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Latest garden rivalry is eco-friendly design

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Dick Cline's grandchildren aren't thrilled with his new yard.

To eliminate the use of pesticides and other chemicals on his property, last year the Wheaton, Ill., financial planner replaced much of the grass on his three-acre spread with a rough mix of meadow plantings that also require less maintenance and mowing. The problem? His grandchildren are forced to go over to the neighbor's yard to find a lawn to play baseball.

As part of the current infatuation with all things green, eco-minded businesses are pressing sustainable landscaping -- designs that they say save energy, conserve water and reduce the need for chemicals and pesticides. This spring, landscapers who specialize in green gardening are reporting a sharp increase in business and growing interest in complex systems that capture and recycle rainwater and snowmelt. Another area seeing stepped-up activity is eco-friendly "hardscaping." Some homeowners are ripping up the blacktop and concrete on their driveways and patios and putting in permeable paving materials that allow water to pass through to the ground beneath, reducing runoff that can create soil erosion and flood municipal sewer systems.

At a new 300-home development under construction near Santa Fe, N.M., each home is being equipped with its own rainwater recycling system. Loreto Bay Co., a developer in Scottsdale, Ariz., is building a vacation community on the California-Mexico border that will use a system of dams and channels to collect water during the rainy season for irrigating landscaped areas.

In New Mexico, where drought has been a persistent problem since the late 1990s, orders for residential rainwater-harvesting technology at Aqua Harvest in Santa Fe grew 20 percent last year, up from 5 percent in 2003. Some of the systems involve placing a single tank outside the home and cost just a few thousand dollars to install, according to company owner Terry McMains. Extensive setups that channel rainwater through underground drainage lines can run as high as $15,000 to build.

McMains is currently working with Tempe, Ariz.-based developer SunCor on Rancho Viejo, the community near Santa Fe that plans to equip homes with individual water-harvesting systems. The project is thought to be the first master-planned community in the country to make the devices standard on all home sites. SunCor says more than 300 systems have been installed so far in the 13,000-acre development, which will eventually include more than 1,000 homes. The company says it expects tap-water usage for irrigation to be cut by almost 30 percent and is currently considering a similar residential development for Arizona.

Retailers and vendors of lawn-care products are also targeting eco-conscious gardeners. Home Depot customers can now hire on-staff sustainable gardening experts who make house calls. At a cost of $500 to $1,000, they'll do everything from landscape design to installing drip irrigation systems that allow water to seep slowly into the soil -- eliminating the need for wasteful sprinklers -- and "gator" bags for trees that release only enough water to establish the root system, without creating excess runoff. Home-improvement chain Lowe's (NYSE: LOW) now stocks more than 40 earth-friendly lawn and garden products, up from 27 a year ago, including outdoor decking made from reclaimed oak and recycled plastic and garden hoses made from recycled rubber and newspapers. Ace Hardware even sells solar-powered garden gnomes that absorb the sun's energy by day and light up at night.

They're not exactly the sort of features that became popular during the real-estate boom, when imported 50-foot palm trees and striped lawns made from alternating exotic grasses became backyard must-haves in some areas. And such products still make up a small piece of the $35 billion lawn and garden industry. The lion's share of the spending still goes to growing and maintaining traditional ornamental shrubs and flowers, as well as the care and feeding of the great American obsession -- a lush green lawn.

Some 85 million U.S. households have their own little patch of green -- average size, about one-fifth of an acre -- accounting for about 30 million acres of grass, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA, which measured the acreage. The environmental impact is substantial: Americans spend more than 3 billion hours per year using lawn and garden equipment, most of it gas-powered, to maintain those lawns, the EPA says, burning up about 720 million gallons of gas a year. The mowers also spew pollutants such as carbon monoxide, smog-forming nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide. A gas-powered push mower emits as much pollution in an hour as 11 cars, and a riding mower emits as much as 34 cars, according to the EPA. Americans also spill some 4 million gallons of fuel each year, mostly gasoline, just refueling their lawn equipment, the agency says. Gas isn't the only nonrenewable resource getting spent in service to the lush life: The typical landscaped yard soaks up more than 10,000 gallons of water a year, not including rainwater and snowmelt, the EPA says.

Sustainable landscaping alternatives aren't entirely new. The use of native plants has become increasingly popular among some gardeners in the past 10 years. And more homeowners are shunning synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides in favor of organic lawn-care products like chicken manure and corn glutens. Others are cutting their energy bills by planting shade trees and other vegetation that keep homes cooler in summer and block cold winter winds.

But unlike LEED, the construction rating system created by the U.S. Green Building Council, there is no widely recognized benchmark for green landscape design. And a survey conducted last year by the American Society of Landscape Architects found that just 11 percent of large landscaping firms offered such services.

