In 1987 a United Nations Commission, eponomously named the Brundtland Commission after its chair Gro Harlem Brundtland, argued that sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In addition, as Dr. Brundtland put it, “the environment is where we all live and development is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable.”

As people interested in horticulture, whether we are “developing” our own small plot of land at our home or a larger commercial property, we must begin, or further in some cases, to take into consideration the inseparableness of our development actions and the environment. Many of you have most likely heard of LEED certification, which is a third-party green building certification administered by the U.S. Green Building Council. It focuses primarily on the building envelope and the building systems and technologies. Fewer of you may have heard of the Sustainable Sites Initiative. This is a similar third-party certification program but it is still in the development stages and is not planned to officially roll out until 2012. The guiding principle of this initiative is to “preserve or restore a site’s sustainability within the context of ecosystem services-the idea that healthy ecosystems provide goods and services of benefit to humans and other organisms.”

Clearly there are tangible and real benefits to healthy soils, healthy plants and good water management. As horticulturalists and plant people these are some of the areas that we touch in our work. Healthy soils is really where it all begins. I am a landscape contractor and I believe strongly that our industry does not do nearly enough soil testing. As observant professionals we can generally know an area’s soil type but a lab test can provide valuable information about the idiosyncratic needs of a particular soil. Our goal is to provide nutrients and activate microbial life in the soil to feed the plant life. To this end my company has had good success with compost tea and a balanced fertilization program. We brew and apply our own tea and have the ability to customize the brew according to the needs of a particular site. The photos on this page show a property that we have applied tea for the past four years along with natural, slow release fertilizers. There have been virtually no pesticides used here during that time. Soil tests confirm a much healthier and biologically active soil than when we started the transition from a conventional fertilization program. We spray the tea directly onto the turf and planting beds as well as a foliar spray on the plants. Three to four applications per year has proven to be effective. Where chemical-based pesticides and some synthetic fertilizers can kill a range of beneficial organisms that improve plant life, compost tea adds to and promotes what some soil folks call the “micro-herd” of beneficial organisms.  If you’re like me though and not a soil scientist I have found the website for Soil Food Web www.soilfoodweb.com to be helpful and educational on all matters around compost tea. The Tea adds the biology and our fertilizers add the nutrition to feed not only the plants but the biological microherd. We’ve found that one without the other is not nearly as effective.

In the landscape world here on the West Coast it is common to use a fir or hemlock bark mulch to topdress planting beds. While bark mulch serves to retain moisture and shade soil reducing weed seed germination it adds nothing to the soil biology, in fact natural toxins in the bark can actually create a net loss from a biology standpoint. Good gardeners have long understood the benefits of using garden compost as a topdressing. Good compost not only has the beneficial organisms that help with moisture retention and weed control but also gives us added nutrient value. Think of it as feeding the soil microherd that in turn sustains your plants. In my recent experience finding quality compost in bulk though can be a challenge. Compost facilities rely on contractors and others to supply them with yard waste that they process into a usable product. Controlling what comes into their facilities is difficult though and as a result in my business we are seeing a lot of plastic, think yard waste bagged in black plastic. Vigilance and feedback to our suppliers will hopefully ensure a consistently quality compost.

Water supply and water quality are two other areas that deserve our focus and innovation if we are to meet the needs of future generations while currently meeting our own. By many estimates up to 50% of summer water use is for landscapes and 50% of landscape irrigation is either wasted or unnecessary due to overwatering, overspray, poorly adjusted heads or leaks in the system. Needless to say, there is huge potential for improvement and water savings. The advances over the past decade or so in irrigation technology have really given us the opportunity to realize these improvements and efficiency gains. There are rain sensors, wireless remotes, central controllers, flow controls, two wire technology, weather stations, and the list goes on. Just like with plant material though, you can have the most incredible availability of plants but if you don’t have the design or installation skills to properly place and install those fantastic plants the advantages are lost. The greatest technologies in the world are rendered moot without a skilled operator. Either get educated or get help.

