Plants, Money, & Sustainability The ‘3 Greens’ of Landscaping

In multifamily properties where different households share in the use, visual enjoyment, and property value of landscaped outdoor elements, a lot of factors go into deciding what and where to plant, how to maintain it, and how much to spend. These considerations can be summed up as the ‘3 Greens’: the vitality and vibrancy of plantings and lawns; the ecological factors that determine the best methods, placements, and products that use the least resources and have the least impact on the environment, and the dollars that associations and co-op corporations need to allocate in their budgets to design, install, and maintain these areas.

To optimize each, the 3 Greens must be considered simultaneously. For example, an association with a limited landscaping budget might think that skimping on mulch will save them money—but according to the pros, the right type of mulch in the right amounts is important for soil health, water conservation, and weed mitigation — all of which saves money in the long run. Similarly, a community with ample grounds might think that laying a bunch of sod for sprawling lawns might be the right way to ‘green’ things quickly, instead of going through the relative hassle of seeding grass from scratch—but a sod workaround might actually be the least cost effective to maintain and least ecologically efficient or beneficial.

Mix It Up

As with most things biological, diversity is generally best. Having a combination of softscape (plantings and grasses) and hardscape (concrete, paving, turf) creates visual appeal and can demarcate different outdoor spaces for different uses. A carefully planned landscape can also maximize water runoff and absorption, take advantage of sun and shade, make better use of otherwise dead space, and account for seasonality—a particularly important consideration in the face of climate change and the severe weather events it can bring to all regions.

Similarly, making use of plants native to the region where they’re being planted has both maintenance and sustainability benefits. Landscaping experts advise that native plants are already adapted to local climate and soil conditions, and therefore require less watering, fertilizers, and pesticides than non-native vegetation. According to Ellen Sousa, author of The Green Garden: The New England Guide to Planning, Planting and Maintaining the Eco-Friendly Habitat Garden, the best bet is to “choose plants suited for your particular site conditions, rather than trying to change your conditions to suit certain plants. … We should let go of the idea that we need fussy, high-maintenance, exotic plants in order to have a beautiful garden.”  

Tom Lupfer, owner of Lupfer Landscaping in Lyons, Illinois, and member of the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association (ILCA), says that an integrated landscape approach will also become a more sustainable system. Where plants are dying or struggling, he says, pests tend to proliferate, which increases the need for chemical applications. This has further negative consequences for the health and vitality of the landscape. “When you put down herbicides, for example,” says Lupfer, “you kill not only the harmful elements, but many of the beneficial microbes that foster life and growth in the soil. The soil becomes barren, in a way, and has to be supplemented artificially, which means more chemicals.” As with any organic system, the less need for intervention, the better. Native plants are more likely to thrive on their own in the conditions natural to the region, requiring fewer chemicals, less watering, and less impact.  

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