Conservation Gardening Guide: Sustainable Garden Tips, Types, Zones

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Gardening | October 12, 2023

Woman with a rake conservation gardening a small plot of land after learning how to start sustainable gardens at home, conservation garden types and care tips, and conservation garden benefits.

At a time when there are serious concerns about the current farming practices,1 conservation gardening encourages working with nature to create beautiful, healthy and functional gardens that support biodiversity and the environment.

This gardening approach aligns with principles of sustainability to nurture the earth for current and future generations.

As environmental challenges continue to mount, implementing conservation gardening or sustainable gardening practices in your garden, no matter how insignificant, can make a meaningful difference to the environment.

Graphic showing sustainable gardening tips that include soil conservation gardening, and other techniques.

This comprehensive conservation gardening guide covers everything you need to know about conservation gardening, including:

  • Types of conservation gardens
  • Sustainable gardening practices
  • Native plant gardening
  • Hardiness zones for conservation gardening
  • Starting a conservation garden
  • Why conservation gardening matters

What Is Conservation Gardening?

Conservation gardening refers to gardening practices that create gardens which conserve resources like water,2 enrich the soil, and create habitat to support local wildlife. The aim is to garden in harmony with natural ecosystems instead of forcing the environment to bend to your will.

Key principles of conservation gardening include:3

  • Using native plants suited to local conditions
  • Building healthy living soil through composting
  • Conserving water through rainwater harvesting, efficient irrigation, and drought-tolerant plants
  • Providing food, water and shelter for birds, pollinators, beneficial insects and other wildlife
  • Managing pests naturally through IPM (integrated pest management) techniques
  • Reducing waste through composting and repurposing materials
  • Avoiding synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers that can harm the environment

Conservation gardening allows you to grow beautiful, productive gardens while also benefiting the environment. When practiced widely, sustainable gardening techniques can positively impact issues like water quality, climate change, biodiversity loss and soil health.

Tips for Sustainable Gardening (Conservation Gardening)

When planning a new garden or redesigning an existing one, conservation gardening design principles can help guide your efforts.5 Here are some top tips to employ:

1. Choose Native Plants

Select trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals that are native to your local ecosystem. Native plants are naturally adapted to local soil,6 rainfall, and climate conditions where they evolved.

This makes them easier to grow without amendments, fertilizers, or pesticides.

Native plants also provide food and habitat for native wildlife species like birds, butterflies, and pollinators that rely on them. Non-native exotic plants don’t offer the same ecological benefits.

Check with your local native plant society or extension office for recommendations on excellent native plants for your area.

2. Build Healthy Soil

Building fertile, healthy soil is vital for any garden, and especially for water-wise and low-maintenance conservation gardens.

Young green seedlings with moisture droplets emerging from healthy soil.

(Image: onehundredseventyfive13)

You can build soil organically in several ways:

  • Incorporate at least a 2 to 4-inch layer of compost over all your garden beds each season. Compost adds vital organic matter that retains moisture and nutrients.
  • Mulch garden beds with a 2 to 3-inch layer of organic mulch like wood chips or shredded leaves. This retains moisture, prevents weeds, and as it decomposes adds organic matter to the soil.
  • Plant cover crops like clover or alfalfa in unused garden beds over winter. In spring you can till the cover crop into the soil, adding free organic matter.
  • Top-dress beds annually each spring with a thin layer of compost, aged manure, or other organic fertilizer. This provides free slow-release nutrition.
  • Avoid synthetic fertilizers and sewage sludge-based amendments as they disrupt soil biology.

3. Conserve Water With Rain Gardens

Harvest free rainwater for your garden by installing a simple rain garden in a low or bowl-shaped spot. Rain gardens use native water-tolerant plants in depressions designed to collect rainwater runoff from roofs, patios, driveways or lawns.4

The garden retains and absorbs rainwater into the ground where it falls instead of losing it as runoff.

This reduces stormwater runoff, recharges groundwater supplies, and provides moisture for the plants. Examples of good native plants for rain gardens include rushes, sedges, asters, coneflowers, and cardinal flowers.

4. Provide Habitat for Wildlife

Invite more birds, butterflies, and pollinators into your conservation garden.