Another opportunity that I see relating to water is around stormwater management. Look along any waterway during a storm event and you can find any number of pipes coming in to dump the stormwater coming off of our streets, our parking lots and our homes. We’ve all probably heard of planning for the 100 year flood event. Well, planners and developers using this cyclical historical data are finding that water levels associated with the “100 year event” are being reached more and more frequently. As development goes so goes piping into our waterways. Smart developers though are finding alternatives. Through the use of rain gardens, bioswales and phytotechnology we have the ability to handle the large majority of any storm event right on site, to cleanse the pollutants from the storm runoff and to slow the flow into our waterways to minimize the sharp spike in water levels. Phytotechnology is the science of putting plants to work to provide ecosystem services. Absorbing stormwater and cleansing pollutants is an ecosystem service. The City of Portland has a downspout disconnect program that pays homeowners to disconnect their downspouts from the city sewer system. Directing the flow then into a rain garden where plants and soil can absorb the stormwater is a practical and attractive solution that avoids simply running the downspout into a lawn or other area to create a messy bog. We’ll need more of this type of incentive program to encourage and educate homeowners and developers to protect our waterways from the negative impacts of “conventional” development.

I have twins that will be nine by the time you are reading this and while they are just starting to be conscious of the larger planet and world outside our family, their school and our town I have real concern for them of what our planet will be like when they’re my age. I want to do what I can do to ensure that we are meeting the needs of the current without compromising the ability of my kids’ generation, and their kids’ generation to meet their own. As horticulturalists, landscapers, gardeners and plant lovers there are many opportunities for us to take the lead in creating a sustainable future. Pick one and do it.

This article  first appeared in the Sep 2009 edition of Pacific Horticulture magazine.


This is an article that I wrote that appeared in the Daily Journal of Commerce last year. Still relevant today…

Dean DeSantis

There is no doubt that the Portland design-build community is in the middle of a green-building boom.  However, the next big question is always, “What’s next?”

In addition to sustainable building practices, builders and developers should look beyond the physical structure to make sure the landscape also is, so to speak, “green.”  The landscaping and site planning can be just as important as the construction of the building itself yet somehow it is often forgotten or deemed secondary.

The creative competition around green building we have brewing in Portland, and surrounding areas, is producing inspiring results.  One can look at the Confluence Project in Vancouver, Tanner Springs Park in Portland and Pringle Creek Community in Salem as excellent examples of award-winning projects that thoughtfully execute a holistic approach to sustainable site design, landscaping and water use. These projects start with the site in mind and never lose focus on utilizing existing, and regenerating lost, natural resources.

At the LEED-H platinum certified Pringle Creek project, the landscape and irrigation contributed approximately 15 percent to the total points of the certification level. These quantifiable benefits are not negligible.  In addition, the qualitative benefits are enormous. Who among us does not feel relaxed and calmer in a natural environment?

The following are a few simple questions to ask when planning the landscaping for your next LEED project:

A) What plans are in place to preserve as much of the natural site as possible? Think about tree preservation plans and topsoil stockpiling to reintroduce into the landscape. The key to any thriving planted landscape is what’s underneath the surface; think organic fertilizers and compost tea.

B) Is the landscape functioning to serve the building and its inhabitants? For example, deciduous trees on the south side of the building can reduce energy costs by cooling the building in summer and allowing sunlight through in the winter.

C) Does the landscape work with the larger ecosystem? A goal should be to retain all water that falls on the site through the use of permeable surfaces, planted swales or passive storage tanks. And, look to restore wildlife habitat to the site. Even urban projects can see an increase in bird and wildlife populations.

So what is next?  From my perspective, it’s putting to work the ideals and foundations of sustainable design and building into the entire site, not just the structure.  Every piece – from the landscaping to the building – has to fit together in order to add up to a truly sustainable project.

Fruits of Labor

Mary and Jerry were looking for a change.  They had grown tired of the shaggy carpet of front lawn and weary of whacking back old, overgrown shrubs.  There was also the unfriendly front slope, not wide enough to comfortably walk on, steep enough one could think better of it.  Mary had new, useful ideas for the land:  Fruit trees, berry bushes, kitchen herbs, and plants to attract butterflies and hummingbirds.    The lawn was dug out and the battle-scared shrubs removed.  The selfish front slope was coaxed into becoming friendlier, with more topsoil having been brought in and added to her waistline.  Given a belt of dry-stacked stone, the slope now had become a wide, usable terrace.    A trio of dwarf fruit trees started off the new planting.  The apple tree had five varieties grafted onto one tree (called a 5-way combo) the pear had three (a 3-way combo) and the Italian plum was one of Mary’s favorites.  With just these three trees came a whole orchard of fruit.    Raspberries and marionberries became friendly room-mates, forming a caned fence at the back of the garden. Colorful Blueberries mingled with Hebes and Daylilies.  Butterflies found their way to the Asters, and Mary’s nose found its way to the fragrant dwarf hardy Gardenia.  Hummingbirds quickly claimed the Penstemon.  Up by the front door a welcoming committee was planted with Lenten Rose, dwarf Escallonia, Caryopteris, and dwarf red-twig Dogwood, all taking turns being on display, giving year around color and interest.    Stone pathways lazily wound their way through the new garden, passing by a bubbling fountain surrounded by a stone patio.  Jerry could be found sitting there, in the shade of the big fir tree, sipping ice tea in the summer; which is where I found him one late afternoon when I came to visit.  His garden was alive.  Bees were busy, apples were ripening, and blueberries were about ready to pop.  Mary came out from the kitchen to snip Rosemary for dinner.  “Do you miss your lawn?” I asked. “No, and neither do the neighbors,” Jerry replied.  “We use our front yard now, and mowing the grass took a lot of time and water”.   Mary added, “And we are enjoy growing some of our own food, along with having a beautiful new front yard.”       As I left the garden, the stone walkway now lit with pathlights as evening approached, Mary, Jerry and I stood at the edge of the garden, looking back on the fruits of our labor.  “Our neighbor next door wants to talk with you about redoing his front yard, but only after you help us get rid of the lawn in our backyard.”  Jerry said with a smile.

