Across the country, 2016 has brought challenges to landscapes and the businesses that help sustain them. ELA checked in with a few members to find out about their season, their businesses, and the direction of ecological landscapes.
Our Members Introduce Themselves
Cindy Goulder: I’m a landscape and garden designer based in Brooklyn NY. My company, Ecological Landscapes/Urban Gardens, provides landscape/garden design, installation, and guidance for urban homeowners, community gardeners, and public land agencies – with an emphasis on serving people who like to garden. Nature photography is my avocation, a fabulous means of observing nature closely and sharing what I learn. At one time, I created estate gardens and suburban landscapes, and I’ve supervised installations of New York City ecological restoration projects and designed native plantings for wildlife and people both. I trained in horticulture and landscape design at New York Botanical Garden and hold a Master’s Degree in Ecology (Biological Sciences) from Fordham University and a Permaculture Design Certificate from Whole Systems Design in Vermont.
Sue Opton: I’m a landscape designer and Massachusetts Certified Horticulturalist. In 2001, I relocated from Los Angeles to the East Coast, and a love of the outdoors and greenscape practices led me to a career change from my work in healthcare. After graduating from The Landscape Institute of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, I’ve practiced private landscape design and consultation for residential projects. I began Terrascapes as a landscape designer in 2003 and currently focus on design and installations in the Boston Metro West areas. I’m an active member of APLD, NEHLDA, ASLA, and COGdesign.
Nick Novick: I own and operate Small Planet Landscaping, based in Ashland, MA, which provides selected, environmentally responsible land-care services. I have a B.S. in Environmental Conservation, am a former board member and newsletter editor for ELA, and currently serve as the ELA representative on the Massachusetts Invasive Plant Advisory Group, among other impressive-sounding things. I’m currently scheming to set up an aronia plantation somewhere in northern New England. Get in touch if you know of some good land.
ELA: What were any challenges you had to overcome, or are working to overcome, on your properties or in your business this season?
Cindy: One challenge is how to minimize the water needs of urban gardens, in order to reduce reliance on city water for irrigation and be better prepared for times of drought. It’s not always possible or even desirable to collect water off the roofs of urban homes. And it’s not usually feasible to limit plant selection entirely to species known to be xeric or drought-tolerant, or simply deep-rooted. I group plants by their soil moisture requirements and shape the garden’s terrain to direct water flow to areas of higher need and/or higher priority to the client. I also like to think ahead about the roots of canopy trees and where they might, sooner or later, draw water away from other plants important to the client.
Another challenge is that, given the small size of urban backyards and the need to keep them groomed as outdoor living spaces, healthy ecological interaction and regeneration are limited. My approach is to consider the larger context of each garden, to impart a taste of what’s experienced in natural settings, to design a rich succession of changes through the seasons, to include self-sowing plants where possible, to provide resources for birds and insects, to use practices for cycling nutrients, and to give clients reason to engage with their gardens.
Sue: High-quality customer relationships are always a challenge in a small business. With everyone wearing more than one hat, it can be difficult to respond to clients in a timely manner. We pride ourselves in trying to get back to clients either by phone or email within 24 hours.
Nick: One of the biggest issues this year in our area has been the dry, hot summer. We’re in a part of Massachusetts that was just declared an agricultural federal disaster area because of the drought. In my area, precipitation is about nine inches below average for this time of the year. Supplemental irrigation is challenging or impossible in many municipalities because of water-use restrictions. Drought damage manifested in more than the usual amount of browning of un-irrigated turfgrass, tree fruit that isn’t sizing up properly, and even established plants are showing signs of stress.
Despite the inclusion of a humectant in our lawn spray program, it appears that significant areas damaged by the drought will require re-seeding this fall, though it’s hard to anticipate the best time to seed, as it’s still dry and warm as we head into fall. I’m delaying past my preferred window of late August to mid-September, but waiting too long runs the risk of young grass failing to establish well enough to survive winter. On properties with restricted water use, we’ll need to rely on what little rain may fall. Most lawns we care for have no permanent irrigation, so the grass fends for itself, though we usually install a temporary system for extensively reseeded areas.
We usually don’t bother with supplemental irrigation on seeded meadows, but this year has been so unusual, we set up a temporary system on a one-acre native grass and wildflower meadow seeded in May. This wasn’t planned for, and the budget was fixed, so we installed this at our expense. Though the design seed mix comprised plants adapted to dry, sunny conditions, and might have eventually germinated, I felt it was necessary to provide water with such a severe drought. The site was just over an acre, so it was a significant addition to the project. Fortunately, adequate water was available at this site.
