Archive for the ‘Sustainable Gardening’ Category

Sustainable Gardens?

Monday, December 15th, 2008

  Looking at the Sustainable Sites document ( the thrust is to install local, low maintenance plantings. For those of us who have been practitioners of eco-friendly landscape design for soome time now, this is not a big eye opener. Conservation of resources and preservation of pre-existing natural relationships has been the groundwork of what we do for a decade now. The problem we have all experienced, and no doubt the folks at sustainabale sites will come up against, is the natural tendency of human beings to use their immediate landscape as a means of distinguishing themselves.

People like to have clean looking, manicured properties that stand out. Of course you would not alwasye know that when you see house after house of grass, azaleas, and rhododendrons, or whatever your local version of the “lawnscaped” garden is, execept that even the sameness of those gardens represents a desire to have a certain look. Moving people from that to the Sustainabloe Sites utopian garden will be a stretch, and we submit, and impossible one.

Inevitably we will end up somewhere in the middle. The Southern Nevada Water Authority recognized this years ago. Las Vegas, completely dependent on Colorado river water, did not attempt to wipe out lawns in their region, but instead recognized that lawns are desirable to most residents, and do have ecological value. Instead, they gave people money to reduce their lawns by planting xeriscape gardens and installing drip irrigation. Incidentally, this involved very few native plants, since the deserts of Nevada are clearly not abundent in plants like other regions are.

By taking this tack, SWNA has reduced water usage and incidentally maintenance substantially, as well as created an environement where there can be more development. Las Vegas has limited water resources and can only grow if every citizen uses less water, than more water becomes available for new residents to move to las Vegas.

What makes the program effective, is the spirit of compromise, and the fact that the municipality is paying money directly to the consumer so that they can afford to make their property more eco-friendly. This pays off in reduced water use, new development, and ultimately a larger tax base for the city of Las Vegas and allows lawncare, landscape, and irrigation proifessionals to continue to grow and thrive as well.

Some Experience From This Year

Monday, December 8th, 2008

People love the idea of reducing their carbon footprint, but we all know they are ambivalent if it means spending to much more. The most controversial area in eco landscape care, after chemicals of course, is noise. Folks hate leaf blowers, and they don’t want to pay more for raking.

Just to correct a stand I took on this issue, we went out and initiated a blower-less business this year, and found, raking really does take more time. The tighter and more complex the garden, the more time it took.  I don’t know what kind of steroids the grandmother in California who claims she can rake as fast as a leaf blower was on, but our guys aren’t taking them.

I still believe there is a market for raking over leaf blowing, I cant stand the noise myself to tell you the truth, but there definitely is a labor factor to be dealt with here!

Roots of Eco-Landcare Theory

Monday, May 26th, 2008

The idea of Mass production and centralized processing is a given in the United States. The great industrial age of   America was founded on the idea that it is more efficient to produce and process centrally than it is in small batches. This idea has been applied to every facet of American life including the care of the  landscape.



   We mass produce and bag soils and fertilizers, than we transport them in, we remove leaves and lawn “waste”, and ship them out, and in our minds it all makes sense. It’s theoretically cheaper and easier to do things in large batches. Except that means transporting, storing, large machinery for processing. The larger the machine, the more frequently it has to be used for maximum efficiency and payback. After a while we are looking for ways to use our machines more efficiently and the machines drive us.



 This piece is not a resurgence of Taylorism by a long shot, but rather a demand that we re-examine process. Toyota if not already the number one auto manufacturer in the world soon will be because they abandoned mass production as we know it post world war two.

Toyota manufactures their products on the theory of “Just In Time” and meet demand for product instead of producing cars and hoping they get sold. Through JIT production,

Toyota abandoned mass production as Americans know it, using simpler machines and greater employee involvement to produce cars in the quantities that the public was willing to purchase and to the specifications and needs of their clients.



  Toyota consciously or not, has adopted models from nature in their production system. The principles behind the production system, the mode of production, the elimination of stockpiling and return to local batch production all mimic natural process.





