Ideas & Inspiration

How to Create a Sustainable Garden in a Large Space

Assess Your Climate

Know your local climate, including temperature range. Know whether it’s humid or not, or arid in general. Also know whether your area experiences a deluge of rain or a lack of it. Also learn the average frost dates for your area.

Build a Foundation

For any sustainable garden, you’ll want to create natural soil fertility with compost. Increasing your soil’s organic matter helps develop good structure, porosity, oxygen, drainage and water retention. Just dig compost into your soil or simply add several inches to the top.

Control Weeds

Before planting anything in the garden, consider controlling weeds with a natural weed barrier. If you have time, start the process at least six weeks ahead. It helps set up your garden for success whether starting from scratch or working with an existing large-scale landscape. Sheet mulching, or a layered barrier method, works well. Just spread and overlap corrugated cardboard, such as cardboard boxes, across the area you’re reclaiming for a garden. For small areas, use a garden hose and soak the cardboard with water. With large areas, use a sprinkler. Then, take a shovel and put down four inch layer of compost. It’s simple and there’s no need for heavy equipment. Better yet, plants love this natural barrier because earthworms dig it. They will eat the cardboard and lay eggs in it.

Consider Drip Irrigation

For a large-scale, sustainable garden, try drip irrigation on a timer. Because the water is delivered slowly, it soaks into the ground around plant roots, reducing runoff and saving you money. Another benefit: water goes directly to plants and so it minimizes weed growth.

Choose the Right Plants for the Right Place

A lot of common landscape plants are forgiving. But not all grow where you want to plant them. Once you determine what your soil and climate type is, be sure to select native and nonnative plants appropriate for your garden. For example, notice where the sun hits or where shade exists. Be sure to seek out plants with flowers that attract beneficial or predatory insects to your garden. Use a lot of these types of plants. Also include an array of plants that provide nectar to hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. When in bloom, your garden will become a flower and life-filled paradise.


To name a few blooms, try aster, salvia, anise hyssop, sunflowers, cosmos and sweet alyssum. Read more about plants that attract pollinators and perennials to plant in summer.

Add a Rain Garden

For areas prone to heavy downpours or those that get a lot of rainfall, consider installing a rain garden. A rain garden collects and uses this precious natural resource from your gutter downspouts and puts it to use feeding roots of plants in your landscape while helping to control runoff.

Make It an All-Plant Approach

For many, building hardscapes into your garden can be expensive. But everyone can enjoy plants because they are affordable. In the right season, you can even start some plants from seed. In addition, some plants can be divided, and you can make more of them, so even if you can’t afford a lot, you can make more plants over time and share with neighbors. Plant-based gardens also remove the need for mowing grass, because there is none.

Start Naturescaping

Instead of concrete walkways, use natural materials such as wood chips and landscape rocks to create garden paths through your landscape.

Add Nesting Houses and Shrubs for the Birds

Another way to keep the beauty of your garden in sync with nature is to add nesting birdhouses and shrubs just for fine-feathered friends. They’ll love a place to nest or hide. Make sure to include trees, shrubs or perennials that have fruit, berries or seeds that birds feed on. More than 90 percent of birds feed their young insects. Flower-filled gardens generally have an array of insects in them beneficial to gardens that birds avidly feed their young. Birds also need fresh water at all times.

Sit Back and Enjoy

Once your garden begins blooming, watch nature takes its course. Let the beneficial insects and other pollinators do the work in your garden while you sit back and enjoy the show. But you might need a garden bench for that.


Remember, a sustainable large-space garden doesn’t need to happen overnight. It’s a garden to build on over time, and one that gives you more plants season after season.


For hands-on ideas, stop by gardens created by Frey, including the pollinator garden at Cornerstone Sonoma in Sonoma, California.

Frey not only creates sustainable gardens, she also is a columnist for the Press Democrat newspaper in Sonoma County, Calif., and a garden educator offering classes as co-owner of the American Garden School in Northern California. She co-authored “The Bee-Friendly Garden,” a book that won The American Horticultural Society’s Best Gardening Book of 2017. Frey’s gardens won two gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show in London, a rare honor for an American designer.


Photos for this story provided by Kate Frey