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green garden

Inside a Sustainable Garden Some gardeners are learning how to garden with less – and loving it. BY DAWN KLINGENSMITH



or Ron and Vicki Nowicki, the first principle of sustainable landscaping is drastic but simple: Get rid of the lawn – every last blade of it. Instead of grass, the couple’s yard consists almost entirely of vegetables, from spinach and Swiss chard to green beans and potatoes. Here and there, berry bushes, shade trees, evergreens and flowers also thrive in their mostly edible Eden, 10 >>


located in the downtown area of a Chicago suburb where manicured lawns and uniformity are generally prized. However, Ron and Vicki, co-owners of the landscape construction firm The Land Office, Downers Grove, Ill., are working to persuade others that planting backyard vegetable gardens in lieu of grass conserves resources and will ultimately reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign oil as more and more people grow their own food. Just on the consumer side, the energy expended on farmed as opposed to homegrown produce is substantial, says Ron, a landscape architect. “You drive to the store, pick up the food, drive home and throw away the packaging – it’s so wasteful,” he explains.

In nearby Naperville, Ill., Chuck and Pat Armstrong practice the same principle of sustainability – lawn-free landscaping. However, their plantings consist mostly of native prairie grasses, which they never aim a hose at. “Once prairie grasses are established and mature, they almost never require watering because they’re already adapted to the amount of rainfall we get here in the Midwest,” says Pat, a botanist whose landscaping business, Prairie Sun Consultants, specializes in native species. The Armstrongs and the Nowickis offer two different takes on sustainable landscaping, but what does “sustainable” actually mean, particularly as it applies to the small patch of earth, from threshold to property line, for which homeowners must take full responsibility? A popular definition of sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs, as well. So, simply put, sustainable landscaping and gardening means not using resources, such as water, energy and productive soil, faster than they can be replaced, and avoiding practices that harm the environment. “Two key factors of sustainable gar-

dening are low maintenance and energy savings,” Armstrong says. That’s why, by her definition, lawns that require frequent watering; mowing and edging with gas-powered, pollutionbelching equipment; and chemical warfare to prevent dandelion takeovers aren’t sustainable. But people can cultivate the principles of sustainability in their yards and gardens without going so far as ripping up their lawns. They can do so by making water and energy conservation a top priority, says landscape architect Bob Hursthouse, Hursthouse Inc., Bolingbrook, Ill. “Some parts of the country are dry as a bone, so there are some serious fresh water issues,” he says. Therefore, many municipalities restrict how often and which times of day residents may water their lawns and gardens.

green garden Sustainable gardeners say that if the right plant species are chosen, few products and tools are needed to grow thriving foliage. But Justin Hancock, Senior Garden Editor,, says certain products reduce the amount of effort required while helping to protect the environment. Here are his Top Five picks for 2009. >> Black & Decker 24-volt cordless mulching mower. “Unlike many other electric mowers, it’s cordless so it’s much easier to use. Plus, it lets the grass clippings fall back onto the ground and become fertilizer.” >> Fiskars Rainwater Collection System. “These rain barrels are made from a durable, UV-treated, impact-resistant material.

They come in a range of colors and styles and hold 48 gallons of rainwater.” >> Captain Jack’s Deadbug Brew. “This new organic insecticide kills a wide range of insect pests but has a relatively low impact on beneficial insects such as bees and ladybugs.”

of the best things you can do for a sustainable garden, and this composter takes things a step further – it’s a repurposed barrel from the California wine industry, so it was saved from the landfill.”

>> Benary’s Ptilotus exaltatus “Joey” plant. “It’s incredibly drought tolerant, resists a wide range of dis>> TerraCycle Rotary Com- eases and keeps on blooming all summer long.” poster. “Composting is one

“Obey them,” Hursthouse says. Increasingly, people have begun treating their yards as an additional living space – a natural extension of the home

designed with aesthetics, comfort, practicality, leisure and entertainment in mind. Eating dinner and entertaining guests outside necessitates the use of

outdoor lighting and, among the privileged, spurs purchases of such deluxe amenities as outdoor kitchens complete with cooking ranges and beverage fridges. There are energy-efficient lighting systems and appliances on the market, Hursthouse says, as well as ways of harvesting solar energy to power outdoor fountains and other features. Ironically, even as folks have begun sprucing up their outdoor spaces with upholstered furniture and weather-resistant rugs, suburban yards are actually shrinking due to consumer demand for larger homes with driveways that can accommodate multiple cars. So let’s say the Joneses have a nice, wide driveway alongside the house and a concrete patio that takes up most of the backyard. That means they have less lawn, and that’s a good thing – right? The problem, Hursthouse says, is that paved surfaces cause water to run off into the street and down sewer grates, carrying eroded soil, fertilizers, pesticides and other pollutants along with it. Ultimately, this taints the water supply. “There are new types of porous, per-

meable pavement that allow water to percolate back through to the soil, verses regular concrete,” he says. Another way to prevent water runoff is by incorporating a swale, or bioswale, as a landscaping feature. A swale is a lower-lying area with deep-rooted plants to which water is directed by grading the landscape. The roots “filter out impurities like road salt and motor oil, and also fertilizer and pesticides, so the water is cleaner by the time it gets back into the watershed,” Hursthouse says. “It’s kind of like a coffee filter.” Other sustainable-garden features include rain barrels, which collect rainwater for irrigation during drier months, and cisterns, which can store hundreds or even thousands of gallons of water. Rain barrels can be hooked up to a garden hose in a simple, gravity-fed configuration, while solar-powered pumps can be installed to draw water from cisterns. Drip irrigation – the controlled application of water via a system of hoses with small holes in them that allow for gradual seepage – is preferable to sprinkler systems because it targets more precisely



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