The Environmental Benefits of Plants and Landscaping

"The Environment" isn't only out there somewhere on the slopes of a distant mountain. The areas where we and our children live, work and play are also increasingly a part of the environment. And the plants, lawns and landscapes which make these spaces livable for us also offer environmental benefits. Adding to their value is the fact that they deliver those benefits at or near the point of origin of some of the problem they help overcome, such as water pollution, air pollution and excessive storm runoff. Here are a few of those benefits:

EROSION CONTROL - The roots of landscape plants and turf hold in place disturbed urban and suburban soil which could otherwise be eroded by wind or water and end up clogging fish spawning stream beds. The Journal of Environmental Quality reported that " . . .perennial turfgrasses offer one of the most cost-efficient methods to control water and wind erosion of soil."

TEMPERATURE MODERATION - Elevated water temperatures in streams which flow through developed areas have been cited as a key factor in some fish population declines. More shade from tress and shrubs in these areas helps return streams to the lower temperatures required by fish. Deciduous trees offer the same benefits to land-based creatures, creating summer shade to moderate the urban "heat islands" which can result from extensive paved areas. In winter, they lose their leaves to allow sunlight through.

GROUND WATER RECHARGE AND STORMWATER CONTROL - As rain water is slowed by the leaves and then by the roots of plants, runoff is slowed, and water moves downward, pulled by gravity. The groundwater recharge rate increases toward the natural rates which existed before the area was developed. By the same mechanism when storm water runoff is slowed, runoff water volume decrease and quality improves.

WATER QUALITY - Trees, shrubs, turf and groundcovers trap and filter dust, nutrients and other pollutants out of rain water. Nutrients are put to beneficial use and become part of the growing plants, instead of ending up as algae-promoting water pollution.

AIR QUALITY - Each tree removes 26 pounds of carbon dioxide from the air each year and releases about 13 pounds of oxygen - enough each day for a family of four. Other plants also perform this life-giving conversion.This helps stabilize the atmosphere against any "greenhouse" effect.

WILDLIFE HABITAT - Plants provide food, living spaces and other needs - otherwise known as "habitat" -.for birds and a variety of wildlife. This helps maintain or re-establish biodiversity, even after wild areas have been developed.

WILDFIRE CONTROL - Following the big Oakland/Berkeley fire of 1991, fire officials in those California cities stated: "A green lawn around the home is a smart water investment. It protects property and may even save lives." Anything which contributes to the early extinguishing of a wildfire, of course, also protects environmental assets.

NOISE REDUCTION AND MODIFICATION - Properly selected and placed plantings absorb sound waves, and can significantly reduce unwanted "noise pollution." Additionally, in the presence of breeze, some plants make pleasant sounds of their own. Further, the wildlife attracted to a planted habitat sometimes results in pleasant natural sounds. These sounds of nature mask and further diminish unnatural noise pollution.

CONCLUSION: Plants, lawns and landscaping can help significantly to maintain a quality environment and repair some of the damage done by development, over-fishing and other human activities. In Western Washington, plants can provide these values without any irrigation for three quarters of the year, and with only limited irrigation in the drier few months. To deny the limited water needs of plants during the short time it is needed, and to do so supposedly in the name of some environmental need, would be totally counter-productive.

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