July 15 2020 06:00 AM

His research in water management shows how plants, soil and water work together.

Photos: Jordan Whitt

Designing irrigation and water management solutions is more than just a job for Larry Cammarata, CIC, CID, CLIA, CLIM, CLWM. It’s a path that has taken him from his home city of Indianapolis around the world and back on a mission to help people understand the important relationship between plants, soil and water.

Cammarata is principal of Certified Consultants Ltd., where he’s worked as a horticultural sustainability and water management consultant for the last 40 years designing, managing and installing water management systems.

His journey began at Purdue University in 1976 where he studied turfgrass and landscape architecture.

“My vision was to find a unique niche within the horticultural industry that would allow me to make a huge difference,” says Cammarata. “I found that my interest in water management was relevant to the entirety of the landscape industry, including agricultural, stormwater and rainwater management.”

Summers in college were spent interning in Chicago surveying golf courses and nurseries, where he began to notice a pattern.

“Clients I serviced showed a tremendous interest in acquiring sustainability and water management knowledge,” he says. During these summers, he realized the industry lacked proper training in horticultural knowledge, which motivated him to become an expert.

After graduating from Purdue, he designed irrigation for vineyards, orchards, greenhouses and nurseries. In these agricultural settings, he began to see how irrigation was more than simply getting water to crops. It was dependent on the soil and plants.

“For example, in vineyards, if I took one certain grape variety and I found them using it in four different soil types, the production of the grape development was completely different in every soil,” explains Cammarata. “I began to notice that it wasn’t so much how much water I put on to make the plant grow. It was a combination of the type of soil, how it does or doesn’t hold water and how it releases water. It depended on whether the plants were on a hill or flat plain, and on growing stages, whether it was in a flowering stage or crop development stage.”

Taking his agricultural-based understanding of soil, he took a holistic approach called the plant-soil-water continuum and applied it in the landscape irrigation industry. After working several years for Brickman Group, now Brightview Holdings Inc., he opened Certified Consultants in 1988, where he continues to use and teach this same approach today.

Bringing elements together

Cammarata believes the biggest issue the green industry faces is approaching plants, soil and water separately. In landscape design, he says the big focus tends to be on aesthetic beauty, like flower and plant types, but he rarely sees designs intersecting with a great soil understanding. Similarly in irrigation, he says there are some contractors who focus on getting jobs done as quickly and cheaply as possible.

“Everywhere within the field, we have our own little piece, but we have never developed an understanding of the big picture,” he says.

His initial step to irrigation design doesn’t have anything to do with water, but it has everything to do with studying the soil and plants. When hired to do an irrigation design, the first questions he asks are: What are the plants being grown? Where are they placed within the landscape? What kind of soil will they be grown in? What side of the building are they on? What’s the sun exposure?

“I get all the plants and soil configuration questions done before I even talk one word about irrigation and water supplementing it,” says Cammarata.

Cammarata describes a site he recently worked at in Illinois where the turf quality and overall condition of a landscape was in decline. He was hired to do a landscape sustainability audit, where he studied the soil, the irrigation system and reviewed the plant material.

“What I found was the soils had a high water retention rate because the site was actually a housing development that was built upon a swamp,” says Cammarata.

Because the soil at the site was never studied prior to construction, they installed a typical landscape design using plant material that would never grow properly in the highly saturated soil. The irrigation system was also set up to simply throw water and get everything wet, he says.

First, Cammarata showed the client how to mend the soil, give it a little bit more airspace and make it more usable. Then they found plants and trees that would work in the soil conditions. Last, he addressed the irrigation issue by using soil moisture monitoring to really know the soil conditions before applying water to it.

Keeping soil healthy

If you want a landscape to be truly green on the outside, the best method is to make sure the soils are alive and active, says Cammarata.

Many management practices focus on making landscapes look good on the outside. But, Cammarata says this is often done in a way that makes the soil unhealthy because they block off air from all the beneficial organisms. When these organisms can’t breathe, they die, and after five to 10 years of this, the soils are dead, the root systems are shallow, and fungus, mold and mildew take over.

