Landscaping is largely made up of plants and other organic matter like soil and mulch.
It’s easy to see these objects as completely inert, even when they’re living things.
If we want to prioritize sustainability in day-to-day life, we must take a closer look at how landscaping affects plants just as it does wild animals and insects.
Landscaping can be both good and bad for plants depending on context.
Landscaping practices that harm plant life as a whole might not seem catastrophic at the moment.
Yet, as we’ve seen many times before, it doesn’t take long for said practices to ripple through the environment and lead to serious consequences like algae blooms, pollinator decline, and even extinction.
Let’s explore the relationship between modern landscaping and plant health, along with what you can do to support the life in and around your property.
How Does Landscaping Affect Plants?
It might be a question you’ve never thought about.
Overall, landscaping isn’t inherently good or bad for plant life. It isn’t entirely neutral, either.
Understanding how common landscaping practices affect the plants in and around your garden can help you make more sustainable decisions in the future.
3 Ways Landscaping Can Benefit Plants
Erosion affects the topsoil more than any other layer. Topsoil typically contains more organic matter and nutrients than any other part of the soil.
Plants rely on topsoil for nutrition. So when erosion blows or washes away this layer of soil, the area can no longer support healthy plant life.
Landscaping can prevent erosion in very obvious ways, such as with the use of hardscaping elements like retaining walls.
Covering the ground with landscaping fabric or mulch can also slow down the natural erosion process.
However, one of the biggest contributors to stopping erosion are the plants themselves.
Shrubs, trees, and other landscaping plants hold soil in place with their roots.
Ground cover, like turfgrass or clover, protects the top layer of soil from falling rain and heavy wind.
While the agricultural industry leads the way in developing new and improved crop cultivars, plenty of resources go to developing ornamental plants as well.
If not for landscaping and gardening, we wouldn’t have many of the most popular varieties of plants we enjoy today.
Before the 2000s, roses were known as extremely fussy plants to include in one’s landscape.
But with the introduction of the Knockout Rose, a genetic line resistant to common pests and disease, roses suddenly became one of the most sought-after shrubs to include in the garden.
Over 20 years later, Knockout Roses are the top-selling rose variety in the United States.
And this isn’t a recent phenomenon.
There’s evidence that hydrangea breeding dates back millions of years in the plant’s native region of Japan.
Hydrangea were eventually brought to Europe and to North America, where genetic experimentation soared in the 20th century in places like Cape Cod.
Today, gardeners and scientists continue to tinker with this family of flowering plants.
Just think of how much less colorful and fragrant our modern gardens would be if not for centuries (or even millennia) of human curiosity and cross-breeding!
Along with encouraging genetic research and the creation of new plant varieties, landscaping has undoubtedly saved countless species from endangerment.
There are several examples of this throughout history. One such example that many people are familiar with is the orchid.
The Orchid family’s natural habitat has largely disappeared thanks to deforestation, and orchids are listed on the United States’ endangered species list.
Currently, the vast majority of orchids live in “captivity” — very few remain in the wild.
It’s only because of the combined efforts of orchid lovers around the world that the plant family continues to thrive in greenhouses, conservatories, and homes the way it does.
However, landscaping does little to save hard-to-grow or unwanted plants from extinction.
Orchids may not have been so lucky if not for their gorgeous blooms and sweet fragrance.
Just in the last 250 years, an estimated 600 plant species have gone extinct.
Even if these plants wouldn’t make a good fit in the average landscape, it’s heartbreaking to see them disappear from the earth for good.
3 Ways Landscaping Can Be Detrimental to Plants
Many gardeners are conditioned to view weeds and invasive plant species as one and the same. A weed is any plant undesirable in its current location.
While we often think of weeds as specific species like dandelion, buckthorn, and crabgrass, identifying a weed is all about context. Even a rose bush can be a weed if it’s unwanted.
On the other hand, invasive species are plants that are non-native to a specific area and that are likely to cause harm.
Some invasive plants are considered harmful because they are toxic to humans or pets.
More often, though, invasive species receive this label because their introduction damages the environment (including native plant life).
Let’s return to the difference between weeds and invasive species.
This distinction is important because many, many invasive species are introduced as landscaping plants!
While these plants are beautiful, they can quickly spread to nearby meadows, prairies, and wetlands where they compete with native flora.
Over time, entire areas can be overrun with invasive species that started out in someone’s garden.
Weeding by hand is extremely hard work, which is why many landscapers opt to use chemical herbicides instead.
Unfortunately, these herbicides often come with a list of drawbacks.
Chemical herbicides may kill off nearby native plants as well as unwanted weeds.
This can have a direct impact on the natural ecosystems surrounding your property.
Commercial fertilizers aren’t all good, either. While fertilizers can contribute to nutritional imbalances in the soil, the biggest issue is run-off.
Fertilizer run-off occurs when chemicals wash away from gardens, lawns, and agricultural fields and enter natural water sources like rivers and lakes.
This excess nitrogen and phosphorus contributes to algae blooms and mass death of fish and other aquatic wildlife.
When it comes to the relationship between landscaping and pollinator decline, pesticides are the most obvious culprit.
