Sustainable Landscaping Saves Water, Cuts Environmental Risks

September 4, 2009 By Tom Ash

What environmental problems are associated with conventional yards?

Studies by public agencies across the country show home landscapes waste as much as 50 percent of the water used outside. In addition, residential application of pesticides per acre is typically 20 times that of farms, according to the EPA. Overwatering damages plants, so they are less healthy and attractive, and it creates urban runoff that carries pollutants (such as fertilizers and pesticides) into streams, bays, lakes, and oceans. Those pollutants have a significant and deadly impact on the local ecosystem. The U.S. Geological Survey has reported that pesticides linked to cancer, birth defects, and neurological disorders contaminate almost all U.S. rivers and streams. The nitrates from fertilizers increase algae growth, which suffocates fish.

Additionally, pesticides and herbicides—many of which are toxic to humans—are often tracked inside the home, where they contaminate the air and linger on floors and other surfaces. Add air pollution from lawn mowers, the energy required to pump water, and the overuse of chemicals and fertilizers, and you have an idea of how environmentally unsound a common landscape can be.

What are the health benefits of a sustainable landscape?

An environmentally friendly yard, or ecological landscape, needs less chemical treatment and less water. It stands to reason that applying far fewer fertilizers and chemicals is much safer for homeowners as well as the ecosystem.

The direct health benefits of a “green” landscape come from cleaner air. Trees, shrubs, and grass clean the air by sequestering pollutants (nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and dust). These same plants release oxygen. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that trees in New York City remove 2,000 metric tons of pollutants each year.

The benefits also include reduced water use and water runoff, and less energy needed to cool buildings. A study in Arizona found that ecological landscapes reduced air conditioning in homes by 25 percent.

How does the sustainable approach affect maintenance and operating costs?

A sustainable garden is more economical than traditional landscaping. For example, using organic mulch to reduce weeds and enrich soil is less costly than using herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Mulch can be purchased or created on-site by composting organic materials. It is surprising to most people that a layer of organic material has such a positive effect on soil nutrients and plant health.

Obviously, using the right amount of water for the yard can save you money on water bills. Placing certain plants in the right locations can significantly reduce air conditioning use by shading the home. And a well-planned, more natural yard increases property values, up to 10 percent in single-family homes.

What’s the emotional appeal of a sustainable landscape?

It has a strong impact on our psyche. We often pay dearly to go to beautiful, natural places—the mountains, the desert, the ocean. We dream of taking hikes in the wilderness. We love the idea of picking fruit from a tree. Well, all of that can be had around any home. A “green” landscape attracts wildlife and provides colors at different times of the year, and is in a constant state of change. My yard is used constantly by hummingbirds, and our family gets transfixed watching them. The many bird species provide a sweet sound in the background, and butterflies signal the changing seasons. I don’t have to travel very far to get a good dose of nature.

What are some of your favorite design ideas for sustainable landscaping?

The first rule for a “green” garden is to use plants that require very little pruning. Pruning takes time, isn’t very fun, and contributes to landfills. I want plants that fit into the planting spaces and can grow into their natural forms.

Second, I always use at least three inches of organic mulch on the soil surface. This keeps weeds down by about 75 percent. As the mulch breaks down it supplies the soil with nutrients. I need very little, if any, fertilizer if I plant the right plants and keep the soil surface mulched.

The last important piece for sustainable landscaping is installing a “smart” irrigation controller. This technology receives daily weather updates and calculates the watering schedules for the different zones in the garden automatically as the weather changes. This article in the San Francisco Chronicle offers an overview of smart irrigation controllers and lists several of the leading systems.

What is your personal experience with sustainable landscaping?

My own gardens have been “green.” When I assist homeowner associations I use the same principles to help them save money, see more colorful landscapes, and increase their property values. The ecological approach has never failed to help reduce costs and increase values.

I have learned that good horticulture always wins. When we add chemicals or use more water to make plants grow, or try to make the wrong plants grow where we think they should, we will always be disappointed. We will spend money over and over, and the landscape will not be the natural, colorful, and soothing place we expected it to be.

Tagged In: native plants, water saving