“In the past, we have asked one thing of our gardens: that they be pretty. Now they have to support life, sequester carbon, feed pollinators, and manage water.” – Doug Tallamy
Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia offers resources to help individuals adopt more sustainable gardening and landscaping practices for their own patios, yards, and property. Sustainability, in the broadest sense, takes into account that resources are finite and incorporates practices that “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development definition).
Gardening and landscaping practices are more sustainable if they support native plants and wildlife, conserve energy and water, and protect air and water quality. Sustainable gardens and landscapes can do all this and be attractive, useful, and healthy for people too.
For an overview of sustainable practices, see:
- Sustainable Landscaping Basics
- Recorded classes on sustainable landscaping practices
- Basics from the Landscape for Life curriculum: Making Your Yard Sustainable: Benefits and Basics
Select one of the subheadings below for details on specific aspects of sustainable gardening & landscaping.
Landscape for Life
Principles discussed here draw substantially from the Landscape for Life curriculum and when practiced will increase the sustainability of your garden or yard.
Landscape for Life is based on the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES™), the nation’s first rating system for sustainable landscapes. SITES™ is an interdisciplinary effort led by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden in conjunction with a diverse group of stakeholder organizations.
Design, Build, and Use for Sustainability
A sustainable landscape begins before the first plant goes in the ground. Sustainable Landscaping Basics provides information on conventional versus sustainable practices regarding soil, water, energy, plants, and materials, as well as site assessment and design. For example, reduce energy use by designing a landscape with trees and plantings that both protect from winter winds and cool buildings and paved areas in summer. Plant deciduous trees that shade buildings in summer and lose leaves in winter, letting the sun through. Consider materials used. Reduce inputs, reuse materials found on site, purchase materials that have been recycled, are certified as sustainably harvested, or are “green”/nontoxic.
For a summary of best management practices for soil, water, energy use, plants, and materials, see Sustainable Landscape Design: The Basics.
Making Your Yard Sustainable: Plants & Materials
Use this checklist for information on conventional practices to avoid and sustainable practices to use to reduce, reuse, and recycle materials in a sustainable yard, as well as best management practices from Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia offers extensive information related to designing, building, and using for sustainability. Here are selected resources:
- Creating a Well-Layered Landscape
Introduce diverse layers into a landscape, from canopy to ground layer, to both add beauty and support wildlife. Consider the plant communities that naturally occur in nature, which can inform plant choices, and include “cues to care”—practices that suggest a well-maintained, trimmed, cared-for landscape and that help native plant landscapes look more culturally acceptable.
Mitigating and adapting to climate change
- Garden Practices and Products to Minimize Your Carbon Footprint
Minimize carbon footprint by both reducing the emission of greenhouse gasses and adapting practices to the impact of climate change on landscapes. Strategies include reducing the use of gasoline-powered tools and using electric or human-powered tools instead, composting yard and kitchen waste, using energy-efficient and wildlife friendly outdoor lighting, reducing the use of chemicals, avoiding the use of peat, reusing plastic pots, and using salvaged or recycled materials for construction.
- Adaptive Vegetable Gardening
Despite an extended growing season resulting from warming temperatures, climate change brings several challenges to vegetable gardens. Heat can result in heat stress, failure to set fruit, premature bolting, and sunscald. Intermittent flooding can saturate soil, and drought demands more supplemental watering. Climate change also increases weed and insect pressure. This article summarizes strategies and adaptations to manage the impact of climate change.
Creating a more sustainable lawn
- The Lure of the Lawn
Times have changed, and there is a steep cost to the environment in maintaining a traditional lawn, including water/pollution and the substitution of a monoculture of non-native turfgrass where forest used to be.
- Rethinking Your Lawn
Outlines practices that increase the sustainability of the lawn in the landscape.
- Turf Grass Alternatives
Learn about the source of current perceptions of the traditional lawn, disadvantages of lawn, and practices to increase sustainability.
Build Healthy Soil
Soil is the second largest ecosystem after the world’s oceans. A healthy soil ecosystem supports plants, cycles water and nutrients, and provides habitat for a multitude of living things, including beneficial microbes that develop special relationships with plants. In many urban and suburban patios and yards, the soil is compacted and degraded, and the soil ecosystem functions poorly.
According to Dr. Sara Via, Climate Extension Specialist at the University of Maryland, maintaining the health of our soil is the primary strategy for climate resilience. By adopting sustainable practices such as limiting disturbance (minimizing foot and equipment traffic and avoiding over-tilling), limiting input (minimizing the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides), and keeping soil covered, residents and homeowners can restore soil health and structure.
