How to harness nature’s power to create a healthy, beautiful home garden

a c k n ow le d gements
Landscape For Life is a project of the United States Botanic Garden and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin. Landscape For Life is based on the principles of SITES, The Sustainable Sites Initiative , the nation’s first rating system for sustainable landscapes (www.sustainablesites. org), an interdisciplinary effort by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden in conjunction with a diverse group of stakeholder organizations. SITES offers technical tools for professionals who design, construct, operate, and maintain landscapes of all sizes. Landscape For Life presents this information in an easy-to-use form for homeowners and gardeners.

The information in this workbook is also available on the Landscape For Life website ( Written by Janet Marinelli Designed by Elizabeth Ennis

A sustainable garden in Texas includes a buffalograss lawn and other native plants that nurture wildlife.

Illustrations pages 16, 17, 22, 24, 44, 63, 66, 73, 76, Elizabeth Ennis; pages 2, 4, 5, 42, Sustainable Sites Initiative Map page 58, Sustainable Sites Initiative, page 79 top and bottom, public domain images via Wikipedia Cover photos, left to right: first two images,, H. Zell, last two images, Photo page i, Andy and Sally Wasowski, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center; page ii, Andy and Sally Wasowski, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center; page 1, Andy and Sally Wasowski, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center; page 3, public domain image via Wikipedia; page 7, Andy and Sally Wasowski, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center; page 11, public domain image via Wikipedia; page 14,; page 20, Lynn Betts; pages 21 left and right and 26, public domain images via Wikipedia; page 32, public domain image via Wikipedia; page 35, Manuel Broussard/FEMA; page 36, Ward Wilson; page 39, tk; pages 41 and 43, Nancy Arazan; page 45 left and right, Walter Siegmund; page 49, Holly Shimizu; pages 50 and 52, public domain images via Wikipedia; page 55, public domain image via Wikipedia; page 56, H. Zell; page 57, public domain image of Garden in the Woods via Wikipedia; page 58, public domain image via Wikipedia; page 61, Shaw Nature Reserve; page 64,; pages 69 and 71, Andy and Sally Wasowski, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center; page 70, public domain image via Wikipedia; page 75, public domain image via Wikipedia; page 77, Iowa State University Extension; page 81, Joe Mabel; page 83, Andy and Sally Wasowski, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center; page 87, public domain images via Wikipedia; page 84, public domain image via Wikipedia; page 90, Russell Lee; page 91, Sustainable Sites Initiative; page 92, public domain image via Wikipedia; page 95,; pages 96 and 97, public domain images via Wikipedia; page 99, Biswarup Ganguly; page 100 top, Bohringer Friedrich and bottom, public domain image via Wikipedia; page 103,


I n t rod uc tIon
w o r kI ng w Ith nature to create a h e a lt hy, be autI ful home l andsca pe
Landscape For Life shows you how to work with nature for a beautiful, sustainable garden, no matter where you live, whether you garden on a city or suburban lot, a 20acre farm, or the common area of your condominium. Conventional gardens unintentionally often work against nature. They can damage the environment’s ability to clean air and water, reduce flooding, combat climate change, and provide all the other natural benefits that support life on earth—including us. The good news is that even one home garden can begin to repair the tattered web of life. It’s possible to create a great-looking garden that’s healthier for you, your family, your pets, and the environment—and that saves you time and money. The Landscape For Life workbook helps you transform your home garden into a beautiful and healthy refuge for you and your family. After an introductory chapter on the many natural benefits that landscapes provide, the workbook is divided into six sections: Getting Started, Soil, Water, Plants, Materials, and Human Health. Each chapter includes helpful advice on gardening practices that take advantage of natural processes at work on your property.


c o n t ents
Landscapes Give Back . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
The carbon cycle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 The water cycle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 The nitrogen cycle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5

Getting Started . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Understanding your site . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8 Checklist for choosing a new home site . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .10 Checklist for garden construction and renovation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .12 What to ask when hiring a landscape designer or contractor . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .13

Soil . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
Get to know your soil . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .15 Slow food for healthy soil . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .21 Fertilizer tips for a sustainable garden . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .23 Compost: homemade humus for healthy soil . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .23 Organic mulches and how to apply them . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .25 Green manures and how to use them . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .27 Dealing with “problem soils”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .28 Sandy soils . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .28 Clay soils . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .28 Wet soils . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .29 Acid soils . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .29 Alkaline soils . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .29 Compacted soils . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .30 Shallow soils. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .30 Saline soils . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .31 Contaminated soils . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .31 Sustainable potting mixes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .33 Gardening in raised beds . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .34


Water . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35
Create a water-thrifty landscape . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .36 Select plants adapted to local precipitation patterns . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .37 Use alternatives to drinking water for irrigation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .37 A guide to water-thrifty irrigation. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .39 Smart strategies for managing stormwater. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .41 Create a rain garden . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .43 Limit impervious surfaces . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .46 A guide to green roofs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .47 Protect and restore vegetative buffers along waterways and wetlands . . . . . . . . . . .48 Sustainable water features . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .49

Plants. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50
Identify and remove invasive species on your property . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .51 Grow plants adapted to the conditions in your garden . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .53 Grow native plants . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .56 What’s your ecoregion? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .60 Landscape for wildlife . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .63 Protect and restore your landscape’s vegetation. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .66 Green your lawn . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .68 Landscape to increase your home’s energy efficiency . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .71 Creating summer shade . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .74 Blocking winter winds.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .76 Reduce the urban heat island effect . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .79

Materials . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81
Reduce the amount of material necessary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .82 Reuse existing and salvaged materials . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .83 Avoid wood from threatened tree species. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .84 Choose certified wood . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .86 Purchase other certified products . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .88 Select local materials and products . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .90


Use concrete alternatives . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .91 Select materials that do not pollute stormwater . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .93 Choose no- or low-VOC products. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .94

Human Health . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 95
Grow a food garden . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .96 Limit your exposure to pesticides . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .99 Organic gardening . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 100 Integrated pest management . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101 Reduce light pollution . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102 Create garden spaces that enhance health and well-being . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 103


l a nd scape s gIve b ack
When we create sustainable landscapes, the landscapes give back, providing natural benefits that are essential to daily life, like cleaning the air and water, and maintaining soil fertility. We have underestimated or even ignored their value when making decisions that affect the land, but they are the key to creating home gardens that meet our needs without compromising the ability of our kids and grandkids to meet theirs. Among the many natural benefits of sustainable landscapes are:

• Cleaner air and water

Plants, through photosynthesis, provide us with the oxygen we breathe. Plants and organisms in the soil remove and break down pollutants, including those that trigger asthma and other illnesses.

• Cooler towns and cities Trees and other plants provide cooling shade and via the carbon cycle (page 2) remove carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere. • Food, medicine, wood, and other products
Plants transform carbon dioxide into food, life-saving medicines, wood, and countless other products.

One estimate is that every year healthy landscapes provide $33 trillion worth of natural services, including natural water storage and flood control—nearly twice the global gross national product of $18 trillion.

• Wildlife habitat and biological diversity

Plants fuel the dazzling diversity of life on this planet, from the blue whale, which can weigh 150 tons, to the Cuban bee hummingbird, which weighs one-seventeenth of an ounce. Bees, birds, bats, and other animals pollinate crops. Stormwater is absorbed by plants or slowly trickles through the soil and into underground reservoirs called aquifers, preserving the land’s natural water cycle or hydrology (page 4).

• Pollination

• Natural water storage and flood control

• Waste decomposition and soil fertility • Erosion and sediment control

The nitrogen cycle (page 5) transforms wastes into the nutrients necessary for sustaining life. Vegetation helps maintain soil structure and fertility and prevents erosion and pollution. Our connection to nature sustains us physically and mentally.

• Human health and well-being


t h e ca r b o n c y cle
Carbon is a fundamental building block of life on earth, and without it we could not survive. When we change how it is distributed on the planet, it can cause serious problems. In fact, we already have altered global carbon cycles through use of fossil fuels, farming methods, and land development practices. The good news is there are steps we can take in our own landscapes to help reverse this trend.

What To Do
Restoring and maintaining your landscape’s biomass (page 66), which determines its ability to absorb carbon dioxide, and strategically planting trees and shrubs to improve your home’s energy efficiency (page 71) are two of the most important things you can do to help keep your town or city cool and stabilize the global climate.

Natural air-sea exchange Human emissions taken up by oceans

Natural photosynthesis and respiration Human emissions taken up by vegetation

excess from human emissions Human emissions created by land-use changes

Human emissions created by burning fossil fuels



Fossil Fuels

The Carbon Cycle
Plants are the foundation of the biological carbon cycle. Through photosynthesis they use the sun’s energy to convert carbon dioxide and water into complex carbohydrates, the building blocks of the foods that all animals, including us, need to survive. Carbon is a major component of plant and animal tissue, also known as their “biomass.” In the process of photosynthesis, plants also produce oxygen, maintaining a livable atmosphere. The cycle continues when plants and animals die and the carbon in their tissues becomes food for decomposing microbes. These decomposers help maintain the soil’s organic matter, which is essential for fertility. Sometimes plant and animal remains are trapped in the earth or on the ocean floor, beyond the


reach of decomposers. Over hundreds of millions of years, they become fossil fuels. Fossil fuel combustion in power plants, cars, lawnmowers, leaf blowers, and other devices releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It is now overflowing with the carbon that was once locked up in ancient deposits of coal, oil, and natural gas. We’ve also increased atmospheric CO2 levels by farming and clearing forests, releasing much of the carbon they once stored. It’s estimated that the conversion of natural ecosystems to plowbased agriculture has depleted organic carbon in temperate climate soils by as much as 60 percent and in tropical soils by up to 75 percent. Excess CO2 in the atmosphere is the principal cause of global warming.


t h e water c y c le
The planet’s natural water cycle is disrupted when we damage soils and natural habitats. Replacing healthy, permeable soil with asphalt and concrete and compacting soil with heavy machinery results in less water infiltrated into the soil and more rainwater runoff. Stormwater runoff is one of the leading sources of water pollution in the U.S.

What To Do
See pages 41- 48 for tips on how to manage stormwater on your property, from planting a rain garden to collecting rainwater for irrigation.



Evaporation Surface runoff Transpiration Surface runoff

Evaporation Plant uptake Infiltration into groundwater Aquifer

Groundwater flow

The Water Cycle
The water we use today has been around for hundreds of millions of years, and the amount probably hasn’t changed very much. Water changes from gas to liquid to solid form, and is taken in by plants and animals in a large, continuous cycle. It drives the world’s weather and climate, supports plant growth, and makes life possible. Five processes fuel the water cycle: condensation, precipitation, infiltration, runoff, and evapotranspiration. The sun heats surface water and it evaporates as water vapor. The water vapor condenses to form clouds and falls as precipitation. On a well-vegetated site with healthy soils, rainwater infiltrates slowly into the ground, is taken up by plants, and returns to the atmosphere when the plants transpire. Some is stored in aquifers, and may return to the surface as a spring or seep into streams, rivers, lakes, and the ocean. In undeveloped ecosystems, only a small portion of rainfall becomes runoff. Healthy soils allow rainwater to infiltrate, preventing erosion and flooding, and plants slow the speed and intensity of runoff.


t h e n Itr o g en c y c le
Nitrogen is a critical element for most life. When we alter the amount and types of nitrogen found in air and water, it can lead to significant problems. For example, supplementing the soil’s nitrogen supply with synthetic or organic nitrogen fertilizers increases air pollution, including greenhouse gases, and can pollute our waterways.

What To Do
Homeowners and gardeners can help reduce nitrogen pollution by mimicking nature’s way of maintaining soil fertility in a forest, prairie, or other natural landscape—using compost and mulches instead of concentrated nitrogen fertilizers, for example. See pages 21-27 for details.
Fossil Fuel Emissions Gaseous Losses N and N O
2 2

Atmospheric Nitrogen N

Precipitation Lightning Fixation


runoff Fertilizers

Denitrification Fossil Fuels Bacteria Fixation Decomposers Mineralization Nitrates NO Organic Matter r-NH


Nitrogen Uptake

Denitrifying Bacterias

Nitrogen Fixation




Ammonium NH

Nitrites NO Nitrification


The Nitrogen Cycle
Nitrogen is the nutrient needed in the largest amount by plants, and managing nitrogen in the soil is a key part of a healthy and productive home landscape. Nitrogen constantly cycles between the atmosphere and the soil. Almost 80 percent of the


earth’s atmosphere is comprised of elemental nitrogen, or N2, but living organisms cannot use this form directly from the air. It must be “fixed” or converted by microorganisms into ammonium and nitrates that plants can utilize. Some nitrogen-fixing bacteria live in the root nodules of legumes such as peas and beans, alfalfa, and clover. The plants supply the bacteria with energy and nutrients in return for nitrogen fixation. Growing these plants as cover crops helps ensure a good level of nitrogen in the soil (page 27). The nitrogen taken up by plants makes its way into organisms higher up the food chain. When plants and animals die, decomposers convert some of the nitrogen back into ammonium, available again for plant use. Other microbes carry on denitrification, which converts the fixed nitrogen in the soil into elemental nitrogen, nitric oxide, which contributes to smog, and nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Supplementing the soil’s nitrogen supply with synthetic or organic nitrogen fertilizers increases denitrification and produces these polluting emissions. Soils enriched with nitrogen fertilizer emit two to ten times as much nitrous oxide as unfertilized soils. Cultivating the soil with a rototiller or a spade also releases nitrous oxide, as well as carbon dioxide and methane, another powerful heat-trapping gas. Human activities have doubled the amount of fixed nitrogen entering the nitrogen cycle in just 100 years. These include the manufacture and use of nitrogen fertilizers, the combustion of fossil fuels, forest burning, and livestock ranching, which causes large amounts of ammonia to enter the soil. This increase in fixed nitrogen causes climate change, acid rain, the acidification of soils and the loss of soil nutrients, and the acidification of streams and lakes in many regions. When carried into local waterways along with excess phosphorus from fertilizers, it leads to eutrophication or algal blooms that consume oxygen, killing fish and shellfish. In coastal waters, such “dead zones” cause significant declines in fisheries. In freshwater lakes, excessive nitrogen can be a serious health issue, especially in summer when warmer waters allow the growth of blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, which can cause diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, skin rashes, and lesions in both humans and pets. Excess nitrates that leach into drinking water can also be dangerous to human health.


g e t tIn g started
To harness nature’s power in your landscape you need to know what natural processes are at work—what type of soil you have, for example, how much precipitation you receive, and what plants grow naturally in your area given these conditions. In conventional landscapes, decisions are often made on aesthetics alone. You want to re-create a picture of a lovely garden. You may not know that you don’t have the soil or climate required by the plants in the photo. So you work against nature, altering the soil to suit the plants, fertilizing, and watering constantly so they will survive. And they still don’t thrive, because they’re not adapted to the conditions in your garden. A sustainable garden can be just as beautiful as any other landscape, and can provide a wealth of health and environmental benefits. It can also save you money. This section of the Landscape For Life workbook helps you lay the groundwork for greening your garden by collecting essential information about the natural forces at work there.

Lanceleaf coreopsis and other native plants grow in a Texas garden attuned to the natural processes at work on the site.

How To Get Started
Use the Landscape For Life Site Assessment to collect information (page 8). Consult the following checklists if you’re looking for a new home site, creating a new garden or renovating an existing one, or hiring a landscape designer or contractor: Checklist for choosing a new home site (page 10) Checklist for garden renovation and new construction (page 12) What to ask when you are hiring a landscape designer or contractor (page 13)


un d e r s ta ndIng yo u r sIt e
This simple site assessment is divided into six major categories: Climate and Energy, Soil, Water, Plants, Materials, and Human Health. When you’re finished you’ll have the information you need to choose which landscaping strategies and gardening practices make sense for you. See pages iii-v for an index to all the sustainable strategies and practices included in the Landscape for Life workbook. Start by sketching a basic template of your property. Consulting a plat map or site survey can be helpful. Using colored pencils on graph paper, draw your house and property to scale, allowing a quarter inch per foot. Locate walks, driveways, other paved surfaces, the garage, and outbuildings. Also note where any underground utilities, such as water, gas, and electric lines, enter the house.

• On one copy of your template, add climate-related information, such as areas of your home that are affected by
the sun and wind. See the section on landscaping for home energy efficiency on pages 71-78 for details.

• On another copy of your template, note areas with relatively undisturbed native soil and vegetation that should • Become familiar with the particulars of your soil, including its texture, structure, pH, and nutrient levels. See
pages 15-20 for more information. be protected, as well as problem areas where topsoil was removed or compacted, where it stays wet, or where it is dry and exposed.

• Consider having your soil professionally tested. • Identify and note a well-drained spot on your property shaded from the hot afternoon sun where you can locate
a compost pile.

• On a fresh copy of your template, sketch in any wetlands, shorelines, creeks, streams, or other waterways on or
adjacent to your property. it pools during storms.

• Mark where rainwater comes rushing off roofs or down gutters, where it flows down paved surfaces, and where • Note impervious paved surfaces such as your driveway and pathways. • Note the type and location of your irrigation system, if you have one.

• On another copy of your template, mark in red any invasive plants growing on your property. For tips on
identifying invasive species, see page 51.

• Identify your plant hardiness zone. • Determine the average annual and monthly precipitation rates. • Identify your ecoregion and its major native plant communities. You’ll find a map and descriptions of the major
ecoregions in the U.S. on page 60.


• Mark any native plants and plant communities. Note any large trees growing in your landscape, and circle the
areas they shade over the course of the day. only, or full shade.

• Circle areas that receive sun all day long and note those that receive morning sun, midday sun, afternoon sun

• Locate an area for convenient storage of recyclable materials. • Use the Checklist For Garden Construction and Renovation on page 12 for materials tips if you are creating a
new garden or renovating an existing one.

• Note shady, protected, or private areas for relaxation or socializing. • Note open areas for outdoor games and physical exercise. • Mark areas in full sun where it would be appropriate to grow herbs, vegetables, or fruits.


checklIst for choosIng a new home sIte
If you’re searching for a new home site, you can help preserve prime farmland, keep eroded soil and polluted runoff out of local waterways, protect disappearing wetlands, and preserve critical habitat for imperiled plants and wildlife. Careful site selection can also protect your home from future flooding and promote health by encouraging you and your family to walk, bike, or use public transit instead of driving.

5 Don’t build on prime farmland.
Fact: Between 1982 and 1997, 18.5 million acres of prime and unique American farmland was lost to development. Farmland loss is irreversible—the characteristics that make these soils superior for growing food and other crops cannot be restored. Don’t construct your house on a 100-year floodplain. Fact: Flooding is the number one most common natural disaster in the United States. From 1994 to 2004, U.S.
flood losses averaged more than $2.4 billion a year. Flood plains are not only dangerous, they perform essential ecological functions. They store floodwater and filter out pollutants. They help recharge groundwater and provide habitat and migration corridors for plants and wildlife. They can also offer open space for human recreation. You can find local flood maps on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website (http://msc.fema. gov/). Click on “Map Search,” then enter your complete address in the boxes provided, with street address, city, state, and zip code if possible. When your address is located, click on “View.” You may need to use the “Zoom in” button to find your location on the map. Flood zones are clearly marked. There is a tutorial on the wealth of information on these flood maps, called Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMS), here (

5 Don’t disturb soil or vegetation within 50 feet of a wetland.
Fact: Wetlands, including marshes, swamps, and bogs, are among the most productive and biologically diverse ecosystems in the world. They provide habitat for fish and wildlife, natural water cleansing, floodwater storage, protection against shoreline erosion, and opportunities for recreation. They’re also beautiful. Don’t destroy critical habitat for imperiled plants and animals. Fact: Currently, there are 1,216 animals, 716 flowering plants, and 26 ferns on the U.S. list of endangered and
threatened species. Habitat loss is the single largest threat to these plants and animals. You can find a list of endangered and threatened species in your state on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website ( tess_public/pub/stateOccurrence.jsp).

3 Do locate your new house on land that has already been developed or graded.
Fact: Building on land that has already been developed or disturbed reduces pressure on remaining farmland
and wildlife habitat and makes efficient use of existing infrastructure. Also, brownfields (land formerly used for industrial or commercial purposes) and greyfields (sites previously developed or graded) may cost less or be offered for sale with tax incentives.


3 Do build your home within an existing community.
Fact: A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study of San Diego, California, Montgomery County, Maryland,
and West Palm Beach, Florida, found that building in an existing town or city cuts commuting time, reduces air pollution, lowers travel cost, saves on infrastructure, and improves community quality of life. See Smart Growth Online ( to learn about the growing network of government officials, community activists, and homeowners working to restore vitality to city centers and older suburbs.

within walking distance to stores and other local amenities. Fact: Car-dependent cities and suburbs are associated with health problems such as obesity, adding as much as
$76 billion annually to U.S. medical expenses. According to an April 2009 estimate, living with one less car in a household can save $8,670 a year.

3 Do select a home site that is close to public transportation and bike paths, and that is


ch e ck l Is t f o r gar de n c o nst r u c t Ion a n d ren o vatIo n
You can minimize your new landscape’s environmental footprint while maximizing its improvement to your quality of life. The benefits will continue for many years to come. Material selection is especially important when you’re creating a new garden or modifying an existing one.


Be sure to work through each section of the Landscape For Life site assessment on page 8, collecting all the necessary information and considering possible design options. Here are some additional things to keep in mind: If you’ll be working with a landscape designer or landscape architect and/or a contractor, choose professionals who have experience designing and installing sustainable landscapes. Before construction begins, protect areas of undisturbed soil and as much healthy native landscape as possible, especially trees and shrubs, by roping them off. Before choosing materials for your design, think through these options: Reduce the amount of material required through downsizing if possible and careful design. Reuse existing or locally salvaged materials. Choose natural, untreated materials and products made locally, preferably certified by an independent organization to meet rigorous environmental and health standards. Look for materials made partially or entirely from recycled material. Use construction methods that make it easy to disassemble structures such as decks for repair or recycling. See the Materials section of the workbook beginning on page 81 for details. Design options may be determined by the materials available, so locate material suppliers before finalizing your plans.

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w h at t o a s k w hen hI r Ing a landscape d e sI g ner o r c o n t r a c t or
Take some time to ask appropriate questions and check references. Those who specialize in sustainable practices are most likely to be able to help you create a home landscape that’s both beautiful and healthy for people and the environment. A landscape designer or landscape architect is the person who works with you to plan and design your garden. Landscape contractors work under your direction if you design the garden yourself, or under the landscape designer or landscape architect. Landscape contractors can install trees, shrubs, and other plants as well as features such as walkways, driveways, patios, terraces, decks, arbors, water features, and retaining walls.

