Turf Magazine - March, 2014

NORTH FEATURES

Where the Wild Things Are

National Wildlife Federation begins certifying wildlife-friendly landscape contractors
By Carol Brzozowski

Genevieve Schmidt works to leave areas of bare soil to provide a nesting place for bees in the gardens of her clients in Humboldt County, Calif.

"Our California native bees are solitary nesters, so if you leave an area of hard-packed bare soil in the landscape, these individual peaceful little bees will burrow this tiny little hole in the soil, live there and come out to pollinate our fruit trees and our vegetable gardens," says Schmidt.

She adds shallow dishes of water in which butterflies can puddle and will connect them to the drip irrigation system so that a small amount of water is always in them. She'll also add other water features to attract frogs and toads, some of these water features having gentle grades to enable other wildlife animals to enter, drink and bathe.

Schmidt, owner of Genevieve Schmidt Landscape Design in Arcata, Calif., specializes in designing and maintaining wildlife-friendly, low-maintenance landscapes using native plants and well-adapted ornamentals. Her approach is part of a growing cadre of landscape professionals who seek to preserve or incorporate wildlife habitat into the landscapes they design or maintain for clients.

While for many landscape professionals it's a core part of their philosophy, their efforts are being encouraged and bolstered by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), which has created a Certified Wildlife Landscaping Professional designation through its Certified Wildlife Habitat program. The benefit to landscape contractors is this: once certified, they are profiled on NWF's searchable database of Certified Wildlife Landscaping Professionals for property owners seeking help in establishing wildlife-friendly landscapes.

The wildlife-friendly landscapes and gardens help keep water and air resources clean, are healthier for people and the environment, and are less resource-dependent than conventional landscapes, the NWF says.

Even though the NWF has maintained relationships with landscaping professionals for years, advising them on how to adapt wildlife-friendly plant materials into their clients' landscapes, the Certified Wildlife Landscaping Professional is in a pilot phase in which 18 landscape professionals are participating by offering advice as well as engaging in the NWF online training program.

"We want other landscape professionals to join us so they can continue to help advise," says Eliza Russell, NWF director of education programs. The organization is aiming for a minimum of 400 landscape professionals participating in the program by August 2014. In order to receive the designation, professionals must "demonstrate a commitment to supporting ecologically sound and wildlife-friendly methods of landscaping in the business," according to the NWF. Landscapers must also submit reviews of their work, including photos and designs, to NWF staff, along with references that demonstrate their intent to create sustainable landscaping that supports the mission of the NWF to protect wildlife "and give them some places, especially in urban areas or suburban areas, to be able to thrive and survive," notes Russell.

No less important, landscape professionals must also demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of the practice of soil conditioning. "If there is going to be modifications of soil, it cannot include a lot of harsh chemicals that may be very damaging to some of the smaller microorganisms as well as other basic levels on the food chain," adds Russell.

Key to providing wildlife-friendly landscapes is an understanding of the role of native plants to wildlife. "Wildlife is so connected to their original food sources. We're not just about natives, but we try to encourage as many natives as possible," says Russell.

But it's not enough to encourage natives, professionals are asked to understand the impact that invasive species have on wildlife in their particular regions of the county. That includes ridding properties of invasive plants that discourage beneficial wildlife. This is done by discovering which plants are on the USDA list of forbidden plants and through the careful application of IPM practices, including the targeted select use of chemical herbicides.

"There is a basic ecology in that everything is a building block to everything else. We start with foundations. How do you address those nuisance species in a proper way versus trying to do a broad approach and deal with one particular issue versus impacting the entire ecosystem," explains Russell. Contractors must pledge that they will not engage in some industry practices, such as the use of pesticides.

Growing demand

Consumer media coverage about the plight of pollinators and the decline of other species has become another driving factor behind property owners making changes on their landscape, Russell says.

"People are clamoring for help. We have a volunteer program that has supplemented that, but we need the additional support and expertise of the professionals," says Russell.

Schmidt, who started her company 17 years ago, offering organic landscape solutions from the beginning, has served as part of the NWF's pilot program for wildlife habitat certification since before its official launch. "When I first joined, they had us go through a number of training programs they had created where we would read materials, watch videos, fill out questionnaires and do activities based on what we had learned," she says. "It was designed to get us thinking about all of the different ways that we could support wildlife."

