a woman standing in a native plant garden

What is Ecological Landscaping?

Ecological landscaping seeks to implement a vision of human-designed outdoor spaces that integrate into natural processes. In action, it leverages natural sciences to create healthy communities of diverse native plants and wildlife.

It promotes the costless ecological benefits that support all life. And it satisfies human needs and aesthetics.

Ecological landscaping works to restore any ecosystem by fostering healthy soil and supporting pollinators. It can resolve trenchant infrastructure shortfalls. Examples include heat islands and wasteful stormwater drainage in urban areas, and soil erosion and monoculturing in rural areas. It can also ease pressure on existing, engineered solutions to these problems.

Finally, it can result in colorful, attractive landscapes.

a planted rain garden with a birdbath, both filled with water
Functional and appealing

Designers of ecological landscapes seek to plan communities as unified systems where natural and manufactured components work together. Arguably, every landscape design must integrate into a “novel ecosystem” — a system of biotic, abiotic, and social components defined by human influence.

The key goals of these landscapes serve the three pillars of sustainability: economic, social, and environmental benefits. The main factors the ecological landscaper must consider are soil restoration, species biodiversity, and plant propagation. All these measures build educational and social opportunities, and support functioning economies in the long term.

two workers prepare a plant bed
Photo: Marc Opperman

“Ecology-based design emphasizes stimulating growth of soil biotic populations and maximizing above and below-ground biodiversity. Specific methods and materials vary by site,” said Rick Martinson, Ph.D. in Horticulture and owner of WinterCreek Restoration & Nursery. “But every design strives to create a fully functional landscape that doesn’t rely on artificial inputs.”

Prioritizing ‘Ecosystem Services’

Imagine a typical city or suburb. Blocks are laid out in squares, lined with impermeable structures that reflect heat and do not absorb water. Natural materials are relegated to the medians, margins, and other in-between spaces.

A typical suburb
Photo: Harry Thomas via Pexels

In this standard format, cities are linear designs that usually consume water and produce waste at high rates. Stormwater flows faster over hard surfaces, causing erosion and depositing pollutants downstream.

The overall effect is to interrupt nature’s cyclical, filtering processes.

an illustration showing how cities affect natural water cycles
Illustration: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

These impervious designs also obstruct the flow of “ecosystem services.”

These free, nature-provided functions are the reason all human life exists. They allow life on multiple levels, from growing food to filtering water, controlling disease, and supporting recreational and cultural opportunities.

ecosystem services categories including provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting

Infrastructure that ignores or restricts ecosystem services fails to capitalize on these vital, zero-cost resources. But ecological landscape designers can remediate these deficiencies. The critical path is to harness natural elements to perform infrastructural functions (called “green infrastructure”).

an illustration desribing a rain garden
Photo: thewatershedproject.org

One common example of green infrastructure design is a rain garden, a landscape structure that mimics natural water cycling. Rain gardens can cause stormwater to infiltrate soils and recharge aquifers, reducing flood and pollution hazards that most impermeable drainage structures worsen.

Even more simply, trees, vegetation, and green roofs can reduce heat island effects. They shade reflective surfaces, deflect solar radiation, and regulate atmospheric moisture.

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Biodiversity is Key

But creating healthier plant communities is more complex than just installing more green things. Biodiversity among species is a major driver of ecosystem structure and function. So intentional species selection is critical to any ecological landscaper’s plant plan.

As well-designed plant communities mature, they tend to increase in resilience and benefit. Consider the rain garden below (swipe right for seasonal progress).

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Every size ecosystem needs a wide variety of species to function beneficially. In fact, a non-biodiverse environment could not produce any of the ecosystem services listed above.

We need multiple species of pollinators for food production. Plant communities with multiple cohabitating species resist disease better, limiting failure. Stronger plant communities retain and enrich soil, limiting flooding and supporting resource security. And research has established links between exposure to nature and mental well-being. (The Royal Society further explains these concepts in a colorful 90-second read.)

Landscapes like rain gardens, butterfly gardens, and even hardscape projects should include diverse plantings. Designers should prioritize native species, because these plants have adapted to their local ecosystem for thousands of generations.

