Federal landscapes go sustainable


Federal guidelines
Somehow I missed some really big news – the October 31 announcement of new requirements for federal landscapes.  Should I blame the less than eye-catching announcement itself, shown above?  Or maybe the administration is trying to keep this tree-hugging move under the radar.  Whatever – it's great news!

Warning to readers: we're about to get wonky here. 

First promised in the fall of '09, the feds have completed the monumental task of compiling the  Guidance for Federal Agencies on Sustainable Practices for Designed Landscapes.

This guidance is to be used by Federal agencies for landscape practices when constructing new, or rehabilitating existing, owned or leased facilities, or when landscaping improvements are otherwise planned.

The Federal government controls or owns more than 41 million acres of land and 429,000 building assets, comprising 3.34 billion square feet of space in the United States. Consequently, landscaping practices by Federal agencies can have significant impacts on the environment. Decisions regarding the development and maintenance of Federal landscaped property provide an opportunity to promote the sustainable use of water and land, conserve soils and vegetation, support natural ecosystem functions, conserve materials, promote human health and well-being, and ensure accessibility for all users, including those with disabilities.

First, try to imagine all federal buildings being surrounded by landscapes that actually do all of the above.  Think post offices, courthouses, military facilities, and so on.  Not just owned land but leased, too.  That means that any developers hoping to someday find a federal tenant will presumably follow these guidelines.

Will we no longer see new courthouses like this or White House scenes like this?

"Reduce, with aim to eliminate, the use of potable water, natural surface water (such as lakes, rivers, and streams), and groundwater withdrawals for landscape irrigation."  Just reading that one detail, I imagine the increased use for drought-tolerant groundcovers and decreased acreage of conventional turf.

In the realm of plant choice, here's what the guidance says:

  • Preserve existing native vegetation
  • Maintain existing historic landscapes and plantings
  • Prevent, detect, control, and manage invasive plants
  • Maintain existing historic landscapes and plantings
  • Use native plants: Where practicable, use vegetation native to the ecoregion. (Note: not just "native", but "to the ecoregion".)
  • Use vegetation to minimize building heating and cooling requirements
  • Use trees and other vegetation to offset emissions of greenhouse gases from operations
  • Reduce urban heat island effects
  • Reuse salvaged materials and plants
  • Support sustainable practices in plant production
  • Use regional materials

And there's a whole section on "human health and well-being", nicely echoing the First Lady's Let's Move! campaign:

  • Encourage outdoor activities: On-site amenities such as community gardens, bike trails, playgrounds, and workout stations should be provided to encourage outdoor activities. Appropriate support services, such as drinking fountains, emergency call boxes, and safety lighting should also be included. To the extent possible, on-site systems, such as trails and paths, should be connected to local and regional systems and access to parks and open space within 0.25 mile.
  • Use vegetation to promote community/employee morale and well-being activities: Rooftop gardens, community gardens, and vertical gardens inside or outside of buildings, adjacent or connecting to the landscape should be considered in order to promote educational programs, food access, and gardening activities for morale and community engagement.
  • Create quiet outdoor spaces for relaxation and restoration, small group interaction, and views… Where possible, seating areas with unique or beautiful views and minimal noise should be provided.following actions.

This is so comprehensive, I can't find anything missing – there's even a directive to reduce light pollution.

One sticky wicket must have been the concerns of the historic preservation folks because there's lots about respecting landscapes in "cultural or historic settings".  

Plant materials in cultural landscapes and designed historic sites may be non-native, naturalized and in some cases managed invasive species. Plants that are character-defining features of a cultural landscape should be preserved.

So, English ivy doesn't have to be ripped out where it's deemed historic, I guess.

About maintenance, the directive is to "Implement sustainable site maintenance," which they define as: organic fertilizer, Integrated Pest Management, seasonal performance-based mowing (spring 3”, summer 4-5”, fall 4”), and annual pruning practices, as opposed to regular shearing.  Also, recycling of organic matter (another term for composting?)