A hummingbird hovers near pink clustered flowers, sipping nectar.

(Image: StockSnap14)

Here are some tips:

  • Plant clusters of nectar-rich native flowers for pollinators like coneflower, asters, and bee balm.
  • Include berry or seed-producing native trees and shrubs that provide food for birds like serviceberry, elderberry, and dogwoods.
  • Put up nesting boxes for cavity-nesting birds like chickadees, nuthatches, and house wrens.
  • Provide a small water source like a frog pond, bird bath, or fountain for wildlife.
  • Leave leaf litter and dead wood for sheltering insects and larval host plants.
  • Avoid pesticides and chemicals that harm pollinators and wildlife.

5. Grow Food Sustainably

You can also grow organic, sustainable food for your family while supporting conservation goals.

Here’s how:

  • Choose disease-resistant food crops that thrive in your climate. This avoids having to use pesticides.
  • Plant cover crops like buckwheat or clover to boost soil fertility naturally before planting vegetables.
  • Use organic fertilizers like compost, manure, or seed meals instead of synthetic fertilizers.
  • Manage pests with natural predators and traps instead of pesticides or use organic sprays.
  • Sow native wildflowers through your food garden to attract pollinators.
  • Install water-efficient drip irrigation and use mulch to reduce water usage.
  • Compost all garden waste, fruit and vegetable scraps and use it to fertilize beds.

Additional Sustainable Gardening or Conservation Gardening Tips

Here are some sustainable gardening tips to enhance your green space while minimizing your environmental footprint:

  • Minimize lawn areas: Replace thirsty turf grass with native groundcovers, shrubs and trees to reduce mowing and watering needs. Alternatively, you can convert lawn areas into vegetable gardens.
  • Include edible plants: Grow fruits, berries, vegetables and culinary herbs for chemical-free homegrown food. Even ornamental beds can include tasty edibles.
  • Go vertical: Use trellises, arbors, fences and plants that climb or have columnar growth habits to maximize planting space. This is ideal for smaller gardens.
  • Create wildlife corridors: Ensure garden areas connect to other green spaces to allow wildlife to roam and migrate through the area. You can partner with your neighbors to span corridors across properties.
  • Use efficient irrigation: Drip irrigation, soaker hoses and sprinklers with timers reduce water usage. You can also set up rain barrels to harvest roof runoff.

By incorporating these sustainable features that support biodiversity, you can create a conservation garden that is productive, beautiful and earth-friendly.

Native Plant Gardening

A simple yet impactful step to achieving sustainable gardening is to make native plants the basis of your conservation garden.7

Native species are naturally adapted to local growing conditions and require less water, fertilizer, pruning and maintenance compared to exotic ornamentals.

A gardener kneels while tending to colorful plants in a meticulously arranged garden bordered by a brick wall.

(Image: StockSnap15)

Native plants provide vital food and habitat to native birds, butterflies, pollinators and other wildlife. They have co-evolved together, so indigenous plants support local biodiversity.

For example, Monarch butterfly caterpillars only eat native milkweed plants.

Here are some tips for growing native plants:

  • Research native species for your hardiness zone and region. Visit your local native gardens for inspiration.
  • Use native trees, shrubs, vines, grasses, perennials, annuals and groundcover plants. Diversity matters.
  • Plant in groupings of at least 3 to 5 individuals of one species to make an impact.
  • Include native flowering plants for pollinators and wildlife. Prioritize eco-regions or species in decline.
  • Save time and money by landscaping with low-maintenance native varieties after establishment.
  • Remove invasive exotic plants which compete with native flora and weed regularly.
  • Allow leaf litter and dead plant stems to overwinter to provide wildlife food and shelter.
  • Propagate more plants from cuttings, divisions or seeds of natives. Let them self-sow.

While incorporating any sustainable practices is worthwhile, native plants are a keystone of eco-friendly gardening to support local biodiversity.

Types of Conservation Gardens

Conservation gardens can take many forms,4 from large wildlife gardens to small urban lots.

However, the overriding focus is on sustainability, biodiversity, and regenerative practices that give back to nature.

A pollinator garden filled with colorful flowers over looking a historic European building in the background.

