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  • Writer's pictureKyle Kearns

Choose a Sustainable Landscape this Spring: 10 Helpful Tips to Consider Before Hiring

Every Spring, once all the snowplows and salters come off the trucks, landscape contractors start the expensive process of competing for the attention of potential clients. Just to give an idea of the playing field, in the United States there are 641,782 landscape companies as of 2023 according to IBIS World data, 5,543 located in our state of Maine, and 5,762 located in nearby New Hampshire. For perspective, those numbers are close to matching the scale of the restaurant industry. I won't bore you with the details here, but the economics make it clear that the landscape industry is over saturated. As challenging as that may be for us contractors, what does it mean for you, the consumer?

For the consumer, it provides beneficial flexibility on pricing. Whether it is a big project or a small project, large budget, or tight budget, you are likely to find a contractor to meet your financial needs if you shop long enough. Maybe that doesn't sound accurate, but data has shown that the landscaping industry has absorbed recent cost inflation with lower profits rather than adjusting prices upward proportionately. The biggest pit fall for the consumer in this over saturated market is vulnerability to grift or swindling. Contractors competing over jobs to keep their business afloat will say just about anything to land a gig. This isn't a finger pointing thing, it is an economic reality.

So, if you want Sustainable Landscaping, and you aren't sure how find what you want amidst the advertising noise, then here are ten helpful tips to consider before hiring:

1.Educate Yourself:

This one seems obvious, but it really isn't. When I started my career in landscaping, I had no interest in sustainability or being environmentally friendly. I wanted to be a master of my craft. Being obsessed with quality, always asking why, and thinking critically, I eventually learned that high quality landscape products are inextricably linked to sustainable best practices. If as a consumer you are only interested in a sustainable landscape to show off your "Green" virtues, then unfortunately you will be easily fooled. For example, you might get an estimate to replace your lawn with sustainable synthetic turf because you were correctly told that the turf will eliminate mowing, irrigation, and lawn fertilizer. However, it would be a mistake to label this as a sustainable landscape solution when considering the harmful impacts of synthetic turf production, the supply chain effects, impacts on soils, biodiversity, and runoff or erosion. All factors, or as many as possible, need to be considered to make the best decision. In a world that is quite unsustainable it is rather easy to charge 10% more money for a product that might only be 1% more sustainable - if you could measure it like that. This is the “Greenwashing” corollary to the newly mainstreamed “Green” culture.

2.Conduct Your Own Site Inventory:

A site inventory does not have to be complicated. If you pay a landscape designer to conduct an inventory it can be worth the cost, but give it a shot on your own first. A site inventory is creating a list of your site's features. Take notes on everything, but be sure to include things like; drainage, areas with standing water or dry areas, types of plants, the different kinds of wildlife you observe, areas with or without wind, prevalence of pests, areas with or without sunshine, soil conditions, noises or sounds, pedestrian traffic flow, vehicular traffic flow, etc. You don't need to make it a scientific analysis, the goal should be acquiring intimate knowledge and understanding of how your existing landscape operates and functions on a regular basis. With this information you can have a meaningful discussion with a landscape designer or installer about optimizing for sustainability based on the site’s current strengths and weaknesses. Better results often come when paired with ample recorded historical data, trends, and site maps based on personal observations. But don't stress it too much.

3.Observe Local Landscape Style:

Don't do this with the intent of mimicking the most grandiose landscape design so that you can "keep up with the Jones's." The goal here is to find inspiration from design or architecture that is uniquely attributed to a particular local region. Methods and designs that stand the test of time are often modest but survive because they have best optimized native resources and local customs or culture. Landscapes that are most harmful to sustainability are often the landscapes that get ripped out and replaced with every new homeowner. In the fervor to make a home or property "sellable" a lot of short cuts are taken, and a lot of sacrifices are made. That is why, typically, a landscape that survives the longest makes simple, humble strides but stays true to its regional context. For example, in hardscaping I see a lot of concrete installations by default, whether it is for segmental retaining walls or interlocking concrete pavers. These concrete products are sub-optimal (I want to refrain from saying bad) for sustainability. Despite all the concrete being sold and installed, we do still live in a region with a long and honored tradition of natural stone walls and stone masonry. At its fullest potential, natural stone far outlasts concrete. With the regional charm associated with natural stone, it also returns more on the investment than does concrete. Simply put, in New England you should bet on natural stone.

