NATURE'S WAY
Sustaining the Landscape

by Lakin Khan

Garden bench at ETCSoon enough the dry days will outnumber the wet, and we'll relegate our Wellies and raincoats to the back porch for their hard-earned summer respite. But for now, umbrellas are staying in the car and sandals in the closet. One day a few weeks ago, during a welcome though brief intermission between bouts of drizzle and spitting rain, I splashed over to the Environmental Technology Building to meet Frederique Lavoipierre, the recently hired Director of the Sustainable Landscape Professional Certificate Program.

We sat on a protected bench in front of the ETC; nearby lavender gleamed in the sudden benediction of sun. In front of us most of the community garden marinated under a soggy winter blanket of brown leaves and mulch; every so often the rich, fecund smell of leaves becoming soil wafted our way. It was a fitting location, Lavoipierre told me, for the sustainable landscape movement grew out of the green building concept. "It was as if, once the buildings were designed and built, we looked out the windows and saw the next step," she said.

Although the idea and plans for a Sustainable Landscaping Program have been around for years, this is its inaugural semester.  The program is aimed at professional landscapers, gardeners and home-owners alike, who are interested in learning about healthier ways to design and manage our yards, gardens and greenbelts. Classes such as Soil Resources, Water Resources, Ecological Principles and Site Management, among others, are offered; students have a year to complete the program, including a project.

"I expect most students will come in with a project or garden in mind," Lavoipierre said and gestured toward the dormant garden "but if they don't, there are plots here they can use."  I couldn't help but think that our entire campus could be a worthy project. Planting  water-thrifty native species, implementing composting and mulching practices and integrated pest management should cut down on demands for water, soil amendments, pesticides and herbicides, thus reducing landscaping costs, a big plus in the upcoming budget-crunch year.

Sustainable Landscaping is one of a variety of terms that refer to practices that adhere to basic ecological principles. It means to work within the local eco-system, not against it, seeking to minimize drain on local water and soil resources, avoid releasing toxic chemicals or invasive species, and provide habitat for native wildlife who find their territories growing slimmer and slimmer as we and our suburbs expand into rural areas and wildlands.

Sustainable landscaping implies that our manipulated and designed landscapes can sustain and support the local eco-system, providing sustenance, shelter, beauty and joy to humans and animals alike; it implies that the landscapes can be sustained easily because they've been designed to cooperate with the environment.

Although dealing with plants, soil, rocks and water, traditional landscaping practices can't always be deemed "natural," sustainable or even beneficial in the long run. Rather than build around and within the constraints of the local environment, traditional landscaping often seeks to create the handsome lawns and gardens that thrive in water-rich environments, a practice driven by home-owners and clients who want the typical American yard, with little regard to the over-strained, meager water supply of our semi-arid, Mediterranean climate.

They modify the land to accommodate the non-native plants, using fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, rather than fit the plants and plans to the land. The amendments might keep the lawns perky and vibrant, but the chemical run-off infiltrates the water supply; affecting indigenous plants, insects, reptiles, amphibians, fish and mammals, altering the food chain and skewing the habitat-web. Some of the imported plant species, like Scotch Broom, water hyacinth or ice plants can thrive too well and became invasive, crowding native species out of their niches.

The loss of native plants then becomes a lack of necessary food and/or shelter for the more particular native insects and animals that have co-evolved within this habitat. As habitats shrink or become noxious, so go those species.

Much has been learned over the years about our effect on our environment and different ways to mitigate it. Programs such as this Sustainable Landscape Professional Certificate can hasten the spread of accurate knowledge and the implementation of sustainable, regenerative practices. There sure is high interest, for the response from the community, both among professionals and non-professionals, has been thrilling, Lavoipierre says.  

The rain clouds thinned as we sat, the soft music of dripping bushes and eaves surrounding us. But as the sky darkened and the wind picked up, pushing the branches around and stirring up trouble amongst the soaked leaves, we hustled back to Darwin Hall where our umbrellas waited patiently, leaving the garden to revel in all that the weather and new students would bring.

For more information on the Sustainable Landscape Professional Certificate Program, please go to http://www.sonoma.edu/sustainablelandscape/.

 

When not out taking notes around campus, Lakin Khan works as an Administrative Coordinator in the Biology Department. Her essay, "Chalk Talk," inspired by the Darwin remodel and move, was recently published in Tiny Lights, a Journal of Personal Essay. She is also the Fiction Assistant for the Napa Valley Writers' Conference, held each year during the last week of July. Khan can be reached at lakin.khan@sonoma.edu

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