Thursday, November 11, 2010

Who's To Blame For Overfertilizing and Chemical Use in Landscapes?

Unfortunately human beings are reactionary, not pro-active when it comes to changing beliefs and behaviors. Creating a paradigm shift of acceptable practices in landscapes needs to have the combined efforts of continued education and regulations from multiple arenas. It requires a top down and a bottom up approach. Education of the public, commercial businesses, homeowner associations, do-it-yourself outlets, garden centers and nurseries, municipal, state, and federal regulators all need to work together in making sure their facts are accurate. Regulators must rely on unbiased science-based research while homeowners need to be savvy consumers. Organic chemicals versus synthetic chemicals when it comes to soil and stormwater pollutants from landscaping applications is not a moot point. When overused and misapplied, they both pollute and hurt the environment.

Municipal and county planning departments have to share the blame by regulating codes that require extreme amounts of landscaping for new homes and developments. Ordinances that call for excessive amounts of ornamental shrubs to obscure views, large caliper trees to provide immediate shade, large expanses of turf, planted on zero-lot-line properties, which after maturity are completely shaded by those large canopy trees are just a few examples. Planning departments need to understand that there is no one cookie cutter design for all properties. There are various soil types, sunlight conditions, and pH levels while plants need to have specific conditions to thrive. Certain turfgrasses under shaded conditons becomes sparse and stressed needing higher maintenance, more water, have more pest issues, which then require chemical applications, which then increases the need for more water, more maintenance, more chemicals. See the vicious cycle? Landscape architects can help educate by rejecting the "instant landscape" approach, design for the property conditions, and advise clients on the health and beauty of properties that grow to their mature size naturally within a normal time frame that won't suffer under the stress of chemical applications.

Mandated commercial instant landscaping.

2 Phoenix Canariensis palms, 10 double and triple headed Phoenix roebellini palms , 4 Wodyetia bifurcata palms, all in 50-foot row on narrow road.

Overplanted landscaped common area that now has to deal with dieback and insect issues from overpruning.

Builders and developers can be more pro-active in preventing the need for chemicals by not clearing away native soils, wildflowers, and habitat that is already established, so that commercial businesses or future homeowners don't have to worry about extreme maintenance.

Pasture for commercial sale full of native dotted horsemint that will probably be bulldozed to allow for construction with landscape architects trying to find the right natives to create a native landscape.

"Long Leaf" commercial park with no long leaf pines due to damaging pre-construction practices.

Community homeowner associations have a legitimate responsibility to their residents to maintain their community home values and security. Residents who complain about HOA covenants that require “Stepford” lawns don't recognize it was their choice to purchase a home in such a community in the first place. But that doesn't negate HOA's obligation to be reasonable and pro-active with local county resources such as Extension offices to ensure that their covenants do not restrict regional and state efforts to protect natural resources like water supply. HOA's can have beautiful communities and still follow best management practices. Even with environmentally friendly laws, homeowners that want to have natural landscapes are being harassed by well-intentioned but sometimes ignorant neighbors and HOA committees.

Homeowners who try to educate themselves by attending landscaping workshops are bewildered to find out that their homes were not landscaped and irrigated according to waterwise efficiency and for lower maintenance before they moved in? Whose responsibility should that be? Building and planning departments or to the homeowners themselves, who most likely don't have the money to fix the landscape or irrigation system after they've bought their home?

Homeowners who hire companies to maintain their yards need to know what the companies are actually doing on a weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly basis. One gentleman attending my workshop in one of Florida's friendliest hometowns complained that his "landscaping company just knocks on my door, has me sign the bill, and leaves." He said he didn't know what they did to his yard on a monthly basis. My response was that he just had too much money. Why didn't he know? What did he contract this company to do in his yard? Would he would take his car to an auto mechanic and just sign the bill and not know what he was paying for? Everyone who hires landscape maintenance companies should know exactly what practices are being done to their yard and why, but importantly, agree that it should be done.

