Landscaping is a massive industry in the United States grossing over 70 billion dollars in 2016. Most of these landscapes consist of water and maintenance intensive lawns and other non-sustainable landscaping methods.

With a growing ecological crisis looming; including severe droughts, top soil depletion, loss of biodiversity and watershed pollution, our approach to landscaping requires a shift from degenerative to regenerative design and installation.

Ecological design, emerging as the future of landscaping, is the practice of integrating landscapes with nature. Founded on principles of ecology, this land use strategy regenerates the environment itself, while simultaneously providing for the human needs of the community.

There is a growing market for ecological landscape designers and I believe this trend will only grow faster. This is truly a renaissance moment, an epic opportunity to transform a large scale land use industry. Transform an industry and heal the planet.

Imagine if half of 2016’s $70Billion in US landscapes was geared to enhance the health of ecosystems. The benefits to the community and the environment would be astronomical. Right now landscape designers and contractors can have meaningful careers repairing precious ecologies rather than destroying them.

We have an opportunity to return to the garden. To grow food, catch water and be truly self-sufficient. We can be producers, mending the planet and enjoying the recreation of beautifully designed landscapes at the same time. We can create paradise in our own backyards. We can do this at any scale, from urban lots to thousand acre ranches, the future of landscaping is ecological.

Ecological landscapes retain many elements of traditional landscapes. We incorporate outdoor living and recreation areas, water features, hardscape pathways, special plantings, anything we can imagine. The difference is our approach to using resources, our respect of the natural environment, the weaving of human needs with needs of the environment.

The potential is enormous, the timing strategic. Now is the moment to transform the landscape industry. We can generate whole new career paths, increase our self-sufficiency and repair the planet.Below are 5 tips to help you on your way.

5 Ecological Tips for Landscape Professionals and Homeowners:

  1. Ecological Site Assessment

To design an ecological landscape one must first understand the site and the ecology of a place. This simple yet effective approach could save clients thousands of dollars on its own. I can’t tell you how many times I observed catastrophic situations during my site assessment phase, saving my clients time and money.

An ecological design works with the natural patterns of a site. The goal of your site assessment is to understand as many natural patterns and existing conditions as possible. What are the constraints of a site? What are the resources?

Here are elements to observe when designing an ecological landscape:

  • Surface Water Movement-Natural drainage, flooding, groundwater, water collections, erosion.
  • Microclimates-Most landscapes have a series of microclimates that will influence plantings in each zone. For example, some areas might sustain hard frosts and other won’t. Understanding the microclimates of a site leads directly to creative planting plans. Leveraging these climates enables a larger diversity of planting options as well as better success for specialty plants. Sometimes even a ten-foot difference in location determines the thriving potential of a planting.
  • Soil Health-Soil health, the make or break of a successful landscape. What is the soil type? Does it drain water in the winter? Is it erosive? Mineral deficient? Lacking in organic matter? The answers to these questions guide the design and implementation process.
  • Watershed Implications What watershed is the site in? Certain watersheds have strict regulations of what are acceptable activities near waterways. Some watersheds have specific drainage and flooding implications. Understanding these natural patterns will aid you in completing successful projects.
  • Native Plant Species- What is the dominant vegetation type on the property? Is it native or exotic? What are the historical vegetation patterns; Forest, Pastoral, chaparral, mixed? Understand and work with the successions of native plant communities.
  • Existing Wildlife- Know the wildlife community living on site. This will help you reduce any harm to beneficial species. The goal of an ecological landscape is to enhance wildlife habitat as much as possible. Consider wildlife as important members of the landscape community.
  • Topography– Topography affects everything on a site. Water movement, soil erosion, microclimates, appropriate building locations, agricultural endeavors and more.
  • Include Everything you can! This is a partial list. I could write an entire article on this one topic alone. Make sure to take into account everything you can about a site including ecological, social, economic, regulatory and historical information.

2. Focus on Soil Health

Healthy soil is the foundation of healthy plants and a thriving landscape. An ecological landscape focuses on building organic matter and feeding biological activity in the soil.

Biologically alive soil results in higher yields of food producing plants, a reduction of irrigation needs and increased pest and disease resistance.

Inherent in building soil is the absence of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides. These commonplace products in the landscape industry, are at odds with an ecological approach to landscaping. Chemicals kill the beneficial living organisms present in healthy soil, in turn creating a dependency on synthetic fertilizers and additives.

