Beautiful Landscapes are Sustainable Landscapes

Beautiful landscapes capture the eye and heart and lead the foot with the promise of a vista, through the complexity of textures or the intrigue of colour, shadow and light.

Spring gardens showing blue and green Picea pungens, Colorado Spruce, Spiraea Bridlewreath and Paeonia spp., peonies, and Rheum rhabarbarum, rhubarb.


Winter gardens at The Glen Road Organics


Beautiful landscapes are sustainable. They care for themselves; evolving through seasons into greater and greater complexity. The human footprint contributes without taking.

Acer saccharum, Sugar maple trees.

Supporting Ecological Functions

A sustainable garden is strong. It remains diverse and productive because all its ecological functions are supported. A garden’s ecological functions are all the interactions between living organisms and with their abiotic (non-living) environments. So that means your garden’s ecological functions would include:

earthworms pulling the fall leaves into their burrows
a Praying Mantis laying her eggs on the underside of an outdoor bench
you picking raspberries for your breakfast cereal bowl
insects cycling through all their life stages
birds and frogs feeding off of all these insects
plant matter decomposing on top of the soil
soil microbes absorbing nitrogen from the atmosphere and releasing it in a plant available form, available for immediate uptake
and so much more!

Viburnum trilobum, Highbush cranberry, produces an edible berry that birds will eat late in the winter when food supplies are limited.

So if you want a landscape like that you’re going to need to plant a diverse selection of plants, the majority of which should be native.

The Role of Native Plants

Why native? Native species are critical to supporting native wildlife and insects, supportive of ecological functions (like we discussed above). Most insects are specialized to recognize only specific plants it has evolved with over a long period of time – native plants vs the newest ornamental plant introduced by the landscape industry. Without a healthy insect population frogs, toads and birds can not exist. Did you know that baby birds eat only insects? Not seeds. A few natives (often combined with pesticide and herbicide use) = degraded insect populations = fewer natural food sources = fewer higher order animals.


This fall garden is shown in its first year and was built with multiple erosion control elements using mostly native plants: Rhus typhnia, Staghorn Sumac, Picea pungens, Colorado Spruce, Juniperous horizontalis, Creeping Junipers, and thick mulch. By year 5 this same garden had it’s plantings expanded to adapt to a growing woodland environment with areas of full sun and included: Sporobolus heterolepis, Prairie Dropseed grass, Carex muskingumensis, Palm sedge, Liatrus spicata, Blazing Star, Tiarella cordifolia, Foamflower and Sedum ternatum, Wild Stonecrop, to name a few.


One of the insects you should see in your garden are wild bees. Wild bees are different than honey bees. They are mostly solitary and build their nest in abandoned rodent tunnels. Here is a cocoon-like package of leaf circles cut by a Leaf Cutter Bee found in one of the GRO gardens.


A final quality that must be included in a sustainable garden is its resilience factor. You can judge the resilience of your garden by observing events where naturally occurring regenerative forces interact with the energy released from disturbances, into your garden’s ecosystem and beyond its boundaries into surrounding ecosystems. A garden’s resilience factor is its ability to adapt to the disturbance and continue to be viable.

Regenerative forces are solar energy, water, soil, atmosphere, vegetation or biomass. So if we take a look at your garden: What is happening to the sun exposure (full sun to shade), the water patterns, the soil’s structure and water-absorbing abilities, your plant growth, the process of decomposition each time you are there? Each time you walk through your gardens, till the soil, weed, remove plant debris or pick it’s flowers or berries you are creating different energy releases. In nature, or the wild, changes or disturbances initiate a process of adaptation as that ecosystem returns to a viable existence. How successful is your garden at adapting?

Adaptation can be observed in several stages: (1) first there is a disturbance, (2) followed by a system adaptation and (3) a utilization or a deflection of energy. This important process can be understood in a simple example.

Let’s consider a summer storm; the now typical, heavy summer rain storm in your garden. There’s a deluge of rain water, often falling hard on the ground, and it creates an extraordinary amount of surface water looking for pathways in your garden. What happens? A sustainable garden is designed and built to store, absorb and slowly drain this excess. Consider your own garden’s ability to handle this kind of disturbance. You will probably need to find ways to improve its resilience. There are many ways to do this, most of them simple, but that discussion will have to wait for a separate blog(s) of its own!


A resilient garden can adapt to changes, natural + human, and continue its ecological functions.

Sustainability + Resilience = Beautiful Gardens

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