(Image: edmondlafoto12)

Some common types of conservation gardens include:

  1. Pollinator Gardens: These are designed specifically to attract and support pollinators like bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and bats. As such, the selection of flower shapes, colors and bloom times are tailored to the needs of the pollinators.
  2. Xeriscape Gardens: This type of conservation garden uses drought-tolerant native plants to reduce or eliminate irrigation requirements. Incorporating gravel mulch and hardscape helps retain moisture.
  3. Rain Gardens: These are shallow depressions planted with water-loving natives to capture and filter stormwater runoff.
  4. Native Plant Gardens: This type of conservation garden focuses exclusively on plants indigenous to your local region since these are best adapted to native wildlife and growing conditions.
  5. Edible Gardens: They incorporate fruit trees, berry bushes, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers to produce organic food while also providing habitat to pollinators and other animals.
  6. Shade Gardens: They take advantage of and utilize otherwise neglected shade areas by utilizing shade-loving native plants like ferns, hostas and coral bells.

Whatever your choice of conservation garden is, the goal is to ensure that you are working with nature and for nature by employing the principles of conservation gardening the size of the garden notwithstanding.

Conservation Gardening in Different Zones

When selecting plants for your garden, pay close attention to your USDA Hardiness Zone which indicates what species can thrive based on average coldest winter temperatures.8

Your local climate is a key factor in choosing native plants and sustainable gardening techniques.

A vibrant urban garden showcases a colorful array of flowers and shrubs, with a stone path leading to a secluded bench.

(Image: Denise Davis17)

For example, Zone 5 ranges from -15 to -10°F winter lows.

Since native plants are adapted to local conditions, choosing varieties aligned with your zone boosts success. Hardiness Zones run from 1 (coldest) to 13 (warmest).

You can find your zone using the USDA Zone Map.9

Here are some conservation gardening guidelines for different Hardiness Zones:

  • Zones 1-2: Choose extremely cold-hardy alpine flowers, dwarf conifers, and early spring bloomers. Prioritize shrubs like mountain ash and sumac.
  • Zones 3-4: Rely on hardy native flowering trees and shrubs like dogwood, ninebark and serviceberry. Favor cold-tolerant perennials like bee balm, asters and coneflowers.
    Make sure to insulate beds with straw mulch to prevent frost heaving.
  • Zones 5-6: Pick versatile natives like little bluestem, purple coneflower, blue false indigo and butterfly milkweed. Maple, oak and birch trees also grow well.
  • Zones 7-8: Heat-loving native plants like tupelo, red buckeye, passionflower and salvia thrive in this zone. Fruit trees like persimmon, pawpaw and American plum also produce abundantly.
  • Zones 9-10: Utilize hardy natives like sabal palm, red mulberry, sweetbay magnolia and coral honeysuckle. Citrus trees, banana and papaya trees also thrive with ample heat.
  • Zones 11-13: Tropical and subtropical natives like gumbo limbo, wild tamarind, orchid tree and Simpson’s stopper prosper in the warmth. Mango, avocado and key lime are at home in this zone.

Aligning plant choices with your region’s climate ensures a suitable habitat for local wildlife while minimizing maintenance needs.

Starting a Conservation Garden

Converting a traditional landscape into a conservation garden does take some effort. However, it is an incredibly rewarding endeavor.

A garden with blooming purple flowers borders a white fence and small houses, under mature trees.

(Image: JamesDeMers16)

Here are some tips to get started:10

  • Learn about conservation gardening principles and native plants suited to your area then select several favorites to try.
  • Gradually phase out water-thirsty lawn grass, invasive plants and high-maintenance exotics. Replace them with native alternatives over time.
  • Enrich soil health through compost, mulch and cover crops but first test the soil to identify what it needs.
  • Plan and map desired plant groupings and hardscape features. Focus on maximizing biodiversity.
  • Shop at native plant nurseries or native plant sales to find ecologically-friendly additions.
  • Remove sod in sections then cover bared areas with cardboard or mulch to suppress weeds until planted.
  • Install new plantings in spring or fall and water well at planting and as needed until established.
  • Use soaker hoses and drip irrigation and water the plants early morning. Mulch the beds to preserve moisture.
  • Let nature take some lead! Native plants often freely self-seed and spread to find their own niche.

