Complete(ish) Guide To A Sustainable Portland Garden

by Ben Bowen

Sustainable & Low Maintenance Landscape Design Guide

When a neighbor looks at your yard, they see the attractiveness of the design. When you look at your landscape you see much deeper. You see the water it uses, the electricity it consumes, the time and fuel it takes to maintain, the native plants it has replaced, the wildlife it offers little support to, and maybe even the chemicals that make it easier to maintain.

Let's work together and ensure you like what you see. 

What is a sustainable landscape design?

A sustainable landscape is environmentally friendly. But it's more than that. It should be designed to improve with age. If you are unhappy with your garden in 5 years, and want to rip it out, that is not sustainable! 

Here are the key elements that Ross NW Watergardens' landscape designer (me) considers when planning a sustainable garden: 

  •  Water. Your landscaping can account for 25% or more of your property's water consumption. How do we lower that? Plants that are drought tolerant can survive Portland's dry summers with little or no extra water. A well designed irrigation system, utilizing "smart" timer technology, will keep your plants thriving while wasting very little water. Even water features can be included in a responsible way. They just have to be designed and installed properly. Rain gardens can handle run off in a healthy way, adding another layer of sustainability to your landscape design.
  • Electricity.  Low voltage landscape lighting can absolutely be a wise choice. LED bulbs in brass fixtures use minimal amounts of power and last for decades. Water feature pumps vary greatly in efficiency. We only install high-efficiency pumps, ensuring your water feature is not wasting electricity.
  • Herbicides.  Weeds. They are the reason that we reach for the herbicides. Weeds, unwanted grasses, and ivy can quickly take over and leave you feeling overwhelmed. While there is no such thing as a "weed free" landscape, we can design your garden to have as few as possible. Hardscape keeps weeds out of certain areas, but you can't turn the yard into a parking lot! Wise use of ground covers can help by out competing the weeds for sun and space. A landscape finished with a fine dark bark product will stay free of weeds for several months. We will combine these methods to limit the amount of weeds, so you can pull- not spray.
  • Lawn. Do you need a lawn? Lawns have become the default space filler in American yards. However, they take lots of water, fertilizer, and herbicides to keep happy. For 8 months of the year they need weekly care. Let's consider an Eco-lawn, which demands much less attention. Or maybe you don't need a lawn at all!
  • Native Plants. Native plants offer much to the sustainable garden. They tend to thrive with less care. Many require little water. And they are sourced nearby, not trucked from another part of the country. Plus, Oregon has so many fantastic natives to choose from! Trees can be beneficial in special ways. They can lower electrical usage for your home and sequester carbon. Check the value of your existing trees with this calculator.
  • Invasive Plants. You probably have an existing landscape already. It's great to be able to use mature plants in the new landscape- but not if they are invasive. Invasive plants may be weeds, which we all agree need to go. But some invasives, like self seeding Butterfly Bush, are attractive. They just don't belong in the Pacific Northwest.
  • Animals.  Our neighborhoods are (or should be) full of creatures. And, let's be honest, they were here first. By considering the basic needs of native wildlife our neighborhoods can become more friendly to them. Like us, they need food, water, and shelter. It does not take a lot to make sure your garden is providing these basic!

These are the basics and will give you a great start towards a truly sustainable landscape design. Some of these concepts can be taken even further though:


Low Maintenance Landscape Designs for Portland Homeowners

You care about your yard but you don't want to spend every weekend caring for your yard. And while a "no maintenance" landscape sounds great, you also want your outdoor spaces to look right. Is it possible to have a low maintenance yard that you can be proud of?

High style but not high maintenance.

Absolutely. Ross NW Watergardens creates and implements designs that will look good for years with very little care. Some of the techniques and tools we utilize to lower the time and effort needed to care for your landscape are:

  • Lawnless landscapes.
  • Need a lawn? An eco-lawn or artificial grass might work for you.
  • Drought tolerant shrubs (because watering takes time!)
  • Selecting only plants that will fit your space when they are fully mature.
  • Limiting both the quantities and varieties of plants specified.
  • Favoring evergreens (no fall leaf raking for you.)
  • Using ground cover to out compete weeds.
  • Hardscape done right (parking lots are low maintenance but ugly.)

Wondering what these concepts could mean for your landscape design? Contact us today and schedule a free consultation.

We Get "Low Maintenance"

I am a landscape designer. But I am first and foremost a husband and father of 4. Like you we work, we play, we volunteer, we vacation. Time for yard work is limited! The tools, techniques, and concepts I will apply to your landscape design are the same ones I am using at my home.

More About Low Care Landscaping


Portland Backyard Habitats

Portland neighborhoods are full of houses, streets, and manicured lawns- where there used to forests and streams. Wildlife of all types used to call these places home. And many of them still can, with a little help from you.

How can you make your home's landscaping friendly for wildlife? It is not complicated. Animals need the same things we do- food, water, and shelter. Your yard can provide all of these, while still being a fantastic landscape.

Ready to make your yard a haven for wildlife?

There are two programs that can guide your efforts, and maybe help you set a good example in your neighborhood. Ross NW Watergardens can create a sustainable landscape design and install it to meet the requirements for both these programs!

1-Wildlife Habitats

This program is run by the National Wildlife Foundation.  The goal is to encourage and reward making our landscapes friendly to wildlife.

2-Backyard Habitat

The Backyard Habitat program is run by the Audobon Society nationally, in partnership locally with The Columbia Land Trust. The basic goals and requirements are similar to the Wildlife Habitat program.

Ross NW Watergardens has installed and maintains Plantinum level Backyard Habitats in Portland and Lake Oswego. We would love to collaborate on yours!

ELA member
certified backyard habitat sign