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5 Ways to Save Money with Sustainable Landscaping!

Did you know that sustainable landscaping can save money, while also being beneficial to the environment and the community? Sustainable landscaping can conserve water resources, minimize the need for chemicals and fertilizer and reduce maintenance.

I have often heard that there is no such thing as a maintenance free landscape. While this statement may be true for man-made landscapes, it is worth noting that wilderness landscapes, by definition, are maintenance free. Wilderness landscapes can be breathtakingly beautiful, and yet they provide vital life support services without generating any waste. Many of our modern landscape practices are high maintenance because they disrupt and resist natural processes. Sustainable techniques, in contrast, work with natural processes, letting nature do much of the work. As our landscapes become more sustainable, resource consumption, maintenance needs, and waist will decrease, naturally.

The following 5 sustainable landscape practices can significantly reduce maintenance and operating expenses and can benefit commercial, government and residential projects.

  1. Minimize the Development Footprint: The simplest, and most often overlooked, sustainable development practice is to minimize the development footprint. The development footprint represents the total area of land that is physically impacted or affected by development activities. By minimizing the amount of space needed for a project, we minimize the area of impact and leave more area for nature. Extensive clearing, grubbing, leveling and compacting activities can unnecessarily destroy the established plant and soil communities. Reducing the footprint can reduce both development costs and maintenance expense, by reducing the square footage that will need to be built on or landscaped. An initial site analysis can identify existing trees, plants, wetlands areas, rare species and native habitats. These natural features can often be preserved, when included in the initial design phases. The development footprint can often be reduced by adding floors, building vertically rather than horizontally, to meet square footage needs. Drives and walkways and can be routed around natural features, and parking areas can be minimized or located under buildings.

  2. Use Native and Regionally Adapted plants: Plants that are well adapted to local conditions and climate will typically be hardier, and less susceptible to pests and disease than exotic varieties, and usually require less fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and maintenance. Plants that are overly dependent on irrigation may become stressed or die during drought, if watering restrictions are imposed. Native plants are uniquely adapted to the region and, once established, can often get by with little care. Native plants provide food and shelter for local wildlife, and lend a unique regional character to landscape designs. Avoid using invasive and aggressive plant varieties, as they can easily spread into unwanted areas, creating a maintenance problem. Also, invasive plant species often hop the garden wall and overrun natural areas, displacing and out competing native species. Plants varieties should also be selected with respect to their natural preference for sun or shade, soil type and moisture conditions. Space plants according to their mature sizes to avoid over-crowding when they mature. Plants that outgrow their location will need repeated pruning or replacement, and plant roots can buckle paving and crack foundations. Shade from deciduous trees can help reduce cooling costs in the summer while letting the sunlight through in the winter. Trees sited to buffer prevailing winds can reduce winter heating costs.

  3. Minimize High-Maintenance Turf Areas: Turf grass, whether sodded or seeded, is relatively inexpensive to install, but, the up-front savings can quickly disappear due to high maintenance and operating costs. Grass lawns and athletic fields surely have a place in our homes and communities, but turf typically requires considerably more maintenance than other types of landscaping. In nature, grasses are found in meadows, fields and prairies, in association with a diverse mix of plant species. To manage grass as turf requires lot of TLC, in the form of mowing, edging, dethatching, fertilizing, watering, weeding, pesticides, etc. If we can find opportunities to reduce the total area of lawn grass, we will reduce the overall resource and maintenance expense. There are native and low-maintenance turf options that require less maintenance, and that can reduce irrigation requirements by 20-75% compared to conventional turf grasses. In areas where turf isn’t needed, native grass and wildflower mixes or shrub beds can be established that will not require supplemental irrigation after establishment, representing up to 100% water savings for those areas. The expense of converting turf areas to low-water alternatives can typically be recouped in one or two years, by lower water bills and maintenance fees. Appropriately designed landscapes will realize these savings year after year. There are very few investment opportunities that can offer such a quick payoff and high return.

