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Article updated: 5/6/2013 3:31 PM

Sustainable landscaping is eco-friendly and less work

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Landscaping provides people with a huge array of benefits from shade to rainwater absorption to the prevention of soil erosion and beautification.

But it delivers the maximum number of benefits to humankind and the planet when it is designed in such a way that it works with nature, instead of against it.

"It is a big waste when we spend lots of time, effort and money to keep something alive and then it dies anyway," explained Mike Curry, adjunct professor with the horticulture department at the College of DuPage.

"We lose the potential for ecosystem and other benefits from landscaping when it does not grow to the correct size or does not survive at all," he said. "That is why those of us invested in sustainable landscaping believe in putting the right plant in the right place so that no one has to put lots of energy, effort and inputs like water, fertilizer and insecticides into keeping it alive."

Over the past five years, interest in creating landscaping that does not harm the environment or that enhances it by helping the ground absorb rainwater has skyrocketed among members of the public and landscape professionals, according to Curry.

Curry teaches his students at the College of DuPage about sustainable landscape techniques ranging from the use of rain gardens and rain barrels, to green infrastructure design, the use of permeable pavers, bio-retention design, construction of green roofs and beyond.

"The state of the landscaping industry has changed dramatically since I studied plant horticulture as an undergraduate in the 1970s," he stated. "We knew then that much of what we were doing was detrimental to the environment, but there weren't a lot of options. Since then, the manufacturers have been coming out with more products that allow us to create and maintain sustainable landscapes. That has made a huge difference in the industry."

Curry should know. He also works in sales and marketing at Midwest Trading Horticultural Supplies of St. Charles and Virgil, which is a horticultural hardgoods supplier that specializes in "non-plant" landscape supplies, such as mulches, composts, structural soil, nursery containers, aquatic supplies, tools and growing media for landscapes, nurseries and rooftops.

Curry also is president-elect of the Midwest Ecological Landscape Alliance (MELA), a movement dedicated to creating, restoring and preserving sustainable landscapes through education, collaboration and networking. Its vision is to transform the green industry so that sustainable design, materials and methods are the professional standard.

Today, homeowners and those who manage large commercial properties can purchase irrigation controllers with smart technology tied to a weather station so that sprinklers do not go off when Mother Nature has already supplied needed moisture.

In addition, nutrient levels in fertilizers have been reduced so that they don't run off lawns and into estuaries, fostering the growth of algae which smothers fish. Curry even instructs his students to do soil tests before putting chemicals on a property so that they can potentially cut back on the chemicals used.

"Everything in the ecosystem is tied together," Curry explained. "You want to minimize the fossil fuels used for landscape maintenance, as well as the labor, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and even water that you use."

Stormwater should be managed on your property, as well, Curry advised. It should be encouraged to penetrate the ground through rain gardens and permeable pavers, to recharge the water table, instead of diverting it into storm sewers.

"Using plants that are native to this area in your landscape also helps this process because they have deep root systems which help open the ground for more water penetration," he said.

Keep in mind, he added, that many perennials naturally tend to grow in groupings or communities and therefore, survive better that way. So those who are planting perennials should try to imitate nature and plant their perennials in this same kind of grouping, wherever possible.

Jean Bragdon, operations manager of Lurvey's Garden Center in Des Plaines, offers a great variety of the plants Curry advocates using, many of which are either native to the Chicago area or are well-suited to our climate and need little tending.

"We are not here to change people's thinking about their landscaping, but we will help them be responsible and green if they choose to be," Bragdon, a past president of MELA, explained.

To assist homeowners, Lurvey's offers handouts and website information (lurveys.com) about suggested plants for different situations, those that "like wet feet," for instance, versus those that are drought-tolerant.

They also sell many green products ranging from fertilizers that are pet and child-safe, to pavers made of 75 percent reclaimed materials, to tree gators which gather rain water and use it later to water the tree.

"We don't install these products but offer them to those who want to do it themselves or hire a contractor to do it for them," Bragdon said. "We tell our customers to look at the whole picture, study the products and plants available and then make their plans."

She suggests that wise homeowners who cannot afford to execute an entire plan at once plant trees and other large items first, so they can begin to grow and shade their house. Then they should progressively add in the smaller items until the entire plan has been installed.

And if they think that native plants look too weedy for their tastes, consider the many other plants available which are well adapted to the Chicago area and don't need much attention, such as like Knock Out roses and hydrangeas.

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