Archive for the ‘Eco-Friendly Gardens’ Category

Storm Water management

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

April Showers


Those April showers feed the flowers that bloom in May. They also flood basements, lawn areas, and perennial beds in properties with poorly conceived storm water runoff plans.

I was out for a walk this sunny Easter morning admiring the bulbs blossoming, shrubs and trees beginning to sprout, and lawns greening up. Repeatedly, I saw properties with ill conceived run off from their homes that were clearly causing less than ideal conditions for the lawn areas and other recipients of natures plenty.

The basic laws of water are very fundamental. Much like the behavior of my children when it’s time to do homework, water seeks its own (or the lowest) level. Unfortunately, this is often our basements which is the first thing we need to protect. Many folks do this by redirecting downspouts away from their homes. Though a good idea in principle, in practice, this often means the water pools in the middle of the lawn, creating a soggy area less than ideal for a healthy lawn. If this happens often enough, as the water table rises, water ends up penetrating basement walls anyway.

The laws of water management are simple: 1) store it and redistribute. 2) Direct to a river, stream, pond, or sewer. Of course option 2) is really a glorified version of option 1). When you redirect it, it moves on to a larger storage area (other than your basement). Many homes in hilly areas were originally built with drywells, or underground storage areas where water from the homes roof accumulated and seeped slowly back into the ground. These were large, and expensive and worked well until after 30-50 years of use they filled up with silt. The idea of the dry well is to store the water under gorund so that you have a nice dry lawn (and basement).

The more creative and less expensive approach today is to direct the water from your house to the street, or create a drybed above ground that may become a wet bed when it fills up, plant a greenroof, and/or lastly to plant a raingarden. Most municipalities really don’t like the street option since it means that their sewer systems get overworked and silted up. Check with your village, but Im pretty sure this is not so legal.

The drybed approach is very popular in Colorado for example. Under the eves of many homes are drainage beds filled with stone that take the water to streams, or to dedicated ponding areas that are filled with water or dry depending on the season. Water is directed to these areas and either assimilated into the streams or  slowly absorbed by the landscape (away from the basement). This is a pretty effective tool. When the beds are dry, the stones give the feeling of a river and pond, in heavy thaws or rain, they actually are.

Greenroofs are a thin layer of plants covering the roof. They absorb 80% of the water that landsc on the roof and double the life of the roof membrane. Yes, you can do this on a slanted roof by the way. If yo want to see one in action, there is a greenroof demonstration roof at the Greenburgh Nature Center our company built last year.

Raingardens are combinations of using plans that love water and drywells. Usually planted in the lowest area of the property, the idea is to dig out a water holding area, filled with gravel or even a small dry well, layer soil over this area, and plant above it with plants that love water and thrive on moisture. This way you get a place to put the water and a natural system of absorbing it and releasing it into the atmosphere. We will build a demonstration rain garden at the Greenburgh Nature Center next month.

Rain GaRain Gardenrden

Sustainable Design?

Monday, December 15th, 2008

In our eco landcare blog, we wrote about Las Vegas, Nevada. If one were to design a native garden in  Las Vegas, it would be made up of cactii, aloe, and tumbleweed. Maybe some yucca rostrata…ITS A DESERT. Not a lot of room for landscape design in that model. More important, would people live with that?

its a really tough question when you consider it, real harmony with the environment in Las Vegas would be the opposite of what you actually find there, a community built on Colorado river water. Real sustainable practice might prohibit that, and at the same time, it is the innovative nature of this particular phase of human culture that makes Las Vegas possible. All the moral issues of the economic base of las Vegas aside, as a city, it is a pretty amazing accomlishment. Is it sustainable? Not without a huge amount of human effort. is anything we as human beings endeavor to do?

  That said, Even las Vegas, or maybe we should say, especially las Vegas, is making strides in sustainable landscaping and creating room for landscape design that is more eco-friendly by reducing lawns, paying residents to install xeri-scape gardens and drip irrigaiton. Are these really sustainable in a desert? no but much more so than what they had. 

Sustainable Sites

Monday, December 8th, 2008

Ideas For Lower Maintenance, Eco Friendly Landscaping

Cold weather is here in the Northeast. This is the time to get up to speed on better ways to plan and do. In terms of garden design, i highly recommend going to the to catch up on sustainabale practices as envisioned by the ASLA, Ladybird Johnson Wildlife Center, and the United States Botanical Gardens.

These three groups are pioneering a standard for landscape design and care that will eventually be incorporated into the LEED system of the USBC. The comment period on the initiative recommendations ends January 20th so get on now while you can or just pick osme brains.

