Eco-Landscaping 101

Discover Cover.140Discover Ecological Landscaping is a concise introduction to the concepts and practices at the root  landscapes managed with an eye to long-term health and sustainability. Originally published in 2005, ELA’s introductory guide was first available as a printed booklet, and more recently as a pdf for self-printing from the ELA website. (Click here to access.) Continue reading

by Gary Krause

Sustainability in Landscape has many different meanings. Some define a sustainable landscape as a discipline that emphasizes plant health, soil condition, water quality, and resource conservation. To be sustainable does not mean the elimination of fertilizers, synthetic compounds, petroleum based products and gas powered equipment. Rather, sustainability means the creation of outdoor spaces that utilize the three R’s, ‘reduce, recycle, reuse’. A sustainable landscape creates a balanced relationship between the natural and manmade environment.

Ground covers instead of grass in the front yard.
Ground covers instead of grass in the front yard.

The Approach

Each year millions are spent on designing, building, and maintaining landscapes that use too many unsustainable resources. This is wasteful and depletes our water, contaminates the soil and water table, and pollutes the air from the use of gas-powered equipment. These problems can be avoided or reduced by practicing sustainable landscape design and construction. Using sustainable practices will reduce greenhouse gasses by conserving resources, energy and minimizing fertilizer and pesticide use. A sustainable landscape will also reduce labor costs, making it less expensive overall to implement and maintain.

A natural drainage recreated into a water feature/stream.A natural drainage recreated into a water feature/stream.

Gary’s Sustainable Landscaping Guidelines

  1. [For new planting areas] add 6″ of compost to the soil and use a rototiller to incorporate the compost into the top 4″.
  2. Mulch and top dress with 3″ of compost.
  3. Design low volume irrigation by installing low volume nozzles and subsurface drip system to reduce water use and increase soil moisture. Install an Evapo-Transpiration (ET) controller to reduce over watering. ET controllers use weather data to calculate ET.
  4. Install drainage systems to eliminate storm water contamination and add rainwater harvest systems to reclaim run off and collect rainfall. This can be then pumped or gravity feed to the irrigation system.
  5. Construct retaining walls, block or vegetative to prevent run off and erosion. Segmented retaining walls are a good way to prevent run off and erosion and allow for drainage behind them. They are engineered and can be built to over 4’. This wall system can keep soil and debris out of the storm water systems.
  6. Plant lawn on level ground to prevent run off and conserve water. Always encourage clients to plant turf on the level (see #7)
  7. Reduce amount of lawn and instead use ground cover plants or synthetic turf.
  8. Practice prudent use of synthetic fertilizers and pest controls. Use Mechanical and natural methods as part of an integrated program. There are polymers on the market that will aerate the soil and combine with a liquid compost product to get great results.
  9. Remember use products and materials that are part of Reuse, Reduce, Recycle practices.

Gary Krause, a Licensed Landscape Construction Professional ( L.C.P.) since 1994 with a degree in design, has 30 years experience in gardening, landscape design, construction and maintenance. Gary is a ‘Certified Sustainable Landscaper’ through greenindustryeducation.com.


When pest problems occur in the landscape, an understanding of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) can help to reduce the use of harmful chemicals that can be harmful to beneficial insects. Watch the following Ecological Landscaping Association (ELA) video to learn more. This video is an excerpt from an interview with ELA’s past Vice President, Kathy Sargent-O’Neill. The complete interview aired on Plymouth, Massachusetts PACTV (www.pactv.org) on the program, Seniority, which is produced and hosted by Robbie Haigh. Seniority is a Herring Swan Production and this video is shared with permission.

Spring – Gypsum is used in areas where snow has been piled, where salt has been used and where people or vehicles may have cut corners or parked on the lawn during winter. Gypsum relieves soil compaction and the effects of salt by chemical binding it. It is better to use calcium chloride rather than sodium chloride around any landscaping to melt snow in the winter. Gypsum and grass seed should be applied to any bare spots.

In the spring, it is advisable to rake, aerate and put down lime. Lime is used to change the pH, to sweeten the soil, and to move the acidity to a more neutral pH. Fertilizing, the natural cycles of decay and acid rain are some of the events that contribute to the ongoing acidity of the soil. Grass in particular thrives better in a more neutral pH environment which allows it to take up nutrients at the optimal rate.

When re-seeding look at the light conditions and buy sun or shade tolerant seed. Always purchase mixes and drought tolerant varieties to reduce single variety diseases and blights. Apply seed and then cover with a thin layer of compost to hide it from birds. Keep the seeds damp initially, watering twice a day for no more than 15 minutes. This is long enough to ensure dampness without seed or compost erosion. Water in the afternoon, no later than 3 PM, so that the incidence of fungus attacks is minimized. After two weeks, cut this schedule to once a day, in the morning. There is no need to water this much if it has been raining, or if it is cool and humid.

