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Tips for Sustainable Landscapes

Sustainable Landscapes consists of several components and on several scales that all work together to maintain a network of natural processes.  The components range in size and shape depending on the type and the scale of the resources being protected, managed or maintained. The rarity or importance of the natural features within each component determines the level of conservation required to protect these resources, while the sensitivity of the environment to human activity determines how much interaction between human and nature is appropriate. The smallest of residential landscape and garden, to the largest National Park all can play important roles in the Sustainable Landscapes.
It begins with the soil!

An acre of healthy, living topsoil contains approximately 900 pounds of earthworms, 2,400 pounds of fungi, 1,500 pounds of bacteria, 133 pounds of protozoa, 890 pounds of arthropods and algae, and even small mammals in some cases.
Therefore, the soil should be viewed as a living community rather than an inert body. Soil organic matter also contains dead organisms, plant matter, and other organic materials in various phases of decomposition. Humus, the dark-colored organic material in the final stages of decomposition, is relatively stable. Both organic matter and humus serve as reservoirs of plant nutrients; they also help to build soil structure and provide other benefits.
The type of healthy living soil required to support humans now and far into the future will be balanced in nutrients and high in humus, with a broad diversity of soil organisms. It will produce healthy plants with minimal weed, disease, and insect pressure. To accomplish this, we need to work with the natural processes and optimize their functions to sustain our landscapes.
Considering the natural landscape, you might wonder how native prairies and forests function in the absence of tillage and fertilizers.  These soils are tilled by soil organisms, not by machinery. They are fertilized too, but the fertility is used again and again and never leaves the site. Native soils are covered with a layer of plant litter and/or growing plants throughout the year. Beneath the surface litter, a rich complexity of soil organisms decompose plant residue and dead roots, then release their stored nutrients slowly over time. In fact, topsoil is the most biologically diverse habitat on Earth. Soil-dwelling organisms release bound-up minerals, converting them into plant-available forms that are then taken up by the plants growing on the site. The organisms recycle nutrients again and again with the death and decay of each new generation of plants.
There are many different types of creatures that live on or in the topsoil. Each has a role to play.
These organisms will work for the landscape owners benefit if we simply manage for their survival. Consequently, we should refer to this as soil biodiversity.  While a great variety of organisms contribute to soil fertility, earthworms, arthropods, and the various microorganisms merit particular attention.
Ecological Regions & Plants

Ecoregions are relatively large areas that have similar climate, geology and soils.  The climate, geology and soils of a region are major components of determining what plants and animals can live in the Ecoregion.  Even though two places might be far apart, they may be part of the same Ecoregion, and therefore we can predict that they will have similar species of plants and animals.  On a global basis, it has been estimated that there are 825 different terrestrial (land) Ecoregions, 426 aquatic (fresh water) Ecoregions and 229 coastal and shelf (marine/ocean) Ecoregions. 

Biologically diverse and healthy soils, combined with the geology and climate of an Ecoregion should be used as the basis for selecting appropriate plants for use in a sustainable landscape.  Simply put, attempting to grow plants that are not suited to growing in the types of soils, climate and geology of a particular landscape will lead to the use of unsustainable management practices in an effort to keep the plants alive.  And this intensive focus directed at keeping an improper plant selection alive will also adversely impact the health of the soil with the result being even weaker plants and the need to increase the attention being given to the plants.  This approach turns into an unsustainable cycle of landscape management.
Planning & Design

Hubs:  Act as an “anchor” for a variety of natural processes and provide an origin or destination for wildlife.  Types of Hubs include:

  • Reserves: Lands that protect significant ecological sites, including wildlife areas typically in their natural state, such as a National Wildlife Refuge or similar areas.
  • Managed Native Landscapes: Large publically owned lands, such as a National Forest, which is managed for sustainable resource use, as well as for natural and recreational values.
  • Working Lands: Private working lands, including farmland, forests, ranch lands.
  • Parks and Open Space Areas: Landscapes at the national, state, regional, county, municipal and private level that may protect natural resources and/or provide recreational opportunities.  Examples include public parks, natural areas, playgrounds and golf courses.
  • Recycled Lands: Lands that were previously damaged by intense public or private use and that have since been restored or reclaimed.  Mined lands, landfills or brownfields that have been improved in total or in part to provide an environmental function are example or recycles lands. 

