Landscape for Life – a Review


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Remember the Sustainable Sites Initiative?  It set eco-standards for landscapes the way LEED does for buildings, and was a collaborative project of the U.S. Botanic Garden, Johnson Wildflower Center and ASLAThis post about it included the good news that a homeowner version was in the works – well, it's here and it's called Landscape for Life. So let's look inside, shall we?

My favorite things

  • Landscape for Life emphasizes all the ecological services performed by healthy landscapes – like storing water, flood control, and enhancing human health and well-being.
  • The website is pretty (though more photos of examples would be nice).  And the message is  pro-beauty, stressing that landscapes need to be good-looking. (Yes, it really says that!)
  • It encourages us to create outdoor spaces for games, for socializing, for quiet relaxation and for growing food.  It's all too rare to see human needs and desires mentioned in writings about "green gardening," so kudos!
  • It's very practical, even including advice about construction materials.
  • The section on pesticides is excellent, stressing that organic gardening means more than just switching to different products.
  • It encourages the use of native plants but takes an inclusive approach to plant origin (nonnatives aren't condemned). The right plant/right place philosophy is used here, with advice about matching plants to local precipitation patterns.
  • It advises choosing the RIGHT native plants, not just any of them.  "Be sure to choose native plants that match the specific conditions at the planting site.”  Which seems obvious to us gardeners but this sensible caveat is seldom included.  Ditto for the fact that native plants need to be tended.
  • It's easy to understand, which for an informational resource means it's very well written – by Janet Marinelli.

What I didn't know

  • The importance of biomass.  Why do we see so little mention of this?
  • Perlite comes from Greece!  Which is just one reason it's not considered sustainable, in addition to the energy required to create it.  Peat moss is also a no-no.  (See the section on sustainable potting mixes.)

Questions and suggestions

"State and local native plant societies are great sources of information on native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers that will thrive in your garden.”  Uh, I wish.  They usually just list ALL native plants, whether or not they're available or do well in landscapes.

And still on native plants, I have a question about this: “For the vast majority of native wildlife, most of the non-native plants we've favored in our landscapes for more than a century do not provide sufficient food, including the insects on which 96 percent of all terrestrial birds depend.”  But doesn't Doug Tallamy tell us that 50 percent of native wildlife are generalists?  

In "Green Your Lawn" (the site's weakest section), I found this: "Because lawn typically requires more water and fertilizer than other parts of the garden and mowing consumes energy and results in pollution, it's best to cut it down to size. Replace all or part of it with more sustainable alternatives." Which makes me wonder: Why not suggest we NOT water and feed our lawns so much, and switch to nonpolluting mowers?  When I had a lawn I watered it less than the rest of my garden, and never fed it. And not all mowers pollute.

In this anti-lawn vein, it's even suggested that lawns be replaced with hardscape, which seems to contradict recommendations elsewhere to beef up our yard's biomass. 

And I'd encourage the author to say more about fertilizing lawns than just “fertilize sparingly and less frequently”.  How about at the right time of the year (spring or fall, for cold or warm season grasses) and what to fertilize WITH, including great options like corn gluten, compost and mulching mowers.  There's no mention of soil tests, or the suggestion that we feed only if our lawn's looking thin and weedy.

In the discussion of alternative types of turfgrass, there's a nice mention of the Grassroots Program in California – it's part of the Lawn Reform Coalition and we love it.  But readers outside California could be helped by a link to the whole (nationwide) Coalition.

Finally, on the subject of finding alternatives to conventional turf-type fescues, we're advised thusly: “Contact your county Cooperative Extension office for more information on which alternative turfgrass varieties are best suited for your area.”  Again, I WISH.

Now readers, check it out for yourselves and weigh in – What do YOU think of Landscape for Life?  It's online, so changes could easily be made.


  1. Saddly, the reccomendation to contact your county extension office is a little outdated. In our state they are a dying breed as the state cuts the funds to the county, and then the county cuts their match. And since we just elected a “cut government spending in half and reduce taxes” governor, I doubut if the situation is going to improve. Two neighboring counties did not pass an operating levy. No more 4-h. And these are rural counties.

  2. It’s a nice start, but decidedly incomplete. Their terrestrial biomes map is too general and doesn’t address soil types (just temp and water variables).

    As for non-natives…that’s such a loaded debate. I have a mix of 70% ‘native’ 30% ‘alien’ plants and aside from my xylosmas (which, btw, require less water than most of my ‘natives’), everything appears to feed SOMETHING. There should be a more balanced demarcation between “invasive” and “nonnative”. Some nonnatives are quite compatible.

