Garden Design

Doing Less and Getting More: Creating a Sustainable Landscape

partridge berry

Nearly 20 years ago my husband, John, and I decided to stop spraying the lace bugs that plagued our azaleas. We weren’t thinking so much about our decision’s impact on the surrounding ecosystem as we were about reducing the costs for maintaining our landscape and limiting our own exposure to chemicals. Instead of fighting the bugs, we focused on being good to the azaleas by adding layers of compost.

A short time later, we abandoned our futile effort to have lawn in our less than sunny backyard. Instead, John pursued his goal of having something in flower 365 days a year by planting a variety of trees, shrubs, perennials, and bulbs—including many Southeastern natives—in borders and beds beneath our tall canopy trees.

Our home’s previous owners had abandoned our deeply shaded front yard to English ivy. We chose to remove the ivy and let leaf fall from the trees provide mulch for shrubs and other understory plantings. Once the ivy was gone, we were rewarded by the return of a beautiful, native groundcover, Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens), in the front and side yards.

Our new gardening approach brought back other natives as well. The numbers and variety of insects in our garden increased dramatically. Eventually, it seemed the lace bugs were decreasing.

Reading Doug Tallamy’s book “Bringing Nature Home” validated what we experienced in our own backyard. Scientists have documented that populations of azalea lace bugs in landscapes with diverse plant material are 100 times smaller than those comprised only of lawn and typical foundation shrubs.

Tallamy makes an even stronger case for reducing pesticide use by pointing out “96% of North American bird species rely on insects and other arthropods to feed their young.” In brief: “No bugs, no birds.”

As our garden developed and began to function more like a healthy ecosystem, we welcomed even more species. The accumulating leaf litter created habitat for Carolina anoles, bright green chameleon-like lizards that stalk plant-eating insects throughout the garden. Toads became abundant, and slugs stopped eating our hostas. Learning to enjoy all of the garden’s inhabitants makes it easy to overlook the occasional nibbled leaf.

Definitions of sustainability vary, but for me, a sustainable landscape is one that doesn’t make excessive demands on resources, including water, and also has a positive impact on adjacent properties and their inhabitants.

The good news for those interested in creating sustainable landscapes is that much can be accomplished by doing less.

•    Reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides and other chemicals.
•    Reduce or eliminate the area devoted to lawn and other non-native plants.
•    Do less raking, cleaning, and cutting back.

Altering some additional landscape practices and broadening plant choices enhance landscape sustainability even more.

•    Increase the number and variety of native trees, shrubs, and perennials.
•    Reduce runoff by using permeable pavers and/or creating a rain garden.
•    Reduce landfill waste by creating brush piles and/or mulching with fallen leaves.

Resources for More Information

The North Carolina Botanical Garden’s website includes a detailed information on sustainable landscapes. (

Information about native plants is available at the North Carolina Native Plant Society website. (

North Carolina Cooperative Extension offers step-by-step instructions for building a backyard rain garden and guides to landscaping for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife.

Featured image – Partridge Berry by Dale Batchelor

Dale Batchelor is the founder of Gardener by Nature LLC, a company offering garden consultation, design, management services, and gardening classes. Her display garden, co-created with her husband, John L. Thomas, is a certified National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat and a native plant habitat recognized by the North Carolina Native Plant Society.



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