Principles of a Sustainable Landscape Design

Through our work in promoting the use of native plants in landscaping, we have observed that homeowners and gardeners are becoming increasingly aware of the positive impacts they can have on the natural world.  At the same time, they are looking for ways they can sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

In a weekly article I receive online, landscape architects were asked to rate the expected popularity of a variety of residential outdoor design elements in 2016.  Here are the top trends in landscape design, according to the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA):

  • Rainwater/graywater harvesting-88%
  • Native plants-86%
  • Native/adapted drought tolerant plants-85%
  • Low maintenance landscapes-85%
  • Permeable paving-77%
  • Fire pits/fireplaces-75%
  • Food/vegetable gardens (including orchard, vineyards, etc.)-75%
  • Rain gardens-73%
  • Drip irrigation-72%
  • Reduced lawn area-72%

These trends highlight the importance homeowners place on a functional landscape – landscapes that reflect their values and life style, gardens that center on solutions to problems rather than creating additional problems.  Invest your time and energy in something that can make a significant difference.   Think about these four principles as your develop your own sustainable landscape design.

Principle #1 – Treat Water as a Valuable Resource

We have seen the dramatic results of the drought in the west.  Throughout 2011 and 2012, we endured our own drought here in Kansas.  Certainly, the extremes we faced were not as severe as in places like California or Texas, but the impact on our landscapes can still be seen.  Water demand was at an all-time high.  Our landscapes were losing water faster than it could be replaced.  In the aftermath, people began to ask tough questions about water use, irrigation practices, plant material and rainwater collection.

A sustainable design focuses on proper plant selection (i.e. native plants), drip irrigation if necessary and rain gardens or collection points to capture storm water.  This new approach to design keeps water in the proper perspective.

ArbFlowers_May06- 007

Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ is a native, drought tolerant perennial

Principle #2 – Value Your Soil

Like water, soil is a finite resource.  There are choices we can make to improve our soil and to reduce or eliminate runoff and soil erosion in our landscape.

A sustainable design uses deep rooted perennials and grasses to hold the soil.  These plants can be combined in appealing combinations.  Beautiful blooms, textures and forms serve functional purposes in the design.

Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

“Twilight Zone” little bluestem                                                   Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Principle #3 – Choose Native Plants

In my opinion, your first choice in a landscape should always be native plants.  There are so many wonderful plants to choose for your landscape.  I know there are some amazing adaptable perennials too, but if you start with a base of natives, you will be rewarded year after year.

A sustainable design matches appropriate plants to the site.  Right plant, right place.


Native planting at Sunset Elementary in Newton, KS

Principle #4 – Don’t Be Wasteful

Does your landscape add to the landfill?  How much waste does it produce each year?  Lawns are an important functional element in the landscape.  I need a space for my children and pets to roam.  They can also generate large quantities of yard waste, especially if you collect grass clippings.  Do we need a huge lawn or can it be reduced in size and replaced with beautiful wildflowers, grasses and ornamental trees and shrubs?

A sustainable design evaluates every aspect of the landscape with the goal to reduce your negative environmental impact, while including features that are beneficial to the natural world and beautiful at the same time.


These homeowners chose to reduce lawn by replacing with wildflowers and shrubs.

It’s simple: By gardening with native plants, no matter where you live or how small or large your space is, you can help sustain wildlife.” – Doug Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home


Still wanting more information? You may find some helpful hints on our “Landscaping with Native Plants” page. Or, you may wish to sign up for a Native Landscaping Class and/or visit with one of our staff at the FloraKansas Native Plant Sale, April 21-25.


Is Your Gumbo Soil Making You Sing the Blues?

Our soil here in Kansas is gumbo.  Not the delicious soup, but heavy clay.  It is clay all the time and all the time it is clay.  I have tried to describe it to others, but it needs to be experienced.  They may say they have something similar, but for us who endure it and garden in it and curse it, it is exasperating.  Unbelievable, really.

Clay soil is often too wet or too dry.  When wet, it sticks to your shoes and tools like a leach.  Every step you take makes you one inch taller.  When dry, it is like concrete, impenetrable, and cracks wide open.

Do you ever feel like you need one of these to work in your clay soil?

Do you ever feel like you need one of these to work in your clay soil?

I had a gentleman from Ohio work with me one spring.  Every morning with anticipation I awaited his next derogatory comment about our clay soils.  He really grew to dislike it and even questioned my sanity for trying to garden in it.  “I have never seen anything like it!” he said.  He was so ready to go back home to his beautiful Midwestern soil.

Our soil is amazing stuff – no doubt – and it presents challenges for growing plants. But let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of clay soil.

Positives of clay soils (Yes. There are a few.)

  • It holds water well – The fine particles are porous retaining water and holding it tightly.
  • It holds nutrients well – The tiny particles are negatively charged attracting many positive elements like phosphorus, potassium and other minor nutrients.

Negatives of clay soils

  • Low water infiltration rate (usually one inch per hour)
  • Shrinks and swells with moisture
  • Keeps root zone wet for prolonged periods, which is problematic for drought-tolerant native plants
  • Slow to warm in the spring
  • Compacts easily when worked wet
  • Often so tight that plant roots cannot grow

Tips for improving clay soils

So, do we have any hope of improving our clay soil? It can be done, but will require some work.

  • Organic matter, organic matter and more organic matter is what it will take to improve your soil.  Put down at least six to eight inches of organic matter on the entire area you want to enhance.  Organic matter can include shredded leaves, compost, grass clippings or aged manure.
  • Next, you must till the organic matter into the soil to a depth of at least six inches or deeper.  Keep in mind that the deeper you go the more benefit to the soil you will realize.
  • When complete, the bed will be built up several inches.  Not to worry, it will settle over time as the organic matter continues to break down and melt into the clay.  It will take several seasons to fully accomplish the desired result which is a soil that is manageable.
  • Add organic matter on an annual basis for a garden or initially when establishing a new display bed.
Planting Shrubs in our Prairie Window Project

Volunteers planting shrubs in our Prairie Window Project.

It is very difficult to improve an established bed.  Adding mulch will improve it over time as the mulch begins to decompose.  Any new plants that are established can benefit by digging a hole at least twice as big as needed and incorporating compost and existing soil together as you back fill around the root ball.  Don’t just put compost around the roots as you back fill, because it will discourage the plant from rooting out into your gumbo soil.  It is essentially like repotting the plant in the soil.  The roots will only grow in the loose compost.

You will be rewarded for your efforts.  Even a little compost mixed with your gumbo will improve your soil.  Mulch it with two to three inches of mulch and over time you will develop a soil where plants thrive.  Don’t let your soil get the best of you.