Be Green for Me

Hiring Environmentally Friendly Garden Help
Photograph By
Cheryl Corson

A worker installs a permeable pavement BMP on East Capitol Street.

Just because you’ve made the effort to build a garden for yourself or have others design and build one for you, doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to take care of it afterward. Or you may know how but don’t have the time, or maybe you just don’t want to. Be honest and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Have you ever hired a crew to work on your garden and got that sinking feeling they’re not as environmentally friendly they could be, even if you can’t put the reason into words? Have you ever looked at a maintenance crew and felt you were just hoping for the best? Then this column is for you!

Get It in Writing

Home landscape maintenance is often incorrectly considered unskilled labor, not worthy of written standards or agreements. Or, if an agreement is in writing, it is often boilerplate language the contractor obtained along the line, used without customization and rarely if ever reviewed or referred to with clients. It’s time for change.

Here’s some new boilerplate language you can present to your contractor. They will be surprised! If you’re really serious, ask the contractor to initial each paragraph after you review your landscape maintenance agreement together. (I’m not kidding.)

“The owner intends that this landscape be maintained using Natural Landscaping techniques such as soil building, integrated pest management (IPM), and proper pruning and irrigation practices, and that pesticide use and other chemical inputs be minimized or eliminated.”

“All turf shall be mowed with professional-quality mulch-mowing equipment. Prior to award of contract, Contractor shall provide Owner with the make and model of the mower that will be used. Contractor is encouraged to use non-polluting devices like rakes and brooms when feasible. Blowers and other power equipment should be lower-decibel, low-fossil-fuel consumption, low-emission models as much as possible.”

I could go on, but this four-page, public-domain, home landscape maintenance agreement is online as an editable document customizable for your use. Click on the short version listed on this page:

The Seattle Public Utilities Commission provides the agreement, so there are references to conditions and pests not seen in our area. Wouldn’t it be great if the DC Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) put their lawyers and landscape architects to work on a customized version for us? Let DOEE Director (and former Ward 6 Councilmember) Tommy Wells know you think this would be a great public service:

Gardening for a Cleaner River

Gardens with green stormwater management practices are popping up all over the Hill: rain gardens, permeable paving, green roofs, rain barrels, native plant installations. Many of them are subsidized by DC’s RiverSmart Homes program, which offers rebates up to $2,400 for a combination of stormwater-friendly landscape installations. For more on RiverSmart Homes see

Stormwater-friendly landscapes encourage rainwater to soak slowly into the ground rather than run away to the nearest storm drain. When rain water soaks into plant beds, a green roof, or even permeable pavers, pollutants are filtered out and broken down, so the water that eventually reaches the river, and Chesapeake Bay, is cleaner.

These special garden features are referred to by people in the business as BMPs, “best [stormwater] management practices,” or GI, “green infrastructure.” The most common BMP is a rain garden, also known as a bioretention basin or cell. Another common BMP on the Hill is a rain barrel. A rain barrel has a spigot on the bottom to let water out, often connected to a soaker hose that sends water into a rain garden or a landscape area.

Your contractor may not have experience maintaining a rain garden or winterizing rain barrels. That’s okay. It’s not hard to learn, but you’re the client, so learn enough to stay ahead of your contractor, and don’t be afraid to engage in a conversation to establish what they know and what they need to know to do a good job for you.

Helpful BMP Maintenance Tips from DOEE

Nearly half of all rain gardens fail within the first five years due to poor maintenance. DOEE provides brochures on how to maintain your BMP, but education and communication with contractors is the weak link in the chain. Creating that editable boilerplate maintenance agreement to specify the maintenance tasks outlined in the brochures could help close the maintenance loop. Tell Tommy Wells this is a good idea:

Here is DOEE’s RiverSmart Homes brochure on rain garden care: (DOEE, if you’re listening, a shorter URL would make this document easier to find and share.)

Here is DOEE’s RiverSmart Homes brochure on rain barrel care: This isn’t the greatest brochure, so here is Montgomery County’s much better rain barrel brochure as a backup:

Lawn Maintenance Basics

If you are one of the few Hill residents with grass in your yard, here are some basic maintenance tips:

  • Have your contractor test the soil every one to three years, taking samples in mid-late spring or early fall.
  • Base any organic treatment on the soil test results.
  • Allow grass clippings to remain on the surface and to decompose as (free) fertilizer.
  • Keep nitrogen applications to one pound or less per 1,000 square feet.
  • Apply compost as a top dressing if needed.
  • Do not apply fertilizer just before it rains, when it’s windy, or within 15 feet of a storm drain.
  • Sweep up grass clippings that land on a paved surface and return them to the soil.
  • Mow grass taller, ideally 3.5 inches.
  • Consider switching to a deep-root grass seed which grows more slowly and needs infrequent (monthly) mowing. Two options are Eco-Lawn and Pearl’s Premium Lawn Seed.

Finding Help

Because many Hill residents work long hours, there is a healthy demand for landscape maintenance services. The Capitol Hill Garden Club has been a network of garden lovers since 1952. Not all of them do all their own maintenance, so feel free to tap into their collective wisdom for referrals:

Local contractors providing maintenance services include my colleagues Derek Thomas of Thomas Landscapes (, Mark White of Garden Wise (, and Mark Holler at Ginkgo Gardens (

My book “Sustainable Landscape Maintenance for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed” goes into these ideas and practices in great detail. A service you might want is having a landscape maintenance plan written specifically for your property. You could then give it to your maintenance contractor, or prospective contractor, so that the bids you receive reflect the actual work you are requesting. This document should be renewed annually to reflect changes in your landscape. I would be happy to write such a plan for you.

With collaboration and communication, you, your designer, your maintenance plan, and your contractor all work together to keep your garden a beautiful contribution to a cleaner river and Chesapeake Bay.

Skilled contractors plant native perennials in compost-filled tubes called Filtrexx.
A crew consults the designer’s drawing before laying out native plants at the National Zoo (design by Cheryl Corson, RLA).

Cheryl Corson is a licensed landscape architect and writer. Her book “Sustainable Landscape Maintenance for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed” will soon be available at no cost from the Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professional Program, For design assistance see  

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