Beyond Sustainable Landscapes


My March, 2011 post on rain barrels has generated a great deal of discussion both here on the blog and elsewhere. It seems to have gone viral and has been showing up all over the place. Prevailing opinion is favorable to my position that rain barrels are not useful and not sustainable. There are, of course, some dissenting opinions and nuances. If you missed the conversation or haven’t checked in to see all the comments, you may be interested in revisiting the article.

As interesting as all this is, it misses the real point. There is a meta-question that needs to be answered, and a proper answer will render moot much of the discussion about conservation and sustainability. I’ll cut to the chase: Why are we creating landscapes that do not survive on rainfall and natural soil fertility, and that for the most part do not offer up ecological services in excess of their negative impacts? Why should we waste our time and intelligence on trying to adapt to a paradigm that accepts landscapes requiring more resources than nature delivers, and to one that doesn’t ask anything of the landscape other than that it be pretty?

Yet much if not all of the activities generated by the sustainable landscaping movement (and indeed by the green building movement as well) assume a continued, if abated, consumption of resources, and rely more on novel technologies often of dubious merit (smart controllers, synthetic lawns, etc.) than on creating place-adapted natural ecosystems. This blindness to reality is going to kill us, more slowly than the old ways, but just as surely. We are evolving systems that destroy the planet but at a more languid pace, and there is an unspoken assumption that in our unquestioned strivings for luxury and comfort we will use everything up sooner or later. This is the elephant on the lawn that nobody wants to talk about.


Anyway, sustainability is not the issue. Defining sustainable as the standard sets the bar too low. Sustainability is about being “less bad,” in the words of sustainability’s Number One Guru William McDonough. I don’t agree with McDonough about everything, but I shall be forever grateful to him for calling out any approach that means only to reduce the negative impacts of an activity or structure. A so-called “green” building that merely cuts energy use or substitutes a less damaging material for a conventional one, or that hews to any or even all of the accepted standards for sustainable construction as codified in LEED or other standards, isn’t a good-enough building. It still has tremendous negative impacts both on and off site.

And landscaping is no different. Until we free ourselves from the conceit that a couple of rain barrels or some native plants and a drip system are an adequate response to the challenge of creating a living ecosystem that delivers more services than it demands, we will be forever creating sub-optimal projects.

Sustainability is not the issue. Adaptive productivity is the issue. Being less bad is not good enough. Being useful, beneficial, worth the costs is what we need to strive for, and nothing less will do. After all, everything is at stake, isn’t it?

33 thoughts on “Beyond Sustainable Landscapes

  1. Spot on Owen.

    I notice on one of the Linkedin forums this week that a landscaper has asked a general question to the group – ‘How do you get inspiration for a new design?’

    The consensus response was ‘ask the owner what they want’ and work with that. Now that generally leads to a pretty garden consuming significant outside resources forever.

    My answer would be – what do you already have that we can work with?

    Lots of rain? – maybe(?!) cisterns or natural landscaping storage.

    Lack of rain? – work out how much graywater is available and design to suit, without importing water.

    Can the property be designed to be more sustainable? Planting with foliage that produces mulch?

    Hopefully at some point gardens will be treated similar to pre industrialized farms – self sufficient – nothing brought in, and the fruits of labor enjoyed directly on the property.

    Of course turf doesn’t fit into this anywhere – and for now that is still a significant issue in many areas.

    Until the cost benefit ratio of going truly green beats unabashed consumption, mainstream activities wont change (unfortunately).

    Luckily for my industry graywater irrigation now costs less than potable irrigation, and saves over the years as well. That’s the easy part. The hard part is convincing builders and their customers of this (having been conditioned that going green must cost more than non green methods).

    I do have an issue with only using native plants when they produce little benefit to the property, if the property already has sufficient resources to support planting with extra benefits (micro climate control, food production etc).

    1. Owner-driven design is inevitably contaminated by the perverse values that the vast majority of people in our society live by. I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked to design a “sustainable” landscape by people who have just completed half-million dollar remodels of their lavish and oversized homes. What they really want is a little token veggie garden and a compost bin and a few native plants off in the back corner somewhere in order to have something “green” to show their friends how environmentally aware they are. It is such complete bullshit, and I have come to think of myself as an enabler of pernicious delusions when I go along with this little psychodrama.

  2. I think that is well said Owen. Thanks! Well as we all know, cars like the Prius just delude people into thinking they are doing enough and hence as you say, they could be exacerbating our situation.

    It might still be overly egocentric to think we can improve upon nature…..but we in the landscape businss would be out of work if we advocated leaving land alone to let nature do its thing. So where does that leave us?

