A good way to do this is to create gardens that offer food and beauty for people while providing habitat and other benefits for the rest of nature.
Permaculture is the fancy name for this approach to garden design. When you garden using organic fertilizers and organic pesticides (when necessary), you reduce pollution in the environment. When you plant edibles like fruits, vegetables and herbs in your yard, you create a more natural landscape that takes better care of itself while yielding a plentiful harvest of plants for food.
You can put these ideas to work in your own garden by using water more efficiently and carefully selecting and locating plants. Deep-rooted trees like fig, mulberry, peach and plum help break up heavy soil and shade the plants beneath them. Planting drought-tolerant trees creates shade, which in turn slows the evaporation of moisture from soil and prevents erosion.
Group plants with similar water needs. Grow thirsty plants in the lowest areas of your garden where more water collects — you might install a rain garden in areas like this. (A rain garden is simply a planted depression designed to absorb run-off from areas like driveways, walkways, roofs and compacted lawns.) The rain garden acts to replenish ground beds while preventing water from running into storm sewers, streams and creeks.
Plant dry-climate plants, such as lavender, rosemary and sage, in open, sunny areas, and plant drought-tolerant ground covers, such as oregano and thyme, to shade the soil and conserve moisture. Use less turf grass and more walkable groundcovers where possible.
Place hardy perennials like artichoke, butterfly bush and rhubarb under tree canopies to conserve moisture. In general, use deep-rooted, low maintenance perennials that provide food and also shade for plants underneath.
For food, plant fruit trees, berries, nuts, herbs and vegetables. To create habitat, plant fennel, spearmint and yarrow for beneficial insects; butterfly bush and sage for pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds; and ceanothus and other native shrubs and trees for birds and other wildlife.
To improve soil structure, use deep-rooted plants to break up heavy soils and add organic matter. You can plant rhubarb, bear’s breech or other large-leaf plants as a living mulch. Using wood-based mulch on garden beds helps contain moisture in the soil, too.
To provide soil with nitrogen, plant ceanothus, clover, lupine and legumes like beans and peas. To supply minerals, plant chives, comfrey, garlic and white yarrow.
Sustainable landscapes do not have to look like weed patches. With a little planning, your garden can be beautiful and productive.
Jan Nelson, a California certified nursery professional at Plant Works in Ben Lomond, will answer questions about gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.