Patrons linger at the outdoor seating section of an urban restaurant enjoying the bright butterflies flitting among flower-filled planters. Suburban moms and their toddlers gather on a neighbor’s patio for a playdate laugh at the antics of squirrels branch-hopping through the trees. Fifth-graders observe the bees buzzing among the flowers in their outdoor classroom garden.

Incorporating plantings to add a touch of nature viewing is a growing trend for both residential and commercial properties. Inviting wildlife onto a site provides another dimension to the landscape and creates multiple opportunities to those involved in landscape maintenance.

Each category of creatures has specific habitat needs that will impact not only plant selection and establishment, but also short- and long-term maintenance. Integrating biodiversity within the multiple ecosystems and microclimates of the site to deliver a sustainable landscape that is also pleasing to the eye.

Sustainability can be defined as the sweet spot where social, economic and environmental strategies overlap. Sustainable landscaping incorporates best management practices to address the multiple environmental issues concerning climate, air, water, soil and energy to benefit plants, animals and humans.

There are many programs offering information and training in the development of wildlife-friendly habitat. Many of them recognize the role proper maintenance plays in the sustainability of those sites and are reaching out to landscape maintenance professionals to assist in providing it.

Being proactive in tracking these programs opens opportunities in this market, so we’ll examine a few of the key programs here.

Information sources, support

Danielle Pieranunzi

Audubon International’s certification outreach is strong in the golf course work as its Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses is strongly supported by the United States Golf Association (USGA). But its programs extend to other properties, such as housing developments and hotels. The Audubon International Certified Environmental Professional (AICEP) program includes a Land Management component available to grounds managers, park managers and landscape management companies.

Some opportunities come from unexpected sources, such as the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

Media personality, author and blogger David Mizejewski is also a naturalist with the NWF and a well-known promoter of wildlife through various venues, including his frequent appearances on behalf of NWF. He wrote the book, “Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife,” and hosted and co-produced Backyard Habitat, a television series on Animal Planet that aired from 2005 to 2008.

“NWF’s goal is promoting wildlife-friendly landscapes,” says Mizejewski. “We’re inclusive, offering everything from information to guide the beginner to tips for the most experienced gardener at every budget level, whether their sites are urban, suburban or rural; residential or commercial; private or public.”

It all starts with increasing wildlife awareness. “We have a choice on how we maintain our little part of the planet,” says Mizejewski. “The journey often has a simple beginning. Someone plants a flower that draws the hummingbird they wanted to attract. That’s hugely powerful and exciting. It can inspire that person to do more, such as planting a butterfly garden. And every small step like that on the individual level makes a difference.”

NWF has developed that awareness, acknowledging those sparks of enthusiasm and building them to a steady flame through its wildlife habitat certification programs. They offer habitat certification for individual properties; communities at the neighborhood, city and county levels; and schoolyard programs which also incorporate the outdoor classroom component.

NWF recently made involvement even easier. Now anyone who signs up to receive its information-packed free monthly e-newsletters is automatically enrolled in its Garden for Wildlife program.

Awareness is growing. Mizejewski points to the 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, the latest data tracking the public’s interest. It showed that 71.8 million Americans observed, fed and/or photographed wildlife. That’s an impressive number of the survey’s reported 90.1 million U.S. residents, 16 years old or older, who participated in some form of wildlife-related recreation in 2011. But NWF wants more.

Though they’d likely be resistant to the term “grass roots” movement, NWF knows they need the masses to achieve the environmental impact on the scale they envision.

Mizejewski acknowledges NWF, “To some, comes off as overly zealous in our anti-lawn messaging. But wildlife-friendly landscapes provide four components: food, water, cover and a place to raise their young. Little of that is offered by the typical monoculture of the American lawn.”

Yet he realizes lawns are important for many types of outdoor recreation and property owners value them. He would just like a bit more of them converted to ornamentals.

“It’s important that we reach out to the lawn and landscape maintenance companies and personnel. They are the boots on the ground. They have the capability to make real changes in the environmental practices that impact millions of people,” he says.

NWF wants to engage the industry in helping to encourage property owners to create and restore habitat to invite the wildlife species back and to green the maintenance practices to sustain that habitat.

This past fall saw the soft kickoff of NWF’s Certified Wildlife Landscape Professionals program.

