New Vision for Landscaping

This is an excerpt from the Book called “Edible Landscaping  by Rosalind Creasy. Continue reading to learn more about Basic Painting Techniques, thanks to the author.

When I started gardening as a new homeowner in the 1960s, among the first plants I put in were hybrid tea roses.  As instructed by the nursery, I regularly sprayed them with commercial fungicides to curb mildew, black spot, and rust.  I applied herbicide to eradicate dandelions from the lawn.  Over time I read Silent Spring, picked up a few copies of Organic Gardening, and Joined the Sierra Club.  With my growing awareness of what I was doing and the effects these practices had, I stopped them.  Those roses are long gone; now I grow only disease-resistant varieties.  The lawn has shrunk to a 10-by12-foot plot, and I Plant French dandelions to eat.  In this case, there was no epiphany; the change occurred over several years. 

Like me, the landscaping industry and many gardeners have changed from the “bend nature to my will” manner popular throughout much of the past two centuries to a much-needed “save the planet” approach.  Clearly, we need to rethink some of our old ways of doing things.  None of us can—or should—do it all.  Fortunately, many of the necessary changes require only an awareness of our effect on the ecosystem and a change of mindset to help us make informed choices that will have a positive impact on our home, local, and global landscapes.  It’s important to remember, we can go back to basics; there were fabulous gardens before the invention of gas-powered machines and artificial chemicals, and there will still be fabulous gardens after these accouterments of modern gardening have been set aside. 

Following are some of the steps we can take in facing challenges while working with our home landscapes—especially concerning soil, energy, water, and our choice of garden materials.  Educating ourselves and future generations toward a more sustainable approach to landscaping will help fulfill the new vision for healthy food, healthy gardens, and a healthy planet. 

Respecting the Soil 

Healthy soil is a gift you receive from—and can give back to—the planet.  Yet few Americans honor soil as a living entity; instead they treat it like dirt, with serious consequences.  Some of the ongoing problems related to how we treat our soil include: 

Contamination: People apply millions of tons of chemical pesticides and fertilizers to their gardens.  In harsh-winter areas, homeowners and municipalities spread salt on sidewalks and streets.  All these chemicals kill the life in the soil. 

Compaction: contractors drive heavy equipment over wet soils, and maintenance people often operate large mowers when clay soil is soggy; both compact the soil, rendering it less permeable and preventing water from percolating through.  

Erosion: Wind and rain erode the soil from empty, unmatched beds and slopes.  All too often it ends up in lakes, contributing to algae bloom and eutrophication (a buildup of nutrients causing excess aquatic plant growth).  Or it runs into streams and rivers, polluting and muddying clear water; eventually what was valuable soil ends up in the ocean in large dead zones.  And airborne particles contribute to air pollution. 


Interference with nature’s renewal: Plastic bags full of valuable leaves and lawn clippings travel to landfills, and kitchen waste churns down garbage disposals.  All this biomass can be food for the compost pile, where the organic matter breaks down and returns to the soil-where it belongs-to feed microbes, plants, and consequently humankind. 

Experienced gardeners know that without abundant, healthy soil it’s next to impossible to have a great edible grander.  Healthy soil is literally alive with trillions of creatures from microbes to worms, which go about their daily lives turning organic matter, such as leaves, lawn clippings, and kitchen waste, into the elixir of life—humus. 

Consider this: every time you grow something that you eat, you literally save soil.  The USDA estimates that for every pound of commercially grown food that is produced, six pounds of soil are destroyed.  And if you grow your own edibles in soil.  As John Jeavons, pioneer of small-scale food production worldwide and author of How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits, said so poetically, “….start with one growing bed and tend it well, and we have begun the exciting, expansive, giving process of enlivening and healing the Earth and ourselves.” 

Saving Energy 

The way that a home landscape is designed, the plants chosen, and the chemicals used—all influence the way a household uses energy.  Plant placement, can enhance cooling or warming of a home.  When I grew up (before most people had central air conditioning), we visited my grandparents on Long Island in summer.  On hot afternoons we retreated to the front porch, which was shaded by massive elms and maples.  It was a social event as we shelled beans while sharing lemonade and neighborhood gossip with our relatives who lived next door.  Back home, just outside Boston, a giant linden tree shaded the back of our house and an outdoor dining area, while a grape-covered arbor cooled the passage from the house to the backyard. 

Incorporating climate-control techniques in the landscape sti8ll makes sense today.  According to the U.S. Department of Energy, deciduous trees that shade the sunny south-and west-facing house walls can save up to $250 a year on air-conditioning costs.  A shaded wall may be 9 to 15 degrees cooler than the peak surface temperature of unshaved surfaces.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 

Reports that evapotranspiration helps, too: a tree with a 30-foot canopy transpires 40 gallons of water a day, resulting in peak summer temperature reductions of 2 to 9 degrees.  The Maryland Department of Natural Resources estimates that evergreens placed to deflect winter winds can save from 10 to 50 percent on heating costs. 

