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Sustainable Landscape Design Using Herbaceous Plants

Updated December 18, 2018

David Graper

SDSU Extension Horticulture Specialist & Master Gardener Program Coordinator

Written by Kyle Franta under the direction and review of David Graper. Franta was a student in Dr. Graper's Herbaceous Plants class. One of the last assignments for the class was to write an outreach paper. Several of the best ones are published through SDSU Extension.

When it comes to landscape design many people often think of pretty flowers and lush green gardens. Though this is probably true in many cases, plants have a lot more to offer than just looking pretty. A thoughtful design utilizing herbaceous plants can make a site sustainable by providing habitat to animals, protecting water quality, increasing biodiversity, as well as adding social benefits like minimal maintenance and increased property value. Using certain herbaceous plants in landscape designs can contribute to the overall goal of making our planet more-sustainable as a whole.

What is Sustainable Design?

A lush, landscaped garden with a walkway and a variety of herbaceous plants.

According to the General Service Commission (GSA) “Sustainable design seeks to reduce negative impacts on the environment, and the health and comfort of building occupants, thereby improving building performance. The basic objectives of sustainability are to reduce consumption of non-renewable resources, minimize waste, and create healthy, productive environments” (

Sustainable design should:

  • Minimize non-renewable energy consumption.
  • Use environmentally friendly products.
  • Protect and conserve water.
  • Enhance indoor environment quality.
  • Optimize operational and maintenance practices.

Native Plants Role in Sustainable Design

A flowerbed with purple, orange, yellow, and pink flowers
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

The real importance of native plants is something that is often overlooked in landscape design. One of the greatest benefits of native plants in the landscape is that they are usually self-sustaining. Plants like the Purple coneflower fall under this category, as they can tolerate dry soil, clay soil, drought, and pests like deer. Though this may not seem particularly revolutionary, what it means is that homeowners don’t have to use extra water on this plant (and many other natives) to ensure its survival. They end up both conserving water and saving on utility costs which helps lower the overall environmental footprint that we, as a species, leave on our planet.

For example, the Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is not only good at being self-sustaining but it also attracts birds and butterflies. This is another benefit of using native plants in the landscape, as they can create habitat for native wildlife species. As our cities and farmland expand, we continue to destroy animal habitat, it becomes our duty to provide refuge for some of these animals. The easiest way to bring habitat back to some of these native species is by planting the native plants that were lost to urban and agricultural-related expansion. Adding mass plantings of native grasses like Little bluestem (Schizachirium scoparium) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) or wildflowers like Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), False Indigo (Baptisia australis) and Blanket Flower (Gailardia rigens) are great ways to provide habitat for a plethora of animals, primarily bees, butterflies, other pollinators and birds.

Using Herbaceous Plants to Protect Water Quality

One of the biggest modern day dilemmas is runoff-induced problems caused by fertilizers for lawns, and pesticides in agricultural land. Thanks to modern suburbia everyone wants to have the greenest lawn. Though this is a symbol of the American dream, it has caused fertilizers and weed killers to be washed away after heavy rains, causing pollution when they eventually reach our waterways. The good news is that herbaceous plants, if used strategically, can mitigate a lot of this contaminated runoff.

A diagram of plant roots with varying depths
Rooting depth of various types of plants.

Erosion Control

The first way in which herbaceous plants can protect water quality is through erosion control. For example, planting herbaceous ground covers such as Creeping Phlox (Phlox stolonifera), Lilly of the Valley (Convallaria majalis), and Canada Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), can hold soil in place. Native lowland grasses that help reduce wave impact, can drastically eliminate the amount of soil eroding into water bodies. Traditional lawn grasses can only shoot their roots about a foot underground while prairie forbes and native grasses can get up to 8 ft. deep. This really helps absorb a lot of the water in the soil ensuring it doesn’t end up in our water bodies.

A diagram showing a grassy buffer zone between an upland house and body of water.
Protecting waterways with a buffer zone.

Waterway Protection

Just as these herbaceous plants are good at keeping the soil in place, they are also good at soaking up water and therefore the pesticides and herbicides that can go along with this runoff. The runoff volume can be greatly reduced using herbaceous buffer strips so that contaminated runoff soaks into the soil rather than racing into our natural water bodies. These plants also help because they can soak up certain nutrients that would normally end up in lakes and form water-clouding algae. As you can see something as simple as using the right herbaceous plant can drastically help our environment, particularly water bodies and sources, and save them from pollution.

Social Aspects of Sustainable Planting Design

a lush cluster of long-stemmed purple flowers
'Twilite Prairieblue' False Indigo (Baptisia australis)

Herbaceous plants help our environment by enhancing water quality and biodiversity but they can also help us more directly, by increasing property value. Aesthetically pleasing views from the home and water are created by using herbaceous plants when implemented in a thoughtful manner. The variety of colors and plant forms, the energy and activity of birds and insects, and the seasonal changes of both plants and animals provide diversity and visual enjoyment. The residence can be partially blocked by vegetation to create privacy barriers and native wildflowers and grasses can be added to make a site appear more natural and peaceful. Trees and shrubs reduce noise of cars, or if on a lake jet skis and boats. One of the most overlooked aspects of a house, when on the market, is the value of its landscape. According to economist John Harris, adding landscape elements to your home can add around 28% to your home’s value, and just improving a current landscape can add an extra 7% ( This makes the investment of adding sustainable landscape to your home worth it, while simultaneously helping the environment.

Maintenance is also important when it comes to discussing the social benefits of sustainable planting design with herbaceous plant materials. Though maintenance has already been discussed, with regards to saving water for environmental purposes, it is also important to look at the economic side of it.

A planting of tall, green and blue grass with red tips.
'Blue Heaven' Little Blue Stem (Schizachirium scoparium)

A study by Applied Ecological Services Inc., a Wisconsin ecological consultancy, shows that “maintaining an acre of native plants over 20 years, costs $3,000, compared with the whopping $20,000 price tag of maintaining a lawn of non-native turf grass” ( This shows how once again, an investment on landscaping using herbaceous plants can really provide a positive return in the future.

Herbaceous plants should be an essential part of any landscape. When implemented correctly they can make a site sustainable by providing habitat to animals, protecting water quality, increasing biodiversity, as well as adding social benefits like minimal maintenance and increased property value. If everyone who installed a landscape would try to use herbaceous plants for even just one of these reasons, the world would drastically benefit.

Related Topics

Plant, Flower