Links: Interconnect the hubs, facilitating the flow of ecological processes.  Links include:
Conservation Corridors: Linear areas, such as river and stream corridors that serve primarily as biological conduits for wildlife and may provide recreational opportunities.  Greenways and riparian buffer areas are examples of conservation corridors.
Greenbelts: Protected natural lands or working landscapes that serve as a framework for development while also preserving native ecosystems and/or farms or ranch lands.  They often act as partitions within a community to form a visual and physical relief in the landscape, separating adjacent land uses and buffering the impacts of these uses.  Farmland preservation areas can be considered greenbelts.
Landscape Linkages:  Open spaces that connect wildlife reserves, parks, managed and working lands and provide sufficient space for native plants and animals to flourish.  IN addition to protecting the local native ecology, these linkages may contain cultural elements, such as historic resources, provide recreational opportunities and preserve scenic views that enhance the quality of life in a community or region.  Landscape linkages may include streetscapes and recreational trail corridors.
Sustainable Landscape Management

Planning Your Landscape - Planning a new landscape & improving an existing landscape
Start with the soil: – Whether it is planning for a new landscape or planning for the improvement of an existing landscape, the first step in planning your landscape should be to test the soil. A soil test will provide data on the organic content as well as the makeup of the biology of the soil that should be used to help improve the soil in order to enhance water and nutrient uptake by plants.
Where’s the water: - Identify your primary source of water (municipal, well, surface) and explore alternative ways of obtaining water for irrigating plants, such as rainwater harvesting and storage, collecting air-conditioner condensate, and rain gardens. Determine average annual rainfall for the area.  Harvesting and saving rainfall for landscape use during dry periods can reduce the strain on all water systems. If you have an irrigation system, investigate using alternative water sources as well.  You can also have an irrigation audit performed by a professional to maximize the efficiency of your existing irrigation system. Include fertigation as part of your effort to make water more efficient in regard to building healthy soils and healthy plants.
“Right plant in the right place:” - When selecting plants for your landscape, make lists of the plants based on their water needs (low, medium, or high) and sunlight requirements. By doing so, you are grouping plants with similar water and light needs in the landscape. This allows you to match water needs with irrigation and reduce the water applied to areas with plants having low water needs. This will also improve the health of individual plants and reduce disease and environmental stress by preventing over-watering and under-watering.
Use the land wisely: - When planning your landscape, place plants with lower water needs at higher elevations and plants with higher water needs in flat areas or at lower elevations. This is needed because irrigating sloped land will result in less efficient irrigation (higher runoff and erosion). Also catalog the sunlight patterns throughout the day and plant sun-loving plants where they get 6 to 8 hours of full sun, and shade-loving plant where they will be shaded from the hot afternoon sun.

Proper Planting Can Reduce Water Needs

Soil amendments are key: - Organic amendments improve the physical and chemical properties of the soil. They not only help the soil hold water and nutrients, they also improve water movement throughout the soil. This results in a healthier plant environment, allowing easier root development and fewer soil-related problems. Incorporate organic amendments (compost for example) to the soil. This can be accomplished by using liquid humus products through fertigation as well as by the use of traditional compost materials. This will improve the drought tolerance of landscape plants, as well as build beneficial organisms in the soil that will build healthier plants. Did you know -- For every 1% increase in organic matter content, an acre of soil can hold as much as 16,500 gallons of water!
Mulch, mulch, mulch: – For trees and ornamentals, apply 2 to 4 inches of mulch or compost on the soil surface after planting. Mulch not only conserves moisture, it also maintains a uniform soil temperature and reduces weeds that compete for light, water and nutrients. Fine-textured mulches and/or compost prevent evaporative water loss better than coarse-textured mulches. The roots of established trees and shrubs extend two to three times their canopy spread, so mulch as large an area as possible to trap the maximum amount of moisture in the soil.  Do not mound mulch against the trunks of trees and shrubs because this will encourage insect nesting and disease formation in the covered bark.
Water it in (threes): - When planting, remember that watering is a key part of the planting process. First, water the plants in their containers just before planting. To do this, set the containers on a turfgrass area or planting bed instead of an impervious surface so that excess water draining from the containers benefits the landscape and makes “every drop count.” Then, add additional water to settle the soil and eliminate air pockets as you fill the planting hole with soil. Finally, water again after planting. These three steps will reduce transplant shock and give the plant a head-start on becoming established.
Be extremely careful when planting around established plants: - When planting, avoid digging under established trees or shrubs and injuring their roots. It’s estimated that 80% of the roots of established trees and shrubs are within the top 12 inches of the soil surface, so digging can cause severe stress to plants. Fill dirt or topsoil added over the roots of established plants can smother their roots and cause stress. Plants stressed by these cultural factors are more likely to show drought stress symptoms.

