Thanks to California’s strict new watering regulations, sustainable landscapes, and the many beneficial environmental benefits they provide, are quickly taking root, pun intended. Homeowners today are converting gardens and large areas of water-thirsty turf to low-water, sustainable landscapes at a remarkable rate. These new gardens represent a new paradigm in horticulture. And how we as an industry maintain these new landscapes is a question that has not yet been resolved.
The California landscape maintenance industry represents $25 billion in sales and nearly 258,000 jobs, a mammoth industry that relies on mostly obsolete tools and a workforce lacking the experience to properly maintain these new gardens. The lawn mower, hedge trimmer, edger, string trimmer, and blower have no place in sustainable landscapes. And skills such as plant identification, pruning techniques, and an understanding of natural systems are largely missing.
How did we get here?
To understand how we inherited such a water-thirsty landscape, consider the history of San Diego. Around the time of the Second World War, President Truman declared the San Diego military base to be a strategic location that required access to ample potable water. Truman worked with congress to approve funds to construct a pipeline to bring water from Northern California to San Diego.
After completing the aqueduct, San Diego had a surplus of water—and a large bill to repay congress for having appropriated the funds. The solution? The water district created a campaign to build lush, tropical gardens, an oasis in the desert. The resulting boom in tourism brought in the necessary revenue but the oasis was an unsustainable mirage.
California’s recent severe drought led Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. to proclaim a State of Emergency on January 17, 2014, directing state officials to take necessary action to conserve water. The formal declaration brought national attention to a new reality: water is a precious commodity.
As Mark R. Tercek, CFO of the Sierra Club, wrote in Nature’s Fortune, “San Diego, for example, may soon run dry. This growing city depends on the Colorado River for more than half of its water. Many users upstream from San Diego also claim rights to the river—to irrigate farms, fill Las Vegas fountains, or water suburban lawns and golf courses. To use the perfectly bland bureaucratic term, the Colorado is “oversubscribed”—frequently becoming just a sad trickle some seventy miles north of where it once entered the Gulf of California. In a year such as 2012, when rain and snowfall are well below normal, the Colorado runs out of water. With a changing climate, every year may soon be a bad year.”
Since a typical landscape consumes 75 percent of an average household’s water, you might argue that this water crisis is the result of horticultural practices. In the early days most landscape maintenance companies subscribed to what I call the “grow dammit” philosophy: apply as much fertilizer and water as you can, douse with chemicals to keep insects and disease at bay, and prune regularly; an approach that closely followed a U.S. agriculture/agribusiness model of cultivating for a maximum yield.
This old model of landscape maintenance is deeply ingrained in our society with consequences that extend beyond our current water shortage. A study of air pollution in California found that annual mower emissions equaled that produced by 3,500,000 automobiles each driven 16,000 miles. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that over 17 million gallons of fuel, mostly gasoline, is spilled each year while refueling lawn equipment. That’s more than all the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in the Gulf of Alaska. Other negative environmental consequences associated with the old model include noise pollution and carbon emissions from trucks hauling yard waste.
Perhaps the least recognized impact of the old model is the displacement of wildlife habitat. Across the United States, it is estimated that turf grass lawns cover 62,500 square miles of ground—that’s more than 31 times the size of Delaware. These lawns, essentially a monoculture of a single plant, provide little in the way of habitat for wildlife. In contrast, according to the American Association of Landscape Architects,
“sustainable landscapes are responsive to the environment, re-generative, and can actively contribute to the development of healthy communities. Sustainable landscapes sequester carbon, clean the air and water, increase energy efficiency, restore habitats, and create value through significant economic, social and, environmental benefits,”
Both as individuals and an industry we must adapt. Doing away with the old tools of our trade means we must learn new maintenance practices; daunting when you consider the maintenance worker who has been using a hedge trimmer for the last five, ten, or even twenty years. Teaching new skills is one thing. Changing old habits is quite another. Learning how to care for these new landscapes is a process that involves that involves connecting with nature and taking time to understand how plants grow.
Maintenance companies will need to retrain their workers. Instead of monthly shearing, most plants adapted to a dry summer climate benefit from annual renewal pruning with select snipping throughout the growing season to direct new growth. The challenge of mastering this new approach is compounded by that of learning a palette of plants that may be unfamiliar to maintenance workers.
The old model of clipping and hauling landscape waste to the dump is as unsustainable as watering thirsty lawns. Our landfills are maxing out and our atmosphere cannot handle the carbon emissions from the trucks that haul debris. New, more sustainable practices include mulching with leaves and composting procedures that contribute to both plant and environmental health.
The shift toward adopting sustainable practices also offers new business opportunities for landscape maintenance companies. Those that offer bi-weekly or monthly service options more in sync with new gardens will succeed over those that continue to offer only weekly maintenance. Knowledgeable about working with natural systems and making environmentally-sensitive choices, well-trained horticulture graduates and Master Gardeners are in a good position to offer their services commercially. Giving them a distinct edge over those companies that are stuck in the past.