By Jody McCutcheon
Sustainability has transformed many of our most important and ubiquitous design realms, from fashion to architecture to transportation. So it’s good to know that landscape design has entered the sustainability fray as well. According to the American Association of Landscape Architects, more than seventy percent of American homeowners wish to incorporate some measure of sustainability into their landscaping. Considering the vast number of homes worldwide, and the fact that most houses make one form of landscaping decision or another, this is excellent news for the planet.
The basic ideas behind sustainable landscaping are simple and likely quite familiar to Eluxe readers and other environmentally conscious people: preserve limited resources, reduce waste, practice chemical-free pest control and prevent pollutants from entering air, soil and water. In other words, we want our landscapes populated with healthy flora and fauna, with native species protected from invasive organisms, while maintaining robust, contaminant-free soil and water supplies and limiting our use of water and other resources. Ultimately, the goal is to achieve a well-balanced ecosystem, while emphasizing both aesthetic and environmental considerations.
The healthiest kinds of landscaping incorporate various strategies that address environmental concerns, with sustainable practices employed in every phase of the project, from design and construction to implementation and management. You can tend to your own garden, so to speak (hence the DIY tips that follow), or you can hire professionals to do it for you. I’ve communicated with a couple of experts, hoping to learn some finer points about tips for sustainable landscaping. Here’s what I learned.
One of the premiere landscape architects in the US, award-winning property designer Keith Williams has been a partner at Palm Beach landscape architecture firm Nievera Williams since 2007. He’s an authority on the subject of what’s new in the world of gardening and landscape design, as well as how to make smart, sustainable decisions.
Often, his clients are very discerning when it comes to landscape design, so green designs are quite the trend in Williams’ body of work. One look at his beautiful creations will assure any sceptic that sustainability and luxury landscaping can comfortably coexist. And while many of his clients are wealthy, Williams firmly believes sustainable landscaping isn’t just associated with million-dollar homes. If you have the dream, he has the plan.
In his mind, it’s certainly an accomplishment to create a work of landscaping art, but even more fulfilling to make that creation sustainable. “Gardens are always rewarding,” he says, “since they’re constantly giving back. But to design a sustainable garden is just one more layer of achievement.” He also believes sustainability is a worthwhile investment. “A well-designed sustainable landscape may have more upfront cost, but these costs will pan out and give back in the long run. In general, the cost savings you can expect from a sustainable landscape design include maintenance, replacement costs of plants and hardscape materials, watering bills and electrical bills.”
The key to sustainable landscaping, according to Williams, are:
- Use local plants. “Use materials that are more natural to the environment. It’s important to organize your design and materials to accommodate a particular environment and temperature, as well as water needs and maintenance requirements.”
- Keep in mind that environmental conditions can differ. “Sustainable landscape changes,” Williams explains, “not only by state or country, but also by county. Since plants grow based on weather, soil conditions, rainfall, sun and temperature, plants are broken out into categories based on hardness zones throughout the United States [and other countries and geographic locales]. These zones indicate which plants do well in your area/zone.” It’s wise to be mindful of the requirements of the flora you plant versus the environment in which you’re planting.
- Choose tough guys. Select drought-tolerant, wind-tolerant and low-maintenance plant materials to encourage a healthy ecosystem and provide aesthetic beauty to gardens.
- Use sustainable hardscape materials. These include composite woods, recycled concrete products and turf stabilizers, for driveways and terraces. While the materials can be interchangeable, ideal selections should have longevity and require less maintenance.
- Think about water use. For better water retention on a lawn, incorporate industrial materials that can serve as retaining walls or curbs. This could include corten steel, railroad ties and recycled concrete objects.
- Consider lighting. Use LED fixtures or solar powered lamps in landscape lighting whenever possible when designing lighting for pools, fountains and landscapes. LED is extremely efficient and consumes up to ninety percent less power than incandescent bulbs, whilst solar powered lighting is even better.
- Use tech when possible. Irrigation clocks, for example, are getting very technologically savvy. This equals big savings in water use, both in waste and cost.
Leading Westside Los Angeles Gardenista Teryl Ciarlo of Teryl Designs is known for her work with clients such as actress Jordana Brewster and other LA socialites. A native of southern California and resident of Brentwood, Ciarlo understands the desire for privacy while enjoying the outdoors. “I tend to love gardens surrounded by manicured hedges and borders,” she admits, “defining their own Secret Garden areas. They provide an escape from the mundane, and a chance to quiet the mind.” She wants her clients to go out and experience their garden, not just view it from the kitchen window.
