Easy Ways to Turn Your Yard into a Sustainable Landscape

Front yard filled with different flowering plants
Image via Corner Pollinator Garden

Big or small, every yard is meaningful to sustainability

Many of us understand this, but the leap from understanding to actually doing something can be tough to pull off. After a few challenging years, it’s hard to blame anyone for feeling too tired, busy, or confused to understand what they could manage to do in their yards to support sustainability. 

We’re here to tell you: don’t give up hope!

Supporting sustainability doesn’t need to be complex or time-consuming. Some of the most effective things we can do are also some of the simplest. Even with limited time and headspace, there are many easy but meaningful steps homeowners can take to make their yards more sustainable.

Exactly what can we do to make our yards sustainable? We’ve got a few suggestions.

Below, we’ll take a look at a variety of sustainable practices for designing and maintaining residential landscapes, each targeting a major sustainability concern: biodiversity, water, climate change, and food. Let’s start with biodiversity.

Backyard filled with different flowering plants
Image via Fine Gardening

Biodiversity

Biodiversity refers to the number of different species of organisms in a given ecosystem.

In general, the more biodiverse an ecosystem, the healthier it is, and the more robust the suite of ecosystem services it will offer, like cleaning air, purifying water, capturing carbon, building healthy soil, and producing food. Biodiversity is essential to human existence, but it’s also valuable in and of itself.

Our yards support biodiversity when they offer viable wildlife habitat in the form of food, shelter, and nesting sites. Providing these resources not only supports local ecosystems, it also supports migratory species, and in so doing helps to fortify migratory routes and plug gaps between fragments of habitat.

Large backyard filled with many different groundcover plants, flowering plants, and trees.
Image via Veranda

Tips for supporting Biodiversity:

Use native plants

Having coevolved with local fauna, native plants offer vastly more habitat value than non-native plants from other parts of the world.

Keystone native species like oaks and goldenrod are particularly powerful, supporting hundreds of different insect species, and in turn laying the foundation for entire food webs. (By comparison, the Crape Myrtle, a popular ornamental tree originating from Asia, supports exactly zero native insect species.)

True, some introduced species like lavender or Russian sage teem with bees and butterflies, but their appeal is narrow—most insects are specialists, relying exclusively on one or two native species for survival. Monarch butterflies, who famously depend on milkweed for survival, are one example.

Monarch butterfly on coneflower
Image via Illinois Times

Plant selection for sustainable gardens still offers plenty of space for introduced ornamental species, just take care to blend in plenty of natives, including flowering perennials.

Need more incentive to go native? Natives tend to require fewer inputs of water, fertilizer, and overall maintenance than introduced species.

Plant trees

Trees are the most powerful habitat plants around. Beyond the food, shelter, and nesting resources they provide, they offer a laundry list of ecosystem services that keep nature running.

We’ll spare you the details and cut to the chase: if you can do just one thing for sustainability, plant a native tree, preferably a keystone species. Better still, plant a few.

Invasive english ivy
Image via Trees Atlanta

No invasive species

Invasive species are non-native, hyper-competitive plants that quickly outcompete local native plant communities, leading to their rapid demise.

Once invasives get a foothold, they’re a beast to eliminate—ask anyone who’s tried to remove Himalayan Blackberry or English Ivy from their property.

Invasive species spread aggressively, and herein lies the kicker: many invasives were able to invade and destroy natural plant communities after their seeds escaped from private gardens, through wind transmission, or hitching a ride on bird feathers or pant legs.

By simply avoiding invasives in your design, you can help eliminate an active threat to wild ecosystems.

No gray area here: don’t ever plant invasive species. There’s always a non-invasive alternative that will look and perform just as well in your design.

Need guidance? Talk with your local nursery or invasive plants organization for guidance.

Backyard with mostly gravel and a small patch of lawn
Yardzen designed backyard with reduced lawn in Portland, Oregon

Reduce lawn

Lawns can be just the thing in certain scenarios, but on the whole they are supremely overused.

This may not seem like a big deal, but it actually is.

From a biodiversity perspective, lawns offer virtually no habitat value. At the same time, they occupy immense expanses that, were they planted with natives, would offer far greater support to local biodiversity.

Fertilizers and pesticides used to treat lawns pollute local aquatic habitats. Noisy mowers and blowers used to maintain lawns frighten many species away, effectively rendering sites unusable for habitat purposes.

As with natives, one need not be militant—compromise is key. Limit the amount of lawn in your design to what you really need, and skip purely decorative lawns in favor of native-rich planting, permeable surfaces, and other more ecosystem-friendly treatments.

Looking for no-lawn design ideas? Have a look at some of our favorite no-grass front yards.