Most common home and garden pesticides don’t discriminate by species.
Bees, butterflies, and other helpful insects can be affected just as easily as unwanted bugs.
The removal of native plant species in favor of ornamental ones can also be harmful to pollinators.
Countless pollinators rely on specific plant species for survival. Perhaps the most famous example of this relationship is the monarch butterfly.
The monarch caterpillar relies on a single group of plants — known as milkweed — for food.
If there’s no milkweed available, monarch caterpillars are unable to mature and turn into butterflies.
No matter the cause, the consequences of fewer pollinators span far and wide.
Pollinator decline doesn’t just affect wild plant species.
Agricultural crops, orchards, and even backyard vegetable gardens will have smaller yields if these populations continue to fall.
Are All Plants Affected Equally by Landscaping?
No, and that’s why it’s hard to label all landscaping as either good or bad.
While the ornamental plants used in landscaping can benefit from the practice, the opposite is true for many native species.
This nuance is what makes it so difficult to prescribe sustainable best practices that benefit plants as a single entity.
The practices that are good for some plants are liable to harm others and vice-versa.
6 Tips to Landscape in a Plant-Friendly Way
1. Select Native Species
You can avoid many of the negative effects associated with landscaping by planting native species.
By using native species in your landscape design you preserve the balance between the plants, animals, and soil in your area.
This can have an incredible impact on pollinator health, especially for those that rely on specific plants like the monarch butterfly.
On average, native species require less irrigation and fewer chemical treatments than non-native plants.
This is great news for your household budget and the local environment as a whole!
2. Do Your Research
Invasive species are rarely introduced on purpose.
Instead, ignorant gardeners and even landscaping professionals plant these species without knowing the potential harm they can do.
Before bringing home a new plant variety from your local greenhouse or garden center, it’s important to not only research the plant’s needs but also the relationship it could have with the native environment.
There are also many cases where a particular plant is only invasive in some areas.
For example, trumpet vine has wreaked havoc in temperate parts of the United States.
But in areas with harsh winters or desert climates, these fast-growing plants are easily kept under control.
Arming yourself with the appropriate knowledge helps you avoid introducing invasive species that may damage the existing plants in your garden or native wildlife.
3. Target Weeds
You can avoid the environmental consequences of chemical herbicide by applying it only when hand-pulling isn’t an option.
If you do apply herbicide to your landscape, use selective formulas whenever possible.
Selective herbicides are those that only target specific plant types.
These chemicals are far less likely to damage nearby ornamental plants or native flora than non-selective formulas.
Another excellent alternative to spray-on herbicide is pre-emergent weed preventer.
Pre-emergent treatments don’t kill off mature weeds. Instead, they prevent new weed seeds from germinating.
4. Avoid Overwatering
We know that plants need water to survive. In fact, one of the biggest hurdles for many landscapes is keeping up with adequate irrigation.
But did you know that overwatering your landscape can be just as harmful?
When the soil is too wet, plant roots struggle to take in oxygen. This literally suffocates the plant and can lead to death.
Issues associated with overwatering are exacerbated by heavily compacted or poorly draining soil.
You may even notice signs of waterlogging after heavy rain if your landscaping does not drain properly.
Supplementing the soil with organic compost or applying a thin layer of mulch (more on that in the next section!) can improve drainage and eliminate the need for frequent watering.
5. Mulch Sparingly
Countless gardeners rely on mulch to keep weeds at bay, prevent soil erosion, and give their landscaping a polished look.
And no one loves mulch as much as the United States, which spends around $1 billion on the material each year.
While mulch is a valuable tool, it can be (and often is) overused.
A thick layer of mulch — over 2 inches — will suffocate the soil. Even large plants like trees and shrubs can fall victim to overzealous mulching.
On top of preventing oxygen particles from entering the soil beneath, mulch can trap large amounts of moisture.
This causes root rot and encourages the spread of plant-borne disease and fungi.
If you choose to use mulch in your garden beds, apply a thin layer only. Keep mulch away from tree trunks and the bases of shrubs that prefer quick-draining soil.
6. Limit Hardscaping
Landscaping isn’t just about plants, mulch, and soil.
Many residential and commercial landscapes also include something called hardscaping.
Hardscaping refers to inorganic elements like furniture, walkways, concrete slabs, and fencing.
We mentioned that hardscaping can help prevent soil erosion. But these elements can also have a negative impact on the environment by keeping water from reaching the soil.
Homeowners can improve their landscapes’ sustainability by choosing permeable walkways and patio slabs that allow water to filter through.
Where does the balance between sustainability and aesthetic landscaping truly lie?
Thankfully, we seem to be growing closer and closer to finding out every day.
Native and pollinator-friendly gardens are becoming more commonplace in dense cities and suburban neighborhoods.
Homeowners are also becoming more aware of how their personal landscaping habits can affect the environment as a whole.
Every little bit counts in the fight for greener living. But don’t let yourself get caught up in perfection.
Landscaping can be both beneficial and harmful at the exact same time.
Your goal should be to have a neutral impact on the plant life around you. Anything more is just an added bonus.