    As a friend tells me, all civilizations come to an end and so will ours. Unless there is a significant shift in our cultural paradigm (oh hate that word), I think eco-minded landscape people can at least add some years to our existence and help to make our decline as gentle as possible.

    We did some work in China last year….as everyone knows, they all want what we have but somehow I think it should be reversed….we need to have a lot less. I think very few people want less.

    I wrote an article for the spring issues of Wildflower (out of Texas) that promotes a shift in our psyches that we need to make. It is based on a presentation I gave a few years ago. Please read it if you get a chance and let me know what you think.

    1. Do you have a link to your article? I think readers would love to see it, as would I.

      I think we do still have a little time to save ourselves, but not much according to the best science. Will we do it? Probably not. There is no word for how tragic this is. We are not only destroying as much of this beautiful planet as we can, as rapidly as we can; we are also squandering all the wonderful and unique qualities that Homo sapiens possesses cheek-by-jowl with our terrible failings: compassion, art, laughter, literature, music, self-awareness, wisdom, ice cream, to mention just a few.

      My question is, can we make landscaping part of the solution instead of part of the problem? I think that by placing an emphasis on productivity, especially on urban agriculture and homesteading, we can. There are so many wonderful examples of beautiful, productive landscapes on all scales. There’s really no excuse for continuing down the traditional path of ornamental gardens and sterile commercial and public landscapes. We could be enjoying so many riches of our own making. People need to be shown how good it can get. That is the new job of the landscaping professional, in my opinion. We are needed.

  3. This is largely a matter of semantics — the sustainable lawns that I am planting for customers provide a number of environmental benefits. Their carbon footprint is less than zero — that is, they sequester more carbon than they and their maintenance releases into the atmosphere. They also act to absorb storm water and biologically purify it — and since I work in southern New England,these lawns require no irrigation once they are established. In addition, these sustainable lawns provide all the services that have made lawns, like them or not, the center of the human landscape in North America for well over a century. Are there other treatments that could provide more environmental benefits? Certainly, but clients still want lawns as play spaces for their children, and as an easy-to-maintain, relatively inexpensive groundcover. If I tell prospective customers that I will not give them what they want, in most cases they will turn to someone else who doesn’t care about environmental impacts. By showing customers how a portion of their landscape can be re-worked to benefit the environment as well as them, I provide them with a model they can apply to other areas of their lives and, hopefully, a new way of thinking. As landscape and design professionals, we need to remember that ultimately it is the clients who make decisions and that insisting that they do things the way we think best is a dead end. Currently, I’m helping a local university plan the revegetation of a 30 acre area (the topsoil had to be removed because of contamination). The grounds manager came to me to discuss sustainable lawns; we are working on a plan now that will put much or most of the area into native grassland (a very rare and endangered habitat in southern New England) as well as some areas of sustainable lawn and immediately around the buildings the more traditional lawn that the university feels that donors and the parents of prospective students expect in such a setting. Meanwhile, a student group is spending $30,000 to relandscape a 2-acre area in the center of campus into a landscape that their advisers, a pair of permaculture enthusiasts, insist will provide food and fiber and so, they have told me, is “beyond” sustainable. I’ve looked at their design and attended a presentation by the students involved and what they plan is utterly impractical as a public space — it will not accomodate crowds — and will be a nightmare to maintain (I’m basing this judgment on 35 years of experience as a horticulturist). I admire the students’ enthusiasm and their desire to create a better world, but I wish they would temper those impulses with a bit of practicality. Sustainable would be a huge step forward for the university, and nothing to disparage. What the permaculturists have proposed (in this instance) is a fantasy that will not work.

    1. Do you have peer-reviewed hard data to prove that lawns can be environmentally positive and meet the standards I’ve set forth in this post? I’m sure readers would love to see that.

      1. I do have data for the carbon footprints of the type of lawn I am planting, and they don’t require fertilization and are allelopathic and host endophytic fungi, so they are naturally weed and insect resistant, and don’t add pesticides to the water supply. I’ll track down links to relevant studies and post them here. Obviously, what works for us in the Northeast is quite different from what works in California or the Suthwest, or Southeast, etc.

        There are other landscape treatments that exceed the benefits of these sustainable lawns in any specific area, but I still think they offer a great means of introducing customers to a more constructive way of thinking about their interactions with their environment. I have found that if you try to force too radical a change on people all at once, most of them just tune you out. If, for example, you tell people their house is too big, it’s a resource-hog and that if they are concerned about the environment, they should down-size, they aren’t likely to listen. If you encourage them to think in terms of making their house more energy efficient, they may listen, especially if you put it in the context of saving money. In learning about energy issues, those same people are likely to develop insights that will apply to all sorts of other aspects of their lives, and that may indeed eventually persuade them to adopt a more modest life style down the road. My own evolution as an environmentalist has in many ways followed that path.