“It’s an adaptation for professionals similar to our Habitat Stewards program developed to reach gardeners,” says Mizejewski. “While we’re tweaking it with input from the initial landscapers and service providers, it is up and running. Participants get the wildlife-friendly training from us. Then they can use our logo, as a company or an individual, certifying that they have the ability to create that landscape.

“We see it benefiting someone with a landscape and lawn care company as a promotional tool, we can and will maintain your garden more environmentally. Those certified also will be listed on our website in a format that allows the public to view the complete list or list their zip code to find the company closest to them.”

A view of the lagoon, boardwalk and terraced garden at the Phipps’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes, a SITES Certified Project in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Consider SITES

Another area to explore is green industry-developed programs. The Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) program was created to promote sustainable land development and management practices. It’s a joint effort of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin and the United States Botanical Garden (USBG). It has incorporated the technical expertise of multiple groups to develop sustainable benchmarks for soils, hydrology, vegetation, human health and well-being and materials selection.

Danielle Pieranunzi, program director for SITES, says, “All of this input has been used to develop the SITES rating system for sustainable land design and development, a set of voluntary guidelines and performance-based metrics modeled after the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED rating system. It focuses on new construction and major renovations at every phase of the process from site selection to the design, construction and maintenance phases.”

The maintenance component is essential throughout the project. In fact, the SITES integrated design team includes the owner and/or client and professionals knowledgeable in landscape design, construction, and maintenance, all selected to meet the unique constraints and opportunities of the site.

Pieranunzi says, “A design that is amazing on paper and in theory may fall apart if not communicated to the construction and maintenance personnel. Bringing them in during the early stages to weigh in on that design provides different perspectives and a clearer understanding of how the design goals can be implemented through construction and maintenance. To change the outcome of a site’s performance, we have to change the process of how we get there.”

Working together enables the team to develop a vision of all the site can be. “They look beyond the design phase toward how performance goals can ultimately be achieved,” says Pieranunzi. “They can maximize the potential of each element of the site to support more than one function. For example, a retention pond designed to manage stormwater can also become a habitat for wildlife and an amenity for site users. Landscapes can be more than aesthetically pleasing. They can also provide multiple benefits such as sequestering carbon, cleaning air and water, and minimizing waste if designed with ecosystem services in mind.”

Multiple pilot projects, based on the 2009 guidelines, have emphasized the importance of the maintenance component. Pieranunzi says, “Because landscapes are living and never static, it was critical to encourage sustainable maintenance to ensure long-term site sustainability. One of our credits also focuses on monitoring performance over time. The maintenance professional can play a huge role in that observation, tracking that information systematically and reporting it to the team to create greater understanding of the evolving processes. We see this as a tool for reducing maintenance costs, while maximizing site potential. With that data, we can continue to quantify and put a value to sustainable landscapes and communicate that to the public.”

Incorporation of the SITES rating system at high visibility public sites, such as botanical gardens, also has an educational component, exposing more people to the concept of sustainability, what it involves and the need for it.

Seven years of research and development, including feedback from the pilot project program, went into the 2014 version of the rating system, titled SITES v2. It recently became available. USGBC anticipates incorporating these guidelines and performance benchmarks into future iterations of the LEED Green Building Rating System.

“The SITES v2 Rating System will be available to the public,” says Pieranunzi. “They can use the benchmarks as a guide for project design and development or they can take it further and try to pursue certification.”

Landscape for Life is the homeowner version based on the SITES principles. It offers guidance for working with nature in the landscape on a smaller scale whether the site is urban, suburban or rural.

Greater visibility

To gain greater visibility for the industry, as well as individual companies, it takes group support of wildlife-related programs, such as NALP’s’ connection with the Pollinator Partnership.

The Pollinator Partnership is a nonprofit organization “dedicated exclusively to the protection and promotion of pollinators and their ecosystems.” They spread the word that, “without the birds, bats, bees, butterflies, beetles and other small mammals that pollinate plants,” the world’s “agricultural economies, our food supply and surrounding landscapes would collapse.”

Part of its outreach is Pollinator Week with events across the country held each June. The Pollinator Partnership offers free “Selecting Plants for Pollinators” guides tailored by ecoregion. They also provide links for other resources, which are grouped by categories bees, Monarchs or gardens.

Ultimately, the lawn and landscape maintenance industry can play a key role in achieving the goal shared by all of these programs: a sustainable, plant-filled environment that nurtures humans and wildlife now and far into the future.