by Owen E. Dell

It’s been said so many times that it’s become a cliché: “Think Globally, Act Locally.” The problem most of us have with this concept is figuring out what actions we can take to really make a difference. It’s easy to think about the big issues, but what can we do tomorrow?

Consider our own back yards. The design and management of landscaping is changing and there’s a lot of good news out there. Professionals and homeowners are abandoning many of the wasteful practices of the past and are embracing a new ethic of Sustainable Landscaping that saves time, money and effort, looks better and is a lot kinder to the environment.

There has been quite a bit wrong with landscaping up to now. It has been consumptive rather than productive, wasteful rather than conserving and less attractive than it could be. Consider, for instance, the size of plants. It’s been our habit to plant things that grow much larger than the space allocated to them: junipers in the narrow strip between the curb and the sidewalk for example, or trees like Pittosporum that are asked to perform as shrubs. Because these plants have a genetic destiny to grow to a certain size, they are cut back repeatedly and the trimmings are hauled to the dump. This is a waste of effort, it uses fossil fuel to operate power tools and trucks that haul the decapitated plant parts away, it generates greenwaste that clogs our landfills and it removes from the loop the valuable nutrients and organic material that are locked up in the plant tissue. Fertilizer, usually derived from fossil fuels, has to be hauled in to replace the lost nutrients and the cycle begins again as the plants resume the production of more doomed biomass.

This is just one example of how a single bad decision leads to waste on many levels. It’s also completely unnecessary, since plants come in all sizes, and so if we would only choose something with a mature size that is more in keeping with our intentions, we would have none of this to worry about. That’s simple, isn’t it?

It seems true that one shouldn’t have to be a good gardener to have a good garden. The fact is, most of what we call “maintenance” is an unnecessary derivative of bad design. The conventional landscape is hard to live with because it is inherently unstable, whereas the sustainable landscape is just the opposite. It’s easy to build stability into the system; it’s just that nobody’s thought about it much until now.

We’ve done pretty well with some aspects of landscaping, such as water conservation. Two droughts led to the development of the Xeriscape movement, which concerned itself with how to develop and maintain landscaping so that it used less water. Californians, and especially Santa Barbarans, became adept at the use of drought-tolerant plants, drip irrigation, and mulch. They reduced lawns to a more reasonable size and learned how to fine-tune their irrigation practices. It’s been a long road and we can be justifiably proud of our accomplishments. But it’s not enough.

A truly sustainable landscape doesn’t look at just one issue like water conservation. It embraces a much larger complex of issues including reduction of greenwaste, elimination of chemical fertilizers, use of beneficial insects and low-toxicity pesticides, mitigation of fire hazards, preservation of natural areas, enhancement of wildlife habitat, use of trees for climate control around buildings, reduction of the use of fossil fuels, harvesting of rainwater, use of on-site materials, reused materials and recycled materials, selection of pest- and disease-resistant plant varieties, to name just a few of the things that we’re considering these days.

Now we need to go farther and ask more questions.We need to stand conventional wisdom on its head. Why do we use non-renewable resources first instead of last? Why do we bring out the insecticide before we’ve tried beneficial insects? Why do we spray herbicides on weeds when two inches of mulch or a better planting design would solve the problem more reliably and more beautifully? Why do we create so many problems for ourselves, so much work, so much waste?

A truly sustainable landscape minimizes negative impacts and maximizes positive ones. It keeps rainwater and greenwaste on site as much as possible, and makes minimal use of things brought in from outside. The materials that are brought in will be minimally processed, durable and self-maintaining. Many more kinds of materials could be harvested from the waste stream. Why, for instance, aren’t we making more use of broken concrete for paving and retaining walls, organic waste for compost, leftover materials from construction sites for garden art and building projects? Why aren’t we harvesting the lumber from urban trees instead of chipping it up?

A sustainable landscape also minimizes off-site impacts by considering the source of materials. Is our landscape truly sustainable if we are strip mining a distant mountain to obtain decomposed granite for our walkways? No one has thought much about the off-site impact of landscaping, but it’s time to do so. If we’re pillaging nature to make symbols of sustainability in our back yards, we’re still doing things wrong.

Finally, a truly sustainable landscape could even exceed sustainability. Unlike the rest of the built environment, the landscape is naturally solar-powered and is capable of being productive rather than simply less consumptive.

There are still many questions to be answered. We need to re-think landscaping from top to bottom if it is to become what it should be. Maybe it’s time for you to become a part of the solution. It’s an exciting journey and one that will make your life better, right away, while helping the community and the natural world. Well-done landscaping can be a vital element in the development of a truly sustainable society.

So, consider this a call to arms. Take up your pitchforks and your pruning shears. Build a compost bin in the back yard. Get rid of the arsenal of chemicals in the garage. Plant things that will attract beneficial insects. Mulch your soil. Kill your lawnmower. Then sit back and enjoy your garden rather than slaving over it.

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