Guest columnist Rich Liberto dives into how environmentally-conscious gardens help create friendlier ecosystems

By: Rich Liberto

There is a growing level of concern about the usage of chemicals, water and waste within our nation today. Misuses have contributed to the loss of native plant habitats, our pollinators, and debris – such as leaves and lawn clippings – manage to account for nearly one-fifth of the waste found in landfills nationwide.

These are troubling concerns for a number of environmentally conscious residents. More pesticides are used in home gardens than on agricultural lands. In addition, home gardens consume as much as 50 percent of domestic water along with the fact lawn mowers and leaf blowers are contributing to higher carbon dioxide emissions, the largest contributing factor towards climate change!

So how do you create a landscape that is both beautiful and environmentally sound? A new etiquette that approaches the landscape holistically, rather than adopting arbitrary needs. So how to begin?

One step is to work with nature and create a “zone” of the natural landscape. Home landscapes have a potential as ecological sanctuaries that are aesthetically interesting, functional and educational. Children will take great delight in watching and
learning the skills of butterflies, hummingbirds, cardinals, and beneficial insects, all contributing factors to the larger and integral whole of the natural world and all organisms wholly dependent upon one another. Pittsburgher, Rachel Carson, who was considered to be the ‘Mother of Ecology,’ referred to this symbiotic relationship as the “web of life.’’

Natural or “sustainable” landscapes that are herbicide and pesticide-free, celebrate biodiversity and regional heritage by looking towards nature for broad patterns and a four season plant palette.

These landscapes do not only use a single native plant or species but rather recreate a community. A major role this new way of rethinking our landscapes can offer is to enhance the surrounding native vegetation or to restore what once flourished.

This is especially true for homeowners who are fortunate to have woodlands or large fields as part of their property. However, a city courtyard can be easily transformed
into a sustainable landscape. These habitats require much less coddling than their more cultured counterparts of manicured lawns, masses of water-guzzling annuals and the high maintenance, over-clipped shrubs we are seeing dominating the majority of landscapes today. Not to mention the homogenization of landscapes.

Photo by Rich Liberto.

Does this mean that the formal-style gardens and the English herbaceous borders must be
relegated to the compost pile? No, not in the least! Sustainable landscaping is simply suggesting that one should select plants which are suited for the Southwestern PA region and plants not requiring massive infusions of precious water or harsh chemicals. These plantings are not dependent upon countless hours of weeding, dead-heading, spraying and mulching.

Additionally, a sustainable garden works with the natural cycle of decay and renewal. In nature, nutrients absorbed by plants are returned to the soil in the form of fallen leaves and other natural refuse (animal waste). I recall my grandparents referring to compost as “black gold” and perpetually extolling its’ virtues. It makes no sense to jettison dead leaves or grass clippings to an overburdened landfill or to purchase peat moss and fertilizer from your nearest home center when that very same yard waste can be recycled in your own backyard and gardens.

By the same token, environmental pest control begins with good landscape design, selection of disease resistant plants (right plant, right place) and an understanding of the
interaction of pests and beneficial insects. Sustainable landscapes work with the entire property as an ecosystem. This holistic approach is a healthier way of living in harmony with nature and one another.

Another alternative is encouraging a “freedom lawn.” One that utilizes a hands-off approach: watering, fertilizing, pesticide and herbicide usage is, at the very least, lessened if not discontinued. Less frequent mowing means fewer emissions and is easier on the wallet.

Decreases in the population of pollinators like the Easter Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly (pictured above) has been attributed to growing usage of chemicals and increases in CO2 levels.

Lastly, there is a growing trend towards creating “rain gardens” or bog gardens that mitigate stormwater from roofs as another natural biological feature and thus serving as a unique landscape features. Many homeowners are now “capturing” stormwater into rain barrels to help water their plantings or container plants.

By making better environmentally conscious decisions on an individual basis, one landscape at a time, we enter into a powerful agreement: the agreement to share the incredible experience of creating a world that is healthier and more sustainable for all forms of life.


Rich Liberto is a horticulturist, landscape designer, consultant, and owner of Liberto Landscape Design. He can be reached at

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