The challenge was to design a garden that evoked the familiar phrase “Color my world.” It sounds simple — gardens are nothing if not colorful.
Carroll Landscaping owner Robert Jones and his designer, Beth Burnham, of Baltimore County chose the color green. Then they turned the challenge inside out.
“We like thinking a little bit outside of the box,” says Burnham with a shy smile. Their garden would not be green as in “shades of.” It would be green as in recycled, reclaimed and repurposed — a sustainable garden.
The garden floor was be made of brick salvaged from an 1840s farmhouse, and the spaces between the bricks would allow the rain to pass through. The fountain was made of a salvaged garden gate and three old spigots. The roof of the gazebo was framed with lumber from a deck that had been dismantled. The metal in the roof, left over from another job.
The benches were made of ipe, a sustainably grown Brazilian wood so dense it doesn’t float and is impervious to weather. The columns that formed the gazebo were basalt, a volcanic stone that comes out of the quarry like a crystal and requires no energy to shape it.
The pillows on the benches were cheap indoor pillows, not the more expensive outdoor fabrics that take longer to decompose in a landfill. The rocking chairs were yard sale finds, cleaned up and repainted. So was the glider. The candleholder was an old light fixture. The stones used to form a table would never need painting.
Even the plants were destined for another landscaping job after this display garden, one of the stars of this spring’s Maryland Home & Garden Show, was dismantled.
“This is how we live,” says Jones of his landscape design philosophy. He’s a “Carroll County boy,” thus his company’s name. “Sometimes we have to educate the clients.”
It’s easy being green
Sustainability is a buzzword that’s found its way into the garden.
It means a landscape that is responsive to the environment and regenerative. Sustainable landscapes sequester carbon, clean the air and water, increase energy efficiency, restore habitats, reduce costs, improve the environment and create value, according to the American Society of Landscape Architects — and, of course, please the eye and soothe the soul.
“It has mattered to landscape architects for quite some time,” says Nancy Somerville, who heads the Washington, D.C.-based organization. “We have a strong environmental ethic that goes back to the founding in 1899.
“It is more recent that it has started to matter to homeowners.”
An ASLA survey five years ago showed a rising awareness across the population about sustainability in the garden, not just among the younger, more environmentally aware generation.
It can mean something as simple as a barrel to collect rainwater off the roof. But it also means a landscape design, including both plants and structures, that can stand the test of time and the elements.
“The public seems to understand what this means, generally,” Somerville says. But when asked about how this applies to their own yards, the same public doesn’t seem to have a clue, she says.
When Jones and Burnham took on a client with large suburban yard, some of it wooded, the client asked if they could get rid of the giant boulders cluttering up those woods. They gently suggested that perhaps those boulders could be used in the new design — even converted to seating or steps.
“We like to include something in our designs that doesn’t grow and doesn’t need to be watered and will last a lifetime,” says Burnham, who worked in a lawn and garden shop while studying graphic design at Stevenson University and found a way to combine the two.
“We also like to take something that is existing and try to find a way to use it as an accent. It is nice if it can perform a function, too.”
Most clients want something fresh and lovely, Jones says, and they don’t care how he gets there. He says he often employs his sustainable principles without even telling the homeowner.
It is up to Burnham to find a way to make it work from an engineering point of view. “There is a lot more to it than just making it look pretty,” she said.
Clients also want the old stuff gone, and they don’t care where it goes, he says. So he tries to recycle or repurpose whatever he can, even if it ends up in a compost pile.
Beauty to last a lifetime
The sustainability movement is getting a nudge from the government, Jones says. “Certain things are going to become standard on new construction,” he says, such as permeable pavement and rain gardens, especially in a region as environmentally sensitive as the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
“We will get there because of regulation,” says Somerville. “The work is changing that way.”
According to ASLA members, clients are asking about sustainable practices, though they are unsure of what they might be.
“It can be a fairly little cost to implement some of these strategies,” she says. You don’t have to plant a green roof or tear up your driveway and repave it with a permeable material or install a complex system to collect the gray water from your home.
It could be a rain barrel to collect runoff from the roof and reduce the amount of potable water you use for plants. It could be a small rain garden in the lowest point of the yard to soak stormwater into the ground, or native plants to reduce the need for water or pesticides. These are all sustainable practices, Somerville says.
Use trees and shrubs that won’t quickly outgrow their space and plants that are long-lived, Jones adds.
“We let the clients know that this will save them money — now and in the future,” Jones says.
After all, true beauty shouldn’t be fleeting.
“The goal is something beautiful that will last their lifetime,” says Burnham.