PRB Articles

Sprouting With Green Ideas

It seems every day we learn of more ways to “go green,” from green energy sources to green house construction. Even auto companies are joining the effort by producing hybrids and alternative-energy vehicles.

Camps also have opportunities to “green up.” Here are several eco-friendly landscape-project ideas:

Plant To Impress

Landscape plantings are a relatively easy way for camps to become eco-friendly and improve the grounds. Landscape plantings provide seasonal interest, and ensure the grounds look attractive throughout the year. They also can accent different areas of the camp and call attention to important facilities. For example:

• Plant a small flowering tree, ornamental shrubs and perennials next to the camp sign to emphasize it. Fragrant and colorful shrubs planted near a gathering space or outside the entrance to a conference or retreat center create both an aesthetic display and an aromatic experience.

• Accent hiking trails by planting native flowering shrubs and trees along the route, and in woodland clearings to provide seasonal interest.

• Consider working with a local landscape nursery or contractor who can help identify the right plants for a specific location. A company may even provide materials and labor at a discount or as a donation in exchange for signage acknowledging its contribution.

Go Native

Installing native plant material at a camp is perhaps the most basic way to become more eco-friendly. Since plants are adapted to a region, they typically do not require a great deal of long-term maintenance. The benefits of using native plants are many:

• They are adapted to the local climatic, soil and precipitation conditions.

• They provide extended cost benefits, and require fewer instances of long-term maintenance, reduced fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide applications than non-native plants do.

• Because they occur in an area naturally, they attract a wide range of wildlife species, and improve the quality of the camp’s wildlife habitat.

• They can easily be incorporated into a camp’s environmental education program, allowing campers to learn about the native species of the area.

There are many ways to use native plants in a camp landscape. Typically, natives can be used in a range of areas from small planting beds of a few square feet to fields and clearings several acres in size. Here are a few other suggestions to highlight native plants at camp:

• If the camp is in a more natural setting, you may already have several native species of trees, shrubs and wildflowers on site. Educate campers about these natives by installing interpretive signage along camp trails.

• If the camp is in an urban or suburban setting, you can create planting beds with native perennials instead of non-native shrubs, perennials and annual flowers .

• Convert woodland clearings or agricultural fields to wildflower meadows and prairies.

• Reduce a camp’s overall maintenance needs by converting areas that are difficult to mow--steep slopes and roadway ditches--to native plants that do not need to be mowed as often as turfgrass .

Putting Water To Work

One of the more popular trends in the landscape industry today is the use of rain barrels and rain gardens to utilize rainfall runoff in creative ways.

Rain barrels are barrel-like containers that collect and store rainwater flowing from the roof, thus preventing it from running off onto the surrounding ground surface. Rain barrels can be custom-built or installed from ready-made kits. There are literally dozens of manufacturers of these kits, which range widely in size and style. An online search provides ample sources for the kits. Check with the local city or county government as some communities offer rebates for rain barrels.

A rain garden is a planted depression that captures runoff from nearby impervious surfaces, such as rooftops, roadways and parking lots, allowing the water to infiltrate the soil . As with the rebates for rain barrels, many communities offer financial incentives and cost-sharing to support these projects.

Because each rain-garden project is unique, consult a local landscape professional to design one. The following list should get you started:

• Locate it. Select a site where runoff occurs. This may be near a parking lot, a problem site that stays wet for long periods or an area that may be used for environmental education.

• Design it. Consult a landscape architect, landscape contractor or soils engineer, and perform a soil percolation test to understand how quickly the existing soil drains, as the specific design will depend on the existing soil type. Also, consider the size of the parking area, rooftop or roadway because the size of the impermeable surface determines the size of the rain-garden basin. The larger the impervious surface, the larger the basin.

• Dig it. Dig the rain-garden basin, replacing the soil you remove with a proper mix of sand, compost and loamy soil. Consult a landscape professional because the actual mix will depend on the percolation test and the existing soil types, and an engineered mix may be required.

• Plant it. Plant natives which are tolerant of moisture extremes. A rain garden will experience periods of both drought and saturation, so select plants that can tolerate these conditions.

• Maintain it. Just as with any other planting bed, rain gardens require periodic weeding, mulching and replacing some plants as they become established.

Permeable Pavements

Permeable pavement is a great way to “go green” at camp. Pavers may be used in patios, terraces and other places where traditional paving is used . The difference is that permeable pavements allow rainwater to pass through because there are slight gaps between the individual bricks or pavers. Again, consult a local landscape professional because permeable pavements are built on top of an engineered stone base that varies from location to location, depending upon the soil type and climate. The colder the climate, the deeper the pavement base usually needs to be set.

Maintenance Considerations

As with any landscape project, eco-friendly projects require a proper level of maintenance if they are to be successful. Nothing ruins the beauty of a native wildflower meadow than dandelions, so it is important that the eco-project is not only designed properly, but also receives the proper level of maintenance. With some additional planning and care, you can create an eco-friendly landscape that not only supports your environmental education program but also improves the aesthetics of the camp.

Tom Neppl is a landscape architect and owner of Neppl Landscape Architecture and Planning LLC, an environmental design firm that serves clients with interests in the outdoors and the natural environment. He can be reached at (515) 232-6530, or via e-mail at

Weston Wunder is the president of Landscapes By Design, Inc., a landscape-design build firm specializing in creating functional and low-maintenance landscape designs utilizing native plant materials. He can be reached at (515) 685-2508, or via e-mail at

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