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Dr. Dirt
June 2014

Still Learning Better Landscape Practices

— Dr. Dirt digs into the past to shine a light on the future —

Fifteen years ago I was fortunate to have a half-time appointment at the UNH Office of Sustainability Programs, with a mission of moving the university (and beyond) to more regenerative and efficient practices in the landscape. Our “Sustainable Landscape Group” consisted of me, Lauren Chase-Rowell, and Heidi Tyson. Working within a large university bureaucracy with innumerable stakeholders, each with very specific opinions about what makes a landscape beautiful, is always a challenge. Every individual has a unique concept of the human landscape and the ideal. I described the process of influencing university policies and practices as trying to correct the path of a supertanker from a kayak. At the time, it seemed that there were small victories and large defeats. But looking back, we accomplished and/or influenced more than I thought at the time: a campus tree inventory and planning for the future UNH campus forest, a number of small sustainable designs on campus, some new thoughts in the Grounds Department and in Campus Planning, and, perhaps most importantly, influencing the first-ever campus landscape master plan.

The table below was one of our creations, from fifteen years ago, and these items remain goals in today’s landscape work: design, construction and maintenance. I repeat this outline here because, from what I see, it seems we still have a long way to go to achieve these concepts in our landscape work in New Hampshire and New England.

Moving from conventional landscape practice  TO more sustainable landscape practice
Design with weak relationships to natural systems  TO Design based in native ecosystems
Low biological diversity  TO High biological diversity
Indiscriminate use of exotic materials  TO Preferential use of native species and materials
Focused subsurface water collection and rapid conveyance off site  TO Water detention, infiltration and filtration
Dominance of high-maintenance lawn areas  TO Reduced lawn areas, more sustainable lawn
Overuse of impervious surfaces  TO Preferential use of permeable surfaces
Soil degradation (erosion, compaction, pollution)  TO Soil conservation and restoration
Removal of organic matter (lawn clippings, leaves…)  TO On-site conservation of organic matter
Reliance on high-input bark mulch  TO Use of groundcovers and natural mulches
Reliance on pesticides for pest control  TO Use of integrated pest management
Degradation of vegetation and soils during construction  TO Conscious protection of existing vegetation and soils during construction
Reliance on rock salt for snow and ice removal  TO Reduction of rock salt by use of low-impact
“One size fits all” landscape (eg, lawn and foundation planting)  TO Enhancing strong sense of place (design based in existing conditions of topography, soils, drainage, plant communities, etc.

Suggested fifteen years ago, these are still good places to start to provide more sustainable and regenerative landscapes in the state and region. Landscapers in New England should be far more ahead in these areas than we appear to be today. Changing long-standing landscape and cultural templates is not easy, but it is clearly time to move forward.

Dr. Dirt sends congratulations to John Hart, Emeritus Professor of Horticultural Technology, Thompson School of Applied Science, University of New Hampshire, Durham.



Dr. Dirt, a.k.a. John Hart