Here are some tips to help you find a qualified professional:

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Take some time to research what you would like to see in your garden. A good designer or landscape architect will listen and feed off of your ideas, and it will make for a better end product. Seek referrals from friends, family, or co-workers who have worked with a landscape designer or contractor to create a sustainable garden. Ask your local chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) if they can recommend an experienced landscape professional. Check the USGBC website ( to find out how to contact the nearest chapter. Ask questions. Are the landscape professionals you are considering knowledgeable about sustainable design and building practices? Have they been involved in a LEED ( aspx?CategoryID=19) green building project? Are they familiar with the Sustainable Sites Initiative (www., the green landscape rating system on which Landscape For Life is based? Do they meet licensing and legal requirements for landscape designers and contractors? Are they insured? Ask to see proof of business liability insurance and workers’ compensation coverage. You can find yourself liable if an uninsured contractor causes damage or an uninsured employee gets injured on your property. Are they affiliated with professional groups such as the American Society of Landscape Architects (www. or the Association of Professional Landscape Designers ( Membership in a trade organization is no guarantee that you’ll end up being satisfied with your landscape, but it is an indication that they are serious about their professionalism. Review their design portfolio and ask questions about how decisions about sustainability were made. Ask for references and check them.


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It’s no coincidence that our planet gets its name from soil, also known as earth. Soil is a critical part of the web of life that sustains us. It’s the habitat of countless organisms, from microscopic bacteria to earthworms, that transform wastes into the food that nourishes plants and animals. Other creatures spend part of their lives in the soil, like insects, or live partially in it, like plants. Healthy soil absorbs rainwater, helping to prevent floods, and cleanses the water as it percolates into the earth. A critical carbon sink, it also stabilizes the earth’s climate. Yet modern industrial society has left much of the earth’s soil eroded, exhausted, and polluted. Too much fertilizer, the horticultural equivalent of fast food, and other gardening practices have unwittingly contributed to the problem. But it is possible to restore and harness the natural soil food web to create the healthy soil that is the foundation of thriving garden. This section of the Landscape For Life workbook shows you how.

The U.S. is losing soil ten times faster than its natural replenishment rate due mostly to erosion by wind and rain.


Conventional And Sustainable Landscapes: How They Compare Conventional Landscape
• Soil is often paved or compacted, so rain
rushes off

Sustainable Landscape
• Rain soaks in the soil, nurturing plants and
replenishing groundwater

• Results in soil erosion and pollutes local

• Typically receives regular, often unnecessary,
fertilizer applications

• Protects nearby waterways • Puts the natural soil food web to work for
fertility mulch

• Garden trimmings get dumped in a landfill • Costs money for supplemental water, fertilizer,
and other inputs

• Garden trimmings are composted or used as • Can save money


g e t t o k n o w y o ur soIl
The site assessment for your landscape has identified relatively undisturbed native soil and vegetation that should be protected. You’ve also located areas where soil needs to be nursed back to health or enhanced, such as in the vegetable garden, since many edible plants do best in well-drained loam with a fairly neutral pH of 6 to 7 that is rich in organic matter and able to retain soil moisture and nutrients. Now it’s time to become familiar with the particulars of your soil.

Soil is a complex mixture of weathered rock and mineral particles, the living organisms of the soil food web, and the decaying remains of dead plants, animals, and microorganisms. The living and dead organisms are known as organic matter. Air and water are also important components of healthy soil. Topsoil is the most biologically active and productive, upper soil layer. Good garden topsoil is about 45 percent mineral particles, 25 percent air, 25 percent water, and 5 percent organic matter by volume. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

• Soil scientists have identified more than 70,000 kinds of soil in the U.S. These many types of soil contain • Five to 10 tons of animal life can live in an acre of soil. • Natural processes can take more than 500 years to form just one inch of topsoil.

different combinations of mineral particles, such as sand, silt, and clay, and various amounts of organic matter and nutrients.

Soil Texture
Soil texture—how coarse or fine it feels—depends on the size of the mineral particles. Sand, silt, and clay, the major mineral particles, are directly responsible for the size and number of the soil’s pore spaces. They determine its level of air and oxygen, its drainage rate, and how well it holds nutrients. Sand grains are the largest particles and create large pores. Sandy soils drain quickly and don’t hold water and nutrients well. While sand can be seen by the naked eye, silt particles are microscopic. They feel velvety and smooth. They create smaller pores in the soil and result in better water retention. Clay particles are the tiniest of all. When moist, they cling together and feel sticky. Clay soils have a tremendous capacity to hold water and nutrients, and soils rich in clay tend to suffer from poor air circulation and drainage. Soils are rarely pure sand, silt, or clay but rather a mixture of all three. They’re often grouped into one of 12 textural classes based on the relative proportions of these particles. Sands and loamy sands, for example, are more than 70 percent sand and share the characteristics of sand. Clays, sandy clays, and silty clays are more than 40 percent clay and exhibit the characteristics of clay. Loams, the ideal soils celebrated in so much gardening literature, share the attributes of both—good aeration, drainage, and moisture and nutrient retention. Most vegetables do best in loamy soil. No matter the texture of your soil, it’s possible to grow beautiful plants, as long as they are adapted to the particular conditions.


100 0








y cla

pe rce





nt silt

40 30

sandy clay sandy clay loam

silty clay clay loam silty clay loam




20 10 0


sandy loam

silt loam

loamy sand sand
90 90


80 70 70 60 60 5050 percent sand 40 40 30 30 20 20 10

100 0

100 100


Scientists divide soil into 12 textural classes. The soil texture triangle can help determine which class of soil you have. • After doing the jar test on page 17 to tell you the percentages of sand, silt, and clay in your soil, locate the percentage of clay in your soil on the left side of the triangle and follow the purple line across. • Next, find the percentage of sand along the bottom of the triangle and follow the blue line up to where it intersects with the purple line you identified. • The green line at this intersection represents the percentage of silt in your soil sample. The shaded area that contains the point where the lines intersect is your soil’s textural class.


How to determine the texture of your soil
The feel test: Rub some moist soil between your fingers. If it feels coarse and gritty, your soil is probably dominated by sand. If it feels smooth and velvety, you most likely have silty soil. If it clings together and feels sticky, it probably contains a lot of clay. The jar test: After removing stones or debris, put 2 cups of garden soil in a quart-size jar. Add 1 teaspoon of liquid
dish soap. Fill the jar to the top with water and close the lid tightly. Gently turn the jar upside down and right-side up for about a minute to mix. Let it sit for a day so the particles can settle out. Sand will have settled to the bottom, silt will comprise the middle layer, and clay the top. Measure the thickness of each layer, and divide the number of inches by 100. This will tell you the percentage of sand, silt, and clay in your soil. Use the soil texture triangle on page 16 to determine its textural class.

Soil Structure
How readily soil particles cling together to form aggregates is the measure of its structure. This determines how permeable your soil is, how well it retains moisture and nutrients, and how easily it allows plant roots to penetrate and grow. Horticulturists consider soils with loose, granular aggregates about the size of cookie crumbs to have good structure for plant growth. The key to good soil structure is adding organic matter. To maintain good structure, don’t overcultivate your soil.





How readily soil particles cling together to form aggregates, called crumbs or peds, is the measure of soil structure. Soils that bind together to form loose, granular aggregates about the size of cookie crumbs (left) retain moisture and nutrients and are well aerated—ideal for the growth of plant roots. The key to this good structure is organic matter and thriving communities of soil organisms. Sandy soils (center) do not bind together and tend to have the consistency of cake mix. Compacted soils (right) have a “platy” structure, with multiple layers of flat, thin peds. Weight bearing down on the soil has caused the larger pores to collapse, restricting the movement of air and water and limiting the growth of plant roots.


How to determine your soil’s structure
The squeeze test: Hold a sample of soil in your hand and examine it closely. Any large clumps should fall
apart under gentle pressure to form cookie crumb-sized aggregates. If they resist crumbling and instead form tight clods, you likely have heavy clay soil. If they break apart into individual particles, like cake mix, the soil probably is predominantly sand. However, structure can be related to other factors as well. Big clods may also be an indication of compaction, even in soils with relatively little clay. Sterile loam soils, in which natural microbial action has been impaired, are unable to form even small aggregates.

How to determine your soil’s drainage
The percolation test: Dig a hole in your garden about 1 foot wide and deep. Fill the hole to the top with

• If it disappears in an hour or less, your soil has sharp drainage. In the ornamental garden, this means you

should grow plants adapted to dry conditions. In the vegetable garden, adding organic matter to help retain moisture will enable you to grow a wide range of edible plants. plants.

• If the water drains within a few hours, drainage is good and can support a wide range of ornamental and edible • If after 24 hours there is still water in the hole, the water table may be high. In this case you should grow plants
adapted to wet conditions. Or drainage may be poor because your soil has a high clay content, or your soil may be compacted from trampling or use of heavy equipment. In these latter two cases, working organic matter into the soil is a remedy, although severely compacted soils may require more radical action (see page 30).

Soil pH is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of the water held in its pores. The pH scale goes from 0 to 14, with 7 representing neutral. From pH 7 to 0 the soil is increasingly acidic, while from 7 to 14 it is increasingly alkaline. Soil pH affects whether minerals and nutrients will be available to your plants. Before a nutrient can be used by plants, it must be dissolved in the soil solution. Most plants prefer a slightly acid to neutral soil, with a pH of 6 to 7, because that is the range in which all nutrients are readily available. In strongly acidic soils (pH 5.5 to 4), important nutrients such as phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and magnesium are in short supply. The availability of phosphorus, iron, copper, zinc, and manganese is reduced in slightly to moderately alkaline soil (pH 7 to 8). Soil pH also affects the activity of soil microorganisms. Bacteria that decompose organic matter are hindered in strongly acid soils. This prevents organic matter from breaking down and ties up nutrients, particularly nitrogen. Strongly acidic or alkaline soils can increase the solubility of some nutrients and minerals to the point that they become toxic to plants. For example, in very alkaline soils, the levels of calcium and magnesium are so high that they impede the availability of phosphorus.

How To Determine Soil pH
Home pH testing kits, available at local garden centers, can give you a general idea of your soil’s pH, but the most accurate way to determine pH is to have the soil professionally tested (see page 20). If your soil is strongly acidic or alkaline, you should choose plants for the ornamental garden that are adapted to those conditions. In the vegetable garden, soils can be amended to adjust pH. See page 29 for more information on acid and alkaline soils.


The elements essential to plant health are classified as macronutrients, which are needed in the largest quantities, or micronutrients, which are required in minute amounts. Both are necessary for healthy plants. The primary macronutrients are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). The relative proportions of these nutrients are listed as N-P-K on fertilizer labels.

Nitrogen (N)
Nitrogen stimulates plant root growth and the uptake of other nutrients. Plants deficient in nitrogen tend to be chlorotic, or pale yellowish green, and stunted with thin, spindly stems. Most nitrogen is derived from the decomposition of organic matter and nitrogen fixation by bacteria. To maintain nitrogen levels in fertile soils, mimic natural processes by mulching with compost or other organic matter. Alfalfa, blood meal, or other natural fertilizers, or nitrogen-fixing green manures can increase the nitrogen levels of infertile soils. See Fertilizer Tips For A Sustainable Garden on page 23 for details.

Phosphorus (P)
Phosphorus enhances photosynthesis, nitrogen fixation, flowering, fruiting, and seed production. It also encourages root development. Symptoms of phosphorus deficiency include delayed flowering or fruit set, and a purplish cast on leaves and stems. The main source of phosphorus is the decomposition of organic matter. Phosphorus deficiency is common in strongly acidic or alkaline soils and soils high in aluminum. Manure or liquid seaweed are good renewable sources for phosphorus-deficient soils.

Potassium (K)
Potassium is known to activate 80 enzymes responsible for basic plant processes such as carbohydrate metabolism and photosynthesis. It is critical to reducing the loss of water from leaves and increases the ability of the roots to take up water. Adequate soil potassium is linked to improved drought tolerance, improved winter hardiness, better resistance to some fungal diseases, and greater tolerance of insect pests. When plants suffer from potassium deficiency, the tips and edges of the oldest leaves yellow and die and appear burned around the edges. Compost can help maintain good potassium levels in fertile soil, while kelp meal is a renewable source that can help raise them in deficient soils. Composted wood ash is another source of potassium, but should be used only on acidic soils.

Other Nutrients
Other nutrients are considered secondary because they typically are found in sufficient quantities in the soil and no amendments are required. Secondary nutrients include calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. Micronutrients or trace elements include iron, boron, copper, manganese, zinc, chlorine, and molybdenum. Except in highly acidic or alkaline soils, micronutrient deficiencies are generally uncommon, and a balanced supply can be maintained with regular infusions of organic matter. For more on acidic or alkaline soils, see page 29.


One of the smartest things you can do for your garden is get your soil tested by a university extension lab or a commercial lab for about $25 to $40. It can save you money on unnecessary fertilizer and plants that are not adapted to your natural soil conditions. A lab test can help avoid nutrient imbalances from excess fertilizer that can run off and pollute waterways. It will also help you determine which plants are best suited to growing in your garden. Most soil labs will send you a soil test kit that includes sampling instructions, a sample bag, and a survey form. Be sure to fill out the survey in detail so the lab can make the most informed recommendations for your property. Although they can vary somewhat by state, a standard soil test typically will tell you:

• Soil pH • Levels of potassium, phosphorus, calcium,
magnesium, and sulfur

• Organic content • Lead contamination and what to do about it • Recommended nutrient or soil amendments

Home and professional tests can provide information about your soil that will help you determine appropriate plant choices.

If they’re not part of the standard test, levels of nitrogen and other nutrients, sodium, soil texture, and other factors can be tested for an extra charge and must be specifically requested. It makes most sense to have nitrogen tested early in the growing season. Use a lab that is close to home because its experts know about local soil conditions. On the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service website ( you’ll find a list of soil test labs that cater to organic and sustainable growers; click on your state to find labs in your area. “Growers” typically means farmers, not homeowners, so ask the lab to tailor its recommendations for a garden. You should send off a sample whenever you suspect a problem or every few years.

For More Information
Healthy Soils for Sustainable Gardens ( Code=BGGS&Product_Code=BBG-TEC-200&Category_Code=BBG-TEC), edited by Niall Dunne and published by Brooklyn Botanic Garden, is a good basic guide to soil for sustainable gardeners.


sl o w f o o d f o r fe rt Ile so Il
Fertilizer is the horticultural equivalent of fast food. Feeding your plants a steady diet of it can be harmful. Fertilizer is like a shot of caffeine that produces a temporary burst of energy and growth. But overuse can destroy the microscopic fungi and bacteria and larger creatures such as earthworms that are the key to long-term soil health. The excess nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizer is carried by stormwater runoff to nearby waterways, where it causes eutrophication, which stimulates algae growth and removes oxygen from the water, killing fish. Excess nitrogen in groundwater or surface waters can harm human health. You can find out more about these problems on pages 4 and 5. Meanwhile, we ship garden trimmings off to overburdened landfills, robbing the soil of nutrients and making more store-bought fertilizer necessary. Why not mimic nature? In a forest, prairie, or other natural landscape, nature maintains soil fertility by transforming fallen leaves and branches into rich organic matter. Many good sources of organic matter can be found in your own backyard, including autumn leaves and garden and lawn clippings. Compost from your municipality or nearby farmers and other local sources of organic matter are the next best thing to those recycled from your garden.

Used as mulch or a soil amendment, compost made from fallen leaves and other organic materials on your property may provide most of your plants with all the nutrients they need.


Carbon Dioxide Solar Energy

organic matter

Nutrients released

fungi bacteria

Primary Consumers

Nutrients released

Secondary Consumers





Nutrients released

Higher-Level Consumers

centipede spider

millipede ground beetle earthworm ant

The soil food web is the key to fertile soil. This diverse community of organisms is grouped together based on their roles. Plants are the producers—they use the sun’s energy to convert water and carbon dioxide into plant material via photosynthesis. The primary consumers or decomposers, mainly fungi and bacteria, are capable of digesting fallen leaves and other organic matter. Secondary consumers feed on them, then release nutrients that can be absorbed directly by plants, as well as undigested remains that become part of the soil organic matter. Higher level consumers feed on the secondary consumers. Their fecal pellets become part of the soil organic matter, and they also release nutrients that spur plant growth.


The goal of applying fertilizer is to supply just enough to meet your plants’ needs. Too much fertilizer can run off into nearby waters, leach into groundwater, or lead to weed problems. Your plants’ health should be your guide. If they suffer from a lack of vigor, retarded growth, sparse foliage, or leaf discoloration, they may be nutrient deficient, although improper drainage or inadequate aeration are more likely the cause.

What To Do
• Test your soil to determine whether there really is a nutrient deficiency. • If supplemental nutrients are necessary, choose a renewable natural fertilizer, preferably produced locally, over • Whenever appropriate, use single-nutrient fertilizers instead of so-called complete fertilizers that contain
synthetic (petrochemical-based) fertilizer or mined products like rock phosphate. Synthetic fertilizers require much more energy to produce than natural options such as blood meal, bonemeal, fish meal or emulsion, and kelp meal. nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. For example, if your soil is low in nitrogen but not in phosphorus and potassium, use blood meal, fish emulsion, or other high-nitrogen natural fertilizer. Better yet, grow your own green manure.

• Add only the amount of fertilizer recommended in your soil test, no more. Follow the guidelines on the fertilizer label. • Apply fertilizer to the soil, not paved areas, and sweep stray particles into the planting bed. • Do not use fertilizer near streams or drainage ways.

The same natural recycling that happens every day in nature is also at work in a compost pile. Called decomposition, it can take years in nature. But when you compost, you give fungi, bacteria, and nature’s other decomposers everything they need to recycle much faster. An inch-thick topdressing of compost on your planting beds is generally all you need to keep your soil healthy and provide your plants with a balanced source of nutrients. Compost can also be used as a fix for problem soils (see page 28). And composting keeps valuable organic materials out of landfills. Eventually, even the material in a neglected pile will decompose. But a well-managed home compost pile creates the most nutritious compost. And unlike a neglected pile, it results in little or no emissions of methane or nitrous oxide, two heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

What To Do
• Locate your compost pile in a well-drained spot on your property that is shaded from the hot afternoon sun. • Purchase or build a compost bin to keep the organic material in and wildlife out. The bin should be about 4 feet
in diameter and 3 feet high.

• Nature’s recyclers need a balanced diet of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N). Fill the bin with alternating layers of

high-carbon “brown” materials, such as leaves, newspaper, and chipped woody trimmings, and nitrogen-rich “green” materials, such as grass clippings and other green garden trimmings and kitchen scraps. This will provide the C:N ration of 30:1 that will conserve the most nitrogen and carbon in the finished compost. the materials damp to the touch, like a wrung-out sponge. If they’re wet, turn the pile to increase aeration. However, too much air will dry out the pile and slow decomposition. If it feels dry, add water as you turn over the pile.

• Nature’s recyclers also need air and moisture. Turn your pile with a garden fork as often as necessary to keep


• Maximize airflow by shredding materials before adding them to the bin, and by building your compost pile on a
foundation of wood chips or other coarse organic material.

• It’s a good idea to have two compost piles—a full pile that is “finishing” and another for adding new material. • Finished compost is dark in color and smells earthy, like soil. Usually, it’s difficult to recognize any of the original
ingredients. But there’s no single point at which compost is finished—it depends on how you want to use it. For most garden applications, it’s fine to use compost that still has a few recognizable bits of leaves or twigs, which will finish rotting in the soil. If you plan to use compost in seed-starting mixes, it may be better to use highly finished compost.

Brown leaves

Kitchen scraps


Grass clippings

Brown leaves

Green leaves Wood chips

The decomposing organisms that transform garden “wastes” into compost need a balanced diet of carbon and nitrogen. A healthy compost pile has alternating layers of high-carbon “brown” materials, such as dry leaves, straw, and chipped woody trimmings, and nitrogen-rich “green” materials, such as fresh grass clippings and other “wet” or green garden trimmings and kitchen scraps. To encourage air flow, it’s a good idea to build your compost pile on a foundation of wood chips or other coarse organic material.


When you mulch, you’re basically mimicking one of nature’s fundamental processes. Many plant communities naturally generate healthy layers of organic litter. Consider what happens in a deciduous forest, one of nature’s champion mulchers. The leaves shed in autumn are transformed by the soil’s natural food web into plant food and the rich organic matter called humus that is the key to maintaining healthy soil. The blanket of organic matter protects plants from extremes of temperature, prevents soil erosion, and conserves soil moisture that otherwise would evaporate. Mulching provides your garden with these same benefits and more.

• Mulch conserves water—no small matter given that the proportion of municipal water used for garden irrigation
is 30 percent in the eastern U.S., and can be 60 percent or more in the West. and thawing, which causes root damage. and plant roots to breathe.

• Mulch keeps the soil around plant roots from frying in summer and in winter helps prevent alternate freezing • By cushioning the impact of downpours, mulch also helps prevent soil compaction, allowing water to penetrate • Over time, organic mulches decompose and add nutrients and organic matter to your soil, improving water
retention and nurturing the soil fauna that promote fertility.

• By creating the conditions that help them thrive, mulch makes your plants less vulnerable to pests and diseases. • It also suppresses weeds, making life easier for you. And because mulch keeps the soil loose, there’s no need for
regular cultivation with hoe or scuffle. Inorganic mulches, such as crushed stone and recycled rubber chips, are appropriate for rock gardens, driveways, and paths. They can also be a good choice for gardens in arid regions, where organic mulches may constitute a fire hazard or be difficult to produce locally. In most climates and situations, however, organic mulches are preferable for planting beds because they eventually break down and enrich the soil. Bagged mulches are commercially available, but you can save money and make your garden function more ecologically by mulching fallen leaves and other organic materials from your own property. Recycling them in your yard also keeps them out of the local landfill.

How To Apply
• Most mulches should be about 3 inches deep for best results (see Some Recommended Organic Mulches on the
page that follows).

• The optimum mulch depth also depends on your soil type. Sandy soil, which loses moisture rapidly, benefits
from a thicker mulch than clay soil, which tends to retain water.

• Before applying mulch, pull any existing weeds or smother them with a layer of newspaper, then water well. • To avoid diseases, pull the mulch back an inch or two from your plants. • The best time to spread mulch around heat-loving vegetables like peppers and tomatoes is after the soil has

warmed, usually mid- or late spring. Cabbages, greens, and other cool-weather crops can be mulched earlier. Mulches around shrubs and perennials will offer the best protection against winter cold if laid down in early winter, when the soil has cooled but not frozen hard—recycled holiday trees and trimmings are great for this purpose. Mulch can be applied anytime in herbaceous perennial beds and around trees and shrubs.

• Don’t mulch seedlings planted in very moist soils because excessive wetness is an invitation for damping-off,


an often fatal fungal disease. Once seedlings are established, it’s safe to mulch.

• Because organic mulches eventually break down
and become part of the soil, they need to be renewed every two or three years, depending on your climate and the type of mulch you use.

Some recommended Organic Mulches
• Leaves
Leaves make a great mulch, and they’re also free. Apply a layer 2 to 3 inches thick. Partially shredded leaves are less likely to mat and shed water than whole leaves, so run your rakings through a leaf shredder or pass the lawn mower over them a few times before mulching. Composting leaves with a lot of cellulose that are very slow to break down, such as oak leaves, with some grass clippings for a week or two will improve the mulch.

• Bark

Applying organic mulches promotes soil fertility.

