Sustainable garden design; what is it?

bahia(SF Bay Area)February 22, 2012

This topic doesn't really get much discussion here, but is obviously only going to become more important as the cost of fuel, water and fertilizers continue to climb. I find myself looking to re-use materials when doing a garden renovation much more than I used to. I've done quite a few projects where old concrete paving to be removed got re-used as either stacked retaining walls, crazy paving, or saw-cut for reuse as benches or walls. I've also looked for opportunities to channel Downspouts into reverse french drains to recharge ground water on-site rather than draining to the street. I've yet to design a new garden with more permeable concrete mixes, but always try to break up large areas of concrete paving with plantings or gravel to allow for on-site water absorption. When opportunities present themselves to recycle plants from one client's garden into a new project, I also recycle; one time this meant recycling ground up tree trunk chips from a huge downed pine tree for free mulch for another new installation. Not the sorts of check list items credited towards a LEEDS rating, but efforts towards reuse never the less. Of course, water conservation via more drought tolerant plantings, less use of relatively thirsty turf and drip irrigation rather than higher volume spray irrigation design are basic starting points here in summer dry California. Many here locally have also transitioned there designs towards using more locally native plants; my personal preference is towards using whatever mix of plants, native or exotics, that work functionally and visually while also using less water.

What are some of the things you do to be more sustainable either gardening or designing gardens? And, for the pro's, do you advertise these sorts of efforts as part of your skill set, or just do them as a matter of course? Myself, I prefer to address the issues as they come up with clients when asked, rather than emphasize some sort of "green" credentials. Possibly a missed opportunity, but it just seems to me that more sustainable approaches to landscape design ought to be a given these days, rather than mere propaganda.

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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

I wish more of my clients who supposedly talk the talk would walk the walk.
It just might be the particular location of the country ( Marin County CA ) that I work in but so far most of my clients just pick and choose sustainable options only if it is convenient or easy for them.

For instance I'm working with a young family who wanted to control their weed population without using chemical warfare while we were working on the design process.
But when it came to exploring their wish list they wanted to cover more than 2/3 's of their space with lawn.
They were fully informed / educated about the cost of water and how this amount of lawn will definitely elevate them from a tier 1 rate system ( lowest rate ) into a tier 2 or 3 ( way more $$ ... and I mean WAY more $$$ ) - it didn't matter. They wanted the front and rear yards covered in lawn.

In regards to advertising my green creditials, I haven't found that advertising them has made any difference to gaining new clients.
I didn't take the certification class to attract more clients, though that would have been very nice . ;-)
I enrolled in the program so I could keep up on my continued education and to hopefully learn some new technologies, which I did and enjoy employing when given the opportunity.

    Bookmark   February 22, 2012 at 1:44AM
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I dont advertise or really even talk much about sustainable gardening because there is very little interest in it in my client base.

If you asked me what I did to be green, I would have said very limited use of any chemicals. We try to throw very little away- recycle pots etc. we compost. But I wouldn't have included recycling plants and left over materials; that is just yankee thriftiness. No plants are ever removed and thrown away. If we can't use it on another project, it goes home with the crew. I always have plants lying around and my neighbors also come over regularly to see what they can find. We have installed crazy walkways using all the left over materials from the season. (I have to find a picture of those- they were pretty fun)

What I do market, however, is designing for minimal irrigation and low care needs after the first year of an installation. I tell customers to water well during the establishment of an installation but once it is established I design it to have very minimal water requirements. Once again, I market this as cost saving, less work but not really as sustainable.

The thing that drives me crazy, though, is all the pots that nurseries won't recycle. Seems like we have a ridiculous amount of black pots that no one will take. I try to reuse them in as many creative ways as I can, but there is always more than I can use.

    Bookmark   February 22, 2012 at 7:48AM
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After I posted, I continued to think about this topic. A lot of customers only want to be green when its convenient and affordable only to give up on those principles when it gets to complicated or moves away from what they want. But if put ourselves under the microscope I wonder how many of us actually walk what we talk. Would you ever give up a job because you disagreed with the sustainability?

I really can't imagine turning down a job for those reasons - I am guilty of that myself. Several years ago I did walk away from a maintenance job and one of the reasons was that I disagreed with the application of chemicals in the landscape- but there were a lot of other reasons I gave up the job also.

Its really hard to stand by your principles when your livelihood is on the line.

    Bookmark   February 22, 2012 at 10:31AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

As a non-pro, my interest in sustainable garden design is in line with drtygrl's - i.e. to reduce maintenance.

Dragging hoses around is a PITA. In the early years of the garden, I used soaker hoses to get things established. That worked well but it was still a nuisance to drag hoses over to the coupling points. Now that things are mostly established, they only get watered (using the old soakers that are still in place...) in very extended droughts. We installed a rain barrel on one troublesome downspout (the water from that one kept washing out a path!) We connected the barrel to a soaker hose to water the dry area under the eaves along that side of the house - the hose also provides water for the clematises we planted for the swag there in 2010. The overflow hose for the rain barrel runs under the path and exits into a gravel-filled trench to water the clematises on the swag on the other side of the path. That all works well so far. Putting the rain barrel away for the winter and setting it up again in the spring is a bit of a pain though, so we haven't planned to add any more. In other areas, we direct the downspouts into garden beds wherever possible.

