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Middlebrook Proving Grounds for Ecological Landscaping

Ecological landscaping is a solution for corporate as well as residential greenscaping.

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"Solutions" Executive Summary

Ecological landscaping is a solution for corporate as well as residential greenscaping. Native and ecologically planned landscaping provides the following:

SAVINGS Save up to 80% over a ten-year period in maintenance costs.

EMISSIONS Non-polluting landscape eliminates 2-cycle lawn mowers which are very polluting.

WATER Reduce outdoor water use by 80%.

LABOR No water irritation after a 2-3 year establishment period.

AESTHETICS Ecological gardening brings 12 months of blooming color into your garden. The garden will be filled with the sounds of nature, pollinators like native bees (these are tiny and don't bug people), hover flies, hummingbirds and butterflies.

AIR Plants purify the air and reduce urban heat.

HEALTH Greenery reduces stress, and ecological landscaping filters the air, lift moods, and reduces absenteeism from sickness.

An urban native plant garden by Alrie Middlebrook, founder of Middlebrook Gardens -- a sustainable landscape design, build, and maintenance company specializing in California native gardens.

Nature evolved with layers of substructures and nutrients that support life underground, on the surface and in the air. Plants populate the surface of the earth and animals flourish among the plants. As we alter the natural system of layers and patterns we not only reap beneficial harvests, but throw this delicately balanced system out of gear. Global climate change is about stripping the gears of natural systems. And ecological landscaping is about restoring our natural systems to functional levels.

Ecological Gardening Precepts

"Everything connects with everything. The Indians were very wise and had lived without conflict with the land for 10,000 years. We can't manage it for a year!" notes Alrie Middlebrook, founder of Middlebrook Gardens.

"Living lightly on the earth" is the heart of ecological gardening and landscaping. By working within the natural resources system, the balance of plants, soil, local weather, and wildlife is preserved in choices of plants and structure of the landscaping.

"Think of an ecosystem like the human body -- the human system has organs with different functions. Seeing plant systems the same way connects everything. They evolve together in the same altitude, with the same rain and soil. When we hand select and use plants to our own advantage we aren't readily aware of the repercusions of pulling species out of their native communities. That's when we get invasive species," explains Alrie. "Governments spend billions of dollars to control invasive species -- to eradicate them around the world. The plant world is a living system with interconencted microbes in the soil, pollinators for the plants, birds that depend on pollinators ... mammals that depend on birds. Ignoring this system is costly. It takes a lot of energy to battle nature and that energy contributes to global warming."

Case Studies of Corporate Campuses

"Tree canopies help clean the air of cities. You almost can't have too many trees in the city!" Alrie Middlebrook explains.

The Oak Woodland landscape in the Old Town of Los Gatos incorporates a natural oak woodland garden. Planting beds between the sidewalk and the parking lot requires zero summer water. It provides habitat for local bird species and replicates the natural community of the area. The understory planting complements the existing heritage oaks.

Old Town Shopping Center, Los Gatos California takes advantage of containers for color and welcome relief along concrete expanses.

By preserving and protecting the natural systems that were in place before we disrupted them, we refine the science of ecology. "Ecological gardening is different than drought tolerant gardening," says Alrie Middlebrook. "There are five mediterranean climates in the world and they have similarities: rain in winter, dry in summer, close to the ocean and a mountain range. Those five areas are California, the Mediterranean Sea region in Europe, Chile, Western Australia and the Capetown area of South Africa. While Mediterranean plants grow in any of these weather-similar areas, when you pull the plants out of their ecological system they lose their polinators, food sources for native wildlife, etc."

Global Warming Strategies in the Greenscape

What's different about designing landscapes for California? Microclimates. Native wildlife. Urban/wilderness interfaces. Native plants. And diversity!

The aesthetics of native gardening for modern urbanites requires that the gardens be beautiful. Alrie has fine-tuned her design approach to accomodate people's emotional need for culturally familiar exotics, and garden art...and even open spaces. Not lawns. Open spaces. Spaces filled with meadow wildflowers and native grasses and shrubs that hug their native soil.

"Many people make the comment, 'I can't be limited to just having a native garden,' and I delight in letting them know they can enjoy exotic plants, but they don't belong in the open landscape. They belong in containers, raised beds and indoors. There are so many beautiful possibilities for our California landscapes. We can grow a lot of our own food along with native plants. We can add sculpture and art. We can add water features...and locally, native exotic-looking plants never before cultivated!" Alrie's eyes sparkle and her voice tumbles forth as she describes the rich variety of landscaping styles and possiblities available within the ecological landscaping framework.

"It takes leadership to envision change. Don't turn people off by being a purist, but help people by enlightening them, by taking a position with your own environment. One example is Ed Begley -- I met him at the Commonwealth Club and talked with him about his personal choices of growing some of his own food and driving a hybrid car. He's taking a strong position to be a green citizen, but he doesn't force it on people."

