Sustainability and the ‘M’ word

Over the past weekend there has been much discussion in the garden and landscape community about sustainability, healthy environments and organic practices.  Both the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Garden Writers Association had their annual conferences and saving the planet through sustainable initiatives was high on each group’s priority lists.  The Association of Professional Landscape Designers is having theirs in two weeks and the message will be the same.  Everyone in the green industry agrees…almost.

For the past several years in private, at dinner parties and in my classrooms I have been having a similar discussion, but mine starts with the ‘M’ word…maintenance.Landscapes and designed environments are only as good and as long lasting as their maintenance.  How many people do you know with a garden/lawn care service?  I know many.  How many of those companies have embraced sustainable practices?  I bet the number goes way, way down.  Here’s the deal.  Until we  take a leadership role and give those who maintain what we dream up a way to make a viable and profitable living maintaining our projects sustainably, our efforts are for naught.  Great landscapes last beyond their designers.  They are a living entity that requires care.

We need pro-level electric or solar mowers that are rechargeable from job to job.  We need clean fuel burning trucks.  We need blowers that minimize noise and pollution.  We need to train people how to prune so that meatball pruning isn’t the norm.  We need training in organic and sustainable practices at the mow and blow level. We need to lead the way, but we have to arm those who follow in our wake or it’s all for nothing.

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16 thoughts on “Sustainability and the ‘M’ word

  1. Susan – blowers that minimize noise and pollution are called rakes and brooms. 🙂

    Great rant!


    I still rake my leaves and I have a small yard with mature shade trees. I love the rhythm and the sound.–s

  2. I couldn’t agree more. The local Target store has some beautiful groves of river birch and Allegheny viburnum on the outer edge of the parking lot. I nearly lost my mind when I drove by after the commercial maintenance crew trimmed every viburnum into a tidy little box shape.

    LOL! Not really funny, but my local Target also has red mulch to match! Sad, really. –s

  3. You make a very important point. Unfortunately I think the changes you suggest aren’t going to happen very soon. It’s all about $$$.

    It is all about the Benjamins! If homeowners and commercial companies start standing up and demanding clean energy maintenance it will happen. If we accept the status quo…not so much!–s

  4. Or what is the new fluffy term for maintenance? “Enhancement.” Gag me. Gardens shaped by the knowledge and skill of intelligent hands will always beat a boxed up boxwood, aesthetically for me anyway. I own a propane powered blower–cuts emissions by 95 percent. Biofuel crew trucks essential–they only way they can take CARE of your yard is by being there. And in my opinion, the more floral beds and less mow and blow, the better!

    Not everyone has the time to maintain a flower bed and not everyone wants that look. We have to start demanding that the equipment makers offer low cost choices. And you are right…the only way a crew can care for your yard is by being there–no cyber options there!–s

  5. Completely agree. Too often, no consideration is made for maintenance in landscape projects/budgets. However, the groundswell for low emissions maintenance has started. In April, I profiled a Toronto-based company that uses electric bikes to pull trailers filled with battery powered mowers. They offer low and zero-emissions levels of service. I think this model only works in concentrated city cores with small lots – but it’s a start.

    There are business models using carbon offsets and adapting machinery to make it work. Once it’s started and customers demand cleaner care it will snowball–but the equipment needs to be readily available and as inexpensive as the gas operated ones are now.–s

  6. Susan, well said!!!! The need for additional education has been there for generations of time with all maintenance companies. In our free market system there will always be a mow and blow company out there that will not care about anything but making money and even be in your face about it. The education must continue from our industry to the maintenance companies and the home owners. A simple course in horticulture will go a long way in helping maintenance people know how to prune and when to prune. Landscape designers can also help by providing a maintenance specification to their clients when they have completed a design.

    The point is that if the tools were there and financially viable and profitable alternatives were attractive to business owners, they would choose them if the market demanded it. Great point about maintenance spec sheets.–s

  7. I agree with Gardensage. It will take a long time before the capital investment in low emissions equipment will be the norm. Bio-fuel is nice, but only 5% of that fuel is actually something other than oil-derived. A propane leaf blower at $250 will not catch on until they cost the same as a $60 electric one.