Ciarlo is passionate about preserving the future by practising sustainability in the present: “As we continue to learn more and more about the importance of the environment to our futures, the responsibility of saving our planet and conserving water has become very personal to me. As a mother, I feel it’s my duty to do all I can to leave my children with the best Earth possible. Our future depends on it.”
Ciarlo’s landscapes and gardens have been inspired by California’s natural beauty and native plants. Symmetry and clean lines are her trademarks, while she feels that congruity of home style and landscape design is paramount. “Plant with purpose,” she proclaims with motto-like succinctness. “Make everything you design and grow functional.”
Being from a region known for frequent drought, she also knows something about durable flora. “Plants should require as little water as possible,” she says. “Think succulents, lavender, rosemary, and Little Ollie shrubs. Watch out for plants that seem eco-friendly, but are not drought-tolerant. You don’t have to give up on your dream of an English garden full of colorful and fragrant plants. Just choose your plants with water conservation in mind. There are some universal, drought-tolerant plants that work well in just about any climate. Fragrant herbs like rosemary and lavender are not only beautiful, but extremely water-conscious. For fantastic border plants, Little Ollie shrubs are a compact-growing and clean shrub requiring very little attention or water.”
Ciarlo is also amenable to thoughtfully incorporating water sources into her designs. “Water features and sustainable landscaping can go together, as long as you’re smart with how you set them up. You definitely don’t have to allow your beautiful fountains to dry up just because we’re in a drought. Add a catch basin to your rain gutters or redirect rainwater to a storage tank, either underwater or wall-mounted [see here for ideas]. Then attach a hose and water your yard proudly, knowing you’re doing something great for the world. Alternatively, route one or more of your rain gutters to drain directly into your fountains, and surround them with herbs and drought-tolerant plants. The fountains will run on the recycled water, and any excess that spills over will drain into the herbs and plants.”
Here are some more water-conservation tips from Ciarlo:
- I greatly applaud one of the newest trends, which is to build cisterns underground to collect and store precious rain water.
- Be conscientious with your sprinklers, especially in a drought. Overwatering is unnecessary, and easy to avoid. When it isn’t raining, water in the early hours of the morning to reduce evaporation.
- Catch rainwater and air conditioner condensation with stylish rain catcher planters. Spigots make it easy to attach a watering hose, and the back is usually flat to maximize space if you’re placing the catcher against a wall (think: next to the air conditioner to catch condensation). You could be harvesting rainwater all over the yard without anyone ever knowing it.
- Keep a pitcher or bucket by the sink, and collect greywater to keep potted plants looking bright. Try it for a day to see just how much greywater you produce. You might be surprised.
- Check for leaks in your hose: a great way is to check your water meter at the beginning of a two-hour window of no water use, and then check again at the end of the two hours. If the number is different, you have a leak.
- Install a drip irrigation system, which will save fifty percent more water than sprinklers, with little to no water loss from runoff or evaporation. They can be installed anywhere from large yards to individual planters. You have total control over the amount of water supplied to each designated area, and it works wonderfully with mulched areas, thoroughly soaking the moisture-retaining mulch without getting any runoff.
- Add mulch around trees and plants. Mulch discourages weed growth, minimizes water runoff and retains moisture. Mix mulch with all of your soil to encourage moisture retention in the entire yard.
- Think about the bees and their needs. Bees pollinate one-third of everything we eat, and we’re seeing fewer of them every day due to climate change and habitat loss. They pollinate all kinds of fruits and vegetables! Encourage bee production by planting flowering trees and clover in your yard or in planters, and avoid chemically treating plants and flowers, since chemicals can negatively affect a bee’s system. Bees like volume in their flowers, so plant plenty of the same type of bloom together. A few good examples are lilacs, lavender, sage, wisteria and verbena.
Sustainable landscaping has gained popularity in recent years, yet Williams is one designer who believes more must be done to ensure its future progress. “I think it’s already a norm for most of our clients. They’re all educated on the need for sustainability, and most ask for these elements to be incorporated into their landscape designs,” he says. “What we need now is for sustainable technology to continue to improve and for the cost of that technology to become more competitive and affordable.”