Sorry to report, leaf-blowers aren't outlawed but there is a directive to "increase fuel economy through acquisition of smaller vehicles, hybrid-electric vehicles, and alternative fuels vehicles and landscape equipment." That's something.

I have lots of them, like: How will this be enforced?  And how much will existing landscapes be changed by this?  And just curious: Would the EPA headquarters' low-impact landscaping comply, or does it have too many nonnative plants? 

Readers, add your questions and comments and I'll try to get them answered – first by contacting the good folks at the U.S. Botanic Garden who shepherded this project through the bureaucracy.  Thirty-one federal agencies participated in the process, plus 13 "advisors representing local and regional constituencies."  Can you imagine how many meetings that meant having to endure? 


  1. This is potentially really exciting news, especially for those of us operating in the DC metro area! I did a design for a secure federal facility last year (can’t name names) and their lack of sustainability was appalling. Case in point: the deer were ridiculous, actually milling around my car and preventing me from leaving the guard shack. The plantings included loads and loads of tasty annuals. How did they deal with the deer damage? By replanting ALL the annuals every 6 weeks or so. Sounds reasonable.

    I know you hate leaf blowers, but you’re going to have to change the space’s end users’ expectations and demands before blowers can be phased out of public spaces. I ran the grounds crew for a 20 acre research facility in California and if it wasn’t immaculate every day, we would get downright unhinged people screaming that they could see organic detritus from their labs.

  2. Absolutely love this news! Now I can show clients a sustainable garden that is beautiful and extremely well thought-out and executed. A person can know a standard has been set by the 31 federal agencies and 13 advisors!!

  3. Awesome news. I imagine the degree of compliance will vary from site to site. And that change will not happen overnight. So I think your question about enforcement is a good one.

  4. How fantastic! I think enforcement is an excellent question. I’m also curious as to where they’re planning on sourcing their plants, particularly the natives. I imagine that will vary from eco-region to eco-region, but it’s so difficult to find good sources of the majority of natives, I’m curious as to how they’ll manage. (I have an image of someone from the Pentagon strolling into a tiny mom ‘n pop nursery and saying “We need eighteen thousand prairie dropseed, eleven hundred white baneberry, five thousand orange milkwort…”)

  5. This is wonderful, and so comprehensive. Will it be perfect and practical? Probably not — at least not at first — but at least it’s a fantastic starting point, and we will hopefully see a trickle-down to state then city levels.

    Is this expected to create jobs too?

  6. I assume that most of the millions of acres owned or maintained by the Feds includes vast tracks of national forest and other wild areas in the West. This may temper how much land the “landscape” guidelines affect. Also, I doubt there will be any enforcement per se since these are guidelines and not rules/policies.

    That said, it’s good to see movement in this direction.

  7. @ Elizabeth : there are approx. 190 million acres of federal forest land (just forest, this is not counting other types of federal land). The # mentioned above is very likely landscaped acreage, or acreage that is not left to its own devices and must be maintained/managed to some degree for the sake of aesthetics, safety/health, or education/history.

  8. This looks like a great move…it will be interesting if it just sits around or actually changes the way federal landscapes are ran. Hopefully it will at least encourage more sustainable practices.

  9. Finally, something exciting and more tangible from any gov’t, to help drive some in the LA / nursery field who keep making excuses for the same-old!

    But I agree with others that it could take some time to catch-up on supplies and qtys. As well as that sticky issue of one species of a huge range, requiring a local, ecoregional ecotype or provenance. “I don’t want no Denver Saltbush in my Abq or El Paso reveg project…”

    Will re-read this one! Thx for posting.

  10. Yep, Troll, if it’s government it won’t work–just like the federal highway system and Seal Team Six. Now if they could just figure out how to get the government to adopt the lassez-faire system that allows the private sector to be so sustainable…..

