Landscapers and lawn care specialists are in a unique position to have a meaningful impact on the environment and the future of the planet. For that matter, so is anyone with a yard, penchant for gardening, or sunny apartment balcony. 

Sustainable landscaping is taking the urban and suburban botanical world by storm. 

Many organizations and communities are making major efforts to champion sustainable landscaping and the positive effect it strives to make on the environment. The Village of Glenview, IL, for example, issues a series of Environmental Sustainability Awards each year, recognizing local organizations that show leadership and innovation in environmental stewardship.

Curious gardeners and progressive lawn servicers are asking more questions about what sustainable landscaping is — and how they can begin to move in the direction of sustainability. But the real question is, will it be enough?

What is Sustainable Landscaping?

In a nutshell, sustainable landscaping is a landscaping practice using techniques that are more self-sustainable and require minimal use of non-renewable resources. It avoids using environmentally harmful substances (think pesticides and fertilizers) or practices, encouraging mindful choices that minimize ecological impact.

In addition to the environmental focus taken by sustainable landscaping, it also brings an unconventional beauty to its exhibition. Sustainable gardens and landscapes often mimic the natural beauty of their surrounding environment, likening to lush rolling hillsides or grassy coastal banks speckled with life. 

Truly sustainable landscapes conform to the land around them. The only nurturing they need is naturally available, like water, and any additional maintenance or support is usually for aesthetic value or upkeep to allow the unoffended passing of the occasional human (it’s still considered environmentally friendly to trim your plants or hedges, particularly if you re-use those trimmings to nourish your softscape).

Sustainable landscaping is resilient and self-sustaining over long periods, thriving harmoniously with its natural ecosystem. Inclimate weather that commonly occurs in that habitat, like heavy rain, drought, or freezing, will hardly phase a sustainable garden, granting a swift rebound as soon as is naturally acceptable. Even during these phases of destruction and recovery, it generally takes less effort to help sustainably driven gardens thrive. 

Why it Matters: Ecological and Economic Consequences

Gardens or landscapes that are not sustainably planted or maintained are very needy, requiring lots of extra nurturing and attention. Innumerable hours and dollars are spent every year on resources to replenish these terrains, including fertilizers, pesticides, grass seed, and replacement plants. The amount of water used to irrigate lawns and gardens in the United States alone is estimated to be around nine billion gallons per day

Resource draining aside, mismanaged traditional landscaping can lead to poor soil health, water shortages, and water pollution, carrying with them even more dire outcomes for the wildlife that depend on those resources. 

A landscape that easily thrives off natural resources makes more sense environmentally, but it also has economic appeal. Spending extra money on water and chemicals to make a garden healthy or look good carries a certain counterintuitive undertone.

At the end of the day, the overarching goal of sustainable landscaping should be to create and replenish a natural ecosystem that can adapt successfully to our ever-changing environment. In the end, the creation and management of sustainable landscapes is a fast horse in the race to reduce our climate footprint.

What We’re Doing About It

Sustainable landscaping is happily married to green infrastructure, which strives to reduce stormwater flow to sewer systems and bodies of water. Traditional, or “gray,” infrastructure leads water to those places to move it away from populated areas. Green infrastructure primarily works to return rainwater to the soil or reuse it for sustainable purposes, like watering a garden.

Green infrastructure and sustainable landscaping supplement man-made systems with more environmentally conscious choices, and this integration strategy restores and protects the natural water cycle and even imitates it, in a most exhausting display of irony.

What’s more, green infrastructure and sustainable landscaping help make up a broader concept called Low Impact Development (LID). LID developers consider local environmental elements when designing a landscape or building. These considerations help ensure new structures or landscapes cause as little disruption as possible to their surroundings while also encouraging self-sustainability over time. 

While politicians and environmentalists chase these larger measures down in a tiring footrace, we must not forget the small yet significant measures we can take when planning the next suburban landscape-apalooza.

How You Can Jump In

When you’re laying out the groundwork for next season’s yard or garden transformation, consider the sustainability of your plans. Does your design or plant selection deviate from local ecology? Does it require a lot of work and maintenance? You’ll be saving a lot more than your back if you veer away from options that do.

First, let’s talk about the power of plants. One fact that shouldn’t surprise you is that planting more plants, trees, and flowers has a positive impact on the environment. These beautiful botanicals are the cornerstone of sustainable landscaping and are as functional as they are nice to look at. Plantlife absorbs carbon dioxide, prevents erosion, and attracts (and feeds) bees and other pollinators. Choosing plants that are native to your area will support natural wildlife and require fewer resources and less maintenance. 

More than anything, it’s important to be highly conscious of water consumption in your sustainable endeavors. Managing your water on-site can actually be pretty easy and satisfying. You can select drought-resistant plants that require less water, create rain gardens, collect rainwater and reduce impervious surfaces wherever possible. 

In the spirit of reducing water waste, one of the biggest steps you can take is reducing your grass area. Most suburban dads won’t like this idea one bit. After all, those luscious St. Augustine blades are his pride and joy. Unfortunately, grass offers very little advantage for wildlife (unless you love fire ants) and requires a significant amount of water, fertilizer, time and money to thrive in suburbia. 

If you must keep your rolling green lawn, reduce the use of fertilizers and switch to something organic. Grasscycling is a growing trend in sustainable landscaping, a simple process that only requires you to leave your clippings on the lawn after you mow. The recycled clippings act as fertilizer and reduce landfill waste. It’ll also save precious time that you can better spend admiring the spoils of your labor. 

Moving Slowly in the Right Direction

While it’s true that sustainable landscaping isn’t always as aesthetically appealing as less eco-friendly measures, the tradeoff does seem worth the hit. Having a golf-worthy lawn or year-round exotic florals is awesome, but so is slowing the degeneration of our climate and planet. 

The sustainable landscaping movement has been given extra leverage by a planet actively protesting the dangerous strain on its natural resources. Climate change poses an increasingly critical strain on many ecological systems here on earth, but sustainable landscaping stands to defend some of them right in our own backyards.

This seemingly small facet of sustainability holds a fair amount of weight for the planet’s future. Even though landscaping isn’t going green overnight, it’s worth pursuing these simple adjustments to begin moving toward a more sustainable way to enjoy this amazing gift we’ve been given, for just a little bit longer.