Engineering & Landscape Design: Sustainable landscaping solutions

By Brian Kuchar, P.E., RLA, LEED AP
Commercial and residential landscape maintenance in Southern New England can be challenging, due to our harsh winters, tough soil conditions, summer droughts, and invasive/pest nuisances. Appropriate plant selection and thoughtful design early in the development process can be financially beneficial over the life of the project. Without the proper planning, landscapes can require costly maintenance every spring to improve plant health and general appearance. What many property owners may not realize is that with some advance planning and a modest investment, a sustainable approach will create a highly attractive landscape without the long-term maintenance burdens. In general, the use of native plantings in a sustainable landscape approach requires far less maintenance and fertilizer applications over time, thereby improving the community’s ecological health and water quality.
Native plants
Sustainable landscaping practices have reached the mainstream and are transforming commercial properties, public spaces, and largescale residential development. Today, most landscape professionals are familiar with the benefits of using native plants. The selection of non-invasive, drought tolerant, pest resistant, salt tolerant and naturally beautiful plants is becoming more common. Landscape professionals are eager to identify a variety of plants that attract different types of wildlife (e.g., hummingbirds) and provide a diversity of color and interest throughout the year.
Why consider sustainability?
From the property owner’s perspective, the two greatest advantages to a more sustainable landscape approach are reduced maintenance and healthier plants. The number of readily available ornamental grasses, perennials, shrubs, and trees that thrive in stressful Southern New England conditions has significantly increased in recent years. Because of their suitability to our climate, these plants have proven to be more resilient over time. Additionally, beautiful and diverse landscapes can be planted that require less irrigation or fertilization. The need for costly sprinkler systems to maintain an attractive landscape is outdated, as thirsty plots of green grass are being replaced with mixtures of native grasses and groundcovers. By reducing watering, fertilizing, and lawn mowing from daily or weekly routines, property owners are discovering cost benefits from minimal upfront investment.
Environmental benefits
Beyond the direct benefits to the property owners, sustainable landscaping practices create real and immediate benefits to the environment. The reduction or elimination of irrigation can help mitigate impacts during periods of drought, which have become more prevalent in recent years. In addition, the reduction or elimination of fertilizer use is a critical environmental issue for Cape Cod and Plymouth County communities. Our coastal and inland water bodies, along with our groundwater, are showing signs of increased nutrients. Studies indicate a significant source of nutrient pollution is the over fertilization of our maintained landscapes. Another focus of the sustainable landscaping movement is the selection of native, pest resistant trees that are resilient and, when mature, provide large shade canopies. This helps to capture rainfall (reducing stormwater runoff) and provide shade (reducing the so-called “heat island” effect). The use of more native flowering shrubs and perennials in our landscapes is also more important today with recent documented stresses on pollinator insects, particularly bees.
Low-impact development
The advantages of sustainable landscaping demonstrate the range of benefits that can be realized just by shifting the focus away from a manicured lawn and paying more attention to plant selection. Many property owners are going beyond this level and making landscapes that literally work for them. A suite of site development strategies has come into its own over the past 10 to 15 years that uses landscape features to treat stormwater more effectively than the old “catch basin to pipe” approach.
Sometimes called Low Impact Development (LID) or Green Infrastructure, this approach uses shallow landscape features like vegetated swales, porous pavement, rain gardens, sand filters, and constructed wetlands to manage stormwater runoff in a way that mimics natural systems. These landscape features use stormwater for their own irrigation needs, filter pollutants, and in some cases encourage water to seep back into the ground, replenishing groundwater reserves needed for drought periods. More frequently, municipal codes are directing property owners towards using these practices to meet site development standards.
Keep sustainable practices in mind
A more sustainable approach to landscaping has become increasingly accessible to property owners in recent years and provides a number of benefits to both the owner and the environment. Maintenance cost savings for these landscapes is significant and will quickly pay for any larger upfront costs associated with plant selection or professional landscape design assistance.
From an environmental perspective, heat reduction, water quality, and wildlife benefits are well documented, especially where property owners go the extra mile to employ LID techniques. These features truly add to the visual appeal of any property with a variety of colors, textures, and pathways that soften what have historically been flat landscapes of asphalt, grass and mulch. Cost savings, environmental improvements, and property appeal − sounds like a worthwhile investment!
Brian Kuchar, P.E., RLA, LEED AP, is a Senior Landscape Architect and Civil Engineer at Horsley Witten Group Inc. He can be reached at (508) 833-6600 or
This article was published in the May 2017 issue of Cape & Plymouth Business.