Building Sustainable Landscapes

By Laura Drotleff and Don Eberly

Change is nearly always a challenge, but in today’s unstable economic climate, professional landscapers are finding it necessary to evolve in order to stay in business. With increasing demand for sustainable landscapes from both commercial and residential clients, some landscape professionals may feel overwhelmed and unsure of how to fulfill this need. But many products available in the marketplace are making it easier than ever to move toward sustainability. 

“Using carefully chosen organic products will provide quick establishment and immediate root growth of turf, shrubs and trees,” said Mark Tyburski of Circle Organics, a Charlotte, N.C., producer of organic soil amendments, fertilizers and natural inoculants. “Top growth is quick to follow as foliage and blooms show full color and healthy vigor.” The reality is simple: the right organic media mix leads to reduced loss rates during installation, resulting in real savings and increased profit.

According to Tyburski, profit in reduced losses is only part of the economical savings to landscape professionals. Building a healthy eco-system within soil, plantings and maintenance projects requires fewer inputs of water, fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides.

“Today’s organic amendments, fertilizers and inoculants have been designed with the contractor in mind, in that they are applied in the same manner and with the same equipment as synthetic materials,” Tyburski says. “One really nice advantage of quality organic products is that the process is somewhat foolproof, requiring less exact measuring. They are much more forgiving; you simply won’t ‘burn’ an area with an over-application.”

Sustain business economically

While a common misconception still remains that a sustainable approach might cost three times as much as a conventionally installed landscape, but work only half as well, new research and development are helping to reverse this trend. The latest on organics points to making input costs for sustainable landscapes more economically competitive. Sustainable input costs are much less expensive now than in the past. “Rising costs of synthetics — as a result of the increase in costs of mineral commodities and petroleum — have brought expenditures very much in line,” said Tyburski. “Still, there may be a slight increase in implementing a sustainable approach, especially when selecting the highest quality materials with guaranteed consistency.”

Ultimately, there must be an obvious payoff for using sustainable inputs; this comes in the form of increased and ongoing plant health, and a reduction of maintenance and water use.

“We saw our initial loss rates on new plantings absolutely plummet from around 7 percent to less than 1 percent losses,” said Tyburski. “Additionally, maintenance costs were reduced by 30 to 35 percent with less inputs required, and we have received testimonials that clients are now using more than 60 percent less water.”

Though all of these statistics and figures sound ideal, many landscape professionals may struggle with how to get started and what a sustainable landscape actually entails.

“Our field tests have led us to the mentality that building quality sustainable landscapes is based on three cornerstones: the use of native plants and biodiversity; building an organic-based soil structure; and establishing and building a diverse microbial population within the root zone,” said Tyburski.

Reduce harmful practices

Readying landscape sites with conventional practices can often include clearing the land of any existing or native trees or plant species, as well as layers of topsoil. Though seemingly harmless, these practices have a large impact on the site’s health and ability to support new plants. Tyburski recommends that landscapers keep as many existing resources on site as possible, most notably existing trees and topsoil.

A naturally healthy soil is teeming with microscopic life forms; the largest eco-system on the planet exists in the top six inches of the soil layer.

“Conventional site prep drastically changes the dynamic of sites, establishing new micro-environments with considerably higher temperatures than had previously existed with tree canopies in place,” he said. “The removal of topsoil from sites eliminates valuable organic content, which can be used in re-establishing turf and landscapes.”

Another method of minimizing harmful practices for landscape contractors involves the switch from synthetic herbicides to reduced-risk herbicides containing less active ingredients. “Selective herbicides that use microtechnology to reduce the active ingredients required can kill more than 60 broadleaf weeds without harming lawns,” said Dr. Michael Fefer, a lawn care research associate for Petro-Canada, manufacturer of Clear Choice. Partnering with several universities throughout North America to conduct insect and weed control research, Fefer’s findings show that microtechnology is a unique way of making droplets very small, so they penetrate into the weed more effectively, and kill right down to the root. This technology allows for less harmful inputs, yet provides the same results.

Develop a living soil

In building a healthy, sustainable landscape, soil structure is crucial. The essence of organic growing is soil management and fertility maintenance. In short, feed the soil, not the plant. Tyburski suggests that tending to the soil as a primary function leads to plants becoming easier to manage. One of the best ways to tend to the soil is by introducing living microbes and amendments that promote vitality. Pure worm castings and organic liquid amendments, rich in microbial activity, efficiently accomplish this goal.

Clay- or sand-based soils can benefit from organic matter with increased drainage, filtration and aeration, and worm castings can help build a healthy soil foundation due to their moisture retention, in addition to being a food source for the living soil profile. “The living soil component is perhaps the most important part of a sustainable approach to landscaping; it’s all about the microbes,” said Tyburski.

The microscopic eco-system that exists within the top six inches of the soil layer provides diverse living populations that form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of plants, helping the plants to access nutrients bound up in the soil, much the way a human’s digestive system works. But, the microbial colonies also fight disease and fungal problems by competing for resources. Microbes can acquire moisture and nitrogen directly from the atmosphere.

“It is a complex system that Mother Nature has perfected and we, as horticulture professionals, can now replicate and replace in places where the living, working eco-system has been lost,” he said. ”If a soil and plants are essentially vigorous and healthy, pests are much less of a threat.”

Promote a healthy environment

Firsthand field experience and education-based research are paramount elements upon which these and other companies are developing new forms of addressing the call for sustainable landscapes. For landscape and turf managers, ever-changing environmental factors and legislation concerning runoff, might very well mean “out with the old” practices and “in with the new.”

Don Eberly is co-owner of Eberly & Collard Public Relations, a national public relations firm specializing in the Home, Garden, Design, Landscape, and Agribusiness Industries. Laura Drotleff is a writer for the firm. They can be reached at

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