Select a topic to jump to:
Principles of Sustainable Landscaping
Plan and Design; Sample Landscape Design Plans
Irrigation and Water Efficiency
These brochures may also be helpful:
SB County Sustainable Landscape Brochure (2 MB; pdf)
How to Be Water Wise in your Garden (3 MB; pdf)
Working With Your Gardener (1 MB; pdf)
For a side by side case study of a native garden and a traditional garden in Southern California please visit the Sustainable Sites Initiative or see this graphic comparing water use, yard waste, and maintenance time between a traditional garden and a sustainable garden.
Principles of Sustainable Landscaping
Sustainable Landscaping is a way of looking at your landscaping as an integral part of the local environment. Around our homes, we want landscaping to provide functional spaces such as an entertainment area, a children’s play area or a vegetable garden. Landscaping can also provide functional purposes such as erosion control, privacy or shade or warmth for the house. All of these elements require input and effort to sustain.
The typical landscape requires many inputs: time, money, labor, water, chemicals, and fertilizers. Most homeowners would be happy to reduce the amount of time, money, and labor that goes into their yards. The environment also benefits from decreased use of resources such as water, and potentially polluting elements such as chemicals and fertilizers.
Our landscapes also create wastes which most of us never think of: plant trimmings and weeds, polluted runoff from the use of chemicals and fertilizers, and water lost by evaporation from plants and soils.
The concept of sustainable landscaping asks us to examine the input and output of our landscaping and find ways to minimize both. Applying the following principles can save you time and money, and create a beautiful landscape that is environmentally responsible.
Plan and Design; Sample Landscape Design Plans
In order to have a sustainable landscape, you must first start with planning. This is the most important phase! When you begin to plan, first analyze your site. Make note of the unique traits of the location, such as conditions of sun and shade, ground slope, available moisture, soil type, and air movement. By considering these factors and planning with them in mind, the resulting landscape will be easier to maintain.
Next you should consider how you want to use your landscaping. There are many functions for a garden: to provide beauty, a place for children to play, space for growing food, erosion control, wildlife habitat, and climate control.
Consider your local climate and try to orient patios for the benefits of sun or shade. Place trees or vines near the house to block the summer sun and lower temperatures. The planning phase is also a time to propose solutions to problems, such as hard clay soil or poor drainage. Laying out the design on paper and on the ground will help you identify problems and solutions.
For sample landscape design plans, user-friendly tools and landscape templates to help design and install beautiful, water-smart landscapes, visit the H2ouse website.
Graywater is defined as "untreated used household water that does not contain human wastes.” Examples of graywater include wastewater from bathubs, showers, bathroom washbasins, clothes washers, and laundry tubs. On average up to 40 gallons per person of graywater is available to be recycled on a daily basis.
Irrigating your landscaping with graywater will save precious potable water resources, thereby conserving water and saving money. The average family of four can save about 30,000-40,000 gallons of water per year. There are also many other benefits to using graywater.
The benefits of graywater recycling include conserving potable water, using less energy and chemicals, encouraging plant growth, reclaiming other wasted nutrients and easing the strain on septic tanks.
Laundry to Landscape is a how to video on installation of a simple, efficient, economical, and easy to use graywater system. This video shares basic information needed to install a home graywater system including the tools, parts, installation tricks, options and special situations you are likely to encounter. Visit your local Santa Barbara County Library Branch to check out a copy of this great video by local graywater expert Art Ludwig.
Visit these additional resources for more information:
Laundry to Landscape Graywater Systems
More Graywater Information
California Graywater Code
Graywater Fact Sheet for SB County
H20use - Water Saver Home
Sample Plan - Laundry to Landscape
Keep that green lawn feel without the high water bills. There are many lawn alternative plants that are sustainable and water-wise, reducing the amount of labor, chemicals and water required by a lawn. Please view the following resources:
Climate Appropriate Grasses (PDF) 4 page overview of less-thirsty grasses
Water Wise Lawn Alternatives (PDF) 30 page photo book
Lawn Alternatives (PDF) 2 page grass info sheet
Sheet Mulching Flyer (PDF) 2 page flyer on removing your lawn the natural way
Healthy soil is an important foundation for every landscape. Dealing with problem soils can take up much of the time spent in maintaining a yard. Aspects of soil composition, slope, and need for amendments must all be considered. Characteristics of the soil can help determine the best choice of plants and irrigation systems for your landscape.
Different soils have varying water needs. Clay soils absorb water slowly and cause surface runoff if watered too quickly. Sandy soils dry quickly because of fast downward percolation. Soil amendments, such as nitrolized redwood bark or compost, will improve either type of soil. Composting your garden wastes serves an important dual purpose: it decreases the amount of materials taken to the landfill and provides valuable, organic amendment for your soil.
Mulching can help your landscape no matter what the soil conditions. Mulch covers and cools the soil, minimizes evaporation, eliminates weed growth and slows erosion. As mulch decomposes, nutrients are added to the soil. Bark chips and wood shavings make attractive organic mulches. Visit the Soil Types and Testing page of rain.org for more information.
Choosing plants for your yard is an important step in making the landscape sustainable. Besides the usual consideration of how the plant looks, there are other important factors to keep in mind when selecting the plant materials for your garden. Visit the Virtual Garden Tours & Plant Database for plant lists tailored for Santa Barbara County.