"Green builders and architects will design great homes, but then put miles of lawn in front," says Kim Sorvig, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of New Mexico. Eco-friendly landscaping is "often viewed as an afterthought," Sorvig says.

Some of the reluctance to consider green landscaping is due to the cost to create it. Underground rainwater tanks can run $15,000 or more to install, while cheaper, above-ground models are often deemed "unsightly" by some homeowners, says McMains of Aqua Harvest. Too many native plants in a garden can also be a turnoff. They can take longer to grow and look like little more than weeds to some gardeners accustomed to conventional flowering plants and bushes with their big, bright-colored blooms, says Arizona landscape architect Barnabas Kane. With a sustainable garden, "You don't always get a lot of the ornamental stuff that people like," he says.

Even so, some landscapers who specialize in sustainable design say they're seeing a 15 percent to 25 percent rise in business from a year ago. Douglas Hoerr, a Chicago landscaper who designed Cline's grounds, specializes in green roofs that are partially or completely covered with vegetation and help reduce storm-water runoff and keep homes cooler. Hoerr says his residential work, about one-third of his business, is up about 20 percent this year, and more than half of his new clients are interested in sustainable designs.

Michael Thilgen, whose landscaping company in Oakland, Calif., has offered ecological landscaping services for 25 years, says his firm saw a 10 percent increase in large-scale residential projects in 2006 compared with a year earlier.

Los Angles landscape architect Paul Comstock, who designed gardens for Johnny Carson and Bob Hope, says the shift to greener landscaping is particularly acute at the high-end. "A year ago (clients) wanted us to fly in plants and materials from Asia or even Africa," he says. "Now they're asking for native plants and recycled wood and plastics."

Jean Myers and her husband, Greg, live in a 6,000-square-foot home on 14 acres near San Jose, Calif. Myers says part of their decision to switch to sustainable landscaping was to compensate "for living in such a big house." For the new design by Thilgen, concrete paths throughout the property were replaced with pavers made from decomposed granite and native stones that allow rainwater to pass through to the soil, reducing runoff. A half-dozen California oak trees were planted around the main house, strategically placed to shade the east- and west-facing windows to cut down on air-conditioning needs. While Myers hasn't calculated how much her energy bills have been reduced, she says putting in the native plants and pavers has reduced her water use by half, to about 500 gallons a week.

In Western states, where drought has been a persistent problem since the late 1990s, rainwater harvesting is emerging as a major component in sustainable design. Mark Hayden and his wife, Sarah, built their Prescott, Ariz., home more than 20 years ago from green materials like sand, gravel and clay. But the couple didn't consider a sustainable landscape design until last year, when they decided to put in a water-recycling system. "We're at a point of no return with water conservation out here," says Hayden, a 55-year old orthodontist.

So the couple hired Kane to install several water-harvesting devices on their two-acre property. A 10,000-gallon underground rainwater-storage tank was installed on one side of the couple's home and a smaller, above-ground tank sits on the other side. Both will recycle enough rainwater to irrigate the entire property. Bioswales -- drainage courses with sloped sides -- were also installed to help guide runoff into a 15-feet-wide seasonal pond. The drainage course benefits riparian vegetation along its path such as Arizona ash and coyote willow. The couple hopes to cut their outdoor water usage -- currently about 5,000 gallons a year -- in half when the $50,000 system is complete.

"Price was an issue for us," says Hayden. "But some things are worth the extra cost."

Installing rain-harvesting systems can be tricky, however. "These are complex undertakings with new approaches that no one has much experience with," says California landscape architect Owen Dell. Many landscapers, he says, are "just exterior decorators, and they haven't a clue as to how to make sustainable landscapes that actually work." Dell says he has seen homes with drip irrigation systems installed incorrectly, often killing drought-tolerant plants with too much wet soil. Terracing a hillside, another conservation technique that soaks up and channels rainwater, is a "very sustainable thing to do," he says. But if the soil lies on a layer of slick rock or is otherwise geologically unstable, it could trigger a major landslide. "Needless to say, that can cost in the millions of dollars to repair," he says. "And it's not covered by homeowner's insurance."

Even so-called green landscaping can be harmful to the environment if it is improperly kept up. "Many of my clients don't know a lot about maintenance except the obvious -- how to mow a lawn, pull a weed or cut a branch," says Christine Schneider, a garden designer in Berkeley, Calif. A recent client "broke out the gas-powered weed whacker" to trim some unruly native brush she installed on the property. And because native plants often take longer to mature, some homeowners overwater them and even add chemicals to try and spruce them up, Schneider says. "Not everybody really understands what's best in the garden."

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