Good Oak News

Saturday, June 29, 2013

What Sustainable Landscaping Means to Us

A question worth asking yourself from time to time.
At Good Oak, we are trying to promote Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” across the landscape both on
wild rural properties and smaller urban lots. Leopold stated this philosophy, perhaps most succinctly, when he wrote in The Sand County Almanac that “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the stability and integrity of a biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Unfortunately, most landscaping practices “tend to do otherwise.” The work practices of the so called 'green industry' makes it one of the most wasteful and polluting industries in our nation. The traditional landscape that has developed over the past 60 or so years consumes copious amounts of water and natural resources, produces significant quantities of air and water pollution, and offers little wildlife habitat while continuing to destroy and fragment existing habitat. In short, traditional landscaping degrades the health of our biotic communities, and ultimately quality of life for people as well.

So our alternative to this deleterious paradigm is what is being called Sustainable Landscaping. There are many aspects of sustainable landscaping and being sustainable in a particular landscape type means slightly different things around the country and around the world. I want to take a few minutes to explain what we at Good Oak think are key points to sustainable landscaping for sites in the beautiful Midwestern United States.

Native Plants: The plants that have been living in the Midwest for thousands of years are ideally suited to our local climate, even climatic extremes, and are co-evolved with local wildlife to provide the resources they need to thrive. Right plant, right place.

Edible Plants: Buying local foods is gaining in popularity as people realize the benefits to the environment and the community. There’s nothing more local than your own yard, so we like to incorporate fruit trees, raspberry beds, and even veggie gardens in our designs as much as possible.

Reusing Materials On-Site: It's quite upsetting to see traditional landscapers taking plants, stone, and soil from a job site and taking them straight to the landfill only to replace these with “new” quarried stone, scrapped topsoil, and mass-produced plants. We subscribe to the environmentalists Three R’s: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle! We choose to rebuild an old stone wall with existing stone, clean and move decorative gravel from an outdated foundation planting into a new ‘dry stream bed’ feature, compost the plants that we remove from a site and replace them with plants that are suited to the soil conditions that already exist on site.

Local Materials: In the traditional nursery system, massive nurseries in the southern US supply all the plant material for garden centers and landscapers in the East and Midwest. These plants are grown in warm climates and shipped many hundreds and in some cases nearly 1,000 miles to local resellers. Landscaping stone can come from anywhere. Red lava rock for example is shipped halfway across the country! All of the materials we use come from about 1/10th that distance, with over 95% of the plant and stone material we use being produced or quarried within 100 miles of our Madison headquarters. In the future we hope to halve this distance. Using local materials not only supports our local economy, it also allows us to create landscapes which celebrate the unique beauty of our region.

Quality Materials: I have seen too many decomposing concrete wall blocks and too much torn and shredded plastic edging to use these materials in our projects. The initial cost of these materials may be lower, but you pay more in the end having to replace plants that were unhealthy or not hardy and materials that break down too soon and become trash. We use only natural stone and quality brick for hardscaping and healthy native perennial plants for our softscaping, creating durable and beautiful landscapes.

Respecting Rain Water as a Resource: The high coverage of impermeable surfaces in our urban landscape creates water flow issues ranging from wet basements to erosion on slopes or other sensitive areas. Traditional landscapers treat this water as a waste product and try to shunt it away to ditches, sewers ands streams as quickly as possible, often carrying pollutants into our streams and lakes along with it. At Good Oak we realize that water is one of our most precious resources. We find ways to reuse rain water such as in rain barrels or develop decorative landscape features such as rain gardens, swales, and other structures that capture rain water near where it falls so it can recharge our groundwater stores. In the future we’d like to offer permeable options to replace hard surfaces such as green roofs (featuring native plants of course!) and permeable pavers.

Reducing Emissions and Pollution While We Work: Most power equipment produces copious amount of air pollution, not to mention noise pollution. Sometimes these power tools can save a lot of time and thus save our clients lots of money. But whenever manual labor is cost competitive, we’ll always choose the broom over the leaf blower and the mattock over the stump-grinder. Fuel-thirsty trucks are necessary tools to move materials and our crew, but we do the best we can to reduce our fuel consumption. We train our staff in hyper-miling driving techniques and offer our staff a Sustainable Transportation stipend for using human-powered or public transportation to get to work.

Smart and Limited Use of Pesticides: We always try to use as little herbicide as is necessary when controlling weeds and preparing a site for planting and offer clients the “organic option" to manage weeds manually or mechanically whenever we think these are viable options. However, certain tasks, such as controlling difficult weeds like Canada thistle and leafy spurge, just cannot be accomplished without the skilled application of herbicides. When we do use herbicides, we always select the least toxic options available. Compared to the highly toxic 2,4-D that many people spray on their lawns multiple times per year, we’re making good progress. We flat out do not use insecticides of any kind. These chemicals have a higher toxicity to humans and other animals. Native plants tend to be little harmed by insect damage and there are always non-toxic options for keeping pests off our edible food crops.

Quality Work and Smart Solutions: Simply put: doing good work the first time saves time, money, and resources.