A Guide to Sustainable Landscaping Materials for Backyard Naturescape Projects

When designing your backyard naturescape project, choose sustainable landscaping materials made from repurposed, recycled or natural materials.

| March 2012 Web

  • Looking for an easy-to-follow, do-it-yourself plan for gardeners of all skill levels? Check out “The Naturescaping Workbook” by Beth O’Donnell Young, and follow a step-by-step approach that teaches gardeners to understand their natural habitat and native eco-systems. Experience the natural wonders in your backyard by sculpting a beautiful low-maintenance landscape that requires fewer resources and attracts your local wildlife.
    Photo Courtesy Timber Press
  • This fence was built using scrap lumber and branches cut from juniper trees on the property. It serves the purpose of creating a boundary between a densely planted area of the garden and a more open, casual area, and it adds texture and local character to the scene. Design by Betsy Arriola.
    Photo By Karen Bussolini
  • Chipper mulch makes a fine surface for paths in a naturescape. It’s inexpensive or free, it’s biodegradable (this homeowner refreshes hers every couple of years), and it looks natural. Design by Betsy Arriola.
    Photo By Karen Bussolini
  • Reused bricks are a good choice for a naturescape pathway because they hint of the area’s history and save resources. Design by Betsy Arriola.
    Photo By Karen Bussolini

When designing your backyard naturescape project, it's important to consider the ecological impact of your landscape materials. Some woods are treated with toxic chemicals to prevent breakdown, and many prefabricated landscape materials have complicated carbon footprints. In her book The Naturescaping Workbook: A Step-By-Step Guide for Bringing Nature to Your Backyard(Timber Press, 2011) Beth O’Donnell Young offers information on the sustainability of traditional landscaping materials while sharing eco-friendly alternatives. 

Think Before You Buy

To be conscientious about landscape materials, first you must be conscious. Question everything about traditional landscape materials, the things that you can purchase at your garden center, your local big-box store’s gardening department, your lumberyard, even your stoneyard. Because, as with a lot of current landscape practices, the status quo is damaging our earth.

What follows are the things to think about before you buy something new. These are guidelines, not scriptures; thought provokers, not hard-and-fast rules. Your best bet is to consider the full range of options, throw out what doesn’t work for you, and weigh the rest. Making conscious choices—rather than buying what the commercials tell us to buy—is the best we can do.

To Purchase or Not to Purchase

Do you really need to buy it? Or can you beg, borrow, or share it? Perhaps you could rethink purchasing that fancy play structure—after all, all the kids in the neighborhood need only one. Maybe you could have the trampoline in your yard and someone else could have the swing set. Does every home need a patio set big enough for parties? What if all the neighbors chipped in for an extra patio set that anyone could borrow? Rethinking our natural tendency as Americans to be independent might lead to some good neighborly relations (or at least you might meet the neighbors).



Indigenous, Ingenious

If you decide you need it, you can still stretch your thinking process to go beyond the standard materials. Think back to the time when folks could not go out and buy prefabricated landscape materials and install them in a weekend, yet still wanted walls and fences, an overhead structure, a nice place to sit, even pools and fountains. What did they do?

They used what was at hand. Boards, yes, but also branches, grasses, bamboo canes, straw, dried manure, crushed rock, chalk dust, hide, hair, and hay. Twigs were soaked to make them pliable and then bent and tied or glued into trellises, arbors, and furniture. Thin branches were woven between stakes to make fences or daubed with gypsum to make durable walls. Bamboo canes were used for fences as well as paving and ornamentation. Mud and straw were combined to make bricks and roof tiles. Stains were created from berries and vegetable extracts. Structures were weatherproofed with gypsum, mud, and/or straw. Stone was broken and carried to make paving, walls, and water features that stand centuries after being built.



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