She settled on her unique "organic solutions" company focus after completing a horticultural program, working for what she describes as a very small organic company and then a company with a traditional chemical approach to landscape maintenance.

"That contrast really showed me the value of hearing bees and inviting the birds and having that connection to the plants and to the wildlife that organic gardening gave me," she adds. "It was something that really touched me in landscape and it became clear to me that that was the direction I wanted my business to go in."

She has three employees who work primarily for the residential sector among Humboldt County's redwoods. Maintenance encompasses organic fertilizing with weeding, raking, pruning and training in the garden beds.

Making the case

Schimdt explains to her clients how native plants attract pollinators and offer food and the refuge for caterpillars that turn into beautiful native butterflies. About 10 percent of Schmidt's clientele are in the commercial sector. For those clients, she focuses on providing woody native plants. "Shrubs and trees are often some of the lowest maintenance plants around and yet they can provide habitat for our native birds and our native insects," she says. She plans to put more emphasis on the value of natives within the commercial property market even though she admits there is concern in that market about an increase in animal feces or an increase in "pesky" bugs as a result of attempts to attract more wildlife such as birds.

"That's been a tough process of learning where I can make a difference and where I need to start a little more slowly," she says.

Even so, there is interest in wildlife-friendly landscapes within the commercial sector.

"Businesses have become very much more environmentally focused in trying to build sustainability both in terms of their services and goods, but also in terms of what is their image to the public," says Russell. "We work with a lot of them to look at their landscaping, especially if they have a large footprint, on how they can do this from a beneficial point of view." For example, Alcoa has transformed open spaces on its property into prairie land to attract wildlife, Russell says.

The creation of wildlife-friendly space also has another benefit, as it is a natural form of stormwater management. "We try to help people in terms of rethinking where they can put in a wetlands garden that may naturally exist because there are areas that can't be mowed and maintained because they're always wet," Russell says. "Companies are being charged a lot more for inefficiencies, so this is the quicker solution for them to change their philosophies," she adds.

Meanwhile, in Maine ...

In Yarmouth, Maine, Seana Cullinan, owner of Larkspur Design, is implementing practices to encourage wildlife habitat on her clients' properties. She and two employees design, install and maintain gardens and small landscapes for the residential and commercial market within a 60-mile radius.

Cullinan is employing approaches she learned while earning a master's degree in sustainable landscape planning and design from the Conway School of Landscape Design in Massachusetts. She is spending the winter educating herself for the NWF certification through its online program.

"My focus in my business is total ecological and sustainable design, so this program is a perfect complement to what I want to do because providing habitat is really important to me," notes Cullinan. To that end, she encourages clients with large lawns to allow a portion of their properties to revert to small meadows so some of the native plants can come back and bloom.

"I encourage people to have some wildflowers coming up on their property. That provides habitat and nectar for a lot of native insects," she says. Also, during fall cleanups, she leaves some of the beneficial native dead flowers intact so that birds can eat the seeds and native insects live in the hollow stems.

Cullinan acknowledges that some wildlife, deer for example, can be a big nuisance to property owners. She points out there are ways humans and wildlife can co-exist. The NWF endeavors to address concerns over the so-called nuisance species.

"You need to build in some boundary spaces and manage for that," Russell of the NWF says.

For her part, Cullinan recommends that clients experiencing a deer problem should consider growing hedges that are both prickly and thorny but also provide food for the deer on the edges of their properties. This can be successful in keeping deer visible, and also at bay. In general, strips of "wild" landscaping on the edges of properties can offer food and habitat for pests that would normally come into a garden, she adds.

For smaller animals such as rabbits, plants such as allium provide color while deterring wildlife. Garlic and other aromatics also will serve the purpose. "If you mix them in with flowers, there is a better chance of keeping the rabbits out of the garden beds," Cullinan says.

Not All Wildlife Are Welcome

As families move farther away from city centers and into more rural areas, they come into more contact with wildlife. Most of these property owners enjoy the "back to nature" feel of their new neighborhoods. They enjoy seeing colorful birds and the occasional visit by other harmless wild critters. But, almost without exception, they come to dread the appearance of deer on their properties and hate what deer do to their landscapes. Hungry deer love to eat many landscape ornamentals, and very hungry deer will eat just about any plant. Read next month's issue of Turf magazine as business writer Carol Brzozowski, a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, shares valuable strategies for dealing with deer problems.