Low water using plants:
In our semi-arid climate, the water requirements of a plant are an important consideration. There are many beautiful, low-water using plants available locally. To avoid maintenance conflicts, group plants with similar water, sun, shade, and soil requirements.
Reduce size of lawn:
Lawns can be an attractive and useful part of a landscape, but are not considered “sustainable landscaping” due to the large inputs of water, labor and often chemicals to keep them healthy. Many people find that even while reducing the lawn area, they can still meet the need for children’s or pet’s play area. A smaller lawn requires less labor and resources. When mowing the lawn, clippings can be left on the surface as mulch. Although there are no truly "drought tolerant" turf grasses, some varieties do use less water.
Anticipate plant size and reduce pruning:
Choose plants that will grow to an appropriate size for the area you are planting. If a plant that grows into a tree is selected for a hedge, the result is endless pruning: more work for you and more material for the landfill. Many reference books will include the mature size of plants.
Decrease plant disease:
Before you select a plant, find out if it has pest problems locally. Some plants are more susceptible to disease and insects, requiring more effort and pesticides or herbicides to keep them alive. If plants do develop disease, look for biological controls (insects) or non-chemical means of easing the problem.
Native plants are low-water, fertilizer and pesticide users. They require little maintenance and they provide habitat for local wildlife. Native deep rooting bushes can decrease erosion with little maintenance.
Careful of Invasive Plants:
Some semi-arid exotic plants grow like crazy. This seems great for your garden however, some can take over wild native plants that keep our watersheds healthy and provide habitat and food for wildlife. Here are a few examples of invasive plants: Pampus Grass, Fountain Grass etc.
Firewise landscaping can protect your life as well as your property during a wildfire by creating defensible space around your home. Firewise landscapes can also be waterwise. For more information, visit the Firescape Garden on the corner of Stanwood Dr. and Mission Ridge Rd. in Santa Barbara and view the High Fire Hazard Area Desirable Plant List and the following links:
From the Virtual Garden Tours & Plant Database
From the Garden Wise TV Show
Garden Wise: Dynamic Organics
Episodes 6, 7, and 9 from Garden Wise Guys
Water Use Classifications of Landscape Species:
The WUCOLS plant list provides guidance to landscape professionals when selecting plant material while taking into consideration water needs. It also serves as a guide to assist in developing irrigation schedules for existing landscapes.
Irrigation and Water Efficiency
In the semi-arid climate of the Central Coast, water is the most limited resource that goes into the landscape. The choice of irrigation systems and techniques has great impact on the efficiency of water use. Benefits of efficient water use, besides a lower water bill, include a healthier garden and less work.
Right Time of Day:
Water early in the morning when there is little or no wind and minimal sunlight. Water slowly and thoroughly during cool, windless hours in the early morning before 10 AM or in the late afternoon after 4 PM. High winds blow away the water and prevent proper coverage.
Adjust with the Season:
Change automatic irrigation system settings to reflect the season. When it is raining, turn the system off. Or ask your local purveyor about ETo irrigation Controllers.
Apply organic mulch around all shrubs and trees. Mulch reduces evaporation loss, minimizes weeds, and adds organic matter to the soil. Don't forget to reapply mulch once it has broken down.
Check for Leaks in Pipes, Hoses, Faucets and Couplings:
Leaks outside the house may not seem as unbearable since they don't mess up the floors or drive you crazy at night. But they can be just as wasteful as leaks in the line from the water meter-even more wasteful. Monitor your sprinkler heads, and adjust the sprinkler heads as needed. Periodically check irrigation lines for leaks. Check all sprinkler heads and drip emitters while system is on at least twice per year for breaks and misalignment.
Deep-soak Your Lawn:
When you do water your lawn, do it just long enough for water to seep down to the roots, where it won't evaporate quickly, and where it will do the most good. A light sprinkling, which sits on the surface, will simply evaporate and be wasted. A slow, steady fall of water is the best way to irrigate your lawn.
Install a Water Efficient Irrigation System:
Consider a water saving drip irrigation system that provides a slow, steady supply of water to garden shrubs, etc. Use separate irrigation valves for each type of planting so individual scheduling is possible. If the pressure in your area is high, install a pressure regulator to reduce water usage, and minimize sprinkler problems.
Rain gardens are made from shallow depressions and capture and infiltrate rainwater. The rain garden area is planted and mulched. These low spots collect rainwater during wet periods. Water from downspouts or drainage swales can be directed to a rain garden. Please view the following resources:
San Luis Obispo Rainwater Guide (PDF) 36 page booklet
Ocean Friendly Gardens Program
Slow it, Sink it, Spread it; A homeowners guide to greening stormwater runoff- by Santa Cruz RCD (PDF) 48 page booklet
Also visit our Smart Irrigation page.
You can create a garden that attracts and supports a variety of wildlife. Birds, butterflies, and lizards can add an interesting and entertaining element to your garden. Learn more about how to design a garden to attract or deter wildlife in your garden by visiting the Virtual Garden Tours plant lists or the Las Pilitas Nursery Wildlife Garden page.
For more information on becoming a Certified Water Manager through the California Landscape Contractors Association, visit the CLCA website.
The Water Use Classifications of Landscape Species (WUCOLS) plant list provides guidance to landscape professionals when selecting plant material while taking into consideration water needs. It also serves as a guide to assist in developing irrigation schedules for existing landscapes.