March 2012

How Green Is Your Landscape?


Dick Meyer

Is your landscape “green” if it conserves water? Is it “green” if you don’t use pesticides and herbicides to maintain it? Is it “green” if you harvest rainwater to irrigate? Is it “green” if you use mostly native plants? Is it “green” if you do all of the above?

When it comes to “green” landscaping, green, it seems, is an evolving color. Conserving water and reducing or eliminating the use of chemicals to maintain your landscape are certainly aspects of “green” landscaping. But new thinking about the capacity of our home, business and public community landscapes suggest that there may be far more that can be done in our personal and community landscapes to reduce and remediate the deleterious effects of modern human activity on the global environment.

How green is your landscape? Take the “Green Landscape Test” and see. OK, this isn’t really a test on which you should try to give yourself a score. But a test is a great way to break down a complex issue into its essential components and look at each separately. As you will see, there may be quite a bit more to creating a really green landscape than you thought. So, are you ready? Here’s the test—good luck.

  1. Does your landscape use a sustainable quantity of municipal, well or other irrigation water?

Sustainable water use was the first major environmental issue that confronted the modern human landscape. The development and widespread adoption of xeric landscape design, construction, and maintenance practices have been very successful in proving that highly functional and attractive landscapes can be created that will thrive on sustainable quantities of irrigation water. Water use remains a crucial aspect of a green landscape, so this question is worth 20 points.

(One important, often overlooked source of water for landscape use is the rain and snowmelt that simply runs off your property after a rainstorm or as the snow melts in spring. It is not unusual for 50-60% of a residential or commercial property to be covered by either the roofs of the buildings or related driveways, sidewalks, patios or parking areas. If the rain and snow that falls on these parts of the property can be captured and channeled into the landscape, the result is an effective doubling of the natural rainfall for use by the landscape. But don’t try to score your landscape on how well it captures and uses storm water for this question—that’s a part of question #4.)


Give your landscape a score ranging from 0 to 20 points based on the sustainability of your landscape irrigation practices________



  1. Does your landscape maximize the sequestration of carbon in soil and plants in order to offset the release of atmospheric carbon caused by the human activity of its occupants?

In the minds of most climate scientists and related experts, increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide have been proven to be a major cause of global climate change. The release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere remains a major environmental concern. The use of plants to reduce the energy consumption of buildings is one way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. But many experts think that there’s an even more effective way to address this environmental issue—through your landscape. Plant tissues are the biosphere’s major carbon sink, so a significant increase in plant tissue volume within our landscapes could be part of a global strategy to reverse increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide. However, this is only effective if those additional plant tissues remain in the landscape and are allowed to decompose in the soil—becoming soil carbon; carbon is what makes topsoil black, by the way. So if you have any significant amount of the euphemistically mislabeled weed barrier in your landscape, you should deduct a few more points from what is likely to be a low score on this item already, because it prevents sloughed seasonal and generational plant tissues from ever reaching the soil organisms that would normally lock up the carbon contained in those plant tissues in the soil as soil organic matter. Because atmospheric carbon is a serious problem that can be impacted in our human landscapes, landscape designs and practices that increase plant size and density and that build soil are an important part of the new green landscape.

Give your landscape a score ranging from 0 to 20 points based on the degree to which your landscape design, construction and maintenance practices capture and retain carbon________

(Unless your landscape is a wilderness area, your score on this question should probably be less than 2.)


  1. Does your landscape sustain plant, insect, bird and animal species diversity equal to or greater than that found in the indigenous ecosystems of your geographic region?

While it’s not as widely discussed in the media as global climate change, many leading biologists think that species extinction is potentially as serious an environmental problem as increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The problem of species extinction is commonly thought to be connected to large-scale issues like rainforest deforestation, over-hunting and poaching of wild animals in Third World countries, and overfishing of the planet’s oceans, but species extinction is likely going on in your own backyard. The cause? The failure of traditional and contemporary landscape design philosophies to recognize the intricate and finely tuned interconnectedness of plants, insects, birds and animals and microorganisms within an ecosystem. Most human landscapes can only be described as ecologically inept and incomplete. And, as if our traditional landscape designs weren’t inept and incomplete enough to cause species extinction, our chemical and physical sanitation of lawns and landscape plantings virtually insures that our landscapes are not going to support anything approaching the biodiversity of the indigenous ecosystems that our landscapes replace. Make no mistake about it, to get a perfect score on this test question will not be easy. It will require a greatly increased use of native plants in the landscape. It will require that we learn to appreciate and to enhance the durable beauty of natural landscapes. It will require that we learn to work with nature to create and maintain our landscapes, rather than to continually battle with nature to maintain the unnatural beauty pageants that our landscapes have become. But it will also require that nurseries grow and sell different plants—and that they grow and sell them differently. So getting a perfect score on this question will take some time. But answer the question anyway.

