Sustainable landscaping is a concept that focuses on the resources needed to install and maintain a planted area -- finding and using ways to conserve water, chemicals and natural resources, such as soil and rain. It also seeks to reduce labor.
The principles of sustainable landscaping can vastly reduce costs of maintaining buildings and grounds, so it makes sense for property managers. It also has implications for public spaces, including building grounds, roadways, public parks and recreation areas, schools, hospitals, and business and industrial parks. But, it makes good sense for homeowners too.
Thirty years ago, most home landscaping, whether urban or suburban, consisted of a patch of lawn (a really big patch in some cases), some foundation plantings, a few trees, and perhaps a bed for flowers or vegetables. Plants were chosen for their color when flowering and their easy availability at garden centers. Maintenance included cycles of mowing, fertilizing, spraying, pruning and watering. Short-term climate changes -- a few years of drought, or an exceptionally wet spring -- could have a big impact on how well the plants looked or grew.
That's slowly changing as people learn about native plants, water-efficient landscaping and other environmentally sound practices. We now know that, once established, native plants can endure without synthetic chemicals or fertilizer, or a lot of watering and labor. Ecologists have determined that reducing areas of turf by planting with self-sustaining plants reduces maintenance, increases rainwater retention and rewards the senses with a more varied landscape.
Big as these changes are, they're each a small part of the larger picture that is sustainable landscaping. This style of design takes low maintenance for the garden to another level, by keeping the landscape as close as possible to nature. This process initially takes management to restore the land to a natural condition. It involves the entire property, and considers large issues, such as climate and terrain, and smaller ones, such as plant choices. Here are some of the considerations:
-- Climate and microclimate.
You can improve a microclimate by planting a windbreak to deflect cold winds or channel welcome breezes. You can plant evergreens on the north side of the house to stop winter winds, and deciduous trees on the south to let low winter sunlight reach windows. You can use the tree canopy to create shade. Improving soil and using carefully selected plants can also make your immediate environment less susceptible to weather damage and less laborious to maintain.
-- Environment and terrain.
If you live in a housing development, the builder might have bulldozed the land into a flat, featureless plain, or sited each dwelling on a slight turfed rise to "improve" drainage. These artificial landscapes leave buildings exposed to cold or heat and channel precious rainfall into streets, storm sewers or nearby waterways, picking up pollutants as it goes.
In many areas, the natural terrain consists of high and low places that use water differently and create an environment where a wide variety of plants can thrive. Low areas can be planted with native grasses and perennials because they tend to stay moist longer than higher areas, provided there is no standing surface water. The area must drain. Higher areas enhance privacy and aesthetic interest, and can be planted with native species that manage happily in drier conditions.
It might not be practical to re-bulldoze your land, but adding a berm and a swale along a boundary or at a corner can make a big difference.
If you have the opposite problem, a steep slope, you can use terraces, with or without retaining walls, to slow runoff and erosion; use native grasses and perennials that will adapt to the site.
-- Resources and labor. Before you install any feature or plant on your property, stop and ask yourself these couple of questions: Is this going to need constant attention from me? Will this require a lot of water/fertilizer/weedkiller/insect spray? If the answer to either question is yes, you might want to avoid that particular plant. Water shortages, water quality and pollution-bearing runoff from both commercial and residential sources are a crucial consideration. Landscaping to make the best use of available water resources saves money and work.
Collect roof-runoff rainwater in barrels, and use it to water plants. You're using rather than wasting an available resource, and avoiding watering with treated water.
Recycling, composting and mulching also conserve resources. Mulching and composting improve soil quality.
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