4.Choose Natural Stone & Locally Sourced Materials:

When I started this company, I really wanted to buy my natural stone direct from local quarries. I had no idea how problematic this would be. The boom days of local quarries are long behind us, most of them are permanently shut down. Small operations, sometimes family run, typically are hard to find but do good business, though they might not sell direct to just any contractor that comes along. Many of the other surviving firms sold their operations to larger and larger companies with headquarters farther and farther from town. Inevitably, as the giant companies attempted to squeeze profit margins from their pits, they expanded the size and focused production chiefly on high margin construction materials. Rarely does that include high labor items like cut and finished natural stone used primarily for residential application. Therefore, the good chunk stone is extracted and often shipped elsewhere to be sawn, cut, and finished. Then it is shipped again to one or several distributors to be sold to contractors, or finally then to consumers. There are quarries all over New Hampshire and Maine that must ship their raw stone product at least a handful of times before it ends up in your backyard. The key point to emphasize here is that every attempt to shorten supply chains and buy direct is tremendously beneficial to sustainability. Sometimes it will save a bunch of money, and sometimes it will cost a boat load of money. Rarely is it a perfect scenario either, you'll likely have to make compromises. But asking your contractor how they source their materials and making it clear that your preference is to stay as "local" as possible is usually enough to make a difference.

Sustainable Landscaping
Time to move away from concrete?

5.Reduce Site Impact:

New England is mainly a nonbrittle environment, though micro-ecosystems may vary. Because of this when a landscape endures trampling, temporary over-usage, or upheaval, it usually responds very well to prolonged periods of rest. We can be very thankful that our higher year-round moisture allows for such resilience. Yet despite this tremendous advantage, we hardly ever plan our land construction or management around the needs or timeline of the land. During the construction of a house, we often destroy the soil, heavily compact the area, re-direct roof runoff and disrupt other water flows, and lower biodiversity. This makes the area more brittle and less resilient. Then we hire landscapers, using more machinery and heavy equipment, to "fix" these problems who again disturb the soil, further compact the area, and likely (unless they are sustainable landscapers) reduce the biodiversity moreover. The best thing we can do is create a long-term landscape development plan, utilizing holistic land management, and factor into the plan the amount of rest required for an ecosystem to revive itself fully. One part of reducing site impact is to eliminate the unnecessary use of excessive machinery and heavy equipment for tasks that do not require them. The other part is the recognition that you will impact your site but should employ the optimal procedure and methodology for restoration. Most often this can be accomplished by breaking long-term projects into phases or zones and asking that contractors respect and abide by your model.

6.Say No to Non-Biodegradables:

Ask your landscape contractor for a list of things they are planning to put into the ground, and then ask them why. I have been to enough hardscape conferences to know that the industry, or the group of companies, behind plastics and synthetics in hardscaping have run amok. Back in the 1980's and 1990's, using synthetic fabrics, geotextiles, resins, polymers, plastic edging, on and on - was incredibly rare in residential applications. Today it is practically ubiquitous. At the hardscape conferences I hear the phrase "Just put it in because it is cheap insurance" about ten or more times. I’m gonna call bullshit. Yes, it is factual that these products provide more overall strength by mitigating silt infiltration, optimizing weight dispersion, slowing lateral creep, blah blah blah. It really, truly is great engineering, but it is over-engineering for most residential applications. The decision to use certain geotextile fabrics should be based upon soil analysis results because often soil compositions do not require any additional strength for a simple pedestrian walkway or patio. The decision should never be made on a whim where it gets added to the final bill because the contractor was told by a plastics salesman that the product is "cheap insurance". Is cheap insurance ever actually cheap? Was "cheap insurance" on mortgage bonds in 2007 legitimately cheap... we see what we want to see.

7.Make a Drainage Plan:

Drainage is extremely important to just about everything. Start with a fun exercise of determining how much rainwater run-off is generated by your home's roof. The yearly totals will depend on your area’s annual rainfall, and other factors, but here is a simple example; a roof for a 2,000 square foot house will divert a volume of about 1,120 gallons of water over a single 1" rainstorm. That same roof would generate about 28,000 gallons per year of rainwater run-off if there was an annual rainfall of 25". When you have your numbers, keep them in mind when developing a drainage plan. You will want to re-use as much of that water as possible. Before drawing up a plan, the most important thing is to make sure that you have appropriate perimeter drainage channeling water away from your home's foundation. These drains typically ought to be connected to the gutters and downspouts. When the time comes to make a full site plan, start with buying small site flags (colors of red, blue, and green). Go around your property after a big rainstorm and mark areas with standing water, or just very wet areas, by staking it with a small blue site flag. During a dry spell, go around your property and do the same thing for areas that are completely baked or dried out (look for thirsty plants and bare, exposed earth), but this time stake the areas with a small red flag. Once you have marked your wet areas (blue) and dry areas (red), start connecting the areas with lines of green flags. At this point, with everything visualized, you can decide based on grade and slope if you need regular corrugated drainpipe, PVC hard pipe, French drains, basins, reservoirs, pumps, etc. If you have dry areas (red) along steep slopes, instead of pulling the water against gravity, you might instead want to use certain plants, materials, or methods that slow and collect the water as it traverses down the hillside. You can have a contractor or designer do all these things for you, but observing how water performs on your landscape is vital information for establishing sustainable landscape solutions... and no one will know the site better than you. Oh, and ask around about putting in a rain barrel... or DIY.