Prune those roots: - If you remove the plant from the pot and see a mass of tangled roots, use a knife to make four to six vertical cuts around the root ball, then use your hands to pull apart the roots. Although this appears harmful to the plant, it actually encourages new roots to form, allows water to move into the root ball, and results in more rapid plant establishment.

Managing Your Landscape for Perpetual Water Savings

Use your eyes: - Watch for moisture stress symptoms before deciding when to irrigate. An abnormal gray-green color or obvious wilting are good indicators that a plant needs moisture. Confirm this by digging a small hole to see if the soil is wet, moist, or dry. Watering plants only when they require it will result in a deep, strong root system that preconditions the plant to tolerate dry periods.

Timing is everything. - The best time to irrigate is at late night or early morning (1 A.M. to 9 A.M) to conserve moisture and to reduce evaporative losses of water. Call your local water provider for authorized watering times.  Avoid early night-time watering because doing so can encourage the formation of plant foliage diseases.
Test the soil (again): - A soil test provides the best gauge for on-going soil conditioning requirements in the landscape until it becomes self-sustaining. Healthy plants come from healthy soils and are more water efficient during dry periods. Never fertilize according to the calendar, but base it on the needs of plant   nutrient levels.  The best way to determine what plant nutrients to apply is by having plant leaf tissue analyzed by a laboratory, which takes the guess work out of nutrient management.  Excess fertilizer can not only injure roots but also can become an environmental pollutant when it runs off into storm drains and nearby waterways.  Over time implementing sustainable landscape maintenance practices will nearly eliminate the need for regular fertilizer applications.

 Know your fertilizer: - Slow-release type fertilizers, organic fertilizers, and/or compost release nutrients slowly over an extended period of time resulting in more uniform growth rates and more water-efficient plants. Excess nitrogen causes rapid growth, makes plants attractive to insects and disease organisms, and increases a plant’s demand for water.

Keep the mulch coming: - Maintain an average mulch depth of 2 to 4 inches. This may require you to add 1to 3 inches of additional mulch each year as the increasing soil microbial populations decompose the organic matter.  Maintaining a uniform layer of mulch over plant roots is one of the best water conservation practices for your landscape.

Keep you turfgrass tough: – When properly planted and managed, turfgrass is more resilient to periodic drought conditions than many people assume.  Regardless of drought conditions, allow the grass to dry and become stressed before applying irrigation. This actually causes the grass plant to explore deeper soil depths for moisture and nutrients.  It is best not to irrigate based on a set schedule, but rather to guide irrigation based on plant need and soil moisture testing with a moisture meter.  Cultural practices like aeration, mowing, and fertilization can affect the root depth.  Periodically aerify (i.e. as infrequent as every other growing season) to improve water and air entry into the soil.  To encourage deep rooting during periods of heat or drought stress, raise the mowing height to the upper limits of recommend mowing heights.  Similarly, during periods of stress use the lower end of nitrogen fertility recommendations and be sure other nutrients, like phosphorus and potassium, are adequate for turfgrass growth.

 Where is that water going: - To avoid wasting water, use a hand-held hose, soaker hose or drip irrigation to water trees, shrubs and flowers, especially those planted on slopes. Water only the soil, not the leaves and flowers. To avoid runoff, apply water gently and slowly at a rate the soil can absorb. When using sprinklers, make sure that the water reaches your lawn and plants, not the house, sidewalk, driveway or street. Retrofit your irrigation system with low volume emitters and a rain sensor that will prevent it from running during rainfall.  Use a broom or blower instead of a water hose to clean your driveway or sidewalk. 

SustainAbility Newsletter Archive Article (random)

Two Big Benefits of Using Organic Fertilizers

Organic FertilizerThe U.S. Department of Agriculture sets the regulations by which fertilizer products obtain certification as “organic”.

The use of organic fertilizers is currently the topic of hot debates in most gardening, lawn care, and commercial recreation circles. Many who support the use of synthetic fertilizers exclusively believe that while organic fertilizers may be naturally derived they do not have enough advantages to use over chemical fertilizers. On the contrary, we believe that organic fertilizers do have many advantages.

There are two tremendous benefits to using an Organic Fertilizer.