By Tina Miller, Landscape Designer

The information below was written by Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director of Audubon Society of Portland. It’s a great summary of things you can do in your backyards for urban wildlife during the fall and winter. 
Wildlife will stay in our area during the winter if they are well adapted to survive in our climate, but there are some things you can do to help during the cold winter months. Look at your yard from the viewpoint of an animal seeking shelter and food. Are there safe hiding spots in which to find shelter from rain and wind? Is there food such as seeds, cones, and berries that persist into late winter? Is there a source of fresh clean water?

You can start providing natural food and shelter by going easy on fall cleanup. There’s no need to be super neat and tidy- wildlife appreciates things a little on the wild side. Those fallen leaves that are starting to pile up or those unclipped flowers you meant to get to, can benefit birds and other wildlife. Flowers that have faded will still produce seeds and many birds will take advantage of them.

Leaving plant material (especially leaves) on the ground provide a great source of organic material for your soil. It also provides crawling spaces for reptiles, amphibians, and insects. In the winter, many ground-feeding birds like towhees and robins will thank you for those extra sources of insects. If you have a trimming project, collect branches and debris and make a brush pile in a corner of the yard. This provides a wonderful source of shelter for birds and wildlife on cold winter days.

For more information about Portland’s Backyard Habitat Certification Program visit http://www.columbialandtrust.org/get-involved/act/backyard-habitats/backyard-habitats-certification-program
Backyard Habitats Logo

I once heard a story of a person buying a new motor home, setting the cruise control and getting up and leaving the drivers seat while underway. What in the world does this have to do with a sprinkler system? Well, most people do something just as absurd with their new sprinkler systems. Most system owners set the controller (cruise control) and walk away, wasting away our precious H2O resource.

It’s true an automated sprinkler system is touted as saving water, but it will only do so if it is operated properly! Changing the water times of the controller is essential for efficient application of water; we’ve all seen the worst cases of this as an automatic system is watering away in the rain, or watering ½ mile of street side gutter over applying and wasting water. The majority of “hose draggers” put at least some thought into whether, and how much, the lawn and landscape needs water. An owner of an automated system should be no different, assessing the controller program weekly or more to match water times with the weather and infiltration rate of the soil.

I see more and more a reference to “an inch per week” in a feeble attempt to quantify the water needs of the typical landscape in the typical setting by the typical person for the typical weather, you catch my drift. In reality if you are applying 1” of water in March you are significantly over watering unless of course you live in a VERY arid region, leaving some level of adjustment and interpretation to the owner.  The industry is attempting to rectify the problem by developing “smart” technology, some of which is simple, economical, and works great such as rain sensors that hold a system off while it’s raining and for a period of time afterward, moving towards the very sophisticated such as controllers which receive daily ET (evapotranspiration) rates and adjust water times automatically based on soil types, sun exposure etc.

The common sense approach seems to make the most sense to me. Take advantage of technology as you see fit, at a minimum install a rain sensor and learn to utilize the seasonal/global adjustment feature available on most current controllers. If true water conservation is a goal, seek a professional that is current with the available technologies and be prepared to spend a little more, but rest assured, the resource and your pocket book will be all the better in the long run.

By Brent Stevenson, Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditor

Quite a while ago I asked a few of our employees to write an article about something they were passionate about.  I’ve been sitting on those articles since then (waiting to get this blog up and running). I”ll post the articles here over the next few weeks that came out of that request. I think you’ll like them… Dean DeSantis

Nature is but another name for health.