  4. Protect and Restore Healthy Soils: People don’t often consider the soil when looking for ways to reduce maintenance. Soils are typically out of sight and out of mind, but the key to plant health is healthy soil. A handful of healthy soil can contain more living organisms than there are people on the planet. Most of these microorganisms are found near the soil surface, where light, oxygen, water and plant roots are abundant. In nature, diverse communities of soil microorganisms live in symbiosis with plant roots, decomposing plant litter and providing nutrients that support plant health. Unfortunately, most of our soils have become impoverished due to erosion, compaction and chemical contamination. Without the protection of plant cover, exposed topsoil quickly washes away, carrying with it vital organic matter, nutrients and microorganisms. Compaction of soils reduces the pore spaces between soil particles, reducing the soil’s capacity to hold water and oxygen. This in turn reduces infiltration and increases runoff, directing water away from plant roots. Pesticides (herbicides, insecticides and fungicides) are intended to kill unwanted species, but these chemicals are not selective and often kill off many beneficial insects and microorganisms. Soils that have been previously damaged by erosion, compaction, or chemical contamination can be restored to a healthy condition by adding organic matter, protecting the soil surface and minimizing chemical contamination. Adding organic matter improves soil tithe, provides nutrients, increases porosity and water holding capacity, and encourages microbial activity. If there is healthy topsoil on site, it can be stockpiled during construction and mixed back into the planting soil. Organic mulches protect the soil surface, reduce heat and hold moisture, replicating the benefits of natural leaf litter until plants mature and cover the soil surface. The cycle of nutrients is essential to the health of natural systems and by replicating nutrient cycles we can improve plant health and disease resistance, while reducing the need for water, fertilizers, pesticides and maintenance.

  5. Practice Smart irrigation: Landscape irrigation is responsible for as much as half of urban and suburban potable water consumption. Through appropriate landscape and irrigation design, landscape water usage can be cut in half or eliminated entirely. With finite fresh water resources and increasing demands for potable water, water conservation measures and watering restrictions are becoming common, particularly during droughts. Over watering is the most common cause of plant diseases and also encourages weed growth. Over watering can be easily avoided, by better understanding of plant water needs and following a sensible watering schedule. Smart controllers, or weather-based irrigation controllers, can virtually eliminate over watering, by applying water only when the plants need it. Flow sensors can detect when there is a leak or broken line and immediately shut the water off. Some smart controllers will even send a text or email to the owner or maintenance person when there is a failure in the system. Drip irrigation typically uses less water than sprinkler heads as drip applies water directly to the root zone of the plants so there is less evaporation than with spray. Cycle and soak programming can apply water in multiple short durations so water doesn’t run off, and heads should be regularly adjusted to avoid overspray onto paved areas. Landscapes should be designed with irrigation in mind, and not as an afterthought. “Hydrozoning” is the practice of grouping plants with similar water needs on the same irrigation zone or valve. Having plants with different water requirements on the same irrigation zone will result in some of the plants being over or under watered. Rainwater and grey water can be used for landscape irrigation, where allowed, eliminating the need for potable water. Modernizing state regulations that restrict rainwater and gray water use in the landscape will help drive innovation and improve water conservation. Rather than sending surface drainage off site to storm sewers, a site can be designed to channel drainage from roofs and paving into landscape areas.

Sustainably designed landscapes, like natural landscapes, can provide numerous services that are difficult to put a dollar value on, yet are vital to our health and wellbeing. These services include the producing oxygen, cleaning the air and water, producing food, supporting wildlife, protecting soils, recycling waste, sequestration of CO2 and moderating climate. Access to nature contributes to our health and wellness. Having access to natural areas has been linked to shorter hospital stays and less employee sick days. By bringing our landscaping practices into better alignment with natural processes we can save money and resources while enhancing the environment and our communities. Our challenge is to design landscapes that serve the needs of man without compromising the natural environment.

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