Michigan Logo


How to Create A Socially Responsible Garden: An Interview with Drew Lathin of Creating Sustainable Landscapes, LLC

By Drew Lathin

Tell us a little bit about your company and the services you offer.

Creating Sustainable Landscapes is a company that designs, installs, and maintains landscapes that use native plants that support pollinators, butterflies, birds, and other beneficial wildlife. Native plants are uniquely able to support natural ecological functions and can tolerate sub-zero temperatures, summer heat, drought, and insect predation, all without ever needing to be watered, fertilized, and sprayed after establishment.

Using native plants, we design, install, and maintain rain gardens, pollinator gardens, prairie gardens, formal native perennial beds, and lawn alternatives such as Buffalo Grass.

Additional services include providing consultation for property owners who want to do the work themselves, landscape design, and speaking at conferences, clubs, schools, and professional associations.

Can you briefly explain what a socially responsible garden or landscape is?

A socially responsible landscape contributes to the natural ecosystem services which provide for, among other things, clean air and water, support for pollinators, food for wildlife, pest control, and beauty. Additionally, it doesn't use scarce resources such as potable water or use chemicals that are harmful to the environment, people, and pets.

By contrast, traditional landscapes, which utilize exotic species of plants that need supplemental water and chemicals to support them, are not socially responsible. For example, 30% of our potable water goes to water lawns, the largest cultivated crop in the United States, which also requires vast amounts of chemicals, which run off into our waterways and contributes to carbon pollution.

In addition, native species are a more socially responsible choice because they produce 35 times more caterpillar biomass than exotic species, which is a vitally important source of food for terrestrial bird species' young in the spring.

In what ways is this different from a typical garden/landscape that a homeowner would have designed and installed?

As I mentioned earlier, the biggest difference between what I think of as socially responsible or sustainable landscapes and typical landscapes is the use of native plants. Aesthetically, I can recreate almost any look in typical landscapes with native plants. Additionally, landscapes with native plants will not have to be watered, fertilized, or sprayed which saves time, effort, and money.

What are some common questions that people ask you about creating a socially responsible and ecologically healthy garden?

Perhaps the most common critique of native plants is that they are weedy and unkempt looking and thus people ask, "Do they have to look this way?" The answer is a resounding, "No." Early adopters of native plants have done things like install tallgrass prairie gardens in their front lawns, and while this is extremely beneficial to wildlife, it looks like a mess.

It doesn't have to look this way. Landscaping with native plants can be just as formal looking as any other kind of landscape. You just have to know your plants or get some help from someone who knows native plants. You can have foundation plantings of bushes or perennials.

Perhaps the other most asked question is, "How do I start?" My answer depends on how ambitious you are. At one extreme you can rip everything out and start from scratch using native plants. This will have the greatest impact, but it is also expensive and a lot of work. At the other extreme, I tell people to vow to replace anything that dies with a native plant. Over time the number of native plants will gradually increase.

What are two or three of the most popular socially responsible plants or features that homeowners can start using/planting on their own yards?

By far, the most socially responsible feature to install would be a rain garden. A rain garden captures rain water off roofs, driveways, streets, and other impervious surfaces, and thus keeps pollutants such as oils, heavy metals, sediment, and e-coli out of our natural waterways by infiltrating it into the soil where it can be filtered before reaching groundwater supplies. And when populated with native plants, it supports myriad species of pollinators, butterflies, birds, and predatory insects. Rain gardens and other features that use native plants are truly sustainable and socially responsible landscaping solutions.

As for individual species of plants, some of the most common are Black Eyed Susans, Purple Coneflower, and Butterfly Weed. However, there are literally hundreds of species that are available from native plant nurseries that are odd, unique, and beautiful. You can match species to your soil type, amount of moisture, and light conditions. Some of my favorites are Nodding Onion (which is edible), Swamp Milkweed (which supports Monarch caterpillars), Columbine (for shady areas), Prairie Dropseed (a beautiful fountain-like grass) and I could go on for a very long time.

Do you have any tips on how to properly maintain a socially responsible garden/landscape?

Maintenance of a socially responsible landscape is easier than traditional landscapes because they do not require watering, fertilizing, or spraying after establishment.

I recommend not cutting down flowers and grasses until after a couple warm days in March because many insects upon which birds rely for food overwinter in the stems.

A tip not for everyone is to burn your grasses and flowers in the spring. Native plants evolved with fire and actually appreciate a spring burning. More and more municipalities are permitting this process.

I also recommend using leaves as mulch for flower beds. Not only does it help retain moisture and suppress weeds, but also many species of insects and butterflies overwinter in leaf litter. Not only will you be providing food for spring birds, you will also be saving money.

What's the best way for people to contact you and your company?

People can contact me through my company webpage, www.CreatingSustainableLandscapes.com, by email at Drew@CreatingSustainableLandscapes.com, or by phone at (734) 717-8000.

Share this:


Leave a comment:

* Login in order to leave a comment. Don't have an account? Join for Free

About The Author

Drew Lathin is a landscaping specialist.

Phone: 734-717-8000

View Profile

Become an Expert Contributor

Have some knowledge to share, and want easy and effective exposure to our audience? Get your articles or guides featured on Michigan Homes today! Learn more about being an expert contributor.

Learn More