Sustainable Landscaping Tips: Organic Vs. Inorganic

Sustainable Landscaping Tips: Organic Vs. Inorganic


Nature can be a pretty mysterious ol’ gal. When you think about it, everything in this world is derived by some process from nature – whether it’s as organic as a bag of compost or inorganic as a sack of chemically produced granules to help our lawns and beds look their best.

From a sustainability perspective, the natural assumption is that organic products are the way to go. Organics are derived from living things, a recycling of sorts of the natural environment. Think inorganic, and test tubes and glass funnels that are used to manufacture dangerous chemicals come to mind.

What we’re really talking about is a choice between natural and synthetic products to use on your apartment community landscapes. And it’s important not to make a choice solely based on whether the product hints by name that it is more sustainable than another.

In landscaping, either type of product used for feeding lawns, weed control, and managing pests are acceptable. Both are effective under the right circumstances, but there are pros and cons to each. A natural or organic product can be damaging to the environment, just as a synthetic or inorganic solution can pollute the water supply. At the same time, a synthetic product can provide a very healthy solution to greening a lawn in the same manner as a natural treatment.

Identifying Natural and Synthetic Landscaping Products

By definition, a natural product is something that contains natural ingredients. Compost is one of the most common natural fertilizers used in organic landscaping and farming. The material is the product of decomposition and recycling of a number of materials like animal products, leaves, and even food waste.

A synthetic product is made up of chemically manufactured materials. Bags of commercial grade fertilizer, for example, contain specifically measured doses of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous. A bottle of weed killer is a synthetic mixture of chemicals that wipe out dandelions and the like.

Among the chief differences between natural and synthetic products is the presence of carbon and levels of toxicity. Natural compounds contain carbon and synthetic compounds do not. Carbon is generally low on toxicity but can be harmful or deadly in large doses.

When you think of toxic, words like poisonous, deadly or harmful come to mind. You may think of that bag of small white pellets with the strong odor, too. But some natural processes are just as toxic, and many manufactured chemicals are very safe and effective. You might be surprised to know that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), that Roundup can be considered less lethal than table salt. It takes more than 5,000 milligrams of Roundup per kilogram of body weight ingested to be fatal, compared to 3,000 milligrams of table salt per kilogram of body weight.

Sustainable Landscaping Pros and Cons

Some of the most common advantages for natural sustaining landscape products include slower release into the soil with long-lasting results. However, the amount of natural product necessary to do the job may be much more than a synthetic type.

Synthetic fertilizer granules typically are so small they are not easily visible, but to get as much nitrogen over the same area through a natural application like compost may require 25 to 50 percent more product. A well-composted lawn may virtually cover all of the grass until it degrades into the soil, but that’s probably not the image you wish to project to potential renters.

On the other hand, synthetic fertilizers act quickly and usually cost less than natural applications. However, some synthetic products can create unhealthy chemical runoffs if they haven’t been absorbed into the soil. Shelf lives are shorter and the risk for burning plant life is higher.

Picking the Best Solution

When determining which type of product to use, consider first what you’re trying to accomplish and which is most effective from an eradication standpoint, cost, and meeting your criteria of toxicity levels and soil degradation rates.

Typically, the best-case scenario for natural products is to suppress a problem and not eradicate it. When it comes to herbicides and pesticides, synthetics have very specific assignments. And they are very, very effective at accomplishing only one or two things. So be sure to identify what it is that needs to be treated and determine if a synthetic approach is best.

For insect control, the application of nematodes is a great natural solution, but you have to be patient because the process is slow. Eradicating an aphid problem by use of lady bugs, could take a while and lapse past the window for seasonal color. It’s a process.

Be sure to read the labels, and look at words like toxicity and degradation. Just don’t stop at organic or inorganic and think there is only one environmentally friendly way to provide for your property’s landscape. MSDS sheets are a good source of information for toxicity and are readily available on the EPA’s website.

Nature has its way of providing for your landscape, just keep in mind it can be a mixed bag.


(Image source: Shutterstock)



President, Earthworks

author photo two

Chris Lee is President of Dallas, Texas-based Earthworks, which specializes in multifamily housing landscaping. He is a contributing author to Landscape Management magazine, licensed irrigation specialist and a Toro Intellisense certified technician. Chris studied business at the University of Arkansas from 1990-94 and horticulture and landscape design at Tarrant County College from 1999-01. He has been employed at Earthworks since 1998.

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