Practicing Sustainable, Green, Eco-Friendly Landscaping: Best Practices/Principles for the Landscaping/Property Management Industry

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that in 2011, the number of landscape contractors in the U.S. was between 35,000 to 38,000; and this statistic took into account the estimated loss of a remarkable loss of 12% of landscape contractors during the economic downturn that started in 2008. In 2011 there were an estimated 3, 500 landscaping companies in the property management industry (EPA). There is an estimated 40 million acres of lawn turf nationwide. The amount of turf ranks the fifth largest areas right behind corn, soybeans, wheat, and hay (USDA, 1992). This statistic leads to concerns because the use of fertilizers on lawn and landscaped properties is roughly equivalent to what are used on row crops like corn, etc. Urban lawns receive an estimated five to seven pounds of pesticides per acre annually (USDA, 1992). What concerns officials is that chemicals used in traditional landscaping and lawn care creates considerable problems by negatively effecting the local water supply due to storm and drain rain-off, even though when polled, most homeowners and some commercial real estate property owners are unaware of that what happens on their property has an impact on the quality of the water table, local streams and lakes, rivers, etc. Plus, in urban areas there are the associated extra costs that go into water treatment plants.
With these grim statistics in mind, the landscaping/property management industry is poised to make a major contribution to reducing pesticides, the use of fertilizers, and other land disturbances that are all major sources of storm-water pollution in residential communities and surrounding commercial areas. In conjunction with governing bodies like the EPA, but also with the laws, ordinances, and guidelines with state and local officials, landscape/property management companies can integrate sustainable land property management principles into their daily work as well as educate the mostly uninformed public, including their commercial and residential clients. Simply due to the work that they do, landscape/property management companies are uniquely positioned to impact the environment in positive, sustainable, and eco-friendly ways, and the more opportunities they have to gain additional expertise in green landscape techniques the more they can promote sustainable environments in their areas and gain the respect and admiration they rightly deserve.

Traditional Landscaping and Eco-Harmful Practices
Take, for example, what the EPA has to say about such harmful practices: “Traditional landscaping and current landscape maintenance practices, while frequently meeting human needs and aesthetics, often have harmful impacts. The clearing of native woodlands and other natural habitats for urban/suburban growth and subsequent planting of grounds with vast lawns and manicured arrangements of exotic ornamental plants place a heavy toll on environmental and human health. This type of a landscape requires extensive use of mechanical equipment, unnecessary consumption of our limited natural resources (water and fossil fuels), frequent application of fertilizers and pesticides, and the generation of significant quantities of solid waste. As a result, our surface and ground waters are being polluted; destructive flooding is more commonplace; our neighborhood’s tranquility and air quality are compromised by noisy, polluting landscape equipment; and our landfills are being consumed by yard waste. Furthermore, the biodiversity of our ecosystems is suffering from the introduction of invasive exotic landscape plants.”

Eco-Friendly Principles of Landscape Design and Management
In light of these observations, insights and recommendations, we will highlight three general principles that can be easily integrated into any landscape design so it is a win-win situation. All human needs are fulfilled, including a sense of beauty, systems are overall cheaper to maintain which saves money, and they leave less of a footprint on the ecosystem and so create a healthy balance between humans, animals, and plants—what a true ecosystem encompasses. Some Eco-Friendly Landscape practices are: Natural/Native Landscaping, Low Impact Development, and Water Conservation through Xeri-Scaping.

