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Sustainable urban landscapes

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John Greenlee, the author of “The American Meadow Garden,” recently spoke before several hundred members of the San Diego Horticultural Society of the many grasses of the world that may be used in spectacularly designed meadow gardens.

During the conference, it was noted that the way we live is unsustainable: from our health care system, the imminent demise of our Social Security and Medicare systems to urban landscape systems. The conference indicated that water rates will double over the next eight years. The cost of moving water around the western states is huge and leaves an enormous carbon footprint. It appears that economics will be the driving force that motivates us to become sustainable and enables us to survive. The knowledgeable and optimistic people at the conference exposed audiences to many ways to become sustainable.

Landscape maintenance companies, site managers and homeowners can have a huge effect on water savings by reducing turf and replacing it with drought-tolerant plants, shrubs and trees along with personable stones, mulch and decomposed granite. Most of the water savings up to now has come from reduced use of water inside people’s homes. Smart controllers that use a drip system rather than spray are fed information by satellite or weather stations to manage water usage based on need (evapotranspiration, or ET information). Examples of drought-tolerant gardens may be found at Solar Turbines office on Ruffin Road, Quail Gardens, Balboa Park, Cuyamaca’s Water Conservation Garden, UC Irvine’s Nursery, UC Davis Arboretum and the Getty Museum Garden. These gardens reflect the beauty, variety and color of drought-tolerant plants.

Sustainable landscapes are managed by using techniques that preserve limited and costly natural resources, reduce waste generation and help prevent water, air and soil pollution. Organic matter additions (compost and humus) can transform poor soils into a fertile growth medium that supports healthy plant growth while reducing water and fertilization requirements.

Mulch should be used to insulate plant roots, reduce weeds, minimize water loss and control erosion, dust and mud problems. Applying precise amounts of fertilizer in a timely manner will limit overgrowth, diminish the potential for pollution and promote healthy disease- and pest -resistant plants. Fertilize according to the need s of the species planted. Use slow-release or organic-based formulas based on nutrient needs as verified by soil testing.

Not to be overlooked are the water savings to be gleaned from collecting rain water in cisterns, bioswales and retention basins as well as from using recycled water and grey water. As established landscape sites age and grow beyond their intended use, they must be redesigned to integrate resource efficiency, site function and aesthetics. Irrigation systems must undergo retrofits and depleted soils enriched to save water and promote healthy plant growth.

Landscape maintenance contractors should lead the way and purchase equipment that sustains the environment, such as mulch mowers that leave grass clippings on the lawn, trucks and heavy equipment that use the least amount of fuel, hybrid or electric company cars, rooftop solar panels, low-emission equipment and low-flush toilets and waterless urinals.

A good landscape maintenance program requires a contract that provides for and promotes the use of sustainable practices. Site managers and contractors should develop and use sustainable landscape maintenance contract specifications that are resource efficient. They should include good cultural practices, water management, green waste management and preventive maintenance management clauses.


Raybold is vice president of sales and marketing for New Way Landscape and Tree Services, and is a member of the Building Owners and Managers Association, San Diego.

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