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Our Opportunity to Re Define the Balance

It is great to listen to someone so enthusiastic about plants. This was the case hearing Phillip Johnson talk about what makes a great garden. Phillip is creator and Director of Greenmark Landscapes, an advocate for sustainable landscaping.

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It is great to listen to someone so enthusiastic about plants. This was the case hearing Phillip Johnson talk about what makes a great garden. Phillip is creator and Director of Greenmark Landscapes, an advocate for sustainable landscaping and the ‘Best in Show’ gold medal winner at the 2009 Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show.

He was attending a Tree and Shrub Growers (A Nursery Industry Group) meeting at Speciality Trees recently and imparting his knowledge on where the industry was heading. Together with Ruth Czermak (from Botanical Traditions) and Scott Coghlan (of Coolabah Landscapes), one key message dominated the evening – that the gardening and landscaping industries have a vital stewardship role in proactively driving environmental sustainability and must begin to educate everyone on the long term benefits of planting trees and shrubs.

For all of us as a society, the motivation to be environmentally sustainable needs to be thought of in the most basic of ways - to give back to the environment more than what is taken from it.

With expanding populations comes a greater demand on natural and man-made resources. The only real way everyone can help to mitigate increases in carbon dioxide resulting from the ongoing burning of fossil fuels that enable us to live like we do, is to act ‘green’. Trees and plants reduce temperatures and cool surfaces. They are natural carbon sinks with the ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thereby reducing the greenhouse gases associated with global warming.

So essentially we all need to embrace one simple message, that is to green our environment more. The planting of trees and shrubs is a real and tangible way to personally address this balance and contribute to the solution. Collectively we must make plants more important. Flavoured by recent projects with emphasis on green roofs and green walls (many under the guidance of both Phillip and Ruth) we are clawing our way forward, challenging and changing perceptions on environmental sustainability but there is still a way to go. Increasing public awareness on the importance of trees and plants in the environment will greatly assist this transition.

Councils, designers, landscapers, horticulturists and developers all have a role to play too.

In new developments and landscaping projects, project approvals are in the hands of individual councils. Based on a number of considerations including location and population density, they have the authority to define project specifications concerning just about every element of the job including car parking spaces, building heights and hard to soft landscaping ratios.

From conversations on this topic, the minimum percentage attributed to soft landscaping, such as trees, plants and lawn can be as little as 15%, more often than not, about 20% depending on where the property is situated. If we take 20% to be the norm, this means that the other 80% is tied up in concrete, paving and bitumen.

With sustainability in mind, this outcome is far from a solution to global warming. Hot surfaces need trees to cool them; some structures need to be sheltered from wind; windows need to be welcoming to winter sun or shaded from direct summer heat. The harder the surfaces the more water run-off there is leading to infrastructure requirements and recycling issues. Sure councils need to lift these minimum specifications to encourage more green life into the environment, but we as landscapers, designers and horticulturalists have the scope and power to design and install landscapes with greater attention to the space allocated for trees and shrubs.

Another concern relates to budget allocations set at the beginning of the project being so eroded that by the time we commence soft landscaping there is very little money left over to plant out the job properly. Hence trees, shrubs and plants are put in as an afterthought based on what can be costed in, perhaps to the detriment of the overall look and possible functionality of the initial design. Yes there will be plants but perhaps not the right ones for the task and perhaps not advanced enough to immediately give back to the environment.

If this is the case, and we hear about it often, public education and council lobbying to elevate the role and value of trees and plants in the community will have done very little. Holding enough budget for this final stage has to be encouraged and supported by project managers assigned with installing the true essence of the initial landscape design. And in this particular instance, knowing what to plant within the confines of tighter budget restrictions becomes an even more critical exercise than normal.

Consultancy on tree selection is a service very under-rated in the early stages of planning. A heightened awareness of a property’s natural value influenced by years of water restrictions means we are noticing a higher number of designers, landscapers and even consumers wanting this type of advice at the very beginning of the project. With drawings in hand, we are happy to meet to discuss design aims and plant requirements taking into account location, soil and climate conditions. This is part of the educational process, a common sense approach to safeguarding an investment in time and money and so very vital to educating people on the importance of trees and shrubs in the landscape.

But I digress a little. One of the reasons I get involved in writing articles like this one is to raise the profile of trees and plants and educate everyone on their value to the environment in which we live. That value can be measured in a number of ways.

1. Monetary value. This is the return on investment based on how much the landscape has increased the overall value of the property. The better the plants and design the greater the return on investment. Quality matters.

2. Amenity or aesthetic value. This is the hardest to measure as everyone values amenity at a different rate. The enjoyment that people get from plants is not measured in dollars but in increased productivity, performance, mental stability and improved health. Hospitals are now using gardens and landscapes to increase the rate of recovery of seriously ill patients and in aged care facilities, gardens are there to promote a feeling of well being. Green life in and around the office or workplace is well known for reducing stress and anxiety.

3. Environmental value. Whether by human intervention or natural forces, climate change is happening. How do we as landscapers and horticulturists make a difference to arrest this change?

At a very basic level, we are able to increase the ratio of plants to hard surfaces. If all we did was increase soft landscaping by 5% we will make an enormous difference to energy use. Greg Moore in a recent article published in Arbor Age estimates energy savings to be between 12-15 per cent per annum with a reduction in temperature by 8° C. That is a lot of air-conditioner down time provided essentially by the planting of adequate shade trees.

As landscapers and horticulturists we should not wait for councils or governments to impose change but take the lead ourselves. It is in everyone’s interests to increase the value of trees and shrubs and hence the value of our work as designers, landscapers and horticulturists. Increasing green space through improved soft to hard landscaping ratios is addressing the issue in a positive way. Add the benefits of reduced water run-off and improved mental health, and these are very desirable outcomes and ones in which we have significant influence over.

Of course, this is only one strategy to address the issue of climate change. But as an industry we have the greatest opportunity to make a difference.

04/02/2010 In the News

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