Rethinking garden maintenance is another way to address the energy drain.  For years, commercial ammonium nitrate fertilizers (made from natural gas) have been used in most gnome landscapes, especially on lawns; as of this writing they are outlawed in a number of counties because they pollute underground water sources.  The routine use of gas-powered mowers and blowers and numerous commercial petroleum-based chemicals add up to huge amounts of energy spent needlessly.  Further, gardens cared for by machines are one of the major sources of air pollution in suburban areas.  The New York Times reported that the average gas-powered leaf blower produces as much pollution in an hour as the typical passenger vehicle during 2,000 miles of travel.  In addition, leaf blowers generate unsafe noise levels.  The lawn is far and away the energy hog of the home landscape, and I’ll address that later.  

Also consider the petroleum energy that can be saved on a more global scale.  When I look at an ornamental garden devoid of blueberries, tomatoes, or other edibles, I see wasted energy.  I know that every blueberry and tomato harvested by a home gardener saves energy, especially if cultivated organically, in comparison with commercially grown produce.  No petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides are needed to grow them, no machines to plant and harvest them, no airplanes or refrigerator trucks to transport them, no conveyor belts to move them, and no gas guzzled to drive them from store to kitchen.  One statistic indicates the enormity of this issue, just in dealing with fertilizers.  The University of Florida estimated that if home vegetable gardeners only in Florida estimated that if home vegetable gardeners only in Florida used yard clippings and animal manures instead of inorganic nitrogen fertilizers, the energy saved would be equivalent to 684,000 to 1,368,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year.  Every time you grow something yourself, you saber lots of energy.

Conserving water (the oceans) is salty; only about four-tenths of one percent of the fresh water is accessible to our ever-growing population.  All future forecasts include water crises—due to overuse and pollution.  People tend to associate a lack of water in the United States with the arid Southwest; however, wells in the north-central states are going dry from over pumping, vast sections of the South are drying up, and areas of the Midwest have underground water so polluted by agricultural runoff that it’s unsafe for drinking. 

saving energy
saving energy

Reduce Use and Runoff 

Since the early 1000s, the United States has been on a water-spending binge.  What nature has stored drop by drop in underground aquifers over millions of years, we have used in a flood in the past century.  Now, the era of unrestricted water use and interference with the water cycle is coming to a screeching halt. 

Before your house was built, your yard was probably forest or grassland, and considerable amounts of rainfall soaked into the earth instead of running off.  Today, rain falls on your roof and runs into gutters and then into downspouts, usually flowing undiverted into the street and eventually into storm drains.  Even more rain sheets off the driveway and sloped lawn instead of soaking into the ground.  With our new awareness, homeowners, contractors, and city governments are coming up with new approaches to recharge the underground water table.  Many water districts put meters on homeowners’ and farmers’ wells to encourage them to use less water.  A number of city planning departments are encouraging rainwater catchment for new homes.  Metropolitan water companies are constructing percolation ponds to allow rainwater to sink in gradually and refill underground aquifers. 

Above all, each of us needs to take responsibility for conserving our water supply—and that includes reducing use in our home landscapes.  Many gardeners are switching to drip irrigation, adding water sensors so the irrigation does not turn on during rainfall, putting timers on sprinklers, and generally being more conscious of how they use water.  And instead of letting rainwater run off their roofs, people are installing rain barrels and underground cisterns to capture it. 

Reduce Polluting Practices 

Americans have exacerbated the water crisis with polluting landscaping practices.  High-nitrogen fertilizers and other garden chemicals (from home and commercial landscapes) percolate down into the water table contaminating it as well as running off into streams.  To safeguard water supplies, more and more municipalities around the country are restricting the use of commercial fertilizers and pesticides. 

More homeowners than ever before are now buying organic materials that don’t pollute the groundwater.  In fact, when I go into home improvement stores and nurseries, I see obviously fewer garden chemicals and petroleum-based fertilizers lining the shelves than just a few years ago.  By composting and using mulch on their beds, gardeners are helping hold the water in the soil. 

Rethinking Lawn Maintenance 

 In the early 1900s, lawns didn’t consume any petroleum at all.  To meet turf grasses’ high need for nitrogen, homeowners interpolated nitrogen-fixing white clover in their lawns.  The family got exercise pushing a mower and raking leaves, or neighborhood youngsters earned money doing such chores.  Petroleum-based pesticides weren’t even a twinkle in chemists’ eyes, so people didn’t know there was any reason not to be happy with their lawns, which, judged against artificially high modern standards, would be considered less pristine. 