Initially, we ran the system for three days per week for a week or two to establish a base level of soil moisture, then backed it off to two days per week, then to once per week beginning in September. We’ll take up the system in early autumn.
Over a wider time frame, though, these kinds of landscapes are net savers of water and other inputs. Once a properly designed meadow is installed, it can withstand extended periods of drought better than most other kinds of plantings.
ELA: What ecological services have resonated most this season with your clients or students?
Cindy: Making a 180º shift in attitude toward invertebrates, homeowner clients, especially those with children, now avidly want to draw pollinators and beneficial insects to their gardens and are fascinated, even delighted, with soil biota. Some have asked about nest sites and food resources for birds, nest territory for bees, and host plants for butterflies. While interest in native species has been common for many years, I’m now also seeing a growing demand for edible fruiting plants and a growing interest in the health benefits and traditional uses of garden plants. All of this strengthens desires to avoid pesticides in keeping gardens healthy.
Sue: We consider the current town water rationing or bans as an opportunity to educate our clients about water conservation strategies including drip systems versus overhead sprays, drought tolerant plantings, and no-mow gardens.
Nick: Maybe it’s because word of mouth has been the primary route new work comes my way, but I tend to get clients or potential clients who are already interested in the kinds of work I do. Because most of my recurring work is caring for fruit trees, habitat plantings based on native plant communities, and invasive plant control, that’s the kind of interest I tend to attract. I’m glad that there seems to be a growing, or at least steady interest in these over the past few years.
It appears that interest continues to grow, albeit slowly, for cost-effective landscapes that provide more ecological function compared to conventional foundation planting/lawn/shade-tree models. Even on properties with more conventionally maintained gardens and beds, more people seem interested in giving some of the property over to a more natural style of landscape.
After a boom year in 2015, this year has been challenging to tree fruit in most of the region. After a very warm late fall and early winter, which did not induce proper hardening, nearly all peach flower buds were killed over three nights of below-zero temperatures in February—the Valentine’s Day Stone Fruit Massacre. No New England peaches this year. In many locales, hard frosts at either end of April damaged about half of the apple and pear flower buds depending on variety and microclimate. The extended drought stunted the development of what crops there were, unless supplemental irrigation was possible.
ELA: How has the focus of your business or field changed over the past few years, and what direction would you like to see your business or research go in?
Cindy: Last year I began to offer garden coaching services to help homeowners who want guidance in tending their own properties and becoming better gardeners. People who are building backyard landscapes by themselves are provided with advice and support. Those seeking to learn more gardening skills are given one-on-one training. Clients who have used my design, installation, and management planning services, particularly those who are inexperienced, are given further direction, step by step.
Going forward, I’d like to continue to focus on ecological planting design, to include not just native plants but others that support vulnerable wildlife and provide food and resources in our own backyards. For the coming year, I’m aiming to have more people working with me and to work more with other professionals.
Sue: Adding a fine gardening service to our company has allowed us to maintain the integrity of our installed designs with organic sustainable practices. We are able to use organic treatments for pest control and plant pathology, conduct soil tests and amend in a way that allows the plants to best absorb their nutrients and stay healthy, and feed and fertilize with organic matter instead chemicals. Adding edibles and pollinators to client gardens are two goals in the coming years.
Nick: I started out doing a little of everything—stone work; turf care and establishment, eventually taking care of many acres of lawn; general maintenance, etc.—but in following my interests and trying to keep the scale of my business small, things have evolved to where I’m providing a more selected range of services. Fruit-tree care, installing and maintaining meadows, and invasive-plant management now comprise a good part of the repeating, cyclical workload with just a bit of lawn work on a few properties. It appears that there are certain kinds of niche work that aren’t being serviced by most contractors. There’s room in the season for a few other projects, provided they can be done at certain times when the regular work ebbs a bit.
I’ve been pondering a shift to some kind of market agricultural growing for some time, and the impetus to move toward that seems stronger lately, so a significant changes in work mix and geographical location may be taking shape sooner than later.
ELA: Describe a particularly successful project, perhaps one for which you overcame a particular problem.
Cindy: The Poplar St. Community Garden grows on a 2500-sq-ft, sloping wedge of land along a highway off-ramp in Brooklyn. The site was a garbage dump until 1983 when neighborhood people had it cleared and then planted a lawn and a few ornamentals.
I’ve managed the garden since 2001, leading and training its 18 members to work together to shape, build, plant, and care for it and deal with the stresses of its location.
