How to choose plants for sustainable landscapes

Last Updated: 
November 5, 2010

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Traditional gardens and lawns increasingly are giving way to those that have a minimal impact on the environment. Generally low-maintenance, a sustainable landscape is a balance between resources and results.

The goal is to create a plant community that becomes easier to care for as it matures, according to an Oregon State University Extension Service publication, "Plant Selection for Sustainable Landscapes."

A key to creating a sustainable landscape is to include plants that are either native to the area or well-adapted to similar growing conditions. These plants need less water and fertilizer and minimal pesticide use.

Interest in native plants for home landscapes is growing. "Natives" grow naturally on undisturbed sites in the local area. Generally, they are better adapted to local growing conditions, less prone to disease and insect problems and provide better habitat (food and shelter) for native wildlife than introduced species.

"However, it's important to realize that natives are not a magic answer to creating sustainable landscapes," according to Carol Savonen, OSU Master Gardener and garden writer. "Some native species have difficulty in home landscapes because the environment is very different from their natural growing conditions."

Many nonnative species also are suitable additions to home landscapes. Look for plants that are not invasive, adapt to a range of growing conditions and provide habitat for local wildlife.

Thoughtful plant selection and proper site preparation can create a sustainable landscape that is a unique blend of well-adapted native and exotic species. By selecting the right plant for the right place, you can reduce greatly the need for water, fertilizer, pesticides and labor.

Proper plant placement also prevents soil erosion, influences summer cooling and winter heating and attracts beneficial insects and wildlife, all of which make the landscape an asset to the local environment. Other factors to consider when selecting plants are hardiness zone, seasonal rainfall, humidity, soil characteristics, available water and the duration and intensity of light.

If you'd like to begin growing a sustainable landscape, however, you might need to change your idea of how a landscape should look, Savonen said. "Perfect lawns, plants and fruits are desirable. But if you adjust your expectations slightly, you can reduce labor and chemicals with pleasing results."

Thousands of varieties of trees, shrubs, vines, perennials and annuals are available. Choose plants carefully; consider both their needs and aesthetic value. Many references are available, such as OSU Extension's Plant Materials for Landscaping: A List of Plants for the Pacific Northwest, PNW 500.

The plant-selection publication (EC 1534), is available online. It encourages pest management practices that have minimal impact on human health, the environment and non-targeted plants and animals. Start by choosing healthy plants that are labeled "resistant" or "tolerant." Put them in the right growing environment and follow good sanitation practices in the garden.

You can remove pests from plants by hand, prune infected areas and protect plants with sticky traps and plant cages. Use chemicals only as a last resort. Start with the least toxic products first and move to more toxic ones only if necessary.

Author: Judy Scott
Source: Carol Savonen