Bark mulches should be applied 3 to 4 inches deep. Because they’re a recycled byproduct of the lumber industry, they’re preferable to wood chips, which may be made from trees felled solely for the manufacture of mulch. Look for products expressly labeled “bark mulch,” not just wood or hardwood mulch. When obtained from local arborists who create them from their daily prunings, wood chips are a good choice and may even be available for free. Three to 4 inches is the proper application depth. There is some evidence that freshly chipped wood can rob nitrogen from soil. Compost them first, or let them “season” in a pile for a few weeks, especially if you will be using them in the vegetable garden. Pine needles are light and fluffy and don’t get compacted, so water penetrates easily. Apply a layer 4 to 6 inches thick. Because they tend to lower soil pH, they’re best used around acid-loving plants.

• Wood chips

• Pine needles • Nutshells

If nutshells are an agricultural byproduct in your area, they are a good choice. Apply them about 2 inches deep. Shells tend to look a bit more formal than other mulches. Beware of cocoa hulls, a by-product of chocolate processing, which contain compounds toxic to dogs.

• Straw

Applied 6 to 8 inches deep, straw is an effective mulch, but be sure you get straw and not hay, which can be full of weed seeds. Straw isn’t very attractive in perennial planting beds but looks appropriate in the vegetable garden. Topdressing your planting beds annually with an inch of compost will provide most of your plants with a balanced source of nutrients.

• Compost


Growing “green manures”—grains and legumes used as cover crops—is a good way to increase the amount of organic matter and nutrients in your soil. Cover crops reduce the need for fertilizer. They also help aerate the soil, increase its capacity to conserve moisture, and protect it from being pounded down and compacted by raindrops and eroded away by water or wind. And they help suppress weeds. Grains such as wheat and oats are especially good at increasing soil organic matter. In addition to adding organic matter, leguminous cover crops, like alfalfa, clovers, or cow peas, which contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their root nodules, remove nitrogen from the atmosphere and make it available in soil. A healthy planting of leguminous cover crops can supply half or more of the nitrogen needed by the next crop.

Growing Tips
• Most gardeners use green manures to cover bare vegetable beds in winter. • For multiple benefits, grow grains and legumes together. • To get them off to a good start, plant winter cover crops at least 4 weeks before the expected first hard frost
date in your area.

• Plant cover crops with large seeds, like peas, in shallow, closely spaced furrows. Broadcast those with small
seeds, then rake lightly to cover.

• If the weather is dry, water to keep the soil lightly moist until the young cover crop is established. • Till cover crops into the soil in spring, just before flowering, or about 3 weeks before planting to give the organic
matter time to start breaking down.

• Avoid cover crops that are invasive in your region. For More Information
National Sustainable Agriculture website ( is a good source of detailed, state-by-state information on green manures—so long as you are carful not to use a weed as a cover crop!


d e a l I ng wIth “ pr o b le m so Ils”
If you choose the right plant for the site, there’s rarely such a thing as a “problem soil.” Too often, gardeners try to grow plants that are not adapted to the site, then need to modify the soil and provide the missing water or other element on a continuing basis. In the ornamental garden, if you choose plants that are suited to your soil conditions, you will rarely have a problem. Vegetable gardening, however, may be improved with a deep, well-drained yet moisture retentive, humus-rich soil. Soils that have been disturbed by human activities also often require special treatment. In these situations, improve the soil with organic matter recycled from your garden whenever possible.

Plant roots can grow with ease in sandy soils, but water drains quickly and nutrient ions do not readily bind to sand particles. As a result, sandy soils can lack moisture and nutrients.

What To Do
• Grow drought-tolerant plants that adapt well to soil with low fertility. In California, for example, good choices
include lavenders (Lavendula), California lilac (Ceanothus), and California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). Check with your local botanic garden ( or other public garden for plant recommendations. decomposes relatively quickly in sandy soils, so add a mix of materials that provide a quick infusion of humus, like compost, and others that break down more slowly, such as straw or shredded bark.

• In the vegetable garden, incorporate organic matter in the soil to improve water retention. Organic matter

• Mulch planting beds to help retain water. • Because nutrients tend to leach out of sandy soils, water more sparingly yet frequently to give plant roots the
moisture they need and minimize leaching.

• Grow green manures to add organic matter and nitrogen to sandy soils.

Clay soils lack good drainage and aeration and compact easily. When dry, they can be hard as cement. However, clay soils are generally quite fertile.

What To Do
• Grow plants adapted to heavy soils. Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), prairie blazing star (Liatris
pycnostachya), and lanceleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata), for example, are good choices for the Midwest and Southern Plains. Check with your local botanic garden or other public garden for plant recommendations. grain sand also improves aeration, but sand is a nonrenewable resource and often not sustainable because it needs to be added in large amounts to have beneficial effects.

• In the vegetable garden, improve aeration and drainage by working organic matter into clay soil. Adding coarse• Use a fork rather than a shovel when cultivating clay soil is necessary.


• To avoid compacting clay soil, work it only when it is moist, not dry or wet. Let large clods air dry before
breaking them up with a rake.

• Apply mulch to maintain organic matter levels. Mulch also helps minimize compaction from pounding rain and
shields the soil from the baking sun.

• Install pathways in the garden to minimize compaction from foot traffic. • Irrigate clay soils slowly to avoid waterlogging.

In wet or poorly draining soils, pore spaces are waterlogged and aeration is poor. Most plants cannot function properly in constantly wet soil and suffer from disease, decline, and eventual root death.

What To Do
• Grow plants adapted to wet soils. In the eastern states, for example, river birch (Betula nigra), summersweet • Grow vegetables and herbs in raised beds. • Divert rain water from your gutters into a rain garden.
(Clethra alnifolia), and astilbes (Astilbe) are appropriate choices. Check with your local botanic garden or other public garden for plant recommendations.

Acid or “sour” soils are common in the eastern U.S. where rainwater leaches calcium and magnesium from the soil and acid rain and fertilizers acidify the soil. Most garden plants do best in slightly acidic soil, with a pH of 6.2 to 6.8, but typically can tolerate levels as low as 5.5. If you haven’t already done so, have your soil tested to determine its pH.

What To Do
• Grow plants adapted to acidic soils. Azaleas and rhododendrons (Rhododendron), hydrangeas (Hydrangea),
and bayberries (Myrica), for example, are good choices in the East. Check with your local botanic garden or other public garden for plant recommendations.

• Use animal manure, leguminous cover crops, compost, or wood ash to help raise your soil’s pH. Mix in 1 to 3

inches of compost, then mulch with the same amount every year. Wood ash is very high in potassium, so check with your local Cooperative Extension office ( about how much to apply. to go this route, follow the recommendations in your soil test report. Neutralizing soil pH with lime takes about a year and needs to be repeated after a few years.

• Adding finely ground limestone is the conventional, if less sustainable, prescription for acid soils. If you decide

The pH of alkaline or “sweet” soils is higher than neutral, or 7. These soils are common in arid regions like the southwestern U.S., where evaporation exceeds precipitation and calcium and magnesium accumulate in the soil. Nitrate-based fertilizers can also raise soil pH. When soil pH is higher than 8, the solubility of nutrients is reduced, so they are not available to plants. If you haven’t already done so, have your soil tested to determine its pH.


What To Do
• Purchase plants adapted to alkaline soils. In the Midwest, for example, eastern persimmon (Diospyros
virginiana), redbud (Cercis canadensis), and boxwoods (Buxus) are appropriate choices. Check with your local botanic garden or other public garden for plant recommendations.

• Compost made from oak leaves or sawdust and other wood products can gradually lower soil pH. • Grow vegetables and herbs in raised beds in compost-rich soil. • Mulch with pine needles or shredded pine bark, which help acidify the soil. • Incorporating mined sulfur, sometimes called “flowers of sulfur,” into the soil is the conventional prescription for
acidic soils. However, this is a non-renewable product and not truly sustainable. If you decide to go this route, follow the recommendations in your soil test report for how much to apply.

Healthy soil typically has more than 40 percent pore space, ranging from large pores, which promote drainage, to small pores, which help store water. This combination enables air and water to penetrate, promotes good drainage, and allows soil organisms to breathe and plant roots to grow. Compaction by machinery, foot traffic, and pounding rain makes life in the soil difficult. Compacted soils can flood and also be droughty, since water runs off rather than infiltrating, potentially damaging waterways. Repair compacted soil by rebuilding its spongy structure.

What To Do
• Top-dressing your planting beds with an inch of compost will improve lightly to moderately compacted soils.
Earthworms and other soil fauna will gradually pull it down into the soil, making it looser and better able to absorb water. A 2- or 3-inch layer of shredded leaf mulch or wood chips, preferably obtained from a local arborist or your own backyard, will have the same beneficial effects.

• Cultivating the soil lightly and incorporating compost can speed up the healing process. • More extreme physical aeration may be necessary to repair highly compacted soils. Consider hiring a • Create pathways and use garden walls, fences, or mulches to keep foot traffic off the soil.

professional landscaper to do vertical mulching—drilling deep holes in your planting beds or around your trees and backfilling them with compost.

Shallow soils constrict plant roots, may be nutrient-deficient, and tend to dry out very quickly. They typically consist of a thin layer of soil on top of a dense, clay subsoil or rock. But they can also be caused when builders scrape away the topsoil at a construction site.

What To Do
• If your topsoil is naturally thin, grow shallow-rooted, drought-tolerant plants adapted to rocky habitats. In the
Pacific Northwest, for example, alpine aster (Aster alpinus), Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), and meadow pink (Dianthus deltoides) grow naturally in shallow soils. Check with your local botanic garden or other public garden for plant recommendations.

• Grow vegetables in raised beds.


• To repair soils around recently constructed homes, incorporate compost and green manures, and mulch with
shredded leaves or bark or other organic material.

Saline soils are often found in arid, poorly drained, and coastal regions. In arid areas with a high water table, dissolved salts are pulled up from the groundwater by capillary action. These soils tend to be alkaline. In coastal areas, wind-carried salt builds up in the soil. Fertilizers can also increase salinity, and in some areas the use of salt on roads can contribute to the problem.

What To Do
• The simplest course of action is to grow salt-tolerant plants. Redbuds (Cercis), summersweet (Clethra alnifolia),
common lilac (Syriga vulgaris), and phlox (Phlox), for example, are good choices in the East. Check with your local botanic garden or other public garden for plant recommendations.

• In arid areas, mulching lessens salt accumulation by reducing evaporation at the soil surface. But avoid • If drainage is poor, incorporate compost or other organic materials that are low in salt into your soil.

mulching with animal manures or other organic materials that are high in salt or those, like wood ash, that raise soil pH.

Soil pollution is caused mainly by industrial wastes and emissions, car exhaust, pesticides, and peeling paint. Among the contaminants most commonly encountered by gardeners are pesticides and heavy metals. Because of their widespread industrial use, heavy metals are ubiquitous and increasingly found at toxic levels in the environment. Lead paint and leaded gasoline were banned decades ago, but there is a risk that your soil may still contain toxic levels of lead, especially if you live in or near a house or building painted before the late 1970s or near a busy roadway. If you live near a smelter, contamination by mercury and arsenic may pose a problem. Pesticides used before World War II often contained arsenic, copper, and lead, which may be an issue on former farms and especially orchards. Chronic exposure to heavy metals, either by direct contact with the soil or by eating food grown in contaminated soil, can harm your nervous system and major organs. In the case of lead, the risk is primarily from exposure to dust or ingestion of tainted soil by children. Most of today’s pesticides degrade more quickly than older pesticides such as DDT, but overuse or misapplication can damage your plants and soil fauna.

What To Do
• If your garden is at risk, have it tested for specific toxins, based on the likelihood of past contamination.
The following steps are helpful for soils with low-level contamination: Testing for pesticides can be prohibitively expensive, however, so proceed only if there is strong evidence of contamination.

• Add compost to the soil. • To minimize plant uptake of heavy metals, keep the soil’s pH close to neutral. • Mulch to keep the contaminants in place and minimize direct contact with the soil. • Grow produce in containers or raised beds with contaminant-free soil.


• Wash your hands after working or playing in the garden. • If your soil is highly contaminated, you should have it treated or removed and disposed of safely by

professionals. Contact your state department of environmental protection about how to proceed. A list of state environmental agencies is here (


sustaIna b l e p o t t Ing m Ix e s
Unless you’re new to gardening, you probably remember when many people made potting soil themselves, using a few readily available ingredients. Nowadays, many gardeners purchase pre-bagged mixes, typically upscale combinations of largely unnecessary components from around the globe. The amount of energy required to manufacture and ship these products and the pollution that results can be substantial. A more sustainable potting mix could easily come from local sources such as composted clamshells, pine bark, or garden trimmings rather than Canadian peat moss and perlite transported from the Greek island of Milos. Harvesting peat moss—the remains of sphagnum moss from bogs—destroys the habitat for wetland plants and animals and releases enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas. A huge amount of energy is required to produce perlite, because the raw product, a type of volcanic glass, needs to be heated to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit to become the lightweight pellets used to promote air circulation in potting mixes. Most pre-bagged potting soil also contains synthetic fertilizer. Container plants typically require more added nutrients, but a mix enriched with compost or worm castings can often provide them. The resulting mixes are packaged in plastic bags, then stacked and shrink-wrapped on wooden pallets for shipping to nurseries and superstores, consuming still more energy and resources.

What To Do • Make your own potting soil, using compost but not peat or perlite. A classic all-purpose recipe called for 1⁄3
mature compost that has been screened, 1⁄3 garden topsoil, and 1⁄3 sharp sand. These days it’s possible to use recycled ingredients including compost, worm castings, shredded pine bark, and coir dust, a renewable material made of coconut fiber. Compost, for example, not only is nutrient rich, reducing the need for additional fertilizer, but also retains water better than peat. Coir breaks down more slowly than peat, so the product lasts longer. It is imported from Asia, so energy is required to ship it to North America. However, coir is typically dried and compressed, then transported by large container ships, which are relatively energy-efficient. Rice hulls are an alternative to coir in some areas.

• When buying pre-bagged potting mix, check labels to make sure it doesn’t contain peat moss or perlite but does
include compost, preferably compost made locally.

• When you are growing vegetables or other heavy feeders in containers, you may need to use fertilizer to provide
additional nutrients. If so, organic fertilizer, applied sparingly, is preferable to synthetic (petrochemical-based) products. For more information on using fertilizer judiciously in a sustainable garden, see page 23.


g a r d en Ing In r aIse d be ds
A raised bed is basically just a box frame made of wood or other material and filled with soil that has been enriched with compost or other organic matter. Depending on the material used for the frame, it can be constructed in various shapes and different depths. Although raised beds require an initial investment of time and money, in many garden situations this is more than outweighed by their numerous benefits:

• Raising your planting bed above ground level immediately improves drainage. • Problems often associated with ground-level gardening, such as erosion and compaction, are eliminated. With a
raised bed, you can plant, maintain, and harvest without ever stepping foot on the soil.

• Raised beds are also a good solution for gardening in wet, shallow, or contaminated soils. • Because the beds are elevated, it’s easier to promote soil fertility by renewing compost and other organic
mulches, at the same time improving soil moisture retention.

• Raised beds can put an end to aches and pains for people who love to garden but have trouble with their knees
or back, and they can make gardening possible for those with limited flexibility or mobility.

• Raised beds warm up early in spring and stay warm later in the fall, so you can plant earlier and harvest later. • Carrots and other root vegetables do especially well in raised beds because there are no stones to hinder their

• Raised beds are also good places to grow plants such as mints that can be overly aggressive when their growth
is unrestricted by a soil barrier.

How To Build A raised Bed
• Construct the frame with a nontoxic material—avoid wood that has been treated with toxic chemicals or
creosote. Untreated wood or stone harvested or obtained locally are good choices. You can find more on sustainable materials to use in your landscape beginning on page 81. rooted plants, deeper is better, but beds higher than two feet may require a retaining wall or extra support. If you’re using wooden boards, secure them at the corners with metal braces or screws, or nail them to a reinforcing block of wood located in the inside corners.

• If you’ll be growing vegetables, a raised bed should be at least 8 to 12 inches high (deep). For large or deep-

• Don’t make your raised bed more than 4 feet wide so that you’ll be able to maintain it without stepping in.

How To Garden In A raised Bed
• In many cases you can simply amend the native topsoil beneath your bed with compost and other organic
materials such as coir or shredded bark increasingly being used in sustainable potting mixes. If the native soil underneath the bed is compacted, break it up before filling so it does not become a barrier to good drainage. clean, new soil. Before filling, cover the bottom of the raised bed with landscape fabric that will allow air and water movement through the bed but prevent plant roots from reaching the tainted soil below.

• If you’re creating a raised bed over contaminated soil, you need to create a barrier between the toxins and the


wat e r
So much of the earth is covered with water, it’s sometimes called the “water planet.” About 97 percent of the water is ocean saltwater. Most freshwater is locked up in the polar icecaps. Only .003 percent of the earth’s water is available for human consumption. Water is chronically in short supply in arid areas, and can be scarce even in places that historically have had a lot of rain. Yet we often lavish it on our landscapes—typically drinking water, which we pay a lot of money to treat and pump. Meanwhile, instead of capturing and using rainwater in our gardens, we’ve created an entire infrastructure of gutters, downspouts, and sewers to get rid of it. The resulting stormwater runoff can contaminate local waterways with fertilizers, pesticides, and other pollutants. The good news is that it’s possible to harvest enough non-potable water to meet landscape needs and prevent polluting stormwater from running off our properties. Information on selecting plants adapted to the precipitation patterns in your area, alternatives to drinking water for irrigation, and how to irrigate efficiently follow. For details on organic mulches and how to use them to conserve water, see page 25.

Public water supply and treatment facilities consume enough electricity to power more than 5 million homes for a year. In most cities, pumping and treating water and wastewater accounts for 25 to 50 percent of the entire municipal energy bill.

Conventional And Sustainable Landscapes: How They Compare Conventional Landscape
• Treats rainwater as a waste to be removed from
the site

Sustainable Landscape
• Manages rainwater as a resource to be used on
the site

• Can generate stormwater runoff that pollutes local

• Designed to keeps stormwater on site and
protect local waterways

• Usually irrigated with municipal drinking water • May result in high water bills

• Irrigated with alternatives to potable water • Can be cheaper to maintain


cr e at e a water -t hr Ift y la ndsc a pe
Americans consume more than 7 billion gallons of water a day outdoors. One to two thirds of the drinking water we use is for irrigation. It is a popular misconception that this is the only way to have a healthy lawn and garden. A beautiful landscape can be in tune with the amount of precipitation that falls naturally in the area. Sometimes irrigating makes sense. New transplants need to be watched carefully throughout the first year and watered when the soil dries out or the plants look stressed. In arid climates, gardens may go dormant and look brown in summer without some supplemental water. Vegetables often require more moisture than nature provides via rainfall. Information on selecting plants adapted to the precipitation patterns in your area, alternatives to drinking water for irrigation, and how to irrigate efficiently follow. For details on organic mulches and how to use them as a water conservation measure, see page 25 in the section of the workbook on sustainable soil practices.

Rainfall flowing off a home’s roof into a rain barrel is used to irrigate the garden.

How Low Should You Go?
You can measure your progress against benchmarks used in the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) (, the new rating system for sustainable landscapes on which Landscape for Life is based. SITES awards two points for gardens that reduce the use of potable water by 75 percent from a local baseline case. Three points are awarded for gardens that use no potable water for irrigation once plants are established, and a garden that consumes no potable water both during and after establishment is awarded five points.


Growing plants adapted to the conditions found on your property is one of the basic principles of sustainable gardening. You’ll find a detailed discussion on how to choose the right plant for your site on page 53. Following are some tips to help you create a garden that’s suited to local precipitation patterns:

• Preserve as many well established trees and shrubs as possible, because they generally require less water than newly
planted specimens.

• When selecting plants, avoid those labeled “hard to establish,” as they often require large amounts of water. • Favor plants native to your region, which are adapted to the local climate. Be sure to choose native plants that match
the specific conditions at the planting site.

• If you’re considering a non-native plant, make sure it is not a known invasive species in your region. Some invasive

plants are water guzzlers and can transform the natural hydrology of natural areas, making it even more difficult for the native species to survive. to successful transplanting is getting the roots to grow into the surrounding soil as soon as possible. For many plants in areas with regular rainfall in the warmer months, this is in spring, when roots are growing most actively and there is enough moisture in the soil to support new growth. In warmer areas, fall is a much better planting period, and the best time to plant many woody species is when they are dormant in the winter. Consult plant labels or your local nursery or public garden ( about the best time to plant. landscape requires. Read more about creating a regionally appropriate lawn on page 68.

• To speed establishment and minimize water use, plant at the recommended time for a particular species. They key

• The size of your lawn and what type of turf grass you grow can have a huge impact on the amount of irrigation your

With a little ingenuity, you can use non-potable water from a variety of sources both indoors and outdoors to irrigate your garden. Non-potable water is not fit for humans to drink, but is generally safe for plants. According to the American Water Works Association Research Foundation, households that irrigate with alternative water sources can slash their water bills by as much as 25 percent.

rainwater Collection
Rainwater collected in barrels or other storage tanks has been used for irrigation for centuries. Rain barrels are connected to the downspouts of a home’s roof gutters and typically hold around 50 gallons. They come with a screened cover and an overflow spout and hose to divert excess water away from the home’s foundation. The typical house has at least four downspouts, at each corner of the house, and rain barrels can be connected to one or more of them. Of late, designers have been creating versatile variations on the rain barrel, including models with sleek profiles that can fit along narrow passages, under decks, or in other underused spaces. Modular designs enable you to add on capacity or even put the tanks in multiple locations. Cisterns, storage tanks made of stone, mortar, plaster, or cement, were once very common in the U.S., especially in rural areas where homes relied on private wells for water. Today, prefabricated cisterns are available in various materials and sizes. A cistern is a more complicated undertaking but can store a lot more water than a rain barrel. Check with the nearest Cooperative Extension office ( for information on the best systems for your region and how to construct them.


For More Information
Other useful resources on harvesting rainwater are U.S. EPA’s rainwater collection handbook (http://www. and the American rainwater Catchment Systems Association ( Many states also have resources on rainwater collection. See, for example: Texas Water Development Board ( rainwater harvesting case study for Florida ( rainwater harvesting at North Carolina State University (

Collecting Air Conditioning Condensate
Condensate is produced when warm, moisture-laden air passes over the coils of an air-conditioning system. The average single-family home produces 5 to 10 gallons of condensate per day. Condensate is an attractive irrigation option for several reasons. It’s produced through the normal daily operation of air-conditioning equipment. Unlike rain, which is sporadic and unpredictable, condensate is produced regularly during the hottest months when the need for irrigation is greatest. Inquire about the components of a condensate collection system at local home improvement centers and farm and ranch supply stores. For more on collecting and reusing air conditioning condensate, see the Alliance for Water Efficiency website (www.

Water From Dehumidifiers
Water pulled from the air by dehumidifiers is a high-quality source of water for irrigation. Because the water typically ends up in a basin that is easily removed for emptying, no additional equipment is necessary.