Henry David Thoreau

The therapeutic benefits of peaceful garden environments have been understood since ancient times.  Rehabilitative care of hospitalized war veterans in the 1940’s-1950’s greatly expanded the practice of horticulture therapy (HT).  Over the past decade many people have become aware of the positive benefits of human interaction with plants and garden.  Today HT is recognized as a practical and viable treatment with wide –ranging benefits for people in therapeutic, vocational, and wellness programs.

Gardens designed to support people-plant interactions and human well-being has been referred to as healing gardens, therapeutic gardens, and restorative gardens.  There are some essential differences among garden types that can provide clarity to their design and purpose.

Healing Gardens

A healing garden is generally associated with hospitals or other healthcare settings, and is designed as a retreat and a place of respite for clients, visitors, and staff.

Therapeutic Gardens

A therapeutic garden is designed for use as a component of a treatment program such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, or horticultural therapy programs and may be part of a larger healing garden.

Restorative Gardens

A restorative or meditation garden may be a public or private garden.  This type of garden employees the restorative value of nature to provide and environment conducive to mental repose, stress-reduction, emotional recovery, and the enhancement of mental and physical energy.

The benefits of a healing garden include:

  • Reduced anxiety
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduced pain
  • Reduction in depression
  • Less medication
  • Reduced stays
  • Higher patient satisfaction
  • Increased job satisfaction
  • Less staff turnover
  • Reduced cost of patient care
  • Good opportunity for marketing & PR

Research during the last two decades show that patients heal faster when they have access to nature.  One pivotal study by Dr.Roger Ulrich from Texas A & M found that patients whose windows overlooked trees and gardens recovered faster than those whose windows faced brick walls.

“Isn’t every garden a healing garden?” is a question I am often asked.

Healing gardens are designed with the intent to achieve a balance between a plant-dominated landscape and a restorative, interactive, therapeutic benefit between patients, staff and visitors.  All aspects of the healing process may take place in the garden setting.

Physical therapists may lead their patients on walks through the garden, while stroke victims may identify plants on both sides of their body.  Recreational therapist may use the garden for bird watching, music or other social programming.  Speech pathologists use the garden for cognitive and communication treatments.  Children’s hospitals utilize play therapy. The horticultural therapist uses the garden to help patients increase strength and endurance, mobility, focus and memory.

The American Horticulture Therapy Association identifies seven key characteristics of therapeutic landscapes.

  • Scheduled programmed activities
  • Features modified to improve accessibility.  Raised beds & containers
  • Well defined perimeters
  • A profusion of plants and plant & people interactions is essential.
  • Benign and supportive conditions are identifiable.  Plants are selected for disease and pest resistance, thereby avoiding chemicals.  Shade is essential.
  • Design for the widest range of user abilities.
  • Therapeutic gardens in the hospital setting should be simple, unified and in easily comprehended spaces.

You can visit two award-winning healing gardens in Portland. The Stenzel Healing Garden at Legacy Good Samaritan and the Children’s Garden at Legacy Emanuel Hospital have been awarded the American Horticultural Therapy Associations Therapeutic Garden Design Award.

Brenda Knobloch is a Registered Horticultural Therapist.

Enhancing your landscape can give your home a warm, welcoming feel and can substantially raise your home’s value. The question is how do we truly get our money’s worth out of this new landscape? One problem is that when we come home in the evening our time is limited to enjoy our landscapes. Soon nighttime comes and it is too dark to go outside. Let’s not forget that Oregon weather may deter us from using our outdoor living spaces for several months every year. So really you spent good money so that you could enjoy your landscape for a few hours each evening for 7 months out of the year. The solution; outdoor landscape lighting which offers a diverse number of outdoor uses. Some of which are: extended evening/winter use, safety and security, and overall beauty of your landscape.

Landscaping lighting allows you to extend your enjoyment of outdoor living spaces to late evening hours. Outdoor events are no longer cut short by the sunset. During cold winter months you are still able to enjoy the view of your landscape from inside your warm home.

Safety is a big concern for those of us who have steps or dark areas in their front yards. No one wants to have friends or family come to visit and trip and fall because they didn’t see the steps up the walkway. During winter, sure footing is vital to avoiding mishaps;

a well lit area will ensure that visitors can see where they are stepping.

If a well lit home and a dark home with poor visibility are next to each other the second is more likely to be burglarized. Lighting adds that security that we all desire to feel whether we are home or away.

During daylight hours you can see your entire landscape but come nightfall you are a totally different perspective of your yard. Strategically placed lights illuminate specific areas and features of your landscape. This artistic aspect of lighting allows you to have a few accents throughout your landscape.