12 Sustainable Gardening Ideas From Landscape Design Pros

In addition to creating inspiring outdoor spaces and dreamworthy gardens, landscape designers and architects also make our yards more sustainable and earth-friendly.  We spoke with several landscape designers on Houzz who described how installing rain gardens, converting lawns to native meadows, plant low-water gardens and utilizing other practices can result in beautiful gardens with environmental benefits.

Take a look at the following 12 sustainable landscaping ideas.  Which ones could you see adopting for a greener gardening approach at home?

1. Reclaim Spaces, Rather Than Tear Them Down

If you're starting a garden renovation, it's tempting to want to tear everything out and start with a clean slate.  However, replacing all plants, hardscape and structures can lead to added costs and unnecessary waste.  If possible, look for ways to reimagine spaces and reuse existing materials.

Landscape designers David and Jennifer Hoxsie of Greenhaven Landscapes revived this site of a former dairy barn and grain silo on their clients' property in Illinois.  Instead of tearing down the crumbling remains of the barn and the unused silo, the designers integrated them into a new walled garden and bocce court, keeping truckloads of concrete onsite and out of a landfill.  "It was a balancing act of wanting to create an inviting, finished space while embracing the aged, imperfect character of the site," David says.

Now, the new design retains the history and the materials of the site while providing a fresh, usable outdoor space for the homeowners.  The Hoxsies planted the side of the bocce court that borders open space with a mix of native prairie plants, seen here in the foreground, to help support native insects and wildlife.

2. Use Local and Reusable Materials

If you're investing in new building and hardscape materials for a landscape project, try to choose long-lasting ones that have been sustainably obtained and locally sourced.  Locally sourced materials will have had to travel shorter distances than exotic ones, reducing the material's carbon footprint and potentially reducing its cost to the homeowner.

Houston-based landscape architect Falon Mihalic advocates using local stone in landscape projects. "Like locally sourced wood, stone i a sustainable building choice for the landscape when it is purchased from a nearby source," Mihalic says.  "Local stone lasts a lifetime.  You will not have to send it to a landfill ever, because it can be reused again and again," the designer adds.

3. Include a Water Source

Water features of any kind - fountains, birdbaths or backyard ponds - can be places that attract wild creatures for bathing and drinking.  This is particularly important in cities and suburbs, where neutral water sources have been all but eliminated.

The designers of this London backyard went a step further to welcome wildlife by adding a naturalistic pond with water-loving plants along the edge and a safety dock for birds to land or turtles to sun themselves in the center.

4. Use Local Native Plants

Using plants native to your geographical region connects your landscape to larger ecosystems, invites wildlife and decreases the need for supplemental water and fertilizer, as regionally native plants are adapted to native soils and climates.  Plus, they also make for beautiful, dynamic gardens.

Pictured here, an all-native meadow garden in Southern California creates an urban oasis for migratory birds and pollinators.  Plants include many regional native plants, including big berry manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca), toyon (Heteromeles artbutifolia) and a mixture of penstemons, globe mallows and sages.

If you're new to planting natives and looking for inspiration, landscape designer and sustainable gardening expert Benjamin Vogt recommends checking out local plant preserves and arboretums.  "They will give you an idea of what plants work well with each other aesthetically and ecologically," the Nebraska-based designer says.

You can also read an abundance of native gardening guides on Houzz and connect with a native expert in your area.

5. Add Pollinator-Friendly Plants

Even if you don't have n entirely native plant garden, include some plants that are friendly to birds, butterflies and bees for a planting scheme that supports local wildlife.  When planting pollinator-friendly blooms, mass them in clumps or bands so they can be spotted from a distance.

In this Paris rooftop garden, landscape designer Kevin Clare used a row of yellow yarrow (Achilliea sp.) and magenta valerian (Centranthus sp.) both favored by bees and butterflies, to add color and support pollinators in the city. 

6. Harvest Rainwater

Capturing rainwater can help save water on a small scale.  A rain barrel connected to a home's downspouts allows one to capture the runoff from the roof for use in drier months.  In this garden in San Luis Obispo, California, designed by Gabriel Frank, an attractive terra-cotta-colored rain barrel with a handy hose attachment allows for easy water dispensing to use on garden beds in the dry season.

Tip: Before you purchase or install a rain barrel, be sure to check local laws.  Certain states have issued rainwater-harvesting restrictions. 

7. Plant a Rain Garden

Rain gardens channel stormwater into a sunken, planted garden area, where it can slowly soak into the ground, as opposed to stormwater drains that send the water off-site. 

