Many people assume that any landscaping is an environmentally-friendly step in the right direction, and it certainly can be. However, just the opposite is more commonly the case. For the last 50 years the ‘green industry’ has been creating landscapes that waste water, rely on petro-chemical fertilizers, install ecologically damaging invasive plants, ignore ways to re-use materials, and require significant amounts of labor and energy for maintenance. Fortunately, there have always been pioneering landscape architects and designers who break that destructive mold and that group has grown exponentially in recent years. As the green movement has become more ingrained in society, both consumers and producers are helping forward thinking designers implement new ideas for sustainability in the landscape. The process starts with a consumer who wants to ‘go green’, a producer who sees the opportunity to sell ‘green products’ and a designer who can put them both together.
Choosing the right plants for the specific environmental conditions is the key to sustainable plantings. Make sure your plant choices will work well with the sites sun exposure, soil ph and structure, and water availability. The right plant choices will translate into reduced fertilizer use, less water use, less maintenance requirements and the greatest chance for long term survival. Plants that are indigenous to your region are most likely to thrive with the least amount of inputs. Native plants are also more likely to contribute food and cover for the indigenous wildlife. Reducing lawn cover is a significant way to ‘green’ your landscape by saving water, minimizing fertilizer, cutting fuel and reducing pollution from mowing (mowing uses 800 million gallons of gas per year and contributes to 5% of our air pollution). As an alternative to the traditional lawn, native meadows provide year-round beauty and require far less external inputs to maintain. For smaller areas there is a variety of steppable groundcovers that can add interesting textures and colors to an outdoor room.
If you want to use environmentally friendly materials in your landscape, keep these principles in mind. First, look for products with recycled material contents. For example, there are a wide variety of synthetic deck board options that incorporate recycled plastics (see TimberTech). Second, ask yourself if the materials are being harvested, produced and transported in environmentally efficient ways. Chinese granite may cost less money to purchase than Vermont granite, but Vermont mining practices are more sustainable and the transportation impacts are far lower. Third, find and re-use materials. For example, if you are removing a concrete patio, break the pieces into stepping stone sizes for an informal walkway or stack them to make a wall. And keep an eye open for items that may be headed for a landfill that you can see a new use for. Finally, reduce the long term costs and need for replacements. A pergola built with synthetic lumber (i.e. Azec) will far outlast one built with wood while also having lower maintenance costs.
Water is one of our most important resources and we can’t afford to waste or mismanage it. Choose plants that don’t require large amounts of regular watering. And don’t water plants unless you are sure the ground is dry and the plant needs it. Avoid spray type irrigation heads and opt for drip emitters to maximize water to a plants root zone and minimize evaporation and runoff. Learn to live with a brown lawn during a drought or install subsurface irrigation. Capture rainwater and re-use it in the landscape. Also, consider stormwater management on your property. Homes, roads and patios all increase stormwater runoff and can lead to erosion and flooding. Rain gardens have become one popular solution where stormwater is directed to a depression in the earth and the appropriate plantings are installed to create an attractive wetland feature that percolates rain water back into the soil.