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“Green” Landscaping Takes Off  May 10, 2007

Did you know that close to 85 million American homes have a lawn, which adds up to 30 million acres of residential green? That’s just one of the interesting facts that appear in an April 27 Wall Street Journal story that took a close look at trends in the country’s $35 billion lawn and landscaping industry.

The text below is from the article by Troy McMullen. The complete article is available at

Permeable Pavers are Hot

This spring, landscapers who specialize in green gardening are reporting a sharp increase in business and growing interest in complex systems that capture and recycle rainwater and snowmelt. Another area seeing stepped-up activity is eco-friendly “hardscaping.” Some homeowners are ripping up the blacktop and concrete on their driveways and patios and putting in permeable paving materials that allow water to pass through to the ground beneath, reducing runoff that can create soil erosion and flood municipal sewer systems.

At a new 300-home development under construction near Santa Fe, N.M., each home is being equipped with its own rainwater recycling system. Loreto Bay Co., a developer in Scottsdale, Ariz., is building a vacation community on the California-Mexico border that will use a system of dams and channels to collect water during the rainy season for irrigating landscaped areas.

In New Mexico, where drought has been a persistent problem since the late 1990s, orders for residential rainwater-harvesting technology at Aqua Harvest in Santa Fe grew 20 percent last year, up from 5 percent in 2003.

They’re not exactly the sort of features that became popular during the real-estate boom, when imported 50-foot palm trees and striped lawns made from alternating exotic grasses became backyard must-haves in some areas. And such products still make up a small piece of the $35 billion lawn and garden industry. The lion’s share of the spending still goes to growing and maintaining traditional ornamental shrubs and flowers, as well as the care and feeding of the great American obsession—a lush green lawn.

A Nation of Lawn Owners

Some 85 million U.S. households have their own little patch of green—average size, about one-fifth of an acre—accounting for about 30 million acres of grass, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA, which measured the acreage. The environmental impact is substantial:

Americans spend more than 3 billion hours per year using lawn and garden equipment, most of it gas-powered, to maintain those lawns, the EPA says, burning up about 720 million gallons of gas a year. The mowers also spew pollutants such as carbon monoxide, smog-forming nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide. A gas-powered push mower emits as much pollution in an hour as 11 cars, and a riding mower emits as much as 34 cars, according to the EPA. Americans also spill some 4 million gallons of fuel each year, mostly gasoline, just refueling their lawn equipment, the agency says. Gas isn’t the only nonrenewable resource getting spent in service to the lush life: The typical landscaped yard soaks up more than 10,000 gallons of water a year, not including rainwater and snowmelt, the EPA says.

Sustainable landscaping alternatives aren’t entirely new. The use of native plants has become increasingly popular among some gardeners in the past 10 years. And more homeowners are shunning synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides in favor of organic lawn-care products like chicken manure and corn glutens. Others are cutting their energy bills by planting shade trees and other vegetation that keep homes cooler in summer and block cold winter winds.

But unlike LEED, the construction rating system created by the U.S. Green Building Council, there is no widely recognized benchmark for green landscape design. And a survey conducted last year by the American Society of Landscape Architects found that just 11 percent of large landscaping firms offered such services.

Some landscapers who specialize in sustainable design say they’re seeing a 15 percent to 25 percent rise in business from a year ago. Douglas Hoerr, a Chicago landscaper who designed Cline’s grounds, specializes in green roofs that are partially or completely covered with vegetation and help reduce storm-water runoff and keep homes cooler. Hoerr says his residential work, about one-third of his business, is up about 20 percent this year, and more than half of his new clients are interested in sustainable designs.

Michael Thilgen, whose landscaping company in Oakland, Calif., has offered ecological landscaping services for 25 years, says his firm saw a 10 percent increase in large-scale residential projects in 2006 compared with a year earlier.

Los Angles landscape architect Paul Comstock, who designed gardens for Johnny Carson and Bob Hope, says the shift to greener landscaping is particularly acute at the high-end. “A year ago (clients) wanted us to fly in plants and materials from Asia or even Africa,” he says. “Now they’re asking for native plants and recycled wood and plastics.”

Drought Spurs Technology

In Western states, where drought has been a persistent problem since the late 1990s, rainwater harvesting is emerging as a major component in sustainable design. Mark Hayden and his wife, Sarah, built their Prescott, Ariz., home more than 20 years ago from green materials like sand, gravel and clay. But the couple didn’t consider a sustainable landscape design until last year, when they decided to put in a water-recycling system. “We’re at a point of no return with water conservation out here,” says Hayden, a 55-year old orthodontist.

Even so-called green landscaping can be harmful to the environment if it is improperly kept up. “Many of my clients don’t know a lot about maintenance except the obvious—how to mow a lawn, pull a weed or cut a branch,” says Christine Schneider, a garden designer in Berkeley, Calif. A recent client “broke out the gas-powered weed whacker” to trim some unruly native brush she installed on the property. And because native plants often take longer to mature, some homeowners overwater them and even add chemicals to try and spruce them up, Schneider says. “Not everybody really understands what’s best in the garden.”

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