Bird sitting on bird bath with water
Image via The Telegraph

Provide water

For long-traveling migrators, survival can hinge on the absence or presence of water at the end of a day’s flight.

You can support migratory and local fauna by adding gently recirculating water features, ideally ones that are shallow, sheltered, and have natural surfaces like stone.

The archetypal birdbath – a still pool of water on a stone pedestal—is better than nothing, but it’s far more useful to fauna to provide features in which the water stays fresh through recirculation.

Lucky for us, it’s pretty reasonable to drill out a nice looking boulder and convert it into a fountain. This may sound a bit naturalistic on paper, but trust us, the right rock can look good in any landscape style.

Hand holding sprayer container spraying mist on tree

Avoid pesticides and toxic chemicals

This is another simple one: don’t use any gross chemicals. Instead of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, opt for natural pest control solutions, and use compost to enrich your soil. If fertilizers are necessary, opt for organic fertilizers.

Tip: choosing plants that will be happy in existing light, soil, and climate conditions goes miles toward eliminating the need for any chemicals to prop up plant health. Right plant, right place.

Chart explaining light pollution with the more downward-facing light fixtures being the best to avoid light pollution.
Image via ArchDaily

No light pollution

Lights left burning through the dark hours mess with local species in myriad ways, disrupting their sleep cycles and putting them at extra risk of predation, among other negative impacts. Lights that direct glare upward are the worst offenders.

At the same time, lights can do much to beautify landscapes after dark. They are also essential for safe wayfinding or any kind of outdoor entertaining.

Once again, compromise is key. Feel free to use landscape lights at night, just turn them off when you go to bed. If security is a concern, use motion sensors. Go easy on uplights—we encourage using none—and aim for a less-is-more approach across the board.

Lawn covered in leaves
Image via The Spruce

Eco-friendly maintenance

What we see as debris, nature sees as a resource.

Leaves, stalks, dead wood, and other plant matter that fall to the ground every year provide vital nutrients for soil-building and crucial habitat for insects like caterpillars and bees, who effectively uphold entire ecosystems by providing food and pollination.

Common maintenance standards call for scooping this stuff up and carting it away. In HOA communities, such maintenance is often mandated. Even when not outright required, most neighborhoods unofficially enforce leaf removal through peer pressure.

Our own tastes enforce maintenance, too—on the whole, people tend to prefer tidy yards. And even if you are game for the au naturale look, if you are looking to sell your home, you’ll face pressure to keep things tidy in order to appeal to buyers.

The dilemma, then: keeping leaves on the ground is good for nature, but many folks dislike how messy it looks. What’s to be done?

You guessed it: compromise!

Landscape design with low water plants and rocks
Image via The Spruce

If you have lawn, leave the clippings in place. If you have deciduous trees, leave some fallen leaves on the ground.

If you have herbaceous plants, give them a tidy trim but leave the bottom 12” of plant matter in place. For extra credit, wrap all the plant matter you’ve clipped away in a tidy bundle, and leave it in a nondescript corner where insects can use it but it won’t detract from your yard’s good looks.

Find ways to work large rocks or logs into your landscape.

Maintain an intentional blanket of leaves beneath trees and in select planting areas, but keep other zones, especially hardscape areas, clean and clear of debris. This approach utilizes hardscape features as clean frames, and lends shaggier areas a sense of order and intentionality. It also looks pretty!

Low water plants growing around rocks
Image via Pacific Nursery

Water

Like biodiversity, water is essential to life on earth, and yet, drought and water scarcity, pollution and poor water quality, and flooding from increasingly strong storms have all emerged as persistent crises, both domestically and globally.

A sustainable approach to managing water in our home landscapes can make a big impact on each of these water-related issues. With a few simple steps, we can conserve water resources, stop pollutants from entering natural waterways, and reduce local flood risks.

If you remember two things, let them be these: use low water plants, and absorb as much water back into the ground as possible.

A mix of native Ohio plants
Image via Cleveland.com

To give you some more specific direction, here are some tips:

Use low water native and climate-adapted plants

Choosing plants that require minimal water will—surprise!—cut back on your water use.

Because natives evolved to thrive in local climate conditions, they are often excellent options for low-water planting designs.

You can also opt for climate-adapted species, which come from different parts of the world with climates that resemble local conditions. For example, low water plants from Australia, South Africa, Chile, and the Mediterranean tend to perform well in California’s dry, Mediterranean climate.

Whatever a plant’s origin, choosing species that require minimal supplemental irrigation—ideally none—makes a big difference for water conservation. Especially if you live in an area affected by drought, choose low water, drought tolerant species for your yard.

