14 Sustainable Landscape Design Ideas

pea gravel pathway surrounded by flowers

You’ve been bitten by the eco-bug and want to make your home more eco-friendly. Your landscape is a great place to start. 

From native plants to erosion control, a sustainable landscape design can lower your carbon footprint and still be a stunning showstopper. Check out how these 14 sustainable landscape design ideas will scratch your eco-friendly itch. 

What is sustainable landscaping?

Sustainable landscaping is an approach that uses multiple design techniques to create a thriving, functional landscape that benefits the environment. 

But aren’t all landscapes good for the environment? Not exactly. Here’s what separates a sustainable landscape from a non-sustainable landscape: 

Sustainable LandscapeNon-Sustainable Landscape
Requires little to no fertilizers or pesticides to thriveCannot thrive without fertilizers and pesticides
Conserves water Requires lots of water to survive
Minimizes rainwater runoff and polluted local waterwaysContributes to rainwater runoff and polluted local waterways 
Is energy efficientIs not energy efficient
Provides a habitat for wildlifeProvides no habitat for wildlife
Is typically low-maintenanceIs typically high-maintenance

14 sustainable landscape design ideas

1. Erosion control

closeup of a gray concrete block retaining wall
grendelkhan | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

When you think of erosion control in the landscape, you might envision unattractive obstacles that will upset your landscape’s curb appeal. Silt fencing, sandbags, riprap –– these erosion control methods don’t necessarily scream “charming landscape.”

But controlling erosion doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice beauty. Spruce up your landscape with these creative (and cute) erosion control ideas: 

  • Rain gardens
  • Swales
  • Dry creek beds
  • French drains
  • Retaining walls
  • Terrace gardens
  • Ground covers 

Why is controlling erosion important? 

The Earth’s soil is a valuable resource and plays a vital role in the ecosystem. Yet half the Earth’s most fertile soil (which farmers use to grow crops) has been lost in the last 150 years, and erosion is a big reason why. 

Erosion also contributes to the polluted stormwater runoff that enters our local streams, lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water. The rushing rainwater dislodges soil that often contains toxic fertilizers and pesticides. 

Not only does erosion add chemicals to runoff, but it also pollutes the runoff with sediment. Sediment: 

  • Raises water levels and increases the threat of floods
  • Smothers the eggs of aquatic organisms
  • Increases the water temperature 
  • Clogs fish gills
  • Clouds the water, making it difficult for animals to find food
  • Increases the cost of treating drinking water
  • Makes recreational water activities difficult

2. Native plants

Your neighbors have been raving about growing native plants, but what’s the big deal? Aren’t non-natives plants just as good for the environment? Not quite. 

Native plants have evolved and adapted to an area’s environmental conditions without human intervention. Non-native plants do not occur naturally where they currently exist and are often introduced to the area by humans. 

In a nutshell, native plants can thrive without human aid, whereas non-native species require lots of fertilizers, pesticides, and maintenance. 

The fewer fertilizers and pesticides you use on your landscape, the better. That’s why we love native plants. They’ve adapted to the native soil’s fertility levels and have developed their own resistance to local pests. In other words, they can thrive with little to no chemicals. 

Here are six reasons why native plants are better for a sustainable landscape than non-native plants: 

  1. Native plants help save water, thanks to their deep root systems. Water conservation is a fundamental goal of sustainable landscaping, especially if you live in a dry climate. 
  2. Native plants are resistant to local weather conditions, which means less maintenance on your part. 
  3. Native plants are rarely invasive plants, which means they won’t outcompete the surrounding vegetation. 
  4. Native plants provide food and shelter to native wildlife. 
  5. Native plants reduce runoff and erosion (again, it’s thanks to their deep roots).
  6. Native plants preserve biodiversity and enhance the ecosystem.

Brownie points: Native plants are sustainable for your wallet, too –– you’ll save cash by spending less on chemicals. You also save more if you plant perennial natives because they bloom year after year (unlike annuals, which you typically need to replace every season).

3. Permeable hardscapes

brown and beige pea gravel
Gary Chambers | Pixabay

They may be green, but lawns aren’t always eco-friendly. Most turfgrasses are non-native plants, which means they need fertilizers and pesticides to thrive. That’s why many homeowners are downsizing their lawns and converting them to hardscapes. 

But before you pour a slab of solid concrete over your front yard, keep in mind that a permeable hardscape is more eco-friendly than an impervious one. Here’s why: 

  • An impervious surface, such as a solid concrete patio or driveway, prevents water from soaking into the ground. As a result, water splashes off the hardscape’s surface and contributes to runoff. 
  • A permeable surface allows water to soak into the soil underneath. Instead of rolling off the surface and causing polluted runoff, a large amount of the water will seep into the ground. 

