Barbara W. Ellis: 6 Tips for Creating an Eco-Friendly Landscape

ellis_chesapeakeWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Barbara W. Ellis, author of Chesapeake Gardening and Landscaping: The Essential Green Guide. What if, one step at a time, we could make our gardens and landscapes more eco-friendly? Ellis’s colorful, comprehensive guide shows homeowners, gardeners, garden designers, and landscapers how to do just that for the large and beautiful Chesapeake Bay watershed region. This area includes Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Washington, D.C., and part of West Virginia (translating to portions of USDA Zones 6, 7, and 8). Here, mid-Atlantic gardeners, from beginners to advanced, will find the essential tools for taking steps to make their gardens part of the solution through long-term planning and planting.

In today’s post, Ellis shares some simple ways gardeners can transform their landscapes into eco-friendly environments. Check out her blog, Eastern Shore Gardener, for more gardening ideas. 


Whether you want to redesign your entire landscape, find a project for this weekend, or simply reduce overall outdoor maintenance, taking steps to make your garden greener, or more sustainable, may be the answer. Sustainable landscaping is a way to design and care for yards, gardens, and the larger landscape to create outdoor spaces that are attractive and healthy for humans, wildlife, pets, and the environment as a whole. Growing greener does not have to entail huge effort or become a life-altering process. While enthusiastic gardeners may be inspired to plant a wildflower meadow or create a native woodland garden, far simpler steps also can be beneficial.

Chesapeake Gardening & Landscaping: The Essential Green Guide presents six principles any gardener can use to enhance their landscape and guide it toward sustainability.

1. Reduce Lawn

Replacing even a small patch of lawn with shrubs or other plants helps reduce water runoff, hydrocarbon use, and chemicals released into the environment. It also reduces maintenance: No more weekly mowing. Smother patches of grass with 8 to 10 sheets of newspaper topped by 3 to 4 inches (or more) of mulch. The following season, plant right through the mulch. Focus on eliminating lawn where grass does not grow well, such as shady areas, or concentrate on slopes or inconvenient patches that take extra time to mow. Ideally, replant with native ground covers, perennials, grasses, or shrubs.

Hostas and native Christmas ferns replace lawn on a slope that would be difficult to mow.
Hostas and native Christmas ferns replace lawn on a slope that would be difficult to mow.

2. Build Plant Diversity

Planting a wide variety of different plants makes a landscape more sustainable because it supports a wider variety of birds and other wildlife. Groups of trees and shrubs underplanted with ground covers, perennials, and other plants create cover and nesting sites for birds and also protect soil and reduce runoff. Dense plantings also help prevent weeds from gaining a foothold. Trees are particularly valuable because of their vital role in cooling the air around them, reducing runoff, and capturing carbon dioxide as well as other pollutants.

3. Grow Native Plants

Planting native plants increases sustainability as well. Native plants are adapted to the soils and weather extremes of the region. Once established, they require less maintenance than many non-native species. Another reason native plants are important is that they form the basis of a rich food chain that begins with insects and sustains cherished native wildlife such as songbirds, butterflies, box turtles, and more. The more natives in the landscape, the richer the food chain and the wider variety of wildlife. Like all plants, natives require good care at planting time, regular watering until they are established, and basic attention through the year to keep them looking their best.

4. Manage Water Runoff

Water that flows off rooftops, over compacted lawns, and down driveways carries with it everything from oil and pesticides to grass clippings and eroded soil. All is eventually deposited in streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay. Less runoff translates into cleaner water, healthier fish habitat, and richer plant communities along streams. For gardeners, runoff water is also wasted water. It is lost for supporting plants and also does not have a chance to soak into the soil and recharge water tables. Installing a rain garden, planting dense layers of plants, and creating well-planted buffers along waterways are all options for reducing runoff.

5. Welcome Wildlife

While not every wild creature is welcome, discovering visitors like wrens, toads, and butterflies make a garden special. Conventional landscapes, which have large lawns, few trees, and  foundation plantings, provide very little that is attractive to wildlife. To create a landscape that welcomes wildlife, add features that offer food, cover, nesting sites, and water. Native plants are especially effective for providing food in the form of insects as well as berries and nuts for a variety of wildlife. Grouping plants in features such as shrub borders, island beds, meadows, and woodland gardens provides effective cover and nest sites. Offer water via bird baths, properly constructed water gardens, or even ground level trays and puddles.

Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum-prunifolium) is a large native shrub or small tree that bears white flowers followed by showy berries that are relished by wildlife.

6. Garden Wisely

This last principle involves making environmentally friendly choices and using everyday gardening techniques. Building soil organic matter not only promotes a healthy soil community, healthier soil, and healthier plants, it also reduces runoff and stores carbon in the soil. Reducing maintenance by cutting down on lawn area and/or adapting a more casual style of landscape reduces the need to trim, mow, water, and spray. Switching to organic products and practices, composting, and leaving wild patches where beneficial insects can thrive are all effective ways to garden in a more sustainable fashion.

For more information on all six principles, along with specific project ideas for each, see Chesapeake Gardening & Landscaping: The Essential Green Guide.

Former managing editor of gardening books at Rodale Press and publications director at the American Horticultural Society, Barbara W. Ellis is author of Covering Ground: Unexpected Ideas for Landscaping with Colorful, Low-Maintenance Ground Covers, among other books. Her latest, Chesapeake Gardening and Landscaping: The Essential Green Guide, is now available.