Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sustainability Isn’t a Plant List

First published in Ornamental Outlook, June 2008

Horticulture experts expect similar plant questions seasonally – it’s what we do. With the new landscaping trend of “Florida-friendly”, I’m finding one question germinating the same way: “I can’t find this plant on THE plant list!” Government planning departments, builders, homeowners, and landscapers trust that if it’s on the plant list, it’s sustainable and could, no, should be used. That’s not the point of sustainable landscaping. Suitable, sustainable landscaping isn’t a plant list, nor is it the mandatory turf grass, five trees, fifty shrubs, for every lot.

There are three basic needs of sustainable landscaping: knowledge, efficiency, and proper maintenance.
Deciding on a plant palette doesn’t require an adherence to a plant list. It requires knowledge of the site, which includes sunlight, soil contents, site percolation, and pH conditions. When plant lists are used, the ugliness of cookie-cutter landscapes, less diversity, and higher maintenance properties becomes the norm.
Designing a landscape entails knowing how the site is going to be used and what the building will look like, specifically where the doors and windows, sidewalks, driveways, etc will be placed. This information is crucial to which plants are selected and how the owner of the property will eventually maintain it. Selecting improper plants for a site can mean high maintenance bills with necessity for using chemicals to curtail insect and disease problems, the usual symptoms of an overstressed landscape.

An on-site inspection before the landscape is designed, then again - before the landscape is installed is also necessary. If the site is undeveloped property, depending on how it was graded with roads, swales and utilities installed, the soil conditions may have been impacted since the landscaping plan was designed and need adjustments to the plant recommendations.

New environmental aficionados still want a plant list. “Just tell me what I need to plant” is a familiar plea and when you depend on someone’s expertise, you’re hoping they know what they need to do. The plant list is only a tool to use but just like the familiar adages “the right tool for the job” and “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” – plants lists are not the end-all and frankly, shouldn’t be used except for suggestions for specific plant needs, i.e. xeric, hydric soils or shade loving plants. Recommending a plant list without knowing the site conditions or having a variety of site conditions is tantamount to having an unsustainable landscape.

Getting an efficient irrigation system comes with a price. That can be a hard sell to builders, developers, and homeowners who have become quite comfortable with Florida’s low-cost lifestyle. Water, labor, and materials are cheap compared to other parts of the country, especially when it’s not being correctly done; so changing the mindset of what efficient is can be tricky. Having irrigation systems with 15% to 47% effectiveness isn’t sustainable but it’s usually what the homeowner gets when the bottom line means not informing the end-user of the cost of not installing irrigation correctly.

When improper plants are selected, crammed into an instant landscape , compounded with an inefficient irrigation system, you have an unsustainable landscape. The results are less drought tolerant landscapes, usually more weeds, insects, and diseases resulting in an overuse of chemicals, leading to stormwater runoff issues and a vicious cycle of expensive and high maintenance. High maintenance details of constant pruning, usually with unsterilized or infected tools can lead to spreading of insects and disease, with hedges succumbing to inevitable bare-bottom syndrome and ornamental trees falling prey to crape murder. I’m always amazed at homeowners and businesses settling and paying for these landscape disasters thinking that these disastrous methods are best management practices.

There are plants, shrubs, and trees for every lifestyle and landscape design. There are plants that thrive with shearing and there can be a need for deadheading and pruning after flowering to ensure a vibrant and healthy shrub or tree. Forcing high maintenance and instant landscapes on unsuspecting homeowners and commercial properties that trust that the builders, developers, landscape architects and landscape companies are installing a low maintenance, sustainable landscape, is not good business.

Sustainability is not a plant list but a philosophy. In gardening, sustainability’s philosophy is way of living so that landscape plants, irrigation, and the post-upkeep is efficient, uses resources wisely, and allows for proper maintenance. As more and more sustainable development is achieved, the lower the market costs for the plants, labor, and materials will become.

Researching the property for proper plant selection, determining the seasonal attractiveness so that there is lusciousness and beauty, combined with installing an efficient irrigation system that in the future will mean lower bills for the homeowner and a better use of our precious water supply will benefit the entire state of Florida.

Want to find the right plants for your landscape?  Check out SJRWMD's Waterwise Landscapes.

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