Pocket prairie with milkweed, calendula, bachelor's buttons and more

How to start sustainable landscaping

My best recommendation on how to start sustainable gardening and environmentally-friendly landscaping? Just start.

When I first approached trying to be a better steward of our land, I was overwhelmed by the idea of screwing up. Worried about people smarter than I am walking by my yard and judging my planting decisions. 

So I started by reading every book I could find on sustainable landscaping at the library. Once I'm confident that a card catalog's worth of useful information has been stuffed into my noggin, I'm willing to take the leap into a learn-by-doing/grow-by-failing approach. This applies to sustainability and pretty much life in general. 

So I dove in, and 10 years in I'm feeling at least mostly confident. I definitely still worry about all the ways I'm screwing up in the garden; unfortunately anxiety isn't seasonal. But at some point I've recognized that the people judging my decisions to dive all in on wildscaping are judging regardless of how much I worry about it. But the people who embrace my belly flop into sustainable landscaping are my people, and when they walk by and start chatting about native plants, I stop worrying about the judgers and start wondering which chunk of grass we'll sheet mulch into a pocket prairie next. 

Here's a bit of the information that has helped me along the sustainability path to bring me where I am today. 

*Note: This is a start of a list, and I'll add more as I remember more of the books, events and people who have helped educate me over the years. 

Zero Waste Imperfectly Quote

What I've learned during 10 years (and counting) of sustainable landscaping failures and successes

When I first found myself with a home and a yard and plants and people who could see them, I was anxious, overwhelmed and frozen by the fear of failure. Which I now see as a bit silly, because even when you do absolutely everything right in your garden, nature may have other plans. And times I did and continue to do everything wrong still somehow work out, just maybe not in the way I had initially envisioned. 

For me, diving into an obsession with sustainable landscaping or wildscaping or rewilding or whatever term I may call it on a given week has been a great teacher. It's a reminder to me that I'm not in control, especially when it comes to nature, and that's absolutely OK. And to the extent I am in control, I try to do everything I can to mimic what would happen in nature without my intervention and then get out of nature's way and patiently wait. 

Doug Tallamy Quote

Sustainable landscaping books that have helped me

My first recommendation is to go absolutely wild at your local library. I checked out every book I could get my hands on about sustainable landscaping, and the fine folks at the Upper Arlington Public Library were and continue to be endlessly patient with me carrying out stacks on stacks of gardening books. 

Here are some of my favorites that I've read over the years, some that I purchased to use as regular resources. 

Nature's Best Hope by Doug Tallamy and Nature's Best Hope (Young Readers Edition) by Doug Tallamy

If you want to get a good handle on what to plant, where to start, and how we can help, Nature's Best Hope is a perfect place to start. And once you're done with the book, check out Homegrown National Park and add yourself to the map to show off all of your native plants. 

Climate-Wise Landscaping by Sue Reed and Ginny Stibolt

Woof, this one was an early gut punch in my journey into understanding what an ecological disaster that turf lawns are. If you're building your foundation of knowledge to make smarter decisions to benefit the planet, I can't recommend Climate-Wise enough. 

Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West

This was one of the first books I checked out in my wildscaping adventures, and it shifted my mindset when it comes to what I plant. I stopped thinking about perfectly manicured shrubs and bushes and instead started thinking about what would thrive without my frequent intervention while supporting the most local wildlife.

New Wild Garden by Ian Hodgson

I suppose this is one of the books I could blame for my pocket prairies in the right of way that ultimately led to my "Do Better Letter" from the City of Upper Arlington. (We're sheet mulching the right of way this year because last year someone complained about the height of our coreopsis and goldenrod.) This book helped me understand how fun it could be to create a self-seeding meadow filled with native plants like purple coneflowers and black-eyed Susans along with annuals like cosmos and zinnias to add bright colors throughout the growing season. 

New Naturalism by Kelly D. Norris

This was another book that helped me let go of the idea of perfection in the garden and instead embrace letting nature go a bit wilder for the sake of biodiversity.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

As I listened to the audiobook version of Braiding Sweetgrass I found myself frequently nodding and agreeing with Robin. I'm curious how I would have reacted to her profound essays about our responsibility to be good stewards of the land had I read this 10 years earlier when I was just dipping my toes into sustainable landscaping. But in 2023, it struck me as endlessly wise while calmly sounding necessary alarms. 

Robin Wall Kimmerer Quote

Resources beyond the book

While I've read plenty of books to help build my foundation of knowledge that gave me the confidence to go wild in the garden, a number of other resources have popped up and have been helpful over the years. Maybe some of these resources can be helpful to you, too. 

