Monday, August 6, 2012

What is Sustainable Gardening? My Test Case with Surprising Results

Replacing an old juniper hedge with a beautiful flowering, edible rosemary hedge that bees love is a good thing, right? In my sustainability analysis I'm surprised at my conclusions, but at peace with my decision.

Sustainability: What it is
What is meant by sustainable practices? At its core, it means taking into account the impacts of our actions on the environment, on people, and on economic concerns, so that we don't compromise the future. Deciding on whether to replace my standard- issue suburban juniper hedge with a rosemary hedge turned out to be a good test case. Here's why:

Sustainable gardening puts to use the principles of sustainability, and there is actually a document to point to for these so called Hannover Principles, also known as, a "Bill of Rights for the Planet", which are used as guidelines. They are credited to William McDonnell Architects and were developed for an  EXPO held in Hannover, Germany.

Recently I had a chance to apply these principles to my hedge replacement plan. I took a short course on  sustainable practices  through my horticultural program this summer and it was a good eye-opener that got me thinking deeper about my own approach to gardening. I have to give credit to instructor Frank Niccoli, a sustainable landscaper who teaches in my Environmental Horticulture and Design program.

My Test Case
We inherited the junipers when we bought our suburban home, and I've never found them attractive, in fact they irritate me.  They don't flower, they are prickly, and I don't like their odor. They are leftovers of gardening practices popular in the 50's and came with our house.  In contrast, rosemary is an attractive shrub with lovely sky blue to purple flowers that attract bees, has a wonderful fragrance, is useful in the kitchen and can be pruned into a hedge. It's also drought tolerant. On the surface it seems like an obvious decision to go ahead with my replacement scheme.

But I applied sustainable principles in analyzing my plan and I was surprised at my conclusions. See if you agree.

My Analysis
To remove the juniper hedge I would have to:

1. Pay someone to take out a row several feet long of these shrubs.
2. Pay to have the roots removed so that I could plant something in their place; leaving any roots means they might grow back.
3. Pay to have the waste from the shrubs be disposed of at the dump, because they cannot be used for mulch.

4. The energy use involved in removal and transportation to the dump are costs to the environment (pollution and use of petroleum based non-renewal energy).
5. The truckload of yard waste is needlessly adding to the landfill, which is a societal cost, since garbage keeps coming, but landfill space is limited.

The Benefits of Doing Nothing
Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing; here are the arguments for keeping the junipers:

1. The juniper shrubs have the advantage of being drought tolerant which is very important in my dry California climate.
2. There are currently no monetary or environmental costs to keeping the juniper hedge as is (I've been hand-pruning for the past several years).

My Conclusion
Sadly for my rosemary hedge fantasy, the resources required to replace the junipers with something I happen to like better far out weigh the benefits. Part of the equation is that I already have several rosemary bushes that provide herbs for my kitchen and flowers for bees. I also grow a profusion of other herbs and flowering plants that benefit my garden ecosystem.

Thinking in a New Way
“Sustainable design is not a reworking of conventional approaches, and technologies, but a fundamental change in thinking and in ways of operating–you cannot put spots on an elephant and call it a cheetah.”
- Carol Franklin, Andropogan Associates LTD.
A sustainable approach to gardening and to our lifestyles in general, means that we take a global approach to everything we do by weighing the impacts. For the gardener this means that we consider the inputs and the outputs of our home gardening practices. This simply means  that a minimum, we think carefully about the types of plants that we grow and landscape with, fertilizers we use, and what we do with garden waste.

In my test case the arguments in favor of replacing the juniper hedge with pollinator-attracting rosemary are weak when considered in the context of my particular garden.

Therefore, the junipers will live to see another day and having realized the real costs, it's a decision I can live with.

Photo: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke


  1. A great post about sometimes going with the status quo! I have to admit that since we moved out into the sticks on 4 acres of overgrown jungle our own horticultural adventures have skewed to the survival rather than the exotic. No longer do we hunt out rare and exotic species but waterwise, endemic and edible are our new creed. I guess you evolve as gardeners and when you are applying sustainable gardening techniques, you soon learn that what wont survive on minimal to no watering and within your local conditions, is NOT for your garden. Sad but true and I wish we had discovered this BEFORE we spent so much on so many potted plants...oh well...we have gifts for years to come! :)

  2. Ah yes, this is how we learn! In years past I've made gardening mistakes that I find embarrassing now- and now I do my research before planting something new and unfamilar. But I do like the "formula" of the three categories you mention: water-wise ornamentals (mediterranean type), natives, and edibles.
    I've found that it makes for a thriving garden ecosystem.

    thanks for writing!
    Patricia - urban artichoke


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