How Sustainable Is Landscaping?
With the world’s spotlight on finding ways to mitigate climate change, we’re asking “How sustainable is landscaping?”
As a Dad, I often wonder what my children’s lifestyles will be like when they reach adulthood. Will they still be able to enjoy a varied and plentiful diet? How will they spend their leisure time? Will they be healthy? You know – the usual worries that most parents have at some time or other.
I know that the world will change – their childhood is already different to mine, just as my childhood was different to my parent’s early years. Change is inevitable, but I’d hate to think that my lifestyle might somehow damage the planet and spoil their future.
So I’ve been thinking about the job I do and how it impacts the world around me. I guess I’m asking myself, how sustainable is landscaping?
There’s more to sustainability than bees – sustainable garden design and landscaping is a broad topic
What does sustainable mean?
The Cambridge Dictionary offers two definitions of sustainable
- Able to continue over a period of time
- Causing, or made in a way that causes, little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time.
Would I apply those definitions to my way of landscaping?
Able to continue over a period of time? For me, personally, I’m not sure that my aching back will allow me to keep working on the tools until I’m in my sixties. But, for the industry as a whole, I’d like to think that there will always be a need for beautiful outdoor spaces.
Causing little or no damage to the environment? That’s a bigger question and I’m sure that it varies widely from one landscaper to another. Even from one landscaping project to another. However, I do try to do my best to ensure that the garden designs and landscaping projects I work on are as sustainable as possible.
- Build gardens properly – so that they won’t need to be replaced for the foreseeable future
- Wherever possible I work WITH the contours of the land to avoid eroding the soil
- Encourage the use of natural products, sourced as locally as possible
- If I need to remove plants from a site – I aim to put back more than I took away
- Support local businesses – at home as well as at work
Sustainable landscaping starts with garden design
I truly believe that sustainable landscaping starts with garden design. The most important factor is that the new garden has to fit the clients’ lifestyle not just now, but 20 years down the line. Or, if they are adding value to their home before moving on – the garden must adapt easily to the needs of its new guardians.
For example, many of my garden design and build clients are approaching retirement age. They’ve paid off the mortgage, are fit and well and want to make the most of work-free days by enjoying their garden. Perhaps growing their own veggies, entertaining friends and family, practicing their golf swings and watching the wildlife. Sounds idillic and it usually is.
However, much as nobody wants to think about it, their senior years are approaching. I’d like to think that I’ll still be able to enjoy my garden in my dotage, but I don’t expect that I’ll be pitching tents and sleeping under the stars or playing football with the grandchildren (if I have any). So I try to think ahead on my clients’ behalf. Will they still be able to manage steep steps when in their late eighties? Should they be getting on their knees to weed the borders?
When designing a garden I also try to think of the sustainability of fashion. Garden trends are notoriously transient. Will the layout and materials I’m specifying become unfashionable over time? If they do, what will happen to the garden. Could it be ripped up? Not because it’s become dangerous, but because it is no longer stylish. I do like to make ‘my’ gardens distinctively different, but I hope that as they age, they will become classics rather than relics.
This garden design has lots of features to help it last for a long time. Raised beds for minimal bending and stretching; no lawn, for all year round accessibility with no mowing and lots of interest so that it never gets boring.
Designing for sustainable garden maintenance
Ongoing maintenance is another element of sustainability that I consider at the design stage. Not just because the clients will age but because the materials might too. For example, I’m more likely to specify cedar or larch for fencing because it is naturally rot resistant and won’t need to be painted with chemicals every couple of years. Or, if it fits the design, composite fencing and decking is a great alternative to wood. Lawns – I love them but try to make sure they will be easy to care for (no dragging the mower up steep steps and can be adapted for a mow-bot if the client wants to reduce maintenance.)
This client felt she wouldn’t be able to manage a lawn so we plumped for artificial grass offsett by lots and lots of living plants.
For retaining walls, paving and stonework, I’ll build the very strongest foundations that I possibly can and use laying techniques that will ensure pavers don’t move. Believe it or not – this is all part of a garden designers role. We don’t just draw layout plans!
And then of course there’s the plants…..
I’m always keen to fit as many plants as I can into a landscaping project. I like to think over time they will offset some the carbon dioxide generated by the garden build. They will certainly benefit biodiversity from the moment they are planted.
Depending on the garden of course, I try to make room for at least one tree, some hedging, some shrubs and a variety of herbaceous planting. But here’s the thing, I believe that the key to sustainability is choosing the right plants from the get-go. Plants that wither and die because they hate living in one particular spot are a wasted opportunity.
How sustainable is landscaping if all the plants die? In my opinion, it’s not sustainable at all.
So, I’m careful to choose plants that will look good, thrive where they are placed but not outgrow their position, AND be easy to care for. It seems counter intuitive to go for some exotic species that will succumb to every plant disease going and need copious amounts of chemicals to keep them alive. I also go out of my way to avoid plant species that are struggling to cope with new pests that have found their way into our country. Horticulturists are warning that some of the plants that once loved our climate are becoming harder to grow here – I’m doing my best to future proof my planting schemes.
This is the actual garden created from the plan I showed you earlier. Its crammed with plants, including an olive tree and mediterannean herbs that simple adore our changing climate. I love how the client has introduced bird feeders too.
To Sum Up
How sustainable is landscaping? I’m not sure that it’s ever been measured. What I am sure of though is that garden designers and landscapers have a duty of care to ensure that they are careful with our planet’s valuable resources.
The most sustainable thing a landscaper can do is to make sure he or she builds gardens that last. And that means futureproofing the design, choosing materials carefully, sourcing them wisely and installing them properly.
Finally, EVERY landscaping project should include planting. No matter how small the garden might be. Even if the client asks for a low maintenance space, it’s possible to devise a a planting plan to suit their gardening ability. You never know – you might even get them hooked on plants.
Is landscaping sustainable? If it helps people to appreciate their gardens and it benefits their wellbeing, then yes, I think that GOOD landscaping does have a strong element of sustainability….but maybe I’m a bit biased?
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