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Sustainable Garden Design - Top 10 Ways To Green your Garden

Wednesday January 12, 2011

Out of the countless ways a conventional landscape can become more “green” and sustainable, we’ve compiled ten California landscape ideas and suggestions to implement over time.  

Most of the below can be done in a few hours, cost little or no money at all, and provide tangible results.  Others will require an investment that will pay for itself over time.  There is no time like now to get motivated!

10.  Grow Food

homegrown heirloom tomatoes and eggplant

Our private gardens, in general, are enormous, untapped resources for producing food to feed our communities.  We pour water and resources on often neglected lawns, shrubs, and perennials.  Why not re-direct those same resources to your kitchen table?  There is undoubtedly space in your landscape to install a small veggie plot, plant a dwarf fruit tree, or at least create an herb garden in an old container.  Remember, you don’t need a large space to have a bountiful harvest.  

9.  Pull Weeds

There are very few justifiable reasons for using herbicides to eliminate weeds from your landscape.  Leave the sprayer in the garden shed, pick up a hand trowel or spade, and get to work!  Try to pull the weeds when the soil is slightly moist to allow the entire weed and roots to be removed in one swift yank.  After weeding, lay a thick layer of tree or grass clippings to keep the weeds at bay for another few months.  When you are finished, your planter area looks clean and well kept instead of populated by dead and dying weeds.  Or if you are unable to do the work yourself, call the right California Landscape Professional and they’ll gladly hand pull your weeds at a dirt-cheap price.

8.  Adopt an “Integrated Pest Management” Mentality

no pesticides

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an approach to pest control that relies on biological, cultural, physical, mechanical and educational methods minimizing the use of pesticides.  Do you see a pest, run to the garden center, buy a poison marked with a graphic of your pest in some crosshairs, return home, and wage an unholy war against the little critter?  If so, that is awfully troubling.   Instead, use IPM which stresses measured action only after observation and research.  And most importantly, IPM will help you analyze and deal with the underlying cause of the infestation rather than simply wiping out the symptoms.  

7.  Reduce Storm Run-off

During the rare occasions dry California receives precipitation, most of this valuable resource is rapidly and methodically gathered, directed, and cajoled into drains and pipes that lead to larger pipes and storm drains, then eventually daylight in bodies of freshwater or the ocean.  In most urban and suburban areas, precipitation has very little opportunity to be filtered by the plants and soil, slowly percolate, feed our plants, or replenish our ground water table.  Rather, run-off picks up speed and contaminants as it makes its express trip to inundate sensitive ecosystems, courtesy of the old-school philosophy of civil engineers.

To combat the effects of storm run-off, direct roof downspouts to lawn or planter areas.  Create planted swales or depressions in your landscape to slow and store rain.  Or install a rainwater harvesting system to collect rain and use it for irrigation during dry spells.  Do a quick online search for stormwater landscaping photos to see how others have successfully implemented such techniques and devices.


6.  Create a Compost Pile

Most municipalities have what is referred to as “Green Waste” programs.  How ironic that the most easily recyclable matter is dubbed as “waste”!  Rather than sending your grass clippings and tree trimmings into the “waste stream”, simply start piling it up to start your own compost pile.  In very little time, you can return these nutrients to your landscape in the form of compost and humus.  


5.  Replace Needy Plants

You know which plants in your landscape require seemingly endless amounts of water, fertilization, and care.  Unless you absolutely love them and they bring you joy, yank them out and replace with something requiring less attention and resources.  Mediterranean landscaping doesn’t require you to be exclusively designing California native gardens, but it does force you to honor and rejoice in local conditions.   Enjoy your flowering hydrangeas on your next trip to the East Coast, not in Riverside.  Reference one of the many landscape design guides or landscape design tools online to learn more about appropriate plants for your area.


4.  Minimize the Impact of Your Lawn

As discussed in greater detail in a two-part article entitled  “A Study of Lawn in Our Gardens” (Part I, Part II), the conventional lawn is a remnant of Landscaping ver 1.0.  We are now deep into Landscaping ver 2.0 and the notion that lawns should continue to be front-and-center of our gardens is baseless.  However, if your lawn is to remain in its current form (hmph), consider implementing the following practices:

  • Grasscycling:  Leave your grass clippings in place to reduce the amount of fertilizers needed to keep your lawn green.
  • Aeration:  Using an aerator (mechanical or manual), plug holes throughout your lawn 4”-6” on center.  This will alleviate soil compaction and allow moisture and nutrients to be more successfully absorbed into the root zone.
  • Reduce watering times:  Statistics show that over 50% of people overwater their lawns by a factor of 1.5-2 times the amount needed.  Try cutting back watering times by 3-5 minute increments.  If you notice your lawn browning after a few reductions, bump the time up a bit and you’ve found a more accurate schedule and saved some water.
  • Mow High:  For most lawns, you can set your sharp mower blade higher.  This encourages a stronger, healthier grass.


3.  Replace Gas-Powered Garden Equipment with Electric or Hand Tools

man pushing lawnmower

Most of our high-powered garden equipment is powered by dirty 2-stroke engines (meaning the tool burns oil and gas).  In addition to this, the noise pollution from mowers, blowers, and hedge trimmers is about the most annoying thing to hear on a peaceful Saturday morning.  For every gas tool in the residential garden shed, there is an electric or hand tool that can do the job much cleaner...and quieter.  Consider shelving your gas tools for hand tools on small to mid-sized projects. 

If you use a lawn service, simply make a request to use electric or hand tools.  In today’s market, garden maintenance companies should do anything to keep you happy.  If they moan and groan, find someone else to take over the service.  There are plenty of maintenance companies that specialize in “green gardening” that deserve your business.

2.  Conduct an Irrigation System Check-Up

irrigation overspray from pop up irrigation

Odds are if your sprinklers pop up or start dripping in the early morning hours, you rarely see the system in action. If anything, you see evidence that it was on as you drive out in the morning and see your sidewalk and driveway wet.

So take 20-30 minutes during daylight to turn on each sprinkler valve to check each head and emitter for proper functioning.  There should be little to no overspray onto pavement, no geysers erupting from drip tubing, and absolutely no puddling.  If you see puddling, you are applying too much water too quickly.  To remedy, reduce watering times to deep and infrequent soaks, or replace sprinkler heads with rotary nozzles.


1.  Install a Smart Irrigation Controller (Rebates available)

hunter rain sensor irrigation control clock

At a time when cutting edge technology is so prevalent in our daily lives, it makes no sense that your irrigation controller is from the stone age.  At a minimum, your irrigation controller should be connected to a rain sensor that will shut down any programming if a set amount of precipitation collects in a small basin.  Also, your controller should have a “seasonal adjust” feature that allows you to quickly reduce your set watering times by a percentage, making adjustments to your program quick and painless.

If you have a larger property, upgrading to a smart controller that accesses weather data, ETo, soil moisture, and other conditions will likely save you water, money, and keep your plants healthier.

About Landscape Resource: If you found this article helpful you might like to visit where you’ll find current trends in landscape marketing and more information about California landscape ideas, sustainable garden design and designing California native gardens.

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