More than a name

More than a name

If you’re searching for sustainable plants, you may have more to consider than the material itself.

September 19, 2012
Brian Horn
Design/Build and Hardscape

Ask someone to define what a sustainable plant is, and you’ll likely get a number of different answers. That’s because the meaning can change from coast to coast, region to region and even state to state.

“The way I define it is, if the plant is well-suited for the location that it’s going to be grown,” says Kurt Bland, president of Bland Landscaping in Apex, N.C. “Its origin may be on another continent, yet that continent having similar climate patterns, similar soil type – just make sure you select plants that will respond well in that climate.”

You can also make what’s defined as a sustainable plant non-sustainable based on where you plant it.

“A lot of it to is how you group the plants together,” Bland says. “If you put a plant that hardly needs any water right next to a plant that needs a whole lot of water and you try to irrigate it with one zone, then you’ve made it unsustainable by how you’ve grouped them with one another.

“Both of them may be good plants and sustainable, so to speak, but because you improperly placed or designed or improperly prepared the soil, you’ve now taken what was a good plant and made it unsustainable in that sense.”

If you want to really go in-depth on the definition of what is considered a “sustainable plant,” Bland says you can trace it back all the way to where it was shipped from. If the plant was shipped from China on a boat, how much gas and energy was used to get that plant to the U.S. Bland says some people would say annuals aren’t sustainable because you have to replace them every four to six months. But if you buy them in a compostable container compared to plastic container is more sustainable.

But Larry Cammarata, senior horticulturist, breaks it down a little more simply.

“Plants that have proven to be native or adaptive to that geographical location,” he says.

Cammarata and Bland both say that a sustainable plant needs to be planted in the right kind of soil if they are going to thrive, which also has to be communicated to customers.

“You stress the importance to the client of the soil sample,” Cammarata says. “So even if it’s not a salt-laden scenario, are we truly studying the microbial action of the soil? Are we really studying the lifeblood of that soil and making sure it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. I’m talking about commercial sites that have wind issues and building reflection issues … all things that do damage. And we can’t just put a plant in and keep giving it fertilizer and hope it grows.”

A sustainable plant might take five years to be fully vibrant.

“Most of our customer bases have not been trained to think that way that there is a long-term picture here,” Cammarata says.

The right place. Where a plant is planted has a lot to do with how sustainable it should be considered. Bland says it has a lot to do with the site, the type of property and intended use of the site.

“For example, in our climate, which is considered a zone seven- or eight-type climate on the USDA charts,” Bland says, “We get on average 46 inches of rainfall a year. And so when I think about sustainable landscape plant material, I first think about plants that come from similar climates. I’m not an advocate or believer in restricting your plant palette to just native plant material. I think that makes for a real boring landscape.”

Bland says a prairie is a sustainable plant, but that has no business being planted in an HOA or commercial site.

“In some areas that works,” Bland says. “Like in an area off to the distance away from the homes themselves, sure that works. But doing something like that in close proximity to the buildings from my point of view it doesn’t work.”

Those prairie-type landscapes benefit from controlled burns for example. And if you’ve got a townhome association with vinyl siding or wood siding and you’ve put in a landscape that needs to every so often have a controlled burn done, that’s truly not sustainable, it’s illogical.”

Simultaneously, sometimes landscapes that are not maintained where you allow the landscape to be so natural and so overgrown, they become a habitat for vermin and other animals, Bland says. “You manicure grounds to detour things like rats and wildlife we don’t want,” he says.

Watchful eye. One of the biggest problems with sustainable installations is the close eye you have to keep on everything happening around the plant.

Cammarata says you have to confirm it is the right plant, in the right place in the right soil.

“It sounds like a simple analogy, but there are many plants you can put in that will look good that will be geographically proper for that marketplace,” he says. “But if you still put it on the wrong side of the building or in a soil type that doesn’t benefit the root system development, it’s still not going to make it either. So I could go to a job where a ground cover might be used that is native to that marketplace, but in full sun it croaks but in partial or full shade it thrives.”

Cammarata says the bigger issue tends to be going back to plants that have been there 25 years and look fine.

“But what’s changed is the trees in the parking lot have gone from two inch caliper trees that are 25-feet tall to trunk diameters that are now 24-inches across and the trees have changed that side of the building from being full sun to being full shade,” Cammarata says.

“So a plant designed to be in full sun is no longer growing or thriving and is probably declining because it can’t handle the full shade. When it was planted it was a full sun area, 10 years later it was partial sun, 15 years later it was full shade.”

Cammarata says a customer will expect an annual bed to be ready in 30 days, while a sustainable bed could take three or four years. And because sustainable plants take longer to develop, you have to explain to customers that it will take sustainable plants longer to mature. The initial cost is more, but Cammarata says they should pay for themselves in three or four years.

“Once sustainable plantings are doing what they are supposed to be doing after establishment they are unmatched,” he says.