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Landscaping Ideas: 16 Simple Solutions for Sustainability

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Landscaping Ideas: 16 Simple Solutions for Sustainability

April 9, 2018

Landscaping ideas for sustainable gardens are in the forefront of designers’ minds—and concern about climate change has us all looking for ways we can help. Here is our guide to 16 eco-friendly ways to make a difference.

Permeable Surfaces

Landscaping ideas in Normandy frequently include a gravel courtyard, a permeable surface to prevent erosion. Photograph courtesy of A+B Kasha.
Above: Landscaping ideas in Normandy frequently include a gravel courtyard, a permeable surface to prevent erosion. Photograph courtesy of A+B Kasha.

One of the most eco-friendly things a garden can do is decrease rainwater runoff. Consider a permeable surface if you’re doing a hardscape project, and use captured rainwater or gray water in the garden.

 An Abandoned Parking Lot Transformed to a Wildlife Habitat by landscape architect Christine Ten Eyck in Marfa, Texas. Photograph by Terrence Moore.
Above: An Abandoned Parking Lot Transformed to a Wildlife Habitat by landscape architect Christine Ten Eyck in Marfa, Texas. Photograph by Terrence Moore.

Landscaping ideas for surfaces that allow water to seep into the ground to aid filtration and slow the flow into drains and waterways are gaining momentum. From a design perspective, permeable surfaces introduce the satisfying crunch of gravel underfoot and add a softer element to hard surfaces.

Decomposed Granite

Landscaping ideas for low-maintenance weekend homes: Used as filled stone between pavers, decomposed granite softens the surface of a patio on Shelter Island. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista.
Above: Landscaping ideas for low-maintenance weekend homes: Used as filled stone between pavers, decomposed granite softens the surface of a patio on Shelter Island. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista.

Our correspondent Ellen Jenkins thinks decomposed granite (aka DG) may be the ideal hardscape material: “After I started looking into DG, I began to notice it everywhere: The pretty little path through the local recreation field that never gets muddy? Decomposed gravel. The soft, natural-looking gravel driveway, where the gravel stays put? Also decomposed granite. The mulch at the base of trees that keeps the ground weed-free? DG again.”
For everything you need to know before deciding if decomposed granite is the right material for your hardscaping project, see Hardscaping 101: Decomposed Granite.

Pea Gravel

In this hardscape detail, pea gravel abuts mulch, separated by metal edging. For more of this garden, see Architect Visit: Barbara Chambers at Home in Mill Valley, CA. Photograph by Nicole Franzen for Gardenista.
Above: In this hardscape detail, pea gravel abuts mulch, separated by metal edging. For more of this garden, see Architect Visit: Barbara Chambers at Home in Mill Valley, CA. Photograph by Nicole Franzen for Gardenista.

Pea gravel–a small, fluid stone found near bodies of water–has an appealingly smooth texture, the result of natural weathering. Pea gravel comes in sizes from 1/8 inch to 3/8 inch, about the size of a pea, and in a range of natural colors such as buff, rust brown, gray, white, and translucent. If you’re trying to decide between decomposed granite and pea gravel, see Hardscaping 101: Pea Gravel.

Ribbon Driveways

A ribbon driveway has a strip of grass down the middle. For more of this garden, see A Very American Garden by Stephen Stimson.
Above: A ribbon driveway has a strip of grass down the middle. For more of this garden, see A Very American Garden by Stephen Stimson.

Our East Coast correspondent Jeanne Rostaing grew up with a ribbon driveway—two strips of concrete with grass in between—in Memphis: “Ribbon driveways were a natural progression from the ruts carved in the ground by the wheels of wagons and, later, automobiles,” she writes. “It makes sense that if you’re driving your vehicle from the street to the garage every day, you’d want to avoid wearing deep, muddy grooves into your lawn. The simplest and most economical way to do that: paving the areas where the wheels go and leaving the grass in the middle.”

Nowadays ribbon driveways are back in fashion not only because of their eco-friendly permeability but also because they’re visually pleasing. For more about designing and installing a ribbon driveway, see Hardscaping 101: Ribbon Driveways.

Rainwater Capture

A 67-gallon Wooden Rain Barrel made of dried spruce wood has a brass tap and is $4 at Eco-Outfitter.
Above: A 67-gallon Wooden Rain Barrel made of dried spruce wood has a brass tap and is $244 at Eco-Outfitter.

Rainwater Hog

The Rainwater Hog designed by Australian architect Sally Dominguez is a plastic 53-gallon tank that can store water vertically or horizontally, against the side of the house or beneath a deck, depending on where you have the space to store it.
Above: The Rainwater Hog designed by Australian architect Sally Dominguez is a plastic 53-gallon tank that can store water vertically or horizontally, against the side of the house or beneath a deck, depending on where you have the space to store it.

For more, see Ask the Expert: 7 Ways to Save Water in the Garden, from a Graywater Crusader.

Irrigation Systems

 Drip (trickle, micro, or localized) irrigation benefits plants and crops by delivering water straight to their roots on a slow drip, thereby saving water and fertilizer, says Christine, who wrote our guide to everything you need to know about Hardscaping src=
Above: Drip (trickle, micro, or localized) irrigation benefits plants and crops by delivering water straight to their roots on a slow drip, thereby saving water and fertilizer, says Christine, who wrote our guide to everything you need to know about Hardscaping 101: Drip Irrigation.