Well into the 1950s, people like my dad and our neighbors spread manure and compost on their lawns to renew them and prevent thatch buildup. In those days, many more people limited the size of their lawns and left adjacent space as meadows, where songbirds and fireflies could thrive.  In the latter part of the twentieth century, huge, perfect, deep green lawns maintained with a roster of petrochemicals became the goal of most homeowners and maintenance companies.  As a nation we were oblivious to the environmental costs. 

As with the other issues we’re addressing, change is happening for the good.  People are starting to reduce the size of their lawns and use organic materials that are more eco-friendly.  Paul Turkey of has become the national spokesperson for environmentally safe lawns, emphasizing the effects chemicals have on people as well the environment, spreading the message through every medium, even the movie A Chemical Reaction. 

In 2002, Canada’s Quebec province passed ordinances banning the “cosmetic” use of pesticides, which it defines as “applying fungicides, herbicides, or insecticides on ornamental plantings, especially lawns. “A number of towns and cities elsewhere in Canada followed suit, and in 2009, the province of Ontario outlawed the use of more than 250 pesticides. 

For information on how you can maintain an earth-friendly lawn, visit and see The Chemical free Lawn by Warren Schultz and The Organic Lawn Care Manual by Paul Turkey.  And, while rethinking how to maintain your lawn, you might just consider whether you might just consider whether you want one at all (see “Lawn—or Not?”). 

Choosing Garden Materials 

Gardeners buy all sorts of materials—from plants and fertilizers to potting soil and furniture, and from paving to fencing and more.  My goal here is to help you make more informed choices when purchasing garden materials based on “net energy use”—that is, taking into consideration the energy needed to produce the material (is it mined, natural, or man-made?), the energy needed to transport it (is it local, heavy, or transported hundreds or thousands of miles?), and whether it is practical (does it work in your type of soil? do you even need it?).  It’s a new way of looking at what you use, and important if you are going to make educated choices on how you affect the environment—locally and globally. 

Garden Materials
Garden Materials

Commercial Mulches and Organic Matter 

Homemade compost and mulches from yard clippings and kitchen wastes are an out-and-out plus.  But when you purchase these materials, it gets more complicated.  First of all, there is the energy used to ship these heavy items to you.  And there are other issues.  Peat moss consists of mined plant debris from Canadian wetlands.  Although the peat industry restores the bog after harvest, it takes at least a quarter century to regrow; in the mean-time, habitats are lost.  In Florida, cypress tree habitats are logged solely to make cypress mulch.   

None of us want toxic materials in our soils, and when you grow edible plants, you need to be especially careful.  While you shouldn’t be paranoid, caution is warranted.  Shredded recycled tires, in my opinion, have no place in any landscape, especially an edible one, as there are toxicity issues; besides that, they do not break down readily, nor do they add any organic matter to the soil./  Recycled wood mulch needs to be free of toxins.  For help avoiding some chemicals when you buy mulch and potting soil, look for the Mulch and Soil.  Council certification symbol on a package; it guarantees that no recycled lumber treated with CCA (Chromate copper arsenate, used for years in pressure-treated wood) is in the material.  The Council also encourages companies to use sustainable forest practices.  For more information, visit 

If your soil needs serious remediation or large amounts of organic matter, look for bulk organic materials, such as grape pomade, mushroom compost, pecan and peanut hulls, or sawdust, that are recycled from local industries.  Or if your municipality recycles yard wastes—and if you can be assured the composted material is free of herbicides, weed seeds, and plant diseases—it can become a great resource, as well. 

Soil Nutrients 

Soil nutrients are another complex issue made simpler if you compost, and simpler still if you have a worm bin or keep chickens or rabbits.  If you need to purchase a product, I recommend buying organic fertilizers, not artificial commercial fertilizers (which are made from non-renewable sources and contain salts that kill the life in the soil). 

New organic products are introduced all the time.  Caveat employ still applies: let the buyer beware.  Most products are not regulated.  Read labels carefully, especially the contents; check out both the active and inactive/inert ingredients listed.  “Earth friendly” and “Natural” are marketing terms, not anything certifiable, and just as meaningless as when they are used on food packages.  When in doubt, look for the OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) designation on packaging or go to to get a list of vetted materials.   

Think twice before purchasing greensand or granite dust since they are mined products that are heavy to ship; often there are local equivalents.  Plus greensand or granite dust since they are mined products that are heavy to ship; often there are local equivalents.  Plus greensand is not appropriate in alkaline soils. Fertilizers made from recycled municipal sewage sludge have their advocates.  I can’t deny that we need to recycle sludge, but I’ve worked on studies that occasionally found heavy metals, drugs, and esoteric solvents in a few batches.  To be safe, I don’t use it in my edible gardens.  While we once used ground oyster shells to neutralize alkaline soil, they have a more valuable purpose in coastal areas—dumped into 

the bays to create new reefs for oysters to breed. 