  3. I agree, the lawn section is somewhat weak and appears to directly contradict the section on biomass. This was a new term for me as well although not a new concept. Planting in vertical layers is a key way to slow the rate of water absorption during rainfall for clay soils, and is one of the best ways to stabilize a slope.

    Regarding the Extension suggestion, our Master Gardener help desk operates three hours a day, four days a week, but we are only allowed to give out information that is University tested and approved. UC research hasn’t kept up with innovations in lawn alternatives, so in fact, we are not a good source of info on this particular topic. I learn more from the Association of Professional Landscape Designer’s forum that I belong to – and from blogs.

  4. Perlite is from Greece?! How in the world did I miss this?

    I also agree about the Extension services…our local extension provides fabulous information, but their funding is going the way of the Wooly Mammoth. It’s a shame. Look forward to reading more of your site!

  5. The recipe for homemade potting mix won’t work for many plants and won’t hold up for longterm plantings even if the plant can take it. Potting soils need to have structure so that they can hold a lot of air. Potting mixes with loam become dense after time. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea for us to start mixing our own. We just need to understand that without peat moss we will be unable to grow many of the houseplants that we currently cherish, or at least be unable to keep them growing for a long time. Maybe that would be for the best–maybe it will even be inescapable. The luxuriant tropical plants that many of us enjoy require a lot of energy to keep going: grow lights, peatmoss, oil-derived fertilizer, a warmish house, and the unseen inputs such as the energy required to ship Perlite around.

  6. In my area, we have an excellent Extension Service. BUT….. The population of our area doubled during the housing upswing and the Extension Service hasn’t increased its personnel in many years. What they did do this fall was schedule two classes for Master Gardeners instead of just one per winter. That move solved two issues: there was a long waiting list to get into the MG classes and they’ll have enough volunteers to man more office hours for the public.

    When it comes to native plants, we first need to define “native.” Native to the state, native to the region, native to North America? Many of the plants in my yard are not native to my state or region, but the birds that eat the seeds are also native to areas where the plants grew before we started transplanting things where they were never meant to grow.

    The Idaho Native Plant Society has a lot of good information on their website ( Scroll down a little and on the left you’ll see the section “Native Plant Guides.” The link “Landscaping with Plants of the Intermountain Region” takes you to a booklet that can be downloaded. Three other regions of the state have plant lists as well. The plants on these lists and in the booklet are available locally or from mail order suppliers. Other native plant societies may want to take note if they don’t already have these resources.

  7. @ Becky – coco coir is a perfectly sustainable alternative to peat moss. In fact, it’s superior in many senses. Coconuts come from the tropics along with many of our cherished houseplants.

    The real problem is that peat moss has industry lobbying behind it and therefore remains much cheaper and more widely available.

  8. I only briefly scanned the site and could not find the obligatory ‘score card’ that is used in many state wide systems that promote and or require a fully integrated eco-strategy.
    For the landscape professional or a dedicated homeowner the score card is a valuable resource.
    Looks like a good start and one that can be integrated with LEED and the Bay Friendly Sustainability Model.

  9. I am excited to know about this site. Thank you for reviewing it. The mention of biomass is excellent and potting soils. But I agree with the other comments that it is very general. More emphasis on the harmfulness of pesticides and herbicides maybe with some statistics could help bring the message home. I feel like landscapers could help reduce their use substantially.

  10. RE coir: It comes from overseas. Much energy is required to transport it to the USA. You can’t grow coconut palms in New England. My point: our indoor gardens consume a lot of energy that we are not aware of.

  11. I just made a note for making own potting soil, and I have question about the garden topsoil. I will have to buy topsoil, so now I have a question: Where does the bagged topsoil
    come from? Is it sustainable?

    I grow plants in pots because you can move the show around, and because deer don’t usually get to the pots so you can have pots on the patio, by doorways, etc.,

    I;m always happy to get new information and will check the Landscape for Life site.

  12. I agree with Michelle D., I was looking for a ‘scorecard.’ That’s what I need when I talk to clients. Otherwise, the website seemed like a great How-To, as good and thorough as anything I’ve seen.

  13. The ‘scorecard’ is on the Sustainable Sites Imitative website in their 2009 Guidelines PDF document (233 pages!!!) There’s a total of 250 points that are divided among categories like: site selection (21 points), water (44 points), soil & vegetation (51 points), etc.

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