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Opinion: The Need for a More Ecological Approach to Landscaping

Updated: May 8, 2019

How do you have a beautiful yard and also not hurt the ecosystem that lives there? You might reevaluate some of these common landscaping practices.

Common garden snake caught in plastic mesh used for establishing grass seed.

The Problem


By this point in time it has become obvious to most homeowners and property managers that many common practices in the modern landscaping industry are unnecessarily damaging to our environments, both locally and on a global scale. Take the image above: a seemingly innocuous and supposedly time saving practice (encasing hay for seed in a roll of plastic

mesh) had unintended consequences for other forms of life, which in turn leads to problems for humans.


Not only is this not a poisonous snake, but were it not entangled in this plastic death trap it would be happily reducing the rodent population around the home the same way an outdoor cat would (and without having to buy pet food, pay for vaccinations, etc.). Sadly, I didn’t even have to search for an image like this; it was taken at my very own father’s house just weeks after I first learned about the use of this particular mesh material.



2 Practices That Are Hurting Your Environment


There are numerous examples of how common landscaping practices are harming our environment. Here are two of the most significant practices to consider when making your own landscape choices.


1. Poor Landscape Design

Poorly designed landscapes that feature primarily exotic, and often invasive, species of plants can, at best, offer little-to-no ecological value and, at worst, actively displace native species and throw entire ecosystems out of balance.


A recent study of local bird populations in the Washington, D.C., area concluded that landscapes with more than 30% of their biomass in non-native plant species were not sustainable for native bird species. In contrast, a landscape that is primarily made up of native plant species is not only lower maintenance once established, but also supports local biodiversity and reduces the need for costly and often toxic chemicals to maintain the desired appearance.


For more detailed information on the species of plants native to your region and

how to care for them, I recommend the National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society's online databases which allows you to search by zip code.


Although native plants have been gaining popularity over the past decade or so, many are still widely unavailable in larger box stores such as Lowe’s or Home Depot. By virtue of their nature, these plants must be grown locally--which means that landscaping with native plants is also a good way to support local small businesses and stimulate your region's local economy.


Many cities now have their own native plant societies focused on spreading public awareness and helping connect people with the resources they need to "go native." These can be found on Facebook or other social media platforms by searching your city’s name followed by “native plant society,” and are great places to meet like-minded individuals

and gain valuable knowledge and inspiration.


Landscaping with natives is not just for the DIY types anymore either. When hiring a professional landscaper, be sure to ask if they have knowledge of native plant species. If they are uninformed or unwilling to explore the option of using natives, then they might not be the landscaper for you. The number of ecologically minded landscapers is growing, however, and you don't need to look very far to find one anymore.


2. Improper Mulching

The second common damaging practice among most landscape maintenance regimens that I will detail--and a personal pet peeve of mine--is the improper use of mulch. We can all agree that mulch is good for the soil, in principle at least. We know it is helpful in reducing loss of moisture, soil compaction and pressure from weedy plants when properly applied.


Sadly, looking at most commercial landscapes today will reveal that the majority of mulch used in the commercial landscape trade is being grossly misapplied. Yes, I am talking about the infamous “mulch volcanoes” around the bases of trees, but I am also talking more than that. Raking and removing all the leaves from under large trees and shrubs just to replace it with highly processed black mulch imported from hundreds of miles away is also part of the problem.


This is not a sustainable practice and does direct harm to the environment in your own backyard. Fallen leaves hold moisture in the soil and prevent compaction just as well as any commercial mulch that you buy, while also feeding the microbiology in the soil and ensuring the health and longevity of your most valuable landscape features (just think of how much money it costs to remove a mature dying oak tree and how long it takes to regrow one).


On top of that, many species of butterflies, fire flies, and moths make their cocoons in fallen leaves and then emerge the following spring adding living beauty and attracting migratory songbirds to the summer landscape. Oh, and let’s not forget, it’s free to leave your leaves! Using nature's resources will allow you to allocate the time and money you save on raking and removal toward doing something more exciting and productive with your landscape.


The Good News


The good news is that the problems listed in this article have simple and practical solutions that often require little more than some basic awareness and an open mind. Many of the cultural shifts in landscaping are already taking place in communities across the nation and the movement toward living more harmoniously with nature is rapidly gaining momentum.


It’s important never to underestimate the significance of each individual effort to make positive change in the world. Perhaps your neighbor gets inspired by what you’re doing with your landscape and decides to do something similar on her or his property. Before long most of the people in your neighborhood have switched to a more native and sustainable landscape. Couple this with our ability to share our lives via social media and it's not hard to imagine how your choices can have a global impact.


Inspiration expands exponentially once set in motion by visionary individuals. We can all be an inspiration for others today by rethinking and adjusting our current landscape practices.


Thomas Graveline is a conservationist and landscape design consultant.

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