Give your landscape a score ranging from 0 to 20 points based on the degree to which your landscape supports sustainable biodiversity that is equal to or greater than the biodiversity of the indigenous landscape of your region______


  1. Does your landscape capture and remediate (to the extent possible) the chemical and other pollutants that would otherwise be washed off the landscaped and paved surfaces of your property and into adjacent aquifers, rivers and streams during a heavy rainstorm or during spring snowmelts?

Human technology and industry have introduced into the planetary environment an almost unfathomable array of natural and unnatural substances to which living organisms had never before been exposed, or never before been exposed to at the levels now seen. The experience of those who have had to face the task of cleaning up entire polluted ecosystems such as lakes or rivers has been that the best long-term solution is to remediate the polluting substances at the point at which they are created or at the point at which they might first enter the natural environment. Because many of these man-made substances are washed into the natural environment when rain accumulates and runs off of the lawns and landscape beds, driveways and parking lots of our human landscapes, civil engineers and community planners are now requiring that large new public landscapes capture their storm water on site and clean it up before releasing it into the streams and rivers of the local watershed. Soil microorganisms have proven themselves very adept at detoxifying most of the substances we humans have come up with to make our lives more convenient; storm water management and on-site bioremediation take advantage of this proven capacity of the biosphere to protect itself. Rain gardens and bioswales are the initial conceptual attempts at workable solutions to this additional important functional requirement of the human landscape. The success of these recent landscape adaptations adds credence to the idea that we can at least begin to solve global environmental issues in our own backyard.


Give your landscape a score ranging from 0 to 20 points based on the degree to which your landscape captures and remediates the storm water that runs off your landscape and property in a heavy rain_______.


  1. Does your landscape fully provide for the functional needs of the residents/occupants and other users of the property?

It’s not enough that your landscape solves all of the planet’s environmental problems. In order to get a top score as a green landscape, it also has to be a highly functional landscape for the human beings that live in and around it day in and day out. Are the driveways and parking areas convenient and instinctive to navigate? Do the sidewalks and pathways take you where you want to go comfortably and with appropriate landscape experience? Are the patios, decks and other gathering spaces sized and located functionally within the context of the landscape and the floor plan of the home? These are just a few of the measures of the functionality of a landscape. There should be no tradeoff between function and greenness in a landscape.

Give your landscape a score ranging from 0 to 10 points based on how well your landscape functions for those who use it both regularly and occasionally_______


  1. Do the visual and other sensual qualities of your landscape enrich the lives of its residents/occupants and other users of the property throughout the entire year?


Of course, a really green landscape should be visually attractive as well. That’s the original motivation for landscaping in the first place, isn’t it? In fact, there is every reason to think that a 100%-green landscape will also have high visual appeal. Carbon sequestration requires both high plant mass and ecological health. Species diversity also adds the color, interest and movement of insects, birds and small animals to the landscape canvas. Storm water retention can bring a mini-wetland, with its additional palette of bog plants and wildlife to even a fairly small home landscape, not to mention that it can sustainably increase the effective natural precipitation around which your landscape can be designed. So don’t grade your landscape on a curve just because it’s sustainable and green. Green and beautiful are not contradictory terms.


Give your landscape a score ranging from 0 to 10 points based on how well the visual and other sensual qualities of your landscape enrich the lives of its residents/users and neighbors_______



Possible Score

How Green Is My Landscape

Sustainable irrigation


Carbon sequestration


Species diversity


Storm water mgt. & remediation


Landscape functionality


Landscape aesthetics






Unless you built your home in a wilderness area without disturbing any of the site that was not a part of the building or its driveways and sidewalks, it’s unlikely that your landscape would score higher than a 40% on this “Green Landscape Test”—and most existing landscapes would probably score below 30%.


The point of this green landscape test is not to make you feel bad about your landscape. The point is to have you begin to think about the opportunity you have to do your share to live sustainably on the planet, and to do so without sacrificing anything in terms of the quality of your living environment. Too often we are led to think that living sustainably will require making significant sacrifices to the quality of our life. But, to the contrary, there is every reason to believe that a fully green landscape will cost about the same as a traditional landscape to install, will cost less than traditional landscaping to maintain, and will have far greater livability and visual interest than traditional landscapes.


Dick Meyer is based in Santa Fe. He is an award-winning nurseryman who has worked in the residential and commercial landscape business for the past 30 years, mostly as the owner and manager of his own landscape design build firm. Meyer has actively explored issues of environmental sustainability through his work. 308.641.2010,


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