Graywater Collection
A variety of appliances and fixtures produce used water called graywater. An estimated 50 to 80 percent of residential “wastewater” is dish, shower, sink, and laundry water. Because graywater often contains soaps, detergents, shampoos, or other substances as well as bacterial and other pathogens, its use is regulated by state and local governments (see below). Graywater is most often recommended for subsurface irrigation of non-food plants. Graywater systems vary from simple and low-cost to complex and costly. The simplest way to collect graywater is to plug the drain and employ a bucket to transport bath or shower water for use outdoors. Another common practice (but illegal in some locations) is to drain the washing machine directly onto outside vegetation. Sophisticated systems involve separate plumbing for graywater as well as settling tanks and sand filters to remove solids and pathogens.

State And Local regulations
States and local governments have different regulations on what kinds of graywater are permissible for use. Some prohibit the collection of graywater entirely, so be sure to investigate what qualifies as graywater and whether any restrictions apply in your area. A list of some states and municipalities with graywater policies can be found here. (

Different Systems For Different Climates
Keep in mind that different alternatives make more sense in some regions than others. For example, harvesting rain flowing off the roof in rain barrels or other storage systems may be cost effective in rainy climates, but in parts of the country with dry summers, rainfall may be too infrequent to make them worthwhile. In these areas, capturing condensate from an air conditioning system is a better option.


Conventional irrigation practices waste a lot of water. Irrigating with traditional sprinklers or when it is hot or windy leads to water loss through evaporation. Watering too quickly or too much leads to runoff. The goal of water-wise irrigation is to reduce these losses but still supply as much water as is necessary.

What To Do
• Irrigate only when your plants need water.
How often to water depends on a number of factors, including what type of soil you have, the type of plants you’re growing, whether your plants are established, the season, and weather conditions. Don’t irrigate on a fixed schedule, which wastes water by providing it when your plants don’t need an extra drink.

Frequent, shallow watering leads to weak, shallow-rooted plants. Less frequent, deep watering encourages roots to grow deep, where the soil stays moist longer.

• Use a rain gauge and/or soil moisture probe.

A variety of relatively simple tools can help you determine when you need to water. The simplest and most inexpensive of all is a rain gauge to measure weekly rainfall. Soil moisture probes employing different technologies are commercially available at varying prices. They measure the moisture level of your soil, giving you a more precise indication of how much, if any, water your plants require.

Rain gauges and soil moisture probes should be used in conjunction with basic knowledge about how much water various parts of your landscape require. For example, vegetables generally need more than established woody plants. And even edible plants require less water when it is overcast and relatively cool than when it is sunny and hot.

• Hand water.

According to an American Water Works Association (AWWA) Research Foundation study, manual watering with a hand-held hose tends to conserve more water than other irrigation methods.

If you are going to have an in-ground system, make sure it is a drip system as it used the least amount of any automatic system—but still 16 percent more than watering by hand. In-ground spray systems used 35 percent more water than hand watering, and an automatic spray system used 47 percent more.

• Use drip irrigation systems or soaker hoses.
Drip irrigation systems deliver water through tubing and emitters placed alongside your plants. The emitters slowly drip water into the soil in a plant’s root zone where it is needed, not in gaps between plants where it is wasted. They also reduce water loss due to evaporation, and the low flow rate minimizes the potential for water leaching below the roots or running off the surface. Drip irrigation can be used in vegetable and flower beds and around trees and shrubs.

Watering by hand conserves more water than any other irrigation method, according to a study by the American Water Works Association. The same study also found that drip irrigation consumes much less water than the in-ground spray irrigation systems used in most home gardens.


As the AWWA study discussed above shows, however, drip systems must be operated properly to be truly waterthrifty. To maximize their efficiency, install climate-based controllers such as sensors that prevent the system from turning on during and immediately after rainfall. Even better are sensors that activate irrigation only when soil moisture drops below a pre-determined level. So-called “smart” or weather-based irrigation controllers take into account a range of factors to determine when supplemental water is necessary, including temperature, rainfall, humidity, solar radiation, and soil moisture levels. Soaker hoses, which have perforations that slowly leak water into the ground, can also be efficient and effective. If you’re in the market for a water-conserving irrigation system, it’s worth checking out WaterSense. (www.epa. gov/WaterSense/) Sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the program seeks to do for irrigation products and services and plumbing fixtures what the Energy Star label has done for electric appliances. Irrigation technologies and services that have been awarded the WaterSense label are listed on the program’s website.

• Use alternatives to potable water for irrigation. • Water your plants early in the morning.

Take advantage of the various sources of non-potable water around your home. See page 37 for details. Mornings are cooler, so water doesn’t evaporate as readily as it does in the heat of the afternoon. Evenings are cool, too, but water sitting on leaves overnight can cause fungal diseases.

For More Information
The Irrigation Association website ( has a section for consumers with tips on how to hire an irrigation contractor, when an irrigation designer is necessary, and “smart” technology that saves water, time, and money.


s m a rt s t r at e gIes for ma n a g I ng s to r mwat e r
In a natural landscape, the soil and vegetation absorb precipitation like a sponge. In developed areas, however, much of the land has been paved over, and the soil itself is often compacted and impervious. The amount of rainfall exceeds the land’s ability to absorb it, resulting in stormwater runoff. Rainfall flows from our roofs to gutters and downspouts, over compacted lawns and driveways into roads, and down storm drains. In most older cities this stormwater can overwhelm sanitary sewers, sending raw sewage as well as runoff carrying fertilizers, pesticides, motor oil, and other pollutants into nearby waterways. Runoff also results in less water infiltrating through the soil to replenish groundwater supplies. For a comparison of runoff amounts from different types of landscapes, from woods and meadows to urban business districts, see page 42. A sustainable home landscape is designed to keep stormwater on the property, minimizing damage to waterways and aquatic life.

On the pages that follow, you’ll find information on stormwater management strategies such as creating a rain garden, limiting impervious surfaces in your landscape, and restoring vegetative buffers along any wetlands and waterways adjacent to your property. You’ll also find a guide to green roofs. Collecting rainwater that flows from your gutters not only provides an alternative to drinking water for irrigation but also reduces stormwater runoff; see page 37 for details. It is important to use landscape materials that do not pollute stormwater. For information on polluting materials and alternatives, see page 93.

The typical house has at least four downspouts, at each corner of the house. Connecting rain barrels to one or more of them not only captures water for irrigating the garden but also helps minimize stormwater runoff.



.6 inches of runoff 2.4 inches of infiltration

.6 inches of runoff 2.4 inches of infiltration 1 inch of runoff 2 inches of infiltration 1.6 inches of runoff 1.4 inches of infiltration 2.5 inches of runoff .5 inch of infiltration

Impervious surface 0% WOODS

Impervious surface 0% MEADOW

Impervious surface 0% rOW CrOP AGrICULTUrE

Impervious surface 38% rESIDENTIAL (0.25-ACrE LOTS)

Impervious surface 85% UrBAN BUSINESS DISTrICT

As development increases, so do soil compaction and impervious surfaces. Compacted soils, along with driveways, roads, parking lots, rooftops, and other impervious surfaces, make it difficult for rain to infiltrate into the soil, as in a natural setting. As a result, the more impervious surface in a landscape, the less infiltration and the more stormwater runoff it generates. The illustration above shows the percentage of impervious surface and the amount of infiltration and runoff following a 3-inch rainstorm for each kind of landscape.


One of the most effective ways to prevent stormwater runoff in a home landscape is to create a rain garden. Basically, a rain garden is just a strategically located low area where water can soak naturally into the soil. Like the rest of your ornamental garden, it can be full of colorful plants. Rain gardens have other benefits, too. They help protect your community from flooding. They protect local streams and lakes from the many pollutants carried by stormwater as well as the physical damage it causes. By increasing the amount of precipitation that filters naturally into the ground, they replenish underground water supplies. And rain gardens also provide valuable habitat for birds, pollinators like butterflies and bees, and many of the beneficial insects that help keep your garden healthy by keeping pest populations in check. Following are some things to consider when planning a rain garden.

• Where to put it

Locate your rain garden either near the house to catch only roof runoff, or farther away to collect stormwater from the lawn as well as the roof. A rain garden can also capture precipitation flowing off of paved areas. Keep it at least 10 feet from your house to prevent moisture problems. A typical residential rain garden ranges from 100 to 300 square feet, but the time needed to dig the depression, the cost of plants, and the size of your property will help determine how large yours should be. The size of a rain garden that can manage most or all of your runoff also depends on what type of soil you have and how much roof and/or surface area will drain into it. A rain garden should be 4 to 8 inches below the level of the surrounding land.

• How big?

• How deep?

Rain gardens such as this one in Seattle can be attractive elements of your home landscape. They can also provide valuable wildlife habitat, especially when native species are planted in drifts of three to seven of each for maximum impact.


• When the soil should be amended

If your soil drains poorly, you may need to add a layer of sand or gravel at the bottom of your rain garden to prevent it from becoming an ephemeral pond. If you have clay soil with enough rock or other aggregate, or you have clay loam, the sand and gravel bottom is probably unnecessary, unless you want the water to drain very quickly. If your soil is heavy clay, you may also need to amend it with sand and compost. To direct stormwater from a downspout, bury a length of plastic pipe in a shallow trench that slopes down to the rain garden, or create a grassy swale. It’s helpful to think of a rain garden as comprised of three wetness zones: In the lowest zone, plant species that can tolerate short periods of standing water as well as fluctuating water levels, because a rain garden will dry

• How to connect it to a downspout

• What to plant

grassy swale

porous soil

A rain garden should be 4 to 8 inches below the surrounding land. You can direct stormwater from a roof downspout to the rain garden with a grassy swale, as above, or with buried plastic pipe. The soil in a rain garden should be porous, so if you have heavy clay soil you may need to amend it with sand and compost. Rain garden plants should be appropriate for your region and tolerate both wet and dry periods.


out during droughts or at times of year when precipitation is sparse. Species that can tolerate extremes of wet soils and dry periods are also appropriate for the middle zone, which is slightly higher. Put plants that prefer drier conditions at the highest zone or outer edge of your rain garden. To enhance the garden’s value as wildlife habitat, plant native species in drifts of three to seven of each for maximum impact. After planting, apply a layer of organic mulch 2 to 3 inches deep to keep down weeds and protect and enrich the soil.\

• Maintenance

Although rain gardens require some initial effort, they are easy to maintain. Until your plants become established, you’ll have to weed out undesirable volunteers. Leave the dormant plants standing over the winter in cold climates to provide seeds and shelter for overwintering birds and butterflies. In spring you can cut back or mow the stalks of herbaceous plants if you prefer a neat-and-trim look.

For More Information
Rain Gardens: A how-to manual for homeowners (, published by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the University of Wisconsin-Extension, contains comprehensive, step-by-step instructions on all aspects of creating a rain garden “based on a goal of controlling 100 percent of the runoff for the average rainfall year while keeping the size of the rain garden reasonable.” It includes a number of rain garden planting designs and plant lists for varying sun and soil conditions that are especially appropriate for the Midwest. An extensive list of plants ( appropriate for rain gardens and native to the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. and Canada, which was compiled by Temple University, is available on the Brooklyn Botanic Garden website. Your state or county Cooperative Extension office ( is also a good place to seek information on rain gardens appropriate for your area. See the next page for some recommended Extension publications.

Among the lovely native plants recommended for Pacific Northwest rain gardens are Nootka rose, left, and western columbine, right.


“Adding a rain Garden to Your Landscape” ( ), University of Maine Cooperative Extension “rain Gardens” ( ), Sea Grant California and University of California Cooperative Extension “Backyard rain Gardens” (, North Carolina Cooperative Extension “rain Gardens” (, Rutgers University Cooperative Extension “rain Gardens” (, University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension Rain Garden Handbook for Western Washington Homeowners ( Raingarden_handbook.pdf), Washington State University Extension Pierce County For ideas on what to plant, you’ll find links to native plant societies of the U.S. and Canada here (http://www. The Wildflower Center Native Plant Database (www.wildflower. org/plants) is another helpful resource.

Impervious surfaces are mainly constructed surfaces—rooftops, sidewalks, driveways, roads—covered by impenetrable materials such as concrete, blacktop, and mortared brick or stone. But urban and suburban soils, which are often compacted by intense foot traffic or construction equipment, are also highly impermeable. As urbanization increases, so does the amount of impervious surface. Studies have shown that the pervasiveness of impervious cover is directly related to the poor quality of many urban watersheds. Because they prevent precipitation from seeping down into the soil, impervious surfaces are a primary cause of stormwater runoff. Torrents of destructive runoff are generated as rainfall strikes rooftops and pours into gutters and downspouts, picking up volume, speed, and pollutants as it rushes over paved surfaces and into storm drains.

What To Do:
Following are some of the ways you can reduce impervious surfaces to enable water to seep into the ground.

• Two ribbons of pavement with a low groundcover in between is a more porous alternative to a solid driveway of
concrete or blacktop.

• Use stepping stones surrounded by creeping groundcovers instead of continuous impermeable pathways. • Opt for “dry laid” instead of “wet laid” or mortared patios and walkways. Set in stone dust or sand, these allow
some stormwater to infiltrate into the soil, unlike the impervious cement products typically used as mortar.

• Green spaces between patios, pathways, and other impermeable spaces can help prevent stormwater from • Restore the structure of any compacted soil on your property, and take steps to prevent soil compaction
elsewhere in your landscape. See page 30 for details.

accumulating and running off your property. Plant a rain garden to capture stormwater runoff from your roof.

• Various types of permeable paving, such as concrete products with a porous structure that allows water to pass
directly through, can be expensive but are worth considering.

• Some green roof systems can help manage stormwater and are worth considering if you’re in the market for a
new roof.


Most green roofs currently being installed in North America are so-called extensive roofs that consist of four major components: a waterproof and root-repellent membrane to keep water from leaking into the building, a drainage system, 3 to 6 inches or less of lightweight growing medium, and vegetation that is adapted to the extreme conditions on rooftops and requires little or no maintenance. Living roofs cost a lot more than conventional roofs, but last about twice as long. Green roofs help reduce the urban heat island effect—the difference in temperature between urban areas and the surrounding countryside caused by the lack of vegetation and large number of paved and built surfaces that absorb heat. research ( at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center shows that green roofs can be up to 80 degrees cooler than adjacent buildings with traditional roofs. By insulating your home, they also can significantly reduce energy consumption and heating and cooling bills. They filter pollutants, improving air quality in towns and cities. In urban areas especially, they can provide valuable wildlife habitat ( Green-Roofs-Take-Root.aspx). And they add aesthetically pleasing green space, reducing the monotony of barren city skylines. A green roof’s ability to manage stormwater runoff, however, has been debatable. The growing media used on green roofs typically contain slow-release fertilizer, which can be carried away in excess stormwater runoff, polluting local waterways and harming aquatic life. A 2009 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency comparing the quantity and quality of runoff from green and flat asphalt roofs concluded that green roofs are capable of removing 50 percent of annual rainfall volume, although this varied seasonally from about 95 percent in summer to less than 20 percent in winter. The study, which was conducted by the Penn State Center for Green Roof Research, also concluded that green roof runoff did contain some nutrients, but because the volume of runoff was reduced significantly, green roofs actually led to less nutrient pollution than asphalt roofing. And the runoff can be directed from the roof to a rain garden, where the nutrients can help nourish the plants. The Wildflower Center found that some green roofs are better at reducing runoff than others. Researchers compared the performance of six extensive green roof systems from six different manufacturers to each other as well as to traditional non-reflective blacktop and somewhat cooler reflective white roofs at the Center’s headquarters in Austin, Texas. Each roof was planted with the same 18 native species chosen for their wide tolerance of both drought periods and saturation after rainstorms. The plants were provided with the same amount of water for irrigation each week when rainfall wasn’t sufficient. Compared to both conventional and reflective roofs, the green roofs were much better at preventing the temperature of the inside air from spiking on warm days. Some of the roofs were able to capture a significant amount of stormwater (80 percent of a half-inch rain event and 40 percent of 1-inch and 2-inch events), but others were not significantly better in this respect than the white or blacktop roofs. What’s more, while some of the roofs had nearly no adverse effect on water quality, others were worse than the typical suburban lawn—the more fertilizer in the planting medium, the worse the water quality (and the faster the plant growth), although water quality dramatically improved after the first growing season. In short, no one system excelled at providing all the benefits often attributed to green roofs.

What To Do:
• Green roofs are substantial investments. Although they’re not space-age contraptions, building one isn’t simply a
matter of hauling potting soil and plants to your rooftop. It’s important to consult a landscape architect, engineer, or roofing contractor with experience in green roof installation. A directory of accredited green roof professionals is


on the Green Roofs for Healthy Cities website ( ersList&Itemid=&limitstart=0&search=&listid=4&name=&company=&city=Chicago&state=IL).

• Determine why you want a green roof—whether it’s aesthetic value, habitat value, or its ability to save energy or
retain stormwater. Make sure that a green roof is the most efficient way to achieve your goals. goals and ask which green roof system is most likely to achieve them.

• If you decide to pursue a green roof, make the consultant or manufacturer you are working with aware of your

In undisturbed natural areas, waterways and wetlands are typically protected by adjacent vegetation. Grassland, woodland, or wetland plant communities reduce runoff by increasing the land’s capacity to absorb stormwater. Less runoff means less pollution of all kinds entering the water, including nutrients from fertilizers, pet wastes, and other sources—excess nutrients are the primary cause of the algal blooms that rob oxygen from the water and kill fish. Plant roots stabilize the soil and protect against erosion. The vegetation also improves wildlife and fish habitat by providing food, shelter, and shade. In many areas, however, the native vegetation has been removed and these important ecological functions have been reduced or destroyed. In residential areas, turf grass often extends all the way down to the water, polluting it with stormwater runoff carrying fertilizers and pesticides routinely used in lawn care. In developed areas, vegetated buffers can fulfill the same important ecological functions as undisturbed waterside vegetation. As the name suggests, these are thickly vegetated strips of land that protect waterways and wetlands from polluted runoff and erosion. They also provide habitat for a variety of wildlife year round, including “stopover habitat” for migrating birds in spring and fall. Research shows that as the width of a vegetated buffer increases, its ecological benefits also grow. Buffers less than 50 feet wide offer minimal protection, while those 200 to 300 feet in width improve water quality and protect aquatic habitats. Vegetated buffers more than 300 feet wide can function as wildlife corridors and even harbor imperiled and sensitive species.

What To Do:
• If your property borders a waterway or wetland, create a thickly vegetated and undisturbed buffer at least 50
feet wide. These riparian and coastal zones are often regulated, so contact local and regional government agencies for information on appropriate vegetation buffers in your area.

• Do not use any pesticides or fertilizers—even organic fertilizers including compost—in a vegetated buffer area. • Undisturbed buffers provide the best protection. If you need access to the water, create an elevated walkway
made from untreated wood to protect the vegetation as much as possible.


sustaIna b l e wat e r fe at u r e s
From decorative fountains and tubs to pre-formed pools and ponds, water features have become popular garden amenities, and for good reason. The sight and sound of water is relaxing, and may promote stress reduction and healing. Wetland plants can be spectacular, whether the delicate water-lilies that float on the still surfaces of ponds, the brilliant cardinal flowers that populate marsh edges, or the carnivorous pitcher plants that grow in spongy bogs. The sound of a cascading waterfall, a trickling stream, or even a bubbling urn adds another dimension to a landscape and can drown out unwanted clatter. What’s more, water features will attract birds and other delightful wildlife to your yard. Countless tomes on how to create a water feature have been published in recent years, but they almost never tell how to construct a feature that conserves energy and potable water.

What To Do:
• Use alternatives to potable water, such as collected
rainwater or air-conditioning condensate, in your water feature; see page 37 for details. Systems are now available that combine a rainwater harvesting and storage system with a decorative water feature.
This sustainable water feature uses rainwater channeled from the gutter. When rainfall is sparse it becomes a dry creek bed.

• Use solar recirculating pumps, which conserve water and are powered by a renewable source of energy. • Consider using an ecological design approach, creating a water garden that includes plants appropriate for

local conditions and functions as a natural ecosystem. A streambed that goes dry for part of the year may be appropriate in an arid area. An in-ground pond that mimics the natural zones of vegetation found in natural ponds may be appropriate for a good-sized property in a high-rainfall area—complete with floating plants like water-lilies in deep areas; pickerel weed, arrowheads, grasses and sedges that grow partially in water in the emergent zone; and colorful wildflowers, shrubs, or trees found where the wetland grades into upland.

For More Information
The Natural Water Garden: Pools, Ponds, Marshes & Bogs for Backyards Everywhere( merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=BGGS&Product_Code=BBG-NAT-151&Category_Code=BBG-NAT), edited by C. Colston Burrell and published by Brooklyn Botanic Garden, takes an ecological design approach to water gardening, with step-by-step instructions and recommended plants for the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, the Southeast and Deep South, South Florida, the Midwest and Great Plains, the Western Mountains and Pacific Northwest, and California.


As wilderness shrinks and suburban acreage increases, what we plant in our gardens is increasingly important. Much of the remaining natural landscape has been overrun by invasive species and fragmented by roads, subdivisions, and industrial complexes, tattering the web of life that supports us. Even if we protected every remaining natural area, there would not be adequate habitat for many beleaguered plants and animals. However, home gardens can mimic the complexity of disappearing forests, prairies, and deserts and help support a surprising number of species, including pollinators and songbirds. Plantings suited to the conditions on our properties can also conserve water, increase the energy efficiency of our homes, help combat climate change, and enrich our lives with beauty. In this section of the workbook, you’ll learn how to identify any invasive plants in your landscape, and how to select plants adapted to the conditions on your property. You’ll also find information on growing native plants, landscaping for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife, protecting your garden’s “biomass,” greening your lawn, reducing the urban heat island effect, and planting to increase your home’s energy efficiency.

Invasive non-native species like Chinese wisteria cause more than $138 billion of major environmental damages a year.

Conventional And Sustainable Landscapes: How They Compare Conventional Landscape
• Can include invasive plants that threaten natural

Sustainable Landscape
• Includes no invasive species • Includes plants that are adapted to the
conditions on the site appeal

• Often requires water, fertilizer, and pesticides • Often provides minimal habitat for wildlife • Not designed to improve home energy efficiency • Usually leads to higher water, heating, and cooling

• Includes plants chosen for beauty and wildlife • Promotes home energy efficiency • Can slash water, heating, and cooling bills


I d e n tI f y a n d r emove Invas Ive spec I es o n yo u r p r o p ert y
The U.S. government defines an invasive species as one that is not native to the ecosystem under consideration and whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health. Studies have shown that at least half of the worst invasive plants—from purple loosestrife, jasmine, and glossy privet to pampas grass—were brought here for horticultural use. It’s a simple fact that two plants cannot occupy the same spot at the same time, so when an invasive non-native plant escapes from a garden and settles into a new ecosystem, it displaces a native. Invasive plants may grow faster, taller, or wider and shade out native species. Many stay green later into the season or leaf out earlier, giving them an advantage over natives. They can reproduce quickly. The worst invasive plants can even alter important natural processes like hydrology, fire, and nutrient flow—all with detrimental effects on native plants and animals. The information below will help you identify any invasive plants in your landscape, and tell you the best ways to remove them. You’ll also find tips on how to avoid planting an invasive species in the future.