For an overview of how a healthy soil ecosystem functions, what can damage the soil ecosystem, and practices that restore soil health, see Building Your Soil.
- Making Your Yard Sustainable: Soil
Use this checklist for information on conventional practices to avoid and sustainable practices to use to build healthy soil, as well as best management practices from Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) and VCE Master Gardeners are organizational partners of 4 THE SOIL, which works to keep our soil healthy and productive and ensure our soil resources are stable and sustainable to feed future generations. 4 THE SOIL promotes four principles: keep soil covered, minimize soil disturbance, maximize living roots, and energize with diversity. 4 THE SOIL offers more information at their website.
Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia offers extensive information related to soil and soil health. Here are selected resources:
- Soil Health
Healthy soil improves water retention, increases a garden’s disease resistance, reduces the need for fertilizers and pesticides, and contributes to healthy plants.
Cover crops, composting, and no till gardening
- Cover Crops to Enrich the Soil
Cover crops improve soil structure, water infiltration, and fertility.
- Composting: Leave the Leaves and Other Beneficial Practices
Fall leaves have more than twice the mineral content of manure, provide habitat to overwintering insects, act as a soil amendment and mulch, improve structure, and store carbon and return carbon to the soil.
- Composting and No Till Gardening: Create a Garden That Thrives
Compost and no till gardening protect soil structure and soil biology, which in healthy soil includes billions of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, and other microorganisms.
- Composting: The Art of How to Make Your Own Black Gold
Turn yard clippings, leaves, newspapers, and kitchen waste into rich compost for the yard or garden.
- Soil Tests
Before adding fertilizer or other amendments to a yard or garden, test the soil. Soil tests determine existing pH and nutrients and whether nutrients or other amendments are needed or may actually be harmful. This page includes a how-to video on collecting a soil test sample.
Conserve Water, Prevent Pollution, and Manage Stormwater
Climate change is bringing higher temperatures and more extreme weather. Average temperatures in the Washington, DC, region are increasing, with July 2021 posting 28 straight days of 90 degrees, the most for any month on record up to that time. The largest increase in rainfall up to that date occurred during July 2021 as well.
In a home landscape, strategies for managing flooding include improving soil health and water infiltration and incorporating other measures that spread rainwater out, slow it down, and soak it in. Infiltrating more rainwater into the soil keeps more rainwater out of storm drains and also reduces the pollutants going into our waterways.
To conserve water, minimize water use (e.g., with plant selection and grouping, irrigation strategies that conserve water, using mulch) and capture rainwater in rain barrels or cisterns.
Most plants need about an inch of water a week, either rain or supplemental water. Water plants infrequently and deeply (while avoiding runoff) and water early in the morning. Calibrate an irrigation system to deliver approximately 1 inch of water a week. Let cool season grasses go dormant in summer.
For an overview of managing water in the landscape, see Managing Water: Flooding and Drought and refer to the sources listed at the end for more information.
A Climate-Conscious Gardening Checklist and Next Steps includes, in addition to a checklist, a reading list and other resources.
Making Your Yard Sustainable: Water
Use this checklist for information on conventional practices to avoid and sustainable practices to use to conserve water and better manage stormwater, as well as best management practices from Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia offers extensive information related to conserving water, preventing pollution, and managing stormwater. Here are selected resources:
Conserving and managing rainwater
- Waterwise Gardening
Select plants that tolerate drought; group plants with similar water needs; use water gardens, rain barrels, and other best practices.
- Native Plants for Dry Conditions
Choose the “right plant, right place” for drier areas.
- Native Plants for Wet Conditions
Choose the “right plant, right place” for plants that will tolerate intermittent flooding and wet conditions.
- How to Build a Rain Garden
Rain gardens collect rainwater and infiltrate it into the soil. This webinar explains how to build a rain garden that functions effectively. The Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District partnered with Arlington County in presenting this webinar.
- Stormwater at Home
This Arlington County resource includes information on innovative strategies to manage stormwater while beautifying homes and yards.
- Stormwater Best Management Practices
This Alexandria City resource includes information on innovative strategies to manage stormwater and prevent erosion.
Choose Native Plants and Remove Invasive Plants
Native plants have evolved with our local wildlife, providing nectar and pollen to pollinators, feeding the larval stage of Lepidoptera, supplying seeds and fruit to birds, and offering cover and nesting sites to a variety of wildlife. By contrast, non-native plants provide little to no wildlife support. For example, entomologist and wildlife biologist Doug Tallamy counted 410 caterpillars, including 19 species, on a young white oak (native to eastern North America), and he counted 1 caterpillar on a ‘Bradford’ pear tree (cultivar of Callery Pear, imported from Asia). Parent birds feed only insects—mostly caterpillars—to their young. Without caterpillars and other insects, parent birds can’t raise nestlings.
