For Carbon-Neutral Buildings, Fix that Landscape!


The result of all this work will be incentives for developers to
discontinue such destructive practices as scraping away the topsoil,
causing erosion during the construction process, and using such
resource-intensive features as manicured lawns and beds of annuals. So
the greening of landscapes won’t depend solely on convincing individual
homeowners to get with it; the market forces will incentivize the
developers to do it for them.

Why all the Attention to Landscapes

  • Vegetation captures and stores carbon dioxide, thus removing it from the atmosphere.
  • Urban trees in the U.S. capture as much as 25 million tons of carbon each year.
  • Trees also reduce the urban heat island effect and provide
    windbreaks. – Landscapes that include a mix of native and ecologically
    appropriate non-native plants increase biodiversity and provide for
  • According to a U.S. government report, homeowners use about 10
    times as much chemical pesticide per acre on their lawns as farmers use
    on their crops, which is saying a lot. All those pesticides – just for lawn?
  • Turf grasses are the single largest irrigated crop in the U.S. in
    terms of surface area, covering an area the size of Mississippi. Again,
    that’s a whole lot of water being used for lawn.
  • Up to 18 percent of the material in landfills is yard waste, most of which isn’t really waste at all but plant material that could have gone to create compost.
  • Research has shown that just looking at plants is good for
    us. Nursing homes see decreased numbers of "behavior incidents" after
    plants are incorporated into the grounds. Trees and other plants have
    been credited in other studies with reduced crime, stronger ties among
    neighbors, more frequent use of common neighborhood spaces and a
    greater sense of safety.

Steve Windhager of the Johnson Wildflower Center explained all this
recently at a one-day symposium at Brookside Gardens about the
Sustainable Sites Initiative. And he revealed the almost sudden urgency
among developers to improve their landscaping practices: because
there’s a race to achieve carbon neutral development and it cannot be done without using landscapes effectively. They need the carbon-sequestering and runoff-reducing work of plants to get there.

Waste Not!

Next up on the Brookside program was Jean
Schwab of the U.S. EPA talking about waste, a surprisingly compelling
subject. Seriously, her trash show-and-tell was positively
entertaining, with such highlights as a view of Mt. Trashmore, a large
trash mound in Virginia Beach. Apparently when you can’t dig down, you
just pile up. Pity the folks who live within nose-shot of these unholy

But remember all that organic matter that’s filling up our
landfills? Schwab is passionate about the benefits of composting all
that good stuff instead of trashing it. She explained that organic
matter in soils determines their ability to hold water and the ability
of plants to access nutrients in the soil. And while mixed borders need
about 10 percent organic matter to do their best and even turfgrass
needs 5 to 6 percent, soils in most new developments contain less than
1 percent organic matter. (So will new tract houses soon be equipped
with compost bins? It’s not unimaginable.) Schwab also mentioned that
sprinkler systems increase water bills by about 50 percent – talk about
waste! – most of it going to lawn.

Invasive Plant Report

Last on the agenda, Valerie
Vartanian from the Nature Conservancy gave a rousing rant against
invasive plants – and Voice readers see enough aggressive,
tree-strangling vines around town to need no convincing that this is a
huge problem. There is some good news on the human front, though, like
the fact that some retailers are removing invasives from their stores,
even one bigbox in the Midwest.

Vartanian applauded the Sustainable Site Initiative’s emphasis on
native or regional appropriate plants that are not just well behaved
but also low-care and sometimes even fully sustainable (meaning
no-care).  Noting that the Nature Conservancy is not against
the growing of nonnative plants, she even declared her love for them:
"I love exotic plants, especially the Bird of Paradise!" She assured us
that the vast majority of nonnatives are not a problem, as seen in
Hawaii where there are over 13,000 nonnative species but only about 1
percent are invasive. So rather than trying to ban nonnative plants,
she supports the growing consensus that the solution is to assess
plants for their potential to be "weeds", something that the USDA has
finally started doing. And some states are imposing quarantines pending
testing, while others are buying up stocks of invasive plants. Even
mega-grower Monrovia has gotten into the act, developing standards of
conduct for growers and sellers of plants. Notice how the business
world is finally figuring out that if their practices aren’t
environmentally responsible, they won’t be in business for long? That’s
how mainstream "green" is. Fin


  1. A very informative post. I don’t understand, unless it’s just ignorance, why people throw yard waste into landfills. All they need to do is pile it up in a corner and use it later. My yard is on its way to being neutral. I don’t use pesticides and don’t irrigate unless there is new seed planted. I’m trying to reduce the mowing area and I’m planting new trees as I can. I think people are starting to jump on this bandwagon!

