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Building A Sustainable Landscape for Learning

Brian K. Maynard and Marion S. Gold

Dept. of Plant Sciences and Cooperative Extension Center
University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI 02881

A paper from the Proceedings of the 10th Metropolitan Tree Improvement Alliance (METRIA) Conference held in St. Louis, MO, September 30 and October 1, 1998, co-sponsored by the Landscape Plant Development Center and the Society of Municipal Arborists.


Following the old adage that "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure", northeastern nurseries and garden centers have joined forces with the University of Rhode Island (URI) Sustainable Landscapes Program to promote the growth and sales of low maintenance, disease and insect resistant plants that will flourish without pesticides.

The Sustainable Landscapes Program began in the early 1990s as an outgrowth of Rhode Island's Integrated Pest Management (RI-IPM) program. Nationwide, in 1993 alone, homeowners spent more than $1.2 billion on pesticides for the home and garden. In a densely populated state such as Rhode Island, non-agricultural use of pesticides may even exceed agricultural pesticide use. The proper choice of plant material could substantially reduce the amount of money spent on pesticides and the even larger amount ($30 billion) spent on lawn maintenance each year (EPA Pesticide Industry Sales and Usage 1994). Early on, URI Plant Sciences Faculty realized that one of most effective approaches to avoiding pesticide misuse by untrained consumers would be to promote disease and insect resistant plants.

Sustainable Plant List

The first step in the program was the development of a comprehensive list of sustainable trees and shrubs. In 1993, URI Cooperative Extension (CE) faculty and staff, working with horticultural experts throughout the northeast, published the first edition of Sustainable Trees and Shrubs for Southern New England. The list highlights nearly 200 trees and shrubs hardy to USDA zone 6 or colder, that come with "less baggage" than many old favorites: fewer insect and disease problems, less maintenance required, slower growing and more dependable, and non-invasive.

The list was distributed to green industry professionals including garden centers, landscape designers, and growers. Word of the publication also soon caught the attention of the gardening public. The publication has been very popular, with over 5,000 copies distributed since its debut in 1993. Revisions of the plant list, as well as the addition of chapters on plant selection and planting for sustainability, have been undertaken twice since. The most recent revision expanded the pallet of plants to over 300, and added color photographs and high quality graphics. With this positive result, however, came a "Catch 22", as many plants on the list were either new in the trade or uncommon, a source of frustration to consumers, producers and garden centers alike.

Working with Growers to Increase Supply

To remedy the "Catch 22" we helped create, URI, working with the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association and an advisory board of growers, garden center managers and other horticulturists, initiated a multifaceted project to increase the supply of selected sustainable plants and to make it easier for gardeners to locate sustainable plant material. The effort, known as the Sustainable Landscapes Program, was supported by a USDA Northeast Regional IPM grant.

The Sustainable Landscapes Program began by selecting a subset of the 194 plants on the sustainable plant list to promote to the northeastern nursery and landscape industry for 1997/98. Working a group of nine cooperators, trial blocks of the plants were provided to nurseries so that they could evaluate production potential and marketability. This allowed nurseries to try growing some new trees and shrubs for which consumer demand was uncertain without bearing great financial risk. URI researchers assisted the growers in evaluating insect and disease problems and monitoring associated production costs.

Sustainable Landscapes Program Cooperating Nurseries

Plants selected for promotion the first year included several that would serve as excellent substitutes for popular but pest-prone plants. For example, in the summer of 1998, RI growers planted over 600 Western hemlocks (Tsuga heterophylla). The Western hemlock is resistant to the hemlock woolly adelgid, a scale insect that is ravaging Eastern and Canadian hemlocks, both in landscape and forested settings.

"We're looking forward to trying these plants," says Central Nurseries' Jimmy Pagliarini. "In the long run, this should be a win-win project that will benefit local nurseries, as well as the consumer looking for a reliable tree for their yard."

Sustainable Plants to Be Grown by Cooperating Nurseries - 1997/98

Learning Landscape Demonstration Gardens

In conjunction with the work with the growers, we have developed, with URI Cooperative Extension Center personnel and volunteers from the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association, a new landscape built on the site of an outdated annual trial garden. In this beautiful setting on the URI campus, sustainable trees, shrubs and landscaping practices are showcased in a 2-acre demonstration garden. Known as the Learning Landscape, the site provides a living classroom for members of the green industry, as well as for the general public and students from kindergarten through graduate school. Educational programs in the gardens demonstrate practical cultural methods for reducing the excessive use of pesticides and nutrients in the home landscape without sacrificing the quality of home lawns and garden. This site came into being in 1993 and has been added to and refined each fall by the students in PLS 306, Arboriculture and Landscape Management.

The gardens include: lawns planted with turf mixtures incorporating drought tolerance and insect-resistance; a vegetable garden and ornamental plantings which showcase disease and insect resistant varieties; a small orchard featuring disease resistant fruits and IPM methods; composting demonstrations; a water garden; a native plant area; a fragrance garden; a low-maintenance ericaceous garden; and extensive low-maintenance perennial beds. The formal garden area has been planted with 35 trees, funded through an America the Beautiful grant. A stone commencement area constructed in 1995 by Landscape Architecture students is renowned now as the prettiest location on campus for graduation and weddings.

The Learning Landscape is designed to be a place of beauty which naturally attracts audiences, who then get a subtle education on pest management and sustainable landscaping. The demonstration gardens have been remarkably successful, serving as a site for college commencements, receptions, growers group meetings, field days and many educational tours. Interpretive signage for the gardens is under development. The signs will focus on the IPM and sustainable landscape management principles which underlie the garden design and maintenance practices.

Public Education Campaign

URI CE staff conduct an ongoing public education campaign on sustainable landscaping. Sustainable trees and shrubs and landscaping tips are regularly featured on twice-weekly television spots known as the "URI Plant Pro." The segments, produced by the NBC affiliate station in Rhode Island (WJAR), are filmed on location in the URI Learning Landscape Gardens, reaching an estimated 65,000 households on the Monday noon news and 60,000 on a Saturday morning news show.

In addition to the television spots, URI CE publishes a regular column in the Providence Journal, Rhode Island's largest newspaper. The column, called "Growing Green," features gardening and home landscape topics from a sustainable perspective.

The URI GreenShare Newsletter provides a regular channel to transmit information to members of the green industry. The newsletter provides the latest information on insect and disease problems and highlights plants that are resistant to these problems. A sustainable landscape brochure and fact sheets on individual sustainable plants round out available written materials.

University staff also developed a traveling exhibit on the project to take to the major trade shows in New England. In 1996, this expanded into sponsoring a display garden at two major regional flower and garden shows. Though time-consuming to put in place, the display gardens offer an unparalleled opportunity to introduce the gardening public and horticultural professionals to sustainable plants and landscape concepts in an enjoyable context.

Coming Soon: A Bigger, Better Sustainable Plant List

URI extension faculty also have initiated an update of Sustainable Trees and Shrubs for Southern New England. The revision, the third and most in-depth, since publication of the manual in 1993, will feature a well-researched list of salt-tolerant woody plants as well as lists of sustainable perennials and vines. Over 5,000 copies of the list have been distributed to growers, landscape architects, landscapers and homeowners. In addition, thousands have accessed the list on the WWW.

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