We ventured over to the supplier side to get their take on sustainable plants, including how a contractor can market sustainable services, and how they define “sustainable.” Here’s our Q&A with Trish Beckjord sales, consultation and market development for native plants and green infrastructure at Midwest Groundcovers in St. Charles, Ill.
In what ways can a contractor market the fact that they use sustainable plant materials and use sustainable practices? Is there anything you’ve noticed in particular from your customers that is a good idea?
I think the key to being able to market use of sustainable plant materials and practices is being a well-informed consumer. The better a contractor understands the broad scope of what being sustainable means, the better they are able to market their knowledge and product to their customers by being able to assess individual conditions and discuss sustainable solutions.
Implementing these practices at your own offices is of course a great way to demonstrate sustainability in practice. Integrate native plants in a demonstration garden; plant a rain garden that collects water from the roof, add a rain barrel at another downspout to help water the garden in drier months. Being able to demonstrate successful projects that have a sustainable focus on a business website is, of course, a great marketing tool.
What makes a plant material sustainable?
Typically, we don’t actually talk about a specific plant being sustainable, rather the way the plant is used in the landscape is where the idea of sustainability applies. It is easy enough to say “plant the right plant in the right place” but the idea of a sustainable landscape or sustainable garden goes much deeper than this idea.
On the broad scale, a sustainable landscape is one that creates a self-renewing natural system that is appropriate to the place and does not require extensive inputs in terms of time, water, fertilizers and pesticides. It also does not use introduced species that are known to be invasive in that part of the country. Many of the plants that are now problematic in our natural areas were once garden introductions that got out of control.
A sustainable landscape is also often one that is a working system that helps manage rainwater in a way that promotes it’s infiltration as close to where it falls as possible. This helps reduce the amount of surface water runoff in a rain event and helps return water to our aquifers. This is the idea behind the increasing use of rain gardens in landscape design. In arid climates, the issue is quite different and becomes one of selecting plants that are adapted to these climates known as xeriscaping.
At the specific plant level, being sustainable is about selecting plants that are adapted to a location’s soil, rainfall and temperature conditions. One of the most straightforward ways to do this is to select plants that evolved in that geographic region before European settlement. We call these plants native, or indigenous, species. In selecting natives, you are assured that you are selecting plants that will not require additional water or supplemental fertilizers in order to grow and thrive.
Non-indigenous species that have evolved in similar conditions in other parts of the world can also be used, but care should be used to be sure your selection will not escape and be able to successfully compete and grow in natural areas. The risk is that, if they do, they will crowd out the native plants and reduce the available food sources for our native birds and insects.
The last point as to what makes a plant selection sustainable is the idea that our indigenous plant species are the food sources for our indigenous insects which in turn feed our local bird populations and so on up the food chain. It turns out that many insects are not generalists in terms of what they feed on. Therefore, as our native landscapes have given way to development, agriculture and more introduced horticultural varieties, the food sources for our native insect populations have been reduced with a resultant decline in our insect populations.
Decline in bird populations follow. A good example is the Monarch butterfly whose larvae feed only on the genus Asclepias. Another is Lindera benzoin, a lovely native shrub that is the host plant for the larvae of the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly. I believe this is the most compelling argument for using more native species in our design landscapes and for teaching others how to successfully integrate native and non-native species in a garden.
Somehow we have gotten the idea that native plants are weedy or less beautiful, however, they can be used very successfully in regular gardening conditions. For further reference on this see Doug Tallamy’s book “Bringing Nature Home.”