When Laura Sampson and her husband Chris moved into their Clermont, Florida, home in 1998, they wanted a beautiful lawn and curb appeal, just like everyone else. They filled their garden with plants they wanted, but not the species best suited to their central Florida climate. To keep their garden alive, the couple used chemical weed killers and fertilizers. One day they sprayed herbicide in a large planting bed and a small rabbit came running out. Later that day they found a small rabbit dead in their yard.
"This was the first time we visibly saw the repercussion of our actions," says Laura. "We decided then and there to become a friend to our own ecosystem."
Today the Sampsons' garden is an NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat and Laura is a certified Habitat Steward, after being trained by Federation staff to teach her neighbors how they can nurture wildlife in their yards. As a certified green home stager, she also helps families "green market" their homes and helps businesses ecofriendly improvements.
Sampson is among a new breed of real estate professionals. In a 2010 National Association of Realtors survey, 88 percent of buyers said environmentally friendly features were an important consideration when purchasing a home. As the interest in sustainability has grown, so have the number of green builders, certified eco-builders and green home stagers like Sampson.
The greening of the real estate industry hopefully will be a boon for both the environment and the pocketbook. Recent studies demonstrate that ecofriendly practices not only can reduce home operation and maintenance cost but also increase property values. And nothing improves environmental performance and curb appeal more than a wildlife-friendly, sustainable home landscape.
In 2003 the city of Santa Monica created two demonstration gardens in the front yards of adjacent bungalows. One was landscaped in the traditional way, with nonnative plants inappropriate for Southern California's semiarid climate. The other was filled with native plants such as hummingbird sage and showy penstemon that are adapted to local conditions and provide food and shelter for wildlife. Over the next two years, city authorities tracked each landscape's water consumption, yard waste and maintenance cost. The native garden used 77 percent less water-a big bonus in the perennially drought-prone region. It produced 66 percent less yard waste than the conventional garden, and it cost 68 percent less to maintain.
According to the U.S> Environmental Protection Agency, the average U.S. household uses 30 percent of its water outdoors. In arid areas, the figure may be as high as 70 percent. Using native plants appropriate for a property can reduce outdoor water use by 20 to 50 percent, reports the agency. In addition, strategic planting of trees and shrubs to cast cooling shade in summer and insulate against cold winter winds can slash the amount a homeowner spends to heat and cool a home by as much as 40 percent.
Sustainable landscapes have more subtle economic benefits as well. By calculating how much money property owners save by avoiding flood damage, recent studies have demonstrated the value of rain gardens, bioswales and other "low-impact development" measures designed to reduce storm-water runoff. Other research has shown how sustainable landscaping strategies can help lower taxes by reducing the cost of storm water infrastructure. For example, a 2007 study of the 73-square-mile Blackberry Creek watershed west of Chicago projected that by the year 2020, municipalities would save between $3.3 million and $4.5 million by employing low-impact development measures rather than conventional storm-water construction. It also estimated that by avoiding or reducing flood damage, the low-impact measures would increase area property values by $6.4 million.
Sustainable landscapes also are growing the value of homes. In one study released four years ago, University of Michigan researchers reported that people are willing to pay more for well-designed yards with mostly native plants than for properties dominated by lawn. The Michigan residents surveyed preferred a front garden that was 75 percent prairie wildflowers and grasses to one that was 50 percent prairie. The least favorite landscape was a conventional lawn.
Realtors have long recognized that attractive landscaping, especially with trees, can increase property values by as much as 20 percent. In Minneapolis, according to a U.S. Forest Service study, trees increase property values by $7.1 million while saving $6.8 million in energy and $9.1 million in storm-water treatment cost annually. In fact, in 20 cities where he and his colleagues have studied costs and benefits, says Greg McPherson of the U.S. Forest Service's Center for Urban Forest Research, "trees provide $2 to $5 in benefits for each $1 spent maintaining them." Given these impressive numbers, it's not surprising that number-one green home improvement recommended by realtors is planting native trees and flowers--the foundation of a healthy and beautiful backyard habitat.
In short, growing a green landscape is a win-win proposition. The old expression "money grows on trees" may not be literally true, but a sustainable landscape comes close.
Author: Janet Marinelli