicals used in everything from the agricultural industry to the daily maintenance of lawns and gardens has been well-documented. However, the practice and practical implementation of sustainable landscaping is hardly commonplace and needs much more publicity and socialization. Large, impractical lawns should be seen for what they are and not for their perceived sense of value to a home. Here at my manor house, we have planted numerous rose bushes, hollies, and hellebores, all native to our locale. I believe the diversity and unique nature of each region's flora provide a tremendous opportunity for creativity and expression, which is much more desirable than a cookie-cutter green lawn. Great post, Brett!