    Keep on Trollin’–I was ready for a laugh 🙂

  11. I see another unfunded mandate. Think of all the post offices. Places that lease out some space to a minute division of the federal government. Who is responsible for enforcing this? Are they going to tell each federal agency to tell each section to “take care of it”? It only makes sense for big places that actually have landscaping, not your rural post office where the post master or the cub scouts plant some petunias in red white and blue around the flag pole.

  12. One thing to keep in mind is that all the landscape maintenance professionals who already maintain these federal properties are likely very familiar with more sustainable landscape practices already. It won’t be so hard for them to change when the boss can’t say this is what we have always used and always done.

  13. I’m going to reply to other comments first.

    Dave, I have heard Stories about a certain secure facility and its deer, who, if you are taking a relaxing walk after dinner, will practically mug you if you haven’t brought snacks for them.

    Urusla, I adore your image! Of course we know that such an contract would have to be initiated earlier in the year before the planting could be done, given those amounts.

    Tibs says, Look at all the Post Offices. The Eastside Santa Cruz post office was rather deedy, and one day, I talked to the Postmaster, offering to bring in some lavendar or something of that nature, but the landlord had been approached about improving the landacaping. Never responded, and I couldn’t even donate with out the landlord’s agreement. Feh. There may be other issues of this sort with leased (urban?) grounds.

    I agree with many who’ve said, this might take a while, but it IS a step in the right direction. Yes, it IS unfunded and likely enforced
    only casually, but lots of little drops turn a mill wheel.

    As far as English Ivy and a few others, one could perhaps use the fact that they can harbor rats, and therefore should be discouraged, in the name of public safety, historic or no, unless recreating the aftermath of villages with bubonic/pneumonic plague is truly desired.

  14. I am pleased to read your comments and find the Federal document itself. I teach at the Landscape Institute, Boston Architectural College, formerly of Radcliffe College. My courses are in plant identification and landscape inventory—attempts to De-emphasize the “design” and open the eyes to first “observe”, existing plants, soils, bedrock and glacial geology, water movement. To this end I offer as texts PDF books on these subjects I’ve written over many years, focused on NE USA water, landforms and plant species of all origins. Native plants may be difficult to re-establish when exotic woody invasives have taken over, but that is exactly the emphasis on a site where I am consulting: hazardous soils will be removed and natural revegetation promoted, the Federal effort will undoubtedly help in this process. It is nice to read independent voices speaking up, as well. Thanks.

  15. @ Gordon : Give it to whom ? It is owned by the people of the the United States now. These are historical properties & public buildings, not random tracts of land.

  16. Gardening is definitely ejsubctive, and I find that my opinions sometimes even counteract one another, putting me right into gardening hypocrisy. For example, I enjoy some whimsy in the yard, as long as it doesn’t cross the line into what I would consider tacky (Mickey Mouse would definitely cross that line). I might admire perfect yards, but I would never want one. I get a bit of an attitude about yards so groomed they don’t look natural, or so perfectly healthy one immediately thinks of wasteful watering or use of pesticides or fertilizers. But that doesn’t mean I can’t admire the beauty of a flower, the artistic skill in the gardener’s plant selection or landscape design, or the fact that there isn’t a weed in sight.I do feel a sense of longing when gardeners talk about a scent or flower that reminds them of their mom, dad, or grandparent gardening. My parents didn’t garden when I was growing up, but they do some now, with their new spouses. I never learned from another how to do all this. And as an organic gardener, I’m pretty much on my own there, too. We might talk a bit about plants, but there’s a divide, too. I’m all organic, and they’re… not. They also aren’t Internet people — do they read my blog? Nope. So while we are close in other ways, gardening actually isn’t a regular part of our conversations. But I feel glad that one day my kids are going to have their memories of being in the garden with their mom, and hopefully a bit of me rubs off on them.FYI, I do have dirt under my nails much of the time. But that’s mainly because the dogs steal and chew up my gloves. Oh, and I do have a tattoo. Two actually. They’re both tasteful and all me. One day I’ll share a pic!

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