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.  

The National Wildlife Federation has launched a Native Plant Finder on its website: www.nwf.org/nativeplantfinder/. Enter your zip code, and find all the flowers, grasses, trees, and shrubs that are native to your area.

Go for Low Maintenance

A sustainable landscape is one that minimizes use of non-renewable resources, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The less we can apply chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, and even water to our manicured environments, the better it is for both our planet and our pocketbook. Not only does overuse of these elements have negative effects on the environment and our health, but it’s expensive.

The move to a sustainable landscape need not be immediate, nor need it be an extreme overhaul of an existing plan. “The whole goal of moving toward sustainability is to subtly change it into a more vibrant-looking landscape and create a healthier environment,” Lupfer says. “It should be a process of transitioning from a traditional landscape to a more sustainable one. A healthier landscape means that plants don’t need as much attention, since they are growing as they should and are not afflicted by disease and don’t need artificial food to keep them alive and flourishing.”

One quick and easy way to save green by going green is to control irrigation. Lupfer estimates that watering plants and grasses only as needed, rather than using a timer or other automatic schedule, can save 60% to 70% on water bills. These savings can really add up over time, and require little to no initial financial output. “You don’t have to put in new systems or spend any money up front,” he advises of this practice. “This is something everyone can do right now.”

With a little more effort—but a lot of payback both financially and sustainability-wise—installation of a rain garden will allow storm water runoff to be collected and used for the property’s irrigation, rather than being wasted and leeching impurities into our waterways. “Rain gardens are becoming very popular,” says Debbi Edelstein, executive director of the New England Wild Flower Society in Framingham, Massachusetts. “The water you use in rain gardens will feed back into the soil and not run off the site. That way, nature is managing the water. You don’t have to manage the water when the site has been designed properly by making it a sustainable landscape. When you make a sustainable landscape, you make a maintenance-free landscape.”

Look Toward the Future

 Even a small investment into an association’s landscape design or maintenance can have big payoffs for the long-term financial and physical success of the property. By the same token, what might seem like a costly change or addition at first might have positive repercussions for the future. For example, Lupfer points out that investing in permeable pavers reduces the amount of land needed for drainage solutions like retention ponds or drains, leaving more of it available for other uses. A thoughtful plan for an underused outdoor space can add exponential value and desirability for a community and its homeowners.

Making landscaping decisions with an eye on the environmental shifts brought about by climate change and other factors is also a smart move. David Mendelson and Annamaria Morales of QG Landscape based in New York tell CooperatorNews that in new developments, builders and designers are planning outdoor space that can remain open further through the seasons. They are accounting for not only climate change, but the changes currently taking place as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. “Outdoor spaces have always been a sought-after commodity,” says Morales. “Now with COVID, everyone wants to social distance, and they want to be outside. … We have to adapt to the new normal.”

 Martin Rosen of the Office of Planning and Sustainable Communities at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) reinforces the benefits of a holistic approach to landscape design and maintenance. He says, “As land itself becomes scarce and ever more precious, outdoor spaces need to be designed to deliver value in as many ways as possible; i.e., increasing land values, rewarding the senses, promoting environmental quality, and enhancing mobility. Sustainable landscapes incorporate and balance the human desire for beautiful and functional landscapes with the imperative to preserve valuable resources.” Looking at every aspect of a development site—its topography and layout, natural and artificial lighting, hardscape and softscape, vegetation, irrigation, and intended or potential uses—can create a landscape that is sustainable both now and for years to come.

It’s Easy Being Green

 Contrary to the famous assertion of Kermit the Frog, being green is easy—and this goes for any multifamily property. Even small and inexpensive changes to the way an association or corporation plans and maintains its outdoor spaces can have major implications for the value of the property, the health of the earth and its inhabitants, and the community’s bottom line. Understanding the interrelationship among the three greens—plantings, money, and sustainability—will help any co-op, condo, or HOA achieve a beautiful landscape that is pleasing and useful to residents, friendly and beneficial to the planet, and a long-term value proposition for today’s challenging times.         

Darcey Gerstein is Associate Editor and Staff Writer for CooperatorNews.

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