The case studies are the best part and a great tool for convincing the ambivalent eco-landscaper of the value of sustainable practices!

Storm water Runoff Revisited

Sunday, September 14th, 2008

Retain Nutrients, Reduce Environmental Damage By Managing Water

With the heavier rains we have been experiencing, we at Greener by Design have experienced and upsurge in calls regarding runoff issues in Pelham. One client has a small river flowing through their back yard coming off of a road on the adjacent property, another has mulch running off a hedge row at the bottom of their grassy slope, and some have heavy water penetration in their homes.

Pelham is a community of hills and slopes, worse still we are not on the top of the hill, but lower in altitude than many of our neighbors, which means a good deal of water runs downhill to our properties from neighboring up hill communities. The predictions for our region are more heavy rainstorms and less regular, lighter rainstorms than in the past, so dealing with storm water will be even more of a problem than it is already.

Water seeks the path of least resistance. Whatever can’t be absorbed by soil, will run over it and take topsoil and valuable nutrients with it. Indeed, what made the Nile basin a rich farmland was the occasional flooding of the Nile that would deposit silt, made up of rich topsoil that had run into the Nile from heavy rains up stream.

What this means is areas where water runs down a slope are regularly being stripped of nutrients and topsoil so that grass and other plants have a harder and harder time being sustained. Additionally, if any kind of pesticide or fertilizer has been recently applied, this will run be taken down the slope to sewers and drains and into Long Island Sound causing greater environmental damage.

The favorite routes of water are paths, walkways, and driveways. Next are rocky areas, and last are lawns. Lawns, thought they do absorb water have a limited capacity to do so and once saturated the water will run down the lawn.

Strategies for dealing with runoff are to create dedicated spillways channeling the water where you want it to go, or at least away from where you don’t want it. Basically your driveway is a spillway, and the problem with this approach is it is a short term solution to a long term problem. Spillways inevitably take chemicals and pollutants (like oil from automobiles) unfiltered into local waterways. For this reason, most sustainable systems, like LEED for example, recommend creating permeable surfaces for driveways and patios. Permeable surfaces are generally hard surfaces that allow water to pass through them at regular intervals.

The most traditional approach for storm water management is to create “French drains” or underground catch basins for excess water. These do fill up with silt over time and need to be cleaned out.

On grassy slopes, the most effective strategy is to plant berms with perennials and shrubs at regular intervals where runoff is flowing. These mounds of soil will catch the water, break its movement, absorb a good deal of it and catch nutrients before they can run down the slope. They also will reduce the amount of grass (and therefore maintenance costs) on the slope as well as beautify the slope with more textures and colors.

Eco Design Standards and the Middle Road

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

At a recent conference, I was speaking with a friend in the lawncare industry (ancient enemy of all eco-friendly) who also has a PHD in agronomy. I had asked him how he got into the lawncare business with his PHD and farm background. He proceeded to tell me all about the merits of traditional composting, and how he had come across a technique that married the best of old world composting and crop rotation with the use of chemical fertilizers.

Now I happen to trust this fellow, I did mention I consider him a friend, and I dont have many of those nor do I use the term lightly. It was that relationship that preserved me from my standard knee jerk eco-friendly reaction which is the solid belief that anything chemical is evil, and that chemically produced nitrogen kills live topsoil.

So it was gently explained to me that a) only certain kinds of chemically produced nitrogen have this effect, b) how much nitrogen is applied makes a huge difference regardless of the type, and c) chemically produced nitrogen in the right quantities introduced at the right time in the composting process will actually jump start the composting process and biological agents will thrive under these conditions.

Now if you consider what happens when any organic material is laid down on top of live topsoil, we all agree, chemical advocates and organic advocates, that mulch for example, will actually pull nitrogen from the soil to begin its composting process. The mulch pulls available nitrogen, nitrogen already processed and absorbable, and does not care whether this nitrogen came from an organism, or a factory. This would prove the argument conceptually at least.

Regardless of whether you agree with the example or not, the point is, that we in the eco-friendly/sustainable landscape world have a tendency to believe all that is old school is good and that all western produced chemicals and techniques must be bad. Is it possible, that there is a middle road here? Could it be that there is use and strength in western science that we are ignoring?

We in the sustainable landscape movement need to get deeper into testing and proving what we claim, otherwise we are reduced to using home remedies vs. cutting edge. If you go to less developed nations, and someone has a toothache, they are walking around with a big rag wrapped around their head with some herb laden poultice against their face while their teeth are rotting out. Here in the United States, even the most eco-conscious individuals accept having cavities cleaned out and filled, being injected with novacaine, laughing gas, whatever. We blindly accept it because the prospect of having our teeth rotting out is not a pleasant one, and these techniques are proven.