What To Do:
• Make sure no invasive plants are growing in your garden.
Check the following websites, which include links to regional and state lists of invasive species as well as information on individual plants: Center for Plant Conservation ( links to state invasive species lists and other information on invasive plants USDA Natural resources Conservation Service ( includes lists of federal and state invasive and noxious weeds University of Montana-Missoula ( includes a searchable database of noxious weeds in the U.S. and Canada

• Remove any invasive plants currently in your landscape.
Techniques to rid your garden of these unwanted species range from benign “mechanical” methods to riskier chemical herbicides. Use non-chemical methods whenever possible and herbicides as a last resort. Hand-pulling is the most basic way to control unwanted plants. Pulling weeds by hand works best with small herbaceous plants and small vines. Pull up the entire plant, roots and all, taking care to disturb the surrounding soil as little as possible. Mulch the site afterward to suppress weeds. Be especially careful about disposing of invasive plant material ( to prevent them from spreading. It may also be possible to remove shrubs and small trees yourself, using pruners or loppers to remove the branches, then digging out the stump. A variety of special tools such as the Weed Wrench are designed to make removing woody plants easier. These are basically lever arms with a pincher at the bottom to grip the plant’s stem. Once the stem is caught in the grip, you lean back and, after a little rocking, the entire plant comes up, roots included. Consult an arborist for removal of large trees. See the websites above for information on dealing with large infestations of invasive plants. If you must use herbicides, your local Cooperative Extension ( office is a good resource for guidance on safe use of the least toxic herbicides.


• Avoid planting invasives in the future.
Many invasive plants are still being sold for garden use, despite their documented ability to degrade natural areas. And although no system is yet in place to effectively screen them for potential invasiveness, new plants from around the world are constantly being introduced. A foolproof system for predicting invasiveness so far has proven elusive, but a few traits should raise red flags. For example, nonnative species bearing fleshy fruits dispersed by birds are at the top of the suspect list. Declining to plant such species can help prevent plant invasion. It’s also a good idea to avoid planting any species you see escaping into vacant lots or roadsides in your area, even if you cannot find them on any official invasive species list. Look for plants that have been growing in gardens for decades without demonstrating any signs of invasiveness. Whether native or non-native, these are relatively safe to plant in your home landscape. The most prudent prevention measure is to select regionally native plants when possible. If you grow In eastern states, Chinese silvergrass has escaped from plants that are native to you region, it is highly gardens and displaces native plants in old fields and along roadsides and forest edges. unlikely that you will be unleashing a new invasive species in your area. And you will be preserving your region’s natural character, including the complex interrelationships between the native plants and the butterflies, birds, and myriad other creatures with which they have coevolved. Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants ( alternatives/#/tabs-5), a Brooklyn Botanic Garden handbook, recommends a variety of beautiful, regionally native trees, shrubs, vines, herbaceous plants, and grasses that satisfy the same garden needs as the worst non-native invasive plants commonly used in horticulture, including size, shape, colorful flowers, or showy foliage. For more tips on what you can do in your garden to prevent the spread of invasive species, see the PlantWise ( website.


gr o w p l a n t s adapted t o t he co n d ItI o n s I n y o u r ga r de n
Many new home gardeners make the mistake of choosing plants primarily on the basis of looks. In fact, almost all gardeners do this at one time or another. We’re smitten by gorgeous plants at the nursery, then we’re faced with the daunting task of creating the conditions they need, whether by modifying soil pH or structure or providing regular irrigation. If we don’t make these modifications, the plants fail to thrive and often perish. Aesthetic considerations are essential to creating a beautiful garden, but they’re not enough. For a thriving garden, the plants must be matched to the growing conditions on the site, instead of vice versa. And when you choose the right plants for your site, your landscape won’t be a never-ending maintenance headache.

Following are some of the major site conditions to keep in mind when you choose plants for your garden, whether trees, shrubs, grasses, ferns, wildflowers, or heirloom annuals or perennials.

Hardiness Zone
Most plants available for sale at nurseries or through online suppliers have been assigned a hardiness zone that correlates with a hardiness zone map. These are among the most basic tools gardeners have used for decades to determine if a particular plant can survive winter in their area. Probably the best-known hardiness zone map in the eastern two-thirds of the country was produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The most recent USDA map (, published in 1990, divides the country into 11 color-coded bands or zones. Each successive zone represents a 10 degree Fahrenheit difference in average annual minimum temperature—the higher the number, the warmer the temperatures for gardening in that zone. In 2006, using the same basic zone structure as the USDA, the National Arbor Day Foundation produced an updated map ( for the U.S. based on more recent weather data. Gardeners in the West generally use the system of 24 climate zones first published by the Sunset Publishing Corporation in 1954 in the Western Garden Book. The Sunset zone maps ( climate-zones-intro-us-map-00400000036421/) factor in not only minimum winter temperatures but also summer highs, growing season length, humidity, and rainfall patterns.The zones correlate to a series of regional maps of the West. Zone 1 represents the harshest growing conditions, zone 24 the mildest. In 1997, Sunset published its first National Garden Book. Applying the same range of climatic criteria to areas of the United States and Canada east of the Continental Divide, it added 21 new climate zones, zones 25 to 45. Most gardeners in these regions, however, continue to use the USDA map. It’s important to recognize that every garden is influenced by not only the regional climate but also microclimates. These are areas that are warmer or colder, moister or drier than other parts of your landscape. All else being equal, for example, planting beds on the south side of a house or garden wall will be considerably warmer than those on the north wide. When purchasing plants, choose those that are best suited to any microclimates on your site.

What type of soil you have determines how well it drains and therefore its overall moisture level (see page 15). If you have clay soil that drains relatively poorly, for example, you shouldn’t grow plants adapted to drier, leaner


conditions. Your soil’s pH will also help determine your plant palette. For more information on what to plant in particular soil conditions, see “Problem Soils,” page 28.

If you live in Los Angeles where rainfall averages 15 inches a year and comes mostly in the winter months, the plants adapted to your natural precipitation patterns are different from those in New York City, which receives about 45 inches of rain a year, more evenly distributed from month to month. Keep in mind that soil moisture conditions can vary in your yard, and you need to plant accordingly. A southfacing slope, for example, is likely to be drier than a low, shady spot. Plants themselves often provide clues about their water needs. For example, manzanitas and other shrubs of the coastal sage scrub, the dominant native plant community in Los Angeles, tend to have thick, leathery, evergreen leaves good at conserving water. Plants with silvery, hairy, or fuzzy leaves (such as woolly thyme), succulent leaves (such as portulaca or rose moss), or leaves with a waxy coating (such as ivy-leaved geranium) typically have low water requirements.

Sun and Shade
Plants need sunlight to photosynthesize and make their food, and only some can tolerate low light levels. Conversely, those that have evolved for shady conditions will often burn up if planted in full sun. If you look at plant labels, nursery catalogs, or gardening books you’ll see that the needs of many plants are commonly expressed in degrees of sun or shade:

Full sun: means 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight a day. Partial sun or light shade: generally refers to an area that gets bright to full sun for all but a few hours of
the day.

Partial or medium shade: an area that gets bright light or sunshine for roughly half of the day and shade for
the other half.

Full shade: means the sun is obstructed for most of the day. Dense shade: is near-total shade, which is too dark for healthy plant growth except for the most shadetolerant species. Most plants described as shade-loving fall in the middle ranges. If you have morning sun and afternoon shade, most of the plants described as “good for shade” will grow well for you. In these brighter shady conditions, plants labeled shade-tolerant produce a good flush of foliage and the best flowering display. If you have morning shade and intense afternoon sun, however, the same plants may look stressed or burned, particularly in hotter climates.

If you’re plant shopping at the local garden center, plant labels, whether stickers, plastic inserts, or paper tags, are the place to start looking for information on whether particular specimens are suited to the growing conditions in the spots you’d like to put them. Labels are a good general guide to plant needs. Among the wealth of information on a typical label are the plant’s common and Latin names, its hardiness zone, when it blooms (if it’s a flowering plant), and its light and moisture requirements. It usually tells you how tall and wide the plant will grow, and how far apart you need to plant if you’re growing more than one specimen. It may even indicate whether the plant performs best in acidic, alkaline, or neutral soil.


For More Information
Labels are the place to start, but it makes sense to look further. Ask professional horticulturists at local public gardens or nurseries to recommend plants that suit your garden’s conditions. Plant catalogs and regional gardening books are other good resources. Your county Cooperative Extension ( Extension/) office probably publishes lists of recommended plants for your area.Be aware, however, that these sources may recommend a plant that is invasive in your area, so check regional lists of invasive species before buying. State and local native plant societies are great sources of information on native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers ( that will thrive in your garden. You can also search the Native Plant Database ( on the Wildflower Center website to find information on more than 7,000 plants native to North America.


g r o w n atIv e p l ant s
Who hasn’t admired the expanses of bluebonnets and bright orange Indian paintbrushes that bloom along Texas roadsides, or the way the eastern deciduous forests explode into a fireball of foliage color in the fall? Yet across this continent of breathtaking natural beauty most of us have planted a few dozen ornamental plants from China, Europe, and other places around the world. About 20,000 plant species are native to the United States, growing in an amazing range of habitats, from the tropical rain forests of Hawaii to the deserts of Arizona. Unfortunately, these natives, the species that existed in various regions without human introduction, are disappearing at an alarming rate. Botanists are concerned about the survival of one in every five of this country’s native plants—and these plants provide critical habitat for countless other creatures. Fortunately, many native plants can play leading roles in our home landscapes.

Why Grow Native?
Native wildflowers can add beauty to your garden, just as they do in natural landscapes. The great variety of plants native to any region give gardeners options that work well in any type of garden design. But native plants also do much more.
Alpine aster is found in the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest.

• Plants native to your region are adapted to your climate and other conditions. When you select native plants

that match the conditions on your property, it’s not necessary to modify your soil to have a thriving garden. And once established they don’t require regular watering, fertilizing, and coddling with pesticides the way many commonly grown nonnative plants do. This means less work for you and less money spent on water, fertilizer, herbicides, and insecticides. they nurture important pollinators like bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. planting invasive non-native species that threaten remaining natural areas. poets and created the traditional culture of your region.

• Native plants are the foundation of the biodiversity that maintains our own life support systems. For example, • Native plants are less likely to escape the garden and become invasive. By choosing native plants, you avoid • Native plants create a distinctive sense of place, preserving the natural character that has inspired artists and

How To Start Growing Native
Growing natives can be as simple as adding a regionally native shrub or wildflower to an existing flowerbed or border, or planting native trees that will make your home more energy efficient by providing summer shade or


blocking winter winds. It can mean protecting and restoring an area of native habitat—a fragment of prairie or forest, for example—already on your property, adding appropriate native plants to restore its diversity and complexity. You can also create a native planting from scratch by re-creating the native habitat that once existed on your site. Even a tiny yard can include a patch of meadow or a woodland glade. You can even enhance your landscape’s diversity by adding habitats that did not exist on the site but are found in the area and make the most of the new conditions that have been created by human development—for example, a rain garden full of lovely local wetland plants, supported by stormwater runoff from your roof. Here are some basic native gardening tips:

• The best way to get started is to become familiar with the native plant communities in your region and the trees,
shrubs, flowers, and other species that grow there. See “What’s Your Ecoregion?” on page 58. the particular soil, light, and other conditions in the place you want to put them.

• When selecting native (like any other) plants to add to your landscape, choose species that are appropriate for • When designing a native garden, it’s a good idea to use a local plant community as a model. Again, the basics
of the site—soil type, topography, and microclimate—will determine which communities are appropriate. Often, more than one native plant community will be appropriate on any given site. Functional considerations—for example, the need to screen out an eyesore in a neighbor’s yard—will usually narrow down the choice, in this case favoring a woodland or tall shrub community over a meadow or prairie.

• A good way to begin designing a native planting is to study the key species that occur together in the chosen
plant community in the wild. First, note what the dominant species are—the major plants that form the

This Massachusetts woodland garden includes an array of beautiful trees, shrubs, herbaceous wildflowers, and ferns native to New England. An inviting path meanders through the landscape.


backbone of the plant community. In the tallgrass prairie, these are the grasses such as stately big bluestem, which can reach 6 feet in autumn. In the pinyon-juniper woodlands of the Southwest, the major plants are the species of juniper and pinyon pine, which vary somewhat from state to state. In the coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest, conifers, including redwood and Douglas fir, dominate.

• Next, note which plants form the various vertical
layers in the plant community. A woodland garden, for example, can include all the vertical layers found in a surrounding native forest, including tall canopy trees, smaller understory trees, and shrubs, as well as herbaceous wildflowers and ferns.

• Another design consideration in a native planting,
like any beautiful garden, is seasonal change. Note the annual succession of bloom in the plant community. A spring meadow of pink and purple wildflowers may change to yellows and greens in summer, then shades of purple and gold in fall. To have seasonal complexity—and provide a continuous supply of food for wildlife—a native garden needs a variety of plants that flower at different times.

Harlequin blueflag is a lovely native of northeastern states.

• Most people think a native garden must be

naturalistic, not formal in design, because nature doesn’t line things up in straight rows or plant them in geometric shapes. But native gardens function equally well for people and wildlife whether the plants are planted in formal or naturalistic arrangements. If you want a naturalistic garden, observe the way horizontal masses of plants form soft shapes, the way forest paths flow in gentle curves, or the way deserts are etched by arroyos. Also note how some plants in nature are present only as individuals, others in loose colonies or dense clumps. often a choice of plant community models suited to a particular site. And in nature, no two patches of plant community are exactly alike. There is a choice of species, particularly non-dominant ones, to feature in your native garden. They can be chosen for their habit or form, seasonal color, interesting bark, and eye-catching contrast—just as in a traditional garden.

• There’s plenty of room for artistic expression in a native garden, as in any garden. As noted above, there’s

• Because some native wildflowers, such as woodland orchids and trilliums, are difficult to propagate, they are

sometimes dug up from the wild and sold, endangering local populations. Question your suppliers carefully about the origins of the plants you want to buy. Make sure they were nursery propagated, not collected from the wild.

Maintaining a Native Garden
Native gardens, like all new landscapes, need some investment of time and energy during the first year or so. In a woodland garden, for example, young trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants may need to be watered until they become established if there isn’t enough rain. Mulching will retain moisture and discourage weeds, but after a few years your patch of prairie or forest should be producing most of its own mulch as its sheds its leaves. Periodic


weeding, mowing, or (where legal) controlled burning of prairie and meadow gardens will be necessary to control non-native weeds and discourage woody vegetation. Eventually, your native garden should be fairly self-sufficient. Natural processes can be left to take their course— leaves to remain on the ground, volunteer seedlings to spring up. In fact, part of the pleasure of a native garden is watching the web of life unfold.

For More Information
The Wildflower Center website ( includes lots of information on growing native plants and designing native gardens. Native plant societies are also excellent sources of information on native plants for gardens. You can find a list of them here. ( Wild Ones ( is a nationwide group of gardeners who promote landscaping with native plants. State chapters ( offer opportunities to get together with others interested in native plants and natural landscaping. Brooklyn Botanic Garden has published several inexpensive yet information-packed handbooks on gardening with native plants, including: Going Native: Biodiversity in Our Own Backyards ( mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=BGGS&Product_Code=BBG-NAT-140&Category_Code=BBG-NAT), edited by Janet Marinelli Wildflower Gardens ( Code=BBG-NAT-159&Category_Code=BBG-NAT), edited by C. Colston Burrell Native Perennials: North American Beauties ( Code=BGGS&Product_Code=BBG-PLA-146&Category_Code=BBG-STO), edited by Nancy Beaubaire


Major Ecoregions Of The Continental U.S.
The earth’s natural vegetation is divided into large areas of forest, shrubland, grassland, and desert called ecoregions, biomes, or vegetation associations. Find your ecoregion on the map on below, and learn more about it in the pages that follow.


Tropical & Subtropical Coniferous Forests Temperate Broadleaf & Mixed Forests Temperate Conifer Forests Mediterranean Forests, Woodlands & Scrub Deserts Temperate Grasslands, Savannas & Shrublands Boreal Forests & Taiga Tropical & Subtropical Grasslands, Savannas & Shrublands Flooded Grasslands & Savannas


The major ecoregions of the continental U.S. include:

Temperate broadleaf and mixed forests
Found from Maine to Minnesota and southward to northern Georgia and Louisiana, this biome includes the vast broadleaf deciduous forest that predominates in much of the East. The deciduous forest is actually many forest associations with different dominant species, such as sugar maple, American beech, basswood, oaks, and hickories. In some areas, like the northern reaches of the ecoregion, conifers form mixed associations with the deciduous trees.

Temperate conifer forests
Several major coniferous forests are found in the U.S. Pine-dominated forests cover extensive areas of the Southeast in a wide swath along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada, and Cascades are blanketed with dense forests of mixed conifers. Distinct associations of species are found in these areas, but they share trees such as Douglas fir and lodgepole pine. Magnificent species such as California’s redwoods and giant sequoias are found along the Pacific coast.

Temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands
The midsection of the country, from the Canadian border south into Texas, is dominated by grasslands that are commonly known as prairies. Although it is now largely farmland, the mid-continent was once a vast grassland because factors like relatively little rain and the influence of fire made the growth of woody plants difficult. Where the prairie met the forest, open, parklike areas called savannas were found. In savannas, now mostly gone, small expanses of prairie were interspersed with open groves of trees sheltering shrubs and woodland wildflowers.

Grasslands like this one in Missouri once dominated the midsection of the U.S., from the Canadian border south into Texas.


North America’s four desert associations—the Great Basin, Mojave Desert, Sonoran Desert, and Chihuahuan Desert—are situated between two enormous mountain ranges, the Sierras and the Rockies. The Great Basin is a cold-desert region encompassing most of Utah and Nevada and parts of adjacent states in which most of the sparse precipitation falls as snow. The three warmer deserts to the south receive their annual precipitation as rain, either in winter or summer.

Mediterranean forests, woodlands, and scrub
This ecoregion is composed of California’s coastal ranges as well as the western slopes of the Sierra. It’s distinguished by a Mediterranean climate with warm, dry summers and cool, moist winters. Coastal sage scrub and chaparral, both dominated by shrubs and small trees, interspersed with grasslands and oak woodlands, are the major plant associations of this relatively arid biome which receives 15 to 25 inches of rainfall a year. A few smaller biomes are also found in the continental U.S. Tropical and subtropical grasslands, savannas, and shrublands ring the Gulf coast of Louisiana and Texas, for example, while savannas and flooded grasslands, commonly known as the Everglades, can be found in South Florida. Each of these major biomes is a plant community on a grand scale, yet each also has many smaller plant communities within its borders. For instance, the easternmost portion of the grassland biome of the central U.S., with deep, rich soils and ample rainfall for luxuriant growth, supports tallgrass prairie. Farther west, where rainfall is more moderate, typically less than 20 inches per year, mixed-grass prairie grows, while shortgrass prairie is found in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains, where the annual rainfall of 15 inches or less is scarcely more than that in a desert. All of these plant communities, large and small, are determined by soil type, topography, available water, and extremes of temperature—the same factors that need to be taken into account to create a regionally appropriate garden. They are your guide to what sorts of plants will grow best in your garden. Your state native plant society is a great source of information on your region’s plant communities and plants to grow in a native garden. You can find a list of native plant societies here ( plant_society.htm).


l a n d s c a p e f o r wIldlIfe
As wilderness disappears and the human-dominated landscape grows, butterflies, songbirds, and other creatures are left without places to live. Douglas Tallamy, University of Delaware entomologist and author of Bringing Nature Home (, has pointed out that we have already turned 54 percent of the lower 48 states into cities and suburbs, and 41 percent more into various forms of agriculture. In other words, we humans have already taken 95 percent of the original native habitat. And quality wildlife habitat continues to dwindle at a rapid rate. New development eats up 2 million additional acres each year—an amount equal to the size of Yellowstone National Park. Invasive plants from our gardens run rampant in the remaining natural habitats and replace the native plants upon which wildlife depend. The overuse of chemical pesticides can poison the few food sources that do exist. Meanwhile, years of research by evolutionary biologists have shown that the area required to sustain biodiversity is pretty much the same as the area required to generate it in the first place. This means that since we have taken 95 percent of the country from wildlife, we can expect to lose 95 percent of the species that once lived here. In March

Since space is limited in most home gardens, it makes sense to plant the natives that support the most wildlife. Native oaks ranked best in one study, providing habitat for more than 517 butterflies and moths alone. The trees also provide food and shelter for many birds and mammals.


2009, the Department of the Interior released a report ( on bird populations in the U.S. showing that nearly a third of the nation’s bird species are already endangered, threatened, or in significant decline. The report called the troubling decline of bird populations during the past 40 years “a warning signal of the failing health of our ecosystems.”

What To Do
The good news is that although many plants and animals have already disappeared from local and regional landscapes, total extinction does not happen immediately. We still have time to save much of the biodiversity that still exists if we start sharing our home landscapes with the plants and animals with which we humans have co-evolved.

• To make your garden a home for wildlife, you need to provide a few essentials: Food
This means growing native plants—lots of them. For the vast majority of native wildlife, most of the non-native plants we’ve favored in our landscapes for more than a century do not provide sufficient food, including the insects on which 96 percent of all terrestrial birds depend. But when you plant native trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, you provide wildlife with the nectar, pollen, fruits, leaves, seeds, and nuts—and associated insects—that have nourished them for millennia. Space is limited in the typical home garden, so it makes sense to plant the natives that are the champions at providing food and shelter for birds and other wildlife. According to a study by Tallamy, native oaks support 517 species of butterflies and moths alone. They were the woody plants ranked best at supporting these insects that are a crucial part of the diet of many animals, followed by native willows (456 species), cherries and plums (448 species), birches (413 species), poplars and cottonwoods (368 species), crabapples (311 species), blueberries and cranberries (288 species), maples and box elder (285 species), elms (213 species), pines (203 species), and

New studies show that native plants provide substantially more food for wildlife than conventional landscape plants do— one of the most important reasons to grow as many natives as possible in your garden. Above, a Monarch sips nectar from a purple coneflower.


hickories (200 species). You can find Tallamy’s lists of the best woody and herbaceous plants for wildlife here (

Like all living things, wildlife needs water for drinking as well as bathing and cooling off. And like people, many birds and other animals seem to simply like being around water. Water can be a scarce commodity in arid areas and in cities. Nature provides water to wildlife in a multitude of ways that you can replicate in your home landscape. In moderate or high-rainfall areas, an in-ground pool or pond may be appropriate, and many recent books provide instructions on how to create them. Even a water garden in a half-barrel planter or other large container will attract good-size birds and a variety of fascinating insects. Although birds may drink from such sizable water features, they are too deep for bathing. For this purpose birds prefer either a natural puddle or its manmade equivalent—a birdbath. Misters will attract hummingbirds, and damp open spots will provide many butterflies with a place to drink and ingest minute amounts of nutrients from the soil.

Places to hide, rest, and nest
Native trees, shrubs, thickets, and grasses, brush piles, and manmade wildlife houses serve these important purposes. All trees and shrubs provide cover, but none are better than evergreens, especially conifers, when birds need to beat a quick retreat. And the seeds in their cones are an important source of food for some species. As with other plants for wildlife, regionally native pines and other conifers are best, since they are more likely to host the native insects upon which birds depend. At least 48 species of birds are known to use the eastern white pine alone for feeding, cover, and nesting.

