Sunrise Landscape and Design embraces sustainable practices, old and new

In 2010, PLANET recognized President Joe Markell and Sunrise Landscape and Design for their sustainability efforts with a Sustainable Company Award.

Sustainability may be today’s buzzword throughout our society, but that doesn’t mean it’s new to everyone. Many in the green industry have respected and preserved the earth from day one, but today’s emphasis helps them take environmental stewardship one step further, while mentoring new converts along the way.

Leaders in the field

One of those ground maintenance and landscaping firms that was green before green was popular is Sunrise Landscape and Design of Sterling, Va. ( President Joe Markell says he and his founding partner embraced earth friendliness from the company’s beginning in 1986. Although Markell has since brought out his partner, the environmental commitment hasn’t ended – in fact, it becomes stronger all the time. Sunrise Landscape and Design, which serves northern Virginia, offers the full spectrum of landscape maintenance, as well as design and build services.

As with many concepts, effective communication and education are key in convincing both the industry and consumers that sustainability is important. A full understanding of the fundamentals can convince skeptics to see the light.

For example, Markell says that sustainable ground maintenance involves much more than reducing pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer use. Placing the right plant in the right place and effectively using integrated pest management (IPM), erosion control and water management are just a few of the aspects Markell emphasizes with the company’s staff and clients.

“Ever since we started 25 years ago, we have been recycling organic debris, choosing the right plants for the correct location, being as efficient as possible and looking for ways to use and reuse whatever makes sense for us as well as our customers,” he says.

The maintenance shop at Sunrise Landscape and Design repurposes used motor oil to heat that space.

Recycling across the spectrum

Recycling continues to be an important aspect of Sunrise Landscape and Design’s philosophy. Throughout the entire operation, the company avoids throwing away as many items as possible.

In the office settings, a large portion of waste, such as paper and aluminum cans, are recycled through municipal and private programs. And, the company has an innovative way of making it hard to let a plastic bottle or cardboard box end up in landfills with one simple technique: trash cans are hard to find. Each work space is equipped with recycling bins, and the staff has to look long and hard to locate the few trash cans available within the facility. The company also uses recycled copy paper and minimizes document printing to reduce paper waste.

Green waste is reused or recycled, as well. While Markell would like to develop an on-site composting program, he recognizes that creating a mature product with the correct pH and beneficial organisms is a complex endeavor. “A majority of the ‘compost’ you can buy is either nonactive [it has no beneficial organisms] or, even worse, is immature [the break down process has not been completed],” he says. For that reason, Sunrise Landscape and Design’s small green debris goes to a local compost and mulch processor, while large trees and soil are given to companies who can repurpose them. Grass clippings go back onto the lawns.

Rather than disposing of used motor oil from the company fleet, it is used to heat the maintenance shop. Scrap, such as steel, goes into a recycling program.

Pest management

Sunrise’s approach to pest management combines various tactics to reduce pest damage, while minimizing pesticide and other chemical product use. The company puts IPM to work with early, regular scouting to diagnose problems before pests take over a landscape. After isolating those plants most attractive to pests, a treatment threshold is established, and finally, remaining trouble spots are selectively treated with pesticides as required. “We look to use the lowest toxic product at the safest effective rate, treating only the targeted pest as necessary,” Markell adds.

Energy efficiency

Using energy wisely not only protects the environment, but also helps out with the bottom line. In the company’s offices, all lights and computers are turned off after hours and programmable thermostats are in place. The staff kitchen is stocked with washable utensils and mugs to cut down on waste such as paper plates and plastic utensils.

“When building our new facility, I was very energy conscious,” Markell says. “We have energy efficient windows, multiple-zone HVAC system, efficient lighting and low-flush toilets.”

He says the nature of the industry makes it difficult to use hybrid or electric vehicles in his company’s fleet, but the awareness of energy conservation still continues while employees are out on the road. To minimize fuel consumption, efficient routing is mapped out for crews.

When purchasing new trucks, energy efficiency, along with capacity and capability is considered. The exhaust systems have special catalytic converters that allow them to operate as cleanly as standard cars, and the electrical systems are designed to shut the truck off automatically if it is idling longer than five minutes. “The new trucks we buy are extremely efficient for their size and capabilities,” Markell points out. “The new technology in the trucks allows them to get almost 20 miles per gallon, which is more than some SUVs.”

Recycling debris is just one aspect of Sunrise Landscape and Design’s sustainability commitment.

Other sustainable practices

Although Sunrise Landscape and Design doesn’t install irrigation systems, the company does work to assist their clients with minimizing water use. They recommend rain sensors to help irrigation systems run most efficiently. “We find a majority of people water too frequently and cause more harm to their landscapes,” he says. “Less-frequent, deep watering is always recommended.”

Lighting schemes are generally low-voltage, but not necessarily LED, as the northern Virginia region does experience snowfall. Markell says proper lighting continues to function during inclement weather and even aids snow melting. “We have been using the 24-volt system over the 12-volt system with some success, and we feel it is more efficient,” he adds.

Putting the theory to the test

Sunrise Landscape and Design is practicing what it preaches in Winterport Cluster (, a small residential community in Reston, Va. When the firm first took on the landscape management contract for the established neighborhood, it inherited existing trouble spots. The rustic, shaded area, landscaped with native species, had battled both invasive plants and an inability to grow turfgrass. The company developed a long-term strategy for eliminating unwanted English ivy and bamboo. Combined with the residents’ efforts, the community association reports that approximately 1,000 square feet of each species has been eliminated.

Sunrise Landscape and Design relied on education to solve the community’s turfgrass growth problem. Demonstrating that no inputs are able to deliver high-quality grass to the wooded community, the firm turned expectations around. Mulch beds and natural areas were created with native plants, which is more environmentally sound and aesthetically pleasing for Winterport Cluster.

This new plan – embracing nature’s own beauty and rhythms – led to a 2010 honor for the residential community, as it was named Cluster of the Year by the Reston Association.

Here’s to Sunrise

Sunrise Landscape and Design hasn’t been denied accolades either. The Professional Landcare Network (PLANET; presented the company with a Sustainable Company Award during the association’s Green Industry Conference in Louisville last fall. Sunrise, along with the other recipients of this award, were recognized for their efforts to protect and conserve resources, reduce waste, prevent pollution, and promote an ethic of environmental sustainability and improvement within their workplace. Member companies that participated in the program were judged on their use of environmentally friendly operational products and practices, such as recycling and composting, WaterSmart irrigation systems, integrated pest management, pesticide-free plant and turf health care programs, native and noninvasive plant species and low-voltage lighting. The use of energy-efficient office products and procedures were also taken into consideration. “We are very proud of the award and I think it is great that our efforts have been recognized,” Markell says. “We will be continuing our sustainable practices and are always looking for ways to improve our efforts.”

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for five years.