Corn gluten meal is an organic weed seed suppressor. It CANNOT be used when one is trying to also re-seed bare patches in the lawn. Corn gluten meal also adds a significant amount of nitrogen to the soil, so if one is planning to use it then the rate/type of fertilizer must be adjusted accordingly. However, a liquid form of corn gluten with a lower nitrogen content has recently been developed. Most fertilizers advertised on the market for promoting grass growth have an excessive rate of nitrogen. The more nitrogen, the more mowing is needed! But perhaps more importantly, excessive nitrogen is leached through the soil and can create serious ecological problems with wetlands, rivers, ponds and aquifers.

The best way to suppress weeds is to keep the lawn re-seeded on a regular basis AND to mow the grass high all summer long. Three inches at a minimum and four inches is better. Mowing the grass high will cause more competition for weeds and will also shade the soil so that weed seeds do not germinate readily. The shaded soil stays cool and moist longer and the grass is less prone to drought stress. Stressed plants are vectors for insect and diseases. Consider higher lengths in areas where the lawn is not readily visible (e. g. “the back 40″) and/or adding in meadow flower plugs.

Irrigation is necessary to keep the lawn green in July and August. Watering once a week in a given zone, approximately one inch will promote the best root growth and help prevent drought stress. Watering lightly and frequently promotes shallow root growth, and allows fungal diseases to develop because the lawn is frequently damp. Deep roots are also less prone to grub attacks. There will always be grubs, but if there are more roots the grass can withstand a grub attack and can regenerate the roots faster.

Fall – In the fall, the last mowing should be cut short and a light fertilization applied to promote root growth for the cooler months. If the soil is very acidic, another dressing of lime can also be applied.

In the “original” natural systems of prairies and forests, what we would refer to as mulch is the accumulation of system litter – grass and plant stems, leaves and sticks, etc. The slow breakdown and eventual decay of this material is an essential part of these ecosystems and is crucial to their health and continued existence. This decaying material provides shelter and food not only for plants but also for myriads of other soil creatures all along the cycle of life.

Mulch, in its many different forms, in our gardens performs similar functions to that of the decaying litter. Mulch serves to insulate the soil against rapid temperature changes and can keep the soil surface 10 degrees cooler in the summer’s blazing heat. Mulch also serves as a blanket in the winter protecting the soil and plants from temperature extremes and the rigors of the freeze thaw cycle in the spring. Mulch also helps water penetrate the soil, helps conserve moisture in the soil, prevents erosion, and prevents desiccation and desertification from the wind.

Gardens are an arrangement of plants of both of the prairie and forest systems arranged in a manner to suit a given set of aesthetics that are not necessarily organized (even with the best intentions) to take into account the conditions optimal for plant health. Our current cultural aesthetics require that gardens, grass (prairie) and shrub (forest) borders have a certain look with well defined separation and edges. To this end, all garden beds are mulched and all lawns are kept closely manicured. Tailoring your “Tidy Aesthetics” to only the most visible, highly trafficked areas of your property can free up your landscape budget for projects elsewhere. Current practice encourages us to use mowers (large, wide ride on or self propelled types), weed whackers and blowers (bigger and louder are best here).

All of this machinery generates a lot of air movement and wind which intentionally or not blows all of the litter around and takes it out of the “natural” cycle of production. Weed whackers (used for edging), which cut off just the tops and not the roots of the grass (in its relentless movement into the beds) frequently damage the garden plants and shrubs that are at the edge of the bed. Weed whacked edges do not create good edges and don’t eliminate the grass roots from entering the beds like traditional edging does.

Blowers and lawn mowers, all blow mulch or litter out of the beds, or farther into it, creating a bare edge and a beltway mound of mulch 8″ – 24″ which is too deep. The heat and gale force winds (anywhere from 125 – 183 MPH according to two different manufacturer’s specs) created by blowers, in particular, routinely cause damage to any and all of the plants that they come into contact with. Walking on the plants breaks, damages and eventually causes branch and plant death in addition to unnecessarily compacting the soil.

So each year, as current cultural practice and norms dictate, beds are blown out in the Spring, and mulch is applied. Over the course of the season, between the mowers, whackers and blowers, the mulch is blown anywhere from 12″ – 24″ off of the edges of the beds. Any of the plants at the edges of the beds have lost any of the benefits of the mulch and at the end of the season, most, if not all of the mulch is blown out of the beds, depriving the soil and the plants of its winter insulation, just in time for the winter season and the spring freeze/thaw cycles. Page 2

Mulch, and bark mulch in particular, is optimally applied at a rate of 4″ inches, every two years. Any more mulch and the plants, shrubs and trees will get stressed out from the effects of suffocation. Plant roots and healthy soil MUST have air to survive. If the soil and roots are buried too deeply, then chemical reactions occur in the soil and these reactions are not favorable for root growth. In fact this can cause root dieback, which places additional stress on the plants and the soil biology that has a symbiotic relationship with the plants. All plants form some type of symbiotic relationship with soil biology that helps them get the benefit from soil nutrients, minerals and water. Other types of mulches include materials like leaves, pine needles, hay, grass, and shavings must follow some of the same rules of application. Fresh manure should NOT be applied to any beds as it will cause burning of plant material from the sudden overload of nitrogen.