 Landcare, in order to be eco-friendly, must abandon mass production and do its best to mimic natural process. It means less specialization, minimal centralized production, more on site activities like mulching, composting, water recycling.

Property is a manmade idea, but is applicable in the sense that while we “own” a piece of land, we are the primary caregiver of this property and must strive as self sufficient as possible within it. This is how ecosystems work, cells within larger cells. The more diversity of interacting cells, the less reliance on any one particular system. The less reliance on a particular system, the stronger the eco-system.



   The same is true for landcare practices. The less centralized and more site specific our practices, the stronger each individual property/system is and the less dependent on a larger system of care it becomes.

Should We Ever Use Chemical Fertilizers?

Sunday, May 18th, 2008

 Should We Ever Use Chemical Fertilizers? Our basic stand on chemical fertilizers has two legs. The first is that chemically produced nitrogen comes from oil and has a tremendous carbon footprint-6.7 pounds of carbon go into the atmosphere for every pound manufactured. The second is that chemical fertilizers kill microbes that breakdown organic material in the soil, basically rendering topsoil dead and inert. Kind of like bypassing the human stomach and intestine  if people were chemically fed.


Those seem like two excellent reasons to never use chemically produced nitrogen, except when one considers potted plants. Potted plants are not really part of an ecosystem when you consider how they are used. Larger pots that contain trees and shrubs may be the exception, but generally potted plants are either plants adapted to interiors, or filled with annuals that wont survive the year.


In the case of interior plants, none of thee plants are grown organically to begin with. As seedlings they are raised and managed with chemicals in Florida, Hawaii, California, South America, and Africa. They are not even grown in soil as we know it, but instead are raised in “growing medium”, often mixes of mulch, pearlite, vermiculite, and some sand. Then they arrive eventually in our homes and or offices pumped up with fertilizer and pesticides. Converting them to organic fertilizers takes a year of intensive work and often means smelling up the home with fish emulsion, manure, and the like.


In the case of annuals, again, just like interior plants, these are chemically raised, fed, and maintained. Since they won’t last the year, is it worth it to convert them from chemical to organic soils? On the other hand, we will have no oil, and therefore no chemical fertilizers in the next forty years, so we better wrap our minds around this one. Now it is arguable, that one can keep a stock of live organic soil on hand at all times, particularly if one is composting, and convert these poor chemically addicted waifs over with intensive therapy. The question is, is there value in this approach?


Water in the Care of Gardens

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

Hand watering, though very gratifying in the sense that one is directly nurturing the plants, is most likely the least efficient and reliable way to water plants. People love to water in full sun during the day, which leads to high evaporation rates. Also, in splashing what appears to be a large volume on top of the soil, folks often think they have really watered the plant, when in fact, soil can only absorb limited amounts of water at a time. In fact, if you come back to a hand watered area after the water has been absorbed, generally you will find there is water in the top inch or two of soil only.

    Irrigation is much more efficient than hand watering for a number of reasons. First, irrigation systems sprinkle or drip water over the soil emulating rain, and allowing the soil to absorb water a little bit at a time. Irrigation systems can be programmed to run at dawn or dusk, when there is far less evaporation. As a general rule, lawn irrigation spray heads for example, are eighty percent more efficient than hand watering.   The problem with spray heads of course, is they were developed for lawns, and not for perennial and flower beds.

    As mentioned earlier, many of the perennials, shrubs, and ornamentals commonly available, evolved in different environments, so why would you deliver the same amount of water to them? With the exception of water plants, all plants need varied levels of moisture for stronger roots. Trees for example, generally appreciate deep heavy watering with a week r so to absorb moisture allowing roots to grow and reach for more. Shrubs similarly will want water twice a week, and smaller perennials perhaps three times a week. These generalities regarding timing will not apply to drought loving plants of course, or soils that are more saturated with moisture because they are located near a body of water, but they illustrate that watering a bed of mixed trees, shrubs, and perennials with a broadcast spray head is unlikely to deliver the needs of all the plants in the bed.  Instead, look for ways to deliver plant specific watering.