If you want to reduce your irrigation needs to a minimum, consider xeriscaping, an approach to landscape design that uses plants that, once established, can survive off precipitation alone, with little to no additional irrigation.

Backyard with gravel and lush plantings
Image via Gardening etc.

Absorb water on site

On-site infiltratio—a.k.a. soaking stormwater runoff into the ground on your property—is a water protection trifecta, conserving resources, preventing pollution, and reducing flooding.

When water soaks back into the ground, it restores groundwater supplies for plants and people alike.

As the water percolates down, plants and soil filter out and break down pollutants that had been suspended in the water.

By storing water in the ground, on-site infiltration helps city drains avoid inundation in severe weather.

How can you encourage on-site infiltration? Include plenty of permeable surfaces like gravel beds and mulched planting areas, which allow water to quickly drain through them. Planted areas are the best, as foliage and above-ground roots slow the flow of surface water enough to allow gravity to suck it down.

It’s also useful to incorporate permeable features like bioswales and rain gardens, which are designed to absorb larger volumes of water, to capture water flowing off impermeable surfaces like concrete slabs.

Among impermeable surfaces, driveways are the worst offenders—cars leave all types of nasty stuff on them. Add a swale to capture driveway runoff, and you can do a lot of good for the environment.

Front of house with reduced lawn and gravel seating area.
Image via @theblancobungalow | blancobungalow.com

Reduce lawn

Lawns have high water demands, and require even more water to stay alive and healthy when they are planted in hot, dry climates. So intensive are lawns’ water needs that many drought-stricken cities now offer incentives to replace them with drought tolerant landscaping.

Want to explore rebates for low water landscaping? Have a look at this primer on rebates available in the greater Los Angeles region, as well as as this wider-ranging roundup of rebates offered by cities across the U.S.

Lawns are not just a threat to water conservation. When swept into local drains by rain and hose water, lawn chemicals also pollute water and damage ecosystems downstream.

Cut back on your lawn, and you’ll cut back on water consumption and pollution (just be sure to replace your lawn with permeable surfaces).

Yardzen designed backyard with newly planted tree among mulched planting beds.
Yardzen designed backyard with newly planted tree

Plant trees

When it comes to trees and water, it’s all about roots and canopies.

Above ground, roots create bumps that slow water down, encouraging it to percolate into the ground. Below ground, roots break up the soil, allowing it to absorb more water at a faster rate.

Tree canopies hold raindrops aloft in heavy storms. This reduces the amount of water flowing to drains at storm’s peak, and in turn reduces the chances of local flooding.

Mulched side yard with garden bench
Mulched side yard designed by Yardzen in Seattle

Use mulch

Covering soil with a layer of mulch reduces the amount of moisture it loses to evaporation.

That translates to more moisture available to support plants, and less water you’ll need to add to keep your plants happy.

Use hydrozones

Grouping plants by water needs – only low water plants here, only medium water plants there – allows for more efficient use of irrigation water. (It also makes it simpler to design and install irrigation systems.)

Raised planter beds with drip irrigation near BBQ grill and garden bench
Raised planter beds with drip irrigation in Yardzen designed backyard

Update your irrigation

Using a water-efficient irrigation system makes a big difference in conserving water, and takes virtually no effort beyond installing the system.

Instead of spray irrigation, which loses a lot of water to evaporation, use drip irrigation for pretty much everything but lawns. Drip systems deliver water directly to the root zone, and are highly efficient.

Include a weather sensor in your system to shut down irrigation when rain is expected (you can also do this the old school way turning off your system by hand).

Lastly, don’t forget to periodically inspect your system for integrity – all your work to save water will be moot if it’s leaking from a pipe.

Row of rain barrels in backyard
Image via Great American Rain Barrel

Consider reuse systems

Physical water reuse features store rainwater for later use as irrigation. Rain barrels are the smallest and simplest, typically connecting to downspouts to capture water flowing off rooftops. Cisterns, (a.k.a. big underground tanks) are a level up in volume, cost, and complexity, often requiring excavation to install and pumping systems to function.

Tip: Many cities offer rebates to help homeowners offset the cost of these systems.

While excellent for reducing water consumption and alleviating local flooding, rain barrels and cisterns are not without complications. Dealing with pollutants in the water, preventing mosquito breeding, and devising water distribution methods are examples of some of the challenges that accompany the use of these features. If you’re the handy type with enthusiasm to spare, they’re great options. If you need a dead simple approach to water management, skip the barrels and use planting areas to soak water back into the ground.

Outdoor seating area with fire pit under pergola
Low maintenance and low water backyard designed by Yardzen in Texas

Climate Change

When it comes to your yard, there are easy wins you can achieve that will help to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, capture carbon from the atmosphere, mitigate urban heat islands, and lower hone energy consumption. 

