Sustainable vs unsustainable: A comparison



The gardens of today, in the new subdivisions, are full of virtually nothing but hard landscaping. Paving, decking and white river pebbles are the order of the day. And many of these ‘gardens’ are being done by landscapers. And unfortunately, because they are so ‘easy’ to do, home-owners copy them, so the proliferation of these substandard gardens is becoming overwhelming. New subdivisions are just full of them.

Have you ever noticed that after about 3 years, if the home owner is lucky, the few typical strappy leaved plants that were added to the hard landscaping die, leaving nothing but the hard landscaping left? Is this really a garden?

I am an avowed plant person, believing that there is a plant for every position. This knowledge is only attained through years and years of working with plants and soils. This action is called gardening! If these so-called professionals, who construct ‘gardens’ of nothing but hard landscaping with a few nominal plants had gardened for as many years as I, then they may know a thing or two about plant selection. Most of my plant knowledge is empirical, but my industry, landscape design, SHOULD be based on empirical knowledge and not academia. And for a landscape designer to be able to call him/herself professional, considerable plant knowledge should be mandatory.

A designer is born, and a plant person learns through experience and research. Both of these characteristics are essential to the well-versed landscape designer of any worth.

Big garden design companies have a variety of different trades within the company – including a horticulturist. But not all businesses want to work as a company. The sustainable advocate, like my business, doesn’t need all of these different trades because construction is kept to a minimum.

Gardens that use plants en masse are far more sustainable than one that is modelled on those too commonly seen in suburbia today. Hard landscaping is not sustainable as it uses a lot of energy in the process of construction. The finished product is lifeless and provides nothing whatsoever of value to the environment. In fact, large areas of paving have a significant negative impact on the environment in the form of run-off, expensive drainage systems and lack of rainfall being utilised on site in a natural way.

As a sustainable landscape designer, I am horrified when doing an initial consultation with a new client, to be asked to provide a garden using the very products that I abhor. These people want their gardens to look like everyone else’s. Why? Unfortunately their houses are cloned and look just like their next door neighbour except maybe a bit bigger, and so they then want their garden to look like just about every garden in the sub-division. People are becoming more and more like sheep; it’s easier this way as thinking about things is too hard, so just follow the leader! If only they realised that the leader is flawed.

Sustainable gardens are a haven for birds and so many other fauna, essential to a healthy ecosystem. Children need to grow up with the experience of birds in their garden, lizards, bees and ants. These critters are all part of a healthy soil biota, biodiverse plant life and pesticide and herbicide free zone.

Do people really think that there is little maintenance with the tasteless ‘garden’ that they espouse? If they only realised that a truly sustainable garden, once established requires far less maintenance and irrigation than the mass produced version.

Massed plants, once established and properly spaced by a real professional, become living mulch. Debris from these plants is put back onto any open space, so that this also forms ‘forest mulch’ on site. Massed plants, using plants for different purposes, i.e. nectar for small birds, seeds for bigger birds, any rocks from the site utilised within the design to provide habitat for lizards and so on are all part of the sustainable experience. And this experience is so much more rewarding than the treeless charade being mass produced in so many new gardens.

The mass produced inert garden is forever full of weeds. The pebbles are a magnet for weed seeds and once germinated, the weeds are difficult to hand-pull from the stones. So home-owners use the ubiquitous herbicide, glyphosate, little realising that any tad hint of spray drift has a profound effect on grassy foliaged plants. So these few, sparing plants either die, or look shocking for the rest of their life, until someone eventually removes them.

As a multi award winning landscape designer, I am fed up with seeing these awful gardens being ‘professionally’ constructed by so-called professionals. Because they have no plant knowledge, they are just copying everyone else. The client is paying them to provide the labor [brawn] for a job they could do themselves but can’t be bothered. There is no skill in these gardens, just pure monotony.

Alison Aplin (Timandra Design & Landscaping)