Looking at your landscaping as an integral part of the local environment is the beginning to incorporating sustainable landscaping concepts. Around our homes, we want landscaping to provide functional spaces such as an entertainment area, a children’s play area or a vegetable garden. Landscaping can also provide functional purposes such as erosion control, privacy or shade or warmth for the house. This helps to sustain the quality and health of our environment. The typical landscape requires many inputs: time, money, labor, water, chemicals, and fertilizers. Most homeowners would be happy to reduce the amount of time, money, and labor that goes into their yards. The environment also benefits from decreased use of resources such as water, and potentially polluting elements such as chemicals and fertilizers.
Our landscapes also create waste which most of us never think of: plant trimmings and weeds, polluted runoff from the use of chemicals and fertilizers, and water lost by evaporation from plants and soils.
The concept of sustainable landscaping asks us to examine the input and output of our landscaping and find ways to minimize both. Applying the following principles can save you time and money, and create a beautiful landscape that is environmentally responsible.
More information on Sustainable Landscaping in CA from the UC Cooperative Extension.
Plan & Design
In order to have a sustainable landscape, you must first start with planning. This is the most important phase! When you begin to plan, first analyze your site. Make note of the unique traits of the location, such as conditions of sun and shade, ground slope, available moisture, soil type, and air movement. By considering these factors and planning with them in mind, the resulting landscape will be easier to maintain.
Next you should consider how you want to use your landscaping. There are many functions for a garden: to provide beauty, a place for children to play, space for growing food, erosion control, wildlife habitat, and climate control.
Consider your local climate and try to orient patios for the benefits of sun or shade. Place trees or vines near the house to block the summer sun and lower temperatures. The planning phase is also a time to propose solutions to problems, such as hard clay soil or poor drainage. Laying out the design on paper and on the ground will help you identify problems and solutions.
Healthy soil is an important foundation for every landscape. Dealing with problem soils can take up much of the time spent in maintaining a yard. Aspects of soil composition, slope, and need for amendments must all be considered. Characteristics of the soil can help determine the best choice of plants and irrigation systems for your landscape.
Different soils have varying water needs. Clay soils absorb water slowly and cause surface runoff if watered too quickly. Sandy soils dry quickly because of fast downward percolation. Soil amendments, such as nitrolized redwood bark or compost, will improve either type of soil. Composting your garden wastes serves an important dual purpose: it decreases the amount of materials taken to the landfill and provides valuable, organic amendment for your soil.
Mulching can help your landscape no matter what the soil conditions. Mulch covers and cools the soil, minimizes evaporation, eliminates weed growth and slows erosion. As mulch decomposes, nutrients are added to the soil. Bark chips and wood shavings make attractive organic mulches. City water customers may be eligible for free mulch.
For a truly sustainable landscaping, native plants are the most obvious choice. They are perfectly adapted to Santa Barbara microclimates and soils, requiring little water, chemical fertilizers or pest control. Most importantly they also improve ecosystem health and biodiversity. By learning a little more about the seasonality and watering needs of native plants you can create a year round green beautiful and ridiculously easy garden to maintain.
Choosing plants for your yard is an important step in making the landscape sustainable. Besides the usual consideration of how the plant looks, there are other important factors to keep in mind when selecting the plant materials for your garden.
Water Wise Plants
In our semi-arid climate, the water requirements of a plant are an important consideration. There are many beautiful, low-water using plants available locally. To avoid maintenance conflicts, group plants with similar water, sun, shade, and soil requirements. Be careful. Some of these plants can “escape” from your garden and take over and degrade natural habitats. See our extensive and interactive water wise plant database.
Native plants are low-water, fertilizer and pesticide users. They require little maintenance and they provide habitat for local wildlife. Native deep rooting bushes can decrease erosion with little maintenance. Visit the SB Botanic Garden for more information.
Careful of invasive plants:
Some Mediterranean plants you buy in the nursery are exotics that can grow like crazy. This seems great for your garden, however, some of these exotics can take over wild native plants that keep our watersheds healthy and provide habitat and food for wildlife. Here are a few examples of invasive plants: Pampas Grass, Fountain Grass, eucalyptus trees etc. Below are resources for invasive plants:
- SB County Weed Management
- Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health
- California Invasive Plant Council
Reduce size of lawn:
Lawns can be an attractive and useful part of a landscape, but are not considered “sustainable landscaping” due to the large inputs of water, labor and often chemicals to keep them healthy. Many people find that even while reducing the lawn area, they can still meet the need for children’s or pet’s play area. A smaller lawn requires less labor and resources. When mowing the lawn, clippings can be left on the surface as mulch. Although there are no truly "drought tolerant" turf grasses, some varieties do use less water. View the sheet mulching video on how to remove lawn and build soil.
Reduce Chemical Use
Less toxic pesticides and fertilizers mean a healthier environment, and prevent harmful chemicals from washing off your yard and into the creeks and ocean.
Anticipate plant size and reduce pruning
Choose plants that will grow to an appropriate size for the area you are planting. If a plant that grows into a tree is selected for a hedge, the result is endless pruning: more work for you and more material for the landfill. Many reference books will include the mature size of plants.
Decrease plant disease
Before you select a plant, find out if it has pest problems locally. Some plants are more susceptible to disease and insects, requiring more effort and pesticides or herbicides to keep them alive. If plants do develop disease, look for biological controls (insects) or non-chemical means of easing the problem.
Irrigation & Water Efficiency
In the semi-arid climate of the Central Coast, water is the most limited resource that goes into the landscape. The choice of irrigation systems and techniques has great impact on the efficiency of water use. Benefits of efficient water use, besides a lower water bill, include a healthier garden and less work.
The method of irrigation is as important as how often you irrigate. For some types of plantings such as lawn, overhead sprinkler irrigation is most effective. Most of our soils cannot absorb water as fast as it is applied by overhead sprinklers. The best technique is to water in short on/off cycles early in the morning. Experiment with your own system to determine just how long you can apply water before it begins to run off the site.
Drip irrigation delivers water most efficiently to individual plants, so it is useful in beds. Use separate irrigation valves for each type of planting so individual scheduling is possible. Water according to your plants needs and adjust irrigation timers frequently to match weather patterns. Visit our Smart Irrigation page for more information.
Graywater and Rainwater
Shower water, sink water and laundry water can safely be used to water landscaping and can significantly reduce your water bill.
Rainwater is a great source of free clean water perfect for watering landscapes. By directing roof drains into containers you can save the water from a rainy day.
Visit our Graywater & Rainwater page for more information.
You can create a garden that attracts and supports a variety of wildlife. Birds, butterflies, lizards can add an interesting and entertaining element to your garden. Click here to learn more about how to design a garden to attract or deter wildlife in your garden.