1) Plant Growth
Organic fertilizers provide nutrients necessary for plant growth, with the benefit of being slower-acting and gentler than chemical fertilizers, so that you are less likely to overfeed and chemically burn your plants. Organic fertilizers are not in a form that is immediately absorbed by plants, but rather must be first broken down by soil bacteria and fungi into forms that plants can absorb. This means that, unlike chemical fertilizers, organic fertilizers are not easily washed away in a heavy rainstorm or irrigation session, and that the plants get the benefit of nutrients for growth more evenly over a longer period of time rather than all at once.

2) Soil Improvement
Organic fertilizers help improve soil structure and nutrient content over time. While chemical fertilizers simply add water-soluble chemicals which are either absorbed by the plant roots or leach away, potentially polluting water resources, organic fertilizers add organic matter that helps the soil to retain moisture and nutrients. Sandy soils in particular can benefit from the addition of organic fertilizers, or from the use of organic matter like well-rotted compost and manure used as a soil fertility additive or mulch. These latter organic matter fertilizers have the added advantage of often being free from livestock farms, poultry farms or wood-processing facilities which compost their discarded bedding and wood chips.



Some Additional Benefits of Organic Fertilizers

Slow Release of Nutrients
When fertilizers are mixed into the soil, the nutrients are absorbed from the soil by the roots of the plant. In synthetic fertilizers, these nutrients are in ready to use form and when mixed into the soil, can be immediately absorbed by the roots and hence, the plant. There is however a real danger that the roots absorb more nutrients than necessary, causing the roots and plant to burn up. On the other hand, organic fertilizers do not contain nutrients in an easily usable form. When they are mixed into the soil, the microorganisms like bacteria that are in the soil, have to work on the fertilizer, break it up and release the nutrients. This is a slow process and so there is no danger that too many nutrients are ever available to the plant. As such there is low chance for a ‘plant burn’ when organic fertilizers are used.

Long-term Benefits to the Soil
Chemical fertilizers are manufactured with the sole purpose of helping the growth of a plant. As a result while they may contain a better balance of all the major nutrients that a plant needs, they also contain certain harmful elements that can cause acidity in the soil. This can kill the helpful microbes that live in the soil and studies indicate that long-term use of chemical fertilizers can cause great damageto the soil. On the other hand, since organic fertilizers need these microbes to work on them to release the nutrients, they end up stimulating the growth of these microorganisms, ensuring long-term fertility of the soil.

Long-term Benefits to the Environment
Synthetic fertilizers also tend to release many chemicals into the soil that contain nutrients helpful to soil but may also contain elements that are not easily biodegradable. These may go on to contaminate our lands and our water. On the other hand, by definition, organic fertilizers almost always have only biodegradable contents.

Cheap and Cost-Effective
Organic Fertilizers can be produced at home or on farms by using a mix of cow, sheep, chicken, and horse manure along with wastes like leaves and dead plants. This is a great way of getting rid of waste from your garden or farm and certainly a cheaper alternative to purchasing chemical fertilizers.

When lawns and gardens are sprayed with chemical fertilizers, one has to be careful that the family members, especially kids and pets who often play on lawns, do not ingest the harmful chemicals. However, there is no preventing from local wildlife from being affected. Organic fertilizers can be a safer alternative.

As with all things,  there is no one size fits all, and in many instances the use of a synthetic fertilizer may prove to be more effective. However, if you take the time to learn about your specific needs and truly understand the needs of your lawn, turf, garden or management zone you will have a healthy, safe, water and energy efficient landscape in no time!   





References and Sources used in this issue of SustainAbility Newsletter Include:

Audubon Lifestyles 
The International Sustainability Council 

Sustainable Demonstration Project Blog

The 2012 Summer Olympic Games

Scotland Yards Golf Club

Audubon Outdoors

Love and Dodson

Green World Parth

Turf Feeding Systems

The Dodson Group      

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A Coalition for Good - Spreading the Seeds of Sustainability

ISC-Audubon is a coalition of non-profit organizations and initiatives that include The International Sustainability Council (ISC), Audubon Lifestyles, Audubon Outdoors, Planit Green, Broadcast Audubon, and the Audubon Network for Sustainability. 

Funds generated through memberships and donations are used to provide fruit & vegetable seeds, wildflower seed mix, and wildlife feed & birdseed to urban and suburban communities around the world. These seeds are used by communities to establish fruit and vegetable gardens, bird and wildlife sanctuaries, and for the beautification of urban and suburban landscapes by creating flower and native plant gardens.

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