Remaining lawn areas are not watered. Around here, most people let their lawns go dormant in the heat of the summer. The bright green watered lawns stick out like a sore thumb!

Mulch is last year's dead plant material left in place plus chopped leaves dumped on the beds during fall clean-up. No leaves are left for Town pick-up in the fall.

Any plants that die under my 'benign neglect' regime clearly don't belong in the garden and are not replaced.

I plant both native and non-native plants - the key criterias for choosing plants are that they will grow in the conditions of the garden without too much fuss, without being too agressive/difficult to manage and that they otherwise suit my needs re color, size, etc.

The garden is largely organic more so because chemicals fall into the PITA category than because of a strong philosophical aversion to them. Anything annoyingly disease/pest prone gets evicted rather that treated! (There are only two roses here now; lilies are fast disappearing due to lily beetles; the only irises are Siberians because the borers don't bother them noticeably...)

The biggest PITA watering issue left is pots along the driveway. The driveway is our only sunny place for growing veggies so it is lined with big pots. Pots, of course, dry out quickly (even with the 'water crystals' in the potting soil). Since DH retired, he has taken over the 'veggie garden', so he does all the watering there. He robs the clematies of water often by using the rain barrel water on the veggies. So far, the clematises are surviving.

    Bookmark   February 22, 2012 at 11:19AM
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I think you all are right - when it comes to "green", the wallet, not the environment, is the paramount deciding factor to the average homeowner. But I think that "traditionalism" and greater group conformity plays a significant role as well.

For me personally, I found it ironic that, when my current home was being built, the local town council would not allow me to install a permeable paving system instead of cement driveway. That still bugs me. These are the same guys who tried to order me to remove my boulevard planting of day lilies and thyme. After a little education, they have now reversed their original decision but...really?
I hope that if my driveway ever needs replacing in the future, the council will be more open to accepting greener alternatives.

    Bookmark   February 22, 2012 at 11:34AM
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One of the most difficult concepts for a non gardener who wants a garden to get their heads around is the life cycle of plants, including grass. Many of the non sustainable horticultural practices are attempts to deny this fact so that when something is not flowering or is leafless or dormant it is seen as dead. What this leads to is static designs where the grass is always green the trees evergreen and flowering plants are dug up and replaced when they are finished flowering. A sustainable garden is one that resembles nature as far as possible while still entitled to the name.

When mow blow and go feature in this scenario not only is it not sustainable but becomes a polluter in its own right. A maintenance crew or a commercial gardener is not seen as someone with knowledge but on par with a janitor. It almost seems as though sustainability is an underground activity in these circumstances.

    Bookmark   February 22, 2012 at 12:06PM
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It has been forever ingrained in me by my parents not to waste resources or materials... or leave messes behind. As if on autopilot, that's how I operate 24/7. But it does not mean conservation to the point that good things cannot happen. Living life is just as important as conservation and conservation must "move over" in order to let goods things--like the creation of beauty--happen... in a reasonable sort of way. Everything is balance. I'm all for conservation of materials, energy and labor, where possible. If recycling a material works out, that's OK by me. I agree, Bahia, that a great deal of what's promoted as "being green" is just "greenwashing"... a phoney baloney way of looking like one--mainly businesses or organizations--cares! I also agree with your view of plant use... whatever works best functionally and visually--whether natives or exotics--favoring lower water demands. Natives are not a panacea.

The problem I have with sustainability is the word itself. It's conservation, but with "political correctness" tied to it. It's not just the broad conservation of energy and resources. It's that, linked to the promotion of a new world order in which the environment becomes a tool for political aims. If that were not so, we'd still use the terms, "energy and resource conservation." That's a good thing where man is trying to improve his environment. But "sustainable" implies that if we don't do what someone else determines is "sustainable," we're going to perish or suffer miserably... not based on actual facts and reasoning, but because of highly organized efforts coming from groups with ulterior motives. Everyone is trying to scare someone else to pressure them into doing or believing something. Businesses, government, organizations... they all use the creation of fear to achieve their aims. Over the long term this has been so successful that our country (U.S.) is travelling down a path that is almost 180* from it's founding principles.

    Bookmark   February 22, 2012 at 12:31PM
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I see sustainable and green as two separate issues that overlap each other. For me, sustainable is defined by a system that has stability; an equilibrium that can exist without end. Such systems always have some element of negative feedback. I think the greatest threat to sustainability comes from the introduction of extra carbon to the active cycle. As an individual, I don't see that I can do a whole lot other than reduce my energy use. I do that some, but I'm not riding a bike to the store.

I define green as the conservation of resources and avoidance of pollution. I think I do better on this issue, at least when it comes to gardening.