Alrie also recommends the Theodore Payne Foundation in SoCal. They can help design a native garden or help companies find designers who are familiar with the natives in their home region. They also host a Native Garden Tour in the spring that can be inspiring and mind-opening.

There are real benefits to ecological landscaping.

  • ECOLOGICAL: lawn is a monoculture and is useless to nature. Nature wants diversity -- that's why weeds swoosh in! Nature wants a community of plants. Birds think of lawn like concrete -- there's no food there.
  • AESTHETICS: Nature as we know it is beautiful. Nature unaltered by human beings is what we long for. Nature reduces stress and provides rejuvenation.
  • ECONOMICS: Once you plant it, you have a two-year establishment period, then you shut your water off completely in most of California. If your landscape is not a natural habitat you continually slake its thirst!
  • ETHICS: If we're going to take what Al Gore says seriously, we need to look at our behaviors and choices seriously. We need to change how we make our choices. Ethics is about making choices with enlightened self interest.

Alrie Middlebrook is both an artist and a practical advocate for her beloved earth, "Before we say 'This is what I like!' we need to consider what is involved in being a responsible citizen of the global community. Is what we are doing going to hurt me/us? We can't disrupt the natural patterns of the earth if we are going to live here in peace and harmony. And we must accept responsiblity for global warming and that it is human induced."

The Business of Greening the Green

Companies often manage landscapes on a scale not available to homeowners. By ecoscaping an entire business campus to maximize natural resource ecology, visionary business leaders can both save money and save native habitat. By using drip irrigation, corporate maintenance can reap tremendous savings. Reduced water usage contributes a huge savings. Lawn mowing equipment is reduced drastically, reducing both expenses and pollutants from 2-cycle engines. And with native plants that require no fertilizer or pesticides, the health and well being of employees and customers can also be treasured and protected.

"Corporate profitability is a long term proposition -- not short term," emphasizes Alrie. "Companies are in a position to invest in the change that benefits themselves and society in so many ways." Other considerations in her "Lose the Lawn" approach includes global warming. "By reducing water consumption in landscaping, you reduce the amount of CO2 going into the atmosphere from pumping water. Pumping water in California takes up 40% of the electricity used. And of course, electricity comes from burning fossil fuels -- both coal and natural gas. Increased water use results in the burning of more fossil fuels...and we can reduce that by creating ecological landscapes.

"Watering landscapes is responsible for a large portion of the water consumption in California. Lawns can consume 70% of household water use. Huge corporate campuses also use a lot of electricity to pump water through irrigation systems....both locally and systemwide. We need to see the HIDDEN LINK between water use and power."

Middlebrook Gardens has been a hub of research and implementation in the ecological gardening field. They conducted a study of economic feasibility for the corporate world and put cost savings into perspective for large campus planning.

One Middlebrook Gardens study compared maintenance expenses of an actual non-native landscape and a proposed native landscape over a 20 year period, and considered costs to convert from the non-native landscape to the proposed. It specifically focused on the 1.4 acre non-native front landscaped area of The San Jose Mercury News business site (San Jose, CA). Costs considered in this study included plants, labor, water use and irrigation system repairs, chemical applications, and energy use, as well as the costs of demolition of the current landscape and implementation of the new.

The first three years of the native landscape are equally labor intensive while the plants become established, it will be nearly self-sufficient by year four, thereby drastically reducing maintenance costs in all years thereafter. The results of the study show that over the 20 year period, the native landscape clearly brings significant cost savings in all expense areas. Even when considering demolition and implementation costs, the native landscape is still more cost effective. The San Jose Mercury News would begin to see the economic payoff of the conversion by year four, regardless of the economic discount rate used.

This study did not address additional environmental and wildlife benefits of the native landscape, such as reduced chemical leaching into groundwater and surface water due to not using fertilizers or chemicals; creation of habitat for local wildlife; and reduced water and energy usage. Nor did it compare costs of initial implementation of both landscapes.

To receive the entire study, please contact: Alrie Middlebrook, (408) 292-9993,

The cost-benefit analysis for companies is simple. The earth's natural resources are a treasure worth protecting. HOW we do it isn't so simple. "The study we conducted showed clearly that companies save on labor. Just compare mowing a lawn and cutting hedges to a native garden that largely manages itself! The outcome of our study was that the native garden could save the company over a million dollars in a 20 year period. The break even point is the fourth year. After that, they save money every year."

Old Town, Los Gatos, Container Features with Valley Oak protected by deck and rails CONTACT:
Alrie Middlebrook, President
Middlebrook Gardens
76 Race Street
San Jose, CA 95126
(408) 292-9993


Los Angeles Basin -- Ecological Options.

Alrie Middlebrook, An Ecological Garden Designer's Pathway to Enlightenment

Edited by Carolyn Allen


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