Following the Flow
A Look at Ecological Landscaping Methods
By Gaia Creations Ecological Landscaping & Permaculture Solutions
©2006 All Rights Reserved
     Landscapes and gardens have become an extension of our homes. The cool green canopy of shade trees provides a quiet place for reflection while covered areas invite us to relax over a cool drink with friends and family.  We feel a connection with nature in our gardens.  Landscaping your property can establish beautiful and sustainable outdoor living spaces that are an expression of your home, location and lifestyle.  Taken one step further, landscaping for sustainability promotes the understanding of resource-efficiency, a method of reducing the pollution and waste entering our environment.  

     This kind of thinking can be applied anywhere in day-to-day life, from simply turning off those unneeded lights (energy conservation) to purchasing biodegradable household cleaners (water quality preservation).  When applied to landscape practices, resource efficiency requires a level of ecological awareness.  A well-designed resource efficient or ecological landscape will provide visual beauty and a place to commune with others while reducing our often heavy footprint; helping us to establish that feeling of place within nature. 


     Many factors influence the landscape as a whole, including water, soil quality, available sunlight and lay of the land. These dynamic characteristics play an enormous role in the flow of resources an ecological landscaper manages in the landscape. Items that are introduced to the landscape, or Inflows, during the design stage are things like concrete, masonry supplies, lumber, plants, soil amendments, irrigation supplies and fossil fuels. 

     Fossil fuels factor in largely when considering the efficiency of a landscape. Fossil fuels are used in the landscape as oil, gasoline and diesel for trucks, lawnmowers and other mechanized equipment as well as for the manufacture and transport of landscape products purchased.  The landscape design dictates the need for these products.  The main avenues of thought in ecological landscaping are to use less of everything when ever possible (practical turf areas), to utilize materials that have the least impact (salvaged, recycled/recyclable and renewable materials) and to create a design that will require little resources and maintenance when complete (native gardens). 

 Let’s look at irrigation and then lumber as just two examples of inflows to a landscape construction project.

     In our dry Mediterranean climate, water management is very important.  Proper irrigation is the key to water conservation practices and a healthy landscape over all.  The composition of irrigation pipe is an interesting issue at present as the number one preferred pipe is made of PVC.  PVC, Polyvinyl chloride or Vinyl, is a plastic used for numerous construction and landscape-related items such as irrigation pipe, lawn edging, garden hoses and patio furniture.  PVC-containing materials are under scrutiny across the globe as governments, scientific organizations and businesses have recognized the hazards of PVC. PVC requires chemical additives like lead during production and its combustion releases harmful and persistent chemicals such as dioxins and organochlorine compounds.  Dioxins have been proven to pose serious health risks to humans and ecosystems.

     Reducing the need for PVC materials can lessen the impact a landscape makes on the pollution and waste stream.  Incorporating alternative plastic products such as PE (polyurethane) and HDPE (hard density polyurethane) plastics can be beneficial as there is less degradation in their life cycle and they are easily recycled compared to PVC (PVC actually complicates the way plastics are recycled). 

     Utilizing creative methods of water management such as water reclamation techniques can also greatly aid in the resource efficiency of a landscape.  Rain gardens and green roofs utilize living drainage methods to conserve energy and alleviate storm water run-off to drainage systems with amazing results.  Rain barrels and grey water systems are methods of reusing water that is ordinarily used once or not at all before entering various types of water systems.  Grey water systems in particular can greatly reduce stress on septic systems and conserve an enormous amount of our fresh water supply.

     Arbors, pergolas and other garden structures can add a defining character as well as modestly decrease surrounding temperatures in your landscape. Garden sheds and greenhouses can accentuate a particular garden theme and provide function for the landscape as a whole.  Utilizing renewable resources such as timber products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council for these structures can greatly reduce the impact a landscape has on the environment.  The demand for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified lumber is increasing with the advancement of the US Green Building Council’s LEED standards. 

     The FSC “is an international association of members consisting of a diverse group of representatives from environmental and social groups, the timber trade and the forestry profession, indigenous people's organizations, responsible corporations, community forestry groups and forest product certification organizations from around the world.” The FSC certifies forests and forest corporations’ timber products as sustainable and renewable.  By creating a certification process for forests and forest managers we can ensure a minimal amount of pesticide pollution and feel secure that these forests are being managed in an ecologically sustainable manner for future generations to come.  A great amount of scientific research and considerable international effort has been expended for the purpose of preserving our global forests and use of FSC certified products aids that effort. 