My property has about 13,000 sq ft with a small home. Originally it had almost a 15% slope and the soil below 2 inches was pottery clay. We get a generous amount of rain in Arkansas, about 45 inches annually. With the slope and clay, probably 80% of the rainfall was lost to runoff. Over the years I've bought 60 cu yd of sand and mixed it to get about 150 yd of a very permeable soil. From a less than 2 inch rain event almost all water is retained. The 150 yd of mix is capable of quickly storing between 25 and 35 cu yd of water, or somewhere around 4,000 gal. Multiplied by 20 rain events per year, it saves me about $200 in water cost. I got my $400 spent on sand back in two years, plus having an excellent soil for plants. The reduced runoff means the fertilizer I use stays in place and I need less. Almost none of the garden fertilizers and chemicals go to pollute waterways.

    Bookmark   February 22, 2012 at 12:37PM
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I fall into the Woodyoak camp of benign neglect leading to increased sustainability through lack of supplemental watering and decreased chemical use. I also am increasing the number of natives in the yard since I want the birds but don't want to bother with bird seed. Personally, my biggest impact is getting rid of invasive plants spread by birds. I live only a mile or two from a large park and if I find them a pain in my little 1/8 acre then the city finds them a bigger pain in their almost 200 acres.

I do find the word/concept sustainability slightly hard to stomach for a completely different reason than Yardvaark. Yes, I want to conserve resources and reuse or recycle what I have to use. I also want to promote healthy neighborhoods through good citizenship, etc., etc. My problem is that some companies have subverted sustainability for their use. The thinking goes that if they buy an acre of rain forest, they can continue business as usual but now they're green. I, as well as you, know that's green washing. But, the mind set is starting to take hold where you don't have to do anything personally to help conserve resources if you can just drop a dime in a bucket somewhere, that we can keep doing business as long as it's sustainable business. And that comes without any real thinking of whether or not the activity is fundamentally sustainable. And so conservation and reduce, reuse, recycle are no longer in conversation but rather, what offset do we need to continue?

    Bookmark   February 22, 2012 at 2:49PM
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daisychain01(zone 3)

drtygrl, many schools have gardening programs that could use leftover pots, etc. This may already be one of the ways you "recycle" pots, but if not, it might be something to look into.

    Bookmark   February 22, 2012 at 10:53PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

Some people are willing to go a lot further than others; I'm seeing more landscapers doing without the pick up truck and fitting bikes with trailers for getting around town. I've never been much for applying pesticides or herbicides if they can be avoided, I also remove plants if they are too prone to attack or failure. I also think that design which factors in fast versus slow growth, and proper selection to minimize the need for constant pruning is the future. Not so focused on quick results with plants as I was 30 years ago when starting out. That said, I'll always have my list of fast growing plants to incorporate into designs; I just try harder to give them more space at maturity.

    Bookmark   February 23, 2012 at 2:11AM
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I do like pls8xx's definitions:

"sustainable is defined by a system that has stability; an equilibrium that can exist without end."

"I define green as the conservation of resources and avoidance of pollution"

Sustainability is a characteristic of a system. The definition of sustainability is defined by the definition of the system.

If it is a garden that you're talking about, perhaps it could be summed up as such: the garden requires no input of energy or resources to be maintained in its state. Or, there must be an equivalent production of energy or resource for any inputs that are required.

[usable] Energy + resources in = [usable] Energy + resources out

In the grand scheme of things, matter and energy cannot be destroy or created, they just change form. But that's also equivalent to saying that humans are irrelevant to the continuity of the planet Earth. I would like to think that the continuation of humanity would be desirable.

But at this point I haven't added anything really to the conversation. So what is a sustainable garden design? I would state it as follows:

A sustainable garden is something that produces a net benefit to its users and environment to offset other systems that are not balanced.

Benefits can include:

  • increased soil fertility from composting plant material produced on site or through nitrogen fixation

  • increase of biodiversity and food sources for wildlife

  • production of foods on site for human consumption

  • increased effectiveness in water retention and infiltration capabilities

  • personal benefits, including physiological benefits achieved from working in contact with plants such as stress relief, social benefits such as gardening for enjoyment

Ways that benefits can offset other systems:

  • reduced consumption of food that is transported long distances from its point of origin, and perhaps using soil-depleting, water-contaminating, and fertilizer-dependent agricultural methods (just listing possibilities - not saying that they always apply)

  • reduced consumption of material goods or energy for the purpose of recreation

  • reduced energy needs for house cooling/heating through strategic planting.

- Audric

    Bookmark   February 24, 2012 at 6:59PM
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Good points Audric!

I noticed a significant percentage of posters speaking of sustainability and water conservation almost interchangeably. I garden organically, use rainwater, limit inputs and try to capture runoff, but I also grow edible landscaping/ try to practice permaculture in preference to xeriscopic which means I use a LOT more water than most of the posters probably. Am I still sustainable? (This is a real question, I am curious :-) )

    Bookmark   March 1, 2012 at 4:33PM
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feijoas(New Zealand)

arcticiris, as far as my definitions go, you are gardening very sustainably!
I focus on growing food and while I'm very careful with water, edible plants are thirsty.
But if I didn't grow it, someone else would have to and I'm pretty confident a commercial operation of any kind would use a LOT more water than me.
Then there's trucking it across the country...

    Bookmark   March 2, 2012 at 4:47AM
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