The Well-Dressed Garden: Climate-smart landscape ideas

By Marty Ross
Universal Uclick

         Take care of your plants, and you're taking care of the planet: There are lots ways to make a difference for the environment and keep a beautiful garden, too.

         Landscape architect Pamela Conrad grew up on a farm in Missouri and took her love of nature and the outdoors out west, to a professional practice in San Francisco, where she puts environmentally smart landscaping ideas to work. Her climate-positive design initiative, launched for landscape architects and garden designers, was founded to help these professionals manage the carbon footprint of their projects. But the concepts she advocates apply just as well to our own backyards. Even a tiny garden can conserve precious resources.

You can reduce the size of your lawn by adding a flower bed. Shrubs, perennials and a fountain are all pretty garden features, and they make this garden more attractive to birds and pollinators.

         Right off the bat, it's important to put certain assumptions aside. "People associate green with good, and that's not always the case when it comes to high-maintenance, high-resource landscapes," Conrad says. Typical lawns, pampered with frequent watering, pumped up with chemical fertilizers and maintained with gas-powered equipment, are actually carbon emitters, she says. In projects large and small, reducing the size of a lawn saves resources in many ways -- including reducing the amount of time and energy spent on its maintenance.

         Homeowners "have lots of opportunities to make a difference in the way they design or maintain their landscapes," Conrad says. One easy way to support a healthier environment is to plant more trees, she suggests. Trees, especially deciduous trees, are environmental heroes that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it, which helps slow the warming of the earth's atmosphere. Conrad also recommends reducing the use of hard, impermeable paving, substituting with gravel or permeable paving, so rainwater can seep into the ground instead of running off into storm drainage systems. She suggests using compost or organic fertilizers instead of chemical fertilizers, and, in her projects, she specifies native plants wherever possible. Although her projects tend to be large in scale, these practices are all perfectly appropriate for home gardens, she says.

         Conrad's toolkit for designers (on the Climate Positive Design website) lists dozens of tips and ideas for environmentally friendly landscape practices. If you're redesigning an existing landscape, you may be able to reuse existing pavers or bricks in a new design instead of sending old materials to a landfill, she says. She also advocates planting in layers -- with a canopy of trees, an understory of shrubs and groundcover perennials -- to give a garden dimension and character, to reduce runoff and to create habitats for birds, butterflies and other pollinators.

If you have a small lawn, a walk-behind reel mower may be all you need. Electric mowers on the market today make quick and tidy work of medium-sized lawns, and they never need gas or an oil change.

         The positive results of these efforts are not just a matter of speculation. In case studies of design projects, Conrad discovered that making a few changes -- such as planting more trees and shrubs, reducing lawn area and using permeable paving instead of concrete -- made a significant difference in the projects' carbon footprints. The changes reduced the carbon footprint by 80 percent or more in some cases, and often shaved 20 years or more off the time required for a project to achieve the final goal of becoming carbon neutral.

         By encouraging designers to make a few environmentally friendly design changes, "within the next 10 years, we could take more carbon dioxide out of the air than we are emitting," Conrad says. It's a lofty environmental goal for garden professionals, but it also pays off economically because environmentally sound landscapes cost less to maintain than designs with extensive lawns and plants that are not adapted to the site.

         Regulations of emissions are already moving to the forefront of environmental policy in every region, but there's no reason to wait for regulations, Conrad says. "We have ways to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere every day." Her pathfinder tool, and the projects she and colleagues are already working on, are designed to set an example right now, to help inspire change. Ecologically smart landscaping is "a type of activism that does not require policies," Conrad says. You can be an environmental champion in your own backyard.