How Do I Control Pests Organically?

Use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques like handpicking pests,11 applying organic sprays, and introducing beneficial predators.

Encourage natural pest predators like birds, frogs, and beneficial insects by avoiding pesticides.


Hand-pick large pests. Use organic sprays like neem oil or insecticidal soap for severe infestations.

Rotate crops and attract pollinators to strengthen plant health. Tolerance for minor damage also helps stabilize the ecosystem.

With mindful design choices and care, your conservation garden will soon flourish naturally with minimal inputs. The benefits to local ecosystems make it a rewarding endeavor.

Why Conservation Gardening Matters?

There are many reasons why adopting conservation gardening practices makes a difference:1

  • Saves water: Native plants and efficient irrigation reduce water usage. Collecting rainwater also cuts down on the use of municipal water.
  • Protects waterways: Keeping chemicals out of the garden prevents runoff pollution into local watersheds.
  • Supports wildlife: Diverse native plants attract more birds, bees, butterflies and other helpful critters to your yard.
  • Builds healthy soil: Compost, mulch, reduced tilling and cover crops replenish soil nutrients organically.
  • Reduces waste: Composting reduces landfill contributions while creating “black gold” for your garden.
  • Saves money: The savings from less watering, reduced fertilizer, no pesticide costs, and free compost all add up in the long run.
  • Sequesters carbon: Plants, compost and mulch help absorb and sink carbon from the atmosphere thus helping with climate change.
  • Prolongs resources: Amending soil properly, selecting appropriate plants, and irrigating efficiently conserve inputs like water, fertilizer and labor over the long term.
  • Promotes sustainability: Gardening in tune with nature preserves resources and ensures they are available for future generations.
  • Provides chemical-free food: Growing your own organic fruits, vegetables and herbs is very fulfilling and rewarding.
  • Improves air quality: Healthy plants filter air pollutants like ozone, nitrogen oxides and dust particles more efficiently.

Adopting conservation gardening techniques lets you grow food and beauty sustainably while also taking tangible steps towards environmental restoration, one yard at a time.

Graphic that shows the different benefits of conservation gardening.

Additionally, adopting a conservation approach to gardening sustains the web of life in your yard and beyond. Your efforts, however small, help preserve resources for future generations while making your bit of earth healthier, more beautiful and more livable.

A biodiverse garden brimming with native plants, pollinators, birds and beneficial wildlife becomes a dynamic ecosystem yielding beauty, renewal and solace. What’s more, the rewards of conservation gardening compound each season as your conservation garden matures.

Frequently Asked Questions About Conservation Gardening

Should I Buy Native Plants or Grow From Seed?

For quick results, purchase native perennials, shrubs, and trees from a reputable native plant nursery and be sure to request locally-sourced stock. While using locally-collected seeds is cost-effective, it requires more time compared to purchasing mature plants.

How Do I Reduce My Water Usage?

Utilize rain gardens, soaker hoses, and drip irrigation for efficient watering, and water during early or late hours while using mulch to retain moisture. Group plants by their water requirements and opt for drought-tolerant varieties to minimize extra watering.

What Organic Fertilizers Work Best?

Compost, worm castings, manure teas, and organic liquid fertilizers release nutrients slowly into the soil without chemical leaching, apply 1 to 2 times per year. Granular organic fertilizers like alfalfa, feather, or kelp meal also work but must be reapplied every 2 but 3 months and it is important to have your soil tested every few years to check nutrient levels.

Should I Remove All Lawn Grass To Be More Sustainable?

Although removing some turf grass is good, keeping some lawn areas is also fine. However, look for opportunities to replace unused lawn with more diverse plantings.

Is It Okay To Still Have Some Non-Native Plants?

Certainly, it’s not necessary to achieve 100% native plants initially. While prioritizing native plants, it’s fine to include non-natives like tomatoes in sustainable gardens.


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3College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. (2023, September 19). What is a conservation landscape? University of Maryland Extension. Retrieved October 6, 2023, from <>

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17Urban Garden Photo Provided by Denise Davis