I was browsing the internet the other day, looking for inspiration when I ran across an interesting twist on the favorite January topic of gardening trends for 2024. Instead of what to do, this article described what not to do. While I appreciated the premise – there are definitely trends to let go of – aren’t there viable alternatives? Looking for answers, I turned to the design staff at Embassy Landscape Group.
In 2024, let’s change:
Large Expanses of Concrete Driveways/ Sidewalks/ Patios
Eight years ago, in 2016, there were over 43,000 square miles of concrete surfaces in the United States. (picture the state of Ohio) Since then, concrete usage has increased by over 12%, which means that even more of our landscape is now covered over by impermeable material. While some concrete surfaces are absolutely necessary, it would be wise to step back and consider their impact to the environment and our personal well-being before adding more.
Concrete and other impervious surfaces prevent water from naturally soaking into the ground. Instead, the water cascades off of the hard surface, carrying pollutants first into our sewers and then on to our waterways. The contaminated waterways eventually drain into our ponds, lakes, streams, rivers and even our oceans, killing fish, waterfowl and other wildlife. Toxic algae blooms and dead zones emerge, causing diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and other illnesses in humans.
Concrete surfaces are also directly tied to what is called the heat island effect, raising temperatures as much as 14 degrees higher than surrounding natural areas. With summer temperatures rising to unheard of highs (a nighttime 120 degrees F in Death Valley this past July), expanses of concrete become a health hazard. Breathing problems from asthma and other respiratory problems, heat related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat strokes, and even heat related deaths show marked increases in heat island areas. Children and the elderly are particularly at risk.
In today’s market, there are dozens of alternatives to poured concrete available. Using Interlocking pavers, brick or flagstone instead of impermeable substances allows water to reach the soil below, filtering out harmful chemicals before they reach the waterways. Pathways of mulch, pea gravel or decomposed granite allow water to percolate, are great at keeping temperatures from skyrocketing and blend beautifully into the natural environment.
Water Guzzling Landscapes
Drought Tolerant/ Native Landscapes
Even with the abundance of winter snowfall, 28.8% of the lower United States is still in a drought condition. According to Climate.gov that is unlikely to decrease over the next year. The likelihood is that temperatures will remain high, with average or above average precipitation levels. On the surface, average or higher precipitation levels sound positive, but in reality when high precipitation is combined with high temperatures, the result isn’t great. Scientists have determined that the Earth’s water cycle has sped up. Higher temperatures are causing the rate of evaporation from the soil and the rate of transpiration from plants to measurably increase. While that means more water in the air to cause rain, there is less water remaining in the soil for plants to take up. Essentially, plants needing high moisture content can’t survive without additional moisture – lots of it.
A drought tolerant landscape features plants that don’t need a lot of water to thrive and hardscapes that allow water to seep naturally into the ground. Unfortunately, the thought of a drought friendly landscape often brings to mind visions of bare sand and gravel punctuated by beds of menacing long-needled cacti reaching out to wound the unsuspecting passer-by. It’s true that drought-tolerant landscaping, often referred to as Xeriscaping, focuses on wise water usage, but it doesn’t limit the plant palette to cacti and succulents. Xeriscape gardens feature a wide range of familiar plants – such as varieties of viburnums and lavender to less commonly seen ones like Santalinas and mock oranges. Oak and dogwood are examples of trees that can flourish in low water environments. Local extension offices usually offer lists of water-wise plants appropriate for their particular area. The Grow Native! Website at: https://grownative.org/ is another helpful resource in finding drought tolerant plants.
A drought tolerant landscape not only helps preserve our water supply, but it benefits the homeowner too. Less water usage means lower water bills, especially in the high usage summer months. Drought tolerant landscaping also means less time tied up in routine maintenance chores like watering, trimming and filling in endless bare spots.
Huge Expanses of Turf
Native Landscapes/ Living Carpets
While we are on the subject of being water-wise, we need to take a moment and consider the vast amount of lawn area that we have in this country. At last count, there were over 40 million acres of turf grass in the contiguous portion of the United States. It costs us nearly 100 billion dollars per year and takes over 70 hours each season to maintain those grassy areas. We dump 80 million pounds of synthetic chemicals on them to keep them weed and insect free. Each American household, on average, pours 96 gallons of water per day to keep their lawns alive and healthy. As a country, that’s 9 billion gallons of water per day. (For comparison, a full bathtub holds 70 gallons of water and a shower averages 25 gallons)
For years, here in the U.S, a lush, green lawn has been a status symbol. It was a sign of pride in your ability to maintain your home and be a credit to the neighborhood. Today however, green vistas are beginning to lose their appeal. Due to drastic water shortages, cities and towns across the country are not only limiting outdoor water use, but are rewarding citizens for replacing their thirsty lawns with water-saving options like native plantings or living carpets. Because they are well-adapted to local environmental conditions, once they are established, landscapes that feature native plants require 80% less water than grass lawns of similar size.
Beside their penchant for soaking up water, turf grass has another regrettable characteristic. Lawns offer little value to the environment. Since they are typically mowed before they can go to seed, lawns are not a food source for bees, butterflies and other hungry pollinators, There are no nectar producing flowers to feed on, no stems to rest on and no shade to escape to. Pesticides have not only killed off any ground insects for birds and other wildlife to feed off of, but pesticide spray or run-off may have contaminated other nearby food sources. A well-tended grass lawn is essentially an environmental wasteland.
Converting a lawn, or even a portion of your lawn to a native planting benefits both you and the environment in multiple ways. Native plantings, once established, are much less costly to maintain. They require less water and few, if any chemical treatments. They reduce your carbon footprint because they don’t need mowing. They help manage stormwater by allowing precipitation to slowly percolate through the soil. Many native plants are deer resistant, keeping deer and other wildlife from munching your plants. They provide suitable habitat for pollinators, birds and other wildlife. They bring the beauty of the natural world right to your doorstep every day – and what could be better than that?