Artificial Grass

Traditional turf is lovely to look at, but it’s a water hog. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite alternatives, from green ground covers to wildflower meadows to sow in the front yard.

Artificial grass by DuPont ForeverLawn. For more of this garden, see Architect Visit: Barbara Chambers at Home in Mill Valley, CA. Photograph by Liese Johannssen for Gardenista.
Above: Artificial grass by DuPont ForeverLawn. For more of this garden, see Architect Visit: Barbara Chambers at Home in Mill Valley, CA. Photograph by Liese Johannssen for Gardenista.
Artificial grass has come a long way since AstroTurf, and it requires no water, weeding, mowing, or fertilizing. Is it an environmentally friendly option for you? For the pros and cons, see Hardscaping 101: Artificial Grass.

Wildflower Meadow

Replace turf with a wild meadow of native low-water wildflowers and or a hardy ground cover. Photograph by Erin Boyle.
Above: Replace turf with a wild meadow of native low-water wildflowers and or a hardy ground cover. Photograph by Erin Boyle.

For tips on sowing wildflowers in the garden, see our growing guides for Queen Anne’s Lace, Cosmos, Foxglove, and Nasturtiums. Browse our Field Guide archives for growing tips for flowers, vegetables, and herbs,

Ground Cover Lawn Substitute

Janet has investigated alternatives to water-guzzling turf. For more, see Fields of Green: 5 Favorite Lawn Substitutes, including Sheet Moss for shady spots; $.99 for five square feet from TN Nursery.
Above: Janet has investigated alternatives to water-guzzling turf. For more, see Fields of Green: 5 Favorite Lawn Substitutes, including Sheet Moss for shady spots; $24.99 for five square feet from TN Nursery.

Birds and Bees

Create a garden where pollinators are welcome to help combat the rapid depletion of habitats. You can sow wildflowers, plant a pollinator garden, add a native plant, or put a green roof on your house to give nature more of a chance.

In Brooklyn garden designer Julie Farris planted a rooftop meadow of hardy perennials (inspired by garden designer Piet Oudolf&#8
Above: In Brooklyn garden designer Julie Farris planted a rooftop meadow of hardy perennials (inspired by garden designer Piet Oudolf’s plant combinations for New York City’s High Line Park). For more of her rooftop garden, see Garden Visit: A Rooftop Meadow in Brooklyn.

Native Plants

On the rooftop of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco is a perennial garden planted strictly with natives that feels &#8
Above: On the rooftop of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco is a perennial garden planted strictly with natives that feels “almost like a wilderness, like a resting spot found during a hike on California’s coast,” says our contributor Cynthia Salaysay. For more of this garden, see Garden Visit: Academy of Sciences’ Living Rooftop.

Wildflower Seed Bombs

Combine wildflower seeds with a soil mix to make a seed bomb that you can toss into a sunny spot in your garden–or into a sunny vacant lot as you drive past. For step-by-step instructions, see DIY: Wildflower Seed Bombs.
Above: Combine wildflower seeds with a soil mix to make a seed bomb that you can toss into a sunny spot in your garden–or into a sunny vacant lot as you drive past. For step-by-step instructions, see DIY: Wildflower Seed Bombs.

Seaside Wildflowers

One of England&#8
Above: One of England’s best-loved gardens is filmmaker Derek Jarman’s wildflower cottage garden in Kent. See more of it in Garden Visit: Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage at Dungeness.

For more about wildflowers, see The Woman Who Beautified America: Lady Bird Johnson’s Roadside Wildflowers.

Native Meadow

When native species of plants flourish, so do birds, bees, and wildlife. In Virginia&#8
Above: When native species of plants flourish, so do birds, bees, and wildlife. In Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, 22 acres of open grazing land were transformed into a meadow of native plants. For more of this project, see Landscape Architect Visit: Nelson Byrd Woltz and a Wild Virginia Meadow.

Heirloom Seeds

Connect your garden to gardeners who have come before you by planting heirloom seeds that have been passed on for generations for their delicious flavor, scent, or hardiness. Unlike hybrids, heirlooms will reproduce exactly like their parents.

If you’re designing an edible garden, see all our tips in Hardscaping 101: Design Guide for Edible Gardens.

Here are some of our favorite sources of heirloom seeds.

Offering more than
Above: Offering more than 225 varieties, Kitazawa is the oldest seed company in the US specializing in Asian vegetables. For more, see Seed Source: Kitazawa Seed Co.
Connecticut-based John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds sells a wide selection of heirloom vegetable and culinary herb seeds. Photograph by Erin Boyle.
Above: Connecticut-based John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds sells a wide selection of heirloom vegetable and culinary herb seeds. Photograph by Erin Boyle.

If you’re designing a sustainable garden from scratch (or adding environmentally friendly features to an existing landscape), see our Hardscape 101 design guides for Decks & Patios, Designing with Gravel, and Pavers. For more inspiration, see:

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