Managing city parks can sometimes seem like choreographing a circus performance. Each day involves juggling personnel and fiscal resources; balancing visitor expectations against budget constraints; and walking an environmental tightrope.
When it comes to landscaping, park managers also face the same general challenges:
• Fiscally responsible water use
• Rising costs for maintenance
• Soil and water contamination from fertilizer and pesticide applications
• Competition for available resources
• Dwindling finances
• Shrinking landfill capacity.
The Texas AgriLife Extension Service (part of Texas A & M) has spent the last 20 years developing a complete landscaping system that allows park departments to showcase beautiful landscapes, and overcome the horticultural challenges that accompany their operations.
The Earth-Kind Landscape Management System is a simple and universal approach that allows park departments to:
• Reduce irrigation in landscape beds by 50 to 75 percent
• Eliminate fertilization in all areas except turf, and in all soil types (with the possible exception of desert climates where limited fertilizer applications may be necessary)
• Reduce pesticide applications by 98 percent
• Redirect recyclable plant materials into the landscape (conserving landfill space)
• Use plant materials and landscape practices scientifically proven to work
• Create beautiful places that people want to visit.
The landscape-management system emulates how nature manages a mature forest, and combines soil native to the planting site with materials that are heat/drought tolerant, winter-hardy and tolerant of alkaline clay soils, and have exhibited the highest genetic tolerance to disease and insect damage. Roses were the flagship plant group researched under the Earth-Kind umbrella.
The system provides a vehicle for cities to become proactive environmental stewards through an approach based on years of rigorous scientific research that has been peer-reviewed and published nationally and internationally.
Farmers Branch, Texas
Farmers Branch is the home of the National Earth-Kind Rose Research site, adjacent to city hall. When it was proposed that 400 rose bushes be planted at the mayor’s front door and then be given almost no care, one can understand the concerns of city leaders.
In a partnership between the Houston Rose Society and Texas AgriLife Extension, the city committed a 2-acre field as a site for the research project, and the bushes were available in February 2008. More than 3,000 people attended the grand opening, and 1,000 children went home with their own rose bush as part of the festivities.
“The … rose garden is an inspiring corner of our community,” explains Gary Greer, city manager. “It has created beauty, not only in terms of the aesthetics of the park, but also in the positive spirit of our citizens. It created a rallying interest in environmental gardening and roses throughout every neighborhood.”
Within an hour of the grand opening, 60 families adopted every row in the garden, and committed to weed their row for at least a year. Driving through the neighborhoods, one can see many of the same roses from the research trial proudly displayed. Residents will also boast to visitors that “their roses” have never been sprayed, fertilized, pruned, or deadheaded, and “their” bushes were only watered three times in 2010!
Pride in this project is contagious.
“Our park crew loves the color and the low-maintenance requirements of the garden. This landscaping approach has given them the tools they need to make their properties showpieces,” says Pam Smith, Landscape Manager.
“That their efforts have kept almost 5,000 yards of tree trimmings out of our landfills and recovered that material to be used as mulch for our planting beds is even more reason for them to be proud. The recycling of plant material into mulch saves taxpayers $18,000 a year!”
And the garden attracts 1,700 visitors a month to the town.
“Our involvement with the … program began with the city manager’s emphasis on responsible water use,” explains Slade Strickland, director of Addison’s parks and recreation.
“In 2003, our park department was the town’s largest water consumer with an annual water bill of about $400,000 for 160 irrigated acres. Besides a high water bill, we were incurring tremendous expense for fertilizer, and we had high plant replacement and labor costs to maintain those acres.”
That year, the park department installed an Earth-Kind Rose Trial. The only maintenance provided during the first year was occasional weed control, three mulch applications and watering 12 times. In the second year, irrigation was reduced to once a month during the summer.
“This inexpensive trial yielded great benefits,” boasts Strickland. “Overall, we saw a 70-pecent reduction in water usage. We completely eliminated pesticide applications, reduced labor costs by 50 percent, and eliminated the potential for soil/water contamination. [It] has taught us to be more efficient about how we manage our parks.”
Myers Park is the site of Texas’ first Earth-Kind Perennial Trial, as well as several other research projects studying crape myrtles, roses, vegetables and forage grasses. A 3-year master plan includes additional trial plantings of grasses, herbs, vines, shrubs, groundcovers, turf, a fruit/nut orchard and a vineyard. A rainwater harvesting system was installed by the Collin County Master Gardeners under the leadership of Dr. Greg Church, the county extension agent. The plant groups under study are partially irrigated by capturing rainfall from the roofs of park buildings–a process that does not tax the city’s municipal water supply or its finances.
According to Judy Florence, park manager, “We used to have 165 acres to mow. We have reduced the number of mowed areas considerably, and are excited to offer a wide variety of plants grown, using [these] landscaping methods. We believe that [it] is the blueprint for the future in gardening.”
“At Myers Park we will identify other plant groups that do not require pesticides, fertilizers or much supplemental irrigation,” Church adds. “These efficient landscape plants will demonstrate the effectiveness of Earth-Kind’s environmentally sensitive horticultural practices.”
“Support from our community and city leaders for the … project has been overwhelming,” Smith relates. “Economically, we realized the biggest savings in a reduction of water usage, but it was the elimination of fertilizers, pesticides and the recycling of tree material that has been an environmental victory. Visitors thoroughly enjoy our park, and the site is so beautiful that we have begun renting the property for special events and weddings. These savings have allowed and encouraged us to install more Earth-Kind parks.”
Her comments are echoed by Max Robertson, park director for the city of Cleburne: “[It is] is the right thing to do environmentally and economically. With Earth-Kind, the possibilities are endless!”
For more information, visit www.aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/earthkind.
To learn how to join the Earth-Kind Rose Field Trials, contact Garey Wylie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gaye Hammond is a past president of the Houston Rose Society and a member of the Earth-Kind Rose Advisory Board. She can be reached via e-mail at gayeh@LPM-triallaw.com.
Pam Smith is the landscape manager for the city of Farmers Branch, Texas. She can be reached via e-mail at Pam.Smith@farmersbranch.info.