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There's a new look on residential streets across the country these days. Eco-friendly homeowners are replacing their lawns with native plants and trees. They're landscaping to conserve rainwater and attract birds and butterflies, and they're using everything from old newspapers to broken concrete to do it.
Lauren Wheeler, owner of Natural Resources Design in Takoma Park, Md., is a landscape designer and contractor and an arborist. She's been designing eco-landscapes since 2003.
"We don't want landscaping to depend on resources we have to put into it: time, energy, water, fertilizers and pesticides," Wheeler says. "The bottom line is that kind of landscaping is always going to be a struggle. It's like putting someone in a bikini out in the Arctic cold."
Instead, Wheeler advises, use the resources that come naturally to your property, such as rainwater, native plants and wildlife. If you're just starting out, it is important to choose a landscape company that understands ecological landscaping and knows when permits are required.
"Rainwater is really critical," Wheeler says, for a number of reasons. When your soil absorbs rainwater, you don't have to irrigate your plants as often. And when you keep rainwater from running off your property, you keep it from washing away precious soil. It's also better for the environment, says Carmine Labriola, general manager of Realife Land Improvement in Patterson, N.Y. Once rainwater leaves a property, it washes trash, debris and pollutants to the nearest river, lake or ocean. "Homeowners should try to do everything humanly possible to prevent water from leaving their property," notes Labriola.
The easiest way to prevent rainwater from running off is to help your soil absorb it. Mix in compost and coarse sand. Spread a few inches of mulch on top.
Another way is to reduce your lawn area. Rainwater doesn't penetrate lawns very well, Labriola says.
George Kerr, owner of Ecology Landscape in Simi Valley, Calif., advises homeowners to create planting zones. It's still OK to have a lawn, he says, just make it smaller, and choose the right type of grass for your area. Dedicate another zone to ground covers, shrubs and trees, especially native plants, and another to an orchard. If you have to irrigate, irrigate only the zones that need it.
When you choose hardscape (such as pavement and stone) for driveways, patios and paths, use materials that rain can penetrate easily. Instead of concrete or asphalt, you can opt for open-cell pavers, paving stones and gravel.
Labriola recommends grading part of your property to be lower than the rest. This gives rainwater a place to sit so it has time to sink into the ground. You can create a beautiful rain garden on a small area of your property, he says, landscaped with stones and a variety of plants.
French drains are another good solution. They begin with trenches dug five or six feet deep. They're filled with gravel to improve drainage, and covered with landscape fabric and sod. In areas where rainfall is heavy, a pipe under the gravel can carry the overflow to the street.
You can slow down the flow of rainwater and give it more time to penetrate the soil by building a wide, shallow ditch to guide it to the street. Landscaped with stones, it becomes a dry creek bed. Add vegetation and you have a bioswale.
On steeper slopes, landscapes need extra help. Don't redo a slope just before a rainy season, though, Kerr warns. "You don't want the soil exposed to rain. If it looks like severe weather is coming in, blow in hydroseed."
With hydroseeding, a machine sprays a slurry of seeds, mulch and fertilizer mixed with water onto the slope. It's been used for years on golf courses and slopes along highways, and is becoming popular with homeowners. It's cost-efficient and the plants grow in quickly.
You can also use soft materials, such as mats, blankets, mattresses or log-like "coir logs," on slopes. These biodegradable materials, which are usually made of straw, jute or coconut fibers, can be rolled out onto slopes to keep soil in place, Gabriola says. Seeds grow through the mats, and you also can cut holes in them for planting trees, bushes and flowers.
It's best to plant young trees on slopes, Kerr says. "The bigger the tree you plant, the bigger the impact on the slope. It can cause a lot of other problems."
Very steep slopes require retaining walls of concrete, stone, blocks or rocks. You can also use gabions, which are wire baskets or cages filled with rocks. When in place, gabions look natural because plants grow through them. The soil behind retaining walls should be porous to allow water to drain into the ground.
Using Native Plants
Another important resource is native plants, says Wheeler. These plants have adapted to an area's temperature, rainfall and soil type, and they won't take over a property the way some non-natives can. In addition, you'll use less fertilizer, because plants thrive in their native soil, and less pesticide because they've developed resistance to local insects.
If your yard is sunny or in a windy spot, it needs different plants than a neighbor's, whose lot is shady or protected from the wind. The mature size of the plant is also important. Plants should suit the exact spot on the property, Wheeler says, so they can grow to their natural height and width. They'll also require less maintenance (and less maintenance-related energy) because they won't have to be continually pruned.
Wheeler advises her clients to read about local plants, walk through their neighborhoods, take long hikes and go to lectures to discover the plants best suited to their own properties. She also suggests they look at stands of shade trees that are already on site.
"Trees are absolutely critical," she says. "They provide a huge key as to the choice of plants to use." If you're lucky, you'll find tree seedlings coming up in your soil. You can leave them where they are or transplant them to another part of your yard.
Although Wheeler strives to plant 85 to 90 percent natives in a landscape, eco-landscaping is broader than just planting natives, she says. For example, if a client has childhood memories of a particular flower, she'll do her best to fit it in.
Even native plants need some care, especially in their early years. First, have your soil analyzed to see what it needs. Use natural fertilizers like compost, rock phosphate, kelp or seaweed, worm casings, and fish, alfalfa, bone and blood meal. Cover the soil with three or four inches of mulch.
Wheeler says that most of the maintenance has to be done in the first and second seasons. Young plants need to be watered, since their roots are still small. And because the soil has been disturbed, it will probably need weeding.
Between the third and seventh year or so, Wheeler says, plants may need to be cut back or pruned to improve their shape and to improve air circulation for the health of the plants. They may need some watering if the weather is unusually dry.
By the eighth year, Wheeler says, "You understand your garden. It may need to be spruced up. You may need to change some plant materials. It's a chance to re-design and fine-tune it."
In addition, says Kerr, "It's a joy to hear birds and watch squirrels romping around."
There is a trade-off, Kerr warns, because this environment also attracts undesirables like rats and mice. They can probably do some damage, he says, "but that's what cats are for."
Last But Not Least
Eco-landscaping includes using resources that you, or a previous owner, brought to your property and used for something else, Wheeler says. If you have broken concrete or rubble from a building project, you can use it in trenches and under walkways to improve drainage. A pile of pruned and broken branches can become an artful home for chipmunks.
Put your fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and eggshells into a compost pile. Throw in tree leaves and old newspapers, too, or use them for mulch.
With eco-landscaping, your property needs less to look its best, and you have less to haul to the curb on garbage day, saving yourself time, money and energy.
The benefits of sustainable landscaping go far beyond that, though, Wheeler says. "I see it as important because we're using fewer resources. Sustainable landscaping uses resources for the benefit of our own garden, and it also gives something back to the local environment."
Janet Aird has written about landscaping topics for trade magazines in the green and construction industries. She's based in Altadena, Calif.