Dr. Nikki Springer recently headlined a webinar titled “Garden-to-Grave: Sustainable Strategies for Landscape Material Disposal.” The presentation was in partnership with America in Bloom, a nonprofit focusing on educational efforts and community involvement in horticulture.

Springer holds a Ph.D. in environmental management from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies; she also holds a master’s in landscape architecture through Harvard Design School. She is the former landscape facilities manager for Walmart’s corporate headquarters, where she saw to the maintenance and management of everything from landscape services to snow removal services for the company’s 6,000 stores.

The discussion began with defining landscape waste. Landscape (or yard) waste typically includes grass clippings, tree branches, hedge and bush trimmings and more – the general green waste or excess produced by landscaping efforts. This green waste can come from “residential, institutional and commercial sources.” According to Springer, the EPA estimated there were 35.4 million tons of landscape waste in 2018. This figure translates to roughly 12.1% of all municipal solid waste in the U.S.

Good, responsible disposal is important – it’s important to “be a good neighbor,” Springer said – and that goes for those removing old landscaping and installing new.

Historically, the answer for the waste would have been the local landfill. However, through continuing education campaigns and increased community awareness beginning in the late 1980s, the EPA has seen those numbers drop as more and more entities pursue more sustainable disposal methods, such as composting or combustion.

But why not simply throw landscape waste away with other trash? Springer referenced the environmental and community impacts of doing so: The methane gases produced and rapidly shrinking landfill capacity nationwide, to name a few.

There are a lot of factors that should give those in landscaping pause. It’s important not to dump unmonitored landscape waste into natural areas. Doing so can contaminate the area with invasive species. It can cause harm to established trees and local wildlife habitats through altering soil chemistry or hindering the growth of critical underbrush.

It’s also important to use caution when burning landscape waste. Doing so can release particulate matter into the air and can generate localized air pollution, harmful to both people and wildlife. And unsecured brush fires can easily devolve into safety hazards.

Looking beyond just safe and responsible disposal, steps can be taken toward reducing the load of landscape waste. Springer had a lot of simple, practical steps to share.

First, be intentional when landscaping. Landscapers should choose plants that are well-suited to a variety of factors from climate zone to soil type – and plants that will hold up against known stressors (such as deer). Protection against these stressor is key, especially during establishment. Utilizing integrated pest management to reduce pests and other stressors is critical.

Native plants are typically preferred, but well-established transplants can thrive. If an expected level of maintenance is available, take that into consideration before installing a plant. Plan for adequate space by analyzing root growth and mature size. A proper maintenance schedule is paramount, including pruning, fertilization and irrigation. Extending the life of the plant helps eliminate plant waste by cutting down on frequent replacements.

Minimizing chemical usage is also key. Intentional choices while planning can reduce the need for fertilizer. Whenever possible, landscapers should use natural materials to control weed growth – and they should use soil amendments whenever possible. Proactive plant maintenance will reap great rewards.

Last but not least, proper irrigation is important in the drive to reduce landscape waste. Landscapers can group plants by irrigation needs when possible, as that cuts water loss due to evaporation and runoff. The use of moisture and weather sensors can provide great indicators for calibrating irrigation needs. Once again, proactive maintenance is important. Ensure that any irrigation systems are regularly maintained and that regular repairs are made as needed.

by Andy Haman