        My observation has been that there’s no point in trying to force-march people to utopia. Your vision may be a good one, but if you come across as too severe or inflexible, that just plays into the hands of the deniers and tools of the fossil fuel industry, who brand you as “shrill” and marginalize you.

        Nor does it help to dismiss or belittle the small steps people may take in trying to do better. In themselves, such steps may not be enough, but they are a start and as such should be encouraged. Telling people who buy a Prius to reduce their energy consumption that, if they really cared, they would give up their cars altogether is impractical in the context of contemporary American life where the mobility of an automobile is often essential to holding down a job. Why not praise the Prius owner for making an effort, and then encourage them to extend that effort into supporting public transportation to the extent that they can?

        1. Please do send your data. I will be happy to post it. I tend to believe that no lawn is sustainable anywhere, but perhaps you can prove me wrong. Here’s the data I gleaned, mostly from the EPA, for my book Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies:

          Lawn Graphic

          A satisfying set of facts would answer most if not all of these failings.

          As for moderate solutions being a kind of gateway drug to eventual beneficial change, well, we have long ago passed the point where we have time for that. We have a scant handful of years before critical planetary systems irrevocably break down, leaving us powerless to prevent our own doom. Shrill? Perhaps, but I didn’t invent this situation. I agree that there has to be a way to change people’s behavior that doesn’t end up alienating them. The only question is how to do that. I don’t have a ready answer for that, but I will say that soothing people with halfway measures is not going to get us where we need to go. The time for moderate, gradual solutions is over, and the hard reality is that thanks to our own self-indulgence and stupidity we now face draconian sacrifices in order to merely survive. We could have avoided that, but we chose not to. In light of that, landscaping seems more and more pointless and delusional to me. We live as if in a dream, pretending that everything is fine, as we hurtle mindlessly towards the immovable brick wall of nature’s limits. We’re not talking about a forced march or even a leisurely stroll towards utopia; we are talking about a death march to a living hell of our own making. Hard to say, and hard to hear, but responsible science supports my statements.

          1. Actually, let me revise that. I do have a ready answer to how to motivate people. We have beautiful, productive, achievable solutions to our problems, solutions that can be implemented by anyone on any reasonably fertile piece of land, and that provide wonderful lifelong rewards. Yes, I’m talking about growing food, medicines, fiber, building materials, and about raising chickens and bees, and about creating beautiful places that meet our needs. That is not radical; it is what people have always done until our short-lived modern dead-end culture turned us on a path towards self-destruction. It is what billions of people even today practice all over the world. We must motivate people by showing them how good it can get, and we can do that, with plenty of examples ready for them to see. We are the founders of the next revolution, a revolution that perhaps, if we get off our asses soon enough, will lead us out of this mess. That’s what we have to show, and we must show it, now, and with all the passion we can muster. That is our job, and I hope we do it well. Anything less is not enough.

  4. Thanks for this, some great comments too.

    For over a decade, I’ve strived to design with such items as you extoll here, as well as crazy tight budgets, and I still have work. But I believe in it, since I see it in nature in the desert and foothills where I live and work – it is not something shallow I say to get work.

    Your 3rd sentence in the 2nd paragraph says so much. Those doing the same-old here (desert denial) often answer that by “we need tall trees to shade our streets”, and then ignore anything native, how plants here grow and alternate methods or species for shade, what an oasis means, or that their deeds involve plants that will not last long and require too much water while they do.


  5. I agree with this column. We are past the point when we can congratulate ourselves for a few token “green steps” that we have taken. If you have taken any steps towards reducing your carbon footprint and spreading toxins in the environment I congratulate you, but don’t delude yourself that those steps are anything more than a small start. We are facing in global warming and peak oil the greatest crisis that humanity has faced since we were down to 2,000 humans about 120,000 years ago due to believe it or not climate change. The times require of us the greatest effort which includes a complete rethinking of how we live. Anything less than that is insufficient.

