- Homeowners need to plan out plant and landscaping purchases to meet the needs of a property.
- Smart landscaping choices can also curtail energy use.
- Natural stones for hardscape allow water to seep into the ground and won’t fade or decay.
To get through the last 15 months of the pandemic, many homeowners looked to their yards and gardens as an escape where they could work, enjoy nature, and breathe in fresh air.
Numerous homeowners planted vegetable and flower gardens in containers and newly tilled soil, introducing color, fragrance, and texture to their yards. Others roasted s’mores in new fire pits. And some installed pools, ponds, and fountains to see and hear water.
However, these outdoor spaces aren’t challenge-free. Squirrels, deer, and moles can munch on hostas, roses, vegetables, herbs, and fruits. And now, as all the annuals planted a year ago need to be replaced, the time-consuming downside to gardening is becoming apparent to some homeowners.
But sustainability can help.
Homes with more sustainable materials—inside and out—last longer, require less maintenance, and have a smaller carbon footprint. Designer Jim Charlier, who helped expand Buffalo, N.Y.’s annual GardenWalkBuffalo into of the country’s largest residential garden tour, and co-authored the book Buffalo-Style Gardens (St. Lynn's Press, 2019), learned this lesson after needing to replace a rotted picket fence. He chose cedar since he knew it could stand up to tough winters, even though the initial cost was high.
Charlier and other gardening experts offer advice for homeowners on overcoming landscaping challenges to produce a sustainable garden that meets the ultimate test—adding joy.
Start with a plan. Many homeowners go to nurseries and buy willy-nilly rather than according to a plan. It’s like heading to a grocery store and being tempted by chips, cookies, and candy when that’s not what’s needed to prepare a healthy meal. When homeowners plan a garden--especially a sustainable one—sometimes the most efficient, economical way to start is to hire a professional to design it and relate it to the home.
The cost of a typical plan may range from a low $1,500, up to $15,000 or more, depending on the garden’s size, number of plants, features—such as a gazebo or pool, whether designs for irrigation, hardscaping, and lighting are included, and how fancy final drawing looks, says Southampton Township, N.J.-based landscape architect Steve Chepurny of Beechwood Landscape Architecture. When it comes to installation, one area can be planted at a time, which will help homeowners spread out costs and see how the garden grows and evolves. “The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap,” says Michael Glassman, a Sacramento, Calif.-based landscape designer.
Weather. Severe weather can damage plants, hardscaping, and structural features such as fences, trellises, and sheds. While nobody can control Mother Nature, homeowners can make choices that are better suited to their climate, such as buying trees that are more likely to survive a harsh winter in the Northeast (a Norway Spruce) or strong sun in the South and Southwest (a Queen Palm), says Glassman. And many areas have microclimates. A north-facing slope in Aspen, Colo., will have different weather than a south-facing slope, hence requiring different plants, says Aspen landscape architect Mike Albert, principal at Design Workshop.
Smart landscaping choices can also curtail energy use. The right trees and shrubs can block wind, snow, and cold in winter and provide shade in summer, Glassman says. Some old-fashioned legwork will help, too, which involves checking on the amount of sun and shade in different parts of a yard, says Chepurny.
Soil. Not all soil is the same. It may be wet or dry, or full of clay, rocks, or salt. It’s key that homeowners understand that different plants thrive better in different soils. Some garden experts like Chepurny tell homeowners to take a sample to their local cooperative extension service to have it tested so they know what amendments might help or let a garden expert advise them.
Glassman recommends that new homeowners hire a certified arborist to assess the condition of their trees and determine if they need fertilizing, aerating, or pruning. Adding a layer of mulch once a year also helps plantings retain moisture and prevent erosion.
When it comes to watering, a sprinkler system is essential, whether it’s a hose lugged around or, if in the budget, a built-in system that can shut off when sensors detect rain. Different areas of the yard and garden should be watered according to their needs—or controlled via a smart sprinkler system through an app. “Some trees like a river birch need more water than others,” says Westfield, N.J., landscape architect Marc Nissim of Harmony Design.
Plants. Charlier says the most important way to make a home’s landscaping sustainable is by matching the right plants to the right location. For example, a homeowner shouldn’t plant too much ivy on a house since it will grow and cover it, but it could cause damage, he says. If homeowners love hydrangeas, they should plant them in sun or they won’t bloom, says Chicago-based landscape architect James Bertrand. While using native plants can be wise, not all thrive magically just because they’re indigenous, Glassman says. He thinks it’s better to take a walk in your neighborhood and see what’s thriving that you like. “If you see something and don’t know its name, take a photo and show it to your nursery or your landscaper,” he suggests.
The location within the yard should also be factored in, says Albert, whose firm often plants different materials close to a house for an ornamental, cultivated effect, and then goes with something more local further out so the choices appear as if they’ve always existed.