• To provide the most habitat niches for the widest array of wildlife, it helps to recreate the various vertical layers • Don’t use pesticides. Even Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which is promoted as a safe and natural insecticide, kills
butterfly and moth caterpillars. Some pesticides can harm birds and other wildlife directly, and others can contaminate the insects and flower nectar that they eat.

of vegetation found in nearby natural areas. See Protect and Restore Your Landscape’s Vegetation for details.

For More Information
The National Wildlife Federation website ( Create-a-Habitat.aspx?CFID=18609613&CFTOKEN=d86a6085893c9dc0-A0883BCC-5056-A84BC3B9697BB7961A26) includes information on how to provide essential elements for a healthy and sustainable wildlife habitat. There are also instructions on how to join the thousands of wildlife enthusiasts who have had their backyard habitats certified by the organization. The Wildflower Center website ( includes lots of information on landscaping for wildlife, including links to other sources. The Wildlife Gardener’s Guide ( Code=BGGS&Product_Code=BBG-NAT-372&Category_Code=BBG-DES), by Janet Marinelli, published by Brooklyn Botanic Garden, recommends 10 specific projects and provides countless tips that will make your garden a refuge for wild creatures. It also contains lists of native plants for regions across the U.S. with proven appeal for birds, butterflies, bees, bats, hummingbirds, moths, and other wildlife.


p r o t e c t a n d re store your l a n d s c a p e’ s v e ge tat Io n
The sum total of your garden’s vegetation, from the smallest fern to the tallest tree, is technically known as its biomass. Producing and maintaining biomass is one of most important functions of a natural ecosystem or a home landscape. It begins with photosynthesis, as plants use the sun’s energy to transform water and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the food that they and all animals, including us, need to survive. When land is developed, its natural vegetation is typically removed. Even when the native plant communities are replaced with residential gardens, the site’s original biomass is often drastically reduced. When we decrease a landscape’s biomass, we diminish its ability to provide natural benefits, from absorbing stormwater to cooling our towns and cities. Home gardeners can begin to restore the landscape’s biomass. One way to do this is to minimize the paving and maximize the vegetation in your garden. Another is to design your plantings so that they include the various vertical layers that were present in the site’s original natural landscape.


Like a native forest, a woodland garden, left, can have four aboveground layers of vegetation: a canopy of the tallest trees, an understory of smaller flowering trees, shrubs, and a ground layer of herbaceous plants including ferns and wildflowers. Like their wild counterparts, prairie gardens, right, can also include several vertical layers, including grasses and wildflowers of different heights. All plant communities also have underground layers. In a prairie, the underground layers range from fibrous-rooted grasses to wildflowers with deep taproots.


Vertical Layers of Growth
All native plant communities consist of various vertical layers. These vertical layers are most obvious in forested regions. The tallest layer of a forest is called the canopy and is composed of mature trees. The highest canopy trees may be 100 feet or more, while the lowest grow to about 30 feet. The next layer down is called the understory. It is composed of saplings of canopy tree species as well as smaller flowering trees such as dogwoods and redbud. The understory layer extends from about 12 to 30 feet above the ground. The shrub layer is the lowest layer of woody vegetation. It occupies the area between 3 and 12 feet. The lowest aboveground layer of a forest, below 3 feet, is called the ground layer. Here, wildflowers, ferns, grasses, and sedges grow in often spectacular combinations. Plants in the ground layer also partition their environment vertically. Spring ephemeral wildflowers bloom first, typically raising their foliage only a few inches above the leaf litter. As they go dormant, taller ferns and wildflowers overtop them. Deciduous forests have the most elaborate vertical structure, as described above. Coniferous forests, with their dense stands of evergreen trees, typically have very little understory, but can have a dense shrub layer and ground layer of wildflowers and mosses. Pine forests have the most open canopies of the coniferous forests, with scattered understory trees and a well-defined shrub layer. Ground-layer plants are scattered in the sunny openings. Native plant communities dominated by shrubs, such California’s chaparral and sage scrub, have mixed layers of different-sized shrubs, with a ground layer of herbs, grasses, and sedges. Prairies and other communities dominated by herbaceous plants also have distinct vertical layers. The earliest plants to emerge in spring are low to the ground. Each successive emerging plant overtops the next, culminating with the tallest grasses and late-blooming asters and other composites that end the growing season. The layers also extend below the ground, from fibrous-rooted grasses to wildflowers with deep taproots. In general, the more vertical layers there are, the more diverse the plant life, and therefore the more habitat created for a wider array of animal life.

What To Do
• To restore biomass, consider ways to replace paved areas with plantings. This yields other benefits as well. The • Re-create the layers of plant growth found in local native plant communities. Restoring the missing vertical
extra planting beds help reduce stormwater runoff, for example. For ideas on how to reduce paved areas, see page 46. layers does more than boost your landscape’s biomass. It can also serve various aesthetic purposes. In forested regions, for example, home landscapes usually consist mostly of lawn, dotted with a few shade trees. As they do in forests, the tall trees lend a grand vertical scale to the garden, creating a cathedral-like enclosure. Adding understory trees provides a more intimate, human-scale “ceiling.” Shrubs can become “walls” that divide spaces horizontally or fill in a woodland border to create privacy. Beautiful tapestries of wildflowers and ferns create a much more diverse and interesting ground layer than large expanses of lawn.


g r e e n y o u r l aw n
According to the Lawn Institute, there are an estimated 46.5 million acres of turfgrass in the United States—an area greater than the states of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Rhode Island combined. The vast majority of home lawns consist of thirsty turfgrasses that originated in parts of Eurasia that get a lot more rainfall than much of the U.S. Nationally, homeowners spend $6.4 billion a year to coddle these out-of-place plants. In their book Redesigning the American Lawn, F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, and Gordon T. Geballe note that we spend as much as $5.25 billion on fertilizers derived from fossil fuels, and an additional $700 million on the poisons used to kill turfgrass pests. Lawn accounts for a big chunk of the typical water bill, too. It’s estimated that the typical suburban lawn guzzles 10,000 gallons of water each year above and beyond that supplied naturally by rainfall. Ten percent of the country’s air pollution is generated by lawn and garden equipment, says the Environmental Protection Agency, and gasoline spills from refueling lawn mowers, edgers, and the like add up to some 17 million gallons a year—far more than the 10.8 million gallons of crude oil spilled into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 by the Exxon Valdez.

What To Do
• Because the typical approach to the American lawn requires more water and fertilizer than other parts of the
garden and mowing consumes energy and results in pollution, it’s best to cut it down to size or drastically change the way you approach your turf. Replace all or part of your traditional high-input lawn with more sustainable alternatives.

• If you need a lawn in your landscape, grow turfgrass that is appropriate for your area. In the past couple of

decades, low- and no-mow grasses, many of them native to North America, have been developed for various climate regions. Unlike conventional lawns, they don’t require constant watering, feeding, mowing, and weeding (or worse, herbicides), so in addition to being better for the environment, they’re less work for you. The following are among the most popular and readily available.

One example of a native grass now grown as lawn—a great success story—is buffalograss. Native to the Great Plains, from Minnesota to Montana and south into Mexico, it grows wherever conditions aren’t too moist, too sandy, or too shady. It can handle -30 degrees Fahrenheit and high heat. It has a fine, soft texture and is slow growing, typically reaching a height of about 6 inches. It needs mowing only rarely if at all. Unlike most nonnative turfgrasses, buffalograss needs minimal water once established and no fertilizer. Buffalograss cultivars have now been developed that can be grown in suitable conditions in the eastern two-thirds of the U.S., as well as California. In the Golden State, for example, irrigation and horticultural professionals have launched the Grass Roots Program, an effort to wean residents from water-hogging Bermuda grass and fescues, which currently comprise 99 percent of California’s lawns. These traditional turfgrasses soak up 40 to 50 percent of the state’s potable water, and 7 percent of its energy is consumed to transport this water to consumers. As an alternative, the Grass Roots Program is promoting UC Verde, a buffalograss cultivar developed in California for the state’s climates that rates twice as high as other turfgrasses for drought tolerance and reduced water use, pest and disease resistance, and density. In fact, UC Verde requires 80 percent less water than tall fescue and 40 percent less water than Bermuda grass—no small consideration in an arid state that in recent years has suffered repeated droughts. What’s more, it grows slowly, to 4 to 6 inches tall, and no set cutting schedule is necessary. Even for neatnicks wedded to the manicured look, mowing once a month is sufficient. More information on California’s Grass Roots Program is here. (


Blue grama
In very dry areas of the country, buffalograss is sometimes mixed with the even more drought-tolerant blue grama to insure solid green color throughout the dry season. Native throughout the Southwest and Great Plains regions, blue grama is a fine-textured grass that typically grows 8 to 12 inches tall.

Fine fescues
In roughly the northern third of the country and in southern Canada, mixes of low-growing fine fescues are a good alternative to conventional turfgrasses. They require mowing only once or twice a year—if that—need little if any irrigation once established, and thrive in full sun to partial shade. Contact your county Cooperative Extension office ( for more information on which alternative turfgrass varieties are best suited for your area.

• Fertilize sparingly and less frequently. Too much

fertilizer can run off into nearby waters, leach into groundwater, or lead to weed problems. With less fertilizer, your lawn will grow more slowly and require less mowing, further reducing your lawn’s environmental footprint. the energy consumed to transport the clippings to the local landfill, but also reduces the need for nitrogen fertilizers.

Conventional lawns take a huge toll on the environment. A more sustainable approach is to downsize your lawn and grow one of the new low- or no-mow turfgrasses native to North America.

• When mowing is required, use a mulching mower, and leave the clippings on the lawn. This not only minimizes

Ground covers
Most people appreciate the fact that lawn provides some open space around their homes. But scores of beautiful ground covers can play this role with a far smaller environmental footprint. Some ground covers are invasive, including vinca and English ivy, which multiply rapidly in forests of the East and Northwest. Make sure any ground covers you use are not invasive in your area. To reduce the amount of lawn in your landscape, consider planting native plant gardens to provide food and other benefits for pollinators and other wildlife. There are lovely native ground covers for every region. A favorite combination of many eastern woodland gardeners, for example, is creeping phlox and foam flower. In spring, the dense, eight-inch-tall spikes of pale to deep purple flowers of the phlox mingle with the foam flower’s small, creamy-white flowers on upright stems. Check the Wildflower Center website ( php?id=23&frontpage=true) for ground covers native to your region. Or check with your state’s native plant society (

Decks and patios
Lawns are often considered essential outdoor living space, but decks and patios fill the same function and require a lot less maintenance. Be sure to build them with the most sustainable materials available.


For More Information
The Wildflower Center website includes a number of articles on growing native lawns. See, for example: Native Lawns ( Native Lawns: Buffalograss ( Easy Lawns: Low Maintenance Native Grasses for Gardeners Everywhere ( mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=BGGS&Product_Code=BBG-TEC-0160&Category_Code=BBG-TEC), a Brooklyn Botanic Garden handbook edited by Stevie Daniels that includes information on scores of native grasses suitable for growing as lawn across North America.


l a n d s c a p e to Inc re ase you r ho m e ’s e n e r g y ef f Ic Ien c y
Collectively, houses use 22 percent of the energy consumed in the United States today. About half of this is for heating and cooling. A properly designed landscape can make your home significantly more energy efficient and in the process reduce air pollution, including greenhouse gases. It can also slash your heating and cooling bills by as much as 40 percent. An energy-conserving landscape utilizes trees, shrubs, groundcovers, and vines to provide cooling summer shade as well as insulation against heat loss in winter. It can perform aesthetic functions at the same time. A windbreak, for example, can define the space in your yard or patio and provide privacy while blocking blustery winds. And by using plants as living air conditioners or insulating blankets, you can soften your house’s architectural edges with foliage and flowers while improving its performance.

Which Climate region Do You Live In?
Where you live helps determine the best energyconserving landscape strategies. Various climate classification systems have been developed, but for the purposes of energy-conserving landscaping, a simple scheme that divides the U.S. into four climate regions— cool, temperate, hot and arid, and hot and humid—is sufficient. The cool zone includes the northern Plains and Trees can reduce summer temperatures significantly Midwestern states and the northern tip of New England. when located on the south and west sides of your home. The temperate zone is a wide swath extending from the Deciduous trees provide summer shade and drop their Pacific Northwest across the continent to southern New leaves in fall, allowing the winter sun to warm the house. England and the mid-Atlantic states. The hot and arid zone more or less conforms to what is popularly known as the Desert Southwest, including southern California, and the hot and humid zone runs from south-central Texas east to Virginia and Florida. The U.S. Department of Energy recommends the following landscaping strategies for each region, listed in order of importance:

Cool • Use windbreaks to protect your house from cold winter winds. • Do not block the sun from reaching south-facing windows.


• Shade south and west windows and walls from the direct summer sun if summer overheating is a problem.

Deciduous plants provide summer shade while still allowing low-angle winter sunlight to warm your home during the coldest months.

Temperate • Make the most of the warming effects of winter sunshine. • Make the most of cooling shade in summer. • Deflect winter winds away from the house. • Funnel summer breezes toward your home. Hot and arid • Provide shade to cool roofs, walls, and windows. • Landscape around your home so that it is cooled by evapotranspiration, the release of water vapor from the soil
and plant surfaces into the atmosphere.

• Funnel summer breezes toward your home if it is cooled naturally. • Deflect them away from your home if it is air-conditioned. Hot and humid • Direct summer breezes toward your home. • Make the most of summer shade with trees that still allow low-angle winter sunlight to warm your home. • Avoid locating planting beds close to your house if they require frequent watering.

How To Plan An Energy-Conserving Landscape
To create the most energy-efficient landscape possible, start by drawing a simple plan. The more you familiarize yourself with your property’s existing features, whether windows or pavement to be shaded or winds to be deflected, the better you’ll be able to identify the most effective strategies. Using paper and different-colored pencils, draw your house and property to scale, allowing ¼ inch for each foot. Consulting a plat map or site survey can be helpful. Locate walks, driveways, and other paved surfaces, as well as the garage and/or other outbuildings. Mark all glassed areas, such as windows and doors—sunlight streaming through east- and west-facing windows can overheat a house in summer, while south-facing glass can help keep it warm in winter. Also note the presence of any solar collectors or photovoltaic arrays, which should never be shaded. Measure the height of your house, a crucial consideration both for blocking winds and shading walls and the roof. Identify north, south, east, and west. Draw arrows to show the angle of the sun in both winter and summer in your area. Note, for example, how the sun strikes your house between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. in winter since a south-facing window or collector receives most solar energy between these hours. Staff at your local library can help you determine solar angles, and there are also solar position calculators online. To plan for appropriate shade, determine how the sun strikes the house in summer. Don’t forget the late afternoon when the sun is lower in the sky and shines directly through windows at a time when the house has already become hot over the course of the day. Also note the direction of prevailing winds. In the East, the coldest winds generally come from the north and west, while in the West they come from the north and east, but check online or with the staff at your local library if you’re not sure. If a windbreak is an appropriate solution, it will need to block the path of these prevailing winter winds. Next, circle the areas of your home that require shade or can benefit from breezes, and those that need protection from the wind.


Winter Winds Summer Sun Winter Sun


Summer Breezes House North East West South Trees Trees

A simple landscape plan will help you devise the most effective strategies for an energy-conserving landscape. Note which areas of your home are affected by the sun and wind (upper left) to determine the best placement of plantings (lower right). The plan above is for a home in the eastern states, where cold winter winds generally come from the north and west.

For More Information
Many states offer online information on landscaping strategies that save energy and money. Often this information is available through the state Cooperative Extension service. To find your nearest Cooperative Extension office, look here. ( Following are a few good examples of the information that is available: “Landscaping for Energy Conservation” ( AgriLife Extension, Texas A&M System “Planting to Conserve Energy” ( Colorado State University Cooperative Extension


“Essential Elements for Windbreak Design” ( University of Illinois Extension

In regions where summer overheating is a problem, the easiest way to reduce home energy consumption is with plantings that cast cooling shade. A well-planned landscape can reduce an unshaded home’s summer airconditioning costs by 15 to 50 percent.

What To Do
• Shade your air conditioners.
An easy way to get quick results is to shade your air conditioner. According to the Department of Energy, this can increase the unit’s efficiency by as much as 10 percent. Just be sure that shrubs or vines planted near the compressor do not obstruct the air flow or impede access for repairs. See below for ideas on what to plant.

• Shade your walls, windows, and roof.
Solar heat passing through windows and absorbed through the roof is the major reason for air-conditioner use. Shading can reduce this solar heat gain and cut air-conditioning costs. If you live in a cool region, remember that your home may never overheat and may not require shading.

• Following are some plants to consider.
A variety of beautiful vines, shrubs, and trees with appropriate sizes, densities, and shapes are available for almost any shading application. To block solar heat in the summer but let much of it in during the winter, use deciduous trees. To provide year-round shade in hot climates, use evergreen trees, shrubs, and vines.

Trees take a while to grow, but you can moderate hot sunshine quickly using vines that clamber up strategically placed trellises. A wooden lattice put up to support the vines will itself lend a measure of shade from the start. Permanent structures such as trellises are most appropriate in hot climates where blocking solar heat gain in winter is not counterproductive. Where wetness and humidity are a problem, keep the trellis at least a foot away from the house to allow for air circulation; in these areas air should be allowed to flow around the home, keeping the structure and surrounding soil dry to prevent mildew and rot. Be sure the trellis isn’t under your eaves since hot air that builds up between the trellis and the siding should be able to vent out. Arbors or pergolas can help shade windows, too, and are a better choice in temperate regions if the lower winter sun can still penetrate the windows to warm your house. Annual vines grow quickly and can cover a large area by mid- to late summer. You can make your shading device twice as functional by growing vines that not only provide shade, but also fruits or vegetables. Edible vines such as scarlet runner beans, winter squashes, and luffa squashes are both vigorous and fast growing. Ornamental vines are also good candidates, especially if they offer food and shelter for wildlife. Cypress vine and scarlet creeper provide nectar for hummingbirds, for example, while moonflower attracts moths. At the same time, you can plant perennial vines, which may take two or more years to cover an arbor or trellis as tall as your home’s walls. But unless they don’t block the sun in winter or can be cut back drastically at the end of the season, avoid planting these in cooler climates where solar heat gain is desirable during the cold months. Edible perennial vines for warm-winter areas include chayote, kiwi, and passion fruit. Native perennial vines with wildlife appeal include coral honeysuckle, trumpet creeper, California honeysuckle, and orange honeysuckle, which are all beloved by hummingbirds, wild grapes, which are eaten by many birds, and pipevines, which have interesting pipe-


shaped flowers. Species such as Dutchman’s pipe and California pipevine are host plants for the caterpillars of pipevine swallowtail butterflies. Be sure to select non-invasive species that are appropriate for your region.

Trees and Shrubs
Large trees and shrubs take longer to fill in but provide the best cooling shade. The air temperature can be as much as 25 degrees Fahrenheit (F) cooler under trees than around nearby blacktop. As is true for vines, in cool and temperate climates placing trees for summer shade and winter sunshine is more complicated than it would first appear. What you want is a cooling device for summer that won’t block out warming winter sunlight. Trees can reduce summer temperatures significantly, especially when they’re located on the south and west sides of the house. Large specimens that shade the roof from the afternoon sun can reduce indoor temperatures by as much as 8 to 10 degrees F. Make sure you choose trees tall enough when mature to shade your roof; if they don’t overhang the roof they won’t cast much shade at midday when the sun is high in the sky. Set the trees close enough to the house to cast shade but far enough away, about 15 feet, that their roots won’t damage your foundation. Also consider how wide the trees will become when mature, and space them accordingly.

On small city or suburban lots, the optimum location for a shade tree may be in your neighbor’s yard. Work with your neighbors to plan and plant an energy-conserving neighborhood landscape that improves conditions and lowers costs for everyone. If that’s not possible, use shrubs and vines to shade your walls, windows, and air conditioner. Deciduous trees provide shade in summer, then drop their leaves in autumn, allowing the warmth of the sun to filter through their bare branches and help heat the home when the weather is cold. Maples and other tall species with broad leaves and a high, spreading crown are ideal for this purpose. As few as two or three properly spaced trees with wide crowns may suffice, depending on the size of your house. Prune lower branches for maximum heating of your walls and roof by the low winter sun. A 6- to 8-foot deciduous tree planted near your home will begin shading windows the first year. Depending on the species and the height of your home, it will shade the roof in five to ten years. Smaller trees and shrubs can play a role in an energy-conserving landscape as well. Species with branches lower to the ground can be planted closer to the house than tall shade trees and used for shading east- and west-facing walls and windows from the lower morning and afternoon sun. For the greatest ecological benefit, select species native to your region to offer food and shelter for pollinators and other wildlife. Shrubs planted close to the house will fill in rapidly and shade walls and windows relatively quickly. In wet and humid areas, avoid planting them right up against the house so air can circulate freely.

One way to create shade is to grow a vine growing up a trellis. The vine will do double duty if you grow an edible variety or a species that provides food for wildlife, like the native coral honeysuckle above, a hummingbird magnet.


Winds make winter cold significantly worse. Although it’s more difficult to use plantings to reduce the brunt of the wind than to shade the sunlight, it is possible to keep a house warmer in winter by blocking the chilling effects of the wind. The most effective way is to plant a windbreak, a band of evergreen trees and shrubs located perpendicular to the prevailing winds. If your property is small, you can use evergreen shrubs to create a dead air space that can help insulate your home (see below).

The most effective way to protect a home from winter cold is to plant a windbreak perpendicular to the prevailing winds (top). Two or three rows of evergreens are ideal. Some air will be able to pass through the windbreak, but most will be lofted up and over the house. On small properties, a dense evergreen hedge planted perpendicular to the wind several feet from the house creates a dead air space that can help reduce the chilling power of the wind (bottom).


According to the U.S. Department of Energy, if you live in a windy area, strategically placed trees and shrubs can slash your winter heating bills by a third. Windbreaks have other benefits as well. They can help block undesirable views and provide a living screen for privacy. Well-designed windbreaks are also aesthetically pleasing in themselves, and they’re great wildlife habitat. In fact, studies have demonstrated that the windbreaks in the Plains states, which were promoted in the mid-1930s to reduce soil erosion, are important stopover habitats for migrating birds.

How To Create An Effective Windbreak
To be most effective, a windbreak must meet certain requirements. The extent of protection is related to a windbreak’s height and length. A windbreak will reduce wind speed for a distance of as much as 30 times its height. But for the greatest protection, plant your windbreak at a distance from your house of about two to five times the height of the trees when they’re mature. That means that if the trees you’re planting will grow to 40 feet tall, you should plant them at least 80 feet upwind from your house. A good windbreak provides protection in more than one direction. A study in South Dakota found that windbreaks located to the west, north, and east of homes cut their fuel consumption by an average of 40 percent. Houses with windbreaks planted only on the windward side, the side of the prevailing winds, averaged 25 percent less fuel consumption than similar but unprotected homes. The best windbreaks block the wind close to the ground as well as up high, so be sure to include species that have low crowns, such as spruces and firs. Evergreens can also be combined with a wall, fence, or earth berm to lift the winds up and over your house. Some air should be able to pass through the windbreak. Impenetrable barriers create a strong vacuum on the protected or leeward side, causing some of the wind to whip up over the top and down, slamming into your house instead of lofting over it. Windbreaks composed of living plants naturally allow some of the wind to penetrate, which makes them more effective. If you’re using a fence, use an open-weave pattern or remove every other slat.

