Ecological and profitable landscaping on Martha’s Vineyard

Bumblebees enjoying native goldenrod in the front yard of the author's home in Oak Bluffs. — Photo by Matt Pelikan

Assuming you believe that conservation is a good thing, you’d probably welcome a thousand-acre conservation project on the Vineyard that didn’t cost anything. Impossible, right?

Well, let’s think about this. When most people think of “conservation,” they probably think of the expensive process of buying natural habitat to preserve it. But buying land is really just a strategy for controlling what happens on it. The central question of conservation is not “who owns the land?” but rather “how are they managing it?”

With a strong roster of conservation organizations, the Vineyard is well-served in terms of both acquisition of land and ecological management. But if you’re looking for a group with influence over the management of a huge area that could be made much healthier in ecological terms, consider the Island’s hard-working landscapers.

A big portion of the Vineyard (figures aren’t readily available, but it must be thousands of acres) is occupied by human-use landscapes: yards, landscaped areas, and gardens. Much of this area is designed, planted, or maintained by Island landscaping professionals — a broad term by which I mean everything from one-person lawn-mowing operations to nurseries to high-end landscape design consultants. Collectively, this industry represents an enormous work force and a vast body of knowledge and experience. It also represents a powerful engine for converting reliable funding into applied land management.

But many landscaping practices, though they presumably make economic sense and satisfy clients, play out very poorly on the Vineyard. The most obvious case would be the classic American lawn. Don’t get me wrong. If folks want a patch of sod for croquet or for the grandkids to play on, fine, they should have it. But most lawn does nothing except sit there and look green. As wildlife habitat, it does little more than support Japanese beetle grubs. And if you actually want a nice lawn, given the Vineyard’s soil and climate, it requires water, weed suppression, and fertilizer — all threats to the water quality in Island ponds.

Equally puzzling is the steady influx of landscaping plants imported from off-Island (sit in the staging line for the 7 am boat and see what’s being trucked in). Sure, landscaping plants have to come from somewhere. But imports from off-Island are typically species that don’t offer much to Island wildlife. And plant material arriving from far away can bring in plant diseases or pests. Once again, different choices could reduce the negative impacts associated with current practices, and perhaps more important, could create new resources for wildlife where none exist.

To be sure, in a service industry especially, the customer is always right. But I bet most landscapers working on the Vineyard understand that much of what clients automatically ask for is not optimal for the health of the Island. Why not develop healthier alternatives to suggest to clients, with low ecological impact and benefits for wildlife being part of the sales pitch? Plant bluegrass meadow, not lawn. Replace exotic shrubs with natives like winterberry and viburnum, well adapted here and offering berries to migratory birds.

Landscaping on the Vineyard is clearly a competitive industry, with high overhead and the need to pack a year’s earnings into just three seasons. For professionals to embrace a new style of landscaping, they need to have products and services that will both please clients and generate steady work. (One reason we have so many lawns must surely be that the need for frequent mowing translates into a reliable income stream!) Achieving this will require the development of new skills — for example, the establishment of successful native plant meadows is an art still in its infancy — as well as reliable supplies of new kinds of plants.

But demand for eco-friendly landscaping already exists, and this demand can be expanded if the people doing the work embrace the idea. Where skills or materials are scarce, there are business opportunities in exploiting the gap between demand and supply. It will have to be a gradual process: tastes don’t change overnight, and neither do the accepted procedures of an entire industry. But over time, if you’re looking for maximum bang for the buck, the greatest conservation opportunity on the Island might be the landscaping industry giving itself a sustainability makeover, looking for business potential in promoting a healthy Island.

Landscapers have varying degrees of influence over thousands of acres, land that is already being managed using money that is already going to be spent. As both a homeowner and an ecologist, I feel certain there are “win-win-win” solutions that will improve Island ecology, produce attractive and usable landscapes, and work financially for the land management industry. I’d welcome calls at my “real job” (Restoration Ecologist for The Nature Conservancy, 508-693-6287, ext. 11) from landscapers interested in exploring the possibility of business-friendly conservation.