Changing perceptions

Like other landscape contractors, Cullinan has heard the criticism that wildlife-friendly landscapes, which rely significantly on organic approaches, cost more money and take more time to yield results.

"It's a combination of a perception and education issue," she points out. "This is a huge movement. People are starting to learn that if you start applying organic methods and are patient for a couple of seasons, it starts to pay off. It's a matter of Americans having to shift their perception of what is a perfect lawn. A healthy, thriving lawn may not be perfect Kentucky bluegrass."

Curbed enthusiasm

While wildlife-friendly landscapes may seem like in innocuous approach to designing and maintaining an environment, not everyone shares that same enthusiasm. In fact, doing so may create dissension in a neighborhood that favors uniformity.

Such was the case with a Longwood, Fla., man who accumulated nearly $130,000 in city code enforcement fines for growing edibles and not mowing his lawn. He invoked the "Florida Friendly Landscape" law that promotes environmentally sustainable practices that conserve water, protect the environment and don't require chemicals. He also favors the "Do Nothing Farming" teachings of the late Masanobu Fukuoka, which encompasses no weeding, tilling, pruning, pesticides or fertilizers.

According to the Orlando Sentinel newspaper, the property owner is creating a natural environment for life while growing edibles. However, neighbors say the yard's tree stumps, tall grass, weeds and unkempt fruit and vegetable plants are an eyesore that attracts mosquitoes, ants, moles and rats.

Schmidt says there's a compromise, and it begins with a good design.

"Sometimes I think when we are being eco-friendly and we have a mission that we can lose sight of the importance of good design to the people around us," she says. "If you can show people that through attention to good design, you are trying to fit in while also making a difference, that can go a long way."

The NWF works with a number of local and county governments on weed ordinances. Austin, Texas, for example, adopted weed ordinances after engaging in the NWF Community Wildlife Habitat program.

"You do need to have prairies and so forth, but there's appropriate landscaping for their area. They modified it," says Russell. "We work on an individual basis to help people understand an aesthetic look of a European green lawn is not always what should be the natural landscape, especially in the desert or some of the high-temperature areas because it will not survive. It uses up a lot more resources to try to maintain it from a successful standpoint."

Russell points out that NWF-driven ordinances should not be "an excuse to do whatever you want. You still need a habitat area. These wildlife areas still have to have management. They're not just a free pass to let you never mow your grass again. That's not beneficial for the wildlife, either."

The bottom line

Schmidt points out that providing wildlife-friendly gardening by "going natural" does not threaten a landscape professional's revenues.

"From a maintenance perspective, we still do a lot of similar tasks. There is just as much regular care overall," she says. "You focus on doing things differently. Instead of doing a whole lot of weeding or spraying, maybe we would put down some bark. We still do all of the pruning, training and regular care of primping the garden. We would just be doing that with native plants. We're not cutting ourselves out of a job to promote these practices. There is a benefit in giving our clients a greater appreciation of the connection between wildlife and the gardens we are creating. I think they are more invested in having it kept nice because they are appreciating what we are doing out there," Schmidt says.

The Certified Wildlife Landscaping Professional designation helps landscape professionals stand out among their competitors, Russell says, adding that the NWF is often approached for advice on how to properly design and maintain a wildlife-friendly landscape.

"One of the reasons we created this program was to certify people and do spot checks on them throughout the year to ensure they are keeping up with helping people. It's an added benefit to them to have credentials from us, which also helps them to get referrals because of their listing with us," says Russell.

Future prospects

While Schmidt is unsure how wildlife-friendly landscaping practices will fare going forward, she supports any efforts to strengthen the cause.

"We need more people developing a wave of doing some of these practices," she says. Schmidt believes if every homeowner set aside 10 percent of their yard by providing some native plants and sources of water for wildlife, "those are the kinds of things I think could make an enormous difference to the wildlife that we see and we could prevent them from going extinct.

"Having additional pollinators to our vegetable and fruit gardens will increase the quality of our own lives as well as increasing the quality of all of these wonderful little beasts with which we share our world."

Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at brzozowski.carol@gmail.com.