The Green Column #26

Sustainable Landscaping . . . The Logical Choice

May 5, 2010—The recent Earth Day celebration helped raise awareness of the numerous environmental challenges before us, ranging from air and water quality, to resource shortages, habitat loss, and climate change. The good news is that we have the ability to successfully address these challenges.

The first step is to evaluate each of our activities, with the purpose of discovering ways to decrease our negative impacts on the world around us and increase the positive. When examining landscaping practices it’s easy to find many areas with significant room for improvement. Some are subtle and hard to quantify, while others are clear and obvious. But they can all contribute to making public and private landscapes more sustainable, promoting environmental quality and conserving the natural resources that sustain everyone and everything.

A good place to start is in lawns. A typical lawn is energy and resource intensive, receiving unsustainable amounts of water, fertilizers, pesticides and energy in its maintenance. For example, pesticide use on home lawns is 10-20 times more per acre than what is used on American farms. With over 40 million acres of turfgrass in the United States, the impact is significant.

It doesn’t have to be that way. If inputs are used efficiently and appropriately, with less waste, impacts immediately go down. The old approach of “if a little is good, then more is better” is not only wasteful on a lawn, but can also be dangerous when chemicals are being used. Proper use of fertilizer reduces fungal problems, mowing frequency and water needs. Using chemicals sparingly and wisely limits damage to the many beneficial creatures (pollinators, earthworms, etc.) that do more good than most imagine. An even better choice is to use organic fertilizers and pest controls.

There are many techniques to save when it comes to watering turf. Simple changes like using a rain sensor with automatic sprinklers can reduce water waste. Watering less frequently but more deeply, and in the early morning to reduce evaporation, not only saves water, but results in deeper rooted, healthier turf. And, of course, it is best to avoid watering any paved areas. Another water-saving option that doesn’t get enough attention is simply allowing the turfgrass to take its natural path and go dormant during long dry spells.

Leaving clippings on the lawn, called grasscycling, is a logical method to save time, effort and fuel, while reducing landfill waste. It’s good for the lawn too, returning valuable nutrients right back to the soil. Using a non-motorized reel mower is yet another fuel-saving option. It’s a great way to get a little exercise while avoiding the noise and fumes of a gas-powered mower.

The type of grass in a lawn makes a big difference too. Tough Nebraska natives such as buffalo grass and blue grama can be grown with very few inputs. If using cool season grasses, there are improved varieties of both fescue and Kentucky blue that require less fertilization and water.

Another great step is to simply reduce the size of the turf area. If the only time a lawn is walked on is during mowing it may be time to ask if it is even necessary. Expanding landscape beds, especially with native plants, is wonderful alternative to consider. Acreage owners can return portions of their property to prairie, virtually a maintenance free ecosystem that needs no outside inputs once established.

A key to sustainable landscaping in the planting beds is to put the right plants in the right place. Using natives or well-adapted non-native plants is the best way to go. A tough plant is more likely to survive and thrive with few if any inputs of water, fertilizer and pesticides. Paying attention to the plant’s individual requirements is also important. Shade or sun, wet or dry, give the plant what it needs and it will do well. Trying to force a plant to grow in a spot it isn’t adapted to is demanding of resources, time and patience . . . and usually best avoided.

Mulching plays a large role too. Mulching helps moderate the soil temperature, reduces weed problems, reduces runoff and helps the soil hold moisture. Wood chip mulch available through the city landfill is a locally renewable resource. A closed loop system such as this is a great green option.

Composting is another example of a closed loop system. Composting leaves and clippings from the yard and veggie and fruit scraps from the kitchen provide a great soil amendment for gardens and planting beds. It also avoids wasting fuel hauling the materials away and conserves landfill space. Short on materials? Ask neighbors or even the local coffee shop; coffee grounds are a terrific component of compost.

Slowing down or saving the moisture that lands on a property is highly beneficial and helps avoid the negatives of runoff, such as on site erosion and pollution and flooding downstream. First of all, well-cared for soils have better water infiltration and holding capacity, allowing more water to stay where it falls. Rain gardens are the next step, pooling excess water in shallow depressions, allowing the water to percolate down to the ground water over a day or two. Using rain barrels to capture water running off the roof is also a good idea. The water then can be given to plants as needed.

Many of the steps mentioned add habitat for local wildlife, providing food, water and shelter. A diversity of plants and animals contribute to the health of the local ecosystem, with natural controls aiding in keeping pests in check.

A well-designed and maintained landscape mimics nature’s balanced system, with each component contributing to the other. The benefits are also similarly complex and multi-layered. A sustainable landscape is functional, economical, easier to care for and attractive to humans and wildlife.

Humans are part of nature and so are created landscapes. The choice is either to fight against nature or work with it and learn from a system that has been fine-tuned over millions of years to be highly productive, efficient and elegantly balanced. This system serves all daily in every bite of food, drop of water and breath of air. Logic says the choice is obvious.

Thanks to Kendall Weyers for his help with this column.

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