What do we want in our landscape design and practices? home remedies that may work (or may not) or scientifically grounded technique? Do we want to practice mythology or fact?


Sunday, May 18th, 2008

One of the reasons we at Greener by Design have slowly wiped the word sustainable out of our vocabulary, is that this word takes on a completely different meaning in the garden. The word sustainable in association with technology implies technologies that are minimally damaging, if not supportive, of the environment. Landscapes, on the other hand, are of nature. Yes, there are invasive plants and non-natives etc. but left on its own, ecosystems adapt, while the damage done by technology is much harder to cope with. Because landscapes are “green” by definition, sustainable comes to imply something more. “Sustainable” landscapes would tend to themselves more or less, with minimal intervention by man if any.


Sidestepping the invasive plant issue, let’s focus for a moment on what a sustainable landscape would look like; a sustainable landscape, would be one that would support the local ecosystem, adapt to available light, water, and soil conditions, and whose plants reproduce and replace themselves. It would by definition be sustaining itself. In fact, every ecosystem in the world has or had sustainable landscapes before to much human interaction.


 Considered in that context, the gardens of man are sheer arrogance and waste. Our gardens require constant maintenance and care, regular interventions in the form of feeding the soil, providing water, pruning and cleaning. Many of the materials we use are not hardy and could never survive in the climates we plant them in without human intervention. Worse yet, the invasive plant issue, pesticides in the ecosystem, fertilizer in our waterways, these are all the result of our ignorant efforts to sustain our gardens and create spaces that are unique to who we are.


Given that perspective, in order to be a landscape professional, one by implication would have to be very arrogant. Though there may be some truth to that view point, most landscape professionals revere nature and the diversity of plant material within nature. Though are landscapes may not be sustainable, they can be environmental enhancements that not only beautify, but soften the impact people have on the environment. Greenroofs for example, are a fabrication of man, taking plants and growing them over rooftops as a living roof cover. Fabrication or no, they contribute to bio-diversity, save energy, reduce stormwater runoff. Basically, they mitigate a good deal of the problems created by removing all those trees and plants that were sustaining themselves, and slapping a building in their place.


Greenroofs, organic garden practices, utilizing natives, banning invasives, recycling rainwater, utilizing drip irrigation, these are eco-friendly, if not sustainable practices and so we toss out sustainable when talking about landscapes and focus on eco-friendly.

What Is an Eco-Friendly Garden?

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

       Garden spaces are in and of themselves green and beneficial in the sense that a lawn is better than a parking lot  in terms of dealing with stormwater issues, sequestering carbon, creating a habitat for animals and insects, as well as a place for kids and their families to play. Green spaces and gardens lower the temperature versus impermeable surfaces like parking lot black top as well as just being prettier. However, critics of lawns and landscape maintenance will generally site the use of chemicals and the noise and air pollution created by mowers and leaf blowers. They will rightly point out that lawns and gardens often replace native plants that the members of the local ecosystem depend on to feed and reproduce. Logically then, a  more ecologically friendly (greener) landscape must address these issues at least in part.

  To look at someone with a chemically treated lawn and tell them they are environmental criminals is basically the pot calling the kettle black. If you live in 21st century technological society, you participate in the daily desecration of the planet no matter how environmentally sound your at home practices may be. True, the chemical user can do better, but so can we all .   

    An eco-friendly garden not only has minimal negative impact on the local ecology and the environment, but even sustains and nurtures it. It is a garden that diminishes the impact of your homes architecture whether that  be a hobbit house or an apartment complex. It is a space the nurtures local flora and fauna as well as your soul. It is designed so that it has native plants in it, so that it uses water minimally, or even re-uses water that has runoff of impermeable surfaces like rooftops  and driveways. Maybe it re-uses grey water from your sinks, baths, dishwasher, etc. It might reduce or even eliminate lawn space depending on your needs and preferences. The maintenance and care of a greener garden will use electric, bio-diesel,  or some other form of low or no polluting equipment-maybe even hand tools. It will recycle organic waste as much as possible. It may have a kitchen garden, or a greenroof. It will be planted with the plants that can thrive in the conditions available so that the need to treat disease and insects will be reduced if not eliminated. It will use organically produced fertilizers over chemicals where ever possible. It will serve the needs of both people and the planet for they are in truth, one and the same.