Go Green

Local landscape professionals offer tips on sustainable landscaping.

By Rob Duca

“We have a small piece of land here on Cape Cod,” says Jesse Roberts of Maffei Landscape Contractors in Mashpee. “Sustainable landscaping is about preserving what we have and finding efficient ways to keep things natural.”

Reduce water use
Sustainable landscaping can start with your lawn. It is important before installing a lawn to analyze the soil. “We’re on a sand bar, so there are a lot of issues that can occur with poor soil,” says Swavi Osev of R&K Landscaping in West Harwich. “Providing good soil reduces the use of water and encourages growth. The deeper the roots grow, the more self-sustaining the landscape will be in the long run.”

Professionals recommend applying organic compost to the lawn in the fall to reduce water consumption and decrease the use of pesticides. Lawns lose their nutrients approximately seven years after installation and can only then survive with regular fertilization. The compost leaches back into the lawn during watering, providing the soil with the necessary nutrients. Incorporating organic compost will also reduce nitrogen infiltration into coastal bodies of water. “It’s a natural way to fertilize without chemicals,” Roberts says.

Lower nitrogen levels to protect environment
Although composting requires a higher initial cost, it ultimately saves money by reducing the number of fertilizer treatments. “I can fertilize your lawn and make it look great, but as soon as you stop fertilizing, it goes back to its natural state,” says Spencer Howard of BJ’s Lawncare and Landscaping in Forestdale. “The following year you’ll see that the organic procedure is still benefitting the lawn, and the water savings is considerable.”

When fertilizer is necessary, it’s vital to apply the proper kind. BJ’s sends out soil samples from every lawn for analysis, which provides information on the organic matter in the soil and what it is capable of holding. “That way we’re not just throwing down a blanket fertilizer; we’re applying something that is specific to that lawn,” Howard says.

Open mowing, which means leaving the grass clippings on the lawn instead of bagging them, is also a smart approach. Over the course of one year, open mowing adds an additional one pound of nitrogen per square foot to your lawn. It’s also important to never cut more than one-third of the height of your lawn at once.

Increase energy efficiency
The placement of energy-efficient plantings such as trees, shrubs and hedges plays a significant role in sustainable landscaping. A tree that is strategically planted in the shade requires less watering and, if it’s near your home, can also reduce your use of air conditioning during the summer. Evergreen foundation plantings located around the perimeter of the home will block cold air and wind during the winter, which is especially important on the Cape, where many older homes are located.

“We can set up an entire yard to be energy efficient by working with where the sun rises and sets,” Roberts says. “We even design landscapes where no water is needed by planting drought-tolerant trees and shrubs. Once those plants are established there is no need for watering, fertilizing and constant care.”

Naturally sustainable plantings
Using plants native to Cape Cod will produce a more sustainable landscape. Many native plant species are tolerant of drought and salt spray, and they thrive in the Cape’s poor acidic soils. If properly located in the landscape according to their growing requirements and once established, native plants generally require less water, fertilizer and pesticides. Eliminating the need to fertilize or apply pesticides helps protect groundwater.

“There is less oversight and the plants will thrive because they’re exactly where they want to be,” Howard says.

Filter water runoff
A final piece to the puzzle is to create natural ways to filter runoffs so that water is conserved and used more efficiently. Roberts suggests covering an open area with a wildflower meadow. “It will collect runoff, reduce invasive weeds, bring color to your yard all year and it requires absolutely no maintenance,” he says.

He also recommends bioswales, which are landscaping features designed to remove silt and pollution from surface runoff water. They consist of a drainage course with gently sloped sides and filled with vegetation or compost. “They provide a filtration system for anything that shouldn’t get into our groundwater,” Roberts says.
A well-designed rain garden will provide similar results by collecting storm water and draining approximately one inch in two to four hours. It will reduce erosion because the water is slowed by the fibrous roots of the plantings. It is also a more aesthetically pleasing approach to drainage solutions.

Whatever approach one chooses, local professionals agree that sustainable landscaping is a choice that homeowners should embrace.

“All our water comes from groundwater, so the health of Cape Cod depends on us reducing the different types of nitrogen and fertilizers that we use,” Howard says. “Cape Cod is a sole source aquifer. We need to respect that.” •

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