    Drip irrigation is the simplest means to deliver plant specific watering. Drip irrigation is also sixty to eighty percent more efficient than spray head watering. Drip systems were invented by the Israelies for growing fruits in the desert with minimal water. Israely farmers found that if they slowly dripped water directly to the roots zone of the plants, the plants absorbed a higher ratio of the water, reducing evaporation and creating the most efficient watering system on the planet.

   Drip systems come in several forms; the original form is a thin spaghetti like tube with an emitter on the end that literally drips water into the root zone of the plant. Emitters come at different drip ratios so that when watering trees, you can deliver much more water per an hour than lets say a flower pot whose roots are closer to the surface and requires less volume of water to saturate the roots. The next step up is drip pipe, plastic pipe with the emitters built in. These come with different spacing and can be used when watering a bed of plants that have similar water needs. Drip pipe can also be used to circle larger trees, and for subsoil irrigation of lawns.

  Finally there are micro spray heads, and low volume spray heads. These are spray heads that need less pressure and volume than lawn sprinklers and can be calibrated to be area and/or plant specific. We like to use these on greenroofs where water is only needed for the first year, or in other beds of groundcover.

An Argument For Composting

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

I grew up in New York City, the heart land of waste removal and disposal. You put your garbage outside your back door and it goes away. Your home is as cluttered or uncluttered as your ability to put things out the door. The other side of this was that if there was a garbage strike, which inevitably occurred in the heat of the summer, garbage would pile up on the sidewalk stinking to high heaven. All associations with “waste” on this level are as something not to be handled and to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible. It is no wonder that there is so little composting in American society.

With the exception of human waste (urine and Feces) composting was the pre-industrial way to handle waste in many cultures,. Human waste is generally too toxic to compost like most carnivorous animal waste, and generally was run back into bodies of water to the chagrin of downstream neighbors, or was buried. Any non carnivorous animal organic waste (vegetables, leaves, cow manure, horse manure) was put into a compost pile. I first learned this visiting a farm as an adolescent and my first reaction was “ewwww”. The farmer chuckled and showed myself and my class the whole process from beginning to end, leftover food and cow poop goes in, it is digested and “cooked” by microbes, composted humus comes out. The most shocking thing was, it smelled right, you intuitively knew this was a good and natural process.

Waste disposal is hugely expensive for any municipality. Environmental News Network reports that in 2003, nearly a quarter of all municipal trash in the United States crossed state lines for disposal, according to the Congressional Research Service. Ten states imported at least 1 million tons of trash that year, up from only two states in 2001. At issue for many importing states is the smell and the threat to the environment if the garbage is handled improperly — reasons that more urban trash is winding up in rural communities where political resistance is likely to be minimal.
For instance, my home city of New York now transports more than 1,300 tons of garbage each day to Fox Township, Pa., located in hilly hunting country 130 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. Not only is the cost of transporting waste huge financially, but it is also tremendous environmentally.

Composting is the way to give back to the land. It builds soil culture by adding organics and active microbes to the soil. It helps plants digest organics through maintaining a vital and alive soil culture, and it eliminates chemically produced nitrogen which is an oil product and as such has a large carbon footprint. A return to home composting of organic waste will not only help cut costs for municipalities, but reduce oil usage, your carbon footprint, and be beneficial to the landscape.

Converting To Organics From Chemicals:

Monday, April 7th, 2008

      I converted my lawn from chemicals to organics by making it go “cold turkey”. I stopped applying pesticides and fertilizers  and  kept my fingers crossed. Anyone who has tried this knows exactly what happened, the lawn deteriorated steadily over a year and by the following spring I had a terrific lawn of crab and onion grass. It took me another full year to get it looking better and two years to have something my wife was proud of.

    The lawn, like any garden space, has to be fed, and weeds dealt with. Presumably if the root system is strong in any plant from tree to sod, than insect infestations will be minimal and manageable without pesticides, but going cold turkey simply weakens the plants and invites disease , weeds and insects. Whether it be a lawn or a perennial bed, the conversion from chemical care to organic means there will be a decline of some kind, but you can limit and shorten this decline by taking action.