Composite lumber is another example of lumber material that can have a minimal impact as it is both reusable and recyclable. This lumber is composed of plastic alone or in a combination of plastic and wood fibers creating a sturdy and long lived lumber product.  We encourage composite lumber that utilizes recycled plastics and reclaimed wood fibers as well as those that do not contain formaldehyde. (The California Air Resources Board has proposed a formaldehyde phase-out )

     Pressure-treated lumber is also another consideration to be made.  Pressure treated wood undergoes an injection under pressure that penetrates the wood deeply with a pesticide that will deter wood boring insects and fungus.  CA-B pressure-treated lumber contains recycled copper and a fungicide approved for use on food crops. Although this wood does not contain the very harmful chemical arsenic, it does contain copper which is proven harmful to marine life.  There are other treated lumber products out there as well such as Borate treated wood and a new TimberSIL product which uses sodium silicate for pest prevention. 

     A very resourceful way to lesson one’s impact when creating a covered garden area would be to utilize salvaged branches from local tree trimming work to build a unique and efficient structure.  Stripping, sanding or altering the wood in different ways can make for an outstanding work of art.  This type of structure can create a charming shady area to relax and also gives a truly natural feel to a garden.  A little creativity and careful consideration can be taken to ensure that the products supplied to the landscape are ecologically sustainable yet are financially reasonable for your individual needs.


     Fruits, vegetables and fresh flowers are beneficial and productive outflows from the landscape that are always so rewarding to pick for your home or share with others.  Unfortunately another outflow that is shared by us all is water and air pollution created by a combination of harmful effects.  The main cause of this pollution stems from several factors but most often observed are poorly designed landscapes.  These landscapes require excessive maintenance using power equipment and generally have improper pesticide and fertilizer applications as well as inefficient water management practices.  

     Additional landscape outflows include organic materials such as grass clippings, old leaves and tree trimmings.  Controlling the quantity and quality of what flows out of the landscape is of equal importance to what is flowing in.  When an ecological landscape is designed then implemented, the waste and pollution produced is slight in comparison to the conventional chemical dependant landscape. 

Let’s take a look at organic material “waste” as an example of one outflow from the landscape.

     Every autumn we see leaves and other valuable organic materials (OM) raked up then placed inside garbage bags and set neatly by the street for pick up.  Pick up comes by either garbage companies (OM comprises a major % of landfill additions) or, as we are fortunate in our area, organic recycling companies for the purpose of making compost (still using vast fossil fuels for transportation).  People without this beneficial service, often in rural areas, will burn the OM gathered from their property in order to reduce the need for ‘dump trips’ or to keep the area ‘clean and fire safe of debris’ (this constitutes a huge portion of our air pollution here in the Sacramento Valley).  

     The vast majority of this OM or potential mulch (depending upon one’s view) can and should stay on the property.  The healthy leaves, sticks and flowers that constantly accumulate in garden beds can be neatly mulched in place where they are then utilized by soil inhabitants.  Even certain weeds some have come to detest in our landscapes, such as chicory and dandelion with their deep penetrating tap roots, can be pulled then chopped/mulched into the soil adding nutrients (K, Mg, Ca, S and others) they have collected in their leaves.  Tree trimmings can be chipped and shredded for use as pathways, as garden mulch and fire breaks or larger branches can be left whole and creatively added to the landscape as scaffolding for vines.  Breaking up the OM into smaller pieces is important to facilitate decomposition in the soil and can produce finer mulch that is much neater in appearance when added to the soil. 

     The soil, with these ‘local’ additions, becomes replenished by the landscape itself instead of being given organic materials from a supplier (more inflows), only adding to the pollution and waste stream.  All plants offer shelter and food to the landscape then are nourished by the soil life in a mutually beneficial partnership.  Mulching is a great tool for resource efficiency by providing several functions for the landscape.  Mulches help the soil retain moisture, cool the soil, aid in weed prevention, and create habitat for all sorts of beneficial soil dwelling insects such as worms, beetles, fungi, and bacteria. 

     Organic materials can also be used to make compost for your landscape.  Compost is decomposed OM that is rich in nutrients and beneficial microorganisms.  Using OM from the landscape as well as from the kitchen (anything but meat, eggs and oily waste) to make compost can be a beneficial addition to soil life and potting soil mixtures.  Landscape inflows and outflows potentially carry important multipurpose or stacking functions. If the landscape component being examined only serves one function, try to find something else that will serve more. Close evaluation will usually bring an alternative to light.

     From soil organisms to majestic trees there is interconnectedness in the biodiversity of an ecological garden. We all can achieve that feeling of place within nature in our own landscapes. With a sense of creativity and a desire to reduce our footprint for the benefit of future generations, everyone can have a lush and fertile landscape; a landscape that is much more than a piece of property but a sustainable home garden full of energy and life.
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