  6. One mention. I love the exchange I have read so far. I see honest valor within each post. Here is perhaps another angle of thought. Greed is a thoughtless and care-free ruler. It is certainly the basis of capitalism. It rules our economy. It rules the economy of every major industrialized nation in the world. It drives and determines the choices that are marketed or even forced upon its citizens, and that in turn influences the decisions and even shapes their perception of what is acceptable. It drives the captains of industry to cut down old growth redwoods to sell as beautiful patio furniture or decks… or garden boxes. It drives them to sell water in plastic bottles, and places your market goods into plastic bags. It drives politicians to deny global warming so we will continue to consume gasoline and oil and afford our children opportunities to attend top-notch schools that are not conveniently localized, visit grandma who lives two states away…. yada yada.
    Yet if we stop for a moment and consider, the fuel of greed is completely regulated by the desire of those that feed it. Us, We are the target of the system. Like the field of dreams, “If you build it, they will come”. If you market it well, it will attract us. This ship (I will dub manifest destiny) we are on is on a death track as it stands. It WILL NOT turn on a dime (although it must). All we can hope for is to gather our collective strength in marketing a new lifestyle. A more localized lifestyle. A new manifest destiny. One where we do not have to shuffle our kids across town immediately after work, or one where we do not need to partake in delights from around the world on a regular basis, but rather partake, enjoy and celebrate the wealth of resources that are practically at our feet. The Native Americans had this lifestyle dialed in. But this lifestyle is not “profitable” and has therefore NEVER been “marketed”. It does not fit the mold we have been shaped to work within. It has never been mentioned, that is until the likes of pioneers like Henry David Thoreau and others who followed him on less notorious scales. folks like Owen, and Mr James, and even on a smaller scale, myself. I try to set the example in many areas, and admittedly I fail miserably in others. I have none the less influenced friends to grow their own food. Good for me. However, this alone is not enough. As Owen points out, the time for gradual change is past. The question stands: How to you make a giant ship turn on a dime? Do you start by setting the example? Do you market the example? How do you make “having less” sexy and desirable to those around you or even to yourself? And more importantly, how do you get past the giants at the gate?
    Thanks for tolerating this mind spill…

    1. Excellent thoughts, well expressed. Thanks. Yes to what you say: The ship will not turn on a dime, although it must. That is really the heart of things, isn’t it? The great paradox. We have painted ourselves into a corner (I am flirting with a catastrophic mixed metaphor here by placing us in a corner with our clumsy ship and a can of paint – sorry) and now what do we do? Even if everyone were on board with the urgency, and even if these nasty capitalists weren’t using everything in their power to induce us to continue destroying ourselves for their personal gain, even if everyone were pulling hard on the oars, we would still have a rough time with this situation. Man, it’s not such a great moment, is it? But let us do what we can, fully aware of what is at stake, and see what happens.

  7. I have one more thought on this. I suggest you deal directly with the importance of food growing as part of a regenerative landscape.

    1. Yes, absolutely. We must move from destructive to restorative and from consumptive to productive. As rapidly as possible. Food is what we should be growing in cities, and native plants where appropriate.

  8. Beyond Sustainable Landscapes is why we created the permaculture club at the local Cabrillo Community College, designed an edible food forest and lobbied for curriculum change;2010-2011. Curriculum passed and Permaculture will be taught there, starting Fall 2012. This was a slog to do, and we had to prove our point relentlessly and speak to the ethics of land use, in the horticulture department and throughout different channels on the main campus and administration. It was worth it.

  9. I stumbled across your site and the rain barrel post while researching rain barrels. I have to admit I laughed long and hard. Not at your article, which is great, but at the fact I found it while writing an article for my company on why rain barrels are needed. Oh, those 30 pieces of silver….

    My problem is with “magic manufacturing.”
    I teach business classes. At some point we always get into the impact on environment and I can lay money on someone bringing up wind farms.

    I then point out that the Keebler elves make cookies, not windmills. Standard speech: “Nothing is free. Do you know how much energy it takes to build a windmill? Not even counting mining the ore or pumping the oil, you have fuel for material delivered to the factory, electricity, fuel for forges, petroleum for the plastics, etc. Then you have to transport it to the site. Since over 75% of these are manufactured overseas that involves shipping to a port and putting on a ship. Ships drink fuel.

    Once at the dock the average windmill takes 7 heavy duty transports getting about 3 to 5 mpg to move. Most come from the various ports to the central states. So that’s 7 trucks going 1,000 miles at, say, 5 mpg.

    Do you know how long it’s going to take to conserve all the energy you used making that windmill?”

    Too many people think anything that conserves energy is made with ‘magic manufacturing.’ Batteries for the Prius, rain barrels, windmills, even the cloth grocery bags that are so popular today all take energy to make and deliver.

    Please conserve resources. I’d like for my grandkids to have a good life. But understand the ENTIRE cost of what you do, not just the feel-good part.