A newly planted windbreak in Iowa includes two rows of evergreens with branches low to the ground and a row of multistemmed shrubs on the windward side to prevent snow from drifting near the house.


The depth of the windbreak, not just its height and length, is important. Three rows are ideal, but a two-row windbreak is still effective, and one row of evergreens is better than nothing if space is limited. How far apart the trees and shrubs should be planted depends upon the size and shape of the species when they reach maturity, but there should be no gaps between the plants when they are fully grown. If your budget allows, for quick cover you can plant them at half the optimum spacing and remove every other one as they fill in. You can use them as Christmas trees, then for mulch when the holidays are over. If snow tends to drift in your area, plant low, multi-stemmed shrubs such as red-twig dogwoods on the windward side (outside) of your windbreak. Called a “snowtripper,” this row of shrubs will reduce the amount of snow deposited near your house. As with any type of landscaping, select a diversity of plants for your windbreak. Plant at least two to three different species and preferably more. That way, if a pest or disease attacks, at least some of the trees will survive. One of the rows should include a dense evergreen species such as spruce. Pines can be included in multi-row windbreaks, but they’re not as dense as spruces and tend to thin out even more as they mature. On small properties, evergreen shrubs such as red cedar, arborvitae, or other species appropriate for your region are good choices. The leeward or inside rows can include smaller shrubs and flowering trees to add interest and increase the planting’s value for wildlife. Native hollies, dogwoods, elderberries, witchhazels, and viburnums are all useful for this purpose.

How To Create A Dead Air Space On A Small Property
Not every property is big enough to accommodate a full-size windbreak. If you live on a small city or suburban lot, you can use less substantial evergreen plantings closer to your house to help provide insulation. On large properties these can be used with windbreaks for additional protection. Dense evergreens that will grow into a thick hedge are most appropriate. Plant them close enough together to form a solid living wall and several feet away from your house to create a dead air space, which has much less cooling power than blustery wind. An evergreen planting can also help shelter a front or back door exposed to the wind.

The Best Evergreens For Windbreaks
Be certain to choose species that are suitable for your region and the specific conditions on your property. A couple of good candidates for the mid–Atlantic, for example, are American holly and eastern red cedar.


r e d uc e th e u r b a n h e at Isla nd e ffe ct
If you watch local weather reports, you’ve probably noticed that temperatures are often higher in cities than nearby rural areas. The difference in temperatures is due to a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect. The annual mean temperature of a city with one million people or more can be 1.8 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (F) higher than its surroundings, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In the evening, the difference can be as high as 22 degrees F. These higher temperatures have a number of effects, mostly negative, on a community’s environment and quality of life. They significantly increase the demand for electricity for air conditioning in summer. The resulting upsurge in energy consumption at power plants in turn leads to increases in air pollution, including greenhouse gases. Elevated temperatures directly increase the formation of ground-level ozone in cities. Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems, from throat irritation and lung inflammation to asthma attacks. The heat island effect can exacerbate heat waves, with serious potential health risks—Centers for Disease Control figures show that from 1979 to 2003 excessive heat caused more deaths than hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined. And higher temperatures lead to warmer stormwater runoff, which can harm aquatic life.

What Causes The Urban Heat Island Effect
When cities are built, vegetation is removed and typically replaced by buildings with dark roofs and blacktopped streets. The buildings and pavement absorb a significant amount of solar radiation and emit it as heat. Because more than half of the surfaces in cities are man-made, they heat up more than less developed rural areas. These surfaces also hold on to heat and emit it over a period of hours, which is why the temperature difference between cities and rural areas is highest in the evening. Vegetation loss helps drive the urban heat island effect in another way as well. Vegetation keeps areas
The maps of New York City at right illustrate graphically how areas with the least vegetation (bottom) are also the hottest (top).


cool through the process called evapotranspiration or evaporative cooling. As part of their normal functioning, plants release water vapor. When the surrounding air absorbs the water, it loses heat and becomes cooler. Because there are fewer plants in cities, there is less evaporative cooling than in rural areas.

What You Can Do
• Probably the most cost-effective thing you can do to reduce the urban heat island effect in your community is to
plant trees and shrubs to shade your roof, patio, driveway, and walkways. Planting street trees will also provide much-needed shade. Through evaporative cooling, the plants reduce peak summer temperatures even more.

• When pavement is necessary, light-colored reflective surfaces are better than blacktop or asphalt. • Green roofs provide shade and remove heat from the air through evapotranspiration, reducing temperatures of the
roof surface and the surrounding air. On hot summer days, the surface temperature of a living roof can be cooler than the air temperature, while the surface of a conventional rooftop can be up to 90 degrees F hotter. Green roofs are substantial investments, but are worth considering if you are looking for a new roofing system. Find out more about them on page 47.

For More Information
An entire section of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website ( is devoted to the heat island effect, its causes and impacts, and ways to reduce it.


m at erIals
Landscape materials can cause environmental damage well before they are installed in a garden. Harvesting and transport consume energy and generate pollution And the problems continue even when the materials are dismantled if they are discarded in a landfill instead of reused or recycled. Even a seemingly benign material like wood raises questions: Does it come from a species threatened by the timber trade? Where was it harvested, and how much energy was required to transport it to your area? A sustainable gardener strives to be “zero-waste” by reducing, reusing, and recycling as much material as possible—including landscape trimmings and food scraps (see pages 21-26). The best course of action is to reduce the amount of material required by downsizing a landscape project if possible. Reusing material already on your property or salvaged from a nearby site is another good choice. If you are buying new materials, opt for natural, untreated, least toxic, and recyclable products made locally. In addition, to promote recycling you should look for products with recycled content—the higher the percentage, the better. Fortunately, a growing number of “certified green” products are becoming available, simplifying things for consumers.

Cement production creates emissions of carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas, equal to those from 20 million cars, according to the U.S. EPA.

Conventional And Sustainable Landscapes: How They Compare Conventional Landscape
• Often contains materials that pollute air, soil, and

Sustainable Landscape
• Made of healthy materials • Encourages reuse and recycling • Includes sustainably harvested wood • Made with local materials, conserving energy • Supports local businesses and the regional

• Used materials typically end up at landfills • Wood choices may imperil tree species • Made with materials shipped from far away,
consuming energy and generating pollution economy

and minimizing pollution, including greenhouse gases

• Does not support local businesses and the regional


re d u c e t h e a m ount of mater I al n e ce s s a ry
The first thing to do when selecting landscape products is to examine ways to reduce materials consumption. We often undertake projects we don’t really need, assume that bigger is always better, and end up eliminating handsome and functional garden features in our zeal to redo and start over with something new. To conserve resources—including hard-earned cash—it helps to question these assumptions. In many cases, intimate can be more pleasant than palatial, and smaller is less expensive and new projects can add to maintenance.

What To Do
• Start by asking yourself whether a particular garden project you’re contemplating is essential. Do you truly need
a trellis like the one you saw in that home and garden magazine? Is it really necessary to replace your perfectly functional deck with an elaborate, three-level construction? on can be downsized. If you need a patio for socializing or dining alfresco with a small group of friends, for example, a space big enough for a baronial dining table isn’t necessary. An area 12 feet in diameter can accommodate a 48-inch round table, which seats six to eight people. incorporated into your design, or moved and enjoyed in another area of your yard.

• If you decide you do indeed need a new landscape feature, ask yourself if the one you have your heart set

• Consider whether existing structures, retaining walls, paving, furniture, and other landscape amenities can be


re u s e ex Is t In g and salvaged mat e rIa l s
Reusing materials already on your property, or those salvaged from a nearby location is more environmentally friendly than purchasing products made of virgin resources. It’s usually less expensive, too. Salvaged materials often have a handsome aged patina that new products lack. And they can have a history that adds to their character. Think about the stories that may be associated with flagstone salvaged from a local church—how many times they were trod by brides and grooms, for example—as opposed to material purchased from a superstore that typically is not very unique.

What To Do
• Look around your own property and ask your
neighbors for material that can be repurposed. Do you have a stockpile of pavers behind your garage that you can use to create a patio or path, for example? Can wood from your existing deck be incorporated in a new design? that offer less expensive—or free—used and salvaged materials and garden amenities. Following, in alphabetical order, are a few of the possibilities:

• Check the growing number of stores and websites

Craigslist ( Freecycle ( Habitat for Humanity’s restore ( env/restores.aspx) The recyclers Exchange ( The reuse Development Organization (
It’s a good idea to look around your property for material that can be repurposed. There may be a stockpile of pavers in or behind the garage, often with an aged patina and a story, that can be used to create a patio or path.


av oI d w o o d f r om threatened t r e e s p ec I es
Wood would seem to be the perfect material for a sustainable landscape. It’s handsome. It’s constantly renewed by nature. It links a home with the surrounding landscape, especially in forested areas, enhancing the occupants’ connection to the natural world. If responsible forestry practices have been employed in producing the timber and the particular tree species used are in plentiful supply, wood is environmentally preferable to many other materials. But sometimes it is not. A number of tree species are threatened with extinction due to over-harvesting by the timber industry. Most of these are tropical hardwoods prized for their coloring and beautiful grain or rot resistance. Globally, there are two major initiatives that aim to compile a comprehensive worldwide list of imperiled species, control international trade in endangered species, and promote the sustainable use of timber. You can use these as a resource to make sure the wood you are considering for purchase does not come from an imperiled species.

What To Do
• The Red List produced by the IUCN, The World Conservation Union, is the most comprehensive global inventory
of the conservation status of plants and animals. It assigns each species a threat category, including CR (Critically Endangered), EN (Endangered), VU (Vulnerable), and NT (Near Threatened). For example, white lauan, also known as white seraya, one of the most important commercial timber trees of northern Borneo, is listed as Critically Endangered.

Some tree species, many of them tropical hardwoods, are threatened with extinction due to overharvesting by the timber trade. Before purchasing wood for a deck or other project, make sure it does not come from an imperiled species.


Type in the common or botanical name of a tree in the search box on the red List home page (www.iucnredlist. org) to see if it is a species of concern.

• The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, better known as CITES,

is an agreement between 175 countries that came into effect in 1975. Its goal is to ensure that global trade in wild plants and animals does not threaten their survival. CITES allows trade in species that can withstand current rates of exploitation but restricts trade in those threatened with extinction.

More than 28,000 trees and other plant species are listed by CITES in one of three Appendices, according to the degree of protection they need. Species in Appendix I, including Brazilian rosewood, are threatened with extinction, and CITES prohibits international trade of these species except when the purpose is not commercial. Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction right now but may become so unless trade is closely controlled. These include West Indian mahogany, Honduras mahogany, and big-leaf mahogany. Appendix III is a list of species included at the request of a Party that already regulates trade in the species and that needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation. Guatemalan populations of cocobolo, also known as Nicaraguan rosewood, are among the trees listed in Appendix III. Use the database of species listed by CITES ( to check for trees threatened by international trade. The database can be searched by common name.

• The Global Trees Campaign (, a partnership between Fauna & Flora

International and Botanic Gardens Conservation International, is another good source of information on threatened trees and includes profiles of a number of species threatened by commercial logging.


ch o o s e c ertI f Ie d wo o d
While consumers clamor for lists of wood species to choose and endangered wood species to avoid, many experts are hesitant to compile or recommend them. Trees become threatened when they are not being harvested sustainably. Within the same country, a tree species may be endangered in one area and responsibly harvested in another. In the case of domestic trees like Douglas fir, it is not the species itself but rather the old-growth forests from which specimens can be cut that are becoming rare. Traditionally, forests both here and abroad have been managed for maximum timber yield and profit. In order to be truly a renewable resource, wood must be managed on a sustainable yield basis—that is, it should not be cut down faster than it can be regrown or replaced by nature in the wild. The term “sustainable yield” has entered the lexicon of forestry schools only in the past few decades, and it’s just beginning to filter down into the ranks of foresters in the field. Most forest lands are still managed primarily for just one species and one size of tree in what are called even-age stands, drastically limiting the diversity of wild plants and animals that can live there. Ecologically managed forests include a number of environmental protections, such as making riparian zones off limits to logging to prevent erosion and damage to salmon and trout habitats, and zones of critical habitat for rare and endangered species. Wood plantations are managed so they reduce pressures on and promote the restoration and conservation of natural forests. The best way to guarantee that the lumber and other wood products you purchase have been harvested sustainably is to choose products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) ( or other independent nonprofit organizations which have determined that the materials meet a set of rigorous standards. Information on the FSC standards, the certification process, and how to find suppliers is available on the website of the U.S. chapter of the FSC (

What To Do
• Look for products bearing the FSC logo, which are available from a variety of
mills, manufacturers, and distributors.

• To support the regional economy and conserve energy, purchase products that
have been harvested and manufactured locally rather than shipped across the country or from the tropics.

More Wood Tips
To maximize the benefits to the environment as well as the local economy, here are some other tips to keep in mind when shopping for wood:

• Reusing materials already on your property or those salvaged from a nearby location is more
environmentally friendly than purchasing products made of virgin resources. It is usually less expensive, too.


• To eliminate offgassing or leaching of toxins into the air, soil, and water, do not purchase

wood that has been treated with chemicals. Instead, choose a naturally rot-resistant species grown in your area. two problems at once—you use a local material and also promote the removal of trees that threaten natural areas. finishes are necessary, choose the least toxic products available.

• Sometimes wood from regionally invasive tree species is available. By buying it you help solve

• Keep in mind that wood may require maintenance over its lifetime. When paints or other

Many forests, like this one in Oregon, are still clearcut, causing substantial ecological damage. Choosing certified wood ensures that it has been harvested sustainably.


pur ch a s e o th er c e rt IfIe d pro du c t s
With almost every company rushing to polish its environmental credentials these days, it’s becoming difficult to distinguish the truly green from the “greenwashed.” For this reason, it makes sense to look for products and services that have been certified by an independent organization that has determined they meet a set of environmentally rigorous standards. The group behind an eco-label should make information on its organizational leadership and funding, as well as the standards it uses to certify products, available to the public. Below are some of the most respected green product certifiers. Several provide so-called single-attribute certifications, which address a specific environmental issue— sustainable forestry or indoor air quality, for example. Others are multiple-attribute eco-labels that consider a number of factors.

What To Do
Following, in alphabetical order, are some independent certifiers that are particularly useful for homeowners and gardeners. When you are searching for a landscape material or product, check on their websites for certified brands.

• EcoLogo

Launched by the Canadian government in 1988, EcoLogo (www. has grown to certify thousands of products for buyers throughout the U.S. and Canada and around the world. Search the the EcoLogo products and services directory for consumers, which includes everything from paints, sealers, caulks, and other building products to garbage bags. EnergyStar ( is a national certification system developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy to promote energy-efficient products and homes. Among the products that have attained EnergyStar certification are LED lights for outdoors. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) ( is a nonprofit organization that has developed an international standard for responsibly managed forests and certifies the wood and paper products derived from them. Products and rankings can be found on the FSC website. You can find more information on the FSC here. Greenguard ( certifies that products meet low emission standards for a number of indoor air pollutants, including formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Some of these products, such as paints, adhesives, and sealants, can also be used outdoors.

• EnergyStar

• Forest Stewardship Council

• Greenguard


• Green Seal

Green Seal ( began certifying products in 1992. Since that time, Green Seal has put its imprimatur on a wide range of products, including paints and other types of finishes. Formed in 1988, the International Dark-Sky Association ( do?sitePageId=56421&orgId=idsa) is the authoritative voice on light pollution. The IDA Fixture Seal of Approval certifies outdoor lighting systems that minimize harm to human health and nocturnal wildlife. Scores of products have been certified so far. The Organic Materials review Institute (, or OMRI, is an independent reviewer of products used by certified organic growers and suppliers. The OMRI Products List, a directory of all products the organization has determined are allowed for use in organic production, includes everything from earthworm castings to composts and mulches. Available on the OMRI website, the easy-to-use database can be searched by product (compost tea, say, or potting media), category (such as soil amendments), or manufacturer. Contact information for each manufacturer is provided, making it relatively easy to track down a particular product. Launched by Scientific Certification Systems, which has been providing auditing, testing, and certification services since 1984, Sustainable Choice ( includes both environmental and social standards. You can search their online green products database for a variety of products, such as paints, adhesives, sealants, and recycled rock mixtures. Sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, WaterSense ( seeks to do for plumbing fixtures and irrigation services what the EnergyStar label has done for electronic appliances. A variety of water-conserving irrigation technologies and services that have been awarded the WaterSense label are listed on the program’s website.

• International Dark-Sky Association

• Organic Materials review Institute

• Sustainable Choice

• WaterSense


se l e c t l o c a l m at e rIa ls and pro du cts
Using materials produced in your region has multiple advantages. It reduces the fossil fuels required for shipping and associated pollutants, including greenhouse gas emissions. It supports local businesses and feeds money into the regional economy. And one of the beauties of landscaping with local materials is that they seem to belong and enhance your region’s unique sense of place. What could be more emblematic of the desert Southwest, for example, than adobe walls made with local soils? What constitutes “local” varies to some extent, depending on the type of material. The heavier the material, the more energy it consumes and the more pollutants emitted during transport, and therefore the closer the source should be. For example, to qualify as local under the Sustainable Sites Initiative, on which Landscape For Life is based, crushed concrete and other aggregates used as a foundation for paths and driveways must be extracted, recovered, or manufactured within 50 miles of the site. Compost and other soil amendments must also come from within 50 miles. Plants, which are relatively light, must be grown at a facility within 250 miles. Other materials must be extracted, harvested, recovered, and manufactured within 500 miles.

What To Do
• Identify local sources for wood, plants, and other landscape materials, including those that are reused, salvaged,
or contain recycled content—preferably in the planning stage of your project, since the availability of materials may influence design choices.

To reduce the amount of energy required for shipping and the associated pollutants, including greenhouse gases, purchase wood and other products that have been produced locally.


use co n c r ete a lt e r nat Ive s
The use of concrete in home construction dates back at least 2,000 years to ancient Rome. The ruins of Emperor Hadrian’s villa near Rome reveal that some walls and domes were constructed with a mixture of volcanic tuff and sand very much like modern concrete. The development of portland cement in 1824 by an English inventor led to the first major improvement in concrete technology, and today concrete is one of the most commonly used materials in residential and other construction—with a variety of landscape uses, from paths and patios to driveways, planters, and mortar. Although the words concrete and cement are often used interchangeably, there is technically a difference. Concrete is comprised of three major components: aggregates, usually a mixture of coarse and fine materials such as gravel, crushed stone, and sand; Portland cement, which binds it all together; water; and various chemicals. Portland cement is made from lime, silica, iron, and alumina. Mortar, which is used to hold brick or stone together, is composed of cement and sand. Cement, the most important component of concrete, requires a staggering amount of energy to manufacture and results in considerable carbon dioxide emissions. After they are mixed together, the lime, silica, iron, and alumina are heated to about 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit in a kiln, usually fired by fossil fuels, to make a pellet-like material called clinker. After cooling, the clinker is ground into a powder and mixed with gypsum.

This handsome patio was made from existing concrete that was broken up into flagstone-size pieces. Recycling the concrete conserved energy, minimized the pollution associated with cement manufacture, and kept the material out of a landfill.


What To Do
• If you’re paving a driveway, pathway, or patio, using recycled concrete is a good option. Existing concrete is broken, crushed, or screened. It can then be used as flagstone-size pieces for patios and pathways, as crushed gravel, or as an aggregate base for crushed stone or other paving material. It can also be reprocessed as poured concrete for a path, patio or other hardscape feature, or made into concrete pavers. Making use of existing material minimizes the energy required for manufacturing and eliminates the need for disposal. • Crushed limestone, crushed granite, or, even better, crushed recycled materials such as clamshells are other alternatives to conventional concrete. Crushing materials uses much less energy than manufacturing cement.

• If your landscape project requires concrete, look for a product that contains a cement substitute such as

recycled fly ash, a by-product of coal-fired electric generating plants, or slag, a waste product of the smelting and refining of metals.


se l e c t m ater Ia ls t hat do no t po l l u te s to r m wat e r
When rain or snowmelt flows off your roof onto impervious surfaces like driveways and sidewalks, it can pick up chemicals, nutrients from excess fertilizer, heavy metals, and other pollutants and carry them into streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands, and coastal waters. This polluted stormwater runoff can have a variety of harmful effects on plants, fish, animals, and people. By carefully choosing materials for your landscape, you can help keep pollutants out of stormwater runoff. Some materials can leach heavy metals such as copper and zinc. These include galvanized corrugated steel used for roofing and other products; zinc roofing, cladding, shingles, and down-pipes; and copper flashing, gutters, vents, and decorative landscape elements. Heavy metals can be toxic to fish and other aquatic life. They can also bioaccumulate in aquatic species, such as mussels, and in turn throughout the food chain, to humans. Heavy metals accumulate in the human body and over time can reach levels that are toxic and cause serious health problems. From the 1940s until 2003, chromated copper arsenate (CCA) was commonly used to pressure treat wood for rot resistance. Since 2003, no wood treater or manufacturer may use CCA to treat wood for decking, playsets, and other residential uses. (It’s still used for marine pilings and utility poles.) There are several arsenic-free treatments on the market, including borates, but these options are not risk free and should not be used outdoors where they will come into contact with water.

What To Do
• If you are in the market for a new roofing system, consider alternatives to galvanized, copper, and zinc products such as wood shingles, slate, and baked enamel painted metal products, or a green roof. • Use sustainably harvested rot-resistant woods native to your area as an alterative to treated wood for fence posts, raised beds, and other landscape applications. • Coal tar sealants, better known as blacktop, the shiny black material applied to many driveways, are high in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which contribute to pollution of many of the nation’s urban lakes. PAHs are toxic to aquatic life and several are suspected carcinogens. Blacktop is also impermeable. Use less toxic materials such as crushed seashells, which would otherwise be disposed of as a waste, or gravel obtained locally. • Minimize use of fertilizers and pesticides. Excess nutrients from overuse of fertilizer can cause algae blooms. When algae die, they sink to the bottom and decompose in a process that removes oxygen from the water. Fish and other aquatic organisms can’t exist in water with low dissolved oxygen levels. Insecticides and herbicides present in stormwater can poison aquatic life. Land animals and people can become sick from eating contaminated fish and shellfish or drinking pesticide-contaminated water. • Use alternatives to rock salt for deicing. Rock salt can leach into the soil, changing its chemical composition, and flow into local waterways where it can poison fish and aquatic organisms. It can also harm sensitive plants. Salt is highly corrosive to paved surfaces, buildings, and metal (it is really bad for your car). And it hurts your pets’ paws. Alternatives include materials that increase traction, such as kitty litter and sand. For situations where a product that actually melts ice is required, look for rock salt substitutes such as those made with beet juice extracts, a byproduct of beet sugar production that would normally be disposed of as waste. Magnesium chloride, which is safer to use near plants than rock salt but not as effective in very cold conditions, is another possibility.


ch o o s e n o - o r low-vo c pro du c t s
VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, refer to a large number of mostly petrochemical-derived substances that readily volatilize, or become a gas, at room temperature. VOCs can be bad for the environment and harmful to human health. Among the hundreds of VOCs found in consumer products are formaldehyde, benzenes, toluene, styrene, xylenes, and chlorinated solvents such as trichloroethylene, carbon tetrachloride, and methylene chloride. Landscape products that contain VOCs include primers, paints, stains, sealers, and other finishes, paint strippers, adhesives, caulks, and pesticides. When used outdoors, VOCs contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, which is the primary component of smog. They have been linked to a variety of negative health effects including dizziness, irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract, damage to the nervous system, and cancer.