  2. A very thought provoking post. I do think we have to fine tune our attitudes about native plants. We need natives to support our local food webs, but invasives are the real problem and I am glad to know about these efforts to eliminate them.

  3. It is so good to see so much discussion about the importance of the landscape to a home. I love the idea that just having a plants growing where they can be seen as we come and go makes a difference.
    Learning just a bit like where to place a tree to shade windows during peak summer sun or how the transpiration of water from the leaves of plants can cool the air and how low areas of deep rooted plants can slow storm water run off and lessen the pollution of that water as it returns to the ground water or nearby streams can make a huge difference.A change for the better in our comfort,health and the utility bills as well.As more of these spaces exist we will learn how to modify for greater benifit both to humans and the earth.
    Developers have the most influence. As buyers see the benefits first hand and realize there are many options it will spread through even older developments and renovations in cities.
    Here in Chicago there will be an exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry called SMART HOME this 2008 season. A building is being placed outside including a landscape.
    Master Gardeners are now being trained to man the gardens and answer the questions of visitors.
    It will be an interesting summer.

    Another article (if you don’t mind) in Orion about the benefits of gardens to bees and other pollinators and how cities are actually doing the best job of conserving these creatures.

    I found the article at Wild Flora’s Wild Gardens, a great blog written by a retired former Chicago newspaper columnist.

  4. As landscape designers and contractors we were just this past week again discussing the lack of environmental standards in the ‘green’ industry. We already push our clients as far as we can on ecological issues but decided to look into the existing LEED Certification requirements for builders and developers to see if there were any other areas where we could make our own projects and construction greener.

    We learned that LEED already have ratings for builders that cross over into the landscaping areas. It is good to see things like rain water management and reduced or eliminated irrigation are already in the builders guidelines. Reduction of impervious areas are as well. What will be needed and is always a tricky subject is getting builders and landscapers to work together and figure out the best way to take the green building efforts and seamlessly join and continue them into the green landscaping efforts. Our experience is that the builders and landscapers don’t tend to work together well so work is duplicated, needs to be changed or compromised to meet budgets or client’s requirements.

    What we would like to also see included in the landscaping guidelines are the following:

    Increased use of recycled materials.

    Increased use of permeable surfaces and materials.

    More recycling of building material waste. You would be amazed at how many black plant pots get thrown in the dump. It’s even more shocking how many black pots are not made to be easily recycled in the first place.

    Increased use of locally sourced materials. We have seen a lot of new hardscaping products being introduced that are being shipped from places as far away as Turkey and China.

    Reduced use of power equipment during landscape installations. A lot of the jobs we do have huge new houses taking up almost the entire lot. Most landscapers are in love with power tools and would use them at any opportunity possible even if a hand tool would work just as well. We have always required our landscapers to use as little power as possible for the noise, emission and soil benefits.

    And finally (for this conversation) we would have requirements for longterm maintenance estimates. As with many green initiatives the Europeans are way ahead in this area and take the longterm costs and needs for upkeep into account before building.

    That would make for a few less riding mowers around. Please just don’t tell the landscapers that we mentioned this!

  5. Great job of summarizing what we need to be doing and why. To address some of marnia and Jamie’s comments, the Sustainable Sites initiative ( is addressing issues such as maitenance, recyceld materials, alternatives to the black plastic pots, mimicing healthy hydrologic conditions (which will could include things like permeable surfaces, rain gardens, bioswales,capturing rainwater for irrigation, etc). Our next report (due out late Fall 2008) will go into more detail about the specifics a sustainable site should strive to achieve and some practices that can help get you there. I think our direction is very much in line with what you are suggesting.

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