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Sustainable Landscaping: The New Reality

By David House, CEO, Village Nurseries

Designing a natural habitat with natives-plants, shrubs, wildflowers, grasses and such-can have some surprisingly pleasant side effects. They provide both commercial and residential landscapes with a variety of colors, shapes and seasonable beauty. They attract native birds, butterflies and other animals. And, in so doing, they bring a sense of the natural world into urban, suburban and corporate settings.

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Landscape contractors should be aware that the times they are a-changing. Weather patterns are becoming more extreme in many parts of the country: torrential rains and floods in some parts of the U.S., drought and water shortages in others.

The Southwest has experienced prolonged drought, and as with many areas of it, water shortages are becoming more acute. This presents a major challenge to landscape contractors...and a great opportunity.

The challenge: design and implement sustainable landscapes that conserve water, while still providing a beautiful environment.

The opportunity: the contractor's ability to burnish ''green'' credentials and assume a leading role.

What is a Sustainable Landscape?

Sustainable landscape design-build provides a beautiful environment while using less water, fertilizer and pesticides. It's functional and cost efficient.

The key to success is considering the design process first. In creating a sustainable landscape the contractor must consider climate, environmental conditions, plant selection, design implementation
and maintenance.

Contractors are challenged to create a natural design with specially selected plants and trees that hold soil and water, that offer a pleasant diversity, that conserves energy and endure for the long term.


In the past, sustainable landscaping was often synonymous with xeriscaping. While this is often the ideal solution for desert areas, its stark appearance has been a barrier to water-wise plantings in other parts of the country.

Fortunately, designing attractive landscapes isn't as difficult now because nurseries offer more choices than they did just 25 years ago.

According to a University of Michigan study, searching for environmentally-compatible plants should be based on the following characteristics: plant type, seasonal interest, usage, plant size, color, disease, form and texture, growth, insects, light, hardiness, and soil.

Designing and implementing sustainable landscapes can be an important new profit center for landscaping professions. For example, contractors can offer water-saving irrigation systems, including intelligent water controls, to maximize water use. Because sustainable landscapes often require more thought and planning, customers are more likely to view the contractor as an expert resource, earning them even more respect.

Going Native

Natives are the best plants for any region because they have adapted to the local climate and conditions. They thrive with less care and, once established, and often require little or no watering, fertilizers and pesticides.

Natives provide landscapes with a variety of colors, shapes and seasonable beauty. They attract native birds, butterflies and other animals. And, in so doing, they bring a sense of the natural world into urban, suburban and corporate settings. This aspect can be one of the features that contractors can use to encourange clients to ''go nature.''

Alternatives to Natives

Contractors are not restricted to natives alone when designing landscapes. Many plants from similar microclimates are available from around the world. In Southern California, for example, we often import plants from Australia, Israel and South America.

The Future of Lawns

The need for water conservation in drought regions makes the future of turf use for landscaping look precarious. Turf requires more water than most shrub and tree material to maintain its beauty. Many municipalities have issued restrictions and ordinances dictating if turf can be used on new projects, and when people can water their lawns.

Of course, turf isn't going away. It's still the choice for parks, backyards and golf courses. One of the greatest challenges landscapers face is designing a suitable (and beautiful) substitute for lawns.

Lawns also contribute to air pollution. Running a gas mower is equivalent to riding 20 miles in a car. Gas-powered lawn maintenance tools emit 5 percent of ozone-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including 55 tons of VOCs per day.

Other Considerations ... and Opportunities

Landscape Contractors who design and implement sustainable landscapes must manage other elements besides plants. They must become knowledgeable about new water-saving irrigation systems, reduced pesticide and chemical use, and other environmental concerns. In fact, water-conserving irrigation solutions provide the best opportunity to ''go green'' and actually allow most plant varieties used today to flourish.

Benefits for Customers

Sustainable landscaping can produce significant economic benefits for commercial and residential customers:

  • Lower maintenance costs through reduced labor, water and fertilizer costs, which are especially appreciated in commercial areas.
  • Lower water bills.
  • Less damage to the environment through soil erosion, storm runoff and chemical pollutants.
  • Fewer toxic runoffs polluting oceans, lakes, rivers and creeks.
  • Improved air and water quality.

Benefits for Landscape Contractors

In conclusion, contractors must recognize that sustainability is the trend of the future. Contractors can use this new reality to motivate their clients to update their inefficient landscape to a more environmentally friendly one. Contractors can also tell their clients about the future economic savings and how sustainable technologies will enhance the property's future resale value.

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October 17, 2019, 6:34 am PDT

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