Irrational fears about insects and maintenance misperceptions are costly to both the environment and to wallets. "Blow and mow" companies take advantage of this and frighten customers into expensive or unnecessary chemical applications. Pruning improperly and going from yard to yard without cleaning their equipment spreads epidemic fungal and viral diseases, and herbicide resistant weeds, ensuring that there will be problems that only stronger chemicals will take care of, again turning into a non-stop pollution cycle. This needs to be addressed by the consumer.

Landscaping businesses should be willing to think outside the box to educate and persuade their clients who don't have landscaping and horticultural knowledge that they don't always have to apply a chemical. Accredited reps should be able to come to Mr. Smith's yard, assess the health of the landscape. If there is nothing wrong with the yard, no need to do anything but congratulate the homeowner on his healthy landscape and tell them that the rep will be back in the contracted time frame to reassess it. If there is a pest issue or fertilizer need, there are appropriate fertilizers and chemicals, whether organic or synthetic, that could be used in the landscape. When applied according to label instructions and only when necessary, these chemicals do not harm the environment. Homeowners should not only demand this consultation but should be willing to pay for it. It takes an educated consumer to understand and trust this concept. But sadly, homeowners now not only demand these bad practices, but they are willing to pay for incorrect advice, improper pruning, and misapplications of fertilizers and chemicals, not for correct knowledge. The landscaping industry needs to change this perception and create verbal word of mouth reputations for doing best management practices.

Then there is the unknowing homeowners, aided by DIY's retail television commercials of "now's the time," to take the care of their own yards into their hands. It should be easy, if you know what you're doing and use the best management practices of "right plant, right place and reading instruction labels.

Homeower lollipopping which leads to dieback and diseases.

Improper planting for mature growth.

Homeowner placement of shade plant in full sun.
But usually weekend warriors are culpable of brutal pruning practices, such as hatracking crape myrtles in the wintertime, overfertilizing all year round, overwatering, and applying chemicals incorrectly. These same warriors seeing damage in their lawns, don't know if they have an insect issue or a disease. They don't read the fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide labels. Abiding by the myth of "perfect landscapes," "more is better," and "it [weeds] needs to die instantly," homeowners apply chemicals in unnecessary and dangerous amounts. This leads to increased pollutants, more diseases, chemical-resistant pests, and necessary chemical banning. Protecting the environment from zealous do-it-yourselfers has become the government's responsibility.

What is the solution?
  • There needs to be an agreed buy-in from both the government and consumers to fund environmental education programs at every level. Elementary through high school, public and professional, at all levels.
  • Covenants, local, and county ordinances should make keeping the environment healthy easier. A higher maintenance landscape should be a choice that comes with a price. Higher water bills, higher maintenance costs, even stormwater mitigation fees.
  • Homeowners need to determine what the pest problem in their landscape is in the first place. Is it a seasonal issue or is the insect still there doing the damage? They need to make use of the free resources that are available to them through their local County Extension offices or through land-grant universities' scientific research which is free to every person on the Internet or at their local library.
The EPA requires stormwater protection in most states, with Florida and California recently introducing new legislation on phosphates and nitrogen applications which will undoubtedly help with stormwater pollution. Other environmental issues with water and wildlife is the increased damage from pharmaceutical pollutants which I consider more critical than fertilizers. Developing better technology to clean water has to address pharmaceuticals in our surface waters.

Working together to provide the correct landscapes and efficient irrigation standards that doesn't restrict but enhances homeowners ability to maintain their yards with best management practices is the easiest way to start protecting our environment. Its up to landscaping industry to educate their clients more, even taking a stand to not allow customers to dictate bad management practices. Making sure that homeowners understand that everyone is responsible for their own watershed even if they don't live near a lake is crucial to our future water supply. Banning fertilizers and chemicals entirely will only increase human stubborness and resentment. When people realize that our future water supply is not only a right but a responsibility, it should make everyone more aware of what they do in the landscape affects it, but the landscaping and building industries have to provide the correct landscapes and effective irrigation technology to ensure success.

~ When one tugs at a single thing in nature,
he finds it attached to the rest of the world. ~
John Muir, 1838 - 1914, American naturalist
City planning department approved landscape.

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