Mulch must NOT be applied so that it has direct contact with the bark of trees or shrubs. This will accelerate plant decline by rotting the protective bark, and causing the plant to send out suckers and roots from the trunk as stress response mechanisms. All trees and some shrubs have trunk flares which you can see in natural forest systems, (except where humans are dumping extra leaves, grass or branches into,). These are necessary for anchoring and also the trees ability to withstand high winds. Mulch “volcanoes” are to trees like “wet socks” are to humans – wet, nasty, itchy and ripe conditions for fungi and bacteria to grow! They also provide nice homes for rodents which chew on the bark, which girdles (kills) the trees.

Mulches may not need to be applied as thickly especially in areas where there are lots of groundcovers becoming established. Lighter compositions or somewhat broken down mulches (crunched leaves, pine needles etc.), work well in situations such as these. In areas where there are established groundcovers some of the leaves can be left to decay naturally on their own – especially if they are smaller leaves from ash, cherry, apple etc. Larger leaves from areas with lots of maples and oaks may have to have some of the leaves removed or mowed to a smaller size.

Weed and or seed suppressors, (used with care as some of them are made up of fairly serious herbicide combinations that should not be overused) can be effective maintenance tools to alleviate long-term maintenance and to allow groundcovers a chance to establish themselves without competition from weeds. Well established, thickly growing groundcovers do many of the same jobs that mulch or litters do on the prairie or forest floor. In addition they provide the added element of plant competition so that weeds that do happen to sprout never get a foothold like they do in highly disturbed areas with no mulch cover.

While there is no such thing as “No Maintenance”, planting what you want and ensuring good coverage with trees, shrubs, perennials and groundcovers that will keep the ground shaded greatly reduces the number of weed seeds that will be able to germinate and or successfully flower and go to seed. This type of planting is referred to as a “Living Mulch” and can be applied to all types of planting styles and cultural conditions. The seeds are always there but if you can control some of the conditions that they require for growth, they won’t sprout and/or grow successfully. Shifting your “Tidy Aesthetics” to only those public and highly trafficked areas as well as managing the mulch and mowing practices on your property will save you money in the long run.

Proper watering techniques are essential to the health of plants in the garden as well as in containers. In general, it is far better to water less frequently for longer durations. Frequent drenches can result in root-rot and attract moisture-loving insects. Frequent, shallow waterings are deceiving, as the deep roots will die and leave the plant with no drought tolerance or long lasting endurance.

Water pressure should mimic rainfall and not blast flowers or leaves unless the goal is to clean off bug infestations. Plants, in general, prefer not to get sprayed, but rather to receive the water at the root zone where they need it. If sprayers or some sort of overhead irrigation are your only options, then you must be careful to avoid inadvertently creating the constant moisture in which fungal diseases thrives. If you have to water with spraying methods only, water early in the morning, so that, like dewfall, the excess spray moisture on the plants will have all day long to dry out. Over or under watering will quickly expose weak spots on plants where pests, fungus or disease can enter. If not treated soon after, plants can experience stunting, dieback or death.

Proper drainage is essential and specific to each species. Become familiar with a plant�s needs before planting. Siting a plant in the proper soil mix will allow watering to encourage the maximum root depth and become more drought tolerant. Proper watering will keep beneficial micro-organisms present in the soil and allow amendments and fertilizers to become available to the soil which then feeds the plant. Soil texture is also important as plants in clay soil will not dry out as fast as plants in sandy soil, which usually require more watering.

Containers should be monitored carefully. When watering plants in containers, water the sides of the pot as well as inner areas to prevent an air/dry gap from forming between the container and the soil. Regular, full waterings at longer and less frequent intervals will promote plant health and vigor.

Ground watering should happen twice a week for a half hour or drop back to once a week for an hour if conditions are safe to do so. The general rule of thumb is an inch of rain a week. While watering, take note as to how far the branches or fronds of the plant extend. This is the rain drip line of the plant where lots of root activity takes place. The roots can be expected to grow out way past that circumference if the soil is not compacted. Plants requiring more nutrients and water will require heavier, longer waterings. For instance: trees and shrubs in grassy areas require more fertilizer and water than trees and shrubs planted in groundcover beds. Consider altering cultural practices and remove the grass around trees out to the dripline to improve the health and vigor of the tree and to save on watering bills.