In today’s post, we will look at a backyard landscape designed to do two things. First and foremost, it will look great in each of the four seasons. Secondly, it will benefit the environment instead of being a burden on it that most landscape designs end up being.
There are many ways to make a landscape more environmentally friendly. They include retaining stormwater on site through use of rain gardens, not using invasive species of plants, and minimizing the energy used in constructing and maintaining the landscape. While those are all great topics, we will stick to one strategy in this post.
We are going to focus on showing how just by simple plant and material selection we can make a landscape more environmental friendly.
Some of the environmental benefits we can achieve just through plant and material selection include:
- (A) Supporting pollinators by providing native flowers,
- (B) Including top host plants for native insects,
- (C) Providing food and shelter for birds and small mammals,
- (D) Sequestering carbon from the atmosphere into the soil & long lived trees,
- (E) Requiring low water and virtually no fertilizer inputs,
- (F) Lowering the embedded energy of the materials used.
Before we go into the design, lets take a walk through this ecological backyard landscape design during the Summer. Although note that not all the flowering perennials would be blooming at the same time.
Four Season Interest – View in Winter
Four Season Interest – View in Spring
Four Season Interest – View in Fall
Plan view of the Design
Here is a plan view showing our completed design.
Now that we have taken a look at how the design will look, lets look at the plants and materials we choose in more depth.
Environmental Benefit: (F) Lowering the embedded energy of the materials used
The first thing we will add to the backyard is a Cedar deck.
When looking for environmentally friendly deck material, natural wood decks have advantages that no other decking material has.
- Wood is nontoxic. It is also strong for its weight and easily worked.
- Wood is a renewable resource. It can also be produced with a small amount of fossil-fuels, especially if it comes from forests that are close to where they are used.
- Wood is easy to reuse and recycle.
- It biodegrades without any polluting byproducts.
The disadvantage of wood decks is that they breakdown due to the weather, fungus and insects. To prevent this we can select woods that have innate rot-resistance. The best wood local to us with this rot resistance is Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Cedar requires no stain and can be allowed to grey naturally. This not only lowers it’s environmental impact it also means less work and maintenance for the owners.
We will also add a Cedar fence around the property to provide privacy and sense of enclosure.
Sitting areas and paths
Environmental Benefit: (F) Lowering the embedded energy of the materials used
Two sitting areas with benches will be provided. One we will be located by a pond which provides water for wildlife and a focal point for the residents. The other bench will look upon a fire pit.
We will have numerous paths to move us through the landscape. We will choose a local gravel material such as crushed limestone. Although this is mined, it is produced locally and requires less energy to actually get to our site then materials shipped across the country.
We will use concrete permeable pavers also produced near to our site. Both of these materials allow water to infiltrate into the ground instead of running off and causing soil erosion. More environmentally friendly choices such as using reclaimed materials, could certainly be used instead.
Now lets start looking at the plants used.
Evergreens for Four Season Interest
Environmental Benefits of plants used: (C) Provides food and shelter for birds and small mammals, (D) Sequesters carbon from the atmosphere into the soil & long lived trees, and (E) Requires low water and virtually no fertilizer inputs
Since this is a design for the Midwest, four season interest means we need some evergreens. There actually are few native evergreen trees and shrubs in my area near Chicago, IL.
One native evergreen tree that is common here as well as most of the US is the eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Yep, the same stuff we made our deck and fence out of. Unfortunately this tough as nails tree is not the most ornamental, especially in the winter.
This juniper has the habit of turning a not so attractive color that is often closer to brown then green in the winter. I wouldn’t recommend the straight species as an ornamental for this reason.
Thankfully, there are some cultivars that have good green winter color as well as are more suitably sized to our landscapes. One such cultivar is the Hillside Juniper (Juniperus virginiana ‘Cupressifolia’). This cultivar grows to a height of 10’-15’ with a spread of 6-8’. It has a narrowly pyramidal shape and is hardy in zones 3-9. This one can turn a bit plum color in the winter, but it is still an attractive evergreen.
Emerald Sentinel™ Juniper (Juniperus virginiana ‘Corcorcor’ PP #5041) is perhaps an even better choice with great green winter color which is made even better by the very attractive blue berries that cedar waxwings love to feast on.
Emerald Sentinel has dark green needles and works great as a tall screen, hedge, or specimen tree. It has an upright growth habit and can reach 20’ high and 8’ wide, although it is slow growing. This tree has good pest resistance and is extremely tolerant of climate and different soil conditions. It is also a favorite of small songbirds with its attractive blue berries that hold through the winter. It grows in a wide range of hardiness zones from 3b to 9.
If we can’t find this juniper or perhaps we just didn’t care for them, we could always go with the commonly used landscape plant, the common arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis).
There are several different cultivars of this commonly used evergreen. Some are better than others.
For this design as an alternative to the juniper, we will choose Dark American Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Nigra’) as it fits the plan and retains it’s nice green color in the winter.
Now lets add some bigger evergreen trees. For these we will need to go to trees that are not native to the Chicago area but are to the US.
We will fill up a lot of space (eventually) with three Canadian Hemlocks at the back of the lot. These will provide a backdrop and add to our yard’s privacy. (See my post on the importance of enclosure). We will also add another one on the other side of the yard closer to the house to balance the yard’s plantings.
The Canadian hemlock is native to a wide range of the US but not the Chicago area. We don’t have to go too far north into Wisconsin to find native hemlocks though.
The last evergreen tree we will add is a Weeping False Cypress (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula’) . We will put this one near the house where it will help balance and anchor the plantings. I have written about this great US native before.
Besides trees, we will add some evergreens in the shrub layer.
We are going to keep it simple and add Tauton or Everlow Yews (Taxus sp). These will act as grounding elements in our design by adding a good green foliage color throughout the year.
Next time, we will add the deciduous trees to our landscape.
Thanks for posting all this good information on Landscaping.
Question: We have a white pine planted 8 ft from our house in SE Wisconsin. The tree has grown 25 ft tall and 20 ft wide so it touches our house and totally blocks windows on the first and second floor. Should we keep the tree for ornamental reasons or replace it? If we did replace it with another evergreen what would be a good choice?
Correction: Its a white spruce not a white pine.
All things Japanese says
I appreciate the architectural approach to the landscape design. Beautifully planned and well-executed. Would love to see a step-by-step guide to pruning in a Japanese garden landscape…
Bill Plummer says
Are not some of these plants deer fodder?
If I was concerned about deer (the fence would help at least deter them in most areas) I would go with the Emerald Sentinel Juniper instead of the arborvitae definitely.
If I was concerned about deer (the fence would help at least deter them in most areas) I would go with the Emerald Sentinel Juniper instead of the Arborvitae.
Marg Rehnberg says
This looks wonderful Jim. Having a backyard like this would be such a “sanctuary”! Thank you for sharing your Blog the way you do. Awesome work!