As gardeners, we work hard to be conscious of the environment and take that responsibility seriously. We know everything we do impacts the environment, either positively or negatively. Through gardening, we can approach our landscaping in a way that works with nature to protect the environment around us.
Sustainable landscaping is a comprehensive approach to gardening and landscaping. It aims to create beautiful and productive outdoor spaces in a way that benefits the surrounding environment by conserving water, improving soil, encouraging native species and reducing pesticide and fertilizer use. In this way, our lawns and gardens help surrounding natural environments to become more sustainable and able to continue providing environmental goods and services in the future. Gardeners also benefit in the form of reduced water and energy costs, improved soil productivity and a lovely, easy-to-care-for landscape.
Permaculture is a design method to consider when planning an outdoor space. Permaculture can have a lot of different meanings when talking about sustainability. In landscaping, permaculture is exploiting and imitating natural relationships to create more productive systems. It recognizes critical interrelationships and examines how those relationships contribute to the stability of the whole system.
It’s useful to look at permaculture in terms of the layering of relationships. One way to apply permaculture layering in landscaping is to think of your plant selection as a canopy of layers in a forest. Upper layers provide shade and mulch that help retain soil health and moisture, while lower-level plants help to break down the mulch and provide ground cover to crowd out weeds. Trees will constitute the highest layer and will provide shade to the lower levels. Below that will be smaller trees and shrubs, then ground-level plants and ground covers. If done properly, this type of layering provides beauty from ground to sky and creates a micro-canopy system that holds in moisture and needs little, if any, weeding.
Another important term in permaculture is guilds. A guild is a group of participants in a system that works together and provides benefits to other members of the guild for an overall increase in productivity of the system. For example, consider the role of pollinators like bees in a landscaping system. The bees benefit from the system by having a local source of pollen and structures on which to build hives. The bees then pollinate the plants in the system, making the plants more productive. In this way, think about each new piece of your landscape design as a member of the guild. Think about what it will be contributing to the group and what it will be withdrawing.
While it is important for us as gardeners to create an eye-catching and appealing landscape, it’s just as important to preserve the environment around us.
David Hillock is a consumer horticulturist with OSU Cooperative Extension.