Here are some tips for building healthy soil:

  • Thick Mulching Systems– Use and reuse of leaves, woodchips, straw, compost, manure, cut up branches and plant residues, cardboard, and other sheet mulching techniques.
  • Mulch Producing Plants– Using plant species that produce organic matter in the landscape. Nitrogen fixers, fast growing biomass producers, deciduous trees mixed throughout the site. The material generated by these plants and trees can be cut and used to build compost and directly for mulching systems.
  • Vermiculture– Managing a worm bin can yield major benefits to soil health. The vermicompost or worm castings host millions of beneficial bacteria. This homegrown soil amendment can be used to inoculate the landscape increasing the overall biological activity of the whole site.
  • Aerated Compost Teas– These homemade liquid fertilizers and inoculants are changing the face of landscaping. Utilizing worm castings, mature compost, and other ingredients, compost teas grow beneficial bacteria and fungi in an aerated liquid environment. Often brewed with an air pump injected container(of varying sizes) for 24 -36 hours the resulting biological inoculant can be sprayed directly on the soil or in some cases the leaves of plants.

3. Prioritize Water Resilience

Water is usually the first element designed into an ecological landscape. Where water flows life grows. Water must be looked at in a variety of settings to paint a full picture of the water layer of a landscape. Here are the most important ways to think about water in design.

  • Water Sources- The source of your water matters. When possible you want to source your water from the site itself. If your site is connected to a municipal system, augment your water source with onsite catchment. Springs, wells, ponds, greywater, stormwater infiltration, roof water catchment are all onsite water sources that can be designed for and implemented into the landscape. Only choose appropriate sources that make sense to the specificity of the site, the client’s goals, budget, ecological constraints and regulatory ordinances.
  • Water Harvesting- Stormwater can be harvested in a variety of ways to achieve water resilience. Roof water catchment and onsite water infiltration are two major harvesting techniques that can be used throughout many different kinds of landscapes. Consult engineers and other professionals to determine the viability of your soils and topography for water harvesting structures.
  • Drainage- While harvesting water is a priority of ecological landscapes, well thought out drainage systems are equally important. Flash floods, water damage to structures, and soil erosion, all constitute potential hazards of inadequate drainage systems. Balancing water catchment and infiltration with appropriate drainage is a common design challenge of ecological landscapers.
  • Irrigation- Irrigation technology has greatly improved water distribution and conservation in the landscape. By utilizing smart timers, moisture probes, and advanced drip irrigation systems, landscapes receive the right amount of water reducing overuse.
  • Erosion- Erosion is generally caused by fast moving water and its interactions with topography and soil. Slowing down surface water during rain events will reduce erosion and the movement of sediment on a site.

4)Choose Useful Plants

Did you know that you can have a highly ornamental landscape that also produces food, medicine, builds soil, and enhances wildlife habitat? All this can be achieved by making smart plants choices.

Choose plants within the below categories. Keep in mind that within each group there are plenty of species that provide the stated function and can be flowering, low maintenance, deciduous or evergreen. Creative landscape designers can produce amazing color palettes, textures, and planting structures while yielding ecological functions at the same time.

  • Edible/Medicinal- Fruit and nut trees, perennial shrubs and berries, culinary herbs, edible leaves, and medicinal roots and flowers all provide yields for human health and consumption. Make your landscape your very own grocery store!
  • Soil Building- Nitrogen fixing plants, and biomass producers aid in building soil. These plants come in all shapes and sizes and many produce other yields like food, flowers, and wildlife habitat.
  • Insectary- Attract your own army of pest eaters by strategically planting insectary plants. Bees, butterflies, lacewings, lady beetles, parasitoid wasps and many other beneficial insects routinely visit particular flowering plants. These organisms spend their days roaming the garden devouring plant-eating pests.

5)Work Within in Ecological Successions

Landscapes change over time as seasons pass and the system matures. Planning for these changes leads to an overall success of the project.

Nature functions from cycle and flows. An ecological landscape does the same. As the system grows up new maintenance cycles emerge. Planning for these milestones by utilizing harvests, Strategic pruning or removal of some species and so on, are all necessary aspects of keeping the landscape healthy and thriving.

Make the Future Ecological

Join the fast growing trend towards designing landscapes ecologically. As a homeowner, you’re a land steward by default, make the right choice for your landscape. Build soil, harvest water, enhance habitat, grow food and immerse yourself in paradise.

As professionals, we have a major opportunity before us. A responsibility in fact. We can be part of the solution or a continuation of the problem. The market for ecological landscape is growing quickly. You don’t want to miss being at the forefront. Now more than ever its time to be the solution.

FREE Ecological Design Training with Erik Ohlsen

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FREE Ecological Design Training with Erik Ohlsen

Join Erik Ohlsen, founder and Executive Director of Permaculture Skills Center in this FREE training that dives deep into the Ecological Design Process.

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