Feature Article - November 2010
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Landscape Solutions

Great Grounds Advice

By Dawn Klingensmith

Urban Harvest

Since a vegetable garden sprang up on the White House lawn, and as a consequence to the recession, the concept of urban agriculture is gaining traction and could positively address issues of food security, economic development, urban blight, waste recycling, environmental preservation, and land use planning and policy. Urban food plots would create educational opportunities addressing biodiversity, weather, lifecycles of organisms and nutrition. School districts could develop hands-on curriculums and field projects.

Perhaps incentives could be created for cleaning up and using empty lots for community gardens, though in some cities polluted soil could be a serious impediment. In addition, growing food in cities imposes new demands for water.

Rain Bowls

Rain gardens are planted for the purpose of reducing the amount of storm water entering streams, rivers and lakes. They are bowl- or saucer-shaped instead of mounded or flat like other perennial gardens, and make use of deep, loose soil to collect and absorb rain that would otherwise run off a site. Rain gardens are nothing new but warrant attention because they can be implemented on existing properties, providing educational opportunities and a gentle push toward larger initiatives and more holistic planning.

"Rain gardens are easy to do on an existing site, especially if you have a good team of people who are able to make sure the garden becomes well-established and is maintained properly," said Rachel Hood, executive director, West Michigan Environmental Council, Grand Rapids. "You have to think about maintenance. Make sure you have a maintenance plan and long-term support, and communicate with your maintenance staff."

With the help of area schoolchildren, "We have built some wonderful rain gardens on certain sites, only to have contractors mow over them entirely," she added.

"Industrial-strength" rain gardens are possible where there are large-scale storm water management requirements. An environmental engineer may need to weigh in on the design to ensure proper drainage.

Crack Use Applauded

The American Society of Landscape Artists offers awards for careful stewardship, wise planning and artful design, and recently conferred an award for sustainable landscaping on a residential project is San Francisco. The idea could be replicated by municipalities where expanses of concrete pose environmental threats and aesthetic challenges.

Designed and installed by the homeowners for just $500, the "crack garden" was originally an area of poured concrete that retained excess heat in the summer and increased water runoff to the surrounding area. The homeowners took jackhammers to the concrete, creating cracks for plantings. The cracks extended down to the soil, turning the impermeable slab into a permeable and attractive garden space with retained hard surfacing for furniture and such. And many of the plants were chosen for their ability to tolerate foot traffic, so use of the space isn't

necessarily limited on account of the interruptions in concrete.

The garden consists of flowers, herbs, vegetables and "even aesthetically pleasing rogue weeds," according to the ASLA Web site.

Room for Improvement

While imagination and innovation certainly exist in parks and recreation landscape design and practices, and while low-cost solutions like the San Francisco crack garden annually receive attention, Robertson of Mesa Landscape Architects worries that short-sightedness and bottom-line concerns affect landscaping decisions for the worse. "There's a lot of room for improvement in selection of landscape lighting choices, for example," he said. "As a whole, we've got to do a better job of assessing life cycle cost vs. front-end or initial cost."