Sustainable Landscaping

Select a topic:

  • 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.

  • Lawn Alternatives

    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:

    check mark Climate Appropriate Grasses (PDF) 4 page overview of less-thirsty grasses

    check mark Water Wise Lawn Alternatives (PDF) 30 page photo book

    check mark Lawn Alternatives (PDF) 2 page grass info sheet

    check mark Sheet Mulching Flyer (PDF) 2 page flyer on removing your lawn the natural way

  • Soils and Erosion Control

    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 for more information.

    Helpful resources about erosion control and water retention on your property:

  • Plant Selection

    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.

    Go Native:
    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 Gardening:
    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
    Firescape Garden
    Fire-Wise Trees
    Fire-Wise Shrubs
    Fire-Wise Vines
    Fire-Wise Groundcovers
    Fire-Wise Perennials

    Garden Wise TV Show: Dynamic Organics and I'll Take Plants for $400, Alex! 

    Garden Wise Guys: Episodes 6, 7, and 9 Firescapes and Firescaping

    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.

    Use Mulch:
    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.

    Use Rainwater:
    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:

    check mark San Luis Obispo Rainwater Guide (PDF) 36 page booklet

    check mark Ocean Friendly Gardens Program

    check mark 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.

  • Mulch

    Mulch is a great ground covering that retains water in the soil so you can water less. Using mulch in your landscape also helps control weeds and reduces erosion on slopes. For more information and current rebates, visit the Mulch webpage.

  • Attracting Wildlife

    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.

  • Demonstration Gardens

    Alice Keck Park Memorial GardenFree Alice Keck Park
    City block bounded by Arrellaga, Santa Barbara, Garden and Micheltorena Streets, Santa Barbara
    A 4.6-acre informal park emphasizing exotic flora. The planting areas are separated according to cultural conditions, ranging from boggy to arid, with a special section on low-water using plants. Plant directory is near center of the park, above the pond. Low-water using demonstration portion is southern half of garden with a interpretative sign, brochure, and plant list in the south, west corner of the garden. Open 8 am to sunset every day. Self-guided tours only.

    Carpinteria Valley Water District Sustainable GardenFree
    1301 Santa Ynez Ave, Carpinteria
    Over 120 different plants on display. Brochures and plant lists are available on-site. Self guided Tours only. The Carpinteria Beautiful chose the garden for the "Lookin' Good" award. Self-guided tours only. For information, call (805) 684-2816.

    Chia Nursery Free
    6380 Via Real (down Lomita Lane - watch for sign), Carpinteria
    A diverse display, including unusual low-water using plants, in front of a retail nursery. Open Monday-Saturday 8:00 am to 4:30 PM. For more information, call (805) 684-3382.

    City of Lompoc Drought Tolerant Garden Free
    1801 West Central Avenue, Lompoc
    The 1/4-mile garden path features native California plants, mulch, granite pathways, and is irrigated with reclaimed water. Open sunrise to sunset every day. Call (805) 736-5083 to arrange group tours.

    Firescape Firescape Garden Free
    2411 Stanwood Drive/Route 192 (corner of Mission Ridge Road), Santa Barbara
    Located across the street from Fire Station #7, this 1.7-acre labeled model garden demonstrates how risks of wildfire can be reduced through appropriate planting of low-water using plants, irrigation, and management. Open 8 am to sunset every day. For information, call (805) 564-5703.

    Goleta Water District Water-Wise Garden Free
    4699 Hollister Avenue (corner of Puente Street), Goleta
    Features many native California plants and other non-native low-water using plants. Open 8a.m. to sunset every day. A recently installed edible landscape demonstrates water wise edibles, a rain catchment system and other permaculture features. To arrange a tour, call (805) 964-6761.

    Manzanita Nursery's Griffin Demonstration Garden Free
    880 Chalk Hill Road, Solvang
    Features rich hues and contrasting textures of water-wise, low maintenance plants at a retail nursery. Open Fridays and Saturdays 9:00 am- 5:00 pm and by appointment during the week. For more information, call 805 688-9692.

    Montecito Water District Water Wise Demonstration Garden Free
    583 San Ysidro Road (above East Valley Road), Montecito
    A labeled low-water using garden featuring a variety of Mediterranean plants. Open 8 am to sunset every day. For information, call (805) 969-2271.

    Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
    12212 Mission Canyon Road, Santa Barbara
    A 65-acre garden of native plants of California, representing a variety of plant communities and important botanical and horticultural collections. The Home Demonstration Garden at the Botanic Garden is a working model of year-round water efficient landscaping for residential settings. The Garden is open Monday-Friday from 9:00 am - 6:00 pm and on weekends from 9:00 am - 5:00 PM. For more information go to: Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. To arrange a tour, call (805) 682-4726.

    Santa Barbara City College Garden/
    Chumash Point Ethnobotanic Preserve
    721 Cliff Drive, Santa Barbara
    The Lifescape Garden features a variety of low-water using and edible plants, as well as composting systems and efficient irrigation. Chumash Point emphasizes native plants from the range of the Chumash Indians. These plants have medicinal, nutritional and spiritual importance to the Chumash. Open sunrise to sunset every day. To arrange a tour, call (805) 965-0581.

    Montecito Garden

    Santa Maria Valley Sustainable Garden Free
    624 W. Foster Road, Santa Maria
    Demonstrates resource efficient landscaping, featuring low water using plants, efficient irrigation, lawn alternatives, composting, and use of paved areas. Self-guided tours only.
    Open 8:00 am to sunset. For information, call (805) 568-3545.

    Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District ID#1 Demonstration Garden Free
    3622 Sagunto St., Santa Ynez
    The District's Demonstration Garden, "Parson's Garden" (named after the late Bob Parsons who was the District Secretary to the Board for many years) includes a wide variety of drought-tolerant plants and shrubs native to the area. Pathways consist of fine crushed granite and all plants are watered using a drip system.
    Open from sunrise to sunset. For information, call (805) 688-6015.

  • Professional Resources

    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.

Other resources that may be helpful: 
Santa Barbara County Greywater Handbook (pdf)
CA Watershed Handbook (pdf)      
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)

Not sure a sustainable landscape is worth it? Here is a graphic showing a side by side case study of a native sustainable garden and a traditional garden in Southern California which compares water use, yard waste, and maintenance time. For a great example of what is possible locally, see this great example from the Victoria Garden Mews in Santa Barbara. For more information on these and other great projects, visit the Sustainable Sites Initiative.