As professionals who earn our living working with the soil, we, at times, don’t take full advantage of Mother Nature.

We’re in the business of building and maintaining landscapes; however, every once in awhile we get an opportunity to not only build and maintain a landscape, but to do it in a way that works with the environment.

Such was the case with Gardeners’ Guild of Richmond, California.

About three years ago, they were asked to bid on the construction of an eco-green sustainable landscape on a residential property.

Twenty-five years ago, Gardeners’ Guild began working with sustainable landscapes, starting with bugs. “Years ago, most people felt that the way to fix an insect problem was to spray with chemicals,” says Kevin Davis, chief operations officer.

“Pest management was the first step in our ‘sustainable landscape’ approach. In fact, we brought in an entomologist to help develop a less toxic program, whereby we substituted beneficial bugs and organic fertilizer for pesticides and chemical fertilizers,” Davis said.

“From there, we just kept going, and through trial and error we developed an entire sustainable landscape program. We call it ‘LivingSolutions.’ We take a science-based approach when working with a landscape. We focus on soil health and put great emphasis on irrigation efficiency.”

Over the years, they have developed a sustainable maintenance program that includes ongoing monitoring of plants and irrigation systems and continuous testing of the soil.

With this particular property, the Gardeners’ Guild faced a challenge. The project was to build an eco-friendly landscape for a high-end residential estate that had a Mediterranean theme. To complicate matters, it was being built at a time when the area was plagued by drought and under strict water conservation regulations. Gardeners’ Guild decided to use organic materials wherever available, as that too would help conserve water. Fortunately, the homeowners were aware of the restrictions and they really wanted an eco-green sustainable landscape.

Surrounding the house, 12,000 square feet of outside area would be devoted to the landscape, which would include landscape lighting, water effects, and patios.

“Before we installed the first plant, before we turned the soil, we first performed a baseline soil assessment and comprehensive chemical and physical analysis of the property to check the health of the soil,” explained Davis. “A healthy soil creates healthy plants that won’t need chemical fertilizers or pesticides to maintain their vigor and appearance. It also increases the plant’s drought tolerance and disease resistance.”

Once the soil had been tested, the next step was to amend the soil. “We blended in microbial inoculants and alfalfa meal to achieve optimal soil fertility,” says Davis.

“However, the fundamental organic product we use is worm castings.

The castings slowly release nutrients needed for healthy plant growth and increase production rates. They also help fight off disease and pests, as well as helping to improve the water-holding capacity of the soil, which helps reduce runoff,” he said.

The next step of the company’s sustainable practice was to perform an irrigation system diagnostic and initiate an ongoing water management program. Using smart weather-based controllers and installing a low-volume irrigation system throughout the property was a top priority.

“With a property as large as this one, the landscape usually requires more water than the average property,” says Davis. “In Marin County, we have some of the most expensive water in the state of California.

It’s allocated based on a tiered-rate system: the more water you use, the higher the tier and the more expensive the water.”

“This site just passed its two-year audit for what is called a Tier-4 exemption,” explained Davis,” and is maintained using the lowest possible amount of water without compromising the plants’ health. Passing the audit by the Marin Municipal Water District qualifies the client for the less expensive Tier-3 water rate for the next two years.”

Selecting the proper plant material, using natives and drought-tolerant plants, is another part of the total program. More than 20 different plants were used on the site. In addition, permeable pavers were used for the patio, so the water could trickle down into the soil and not run off the property.

Once all of the elements were in place, Gardeners’ Guild spent the next three months making certain that everything was growing and thriving. “We have a 90-day establishment period built into the construction portion of the work,” says Davis. “In other words, we own the landscape for 90 days after we’ve installed it.”

It was a good start, and after 90 days, Gardeners’ Guild was awarded the maintenance contract; they have been maintaining the property for the past two years. Recently, Gardeners’ Guild was honored with the Sweepstakes Award for best in the landscape maintenance category by the North Coast Chapter of the California Landscape Contractors Association.

“Maintaining a sustainable landscape isn’t that much different from the weekly maintenance on other landscapes,” says Davis. “But when you eliminate chemical fertilizers and pesticides from your maintenance tool box, some landscapes may involve more labor, for things like basic weed control. Your crew may have to physically bend down and do a bit more weed pulling by hand than you would if you were using an herbicide. So there are some elevated labor needs with a more sustainable program, and possibly a small 6% to 10% increase in the cost of using organic products. But

in the end, it’s really worth the savings of water and the environment.”

Gardeners’ Guild is an employee-owned landscape management company, servicing both commercial as well as residential landscapes throughout the San Francisco Bay area.

The company truly provides LivingSolutions for your landscape.