The Trend Toward Conservation Landscaping

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Frost glistens on Muhly Grass and Asters at the Sentera Martha Jefferson Hospital demonstration garden. Photo: Bill Sublette.

By Bev Thierwechter
Piedmont Master Gardener

Home gardeners are increasingly turning to more eco-friendly practices. Designed to benefit the environment, conservation landscaping is becoming more popular among those who want their home landscape to be in balance with its natural surroundings. It requires only minimal resource inputs (e.g., water, fertilizer, maintenance) and is self-sustaining over long periods of time. This approach applies common sense and sustainable principles to landscape design and plant selection. It employs techniques that promote good soil health, protect clean air and water, provide wildlife habitat, conserve resources such as energy and water, and reduce waste.

While conventional landscaping focuses on ornamental value, conservation landscaping incorporates a mindful approach to landscaping choices and their impact on the environment and human health and well-being. Plus, the tools in your conservation landscaping toolbox can save you time and money in the long term.

Since more than 90 percent of the land in Virginia is privately owned, homeowners can have a substantial impact on local ecosystems by moving to conservation landscaping on their properties. You can start small by using these principles in an existing bed or a new garden. Or you can go big by using sustainable practices throughout a new home’s yard or by renovating an entire existing landscape.

Make a Design Plan

Regardless of the size or scope of your landscaping project, begin by understanding the natural elements of your site. Take the time to do an analysis of your site and a basic assessment of its strengths and challenges. This is important for new landscaping, total renovations or small-scale jobs. Visualize the functional elements you want and how best to incorporate those in the design. Think of both short-term (rain barrel, compost bin) and long-term (new pollinator bed, rain garden) goals. Remember, any plan will take time to implement and for plantings to mature. Determine what is within your budget, visually pleasing, environmentally friendly, and maintainable.

Start with the Soil

First, get a soil test to find out what amendments are needed for your garden and lawn areas. The Piedmont area is known for its thick clay soil and for dense compaction that will stunt root growth and allow less water infiltration. Following soil test recommendations for fertilizer, organic materials and nutrients can build healthy soil by increasing permeability, aeration and drainage, which will improve plant health and decrease water runoff. Using compost in your landscape can reduce the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, improve soil structure and water infiltration, and promote healthy plants.

Follow the Mantra ‘Right Plant, Right Place’

Plant native trees, plants, and shrubs that are appropriate for your USDA plant hardiness zone. Native plants are adapted to your area and, once established, use fewer resources than non-native plants. Thus, they require less maintenance and will help rebuild the local environment. For example, native plants provide food and shelter for pollinators and other wildlife that have evolved alongside them. Avoid or remove invasive plants, which can outcompete natives and degrade habitat and quality and availability of food for wildlife. Good resources abound to pick appropriate native plants in the Piedmont area and for all of Virginia, and to match the conditions and characteristics of your landscape (plantvirginianatives.org). The Virginia Native Plant Society offers a list of nurseries that specialize in native plants, and thanks to Piedmont Master Gardeners and our partners in the Plant Northern Piedmont Natives campaign, other local nurseries and garden centers are promoting and making more native plants available.

UVA rain garden, an example of right plant, right place. Photo: Michelle Mrdeza.

Limit the Lawn

There are many reasons to reduce the size of lawns, which cover the majority of suburban and rural home landscapes in the U.S. Lawns require more fertilizer and water than other plantings, and often result in runoff that can pollute local land and waterways. As largely sterile environments, lawns provide little to support our pollinators and other native wildlife and limit the diversity of plants that are essential for our natural ecosystems to thrive.

Manage Water Usage

Use water wisely. Conserving water can range from watering only as much as needed by a hand to installing a slow irrigation system, adding rain barrels, building a rain garden, and applying mulch. It also includes measures to manage stormwater runoff.

Avoid Use of Chemicals

Stressed or weakened plants are more susceptible to disease and pest problems. Consider prevention the first line of defense. Buy healthy, disease-resistant plant varieties, then plant and care for them according to directions. Plant a diverse selection of plants, rather than multiple plantings of a single species. If treatment is necessary, look first at nonchemical options, like physical barriers, pruning, sanitation, mulching or better plant choices. Turn to chemical options as a last resort. Consult the 2021 Pest Management Guide from Virginia Cooperative Extension and follow its Integrated Pest Management recommendations for the specific disease or insect pest involved.

Conserve Energy

Placement of trees and shrubs can be an important component of energy conservation in your landscape, yielding significant savings in home heating and cooling costs. Evergreens planted on the north and west of the home block winter winds and create summer shade. Deciduous trees can be planted on the south side of the house, so that the leaves will block the hot summer sun and allow sunlight to warm the home in winter after the leaves fall.

Conserve Resources

Use recycled building materials in your landscape. For example, used bricks, broken concrete or reclaimed permeable paving stones can be used for retaining walls, raised bed framing, or garden pathways. Recycled plastic might be appropriate for a deck or fencing.

Make It Your Own

For example, simply replace some lawn with a garden bed or add a large permeable pavement patio. Any conservation landscaping project you implement will have an impact and can inspire other gardeners to become better stewards of the environment.

Interested in learning more? Explore the comprehensive guidelines on conservation landscaping principles, techniques and best practices published by the Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council (chesapeakelandscape.org/wp-content/uploads/ 2014/04/8_elements_2013.pdf). In addition, visit piedmontmastergardeners.org for information on many sustainable gardening practices. 

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