Let’s take a look at each.

Plant trees

Trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and reduce heat islands by shading hardscape spaces. When they cast shade on houses, they can also lower home energy consumption by reducing heating and cooling demands.

Block wall with overhanging foliage
Image via Sunset Mag

Groundcover

Paved materials, especially dark colored ones, absorb heat and contribute to urban heat islands. Opting for light colored paving reflects heat, and keeps the warming effect of hardscape to a minimum (the same principle applies to roofing materials). Planted surfaces are even better, actively cooling ground-level temperatures. Maximize your planted areas, and keep hardscape areas from getting bigger than you need them to be.

No gas-powered equipment

Gas-powered mowers and blowers emit insane amounts of greenhouse gases – not just carbon dioxide, but a whole spectrum of noxious gases. As the NYTimes reports, two-stroke engines used for mowers and blowers are so inefficient that the emissions from 30 minutes of yard work equates to a drive from Texas to Alaska in a Ford F-150 truck. WHAT???

Lucky for us, there are many great electric mowers and blowers out there. Not only will these slash your emissions, they’ll also cut back on noise pollution.

If you don’t have rocks, branches, or lumpy roots to reckon with, mowing with a reel mower is also fantastic. Reel mowers have no engine, and leave clippings right on the ground, where decompose and help to build healthy soil (a practice known as grasscycling). Keeping your grass clippings on site also reduces the volume of yard waste being sent to landfills, an amount which, according to the EPA, can climb as high as 50% of incoming landfill content during peak growing season.

Even better than alternative mowers, reduce your lawn, and let your leaves lie in place!

Lush vegetable garden
Front yard transformed into vegetable garden in San Leandro, CA

Food

Without diving into debate about the complex pros and cons of our food production system, it is a fact that the irrigation, fertilization, and global transportation of fruits and vegetables is directly linked to dire water shortages, ecosystems ravaged by pollution, and massive carbon footprints.

Producing food at home is enormously beneficial, and offers a way to provide ourselves with everything from fruit and vegetables to eggs and honey in a manner that avoids the negative environmental externalities of many industrial food systems.

Suit your situation

Growing anything that you end up eating is a win, not only for the environment, but for your own personal connection to your food and to nature. For those with limited time or space, a few potted herbs or a potted tomato plant is something to take pride in.For those with more space, try using fruit trees as small ornamental features in your planting design – just take care to avoid the canopy extending over paving, where fallen fruit can cause a mess. Next level up is a raised vegetable bed. Start small, and make it easy on yourself by asking your local ag extension or nursery for tips on crops that are easy to grow in your area. If you catch the gardening bug, expand to additional beds. If one bed is enough for you, that’s great too! If you still have time, space, and/or ambition to spare, or you just love eggs, consider adding chicken coop or bee hive to your yard.

Close up of pollinator on a red flower surrounded by different flowering plants in bloom.
Image via Better Homes

Plant pollinators

Adding flowering species to attract pollinator species will support your crops and your local ecosystem in equal measure.

Share your food

Sharing your (hopefully organically) homegrown produce with friends and family is a great way to cultivate environmental stewardship. Homegrown food exemplifies how we can work with nature to produce something that we all benefit from, and calls our attention to the nourishment we receive from natural processes.And if you find yourself drowning in chard (as we have), consider donating your excess produce to local food aid organizations.

Sustainable Landscape Certification Programs

Many of the tips above relate sustainable landscape design; others relate to ongoing landscape practices like eco-friendly maintenance. Homeowners can pursue these steps independently, but there are also programs to help guide them (and honor their effort):

Backyard with outdoor lounge area with fire pit
Backyard filled with drought tolerant and pollinator plants designed by Yardzen

Designing a Sustainable, Stylish, and Satisfying Yard with Yardzen

You don’t need to seek a sustainability certification to do a little good for the world with your yard. You also don’t need to be an expert at landscape design.

If you are interested in making your yard more sustainable, Yardzen can help. Our designers are pros at sustainable landscape design, and can expertly balance your style goals, functional needs, and sustainable aspirations into a high performing, beautiful design that is custom just for you.

Our award-winning online landscape design is tailored to clients in all fifty states in the US. Through the American Rewilding Project, we are committed to creating designs with climate-adapted plants and water saving landscaping in drought-prone regions unless homeowners specifically opt out.

Our design process begins with understanding your space, your aesthetic preferences, and a discussion of your budget and vision to minimize surprises when it comes time to build. 

Once your design is complete, we’ll help you connect with a local contractor from our Pro Network of vetted professional landscapers to install your new design.

Ready to level up the sustainability (and style) of your yard? Create your design profile or explore our design packages today!

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