Only a few years ago the topic “ecological landscaping” would have elicited eye-rolling or skeptical sighs among many in the landscape community. But a week ago it was the focus of education day for the CNLPs (Certified Nursery & Landscape Professionals) of our region.

Lynda H. Schneekloth, professor emerita and director of landscape in the Urban Design Project at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, was the program headliner on “Ecological Landscape Design – Urban, Suburban and Rural.” Her talk ranged from the global view and the state of the Great Lakes to how landscapers can make a difference.

Sandy Geffner, a UB environmental studies instructor and a founder of Earth Spirit Educational Services, also led the attendees into a world of plants beyond the palette of most landscapers – showing medicinal and poisonous plants and his perspective on the value of plants in our lives.

Two other presenters covered case studies of Buffalo-area projects with large ecological implications.

Dave Majewski showed the Central Terminal project, in which 3½ acres have been developed to provide natural habitat, ecologically sound water filtration, and act as an urban habitat classroom – in his words, “for residents to learn about biodiversity, ecology, environment and vacant land use options.”

Paul Fuhrmann of Ecology & Environment discussed the study of Seneca Bluffs Natural Habitat Park, a unique habitat area in critical need of protection. It is located near the Seneca Street bridge, between Elk Street and Avon Place, and includes 15 acres of riparian floodplain within a heavily urbanized area. Both projects are examples of partnerships that depend upon both private and public commitment.

A professor’s perspective

How we got into this mess is a long story, but I will attempt to summarize Schneekloth’s saga of global change: Earth has been drastically affected by deforestation (responsible for about 40 percent of greenhouse gases), industrialized agriculture (one of the largest sources of global pollution and warming), and urban/suburban development (destroying and fragmenting habitat, increasing the rate of species endangerment or extinction).

Imagine the 44,000 square miles that we have covered with blacktop in America. Add to that the habitat-smothering effects of invasive plants and animals, and the damage to waterways and water quality. It’s a fast and slippery slope. Schneekloth’s imagery said it best: “Earth has a fever” – the symptom of a disease.

Humans were remarkably effective in overcoming, or attempting to control, the natural world for their own purposes. But while nature has always been capable of responding to changes, now change is happening in ways that are no longer predictable, and at a faster rate than anyone expected.

In Western New York, we are operating with one very large advantage and responsibility: The Great Lakes are the largest surface freshwater system on Earth, with about 84 percent of North America’s surface fresh water, and about 21 percent of the world’s supply of fresh water. (Only about 1½ percent of the Earth’s water is fresh water.)

Yet the lakes are shrinking and warming. Lake Erie, only 60 feet deep, has increased 2 percent in average temperature since 1970, and the waterline is gradually receding. Folks will argue the numbers, but the message is clear: We should be acutely aware of our impact on our watershed and ecological systems – from our political decisions to our home landscaping choices.

New goals, better choices

However daunting the large picture, landscapers were given a charge and some specific techniques to apply to the problem. First, we need to think differently as we plan landscapes and make plant choices. Our individual properties are not islands, they are interconnected and part of nature.

In urban settings, Schneekloth – a founder of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper – said our goal should be “beautiful, green and porous cities.” Problem one is runoff from roofs and pavement. Problem two is our antiquated water systems that often carry pollution and overflow straight to the groundwater.

We make a real difference when we process water through plants and soil. Plant green roofs and rain gardens. Collect and reuse water with rain barrels. Use permeable pavers. Plant and protect trees. Replace pavement with green strips. Increase the connectivity of green areas and create plant corridors

In the suburbs, we have even more opportunities to connect the green places and protect the watersheds — but American suburbs also represent nearly 40 million acres of lawn, which provides neither food nor habitat for natural life. Grass is a water guzzler, and lawn care uses about 67 million pounds of pesticides per year. Can we downsize it? Can we fill side and back yards with native plants for butterflies and birds? Can we make add flowers or native grasses or landscape islands with pathways?

Rural spaces, however rapidly diminishing, are still rich territory for restoring or replicating natural systems. Let’s fight the invasive species where we can. Let’s plant native plants. (Natives support over three times more species and produce six times more food for native insects – that the food web needs.) Let’s think and practice biodiversity whether it’s mixing up the rose garden with perennials and herbs, or mixing up the property border of trees and shrubs.

The message is to make porous, green city gardens. Naturalize the suburbs. Plan restoration plantings, hedgerows and diverse landscapes in country settings.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.