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Certification Journey at Dancing Tree

by Margot Taylor

Sustainability implies that the two-acre subdivision with the charming home and expansive lawn is a paradigm that must change. The whole American landscape ideology needs to change. What does this change look like? What is a sustainable landscape? To answer these questions and for other reasons, I chose to enter my property in the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES®) pilot. The SITES pilot tested new standards for landscape design, construction and maintenance practices. Herein is the first part of my story Certification Journey. The second part, Post Certification Reflections, will appear in a future article.

Today Dancing Tree (my property) serves as a worldwide model of a sustainable landscape. It is one of two certified residences in the U.S. serving as a demonstration site for environ-friendly land-use practices for water, soil, vegetation conservation and management. It’s the only three-star SITES residence in the world. Since certification in 2013, over 550 individuals including native plant enthusiasts, garden clubs, schools, staff retreats, elected municipal officials, and curious community residents have visited the property to see these practices first hand.

Wood, glass, and ceramic sculptures are used throughout the garden for added interest, including the two northern white-cedar trees (Thuja occidentalis) along the front walk gifted to me by clients.

The Beginning of SITES

The development of the SITES program concept began in the early 2000s as a response to the LEEDS program (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), which is specific to structures and does little for landscapes. A partnership of the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and U.S. Botanic Garden, SITES was created to transform land development and management practices with the nation’s first voluntary rating system for sustainable landscapes. The program’s intent was to elevate the value of the landscape and its role in environmental health. Today the program is housed in the LEEDS office and fully integrated into its certification program.

I entered the SITES pilot program with the goal to enact structural and landscape improvements to my property, which included house renovations, new septic system, entry drive and a future garage. My 1.5 acre property formerly housed a barn, silo, equipment sheds, tenant farmer house and 60 head of cattle. All but house were gone when I purchased the property in 1995. Between then and 2006 I slowly untangled the vegetation, built a terraced pleasure garden with straw bale hut, and planted haphazardly across the landscape. I qualified for SITES Pilot as I planned to enact improvements as a grey-field site, a designation granted due to the historic farming practices on the property.

The SITE plan shows soil and vegetation protection zones, stormwater management system, and proposed improvements.

Balancing Design and Resources

To me, SITES captures the ethics of good land stewardship. It provides a process and orderly steps to design, construct and manage lands in a way that optimizes ecosystems function while balancing human needs. As a trained landscape architect I was familiar with the design process, but SITES methodology is different. My professors schooled me in Ian L McHarg’s method of design balancing resource protection with placement of proposed improvements; however, I still worked in a vacuum and earned grades for individual not team effort. Conversely, SITES requires participants to work in teams with an extended network of stakeholders. Design was by committee through staged Charrettes, with SITES points awarded for others’ in-put and participation. It was my design team that voiced the critical importance of designing first for water. I’ve learned this means first identifying how to direct, hold, infiltrate and play with rainwater.

An aerial aqueduct is an example of “water play,” transporting rainwater from residence into a series of pools and rain gardens.

Another changed methodology was the requirement to think of maintenance needs during the design stage. I needed to develop a complete management plan pre-construction. Aided by compulsory worksheets and teamed with two natural land management professionals, I constructed a detailed post-construction management strategy. This exercise highlighted the importance of teaming up with a land management professional at the start of the design process and keeping the endgame of low maintenance in sight.

One of my greatest teachers was Ross Lusco, the soil scientist who came on my property to conduct perc-tests and whom I nabbed immediately to participate on my SITES team. Ross understood not only the art of soil testing, the whys and how, he also had the gift of making it all fun! Combined with the influences of Dr. Elaine Ingham, the “champion” on the critical role of soil biology in ecosystem health and function, I found myself learning how to build soil biology with compost teas, tinctures, and mushroom spore plugged logs. I started to read the landscape disturbances and begin to prescribe medicine to heal it, starting with the restoration of soil life!

The greenroof on the strawbale Magic Hut captures, holds and slowly releases rainwater down a chain into a small reflecting pond.

Building Communities

The ego thought I knew all about native vegetation and building native plant communities. Or did I? Through my conservation work I learned of the Miradi Method (Swahili for goal) a new gauge for conservation successes based on the restoration of a mega species to the landscape. Yes, of course. If a mega species returns to the landscape, it demonstrates the quality of habitat and environmental health of the system! With a mega species present in a habitat, the landscape is not just visually appealing, which I could accomplish with my designer skills and senses, but ecologically sound. With the help of my friend Bobby Whitescarver, master birder, I determined the mega fauna, Indigo Bunting (a shrub layer/dwelling species) was missing from my landscape. I needed to increase the shrub layer and habitat on my property to restore the vegetative health of my woodland and meadow vegetative communities. I’m still waiting for this bird to return.

The SITES design process drove the importance of resource restoration and conservation for water, soil and vegetation. The construction process changed the “what with” and “how” aspects of building landscape improvements. I needed to utilize materials that were close at hand with lower environmental impact. I got extra points for using deconstructed materials from my home and site. Remember the barn? While digging the driveway I found 27 tons of barn stone that I reworked into my walls and pathways. Excavated soil and concrete was repurposed under new driveway or around landscape.

New materials, plants, stone, concrete, lighting, all had to meet higher standards for sustainability based on the distance they traveled to my property and their production methods. My plant growers won me the highest marks for sustainable plant growing practices. My contractors, all small owner operated concerns, complied with my instruction to protect vegetation and soil protection zones. Most notable was the septic crew who hand dug and threaded drip pipe under tree roots to minimize soil and vegetation disturbance. And each helped with the documentation requirements by signing letters and quantifying materials used.

Visitors to the property take part in a scavenger hunt, looking for sustainable landscape practices.

Though SITES certification may be cost prohibitive for many, its processes can be easily adapted into municipal ordinances, as well as landscape contractor and homeowner land care methods. It’s an attitude shift from “What do I want?” to ”How can I balance personal desires with Nature’s needs?” When visitors come to my property I set up a scavenger hunt game: Find the sustainable landscape practices. Armed with a game cards and pens, visitors walk about the property and check off examples of sustainable practices in place for water, soil, vegetation conservation and human health and well-being. My hope is that through self-discovery these principles and practices begin to stick with visitors!

About the Author

Margot Taylor, RLA PA & DE is owner and principal of Land Ethics. She utilizes her 30+ years of experience in landscape architecture, natural resource conservation, and environmental education to design and manage an array of landscape projects. Her expertise includes reforestation of riparian habitats, soil and vegetation conservation, and stormwater management. Margot is an adjunct professor at the Williamson College of the Trades, Horticulture Shop teaching landscape design and graphics.


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