“Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?”
Had the popular nursery rhyme come about in the 21st century, the best answer would be “with local plants, and shady trees, purchased from just down the road.”
The concept of sustainability is increasingly becoming part of our everyday speech and thinking, but although we tend to associate it primarily with fuel efficiency and alternative energy systems, it’s a concept that needs to be applied to every aspect of our lives.
“There are three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social and economic,” says Sandy Urquhart, an expert in property development, horticulture and sustainable design.
Sustainable design, whether for homes, offices or outdoor spaces, not only focus on reducing dependence on fossil fuels, but also takes into account durability, ease and cost of maintenance, responsible use of natural resources, and benefits to the local economy.
Developing sustainably does not always mean seeking out the latest technological advances, however. Sometimes a simple return to the traditional way of doing things can be the most environmentally appropriate option.
This is particularly true when it comes to landscape design. Gardens and landscapes should be in balance with the local environment. The less input they require, in terms of labor, irrigation and fertilization, the more sustainable they will be.
“One of the most effective techniques you can use to design a sustainable landscape is to make use of native, indigenous and endemic plant material,” Urquhart says.
Plants that historically grow in this environment are adapted to the climate and the rainfall patterns, and they require little or no irrigation. They will flourish with minimal input, making them efficient in terms of natural and human resources.
It’s not a new a concept, by any means. It’s just a return to historic forms of landscaping – a system that served us well for generations.
More than 20 years ago, long before Camana Bay was built, Dart Realty started a 26-acre nursery to cultivate native shrubs, plants and trees. These plants now thrive throughout the town. More recently, their use of “less-thirsty” plants in the landscape design for 18 Forum Lane has lowered their landscape water needs by more than 50 percent.
“The use of resilient native and regional plants which are well-adapted to Cayman’s environment reduces the need for frequent watering, fertiliser and pesticide applications,” said Anand Adapa, senior manager of landscape services for Dart Realty.
“Home gardeners in Cayman have been doing this for years. The same principles have simply been applied in a commercial setting.”
Choosing resilient plants
The location of the Cayman Islands means that the islands are inevitably going to be affected by hurricanes from time to time. Native plants, whether endemic (those found only on the islands) or indigenous (those found throughout the region) have evolved over thousands of years to survive in this environment.
These plants are slow to grow, but they are strong and their root systems are deep, which is why they will remain standing even after the fiercest of storms.
“When you bring in beautiful exotic plants from other regions, they will grow very happily here because they are tropical plants,” says Cindy O’Hara, managing director and owner of Design (Cayman) Ltd. “But the reality is, they require a lot of water, they’re susceptible to pests and disease, and they have shallow roots, making them vulnerable in severe weather.”
Keeping it local
At a social and economic level, purchasing plants from local nurseries rather than importing them from thousands of miles away supports local businesses, and of course, reduces their carbon footprint to almost nothing.
Beyond the selection of vegetation, the careful siting of trees also adds to the overall sustainability of a property: Planting trees close to buildings not only creates a natural screen of privacy for the inhabitants, Urquhart says, but the shade they cast over the home or office will also help keep cooling costs down.
Reviving ancient wisdoms
Traditional landscaping practices, such as planting vegetable gardens and fruit trees around a home, are being resurrected across Cayman, Urquhart points out. Trees not only provide welcome shade and absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, but they are also an excellent source of fresh, local produce.
The practice of harvesting rainwater, once commonplace throughout the islands, is also being reintroduced in many new builds. At Casa Luna, the luxury residential community in South Sound, a vast system was designed to capture rainfall from all hard surfaces – roofs, driveways, terraces – and now serves to irrigate the communal gardens.
Likewise, at 18 Forum Lane, Camana Bay, a 50,000-gallon cistern collects and stores rainwater, which is then used for flushing toilets on a daily basis.
Designing for sustainability involves a whole new way of thinking: It’s a matter of exploring traditional practices and adapting them to modern technology; of taking a more holistic view; and considering the immediate and long-term effects each decision will have on the land, the people and the economy. It’s complex, but it’s also largely common sense.
After all, who needs “silver bells and cockle shells” in their garden?