    Chemical fertilizers  aside from having a huge carbon footprint, kill topsoil and the microbes that help topsoil, or humus, convert organic material into a form that plant root systems can absorb. Therefore the first action to take (besides stopping chemical feeding) is to restore organic content and begin to establish microbial activity. The most effective way to do this is with active compost of course, but let’s face it, if you have been chemically feeding your garden, you probably don’t have any compost.

There are a number of active products on the market that can help jump start your soil culture. Many folks recommend compost tea, this is tea made form live compost. It is also used for controlling some diseases in the garden, though there is much debate on the effectiveness of compost teas for this purpose.   Though some may question compost tea as a means of controlling disease, there is no doubt that saturating your soil with compost tea will help re-introduce active microbes into your soil.

 Another good product is plant healthcares bio-pack which also re-introduces live organisms into the soil. Basically, you will want to work with products that contain active Mycorrhizae

What are Mychorizae? 
Mycorrhizae are symbiotic associations that form between the roots of most plant species and fungi. This symbiotic relationship is characterized by the equitable movement of sugars to the fungus and inorganic nutrients fixed by the fungi move into the plant, thereby providing a critical linkage between the plant root and soil. The fungal hyphae take up nutrients from soil solution and transport them to the root. By this mechanism, mycorrhizae increase the effective absorptive surface area of the plant. In nutrient-poor or moisture-deficient soils, nutrients taken up by the extramatrical hyphae (hyphea existing within soil matrix) can lead to improved plant growth and reproduction. As a result, mycorrhizal plants are often more competitive and better able to tolerate environmental stresses than nonmycorrhizal plants.

Remember also to incorporate organic material into your soil. Orgnisms like mycorrhizae need organic material. Bagged compost, though sterilized, is rich in organic content. Products like peat moss however, tend to be acid based and should be used in limited quantities. Many environmentalists argue that peat moss is harvested much faster than it can produce and therefore is not a sustainable source for organic material. Also look for organic fertilizers. The kind of fertilizer you should use really depends so much on what type of soil you have. A great site for working out additives is the  extremely green gardening company site:

Greener Landcare Through Onsite Leaf Mulching

Sunday, March 30th, 2008

In an article on line in grounds magazine, Zac Reicher and Glenn Hardebeck Reviewed studies done at several well known universities on this topic. In reviewing these studies, leaves were mulched directly into the  turf. Formal mulching devices like the flowtron mulcher were not needed, instead, leaves  were mulched with a mulching mower on top of the turf:

“The easiest and cheapest way to dispose of leaves is to mulch them into the turf. This is not a new idea, but universities have only recently compiled enough data to determine that tree-leaf mulching has no long-term negative effects on the turf. Studies at Michigan State, Cornell, Rutgers and Purdue have concluded that mulching tree leaves is an excellent disposal method that does not harm healthy turf…… After application to the plots, we immediately mowed the leaves with a mulching mower”.

They did find that it was necessary to add nitrogen to the turf to balance out the high organic content of the leaves which are low in nitrogen, and found that there was literally no detrimental effect to mulching the leaves into the lawn:

“ We found that even the high rate of tree leaves had no effect on turf visual quality, color or growth. Although we expected tree leaves to tie up nitrogen in the soil, we saw no long-term effects of tree leaves on turf growth regardless of the nitrogen rate we applied”

The study found that by using a mulching mower, the leaves would reduce overall fertilization costs, and eliminate the cost of gathering the leaves, and trucking them out to a larger composting facility. The recommendation is that golf courses, ground maintenance crews, and by implication, communities of home owners could save money through simple on site mulching.

For more details on the results of this study, go to n

Lets give some serious thought to how we  manage leaves. Is it really so hard to mulch the leaves on site with a mulcher or a mulching mower rather than blowing them out to the curb and removing them? Might it not in fact be simpler and easier?