Backyards Go Green

By Scott Cohen

Today’s consumers are more environmentally savvy than ever before and one place this interest is really blossoming is in the home landscape. Homeowners are interested in creating yards that are not only beautiful and comfortable, but environmentally friendly as well.

 There are many ways to weave environmentally friendly elements into a backyard, from the initial design to the building process to the products you use. Here are just a few steps you can take to be kind to the environment and still create a gorgeous new outdoor space.

Strategic planting

Using the right plantings in the right places is a great way to start. Properly selected trees offer a low energy way to provide a comfortable environment indoors and out. Deciduous trees on the west or south side of a house will help control summer and winter energy costs. They’ll shade the home in summer and then lose their leaves in winter to let the sun shine in.

A vine-covered pergola for an outdoor room is another low-energy way to keep cool. People often consider installing a solid roof over an outdoor sitting area to provide shade. However, they don’t realize that a living roof does the job much more effectively. Plants actually help cool their surroundings through a process known as transpiration. In hot weather, they cool down by releasing water through their leaves. This helps keep the plants and the people nearby cool and fresh on a hot afternoon.

At the Green Scene, we like to use deciduous flowering vines like wisteria for these living roofs. Because it loses its leaves, a wisteria-covered roof can adapt to the changing seasons, something a solid roof can’t do. It will also add an intoxicating fragrance to a cool outdoor haven.

Recycle beautifully

 Finding new uses for old materials is one of the easiest ways to integrate environmentally friendly design into your backyard. For example, gardens provide a wonderful opportunity to create striking artistic elements from materials that would otherwise have to be hauled away.

My company frequently uses recycled glass in its garden designs. We use whole recycled wine bottles to build colorful waterfalls, walls and counters. We use broken recycled glass to create intricate mosaics. Gorgeous sculpture can be created from just about anything. Look around and you’ll find that there are unique, beautiful building materials everywhere – and many of them are free.

Recycling can be incorporated into just about every aspect of landscape installation. For example, if you have an old concrete patio, driveway, or walk removed, don’t bring it to a landfill. Many companies process reclaimed concrete into a substitute for crushed stone, which has a number of valuable uses in the landscape.

You can also use recycled mulch made from shredded urban forest products. Each year, trees are culled from our urban landscapes creating a major disposal issue for municipalities. A growing number of companies are processing these into mulch that can be used for planting beds, trails, and playground areas.

Practice waterwise landscaping

Water-conscious design is one of the most important steps you can take toward an eco-friendly backyard. Studies repeatedly show that most landscapes are vastly over-watered. This wastes money, and also sends one of our most valuable resources right down the drain. A little planning and the right products can have a huge impact.

One of the best ways to save is to group plantings with similar water requirements together and create different irrigation zones that meet varying needs. For example, if you put the lawn on one zone, thirsty plants on another zone, and drought tolerant plants on a different zone, you can water each at different rates. If you don’t, you’ll usually end up over-watering many plants while trying to meet the needs of a thirsty few.


Many of today’s irrigation controllers use the latest technology to include highly efficient water-saving features. For example, some can be programmed to communicate with local weather stations and will automatically adjust watering schedules based on current weather and rainfall in the area.

Using low-volume sprinklers on the lawn and drip systems in your beds can also help create a green healthy yard using less water. These products are designed to deliver smaller amounts of water at rates tailored to specific plant needs. Because they don’t water faster than plants absorb it, they promote lush plant growth with minimal runoff.

Use more efficient products

There are many new products on the market to help build conservation-conscious backyards. For example, low-voltage landscape lighting is getting better all the time. New LED bulbs deliver high-quality light with four times the energy efficiency of incandescent lights. Decking made from recycled plastic and wood shavings performs well and keeps its color without the need for stains or paints that contain harmful chemicals. There is even the new Eclipse patio roof, which features louvered panels that can be positioned at any angle for maximum sun or shade, all with the switch of a solar powered motor.

These are just a few of the many ways to green up a landscape. With a little imagination, planning, and the right new products, you can build an eco-friendly backyard that your clients, and Mother Nature, will love.

Scott Cohen is garden artisan at The Green Scene, a premier outdoor design and construction firm based in Canoga Park, Calif. His work is featured on Home & Garden Television and in numerous national magazines and books. A two-time Masters of Design award winner, Cohen is known for his spectacular gardens that combine the best of outdoor living with inspired artistic touches. He is the author of Scott Cohen’s Outdoor Kitchen Design Workbook, available at Many of Cohen’s designs are available for purchase from

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