Natural/Native Landscaping
We must discontinue abusing our surrounding environment because if we don’t, there will not be an environment around to try to save. The time is right now. We must learn how to manage our aesthetic sensibilities and other human needs to derive the proper balance so that we can live in with and amongst attractive and healthy surrounding vegetation—the proper balance between human needs and our eco-system needs. As scientists point out, human ecology and nature ecology are ultimately interrelated. That is, hurt one and the other can be hurt. Likewise, properly cultivate one and the other can become properly cultivated. The following guidelines are discussed in the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP)’s “Sustainable Practices and Resources for the Landscaping and Lawn Care Industry.” In choosing your plants and other vegetation, select only those that are already native to that region and are just right for that particular site, or microclimate. Landscaping companies, armed with extensive knowledge of local, flower, etc. can recommend what would work best for their clients. As the DEEP paper states: “While there’s not usually a problem with occasional use of exotic plants, native plants have evolved to local conditions over millions of years and form an integral part in the life cycles of the local wildlife; they also give an area its unique sense of place” (DEEP).
The next choice is to decide to reduce the amount of turf, or traditional lawn surfaces. Let’s face it, taking care of lawns can be an expensive practice and most lawns, especially massive lawns, are eco-unfriendly because they create excessive runoff of chemicals and pesticides which could end up in storm water drains or catch basins or, worse, these poisons can infiltrate the local water supply. There is beautiful woodland, meadows or other natural plantings that also work. Great stonework, patios, etc can also be used in place of vast lawns. If you do own a lawn, mow it but do not collect it and put it in bags! Lawn and leaf cuttings can place a heavy burden on local solid waste plants. In fact, keep it where it is because it turns into a natural compost or nutrient source for the existing lawn surface. Use a composting mower.
Compost and mulch on site as much as possible so as to eliminate as much solid waste dumping as possible; having a nice mulch pile out back where you can deposit all of your organic solid wastes like kitchen garbage, to lawn clippings for example can generate just the soil additive you may need and could then replace the need for most fertilizers.
The judicious and wise choice of what plants and trees to have and not have near the house should take into account how the planting can be used to reduce or increase heating/cooling needs. According to the EPA “Deciduous trees planted appropriately along the south sides of buildings can reduce air conditioning costs by up to 20%; in winter they allow the sun’s rays to warm buildings. Coniferous trees planted to block prevailing NW winter winds can reduce heating costs. Trees planted to shade paved areas reduce the summer heat-island effect that makes parking lots so inhospitable…Landscaping can change the microclimate around a building by 20 – 25 degrees F. According to the US Dept. of Energy, energy-efficient landscaping can save up to 30% on home heating bills. Savings for cooling can be even more. Most people can save at least a few hundred dollars a year by properly reworking their yard” (DEEP).
In other words, use your landscaping to your economic, health, and to ecologically sound benefits that ultimately will come full-circle back to creating the conditions for maximizing human health and well-being. In temperate climates, such as in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, “deciduous plants in full leaf are generally the best interceptors of direct solar radiation. And, in the winter, when their leaves have been shed, they allow in much desired sunshine. Landscaping should block or filter summer sun and permit winter sun to reach most living areas. Dense trees can block up to 95% of sunlight and 75% of its heat. Consider the size and shape of the shadow a plant will cast” (DEEP). Soil and land placement in landscaped designs are also a great idea in terms of natural landscaping. Perhaps you simply follow the natural inclines/declines or the berms, etc. that you can create your own. Berms are small manmade mounds of earth which can function to block sun, obstruct winds, insulate, and control noise.

Low Impact Development
In general terms, Low Impact Development (LID) is an umbrella concept covering a complex number and strategies to deal with storm water runoff management so that this runoff—containing pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemical and products used in landscaping and lawn care—does not negatively impact local water supplies. Individuals practicing some form of ecological friendliness with their landscaping embody perfectly the green movement’s slogan: “Think Globally; Act Locally.”
LID strategies try to work with nature to properly manage rain water runoff right at its source—somebody’s landscaped property. According to the EPA: LID employs principles such as preserving and recreating natural landscape features, minimizing effective imperviousness to create functional and appealing site drainage that treat storm-water as a resource rather than a waste product. There are many practices that have been used to adhere to these principles such as bio-retention facilities, rain gardens, vegetated rooftops, rain barrels, and permeable pavements. By implementing LID principles and practices, water can be managed in a way that reduces the impact of built areas and promotes the natural movement of water within an ecosystem or watershed. Applied on a broad scale, LID can maintain or restore a watershed’s hydrologic and ecological functions. LID has been characterized as a sustainable storm-water practice by the Water Environment Research Foundation and others.”

Water Conservation: Xeriscape Landscapes
Xeri (Greek, land)-scaping by definition is another form of landscaping but the difference between traditional and natural landscaping is the specific focus on cutting back, down, or totally eliminating in some cases, the use or need for water for one’s landscape. The concept covers many different techniques, from using more stones, rocks, etc but also the selective choice of plantings that thrive in landscapes which naturally lack a lot of water—like cacti for example. This means both choosing a variety of native plants, as well as other well-adapted species. Originally developed in areas which naturally lack a lot of rainfall or natural water supplies, Xeriscaping has been carried over and now also used for water conservation and leaving less of a footprint on the local ecology.
One obvious xeriscape method would be to replace thirsty, water guzzling lawns with either patios or “xeric plantings.” Just this step alone could cut down your water use by 80% or more. Other xeriscaping techniques that can be implemented to make the best use of resources on your property or site is by using grading and soil contouring to guide every bit of available moisture to a place in the landscape where it can be used, such as a rain garden.

Human Benefits Eco-Friendly Landscaping
The EPA sums up nicely some of the benefits to human beings when other humans action are beneficial to the plants and animals. “By adopting and advocating beneficial landscaping, wildlife isn’t the only benefactor. Here’s how we can all benefit:
• Safer environments for our families
• Quieter neighborhoods (from reduced use of power equipment)
• Water conservation that benefits the homeowner and community
• Reduced flooding and costs for storm-water management
• Greater opportunities to enjoy nature
• Reduced landscape maintenance labor/more free time
• Reduced landscape maintenance costs
• Less strain on municipal waste collection and water treatment
• Cleaner water bodies for fishing, swimming, drinking
• Lower heating and cooling bills

Beneficial landscaping is appropriate for public lands; highway right-of-ways; commercial, industrial and other private grounds; and, of course, residential properties. Its benefits are most pronounced where whole communities or other large landowners adopt the principles. However, even individual homeowners can reap significant rewards.”

Story by Mark Joseph Manion