Selecting vegetation carefully can stop the spread of invasive species. Native plants attract wildlife and provide needed habitat. Image credit: Beth Burrous.

Plants are a wonderful and fascinating addition to any home garden or landscape. They provide a diversity of beauty, form, texture, sights and smells, and are often an attraction for a diversity of wildlife. Plants also provide a variety of environmental benefits like cleansing air and water, providing food and shading areas of intense heat.

Therefore, as wilderness shrinks and and suburban acreage increases, what we plant in our home gardens is increasingly important. When the natural landscape is fragmented by roads and subdivisions, many habitats for wildlife are affected and, in turn, ecosystems lose their diversity.

Creating sustainable residential gardens and landscapes can help offset the loss of critical wildlife habitat and protect natural environmental benefits. When gardeners select appropriate plants, they can re-create the complexity of forests, prairies or deserts, whichever is appropriate, in a residential setting. This provides habitat for a surprising number of species, including songbirds and pollinators like bees and butterflies. Planting plants that are appropriate for the site conditions also reduces the risk that a garden will harbor invasive species, which can cause billions of dollars of annual damage nationally, and can threaten the loss of important environmental benefits that plants provide.

How They Compare

Unsustainable Landscape Sustainable Landscape What Can I Do?
Includes invasive plants that threaten natural ecosystems Vegetation is carefully selected to avoid the use of invasive species. Existing invasive species are removed from the garden. Learn about your ecoregionAvoid invasive species
Requires potable water, fertilizers and pesticides to maintain plant health Includes plants that are adapted to the climate and conditions of the site Use native and adapted plantsSelect the right plantsUse Integrated Pest Management
Often has low diversity and minimal habitat for wildlife Includes plants that are both beautiful and serve as food or refuge for wildlife Gardening for wildlife
Not designed to improve home energy efficiency Uses vegetation to reduce the heating and cooling requirements of the home and surrounding buildings Use vegetation to increase energy efficiency

Why are plants important?

Beyond simply enriching our lives with beauty and wonder, plants provide key environmental benefits, such as providing clean air and water, regulating temperature, controlling erosion and providing habitat for wildlife, and are essential to the functioning of both healthy home gardens and surrounding landscapes. Plants also provide a variety of economic and social benefits, like reducing energy costs for the cooling or heating of homes or buildings, or creating restful settings that provide an environment for mental restoration. Selecting and installing plants that are adapted to the site conditions, climate and design intent require fewer resources and less maintenance to thrive. Understanding plant selection, site conditions and maintenance practices, gardeners can help conserve water, reduce mowing costs, provide habitat, reduce soil erosion, minimize the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and ultimately save money typically allocated for landscape maintenance.

Sustainable gardens actively maintain their soil fertility by being good land stewards. The following slides will outline homeowner strategies. Image credit: Philip Hawkins

The role of plants in a sustainable garden

Plants play an integral role in the Earth’s major biogeochemical cycles, including the hydrologic, nitrogen and carbon cycles, and they provide a valuable benefit known as ecosystem services. These include:

  • Mitigating the urban heat island – Plants cool the air by providing shade and evaporating soil moisture
  • Cleansing air and water – Vegetation absorbs, sequesters and breaks down pollutants in air and water
  • Providing oxygen – Through the process of photosynthesis, vegetation takes in CO2 and releases oxygen
  • Controlling erosion – Plants reduce the intensity of rainfall hitting the ground, increase the absorption of water into the soil, and help hold soil together
  • Providing habitat – Vegetation provides refuge, breeding, and nursery habitat for wildlife above and below the ground
  • Produce food and renewable non-food products such as wood, cloth fibers, oils, fruits and vegetables
  • Create restful and peaceful settings – Trees and other vegetation create places that allow us to refresh our minds, relax and better manage the stress of everyday life