    If we want to make gardens more sustainable, we should target the economic and social aspects of them first (this creates buy-in on the part of the client). Once those needs are filled then we can expect to be much more successful in creating a planting, construction and maintenance plan that fulfills the environmental needs.

    I agree also. There are some companies who are doing it though. Clean Air Lawn Care is one. They were named 2009 Emerging Company of the Year by Entrepreneur Mag. Must have a viable business or that wouldn’t happen…–s

  8. Absolutely! I’ve got a certified backyard habitat and a wildlife garden and we try, whenever possible to maintain with electric or hand tools. It’s the leaves on a heavily wooded, sharply sloping property that we can’t cope with–too many to mulch and compost, too heavy a leaf fall to move with a rake or electric blower. Otherwise we even mow our acre with electric!

    Imagine though if you had a mow & blow service with 100s of customers. My question and challenge is how to do that sustainably–the tools haven’t completely caught up with the philosophy or pricetag yet.–s

  9. Thank you and well stated. Everyone thinks that a sustainable or drought-tolerant (big news here in CA) landscape takes care of itself. They don’t want to know that only ongoing maintenance keeps it looking good.

    It’s going to be a challenge since so many people depend on low cost unskilled maintenance to care for their property while they’re at work.–s

  10. Thanks for answering your responses. That means a lot when people take the time to read and put their opinions out there.

    It’s actually rare when I don’t respond…like the other day! ;-)–s

  11. Let’s bluntly face it where it counts : MONEY.
    Most people are not going to volunteerily change . Change happens when it is legislated.
    Legislation happens when money backs the words that want the change.
    If you want change you have to get the public to back the idea and a lobbyist or band of people to shill/ support it.
    Even at the community level, change happens only when there is a majority consensus and money to make the change happen.
    I don’t think sustainable garden maintenance is high on the list of priorities these days.
    Take a look at gas spewing 2 stoke engines. It’s not the air pollution that people complain about , its the noise pollution that bothers their Sunday afternoon nap.
    Look at the majority of townships that ban blowers ( at least in my county) – it’s the wealthy ‘hoods with affluent homeowners who have the money to make the noise pollution go away.
    You still hear the blowers going in the poorer towns, those without money to back up the complaints.

    I couldn’t agree with you more. If there were options (I know there aren’t many right now) that had the potential to be as or more profitable for the caregivers and affordable for the homeowner then it could happen seamlessly. Those options have to be developed and won’t be without demand. It is all about the cash.–s

  12. OK. I’m with you on this one! But Westfield likes meatballs. I tried to let them get a little shaggy with judicious hand pruning and I went on sites and Schl…. meatballed…

    It’s all in education on both sides of the fence…–s

  13. Susan,
    As always, your thinking is way out in front. Last winter I witnessed less than an inch of accumulated snow removed with a leaf, that’s right – leaf blower! Talk about ruining the peace and quiet.

    But, I feel many clients do care. Eventually it will be “un-cool” not to care. It remains to be seen if it will be in our lifetimes.

    One of my major lighting manufacturers has official stopped investing in the development of new fixtures other than LED. It is a total mindshift. But it is happening. Remember, big ships turn slowly!

    Nice to see you here Michael! You were open to the idea of a completely solar powered lighting scheme when I came to you about it 5 years ago! So there’s some outside of the box thinking from an allied discipline…re:the snow…that’s absolutely criminal on so many levels.–s

  14. haven’t read every note…but in those i did see there was no mention of the issue of ‘landscapers’ taking their mowers from one weed infested property to the next with seeds sticking to the mower blades. Have you ever seen a company a) adjust their blade height in between customers or, b) clean the blades between customers. I am watching yellow nutsedge move around the county.

    What good points…imagine what blowers do to mown down dandelion puffs! Wind blown to say the least.–s

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