Switch to sustainable garden practices for a lush yet healthier landscape

If a landscape is perfect, why tinker with it? This historic, 150-year-old property already had a lot going for it. Majestic trees, for one thing: A native incense cedar ― most likely planted around 1850 when the property’s first owners, the Pringles, lived here ― rises 125 feet in the air. Around this venerable monolith, a younger garden, recently installed by DeSantis Landscapes, grew up and filled in. Its paths led to sculpture gardens and satellite patios tucked beneath shade trees. A weedless lawn swept downslope to burbling Pringle Creek, while flower beds produced bouquet-perfect blooms and terraced herb beds delivered abundant seasonings. A gazebo, treehouse, and play areas nestled among the greenery. It seemed like everything a homeowner could want.

Except for one thing: Gardens need to touch the land more lightly, believes landscaper Dean DeSantis. He knows that growing spotless flowers and unblemished ornamentals can take regular use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and water. When his firm decided to go natural, he asked the garden’s owners for permission to make their landscape sustainable as well. The owners agreed, and DeSantis began making changes.

The team scaled down the lawn and planted more Northwest natives such as ceanothus and sword ferns, supplementing them with unthirsty plants like Japanese barberry, lavender, New Zealand flax, and yarrow. They built arbors of native woods and constructed dry-set paths of locally quarried stone that allow rainwater to flow freely through the spaces.

Most important, they switched to natural fertilizers and pest controls. To control weeds, for example, they began applying an annual mulch of compost around plants, then used an oscillating hoe to take out any weeds that did appear. To conserve water, they employed technology; most of the container plantings clustered throughout the garden, for example, are watered by drip irrigation.


Because grass is the biggest consumer of fertilizer, herbicides, water, and labor in any landscape, DeSantis reduced the turf area, turning one section into a patio and grape arbor and another into flower beds. A small putting green is made from no-maintenance, no-water artificial turf.

For the grape arbor, the designer chose honey-colored Port Orford cedar ― it’s insect- and rot-resistant and doesn’t shrink or swell much when weather changes ― and used mortise-and-tenon joinery instead of nails or screws, which tend to pull apart over time. The paths are permeable except in flood-prone sections, where they’re mortared to stay put when the creek rises.

Now the former Pringle homestead is as thoughtfully tended as it is beautiful. The property’s owners loved all these changes so much, they invited DeSantis’s staff and their families for a picnic to celebrate.


“When we made the cold-turkey jump to organics, we wondered how much of a practical difference it would make,” says Ken DeSantis of DeSantis Landscapes. “But plants are healthier now than they were five years ago, we rarely see yellowing leaves, and the whole garden is much better off.” The following practices add up to a more Earth-friendly landscape.

Plant natives
Examples from this garden include sword ferns, evergreen huckleberry and salal, and colorful deciduous Pacific dogwood and vine maple.

Use appropriate irrigation
Drip irrigation, rain sensors that stop irrigation on wet days, and targeted sprinklers can all help cut water use and reduce runoff.

Apply natural fertilizers 
DeSantis Landscapes uses a nitrogen-based fertilizer of aged, processed chicken manure. In garden beds, DeSantis supplements this fertilizer with regular applications of compost tea. And the company spreads a mulch of compost over the soil early each season.

Use organic pest and disease controls
DeSantis prefers neem oil, a natural foliar spray that controls pest insects and diseases. Compost tea, used as a spray, controls rose diseases; as a drench, it suppresses diseases in the lawn and flower beds.

Landscape contractor: Dean DeSantis, DeSantis Landscapes, Salem, OR (503/364-8376).

Timber-frame construction: Jim DeSantis, Silver Creek Timber Works, Silverton, OR (503/873-0214).

More: Tips for an eco-friendly garden


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