Landscape Trends Help the Earth Mend

by Cris Blackstone

Biophilic design, by bringing plants from the outdoors in, can help our health and well-being, and is now embedded in the design of homes and buildings. Landscapers are aware of the ways homeowners appreciate their four-season views of their gardens and lawns, with winter interest growing, too! These aspects of the horticulture industry are financial boosts to the industry and to all of the professions associated with “being green,” including plant growers who are always keenly aware of what’s next and how to bring those plants with their colors and textures to the professionals’ design and install capabilities. Between biophilic design and increased four-season appeal of the views from office windows and residential views of the outdoors, we’re doing a lot for our health and well-being – but what about the ways landscapers can help care for the Earth?

Three trends to watch and learn more about are: crevice gardens, phytoremediation plantings, and permaculture design. Each of these carry their own purposes and overlapping thought processes to watch and learn about, and can help solve distinct situations.

Crevice gardens are related to, but distinct from, rock gardens. Rock gardens can be from locally sourced rocks and boulders, or from those materials brought in to enhance a design with particular colors or textures of the rocks or boulders. Sometimes rock gardens may solve an on-site construction situation, by repurposing those rocks and boulders as construction begins and the materials are discovered and are perhaps in the way of the project being built. Rock gardens solve other landscape situations, too, such as protecting plantings, creating effortless borders, avoiding use of plastic or other unnatural materials. Maybe most importantly, they help mitigate rain or storm water runoff when used as drainage pathways or breaks in impervious pavement spans.

Crevice gardens are sprouting up in urban areas, when some building may be demolished and another take its place. Elements of cement, old stone staircases, and segments of rock or cement foundations are then piled, staggered and set in such a way so as to create crevices that could be found in geological formations, where rocks are slanted as pages in a book, and plants with deeper roots fill in over time. Urban sustainability is benefitting from the construction rubble being used in this way, and research is on-going about which plants are actually getting their mineral nutrients directly from rocks and rubble rather than from soil amendments. Plants taking over the city, a sort of “Mad Max” city after humanity, is a description offered by Kenton Seth of Paintbrush Gardens in Fruita, CO. Check out paintbrushgardens.com and explore their online folio of photos of crevice gardens installed in places such as Cheyenne Botanic Garden, WY, or Plants Delight Nursery, in NC. Seth and Paul Spriggs have a book coming out soon, The Modern Crevice Garden, which will offer design ideas, plant suggestions ,and the philosophies behind this form of design. Great to think about how to repurpose otherwise difficult materials!

In the phytoremediation choice of plants, we are seeing ways certain plants are most effective in cleaning up air quality, contaminated water, and improving soil at the same time. These phytoremediation planting techniques can contain, remove, or even reduce toxicity in contaminated or undesirable sites. Called hyperaccumulators or bioaccumulators, some plants can metabolize or concentrate certain elements and compounds from the environment. Plants, with these naturally-occurring capabilities, are less expensive than other means of remediation, and offer other benefits we know nature offers us as well as wildlife, too! While a commitment over time is required to let the plants grow, help them thrive and monitor the site’s biomass, phytoremediation is safe and doesn’t come with lots of associated costs as other forms of site remediation, including off-site disposal of the contaminated material. Plants highly effective in phytoremediation include those in the brassica family, salix species (which are also especially effective in helping mitigate diesel pollutants) poplar trees, Indian grass (growing along roadsides, perhaps not by accident?!) and Sunflowers, which are quick-growers and so they start their phytoremediation nearly as soon as they sprout! In a European test site, it was found that month-old sunflower plants removed 95% of uranium at the site within 24 hours. Superficial groundwater can be cleaned up by many of these, as well as other plants, as well.

Research in phytoremediation and the subsequent effect on the plant material long-term looks promising and is worth watching and learning more about, for the health of our planet and for restoration of our environment.

And lastly, permaculture – which is meaningful to large-scale as well as small-scale design and maintenance of the balance clients look for in gardens, open spaces around property, and agri-business too. Design and thought processes around permaculture began to be outlined and articulated by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in their 1978 book, Permaculture One. Their earliest definition of permaculture was an “integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man.” With twelve primary principals of permaculture including to observe and interact, and integrate rather than segregate, homeowners are hearing more about the aspects of permaculture which will offer them seemingly natural landscape designs that will mature and evolve over time.

It’s in that evolution that landscape professionals can help clients see the benefits of attracting wildlife, offering pollinator habitats, and even pleasing food sources for themselves. Maintenance is still required, although it takes on a longer term approach as certain plants may have a tendency to take over or become more dominant for the spaces they were originally planted – that’s where professionals can serve as excellent educators for property owners. Many opportunities are out there to learn about permaculture and there are several certification programs available throughout New England.

The 7th Annual NH Permaculture Day, held August 17, at Canterbury Shaker Village, is a daylong event, filled with workshops and presentations for beginners as well as those experienced in permaculture design and techniques. Check the nhpermaculture.org website for registration information as well as the list of presentations and workshops, which will be completed soon. As this movement grows, it’s important for landscape professionals to be able to work with clients who will be also reading and learning about the main points involved in permaculture design. As an NH Certified Landscape Professional, attending the NH Permaculture Day will give you the most up-to-date information available, pertinent to our hardiness zones, as well as first-hand opportunities to network and learn directly from those who can best help you help your clients as the movement grows and blossoms in New Hampshire.

With these three trends to help the Earth mend, landscape professionals are proving that it’s an exciting time to be involved in the overall field of horticulture and expressing creativity in design in the natural world.