Plants: More Than Decoration

As a professional in the landscape industry, there is one question that I hear more than any other from my friends and clients: “What plant should I put here?” When asked this question, I often wonder if it’s best just to spout out a list of plants that can always be found at the local box-store nursery, or to launch into a series of probing questions to determine what that person was really asking of me. More often than not, he or she is simply asking “what can I put in this location that won’t die, requires minimum maintenance, and looks pretty.” Because beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, it’s always challenging to determine what plants a client will perceive as pretty. With this reoccurring conversation, it’s clear that we often see plants as mere garnish and decoration to our homes and buildings. The aesthetic beauty of branches, leaves, and flowers is hard to deny, but there are many other great reasons to integrate plants into our built environment. Some of these reasons are: to help create microclimates, reduce noise pollution, prevent erosion and stormwater runoff, remove toxins from soil and water, provide food, and creating wildlife habitat.

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Creating Microclimates

A microclimate is a small area that differs slightly in temperature from the surrounding regional climate. The most basic example is using trees and landforms to provide a cooler climate through shade and moisture. In some cases, you want to alter microclimates throughout the year. If a deciduous tree (loses its leaves in the winter) is planted on the southwest side of a building, it will insulate the roof from the sun in the summer, and allow the light to pass through in the winter. This can significantly reduce energy cost of heating and cooling our buildings.

Removing Toxins from Soil & Water

Plants not only remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but can also remove various toxins from soil and water. Certain species have the ability to absorb harsh metals and excess minerals from the soil. This process, called phytoremediation, can be used to remediate polluted soils or improve agriculture fields.

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Reducing Noise Pollution

While many people are familiar with the visual screening ability of shrubs and trees, their added benefit of reducing noise is often overlooked. Plants, with all their branches, bark and leaves, can absorb sound waves better than walls and flat surfaces. Utilize vegetation along busy highways, near property lines or in a courtyard to reduce noise and echo.

Providing Food

There’s hardly a better way to appreciate plants more than by growing a food garden at your residence. Even a small piece of ground can be enough to provide a wealth of food throughout the year. Aside from traditional vegetable gardens, there are other creative ways of integrating food into your landscape. Blackberries and other fruit-producing vines can be grown along existing fences and property lines. Fruit trees can replace ornamental flowering trees. Herbs and edible forbs can be grown in lieu of seasonal flower beds.

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Preventing Erosion & Stormwater Runoff

Erosion is not just bad for our soils but also for our rivers and waterways. With the combination of proper grading and vegetation placement, you can drastically reduce the amount of erosion on your property. Trees, shrubs, and grasses all have roots that act as an interlocking web to hold soils together. In addition, plants suck up ground water and slowly release through their leaves in a process known as evapotranspiration. Some large trees can absorb as much as a hundred gallons of water in one day!

Creating Wildlife Habitat

With our forests being developed at alarming rates, much of our native landscape is being replaced with homogenous, ornamental plant species from other parts of the world. The truth is not all plants are created equal. While it might look nice and clean, a manicured yard of turf grass doesn’t provide much benefit to wildlife. As well, most of the ornamental shrubs used in the landscape industry do not provide adequate food and cover for our native insects, birds, and mammals. By using a broad-pallet of native plants (biodiversity), you can increase the amount and species of wildlife on your property.


Cahaba Design Studio is a landscape architecture studio located in Birmingham, Alabama that provides landscape design, land planning, and ecological design. As a division of Richter Landscape Company, the design studio is experienced in native plants, gardens, arboriculture, land preservation, and wildlife habitat design.