Wood products 

 For centuries wood has been a mainstay in the garden- from trellises and arbors to benches and chairs, not to mention containers and window boxes. More recently wood has been used on a larger scale for decking and building raised beds. Even when treated with chemicals or painted, wood disintegrates with time: the added stress from sun, rain, and contact with wet soil hastens its demise. 

America’s constant need for wood products has put pressure on forests all over the world. Two solutions have been tried: plantation forests, where the trees are replanted in vast monocultures, and certified sustainable timber, in which renewable methods are used to help maintain habitat. Neither is perfect. Plantations provide only minimum biodiversity, and the certification process for lumber is complex, expensive, and especially hard on developing nations. When you buy wood, ask for the FSC label of the Forest Stewardship Council or the Smartwood- Rediscovered Wood Certificate. Go to the Rainforest Alliance website for more information on wood products: 

You can also grow and use timber bamboo in place of some wood for plant stakes, furniture, and lath; it is sustainable. Recycled plastic has entered the marketplace as another wood alternative- for fences, arbors, trellises, decking, and lumber. 

Reducing Light pollution 

As you fly over urban areas at night, it’s hard not to notice all the bright lights stretching across the horizon. Most of them are streetlights and commercial site lighting, but the landscaping lights around homes are contributing more and more to that pervasive glow. Astronomers were the first to be aware of light pollution, and stargazers must now travel far away from populated areas to see into the heavens. 

Scientists have learned that millions of nocturnal insects and small animals are either drawn to these nighttime lights and perish or avoid the lights and stay hidden instead of feeding or looking for a mate. The light throws migratory birds off course and disrupts the mating rituals of fireflies and moths. It can even disturb the democracy cycle of trees. According to the International Dark- Sky Association, wasted light across America uses up to 30 million barrels of oil every year. Many homeowners install permanent security lights and keep them on all night, even though research shows that motion- activated lights not only save energy but are a better crime deterrent. For the environment, the worst culprit in the home landscape is uplighting, which sends its rays unnaturally upward to highlight a tree, fountain, or other feature. For more information, see “Outdoor Lighting” in chapter 3 and visit 


I’m adamant about reusing and repurposing materials. For decades as a landscape designer, I’ve had my contractors reuse the tops of fence posts in retaining walls and broken concrete as stepping- stones. The crew brings me leftover pavers, which I use when redesigning my garden. I also scavenge. My short grape stake fence was once my neighbor’s taller fence. My favorite red bench had been abandoned, one leg broken, on a curb; I rescued it from the maw of a garbage truck. 

Now, as my grandmother would say’ I’m going to get on my high horse and rant about something- namely, plastic. With all those recycling symbols stamped on plastic products and handy recycling bins supplied to us, I was lulled into thinking that we’d made great progress in recycling plastics. As it turns out, the plastics industry is anything but clean and green. The landmark 1996 report of the Berkeley Plastics Task Force raised a number of unsettling issues that we still need to address: 

  • Making plastics from natural gas and oil contributes 13 percent of America’s toxic fumes. 
  • Most of our used plastic is shipped to poor countries in Asia to be sorted and melted down under conditions that would give an EPA inspector nightmare. 
  • Plastic cannot be melted down more than once or twice, so it will still eventually live indefinitely in landfills, along roadways, or as ocean flotsam. (The world’s largest “seafill,” called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch- filled with plastics in many forms and sizes and covering an area twice the size of Texas- is rotating in the waters of the northern Pacific Ocean.) 
  • The chasing arrows symbol on the plastic packaging pacifies us into thinking that when we “recycle” plastic, it is recycled. Yet there is no market for many of the numbered plastics, so those products are sorted out and sent to the landfill. 

The obvious solution is never to buy plastic, but that’s next to impossible. So, what to do? Whenever possible, I try not to purchase anything made of or packaged in plastic, but even eco-friendly hydrolyzed fish comes in a plastic bottle. Buy your garden products in bulk, such as a truckful of soil, or in the largest package size available. Choose concentrates over diluted solutions. Try not to buy new plastic. Instead, look for garden products like TerraCycle organic fertilizer- as the company says, “we sell waste(liquefied worm poop) packaged in waste( used plastic soda bottles)”- and garden furniture that contains a larger percentage of recycled plastic, so at least you help create a market for recycled plastic. Support nurseries and garden centers that recycle pots or, even better, sell plants in containers that will break down in your compost pile. 

Since more and more home gardeners are now embracing organic products and methods, major suppliers are scrambling to bring recycled products to market, and dozens of companies now offer green building materials. 

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