What To Do
• Purchase low- and no-VOC products. While VOCs were once necessary for good performance in many products, most companies now produce effective and cost-competitive alternatives. For example, less toxic paints, stains, and varnishes use water as a carrier instead of petroleum-based solvents to reduce emissions. Check product labels and literature for information on VOC content. Usually listed in grams per liter, it can range from 5 to 200. Using a product with the lowest VOC content will yield the lowest overall environmental and health risk. Paints that meet the Green Seal standard are certified lower than 50 g/l for flat finish or 100 g/l for non-flat finish.


h uman he alth
Home landscapes are a place to gather with family and friends, strenghtening social ties and improving relationships. They are also a safe place for children to play. Gardens also offer opportunities for physical exercise, which can reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and some cancers. Plants cleanse the air we breathe, removing pollutants that can trigger asthma and other illnesses. Growing an edible garden can minimize exposure to the pesticide residues found on most conventionally grown crops while providing a steady source of the freshest and most flavorful produce. In our often hectic modern world, a home landscape can also be a quiet refuge. Studies demonstrate that the contact with nature afforded by gardens can reduce stress and improve psychological well-being. In fact, our gardens are where many of us have our only daily contact with the rest of nature. This connection to the larger web of life is especially important to the more than 80 percent of Americans who live in towns and cities.

Studies show that encounters with everyday nature, like a stroll through a garden, restore concentration, calm anxiety, and reduce aggression in adults and children.

Conventional And Sustainable Landscapes: How They Compare Conventional Landscape
• Is often treated with synthetic pesticides • Vegetable garden is typically irrigated with drinking

Sustainable Landscape
• Beneficial insects and other natural processes help
manage pests potable water pollution

• Vegetable garden is irrigated with alternatives to • Outdoor fixtures result in a minimum of light • Is constructed with healthy, local materials

• Outdoor fixtures waste energy and create
unhealthy light pollution such as treated wood

• Is frequently constructed with polluting materials


g r o w a f o o d g a r de n
A vegetable garden can be a perfect blend of beauty and utility, a place that stimulates all the senses, including taste. Nothing beats the flavor and freshness of homegrown produce. And when you grow your own food organically, you can be sure you’ve minimized your exposure to pesticide residues, which are found on most conventionally grown crops. Backyard food production can also be good for the environment. Much of the recent discussion of the environmental footprint of food has focused on tallying “food miles,” the distance food travels from field or pasture to table. And nothing is more local than food grown just steps from your kitchen. But the number of food miles isn’t the only measure of environmental impact. Often a gardener’s biggest contribution to greenhouse gas emissions arises from the use of nitrogen fertilizers, says David Wolfe, Professor of Plant and Soil Ecology at Cornell University. The manufacture of synthetic fertilizer is extremely energy intensive. Manures and other organic sources are better because the carbon dioxide emissions associated with manufacture are mostly eliminated. But using either synthetic or organic fertilizers releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with 300 times more heat-trapping ability per molecule than carbon dioxide. Excessive use of fertilizer can pollute stormwater runoff and is associated with a host other problems as well. Chemical pesticides used in some vegetable gardens are also energy intensive to produce, and they are toxic. In addition, vegetables and fruits generally require more water than they’re likely to receive as rainfall. Most homeowners make up the difference by irrigating with municipal drinking water, putting more pressure on often scarce and expensive potable water supplies.

A community garden like the one above is a good option if you don’t have room at home to grow edible plants.


Beautiful vegetable varieties such as Swiss chard, above, can be tucked into flowerbeds.

Tips For A Sustainable Vegetable Garden
Following are some ways you can maximize the beauty and productivity of a kitchen garden while minimizing its environmental impact. • If you’re new to vegetable gardening, start by incorporating some edible plants in appropriate spots throughout your landscape. An edible garden doesn’t have to be a separate area of your property. Tuck some favorite herbs and beautiful vegetable varieties like ‘Ruby’ or ‘Rainbow’ chard into your flowerbeds. Instead of planting junipers, liriope, or cotoneaster, try strawberries as a groundcover. Blueberry bushes are a good substitute for a privet hedge. And try planting a fruit tree or two. Even if your yard is small, there’s likely to be a suitable variety of apple, pear, cherry, peach, plum or other fruit. Dwarf varieties generally reach a height of 6 to 10 feet and should bear fruit in three to four years. Semi-dwarf varieties grow 15 to 20 feet tall.

• Garden organically.

Take advantage of natural biological processes to increase soil fertility and manage pests, instead of resorting to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Amending your soil with compost improves soil structure and the growing environment for your plants and provides them with essential nutrients. Mulching the garden helps conserve moisture and keep down weeds. And growing organically means there will be no synthetic pesticide residues on your food. Find out more about limiting your exposure to pesticides on page 100.

• Use alternatives to potable water for irrigation. With a little ingenuity, you can put captured rainwater, air conditioning condensate, or other alternatives to potable water found in and around the typical home to work in the garden instead of literally throwing it down the drain. Be sure that you do not use graywater from sinks, showers, and other sources, on food plants, however, because it can be contaminated with soaps and pathogens. A guide to water-thrifty irrigation practices that can help you make the most of these alternative water sources is on page 39.


• Avoid over-cultivating your soil.

A number of recent books have helped popularize the practice of gardening without rototilling or even digging. Specific no-till practices can vary among authors and practitioners, but the fundamental principle is the same— dispensing with cultivation as much as possible because it disturbs the soil, encourages weed growth, and generates greenhouse gases. Instead, compost and organic mulches are used to prepare planting beds, feed the soil organisms that promote soil fertility, and keep down weeds.

• Grow your plants from seed. Consider all the resources necessary and pollution that results from buying plants in plastic pots, even seedlings in cell packs. Growing plants from seed significantly reduces the environmental impacts of transport and packaging. Growing plants from seed you collect yourself from your own garden eliminates transport and packaging entirely. Growing from seed enables you to grow disappearing local heirloom varieties (see below), which often are not available for purchase as plants at the local nursery. Seed is also less expensive than plants. And most people find it personally rewarding to experience the growth of plants from start to finish.

• Grow heirloom fruits and vegetables.

For centuries, humans played a major role in diversifying the gene pools of crop plants. Wherever we went, we carried the major food species with us, and wherever we took them, they were modified by the new environment. In this way, hundreds of locally adapted varieties of the same crop evolved.

Modern, mass-produced cultivars of food crops have some desirable characteristics, including resistance to diseases—verticillium wilt in a tomato, for example. However, as modern agriculture and kitchen gardening have come to rely on mass-produced seeds, heirloom fruits and vegetables adapted to various regions have become increasingly rare. The same modern crop-breeding techniques that have led to some important improvements have also resulted in a high degree of genetic uniformity in the food plants that sustain us. The genetic vulnerability of modern crop cultivars became a widespread concern in 1970, when an epidemic of southern corn-leaf blight destroyed about 15 percent of the U.S. corn crop. The epidemic had two primary causes: The corn crop uniformly lacked the genes that confer resistance to leaf blight, and the same susceptible variety was used over a vast area. This kind of vulnerability is becoming an issue for many crops as their genetic base narrows. Growing heirloom varieties such as ‘Blue Jade’ corn, a beautiful cultivar suitable for boiling, or ‘Strawberry’, which is great for popping, helps promote the genetic diversity of crops and can also help preserve your region’s culinary history. Heirloom varieties suited to the precipitation levels in your area will require less irrigation. And by growing heirlooms selected for their proven disease resistance, you can help reduce your garden’s dependence on pesticides.

For More Information
Non-profit organizations like the Seed Savers Exchange ( and the Organic Seed Alliance ( encourage organic practices and support crop diversity by offering membership discounts on heirloom seeds and organizing community seed swaps.


l I m I t y o u r ex p osu r e t o pe st Ic Ide s
When most people think of pesticide use, they think of agricultural land. But pesticides typically are applied at much higher rates to residential landscapes than to farms—20 times higher, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The enormous quantity of pesticides used in home landscapes raises a number of health and environmental concerns, starting with the potential for accidental poisonings of humans and pets. The possibility of cancer or other illnesses as a result of nonaccidental, chronic exposure to yard pesticides is the subject of an ongoing scientific debate. Children, whose internal organs are still developing, are particularly vulnerable to the health problems pesticides may pose. Although pesticides and their use are regulated by the EPA, the uncertainty over the long-term effects of exposure to even low levels led the American Medical Association to recommend that we limit exposure to these chemicals and use safer alternatives. Overuse of pesticides is contributing to the chemical load not just in our bodies, but in the environment at large. It’s estimated that 5 percent or less of the insecticides and herbicides we spray ends up on the target pest. The rest ends up on plants, in the soil, and in the air—and via drift, it can also land on any nearby people or pets. Pesticides in runoff find their way into drinking water supplies and local waterways; pesticide pollution was found in every stream and over 90 percent of the wells sampled in a study by the U.S. Geological Survey. In waterways, pesticides can kill fish and other aquatic life. It’s believed that pesticides kill millions of birds each year, and can impair the ability of others to reproduce. They’ve been linked to the decline of frog populations, as well as earthworms and other important soil animals. They’ve also led to the loss of pollinators and the beneficial insects that would otherwise help keep pest populations in our landscapes in check.

One of the best ways to minimize your exposure to the pesticide residues in most conventionally grown crops is to grow some herbs, vegetables, and fruits at home, avoiding the use of synthetic chemical pesticides.


What To Do
• One of the best ways to minimize your exposure to pesticide residues in food is to grow some herbs, vegetables,
and fruits at home, avoiding the use of toxic and persistent synthetic chemical pesticides.

• Use one of two proven systems, organic gardening or integrated pest management, to eliminate or drastically
reduce the amount of pesticide you apply throughout your landscape. If you hire a company to care for your lawn or garden, make sure it is one that employs these least toxic approaches.

It’s generally known that organic gardeners refrain from using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on their plants. But organic gardening is a lot more than that. It promotes and enhances natural diversity and biological cycles to make the garden self-sufficient and sustainable, beginning with building and maintaining soil fertility by adding compost and other organic matter. See the Soils section of the workbook for ideas on how to get started. The second key to successful organic gardening is choosing plants suited to your climate and the growing conditions on your property, because these are best able to grow without a lot of added water, fertilizer, and drastic pest controls. Organic gardeners employ a variety of other common-sense techniques when necessary to keep their plants healthy. Most of these involve good growing practices that help prevent pest outbreaks, and outsmarting potential pests before they overwhelm plants rather than simply blasting them with toxic chemicals. Let’s say you’re in the vegetable garden and notice that one of your bean plants is being chewed to bits. What do you do? First, you examine the plant carefully for signs of the pest. More times than not, you can solve the pest problem the minute you see it, by picking it up and crushing it or dropping it into a container of soapy water. There are many other so-called physical controls as well, from simple, 3 inch-tall collars made of cardboard or newspaper placed around plants to keep out cutworms, to rowcovers, thin and lightweight fabrics developed in the past few decades that let in rainfall and plenty of sunlight for growth but are impenetrable even by tiny insects. Organic gardeners also make their landscapes havens for the natural predators of plant pests. Many homeowners have pest problems at least in part because their yards are not inviting to so-called beneficial insects, the tigers and barracudas of the insect world which in natural ecosystems keep herbivorous insects in check. Although a number of biological pest controls, the fancy term for beneficial insects, are sold at local nurseries and by mail-order suppliers, the most effective way to attract predators to your yard is to grow asters, coneflowers, and other daisylike native wildflowers, as well as popular culinary herbs such as dill and parsley that produce inverted parasol-shaped inflorescences. Organic gardeners use natural alternatives to synthetic pesticides, including biological controls such as Bacillus
To help keep pest populations in check, grow sunflowers and coreopsis (above) as well as coneflowers, asters, and other daisy-like native wildflowers.


thuringiensis (Bt), a bacterium that occurs naturally in soils around the world. Different strains of Bt produce toxins that affect different insects, including the caterpillars of gypsy moths, hornworms, and cabbage worms as well as the Colorado potato beetle and other leaf beetles. Insecticidal soaps applied as dilute sprays (1 to 3 percent concentration) are especially effective against small, soft-bodied species such as aphids and spider mites. Botanical insecticides such as sabadilla and neem, which are derived from plants, are sometimes used as a final resort. Botanicals can be toxic and must be handled with caution, but most do less ecological damage than synthetic pesticides because they break down relatively rapidly when exposed to heat, light, or water. If you’re just starting out as an organic gardener, a basic guide to organic growing techniques is a good investment. (, the website of Organic Gardening magazine, has a wealth of useful tips. The Organic Materials Review Institute website includes the OMrI Products List (www., a directory of all products the organization has determined are allowed for use by organic growers.

Integrated pest management, or IPM, is another commonsense approach to pest control that includes many of the techniques used by organic gardeners but does not rule out the use of synthetic pesticides as a last resort. Although it was developed initially to help commercial farmers avoid spraying on a regular schedule whether it was necessary or not, it has been adapted for home gardeners and can be effectively employed with or without the use of synthetic pesticides. IPM is a systematic process involving prevention, monitoring, and choosing the least toxic pest control when action is necessary. One of its fundamental principles is that not all insects and weeds require control. Many are innocuous, and some are even beneficial. Another is the recognition that when it’s advisable to intervene, the goal is pest control, not eradication. Monitoring your plants as often as possible throughout the growing season is the cornerstone of IPM. When you do encounter a pest problem, you need to learn about the extent of the damage it can cause, and what will happen to the plant with or without treatment. Seeing a single pest doesn’t mean that action must be taken—you should continue to keep a watchful eye on your plants, and decide how much damage is acceptable. As in organic gardening, taking steps to prevent pests from becoming a problem is another basic IPM practice. This may mean using cultural practices, such as keeping your planting beds clean of any infected plant material, moving vegetables to different areas of the garden annually to prevent a build-up of pests that live in the soil, or planting a variety of flowers that provide pollen and nectar for beneficial insects. If you determine that action against a particular pest is essential, the next step is finding the least toxic yet effective way to deal with the problem. Physical controls, such as picking the pests off your plants by hand, blasting them with a strong stream of water to wash off pests like aphids and mites, or protecting them with row covers, are the first options to consider. Biological controls like Bt can provide control with minimal impact. If chemical control is the only solution to your pest problem, the goal is to spray with the least toxic and most pestspecific product available before resorting to more toxic and persistent synthetics. These include insecticidal soaps and Neem-based or other naturally derived pesticides. Unlike products designed to target the pest you’re trying to control, broad-spectrum pesticides destroy both harmful and beneficial insects. Not surprisingly, the pests reestablish themselves a lot faster than the beneficial species.

For More Information
For more information on the best IPM controls for your area, contact your state or local Cooperative Extension office (


r e d uc e l I g h t p ollu t Ion
It’s an unfortunate fact of modern life that many children and adults have seen a dark sky spangled with stars only in a planetarium. The night sky in cities and many suburbs is filled not with stars but rather the pervasive orange haze of artificial light. Scientists are discovering that this light pollution may have serious effects on human health and can disrupt the normal behavior of wildlife. Specified periods of light and dark, known as circadian rhythms, are essential for healthy life on earth. Darkness is as necessary as daylight to our own biological clockwork. Researchers have recently established, for example, that exposure to artificial light at night reduces the body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that tells our organs and systems that it is dark. Less melatonin may not seem like a big loss, but studies have consistently proven that low levels are extremely detrimental, with sweeping health effects across the body. Although the connection between melatonin and cancer is still unclear, reduced levels have been linked to the growth of breast tumors in women and may also affect other cancers, including prostate cancer. The continual state of artificial twilight can have adverse effects on frogs and bats, fireflies and fish, and many other species. Activity levels often change, for example. Some owls take advantage of the situation and hunt more. Insects can be fatally drawn to light, often pursued by foraging bats. Some animals are prone to breed more, others to breed less. Female fireflies produce their trademark flashes to attract males only when there is a certain level of darkness. Because lighting systems make the night too bright in many areas, they are not attracting males and are failing to reproduce. The combined effects of light pollution on large numbers of nocturnal species have the potential to disrupt the functioning of entire ecosystems by disrupting balances in competition and predation. Light pollution is largely the result of badly designed light fixtures that are unshielded and allow artificial light to shine outward and upward into the sky, instead of focusing it downward where it is needed. We light our landscapes at night because we think it makes us safer, but glare from unshielded fixtures can actually make yards less safe by distracting the eye and casting harsh shadows that can help conceal an intruder. Specially designed outdoor lighting fixtures that are shielded at the top and sides to reduce light pollution are much more effective at drawing attention to an unwanted presence, especially when they are triggered by motion sensors. And because every bit of illumination is directed where it can make a difference, they typically require a lower wattage bulb, conserving energy and saving money.

What To Do
• Use outdoor lights at night only when and where they’re needed, and hook them up to motion sensors to
increase their effectiveness and timers to shut them off when illumination is no longer necessary.

• Purchase exterior lights that have been certified by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), a nonprofit
educational organization that is the leading authority on the problems of light pollution and commonsense solutions. Look for the “IDA Approved Dark-Sky Friendly Fixture” label when you shop for outdoor lights. The IDA website ( includes information on approved fixtures, including manufacturers and distributors. You’ll also find a practical guide for homeowners ( on effective and efficient outdoor lighting.


cr e at e g a r den spac e s t h at e nha nce h e a lth a nd wel l-be Ing
Having a garden that enhances your health and well-being isn’t just a matter of avoiding exposure to potentially hazardous pollutants. You can also create special spaces in your landscape that encourage physical fitness, make interaction with family and friends more enjoyable, and provide havens for quiet relaxation and renewal—unlike the typical home landscape, which can be a bigger source of stress than of pleasure, with its expanses of lawn that need to be mowed and overgrown foundation shrubs that cry out for pruning.

What To Do
• Make room for sports and other physical activity.
Lack of physical activity is a recipe for obesity and a host of chronic ailments, from diabetes to heart disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly three-quarters of Americans don’t get the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity on most days. It’s hardly surprising, then, that more than one-third of us are obese, and the prevalence of childhood obesity has tripled in the past 30 years.

Research shows that moderate daily activity decreases the incidence of chronic diseases. Physical exercise can also improve mental health by reducing stress and alleviating depression and anxiety. Since most of us spend 20, 30, 40, or more hours a week at work or school, it makes good sense to design home landscapes that entice us to get moving in our free time. If you have small children, consider all of the ways to get them outdoors and engaged in active play—from sandboxes and seesaws to pogo sticks, playhouses, and swing sets. Make sure to create room in your landscape for fun adult activities, too, whether volleyball, badminton, bocce, croquet, or a simple game of frisbee. Include a convenient area for bicycle storage—nothing makes going out for a ride less likely than having to move the lawnmower, baby carriages, garbage bins, or a pile of bricks out of the way first. Keep in mind that gardening itself is a great form of exercise. Turning your compost pile works out the upper body. Raking and mulching trains your upper arms, shoulders, chest, and back, while squatting or bending over to pull weeds by hand is good for your thighs and glutes. And you can get your heart pumping by taking a turn or two around your Consider all the landscape features, from children’s gardens regionally appropriate lawn with a push mower. In fact, to play sets, that will entice youngsters outdoors and engage them in exercise and active play. gardening can burn an average of 300 calories per


hour and is an effective form of resistance training, says the CDC. The agency recommends getting out there three times a week for 30 minutes to an hour.

• Include space for socializing with family and friends.

There’s a lot of evidence linking social connectedness to health and happiness. The benefits of social ties range from increased resistance to colds and even dementia to better survival rates for cancer patients. They’re important not just for individuals but also for the healthy functioning of social groups, including families.

Think about ways you can improve your landscape to make socializing more enjoyable. Can you create or spruce up a patio or deck for convenient barbecuing, or dining al fresco with the family? Is there a pleasant space in your garden for sitting and conversing with friends? Can an open area you use for frisbee accommodate larger gatherings to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and other important milestones? It helps to sketch out the most desirable places for sitting areas and gathering spaces, as well as the way to get to them. Convenience and comfort are key considerations: A patio or deck reasonably close to the kitchen, surrounded by luminous plants, can be a perfect place for evening meals. A breakfast terrace can be located to catch the warm morning sun. To invite lingering with family and friends, social areas should be out of the sun or wind. You can also use awnings, vine-covered arbors, or hedges to cast cooling shade or block heavy winds. And make sure there are enough comfortable places to sit. Beautiful plantings will enhance any social experience. In outdoor living spaces, flowering trees, shrubs, and perennials in pleasing arrangements can not only define space, cast shade, and block the wind but also function as living ornaments. Accessories, from traditional urns and statues to offbeat garden gnomes and gazing balls, give you an opportunity to express your creativity and can act as conversation pieces.

• Create a quiet garden refuge.

The idea of the garden as a sanctuary is as old as the garden itself. As modern life has become more hectic, garden havens have become all the more essential. Home landscapes can provide daily opportunities to be unplugged and unwired, and to seek connections more fundamental than cell phones and texting.

Garden refuges can be as individual as the people who create them, but they do share some common elements. Many are gardens of the senses, where the sound of grasses rustling in the breeze or the fragrance of a flower can reduce stress, promote peace of mind, and invite repose. They invite you to linger, and encourage a connection with the natural world. The most restorative gardens involve you in the drama of nature, whether shifting shadow patterns cast by trees or shrubs throughout the day or the changing of the seasons—from the unfolding of the first flowers to the ripening of fruits and the turning of leaves. A key step in transforming a garden space into a retreat is creating a sense of quiet, enclosure, and privacy. The trickle of even a small water feature can mask the din of the world outside. The side of your house, stone or adobe walls, fences, pergolas, hedges, or even strategically placed potted plants can all be used to create a sense of enclosure. Trees and shrubs can also serve as the “ceiling” and “walls” of a garden sanctuary. Enclosed doesn’t necessarily mean entirely walled off, however. A quiet garden space that offers views of a distant mountain can be as effective as a tiny rock garden. Plants not only help create a sense of structure and enclosure but can also be the primary attraction. Some plants can draw you outdoors at midday to watch butterflies and hummingbirds flit among your flowers. The fragrance of an evening-blooming vine can entice you outside after dusk. The sinuous silhouette of a shrub can even lead you out into the garden on a crisp winter afternoon. The key to creating a garden sanctuary is to be sensitive to the use of space and design so that the plants and materials have a unifying theme. Landscape elements can be added that fit with the theme and contribute to making the garden more soothing or inspiring.


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