The gardeners recently built a ‘hugelkultur’ berm and planted it with fruiting shrubs and colorful herbs. Other features of the garden, in addition to personal plots, are: an insectary, a beekeeping area, a naturalized area under old apple trees, a woodland garden, an old-fashioned perennial border, a squash trellis, stone retaining walls, and a three-bin compost system. The ‘Little House,’ designed and built by the gardeners, provides storage space and serves as the garden’s centerpiece.
When just getting started with the garden, I enlisted self-sowing plants like Viola sororia, Stylophorum diphyllum, Coreopsis lanceolata, Lychnis coronaria, Daucus carota, Rudbeckia hirta, Echinacea purpurea, and Aster laevis, and spreaders like Asarum canadense, Packera aurea, Iris sp., and Monarda sp. to provide quick cover at virtually no cost. These still abound in the garden, lending vitality and delightful surprises as well as ecological services.
Because the water demands of the garden’s large trees and the draw of its underlying fill constantly deplete the soil of moisture, I’ve shaped terrain and carefully positioned rocks to steer water flow to critical areas and give smaller plants a fighting chance.
Sue: This woodland oasis was designed to replace the backyard lawn our clients were struggling to maintain. We cleared the area of invasive plant materials, weeds and other unsightly plant growth, and installed a patio in the middle of the woods surrounded by a shade garden. Circulation throughout provided access to all the gardens and the utility shed.
Nick: With the meadow work, I’m continually trying to discern what makes some projects establish well and others to face challenges. The key factors seem to be:
- Adequate control of existing plants and seed bank on the site. Rushing an installation without enough effort to deplete the weed seed bank guarantees competition from undesirable plants that becomes increasingly hard to control. Time and effort spent on this is even more important when seeding, as many of the design species can take a long time to become competitive.
- Choosing/designing a plant mix that is well suited to the site, are competitively well matched to each other, and which fills the various time, space, and functional niches within the overall community.
- Investing enough attention in the first year or two of establishment to manage any weeds that might be present and to encourage the design planting.
A residential meadow we installed in Fairhaven, MA a few years ago is a good example of a seeded meadow that, thankfully, developed as hoped for in its first few years. Unfortunately, the property owners moved away a few years ago. I never heard from the new owner, and, sadly, I’ve lost contact with the property.
The site was part of the rear yard which bordered a saltwater bay. The site had been in turfgrass for a number of years, so the weed seed bank was anticipated to be—and turned out to be—relatively inconsequential.
The client had a wedding reception planned for the time we might have started the project. Understandably, they didn’t want to be looking at open soil, so we planted a temporary cover crop of buckwheat, timed to be in bloom for the event. We killed this off and cut it back before it set seed before seeding the meadow.
Some photos and notes from the first few years:
ELA: What are your best tips for reducing maintenance requirements in the landscapes you care for?
Cindy: Not all native plants are “low maintenance” when grown in home garden or small landscape settings; some will require as much or more attention than other garden plants. Understanding the conditions of a species’ native territory, its range of tolerances, and its behavior, is critical. Before specifying plants that spread aggressively or seed in readily, I make sure that their habits and the techniques for managing them are clearly understood and acceptable to the client.
I’m also cautious when it comes to rich soils for landscape plantings. Unless plantings are extremely dense, I keep supplemental nutrients confined to the plantings holes and keep surrounding areas as unfavorable to germination as possible.
Sue: No mow yards incorporating groundcovers, drought tolerant plants, and mulching will abate weeding and reduce water consumption. Planting the right plant in the right place reduces constant pruning for size. If lifestyle does require grass for play or pets, planting native grass seeds helps to keep chemical usage down and reduces water use and mowing.
Nick: An ecological or naturalistic approach to the landscape entails a number of fundamental differences in approach compared to what is involved in more conventional landscapes. These extend from concept or design through the ongoing maintenance. Plant communities vs. individual specimens. Emphasis on structure and ecological function. Dense, multi-level plant layers rather than annual mulching and tedious hand weeding to discourage unwanted plants. Tasks like dead heading, cutting back, transplanting, dividing, etc. that serve conventional arrangements give way to different strategies.
Even the word maintenance is not so appropriate for this new paradigm. It’s really more about management, and more pointedly, adaptive management. Where maintenance implies perpetuating a static, status quo that remains the same from year to year, adaptive management is about responding to a dynamic situation, making decisions along the way in response to changes that can be encouraged or discouraged depending on the overall goals of the planting.
New species that blow in on the wind can be allowed to remain or removed. The spread and numbers of existing plants can be constrained or encouraged. If certain species, colonies, or groups of plants become too dominant, they can be set back. New plants can be introduced. Decisions are made in response to evolving conditions, with the overall goal and direction of the planting in mind. It’s more about editing, nudging, and steering; dancing with the dynamics.
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