Traditional landscapes today are full of trees, shrubs, and perennials that are native to other parts of the world. Little by little we have created landscapes that offer inadequate support to the native insects, birds, and other wildlife around us.
Some of these non-native plants have become invasive. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation defines invasive plants as “species intentionally or accidentally introduced by human activity into a region in which they did not evolve and cause harm to natural resources, economic activity, or humans.” Invasive plants have escaped cultivation and spread into our parks and natural areas as well.
Removing invasive plants and planting native species contribute to creating a more sustainable garden and landscape. In addition, native plants are adapted to local soil types, and they grow without need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Once established, they usually need less water. Native plants also add beauty to a landscape.
Use this checklist for information on conventional practices to avoid and sustainable practices to use in selecting landscape plants, as well as best management practices from Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia offers extensive information related to native plants and invasive plants. Here are selected resources:
- Selecting Native Plants for Your Home Garden
Provides an overview of how native plants support wildlife and how they function in natural forest communities, with information on specific native trees, shrubs, ground covers, and perennials.
- Making Wise Plant Choices, Part 1: Natives vs. Invasives
More information on the impact of invasives in the ecosystem and the importance of adding native plants to home gardens.
- Making Wise Plant Choices, Part 2: Keystone Plants
Doug Tallamy suggests that certain “keystone species” offer powerhouse support to insects, birds, and other wildlife. Includes a list of the top 20 most valuable woody and perennial native plant genera in terms of supporting biodiversity in the Mid-Atlantic.
- Planting Trees
An overview of the many benefits trees offer. Native trees contribute habitat, nesting sites, food, and larval support for the caterpillars that are key to the food web.
Caring for your native plants garden
- Cutting Back and Deadheading Native Perennials
Two gardening practices, cutting back and deadheading, can keep native perennials looking their best through the growing season.
- Cutting back involves either pinching out the growing tips and first set of leaves of a plant or trimming away a larger portion of its stems, reducing their length by up to half. This practice, which can be done once or several times from late spring until early July, promotes a bushier, more compact plant and prevents flopping and the need for staking.
- Deadheading involves the removal of spent flowers and can stimulate rebloom in some plants to extend their flowering season. This practice can also be used to reduce the spread of plants by self-seeding.
- Care of Native Vines
To care for native vines, it can be helpful to know about their growth habits. This table of common vines provides details on the best conditions for flowering and the timing and manner of pruning. It also notes which vines have either toxic or edible parts
- Dividing Native Perennials
Native perennials may benefit from periodic division to improve their vigor and appearance. Indications that a plant requires division are dead sections at the center of the clump, reduced size or abundance of flowers, or sparse foliage. Division can rejuvenate the plant and stimulate new growth. Perennials can also be divided for propagation purposes.
- Native Shrubs To Prune In Summer
Pruning is a gardening practice involving the selective removal of certain parts of a woody plant. With our native shrubs, it can be helpful to know their growth habits and bloom times to determine if and when they may benefit from pruning. This table lists common native shrubs that are said to bloom on “old wood,” which means that their flower buds were set last year rather than in the current growing season. They should be pruned in the summertime, shortly after they bloom.
- Native Shrubs To Prune In Winter
Pruning is a gardening practice involving the selective removal of certain parts of a woody plant. With our native shrubs, it can be helpful to know their growth habits and bloom times to determine if and when they may benefit from pruning. This table lists common native shrubs that are said to bloom on “new wood,” which means that they will bloom on this season’s new growth. They should be pruned in the late winter to early spring before they develop their flower buds.
- Learn More about Invasive Plants
A collection of resources on invasive plants, species identified as invasive in Arlington County and Alexandria City, and recommended manual, mechanical, cultural, chemical, and biological controls.
- Invasive Plants & Native Alternatives and Invasive Plants and Better Alternatives
Resources that provide information and fact sheets on common invasive plants and native plant alternatives.
Best bets for success
- Best Bets: Plants for Particular Uses
Information on native plants that are suited to dry or wet conditions, will attract pollinators, help control erosion, are suited to varying light conditions, are more resistant to deer, are fragrant, and more. “Right plant, right place” increases the likelihood of healthy plants and gardening success.
- Plant NOVA Natives
Information on native plants, native plant vendors and sales, habitat gardening, landscaping solutions, and more.
Note: Click on images to see enlarged photos, captions, and photo attributions.
On a mobile phone, click on the information symbol (circle with a letter ℹ︎ symbol).