Examples of permeable hardscapes: 

  • Pea gravel
  • River rock
  • Decomposed granite
  • Porous asphalt
  • Pervious concrete
  • Permeable interlocking concrete pavers

4. Xeriscaping

A xeriscape is a landscape that requires little to no water (usually, the local rain levels provide enough water). But that doesn’t mean turning your landscape into a barren desert. Xeriscapes are beautiful, visually appealing landscapes containing: 

  • Drought-tolerant plants
  • Sand
  • Permeable hardscapes
  • Mulch

Xeriscapes typically don’t have grassy lawns or plants that require lots of water. The more water you can conserve with your xeriscape, the more eco-friendly your design. 

Why is water conservation eco-friendly?

With water covering 71% of the Earth, our water supply is nearly infinite, right? Well, it’s not that simple. Here are six reasons why water conservation is necessary: 

  1. Although water covers 71% of the Earth, only 2.5 percent of water is freshwater. But the majority of total freshwater (about 68.7%) is in glaciers and ice caps. 
  2. Saltwater can be turned into freshwater, but this is not a viable solution. Turning saltwater into freshwater takes energy, exacerbates climate change, and is unaffordable for impoverished communities. 
  3. The water that shoots out of your garden hose doesn’t magically appear on its own. It takes energy to move and pump water. That’s why conserving water also conserves energy. 
  4. Conserving freshwater is necessary if the planet is to support a growing population.
  5. Conserving water can help prepare you for a drought. Even areas with a good water supply can still experience a shortage. 
  6. Water conservation supports communities. Firefighters, hospitals, and restaurants need large amounts of water to serve the community. A low community water supply can prove detrimental. 

5. Rain harvesting station

Another excellent way to conserve water is by incorporating a rain harvesting station into your landscape design. Buy a rain barrel that matches your landscape’s aesthetic, or disguise your rain barrel station with beautiful stones and plants. 

So how does rain harvesting contribute to your sustainable landscape? The main advantage is that a rain barrel helps you conserve water by collecting and storing rainwater that falls from the sky. You can later use this rainwater to water your lawn and gardens. 

How much water can a rain barrel collect? A rain barrel can store lots of water. For every inch of rain that falls on one square foot of your roof, you can harvest 0.6 gallons of water. 

For example, if the roof section that drains into the barrel is 100 square feet in size, your rain barrel can collect up to 30 gallons of rainwater after half an inch of rain. After 1 inch of rain, the barrel can collect up to 60 gallons of rainwater (although you may need multiple barrels for all that water). 

6. Rock garden

rock garden surrounded by a variety of plants
Allan Sharp | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s not unusual to find a rock garden in a xeriscape, but you don’t need to have a xeriscape to enjoy a rock garden. A rock garden contains carefully placed rocks and hardy plants that are drought resistant. 

These gardens are visually appealing, require little to no water, and you hardly need to lift a finger to maintain them. It’s sustainable for the planet and your green thumb. 

Greenery isn’t necessary for a rock garden, so if you want to skip the plants and simply enjoy a calming arrangement of rocks, that’s great. Rock on however you want with your rock garden. 

7. Increase energy efficiency

Your landscape design can increase your home’s energy efficiency and lower your energy costs. Here are four ways you can green up the planet (and your wallet): 

  1. Reduce summer heat by planting deciduous trees in an arc around the east, southeast, south, southwest, and west sides of your home. 
  2. Block chilly winter winds by planting evergreen trees in an arc around the north and west sides of your home. 
  3. Insulate your home by growing vines on masonry walls or wood trellises
  4. Shade the AC unit with shrubs and bushes. The hotter the AC unit, the harder it needs to work. 

8. Solar-powered landscape lighting

When the sun is tucked away at night, why let your new sustainable landscape go unnoticed? Carefully placed outdoor lighting can accentuate your home’s architecture, and your landscape will shine in a whole new light, too. 

Instead of connecting your landscape lighting to an energy source, install solar-powered landscape lighting. The lights convert the sun’s rays during the day into electricity at night (and save you money on your energy bill). 

9. Wildlife garden

Increase your landscape’s biodiversity with a wildlife garden. A wildlife garden provides food, water, and shelter to furry animals, tweeting birds, and stunning pollinators. Building a wildlife garden is also an excellent way to downsize your fertilizer- and pesticide-hungry lawn. 

Wildlife gardens include: 

  • Butterfly gardens
  • Water gardens
  • Bog gardens
  • Meadow gardens
  • Wildflower gardens

10. Vertical garden

Have a small yard but still want to grow a garden? Consider growing a vertical garden. These gardens save space, clean the air we breathe, and are becoming sustainable additions to our bustling cities. 

There are many ways you can incorporate a vertical garden into your sustainable landscape: 

  • Build your vertical garden up a fence.
  • Hang your garden pots on a wall of chicken wire.
  • Get adventurous and build a living wall.
  • Create a vertical garden with stacked crates.

