Sustainable Landscape Design

Here in the desert, where rainfall is relatively low and where people take great pride in the aesthetic of their surroundings, landscaping is an issue with a great environmental impact. From water use and runoff to soil quality and wildlife interaction, landscaping decisions can turn a piece of property into a detriment to the environment, or they can turn it into a sustained celebration of its environment.

Crown of Thorns plant is a drought tolerant plant, great for landscaping in the desert of the Coachella Valley

Very recently, I attended a sustainable landscaping design workshop in San Diego held by Southwest Boulder and Stone and conducted by Morgan Vondrak of Argia Designs. These companies specialize in the landscaping needs of Southern California and are mindful of the environmental needs involved in such a specialty. Ms. Vondrak shared ten useful and beneficial tips with the attendees, all of whom had a personal interest in sustainable gardening. Here are some of the important things I learned…

1. Rather than spray irrigation, use a low pressure or drip irrigation system. This will reduce water waste (up to 50%). This works better if input as a grid, rather than in pockets, because the roots of native and drought-tolerant plants cover large surface areas.

2. Take out the lawn, put in the plants. More specifically, use drought friendly and native

Lantana plant is a drought-tolerant plant

plants to reduce water use by up to 75% and eliminate the need for herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. To remove the lawn, don’t use herbicides. Instead, use sheet mulch if you have the time or cut it out and you can even donate the sod.

3. Leave the leaves! When people rake up and remove their leaves, they are robbing their soils of valuable nutrients. Allowing the leaves to break down and using mulch with a shredded or finely chipped wood product retains moisture, provides nutrients, suppresses weeds, and reduces the need for herbicides.

4. Retain the rain. By using a rain barrel, cistern or dry streams and diverting rain gutters into the garden instead of the street, you can reduce runoff pollution, save water for irrigation and landscaping, recharge groundwater, or even have an emergency water stash. Fortunately there are many aesthetically pleasing rain barrels available on the market now.

5. Use permeable surfaces. Concrete, asphalt and grouted pavers are all impermeable surfaces that contribute to runoff pollution. Permeable surfaces, like grasscrete pavers or decomposed granite allows rainwater to soak into the soil and recharges groundwater.

6. Build healthy soils. By mulching, composting and tilling, you can cultivate your own healthy living soils, which reduce the need for chemical fertilizers and are less attractive to pests. The reduction of pesticides will lead to more beneficial insects like butterflies and native bees, both of which are pollinators. Another tip is to choose plants that naturally grow together or have the same soil and water needs.

7. Use organic gardening methods. More than 75% of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides end up in the watershed. Using compost tea or even composting your kitchen scraps can help build healthy soils and prevent chemical runoff.

8. Plant for your space. By choosing plants that do not need to be hedged or regularly trimmed, you can reduce green waste and save on fossil fuels and maintenance costs. Green waste accounts for approximately 20% of landfill space.

9. Plant a tree, or several. Trees can reduce your energy use by providing shade for your home, and they keep cities cooler by reducing reflected heat from pavement. They also absorb pollutant particulates from the air and the soil.

10. Use recycled or upcycled materials. Reduce waste and pollution by using reclaimed materials like fence wood or old bricks in creative and refreshing ways.

In addition to all this, if you can plant edible food in your garden, you’re taking it even one step further. Self-grown and locally grown food is an excellent way to reduce fossil fuels used in shipping foods and it supports local economies.

Though this workshop was held with southern California in mind, the tips can be applicable in a wide range of settings. So if you’ve got a green thumb, hopefully you take away something useful from this workshop, as I did.

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