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  • Writer's pictureKyle Kearns

What is "Sustainable Hardscaping"?

Updated: Mar 11

When researching the options for environmentally friendly landscaping services you may come across a variety of terms:

Environmental Sustainability: The ability to maintain an ecological balance in our planet's natural environment and conserve natural resources to support the wellbeing of current and future generations.

Sustainable Landscaping: A modern type of gardening or landscaping that takes the environmental issue of sustainability into account.

Eco-Friendly Landscaping: Landscaping that is not harmful to the environment.

Permaculture: The development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.

GreenScaping: A set of landscaping practices that can improve the health and appearance of your lawn and garden while protecting and preserving natural resources.

Xeriscaping: A process of landscaping, or gardening, that reduces or eliminates the need for irrigation.

Ecological Landscape Alliance: Since its founding in 1992, the Ecological Landscape Alliance has been a leader in promoting sustainable approaches to landscape design, construction, and management. ELA’s commitment to innovative ideas and evidence-based practices has made the organization both a trusted resource and a vibrant community of landscape professionals and devoted gardeners.

Sustainable Hardscaping:

We define Sustainable Hardscaping as the installation of any non-living materials, products, or elements within a landscape while also considering the issue of Environmental Sustainability and using Eco-Friendly best practices. Here is some of our approach:

Locally Sourced: Most people may not realize, but a lot of the stone that is bought and sold locally has already made a significant journey by the time it reaches you. It must be quarried in one place, then often cut or shaped in another place, then shipped to a distributor, then perhaps to a retailer, then to the contractor, then to the customer. That is a lot of time, handling, and gas... especially for products that are mass-produced and nationally distributed, like many brands of concrete pavers, as well as any of the secondary installation products of masonry or hardscaping. So, we ask the right questions to make sure we are getting products that are as local as possible. This is better for the local economy and for our sustainable mission overall.

Reducing Non-Biodegradables: Biodegradables are any substances or objects capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms. Since I have started in this industry, I have observed a dramatic increase in the adoption of non-biodegradables such as synthetics, plastics, oils, chemicals, adhesives, etc. for the installation of almost any hardscape project - large or small. The phrase "cheap insurance" is all the reasoning needed to convince a contractor to over-engineer a small project, or any project, with plastics and fabrics. But most often this is just a hurried substitute for correctly assessing the soils or situations that would appropriately justify the added strength that synthetics can sometimes provide. Furthermore, the concept that these products are "cheap insurance" is not entirely accurate. The indirect costs attached to the production, distribution, and disposal of petroleum based non-biodegradables do exist, if not easily found on the sticker price. There are plenty of alternative solutions to add strength and longevity to your hardscape installation, or to "over-engineer" the project if so desired, that work within the landscape and are not reliant on non-biodegradable products.

Reduced Machinery & Minimal Impact: Any hardscaping contractor can tell you the immense value that machinery will bring to a company operation, or even to an individual project. It cuts down on time, it cuts down on labor, it can increase scale, it can cut costs for the customer and can increase profits for the business. But the forgotten, or obscured, negative impact on the immediate ecosystem is immense. We do not completely abstain from using machinery or equipment, we simply strive for "Minimal Impact" while exercising caution and prudence. Here are some problems that high impact machinery can cause, if not careful:

Pollution: Some pollutants include, but are not limited to; fluids, oils, gas, grease, metals, plastics, fumes, etc. Also, noise and light pollution should be considered. It can sometimes aggravate the human neighbors but may also be quite disruptive to nearby animals.

Damage to delicate surface roots: Many grass root systems are obviously vulnerable to large machinery. Overall, the root system may be vibrant enough to bounce back quickly after being crushed, but likely the damaged area will be a mix of some grass and a lot of weeds. Weeds have a competitive edge in open, poor soil areas. And this problem worsens overtime. Other than grass, many other plants root systems can be harmed or destroyed by machinery.

Soil compaction: Heavy machinery will compact the soil as it traverses the property. Heavily compacted soil is less retentive of water, invites fewer living organisms, and does not easily foster healthy plant root growth. This leads to a worsening cycle of erosion, arid soils, increased ground surface temperatures, pests, or disease, less and less plant root systems, less wildlife, and so on. These effects are not immediate or all at once, but gradual and cumulative, over long periods of time.

Destruction: Just the phrasing, "destruction" may seem dramatic or exaggerated, but it is a statistically feasible threat that heavy machinery can pose. In contrast, it is probably more likely that you are eaten by a shark than a contractor inflicting "destruction" upon your personal property wielding only a shovel and wheelbarrow. People are quite trusting of contractors that arrive with a fleet of machines, despite the impressive amount of damage they can potentially incur to your property. Things such as hitting the house, a car, power lines, buried utility lines, knocking over trees or small structures... etc.

Replenishing Soils: When projects need to import soils for myriad reasons, the typical impulse is to buy the cheapest available materials, such as "fill". The best approach, however, is to use the correct soil for the task at hand or to use soils that introduce biodiversity. It is helpful to know that soil is comprised of about 45% mineral material, 5% organic matter, 20% - 30% water, and 20% - 30% air. There are four main types of soil: loamy soil, sandy soil, clay soil, and silt soil. Each differs in their ability to retain water or compact. In a situation that calls for heavily compacted soils, you may desire a higher percentage of minerals and a lower percentage of air. You may also want a blend or mixture of soil types that bind together well because of their shape/size characteristics or molecular make-up. For landscape areas that you desire to have strong organic growth, perhaps you may need the exact opposite kinds of soils. The point here is that with Sustainable Hardscaping, it is required that special attention be paid to soil to replenish the landscape correctly.

Water Conscious: All hardscape elements within a landscape impede or obstruct the natural flow of water. If you imagine the area where your house sits as at one time being able to allow water to permeate into the earth at the rate of (these are totally hypothetical numbers that follow) 1 gallon of water per 100 square feet per month, then that is 240 gallons of water redirected over the course of just one year for a house that is 2,000 square feet. So, what happens to that 240 (or "x") gallons of water? The first problem is the intercepted areas, or the downslope ecosystem, that is deprived of easily channeled water filtered by nicely aerated topsoil. Instead, the water is typically redirected away from the hardscapes structure to an area (hopefully) that will not be prone to exacerbating erosion. The next problem is the new rapid and aggressive flow of the redirected water. Stemming from redirection, nutrient depleted soil, greater water volume, and thus high speed, the surface water cannot easily penetrate deeper root systems and thus maintains its volume and speed to larger water outlets such as creeks, streams, and rivers. The water volume and speed carry a greater number of pollutants, salts, and minerals - which alters delicate ecosystems as it progresses downstream. Again, all hardscape elements with a landscape impede or obstruct the natural flow of water. We consult and work with a permaculturalist and landscape designer to create the best solutions for naturally utilizing excess run-off water from any non-permeable hardscape design.

Native & Natural: If given the choice, we always prefer to install plants that are native to the area and hardscape products that are natural in origin, such as natural stone like granite. Not only does it increase the likelihood that we are staying within our "Locally Sourced" framework, but it also likely satisfies our Sustainable focus for obvious reasons. It should also be noted here that Landscape Design incorporating local themes and culture, local materials, and customs, is often far more protected and cherished over the long term. When we build or install Hardscapes, we are creating something that will likely endure at least 30 years, and sometimes 100 years or longer. A hidden threat to Sustainability is the various whims of multiple owners of the same property over a century's time, and it stands to reason that a self-sufficient, sustainable landscape that embodies the look, feel, and culture of a particular region has better odds of existing into perpetuity.

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