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Sustainable Urban Landscape > Planting Sustainably


Don Schultz

Phone: (619) 660-4023


Sustainable urban landscaping



In recent years, the emphasis in our society has turned toward sustainability and we are seeing an increased interest in selecting landscape plants that are sustainable, or have qualities that promote environmental sustainability.

A sustainable plant may be defined as a plant that does not have a known significant insect or disease problem, is drought tolerant (once established, is not invasive, and is long-lived.

Selecting plants with the qualities listed above may contribute to developing sustainable landscapes that require fewer inputs such as pesticides, water, fertilizer, labor, maintenance and plant replacement. Microclimates can be used to the advantage of gardeners who carefully choose and position their plants.


Choosing Plants

Research available landscape plants and select plants that survive regional climates and seasonal rainfall. Plants that are adapted to local conditions include those that are native to our region and plants that have adapted to a similar climate.

Our first guideline is to, “plant the right plant, in the right location”, by answering these questions for each plant that is selected.

  • Ultimate height and width of the plant: How big will the plant grow? Is there enough space or will it outgrow the location?
  • Sunlight: What does the plant require? Is there enough light to sustain the plant? Is there too much sunlight?
  • Drainage: Is the soil well drained? Is it too well drained?
  • Pest resistance: Is the plant prone to a particular or serious insect or disease problem that would require frequent pesticides to maintain its life?
  • Drought tolerance: Is the plant drought tolerant, once it is established?
  • Hardiness: Will the species survive the cold, winter temperatures in that location? What hardiness zone is it listed for?
  • Invasive potential: Does the plant produce seed in a way that may cause it to become invasive? Is the plant known to be invasive?
  • Soil type/soil pH: Is the soil type and pH conducive to good growth for that plant?
  • Maintenance needs: Is the plant a weak grower that will require frequent pruning?
  • Longevity: Is the plant species known to be long-lived?

The wise designer will conduct a site evaluation and determine what plants would do well in each location. Plan to spend some time researching your options before making your final planting decisions.

There are many plants available that have few insect or disease problems, are often long-lived, drought tolerant or may contribute to wildlife habitat. It is highly recommended to plant a diversity of plant species and to avoid the over-planting of one species, thus creating a monoculture.

Increasing plant diversity often results in the increase of beneficial insect biodiversity, and that is good for both biodiversity and a healthy habitat.

Selecting plants for sustainability can be a complicated and time-consuming task but there are many resources available including books and websites that can assist in creating an appropriate plant palette for any site.

Read more from the Water Conservation Garden


When we choose to plant native or exotic plants that survive our regional climates and seasonal rainfall we are selecting plants that are adapted to our specific micro-climate. These plants include those that are native to our region and plants that have adapted to a similar climate.

  • Indigenous plants are often long-lived, drought tolerant or may contribute to wildlife habitat
  • plant diversity often results in the increase of beneficial insect

Read More

Indigenous plant diversity  (Click to see more)


Water Use Classifications of Landscape Species

Water is essential to plant growth and health in every climate zone. The various climate zones with differences in weather and rainfall patterns impact the amount and frequency of supplemental irrigation that is required for plant survival in each climate zone.

The WUCOLS project was developed in 1982 by the San Francisco and San Mateo County Offices of the California Cooperative Extension and funded by the Department of Water Management (DWR). The UC Extension in cooperation with 32 landscape professionals, the Water Use Classifications of Landscape Species (WUCOLS) list was developed and is intended to provide guidance to landscape professionals when selecting plant material and serves as a guide to assist in developing irrigation schedules for existing landscapes.

The WUCOLS classification system evaluates and codes 100's of commonly planted species by plant type (tree, shrub, vine, groundcover, perennial or biennial), water needs (high to very low), and WUCOLS regions; North Central Coastal, Central Valley, South Coastal, South Inland Valley, High and Intermediate Desert, and Low Desert.



Landscapes and plants lose water to the atmosphere through evaporation from the surface of foliage and the surrounding soil. In addition, plants lose water through the processes of photosynthesis and respiration known as transpiration. When the water losses by these methods are combined, the term evapotranspiration (ET) is used. The factors that influence the amount of water that is lost include:

  • The length and intensity of radiation from the sun
  • Air temperature
  • Relative humidity
  • Wind speed

On a sunny, hot and windy day with low humidity, the evapotranspiration is higher than on cool, calm, and cloudy days. This combined weather data and more is collected daily by network of over 120 automated weather stations in the state of California by California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS). Through the DWR's CIMIS weather station program, this data is retrieved daily by a central computer in Sacramento and is available for registered users from the CIMIC S website (see below).

CIMIS was developed in 1982 by the (DWR) and the University of California at Davis to manage water resources efficiently. CIMIS uses a well-watered, actively growing, closely clipped grass that is completely shading the soil as a reference crop at most of it's over 120 weather stations. From the information collected, an ET from this standardized grass surface is commonly denoted as ETo.


 California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS)

California Evapotranspiration Map


Career Technical Education

This web site is supported by Carl D. Perkins VTEA IC funds through the System. Office, California Community Colleges,
Grant #08-C01-020

Revised  June 18, 2014
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