11. Preserve wild areas

Sometimes the most eco-friendly thing you can do for your landscape is leaving wildlife habitats undisturbed. A small wooded area or babbling brook is home to countless animals and operates as a robust ecosystem. Leaving the area alone is often the best way to preserve biodiversity and protect the environment. 

12. Compost station

cedar and aluminum compost station
jalexartis Photography | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

A sustainable landscape should recycle its materials. Instead of bagging autumn leaves or grass clippings, add these nutrient-rich yard trimmings to the compost bin, where they can decompose and be reintroduced to the environment. 

Who says you can’t blend in your compost station with the surrounding landscape design? A compost area doesn’t need to be a pile of rotting food in your landscape. Your compost station can feature attractive wooden bins, accenting flowers, or even cute garden ornaments. 

Why is composting eco-friendly?

Decomposed compost makes excellent organic fertilizer and mulch for your vegetable garden, flower beds, and lawn. It reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and herbicides (mulch is a natural weed blocker). 

Bagging yard trimmings and throwing them away removes nutrients from the environment and takes up space in the landfill. Leaves, grass clippings, and other yard debris comprised 7.2% of all municipal solid waste landfilled in 2018. 

13. Eco-friendly lawns

Your lawn plays a significant role in your landscape –– it’s the first thing visitors see on their way to your front door. When building your sustainable landscape, consider how you can make your lawn more eco-friendly. 

Here are six tips on how to create an eco-friendly lawn: 

  1. Test your soil to know precisely how much fertilizer your lawn needs — too much fertilizer results in polluted runoff. 
  2. Switch from synthetic fertilizers to organic fertilizers.
  3. Reduce pesticide and herbicide use.
  4. Practice good watering and mowing techniques.
  5. Irrigate the lawn with water from a rain barrel.
  6. Downsize your lawn.

14. Use local materials

When building anything in your landscape, whether it be a compost bin or retaining wall, remember to buy local materials that are sustainably sourced. The less energy it takes to manufacture and deliver the materials, the better. 

FAQ about sustainable landscaping

1. Is artificial grass eco-friendly?

Artificial grass has its sustainable characteristics, but it also has its drawbacks. Likewise, natural turfgrass plays an essential role in the ecosystem, but it also can require energy and chemicals to maintain. 

Check out the following pros and cons about artificial turfgrass to determine whether it’s the right choice for your sustainable lawn. 


✓ Artificial turf requires zero fertilizers and pesticides. 
✓ You won’t ever need to irrigate your artificial turfgrass.
✓ Artificial turf reduces carbon emissions produced by lawn care equipment (such as gas-powered mowers). 
✓ Most artificial turf is recyclable. 


✗ Artificial grass does not absorb carbon dioxide or release oxygen. 
✗ Artificial grass does not provide a habitat for insects. 
✗ Manufacturing, transporting, and installing artificial grass is not 100% carbon emission-free. 
✗ Artificial grass adds no organic matter to the soil. 
✗ After 15 to 20 years, artificial grass gets recycled or tossed in the landfill.

2. Is sustainable landscaping budget-friendly?

Yes, sustainable landscaping is budget-friendly. It can result in long-term savings, too. Here are some tips for budget-friendly landscaping: 

– Hire a landscaper who knows how to work within a budget. Many landscapers market themselves as budget-friendly and work closely with you to balance your vision and budget. 
– Buy in bulk. Landscaping materials, such as mulch and gravel, are significantly cheaper when you buy in bulk. 
– Design a landscape that lowers long-term heating and cooling costs.
– Design a landscape that requires little to no chemical treatments.
– A landscape that lowers water use can help reduce energy and water bills. 
– Choose native plants (they pay for themselves in the long term).

3. Is sustainable landscaping a good DIY project?

It depends. Building a sustainable landscape involves a series of small projects that lead to a large design goal. You may feel comfortable doing some projects yourself, such as installing a rain barrel or compost station, while larger projects may require the eye of a professional. 

A landscaper specializing in sustainability has the skills to review a specific site and determine the most functional, eco-friendly landscape plan. For example, a sustainable landscaping specialist may recognize areas of erosion or runoff that you can’t. When putting such a significant investment into your home, it’s wise to seek the help of a professional.

Hand over your lawn to the pros

Remember, your landscape won’t be completely eco-friendly if you have an unkempt lawn that requires frequent chemical treatments. The healthier your lawn, the fewer chemicals it will need. 

But keeping your lawn healthy isn’t a piece of cake, especially when you’re busy creating a sustainable landscape. Hire a local lawn care professional to mow, aerate, and dethatch your lawn. Your well-maintained lawn won’t be so dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and your sustainable landscape will thank you for it. 

Main Photo Credit: JamesDeMers | Pixabay

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell is an artist, writer, and nature lover. She enjoys teaching readers about the importance of eco-friendly lawn care, integrated pest management, biodiversity, and sustainable landscaping.