Sustainable Backyards - Things You Can Do

oakleaf hydrangeas, hosta by a drystream

The first rule of sustainability is to align with natural forces, or at least not try to defy them. ~ Paul Hawken
Last night I attended a talk by Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. She is the grande dame of ecological landscape design.  She told us how, in designing for a school up near the Arctic Circle, they collected seeds from the native plants and propagated them and then planted these babies after the construction was completed.  Now that is sustainable!

Dicranella heteromalia

Sustainable landscapes promote a healthy environment and biosphere:
  • frogs don't die
  • plants thrive
  • rainwater seeps back into the earth
  • lawns are kept to a minimum
  • No pesticides - integrated pest management (IPM) is favored
  • Bees and butterflies have the native host plants around to keep them well fed and breeding

So how to create beautiful outdoor settings that meet these criteria?

photo by Jan Johnsen all rights reserved

Here are my suggestions for a sustainable backyard approach you can use:

1- LOOK TO THE PAST.  Consider the historic ways people did things in your region, this is the best guide for anyone.

2- LOOK TO THE PRESENT.  Keep in mind the energy and water systems that exist where live, the habitats that surround you and know the materials and construction methods that do not adversely impact the environment.

3 - LOOK AT EXAMPLES. Review examples of sustainability in gardens and landscape design that are being used around the world - on a large scale and a small scale.

4 - USE SPECIFIC TECHNIQUES.  Learn the specific things you can do to strengthen the ecosystem in your garden and your neighborhood..

stone path  grace design associates

We need to be aware of our power to affect the interlocking processes of the natural world and consider everything we do from that perspective. The choices you make in your property, even on a small scale, influence the larger natural world around your space : the air and water quality, the water retention, the plants that attract birds and pollinators, the volume of leaves and grass and more.
by Johnsen Landscapes & Pools
Choose materials that foster a environmentally friendly garden - no rubber mulch under the playset and no tropical hardwoods ( unless from approved sources).

I give a 2 hour class that offers ideas for creating sustainable outdoor spaces.  I show how native plants can be used to enhance damp, shady sites, how combinations of flowering plants can create an exuberant display and I explain how to deal with steep slopes that create excessive runoff problems.  

I offer inspiration and practical ideas you can use.

For example, the Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) that I wrote about recently - see this post (click here) - this lovely plant has deep roots that hold loose soil together. It looks great with butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).  Beauty and Function.

The native Blue Flag Iris thrives in wet sites. They can be planted 'en masse' for a spectacular effect. 

Molding the earth can help stop erosion. Vegetated buffers look great, provide habitats and absorb runoff. There are so many great ways to use sustainable design ideas.

Landscape by Johnsen Landscapes & Pools


  1. so wish I could take your class...I talk locally about incorporating native plants into your garden...I so love natives and what they can do if located in the right spot...sounds wonderful...have fun!!

  2. I'm so glad to hear about this class! I never miss an opportunity to take one of your classes...they are always so much fun and I learn so much in one day!
    I look forward to seeing you again in class on Saturday!

  3. Thanks for sharing, its pretty cool. This year I'm looking forward to take a break and enjoy nature as I go for vacation, well maybe after I find some Tx Land For Sale. Anyway I really like your blog and i really appreciate the excellent quality content you are posting here.

  4. very cute..Tx land for sale...ingenious 'link marketing' here.

  5. This sounds like an excellent class! I'm not nearby but I'm gratified to know you're teaching people to plant more natives in the landscape.

    I think your honeysuckle post would be a witty addition to the next edition of How to Find Great Plants. If you're interested in submitting it, here's the link:

  6. I love your Blog and the type of content creation you have used.LED growing lights can be used as either a primary light source or a supplemental light. These lights typically pay for themselves in about 6 months of heavy use.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. I love native plants, but I think real sustainability comes from thinking about drought-tolerance over whether a plant is native or not. Too many natives are simply ugly most of the year. I also don't like how the native-only people are clearing lush areas to plant natives, and allowing them to become overgrown with weeds and grass. It does seem rather racist to exclude plants that have transplanted well to our area! Thanks.

  9. Native plants are really beautiful and there colors are so bright! I have a book about native plants.

    1. I agree. Native plants should be the first place we go when planting up a back yard!


Post a Comment

Hi there! I would love to hear from you....

Popular Posts of all Time

Angelface Blue and Dark Violet Angelonia - a Flower that Keeps Giving

'Purple Smoke' - The best Baptisia

Getting in the 'Flow' by Gardening

No-Fail Tips for Turning Hydrangeas Blue!

Repurposed and Recycled - Creative Ideas for Garden Design

My one day Class Wednesday April 16 in NY - Jan Johnsen