Lisa Cowan, Studioverde Principal, and Irene Brady Barber of Greenscapes, a Studioverde collaborator, partnered on a talk to kickoff the 2016 University of Connecticut’s Sustainable Landscapes Conference in Storrs, CT. The talk, titled “Ecological Design Approaches for Tough Urban Spaces” featured a case study of the process of the highly successful Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building Garden Alcoves design and installation. Following the talk, attendees and speakers engaged in discussions about the following trends that property and campus owners should expect to see when they hire a “sustainable landscape design team”:
- Increased collaboration between landscape architects, garden designers and horticulturalists: A landscape design approach that creates plant communities which establish and fill in quickly will save money in the short term because they will crowd out weeds and provide the plant interrelationships necessary for long-term performance. This might sound boring until you see the highly successful work of the Dutch garden designer and nurseryman Piet Ouldouf, who has defined a new, ecologically responsible aesthetic. Piet also advocates moving beyond traditional landscapes that are too expensive to maintain. To create these highly sustainable landscapes, landscape architects and horticulturalists must collaborate in the true sense of the word – from the beginning – with each bringing their expertise to the whole system of creating spaces for people and establishing living plant community systems that perform.
- Landscape designs should be informed by the local context and the use of local materials should be prioritized, when it makes sense. That means understanding the visual, physical and local climate materials and forms that reinforce a sense of place, which will then influence landscape performance and user engagement. Imported materials should positively contrast and complement the local forms, color, materials and textures; design teams also must weigh the environmental costs of shipping materials to a site. Beautiful and cost-effective installations can be done with local materials when designers take time to find out what is available and use these materials in innovative ways.
- A landscape should not require yearly mulching, fertilizer and water inputs after establishment. One reason many campuses and residential landscapes maintain large turf areas is because it is perceived that turf is cheap and low maintenance – right? Not always. The reality is that traditional turf is also expensive to install, when done correctly, as it requires amended soils, irrigation, seed or sod and fertilizers. Low maintenance? Not when you factor in weekly mowing for nine or more months per year. If owners quantified the hourly labor, training and equipment along with the energy and pollutant costs for mowing across multiple years, they would be surprised at the true effort, costs and environmental damage from these “low maintenance” landscapes.
So what about reducing turf by planting tree and shrub beds? For decades the argument has been that we should plant tree and shrub beds, surrounded by mulch because it saves money over the long term, provides shade, some habitat value and seasonal interest. But these can also be unsuccessful and costly – how many of us have seen the lone shrub or Black-eyed Susan plant surrounded by acres of mulch because there was not enough money to provide enough plants or the plants died and there is no money for replacements?
Back to the conference, Roy Diblik, author of “The Know Maintenance Approach”, followed Lisa and Irene, with a talk about establishing native and adaptive perennial plant communities on large and small sites. Roy repeated Lisa and Irene’s points about the three trends and encouraged landscape professionals to find ways to work together to demonstrate the value and cost savings of a sustainable landscape approach that address plant communities.
Roy gently reminded the audience that nature provides us with all the principles needed to create sustainable landscapes, including that plants need to be “intimate”. Plant associations are key to survival and a sustainable outcome. Understanding those relationships and applying smart installation methods results in an outcome that far exceeds traditional landscape performance and saves money. See this example of Roy’s work at the Lurie Garden of the Chicago Art Institute:
Good plant relationships lead to sustainable plant communities that control weeds, provide color and texture, offer habitat for pollinators and wildlife and create a visual narrative that engages and connects people to outdoor spaces. This has been proved out in spades for the Lurie Garden – Roy reported that there is a waiting list of volunteers to help with maintenance on that project.
To further illustrate that beautiful landscapes do not necessarily mean high maintenance landscapes, Studioverde’s Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building Garden Alcoves requires a small crew, once a month in the growing season, to remove plant debris. They do this manually without noisy equipment or polluting emissions, which would be a big problem adjacent to a high security and busy building entrance.
Installations that include a high-performance plant palette installed via sustainable methodologies can easily outperform traditional turf on costs. As landscape budgets shrink and user expectations expand, it is more important today than ever to create plant communities that establish quickly, reduce maintenance, energy and amendments, and engage people to reconnect with nature and living systems in new ways.
Studioverde brings this level of landscape architectural practice and plant expertise to all of our projects, large and small. Contact us to help you create functional, economically responsible and manageable outdoor spaces that are infused with natural beauty, support pollinators and foster human health and well-being.