Yes, we mainly live in novel ecosystems. But these changes point even more directly to the benefits of native plants.

“Seven to eight generations of human management have affected most soils in our area,” explained Ted Maas, president and founder of Maas Verde. “We can perform amendments, but that creates human influence, too. So plants that have adapted to these soils over long periods of time are more likely to thrive.”

As Martinson points out, “fully functional landscapes” are the goal. The effective ecological landscape designer considers links between all species at a site. This also factors in migratory and resident wildlife, including insects and soil biota.

Monarchs on Gregg’s mistflower (top); Ruby-throated hummingbirds on lantana. Photos: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Travis Audubon

Soil Health and Long-Term Benefits

Creating human-friendly systems where plant communities also thrive is the overarching goal of ecological landscaping. But the benefits of these landscapes must propagate in the soil first.

Many areas, urban and rural, experience deeply degraded soil conditions due to a range of causes. Ecological landscaping needs to address erosion and sterility in soils.

An example of gully erosion, in which fast-moving water removes soils by cutting channels in landscapes

Virtually all sites that have undergone conventional construction or industrial-scale agriculture exhibit these conditions.

At a typical construction site, crews prepare the area by scraping away vegetation and topsoil down to a depth of several yards. Materials that replace it are usually impermeable (concrete, asphalt) or do not support the site’s original ecology.

This creates several problems. Applying hard surfaces over soil compacts it, increasing erosion and runoff and decreasing nutrient exchange. And plants that are unsuited to their location tend to root poorly, require chemical treatments, or fail.

Roots naturally decompact and aerate soils. Decomposition and water infiltration in soils stimulate nutrient cycling, and biodiversity of species builds resilience against stressors. Ecological landscaping performs these functions.

Illustration: Institute for Local Self-Reliance

This generates lasting resilience, leading to long-term resource security in communities. Once the system establishes itself, it becomes more valuable as it propagates.

An ecological landscape is “an investment that tends to increase in value as plants grow and become more self-sufficient. Studies have shown that capital costs can be reduced by 15 to 80 percent by using green infrastructure in stormwater management, paving, and landscaping,” Oregon State University’s Gail Langelotto and Singe Danler explain.

Maintenance costs represent one clear example of these savings. Since native plants are adapted to their site, they require little chemical treatment or irrigation (if any).

‘Rethinking’ Landscape Design

Traditional landscapes conform to traditional human infrastructure designs — linear, decoupled from natural processes, and waste-producing. Ecological landscapes will alter these designs and perform new, integrated functions within the novel ecosystems that result.

A bioswale on an urban street. Photo: Department of Energy & Environment

“Ecological landscaping does not necessarily replicate natural landscapes, although it may include parts of them; rather, it incorporates natural systems and processes into a human-centered design. By rethinking landscape design and modifying some of its objectives, we can make use of the many services natural ecosystems freely provide, often more efficiently and economically than built systems.”

-S. Danler, G. Langellotto

The quantifiable benefits of ecological landscaping are substantially unknown, mainly because the trade is so nascent. While its rudimentary principles have existed for well over half a century (it’s not functionally wrong to think of the Barton Creek Greenbelt as one giant rain garden), the industry is young.

Ecosystems need time to develop and mature, and society needs time to accept change. People generally like it when their surroundings seem cohesive and conform to the status quo. Transitioning the aesthetic ideal of a landscape from the conventional lawn (perfectly manicured but often dysfunctional) to the native plant garden (wilder but functional) will take time.

A conventional turfgrass lawn and plantings (left) and rain garden (right)

Installing ecological landscapes at scale can ease this pain point. More importantly, linking more naturally landscaped areas together makes the habitat far more viable for the plants and wildlife it hosts.

Ecological landscapes can look different, or messy, but design techniques like critical species selection and clean edging can add intentionality. Below grade, the soil will store the benefits of increased biodiversity and erosion control for future generations.

Maas Verde believes creating aesthetic, functioning landscapes will spark widespread adoption of these re-imagined structures. And that through this process, we can restore ecosystems.

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