The Ohio State University Bee Lab

During the pandemic especially, the regular webinars put on by OSU's Bee Lab were wonderful sources of information and hope. I'd recommend signing up for their newsletter (at the bottom of The Bee Lab's home page) so you can be kept in the loop for upcoming events. The 2019 OSU Pollinator Summit made my enthusiasm for pollinators and native plants shift from "into it" to "concerningly aggressive."  

Absolutely anything and everything by Doug Tallamy

Whether you're curious and want to learn more about how to support pollinators, birds and all wildlife (including humans) or are well-versed in the tenets of sustainable landscaping, Doug Tallamy's presentations are always a treat. Even if the presentation is a repeat of a previous one, I always either learn something new or have an idea take stronger hold in my brain. 

Native Plants Backyard Challenge

The NPBYC is specific to Columbus, but if it doesn't already exist elsewhere, I suspect it will soon. This program is a great way to learn more about plants native to your area, ask experts questions to get a better idea of how to transform your space, and get access to native plants from some great local native nurseries. I'm fortunate to be a participant in the 2023 program, and I've enjoyed getting to know other local folks on the same journey as I am. 

The Columbus Garden School

CGS is largely beneficial to residents in central Ohio, but they do offer a nice range of virtual events in addition to their in-person classes. The owner, Tisa Watts, is a true joy to hear speak about her love for native plants. (Here's the Rootbound podcast with her thoughts on purple coneflowers.) 

All things Debra Knapke

Debra Knapke is also based in central Ohio, but she does all sorts of online events. She calls herself The Garden Sage, and I think that's a pretty giant undersell considering how much I've learned from her over the years. Maybe The Garden Goddess? The Garden Overlord? She's just wonderful. Her webinars helped me reframe how I thought of humans' relationship with nature. She also regularly emphasizes that it's cool to have your favorite plants just because you love and appreciate them and that not everything has to be the perfect native hero. 

Community Backyards Program

Franklin Soil and Water Conservation District, like many similar organizations around the country, offers rebates for compost bins, rain barrels, native plants, rain gardens and more through its Community Backyards Program. The short digital class is extremely educational. The first time I took the class I learned that everything that goes into our storm drains/storm sewers flows directly into the river. I've taken advantage of the program to help add compost bins, rain barrels, and native plants in our yard and am much better at regularly cleaning the trash that manages to accumulate around our storm sewer as a result of the annual course and quiz.

Wild Ones

Wild Ones is a fantastic national organization with chapters all around the country to help guide you in your native plant journey. Our Wild Ones in Columbus regularly puts on fantastic native plant sales and more. I'd recommend joining the organization and getting involved however you can because the Wild Ones folks are incredibly knowledgeable and always happy to help new enthusiasts.   

Jane Goodall Quote

Local sustainability groups to join

As much as I truly despise all things Meta, Facebook groups have been especially helpful for me to learn more about sustainable landscaping. While some of the groups that I'll list here are specific to my spot in the world, groups like this exist for most local communities. They can be endlessly helpful resources for information, plant swaps, cool events and more. 

Upper Arlington Plants and Gardens

Sustainable Upper Arlington

Wild Ones Columbus Native Plant Talk

Landscaping with Native Plants in Ohio (by Midwest Native Plant Society)

sAldo Leopold Quote

Phone apps to help with sustainable landscaping

I've appreciated so many free or relatively inexpensive apps to help me identify what's going on in the world around me. A lot of these have been great for getting younger naturalists excited about plants and animals. 


I use my phone's PictureThis app more often that I use my phone to make phone calls. A few years ago the IDing of plants was still a little spotty, but it's only continued to get better every year as more people use it to upload plant photos. PictureThis has helped me ID noxious weeds, native plants and everything in between. For me the paid version ($30/year) is very much worth it. 


Merlin from the CornellLab is a great gateway into birding. You can use the app to ID birds based upon characteristics you can identify via sight. OR you can use Merlin as basically a bird Shazam where it records the birds singing around you and will help you ID which songs you're hearing. 


Seek by iNaturalist is another great tool to help you identify plants, animals and fungi. My experience with PictureThis and fungi is basically "DO NOT EAT UNLESS YOU KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING!" But Seek actually gives you fungi identification, which is great if you're a forager or have a pile of logs inoculated with mushroom spawn on the side of your house like I do. 


The Audubon Bird Guide app is another great option for IDing birds. As Violet gets more into birding thanks to her class focusing on birds for a full unit, she's loving using apps like Audubon to help her ID what she's seeing around us.  


I know I've missed a million people, places and things in this list. So I'll keep adding to it as the nouns find their way back to the surface of my brain. And just for fun, all things Frederick Law OlmstedAldo Leopold and Monty Don are always a fine bit of inspiration. 

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