Home gardens are a social resource

Our yards contribute to the beauty of our communities

Credit: Watermark Gardens, Landscape Award of Excellence 2006

Capitalizing on the perks of sustainable landscaping


White flowers attract beneficial insects such as foraging bees. Trumpet-shaped Jasmine Tobacco (Nicotiana alata), scattered throughout the garden, is sweetly fragranced and provides nectar to butterflies. This Vancouver garden has a small water-wall feature, and designers were careful to minimize hardscapes so that rainwater runoff would be absorbed into the garden.

When Dr. Marvin Miller, a horticulturist and market research manager for Ball Horticultural Company, told me that our “gardens are a social resource,” I had to square up a couple of opposing notions. To me, the term “social resource” is linked to social responsibility and it’s what we participate in when we leave the house to go to work each morning. It is taxes and economics, taking out the recycling, helping out with a charitable organization, and looking in on an elderly friend. Gardens, on the other hand – or at least the dreamy magazine photos of them – are all about creating retreats. Gardens are about urban oases and secluded spa-like havens in our own backyards. And sometimes they are just about rows of hedging cedars to block out the noise of the outside world.

But Dr. Miller had something else in mind. The green-industry analyst and president of America in Bloom (the U.S. counterpart to Canada’s Communities in Bloom program), believes that gardens are little-picture social. Our yards contribute, for better or for worse, he explains, to the beauty of our communities. Our friends and families gather in them for barbecues, birds and squirrels seek refuge there, and a blackberry bramble growing over the back fence can nudge us to plant our own food crops when we savour the first plump, sun-warmed fruit of summer. Little-picture social needs are why we create gardens; the by-product is the opportunity we have to ensure that they are sustainable, ecologically conscious spaces that make a mark on big-picture social responsibilities.

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When you consider that one tree alone exhales enough oxygen for a family of four to breathe for one year, it’s not hard to see how we can make positive changes to our environment in our own gardens. The trick with planting trees, and all plants for that matter, is to pick the right plants for the right place. Sustainable landscapes are those that grow and thrive without overuse of water or over-application of pesticides, are welcoming animal habitats, and that complement the natural environment. Right-plant-right-place is the first step, and a Landscape Industry Certified professional or your favourite garden centre staff can help choose trees and plants that will thrive in the places you have reserved for them.

The climate is key to plant choice. The solution is not to reach for chemical controls to cure an unhealthy plant, but to start with one that flourishes where it is planted. This is a foundation of what the green industry calls “Integrated Pest Management,” and quality landscape companies have adopted the practice. Their gardens are sustainable because they plan the landscaping to minimize the likelihood of pest and disease, and therefore chemical use. When we aren’t spraying to ward off disease, we are encouraging a habitat for wildlife with very little effort. The garden maintains its beneficial insect population, which in turn preys on insect pests. The theory progresses up the food chain, attracting wildlife to the space.

Keeping plants alive where they aren’t suited seems like a lot of work – and it is. If our gardens don’t require treatment for plant diseases, garden maintenance is much easier. We can capitalize on low maintenance, sustainable landscapes if we consider that appropriately sized shrubs and trees require less corrective pruning as they grow. Plants that require less water, require less work to irrigate. Garden beds that are mulched not only retain moisture, but also suppress weeds. Unnecessary lawns replaced with perennial beds need no mowing. Sustainable landscapes will nurture our interest in gardening by reducing our workload, maximizing the enjoyment of the space, and will help us create more socially and environmentally responsible spaces.

Renata Triveri owns Greenbridge Horticultural Advantage, a communications company serving the green industry. Reprinted with permission from Home Makeover Magazine.