“We want the outside to look good. But while the outside looks good, we’re killing the inside,” he says. What he teaches through sustainable practices is that by improving the soil environment for those organisms, the healthier the soil will be. That will in turn show itself on the outside of the landscape.

“The irrigation system is not the savior of the landscape, the soil is,” says Cammarata. “We’re not talking about dirt. We’re talking about thousands of different types of bacteria and microbials and things that live in every square foot of soil. We’re talking about all those microorganisms designed to attach the root systems to care for the plants.”

He explains that if an irrigation system is designed correctly and managed well, you’ll use that irrigation system less and less every year. This is because you’ll have a landscape that will have deeper root systems and require less pesticides, herbicides and nutritional development.

“The irrigation is to be a supplemental tool to give the soils the water it needs when it needs it and only in the quantities that it needs and nothing more,” says Cammarata.

Teaching others

Consulting is just one of the roles Cammarata has in the industry. He is also an adjunct professor at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, where he teaches irrigation design and sustainability. For the past seven years, he’s shown landscape management students how to understand these subjects from the plant-soil-water approach.

In addition to Cammarata’s teaching experience in the classroom, he develops training programs for national green industry companies. From local one- to two-branch operations to companies with upwards of 90 branches, his training focuses on helping employees develop in the art of water management.

Cammarata also travels the country speaking at different industry association events and teaching workshops on the plant-soil-water continuum. Cammarata serves on the Irrigation Association Certification Board and serves as the board chairman and formerly served on the board of directors for the association from 1993 to 1996. He is also a member of the U.S. Green Building Council, helping to refine LEED processes.

Through his involvement with these associations and organizations, Cammarata hopes to make a positive impact on industry-wide water management standards and practices. It’s also allowed him to form many relationships with people along the way. Cammarata welcomes the opportunity to be a resource and regularly talks to contractors around the country who contact him with questions about plant, soil and irrigation issues.

While Cammarata has worked for corporations, resorts, hospitals and more, one of his most personally meaningful projects took place in his own Indianapolis neighborhood, Brookside.

“One of my neighbors bought a dilapidated house that had two empty lots next to it,” he explains. “He redid the house and then a couple other neighbors said, ‘Hey, let’s build a baseball field on the other two lots.’” More neighbors joined in, paying for a fence, bleachers and a concession stand.

“I designed the irrigation system and got manufacturers to donate all the products. I got three irrigation companies, one from Ohio and two from Indianapolis, to help come and put the system in,” he says. “Basically, neighbor helping neighbor, we’ve developed a baseball and whiffle ball field for the kids to use and play in the neighborhood.”

Using his experience and knowledge, Cammarata has volunteered for many of what he calls “passion projects.” Every year, he travels internationally, completing agricultural irrigation designs, cistern designs and rainwater collection projects. Different schools and organizations regularly reach out to him asking him to design projects for orphanages, schools and prisons, in countries that include Belize, India, Kenya, Nicaragua, Haiti and Zambia.

One of these projects was completed last year for Global Orphan Foundation, a nonprofit in Indianapolis, that reached out to him to design a rainwater collection system and irrigation system in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The rainwater collection system gathered water from 16 buildings in an orphanage, which was then stored and transferred to a larger facility using solar power. Here, they were able to purify it, clean it and, by gravity, send it back to the same houses to use for drinking water and showers. The irrigation system was used to water a village vegetable farm. Cammarata says these projects are about more than just providing an answer to a problem. It’s about teaching the people working alongside him about the solution, whether it’s how to maintain water quality, collect rainwater or any of the other waterrelated challenges they face.

Cammarata knows without his background in agriculture and horticulture, he wouldn’t have had such a unique career and be able to travel the country and world sharing his knowledge and experience.

“Because I have taken the plant-soilwater approach, it has given me greater opportunities to learn and teach and go places where people need that combination and they don’t know how to put it together,” he says. “It’s my passion that, before God takes me home, I’ve trained thousands of people to do it right. That’s my biggest motivation.”

The author is digital content editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at sarahbunyea@igin.com.