In the mid-1990s, the southeast region including Atlanta suffered through several severe droughts. As I’m writing this article, we seem to be in yet another period of little or no rain and this brings to mind the impact of drought not only on people involved in the horticultural industry but all of us who live in Atlanta and the metro area.
The horticulture (green) industry in Atlanta and throughout the state is huge. Hundreds and possibly thousands of small companies are growing plants, selling plants, spraying lawns and maintaining landscapes. These companies provide thousands of jobs in Atlanta alone.
Almost everyone in Atlanta has followed the water wars with Florida and Alabama. Regardless of how this plays out in the courts, water will continue to be a scarce resource and decisions that are made concerning the allocation and use of this resource will dramatically impact the ability of companies in the green industry to survive and provide jobs. After all, trees, shrubs, flowers and grass need water just as people do.
Going back twenty or so years ago, people in the green industry started looking for a way to respond to this problem. Of course, the most sensible and obvious solution was to figure out how to use less water. It was at this time that the concept of xeriscaping came into serious consideration. A concept that originated in the Rocky Mountain States and California, xeriscape basically meant landscaping with plants and materials that used very little water.
Although based on some very sound principles, the term xeriscape also conjured up visions of yards filled with pebbles, boulders and cactus. Almost no one bought into it. It just did not fly. The concept did not fit southern lifestyles nor did anyone want to abandon our rich Southeastern horticultural heritage. The idea was soon washed away when the rains returned, but the underlying problem, the scarcity of water, remained.
Lately, a new concept called sustainable landscaping is getting a lot of attention. This concept includes many of the principles of xeriscaping but is much broader and far reaching in that it embraces the idea that landscapes can be harmonious with the environment on a number of levels, not just water use. Unlike xeriscaping, one of the main tenets of sustainable landscaping is that, with proper knowledge and careful planning, a garden or landscape can be both aesthetically pleasing and harmonious with the environment.
The issues of sustainability are broad, complex and fall into two basic categories. The first category includes the issue of sustainability such as how to limit the use of non-renewable resources, water use, energy use and more complex issues such as carbon sequestration. These are issues that are not immediate and can be resolved over time.
The second category includes non-sustainable issues that have a direct and immediate degrading impact on the environment such as water pollution and soil contamination.
As I looked into sustainable landscaping, I became convinced that this is a road we will eventually have to go down, the sooner the better. The issues here are complex and the challenges will first be to understand what the goals are and then how to achieve them and incorporate these principles into the work we do.
Here are some ideas to start with:
- Group plants that need less water in the same area and moisture-loving plants in another area. Efficient irrigation is a must. Irrigation manufacturers have come a long way in this regard. New irrigation controllers can be programmed to water different areas in the yard at different times and different rates of water use. Some controllers even hook up to satellites which adjust water rates and times to conditions on the ground.
- We can all use organic fertilizers which degrade and do not enter our ground water.
- We can also minimize turf areas and use grasses that require less water, mowing, fertilizer and pesticides.
- By the way, a fescue lawn is undoubtedly a thing of beauty most of the year, but fescue requires huge amounts of water, fertilizer, weed control chemicals and pesticides. Fescue also requires more mowing and care than any other grass. Whenever possible, replace it with Zoysia, Centipede, one of the hybrid turf grasses or even install ground cover such as liriope, pachysandra or ivy.
There is a lot to learn and I have only briefly touched on the concept of sustainable landscapes. Once again, I suggest you go to the internet and Google “sustainable landscaping.”
Read thoroughly. I think you will realize it makes absolute sense. Given the challenges and issues we face, I do believe this is our future.
Another suggestion: when shopping at your local garden center, ask questions about the plants you are purchasing. Are they drought tolerant or do they need water? Sun or shade? Is this plant truly a perennial, easy or difficult to grow? Make a knowledgeable decision and that will make you a much better gardener.
Fall is here. Time to get to work.