Planting an edible garden—which many did during the pandemic—can become a family activity. Chicago landscape architect Ryan Kettelkamp, together with his family, planted a victory-style garden in their Evanston, Ill., yard. It’s also wise for homeowners to plant for each season so produce is available all year, such as broccoli in spring, tomatoes in summer, and cauliflower in fall. The same rule applies to year-round blooms and berries, Bertrand says. Another sustainable choice is to introduce pollinator-friendly plants that attract bees, butterflies, and birds, such as viburnum, roses, some varieties of hydrangeas, and spirea.
A green, weed-free lawn may be high on homeowners’ wish lists but it’s among the highest maintenance features. “People love grass, but it requires cutting, fertilizing, watering,” Chepurny says. Nissim suggests a hardy groundcover like Pachysandra or Carex grass. Tall plantings can become a natural privacy screen.
Drainage. Too much water pooling can do damage, which may happen if the site’s topography slopes and water don’t have anywhere to run or consist of impervious rather than porous hardscape. Some sites require installing a French drain to carry water away. Setting out cisterns to catch falling water allows it to be recycled.
Wildlife. Homeowners should learn which animals frequent their area to avoid plants that attract them, Glassman says. For example, deer are known to love hostas and roses. He learned that lesson himself after planting a rose garden that deer mow down within a week. There are also disease-resistant plants to help avoid bugs. If planting vegetables, he suggests digging down two feet and installing heavy wire mesh over the ground. Homeowners may also consider building a fence. Albert says shrubs that produce berries are avoided by homeowners in his Aspen area because they bring forth bears.
Hardscape. Some hardscaping is desired in landscapes, but homeowners should consider which types will wear best in the climate’s different seasons. Look for materials that won’t fade and will allow water to seep into the ground, which is key to sustainability. Glassman and others favor natural stones for this reason.
“While concrete can work well and is affordable, it has a more limited shelf life and starts to degrade,” he says.
He also prefers steel rather than wood in building outside structures like trellises and pergolas because it doesn’t rot, crack, or require repainting. Bertrand likes porcelain tiles for terraces, which have become popular indoors. Nissim favors fieldstone because it wears well and won’t go out of style. Chepurny’ s test for almost any choice is “the cost of ownership”—how much needs to be spent initially and then over time.
Fire and water. They’re among the two most desired features to add into landscapes today. But how to do so sustainably requires thoughtfulness. Fire pits became so popular during the height of the pandemic to extend use into evenings and on chilly days that some manufacturers ran out. The most sustainable designs use firewood from the property.
The look and sound of water can be delightful, particularly when it comes from a luxurious pool or pond that spills over rocks. But both require a large amount of maintenance and expense. “There are so many moving parts with a pool—filtration, sanitizing, heating, cleaning,” says Bertrand. Yet, waterfalls and jets can recirculate water, which helps them be more sustainable. One new sustainable alternative is to use a recycled shipping container, Glassman says, adding, “It takes less time to turn it into a pool than starting from scratch.”
He recommends other smaller-scale options like a pondless waterfall with underground basin, so water doesn’t stand still and attract mosquitoes, or plug ‘n play urns.
Lighting. Too many homeowners fail to install sufficient exterior lighting to extend use into night and many continue to use inefficient, energy-guzzling incandescent lamps rather than LEDs. Good lighting adds drama, too, Chepurny says. Bertrand likes using LEDs in sconces attached to a house, since those in the ground may get damaged by a lawnmower or snowplow or be chewed up by animals. Albert’s firm suggests adding an automated timer to promote “dark-sky” and avoid disrupting animal habits or cause light pollution.
Real estate pros can encourage homeowners to learn by trial and error and view their landscape as another room of their house. “The goal should be to use the space as a destination to eat, cook, relax, and watch a movie rather than not use it at all,” Glassman says.
Resilient landscapes for multifamily buildings. Single-family homes aren’t the only places where sustainable gardens are growing. More developers and property managers are making their outdoor infrastructure and plantings resilient. Lendlease, a global developer, is in the process of transforming seven acres in its Southbank development along the Chicago River for its residents and the public. The company is also turning the roofs of its two multifamily into farms with vegetables, fruits, and active beehives.
The 29-story Cooper building, which opened in 2018, and the 41-story Reed building, where ground will be broken this summer, will enjoy views of Southbank Park, which was designed to keep the river’s edge as natural as possible with native plantings that don’t require irrigation and will attract native birds and bees, says Linda Kozloski, the company’s creative design director.
The Chicago landscape architecture firm Hoerr Schaudt designed the Southbank Park, and Confluence, based in Des Moines, Iowa, installed the plan, which incorporates a stormwater management infrastructure to mitigate runoff, a large lawn oval, amphitheater constructed from stones found on the site. and plantings that provide year-round interest and thrive even when the river rises after a rainstorm. An amenity deck at level six of The Cooper features herb and vegetable gardens, and residents can use the produce for salsas and Mediterranean-inspired favorites. To add a novel touch, students at the University of Illinois, Chicago, designed birdhouses that were placed along the river walk to attract native birds since they, too, need well-designed homes.