    1. Thank you for your comments. It’s all true. We need to look at the big picture so that we don’t fall for delusional feel-good band-aid pseudo-solutions. We need to do full lifecycle analysis of everything. Of course, that’s not so easy. So how long DOES it take to recover the embodied energy in a windmill? Did you find out?

      1. Like anything wrapped up in money/politics, answers vary greatly. One British estimate is that the energy payback from a wind farm is about 6 to 8 months. A different, 2006 study estimated 13 months, including the energy used constructing the foundation.

        I have two problems with these studies. The first is with the numbers. Some of the numbers appear arbitrary/theoretical, as opposed to real world production numbers. Some focus on one turbine, some focus on wind farms. Most don’t include end-of-life figures for dismantling worn out turbines. It’s hard to pin anything down.

        The second objection is my biggest: Every report I can find is done by someone promoting wind energy. Let me make something clear: if you tell me who is paying for a study, I can tell you the results without ever seeing it.

        The most objective,well rounded study I found is at .

        So yes, leaving social considerations out, wind farms do pay for themselves fairly quickly. Over their life span they should return 80 times the energy used in construction/installation/maintenance.

  10. Wow, I have to admit, in terms of all the landscaping blogs I’ve come across, yours has the most unique perspective and is, of course, quite timely as sustainability and anything “green” are all the rage right now.

    These are all very important things to consider as it’s not only good for business, but keeping in mind our “resource” expenditure, good for the earth as well.

    1. Thanks! I try to keep it real and look deeper and get to the truth, whatever that is. I appreciate your comments.

  11. To adapt our environment to ourselves and our requirements, as well as to counteract unfortunate environmental trends, the natural condition of the land needs modification. For example:

    1) Disease-bearing parasite activity in grassy meadows, brushy land, wooded land is high (ticks, fleas, chiggers, Lyme disease being just one result). Such activity is substantially lower in mown grass.

    2) vegetable gardening is not sometimes nor possible in an unaltered landscape (under trees, for example, no vegetables will grow).

    3) flower gardens are good hosts to pollinators, many of which are currently under siege due to climate change and exotic pests such as verroa mite. Pollinators, in turn, help with growing food for humans and animals to eat.

    So, in a certain sense, a classic landscape of a house surrounded by a mown lawn with a vegetable garden and flower beds IS a productive landscape which “offers up ecological services in excess of its requirements” especially if you will allow that one of those requirements be human liveability.

    In other words, the thing you ask (a landscape which relies on natural fertility and the rainfall natural to the area) might not be where you really do want to draw the line because you’re left with the problem of how to define a productive landscape. Productive of what? Lower food miles? Lower disease load? Increased bird and insect activity? People spending time outside instead of inside watching TV?

    To me, those all sound like pretty significant advantages. Yet, it’s probably going to take at least some water and fertility inputs to keep such a landscape going.

    Another problem: who gets to decide if such a modified landscape is OK? The gardener herself? The local municipality? The square footage devoted to vegetables/flowers/lawn according to some formula? And if so, who gets to write the formula?

    In short, it’s a matter of degree, not of whether inputs are used or not. So, while greenwashing certainly isn’t the answer (planting a bed of native plants and buying a rain barrel isn’t going to make a lick of difference imho) yet general condemnation of landscapes which require inputs is probably not where we want to go, either, I wouldn’t think.

  12. Great comment: “Being less bad is not good enough. Being useful, beneficial, worth the costs is what we need to strive for, and nothing less will do. “– I would like to use this when I teach my ‘Landscape for Life’ class.
    Although, I do feel that even the smallest efforts made by as many people as possible make a contribution to the conservation of our resources and wildlife. Trying to do something has to be better than doing nothing.

  13. Very insightful.

    I really like this part: “This blindness to reality is going to kill us, more slowly than the old ways, but just as surely.” – you’re definitely right! We all should start making things “less bad”.. not just in creating landscapes, but in everything that we do.

    This should be read by everyone. Will definitely share your post.

  14. At the beginning of the year, we moved into our first house and I immediately started working in the back yard. I planted things that were native to my region which means that they required a lot of water and time. How silly of me was that! I really appreciate this article as I believe that our environments should be sustainable.

  15. The previous commenters did not get it, or maybe they read a different piece. It’s not about being sustainable or less bad. It’s about being positively productive. Creative action, as opposed to more or less destructive action. No small task, and a lot to ask, but achievable and, ultimately, necessary.

  16. Not just the Landscaping there should be some sustainability require on every field of all work. This blog content is so nicely describing about this matter. I appreciate Mr.Owen to discuss a valuable topic. Thanks for sharing your views….

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