8.Make a Planting Plan, Discover Natives & Invasives:

This comes easier to some than to others. I am not the best “green thumb” plant guy, but I'm working on it. I pay an annual subscription fee for an app to identify plant varieties, and it's honestly a great investment for me. In case the internet goes out for whatever reason, I also have quite a few books for plant and tree identification. But anyway, making a planting plan is the final step to making your landscape sing. From an "Order of Operations" perspective, I recommend developing this plan at the same time as the Drainage Plan but executing the planting last - and in stages if needed. When taking site inventory, determining site impact, and during construction, you should look at areas already harboring native species that are exhibiting strong biodiversity and decide how best to manage or protect these areas. Same process for Invasives but for the opposite purpose of removing them entirely. It is all up to you; however, I would recommend consulting with a Master Gardener or Horticulturalist for managing areas with existing Natives & Invasives. When developing your Planting Plan, the plant list should use species or varieties of plants that interact favorably with the Drainage Plan, soil composition, sunshine, wind, and foot traffic. The selected plants should provide a path toward your desired landscape features. Try to "stack" functions, for example planting an oak may someday provide food for wildlife, wind break or shelter, shade in summer, and sunlight in winter. Don't get overwhelmed in picking the perfect plant because you'll likely end up picking primarily based on beauty and convenience. It is more important to have collected all the right information first, and to know your desired outcome, so that you know how and where to look for what you need. Geesh, that ended up sounding a bit like dating advice...

9.Ask About Memberships & Certifications:

I didn't attend the Conway School of Landscape Design, and I don't hold a degree in anything related to landscaping. I jumped into this industry at 24 years old and was determined to work my way from the bottom to the top. I've worked for a lot of small, blue-collar landscape firms along the way. My point here is that I cut my teeth in “production-oriented” landscaping. And with good folks who do fine work no doubt. Not once along the way did any company discuss the role and impact of sustainability on landscaping quality. Could be coincidence, anecdotal for sure, but amazing to me, nonetheless. I have learned methods of sustainability primarily from observing what not to do and by learning from my own mistakes. Today, my company Ajna Stonescapes is an active member in the Ecological Landscape Alliance (ELA), we are certified interlocking concrete paver installers by the Concrete Masonry & Hardscape Association (CMHA) and are pursuing certification in sustainability either with Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) or Maine Landscape & Nursery Association (MELNA). The reason we have not been certified by MELNA specifically, is that we are hesitant about some viewpoints held by MELNA Board, and thus are not eager to agree or contribute to their certification process. I say all of this because a responsible consumer should ask about a company’s affiliations, memberships, and certifications. Contractors who have been brought up only by field experience are often lacking in perspective, and the exact same can be said for designers brought up only by academic experience. Those who aspire for excellence will challenge themselves to acquire diverse perspectives, earn certifications, and by pursuing myriad other endeavors beyond the day-to-day operations. Contractors trekking these paths will be excited to share, so just ask them about it.

10.Ask About Sustainability:

Growing up I thought that "environmentalists" were crazy extremists. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't. I don't want to take this into politics, but my views have certainly changed over the years. What changed my life was separating terminology from their associated ideology, at least as best I could. Specifically, here within the Landscaping Industry, the term "Sustainability" should not be characterized as an ideological term signifying left-wing progressivism, but should be a tangible, categorical measure of Quality. If by creating 50 opulent landscapes that are totally reliant on human input, are helplessly dependent on non-renewable resources, exacerbate brittleness and desertification, and decimate biodiversity - if those same 50 palatial landscapes aid in the destruction of 100 other landscape ecosystems upwind or downstream (or on foreign lands), how can the responsible landscape contractors claim that project as a net positive output of quality? They can't. Even financially it is proving more and more difficult to make the case that the added value to the personal estate is greater than the sum of the costs of the known negative externalities associated with extravagant landscape design. Mortgage brokers and banks in 2007 could never once honestly claim that their complex financial products were benefiting any demographic because they were putting everyone on the same sinking ship. Landscapers are just one group of professionals among several that have an inherent responsibility to be knowledgeable stewards of the land. So, if you the consumer care about it, then just ask us about it. Most landscape contractors I meet do tend to care about the environment and about sustainability, to varying degrees. At the very least, every landscaper should have some answer or elevator pitch ready to go. Yet, there are still plenty who will scoff at it and give that look, "...another one of those crazy environmentalists." Buyer beware with those folks.

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