Sustainable Landscaping

California native plants landscaping with yellow and purple flowersSustainable landscaping is the practice of using multiple strategies to create an environmentally friendly and climate appropriate landscape. Major goals and benefits of sustainable landscaping include water conservation, improving soil health, reducing maintenance labor and organic waste generation, carbon sequestration, and creating habitat through appropriate plant selection.

Shifting towards sustainable landscaping practices helps preserve our local ecosystems and prevent air, water, and soil pollution. In turn, this can reduce long- term costs and cut down maintenance. Sustainable landscapes mean more than hot, dry gardens of cactus and gravel. They can incorporate beautiful flowering plants–including California natives–as well as edible plants such as pomegranates, or shade trees that can cool your home. A well-designed sustainable yard provides immediate benefits to local communities, while also protecting the environment and providing nourishment for birds, bees and wildlife.

Environmental Impact of Landscapes

Urban and agriculture development result in habitat loss that directly impact biodiversity. Removal of vegetation causes loss of protective cover, food, and disturbances in natural processes. As California grows, communities use more resources and generate more waste. Historically, urban landscapes are water intensive and are chemically treated using fertilizers and pesticides, which can runoff into waterways. Maintaining a typical lawn creates noise and air pollution from gas-powered equipment; small engines are among the dirtiest engines allowed in California. Proper management practices will reduce resource depletion, waste generation, and pollution problems while also helping to combat a changing climate.

Role of Landscape Managers

Creating a climate appropriate landscape can be done on many scales including residential or commercial properties through thoughtful planning. Landscape contractors, site managers, and homeowners can play an active role in efficiently managing resources, reducing waste, and preventing pollution. Using sustainable landscape maintenance practices makes good business sense to help reduce costs. With forethought and planning, they can design self-sustaining landscapes that are environmentally sound and beautiful.

Recycling and Upcycling

Recycling materials from the construction, installation, or upkeep of landscape sites will reduce waste. Wood waste coverts to mulch, and plastic pots can be recycled into products for landscape use. Buying recycled-content landscaping products, such as plastic edging or lumber, conserves natural resources and strengthens markets for these recyclable materials. Composting clippings and organic materials on site is encouraged when available. If materials must be removed, they should be transported to local composting facilities for processing.

How to Landscape Sustainably

Green house from the native garden tour that has a California native garden in front yard

Activities that can help support more sustainable and climate appropriate landscapes include xeriscaping, grasscycling, erosion control, water conservation, carbon sequestration, creating habitat, mulching, and composting. To learn more about these topics click on the links below:

Xeriscaping. Xeriscaping is landscaping with slow-growing, drought tolerant and native plants to conserve water and reduce yard trimmings. The practice of Xeriscaping will vary from region to region in California due to variation in climate throughout the state.

Grasscycling. Grasscycling is the natural recycling of grass by leaving clippings on the lawn when mowing. Grass clippings decompose quickly and release valuable nutrients back into the soil. This will reduce water and fertilizer usage and green waste generation as well as maintenance costs.

Create Habitat. In even the smallest space, you can create a habitat that encourages birds, pollinators, and other wildlife to thrive. Planting with California natives in your home garden can act as a “bridge,” connecting wildlife to nearby wildlands.

Carbon Sequestration. Carbon occurs naturally in the environment, but is also released into the atmosphere as a result of human activities such as tilling of soil and burning of fossil fuels. Carbon sequestration is the process of pulling carbon from the atmosphere and returning it back to the soil for storage, which can help combat a changing climate.

Erosion Control. Using compost-based erosion control products is a best management practice (BMP), as compost bonds tightly with soil, leaving no gap between soil and cover, which means less opportunity for water to run underneath and undermine the protection.

Mulching. Application of compost and mulch enhances soils by adding organic matter. Mulch will insulate plant roots, reduce weeds, minimize water loss, and control erosion, dust, and mud problems. Decomposition of mulch helps condition the soil and adds nutrients. Adding organic matter increases the water-holding capacity of soils, reducing erosion, and conserving water. Apply 3 to 4 inches of mulch on top of soil surrounding your plants.  Keep mulch at least 1 foot away from tree trunks.  Replace periodically as organic mulch decomposes over time.

Composting. Many California soils are low in organic matter and high in clay; compost improves the texture of these soils so water can infiltrate more easily, reducing runoff and saving that water for plants. You can make compost at home or purchase it. Mix 1 to 2 inches of compost into clay soils and 2 to 3 inches to sandy soils, to a depth of at least 6 inches. See this factsheet for applying compost to a landscape garden and this factsheet for applying compost on a lawn.

Water Conservation. Effective and sustainable landscape designs reduce water usage and cost. This can be achieved in many ways such as selecting water efficient plants, irrigation systems, or applying compost and mulch.

Additional Resources

For more information contact: Organic Materials,