Everything is OK in Moderation - Except Climate Change

Written by by William R. Boyce, IV   

The winter of 2013-14 took a toll on the landscapes of northern New Jersey. Hollies and boxwoods look burned, the lawn has snow mold, granite curbing has been destroyed by snow plows, tree branches have snapped, plants that were marginally hardy may not even come back at all -- I've got my eye on those Crape Myrtles.  
These low winter temperatures may be here to stay as the Polar Vortex will most likely continue to pump cold air down on us for years to come


News3bThese factors will influence the way Biosphere designs its landscapes in the future.  

Biosphere's view of our new reality is one with longer winters and shorter summers --  and painfully short spring and fall seasons. We will experience a compressed season in which to enjoy the landscape and unfortunately a longer period of time when we will stress about it.  Whether you’re at a barbecue in your backyard, watching a tennis match, or hiking a trail, temperatures will be less moderate and wind will be more severe.  This will reduce the benefit of being in the landscape and add stress, unless the environments are designed correctly.  

Biosphere's first four guidelines for landscape design in an evolving climate: 

Problem 1:    Plant Hardiness - Change is inevitable, so deal with it!  The era of our climate being static and the associated design conventions that go along with these norms are gone.  We have seen plants suffer that have been located based on USDA plant hardiness zones.  These are recommendations of where plants like to be positioned in the landscape based on centuries of observation.  While, the zones have slowly migrated over the past few years, we have seen greater ranges in temperatures putting additional stress on plants.   Last year, the 2013 heat index was as high as 110 and wind chill as low as -20's.

Biosphere Design Guideline 1:  We will specify even hardier plants.  The USDA defined minimum ranges of temperatures that a plant or tree can survive in safely will be carefully scrutinized. The minimum temperatures from 1961 to 1990 and associated zone map has now been replaced with an updated zone map covering the period from 1981 - 2010.  Westwood, NJ for instance has a USDA Hardiness Zone: of 6b: -5F to 0F,  whereas Ringwood, NJ has a USDA Hardiness Zone: of 6a: -10F to -5F.  In the future we will error on the side of caution and specify plants that can withstand even colder temps and exposure to wind and ice better than the hardiness zones suggest. 


Problem 2:  Local Flooding - "Rain-Rain go Away." Not going to happen!   The rule used to be high intensity storms lasting for a short duration of time.  Now with Nor'easters and Hurricanes becoming as commonplace as thunderstorms; if we want to design spaces that keep dwellings dry and landscapes serviceable, we have to be able to deal with incredible peak stream flows, excessive runoff from hardscapes, coastal flooding, river and flood plain flooding.   


Biosphere Design Guideline 2:  Belt and suspenders aren't just a fashion statement!  When designing our landscapes we make sure to direct water swiftly and effectively away from the built environment and quickly into rain-gardens, vernal pools, underground seepage tanks.  Along the way we will make every attempt to cleanse the run-off of pollutants and sediment by contact with plants and not just in a pipe.   We will continue to express great care not to direct water onto neighboring properties, streams, or storm sewers.  We will be working with our Civil Engineering associates to double check our math and plan for the most intense storms conceivable. 

News3aProblem 3:  Swim Shirts are embarrassing - at any age! Limiting exposure to direct sun is important as it has a cumulative health effect over everyone's life with scary cancerous consequences.

Biosphere Design Guideline 3: Our aim is to provide options for shade on all of our projects with associated inviting seating options.  By providing shady spaces, always within view from full sun spaces, even with temperatures rising, our landscape users can enjoy being outside for longer periods of time. Shade trees are often fast growing and the investment can last for generations.   


Problem 4: Masonry is supposed to be permanent: The problem with this paradigm is that with the additional stresses the changing climate has placed on outdoor hardscape elements, we have to overdesign for the greater longevity. 


Biosphere Design Guideline 4: Flexibility is not only the key to mental health, it is also the key to Masonry! Freeze thaw cycles will be deeper and last longer, snow plows will continue to bash our curbs, and snow melting chemicals will attempt to make walkways safe.  These natural conditions and resulting landscape maintenance practices all reduce the lifespan of the hardscape elements.  Our approach will be to build in flexibility like never before. Understanding that things will move and will be abused, we will look for more durable natural products and construct them into landscapes that include more drainage and expansion joints for the ever shifting landscapes. We will also continue to offer flexible dry-set stonework options for project elements like naturalistic steps and walls, curbs and even patios.  


This year Biosphere, Inc. is committed to evolving with the climatic changes we are experiencing.  We are intent on creating landscapes and outdoor living spaces that are enjoyable all year long.


~ Stay tuned for more of landscape problems and Biosphere design guidelines as we learn to deal with climate change.


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