Adding a rain garden leads to a cascade of environmental benefits.  "Rain gardens help purify surface water and recharge groundwater, which is important for salmon-safe gardening in the Pacific Northwest," says landscape designer Amy Whitworth.  The gravel and soil of a rain garden act as a filter, helping to purify runoff of harmful pollutants, such as hydrocarbons, heavy metals, fertilizer, pesticides and more. "Cleaner water leads to healthier rivers and watersheds, which is better for all wildlife and people," the designer adds.

Whitworth, of Plan-it Earth Design, created this rain garden in Portland, Oregon, between two houses, directing roof runoff from both into a dry steambed.  She used plants such as heavenly bamboo (Namdina domestica), a mix of grass-like carex varieties and goodneck loosestrife (Lyimachia clethroides) - all plants that don't mind moisy soil - to soften the edges.

Rain gardens do more than reduce stormwater runoff.  "Amended soils of a rain garden help to create a living sponge that absorbs and holds water longer for plants," Whitworth says, which leads to healthier soils and gardens that need less supplemental water.  Plus, rain gardens planted with native and pollinator-friendly plants can become habitat areas for birds, insects, frogs, turtles and other wildlife. 

8. Use Permeable Hardscape Surfaces

Choosing hardscape materials that allows for water to run through them is another way to keep rainwater on site. In this Melbourne garden, the designers at Bayon Gardens used permeable paving for pathways and patios.  Here, gravel covers a walkway leading to a fire feature, acting as a filter for rainwater to percolate back into the soil.  Wood pieces in guide the path and provide a place to put your feet.

9. Eliminate Pesticide Use

Boost he health of your garden - and surrounding environment - by vowing to ditch pesticides.  "The use of pestiides in the landscape affects not only damaging insects but beneficial insects as well, such as bees and butterflies that we rely on for pollination," says landscape consultant Noelle Johnson.

Instead of spraying plants with chemicals, Johnson recommends a more hands-off approach to pest control.  "The majority of plants can easily handle some damage from insects without seriously affecting the health of the plant," she says.  "When you first spot damaging insects in your garden, usually within a couple of weeks beneficial insects will show that will eat those bad bugs. For example, when aphids appear, lacewings and ladybugs will soon follow and feast upon them.

10. Put Green Waste to Good Use

Instead of tossing grass and garden clippings in the waste bin, set up a home compost station.  "Compost provides critical organic matter for soil texture and food for soil organisms," says landscape designer Patricia Larenas of Urban Artichoke Fine Gardening.  After all, healthy soil leads to healthy gardens.

If you're new to composting, starting with an organized system can help you get the hang of it and prevent a pile from getting out of hand. For her Bay Area clients in this project, Larenas installed a standard three-compartment bin system (each with a 3-foot-by-3-foot interior) to turn over the compost as it breaks down.  The fully broken-down compost is used to enrich nearby edible garden beds without the use of synthetic supplements, returning vital nutrients to the soil after a growing season.

11. Turn a Lawn Into a Naturalistic Meadow

If you're considering eliminating a traditional lawn or reducing its size, look to this naturalistic meadow designed by Ari Tenenbaum of Revolution Landscape for inspiration.  The design incorporates many of the ideas we've already discussed-using native plants, including pollinator-friendly plants, keeping rainwater on site and reducing the need for supplemental water and maintenance - for a beautiful backyard design.

Tenenbum regraded the yard, which had been a neglected traditional lawn, and installed boulders and rocky basins to catch rainwater from the client's roof.  Next he planted a sanddune sedge (carex pansa) with a mix of flowering lavender, verbena, and sweet alyssum, which benefits birds, bees and butterflies. "I would estimate this meadow will use about 30-50 percent less water annually, as compared to a traditional lawn," he says - not to mention it will cut down on maintenance. 

12. Leave an Area Wild

Resist the urge to landscape all areas of your yard, particularly if you are lucky enough to live on a larger lot.  Leaving margins wild helps provide wildlife corridors for animals to move through urban and suburban spaces with places to rest, feed and find shelter. 

The Northern California garden designed by Bluewagon Landscape and Design features pools, lawns and more manicured garden areas, but a large portion of the property that includes native oak trees and a creek was left natural.  This not only cuts down on maintenance and provides habitat, it also makes for a gorgeous landscape that feels rooted in its natural site. 

Lauren Dunec Hoang;houzz contributor