In multifamily properties, different households share in the use, visual enjoyment, and enhanced property value of landscaped outdoor elements. That means that a lot of consideration goes into deciding what and where to plant, how to maintain it, and how much to spend on it all. These considerations can be summed up as the ‘Three Greens’: the vitality and vibrancy of lawns and other plantings—their literal greenness—the dollars that condos and co-ops invest to design, install, and maintain these areas; and the ecological factors that determine the best practices, placements, and products that use the least resources and have the best environmental impacts.
The three greens of landscaping must be considered simultaneously to maximize each. For example, an association with a limited landscaping budget might think that skimping on mulch will save them money—but the right type of mulch in the right amounts is important for soil health, water conservation, and weed mitigation, according to the pros. Similarly, a community with ample grounds might think that laying a bunch of sod for sprawling lawns might be the right way to ‘green’—but this type of landscape might actually be the least cost effective to maintain and least ecologically efficient and/or beneficial.
Mix It Up
Generally, as with most things biological, diversity is best. Having a combination of softscape (plantings and grasses) and hardscape (concrete, paving, turf) creates visual appeal and can differentiate outdoor spaces for a variety of uses. A carefully planned landscape can also maximize water run-off and absorption, take advantage of sun and shade, make use of otherwise dead space, and account for seasonality—a particularly important consideration in the face of climate change and the severe weather events it can bring to all regions.
Similarly, mixing in plants native to the region where they’re being planted has both maintenance and sustainability benefits. According to Steven Yergeau, Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent for Ocean and Atlantic Counties and member of the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association (NJLCA), “Native plants are a good way to incorporate sustainable vegetation into yards for clients who are environmentally minded. Native plants are adapted to local climate and soil conditions, requiring less watering, fertilizers, and pesticides than non-native vegetation.” The National Wildlife Federation has launched a Native Plant Finder on its website: www.nwf.org/nativeplantfinder/. Enter your zip code, and find all the flowers, grasses, trees, and shrubs that are native to your area.
Tom Lupfer, owner of Lupfer Landscaping in Lyons, Illinois, and member of the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association (ILCA), contends that an integrated landscape approach will also become a more sustainable system. Where plants are dying or struggling, he says, pests tend to proliferate, which increases the need for chemical applications. This has further negative consequences for the health and vitality of the landscape. “When you put down herbicides, for example,” says Lupfer, “you kill not only the harmful elements, but many of the beneficial microbes that foster life and growth in the soil. The soil becomes barren, in a way, and has to be supplemented artificially, which means more chemicals.” As with any organic system, the less need for intervention, the better. Native plants are more likely to thrive on their own in the conditions natural to the region, requiring fewer chemicals, less watering, and less impact.