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Ecological Landscaping Activities at Albuquerque Academy

Ecological landscaping refers to landscape designs, practices, and techniques that are in
sync with nature, whereby the land and its inhabitants exist in harmony. Ecological
landscapes are sustainable because they mimic the processes that occur in nature, and
once established, they require only minimal external inputs (e.g., water, fertilizer, human
labor/maintenance, etc.). In contrast, traditional landscapes, such as turf lawns and annual
flower beds, are considered ecologically immature. Because nature is always working to
convert and repossess man-made landscapes, it takes a constant supply of energy, time,
materials, and human labor to keep these traditional landscapes from evolving into a
more nature-friendly state.
In nature, there is no such thing as waste. Everything is food for something else,
connected in life and death to many other species. In an effort to reduce waste and make
our campus landscape more sustainable 1 and beneficially interconnected, members from
the Albuquerque Academy community (staff, faculty, administrators, trustees, students,
and parents) have been working to implement a variety of landscaping strategies and
techniques over the past two years. Below I summarize many of these activities.
Sheet Mulching
Sheet mulching is a composting technique where organic materials are placed on top of
the ground and allowed to decay in place. Sheet mulching is an easy and inexpensive way
to quickly improve the quality of soil. As in traditional composting, sheet mulching
requires both nitrogen- and carbon-rich materials, which are layered on top of the ground
in alternating layers. Common nitrogen sources include grass clippings, livestock manure,
food waste, green leaves, and weeds. Typical carbon sources include paper and cardboard,
brown leaves, straw, and wood chips. Since January 2009, most of the paper waste at
Albuquerque Academy has been used in sheet-mulching projects, and has involved
participation from students and faculty from all grades, staff members and administrators,
trustees, and even some parents.
Sheet mulching provides many benefits: (1) it builds soil and improves soil health, (2) it
improves nutrient absorption, (3) it conserves moisture by slowing evaporation, and it
retains moisture in the root zone, (4) it kills most grasses and weeds without herbicides,
(5) it encourages beneficial organisms within the soil, (6) it helps stop soil erosion, and it
helps to prevent rainwater runoff, (7) it helps to maintain a more even soil temperature
year-round, (8) it reduces maintenance as compared to bare soil, (9) it improves plant
vigor and increases resistance to pests and diseases, and (10) it lowers the school’s
carbon footprint.
Sheet mulching commenced on campus in the spring of 2008. Since then, 53,894 square
feet (1.24 acres) of landscape has been covered with sheet mulch. Of this area, sheet
mulching was used to convert about 17,000 square feet of turfgrass to more fertile, water-
retentive soil. Much of the sheet mulching has been focused around the root zone of

Ecological landscapes, because they mimic nature, are thrifty in their consumption of resources.
Ecological landscapes require fewer external inputs than traditional landscapes, thus they are sustainable
both financially and environmentally.
campus trees. The specific areas sheet mulched on campus are shown below. Click on
sheet mulching to learn more about this composting technique.
• Japanese garden: 2,157 ft2
• Apple orchard (east/northeast of library parking lot): 25,500 ft2
• Austrian pine near middle school apple orchard: 78.5 ft2
• Two ginkgo trees: 117 ft2
• Lower soccer field: 7,199 ft2
• Natatorium re-fill valve (northeast of natatorium): 784 ft2
• Middle school xeriscape garden: 1,658 ft2
• Middle school grapes: 432 ft2
• Honeylocust trees on west side of science building: 261.5 ft2
• Science building Greenbelt project: 10,803 ft2
• East admin honeylocust trees: 317 ft2
• Elkins memorial goldenrain trees (just east/southeast of treasury): 331 ft2
• Northwest side of North Hall: 1,769 ft2
• Three ash trees on west side of tennis courts: 506 ft2
• Two Chinese pistache trees on west side of tennis courts: 226 ft2
• One blue spruce at northwest corner of tennis courts: 314 ft2
• Bradford pear on east side of east admin: 201 ft2
• Ponderosa pine in turf on east side of east admin: 113 ft2
• Southeast edge of science building: 220 ft2
• Music building – three transplanted oak trees: 907 ft2
Wood Chip Mulch
In addition to sheet mulching, numerous trees, shrubs, and flower beds on campus have
been covered with a layer of wood chip mulch, or in some cases, a pine needle mulch.
Wood chip mulch covers approximately 57,552 square feet (1.32 acres) of campus
landscape. While wood chip mulch has many of the same benefits as sheet mulching,
wood chips are, in general, less effective at controlling weeds than sheet mulches. In
addition, wood chip mulches generally contain fewer soil and plant nutrients than sheet
mulches. The specific areas covered with mulch are listed below.
• Three ash trees on north side of Japanese garden: 1,925 ft2
• Two sycamore trees northwest of Japanese garden: 308 ft2
• Two sycamore trees on the northwest side of Simms library: 230 ft2
• Three catalpa trees at far north side of Simms library: 833 ft2
• Three ash trees on west/northwest side of Simms library: 572 ft2
• Four ash trees on west-central side of Simms library: 742 ft2
• Nine Arizona cypress trees at south edge of library parking lot: 1,908 ft2
• Five Leyland false cypress trees along south side of Marburger baseball field: 95
• Three ash trees in planter bed at middle school circle (student dropoff/pickup):
500 ft2
• Four ash trees and three silverberry bushes at west campus gym entrance: 1,020
• Rim of stormwater drainage basin at west end of parking lot #5: 13,640 ft2
• Two sycamore trees on north/northwest side of natatorium: 1,413 ft2
• Planter beds along east/south sides of natatorium: 2,460 ft2
• Rose garden at west campus dining hall: 546 ft2
• Flower bed along the east side of sixth grade building: 390 ft2
• Flower beds along the west side of the sixth grade building: 370 ft2
• Flower bed along the south side of visual arts: 100 ft2
• Flower bed along the north side of the sixth grade building: 175 ft2
• Seven trees between visual arts and west campus dining hall: 342 ft2
• Flower bed along the east side of visual arts: 153 ft2
• Sycamore trees in dirt parking lot, north of parking lot #1: 3,956 ft2
• Bradford pear trees on northeast side of east campus dining hall: 1,700 ft2
• Two picnic tables just north/northwest of North Hall: 690 ft2
• Ash tree on hill at west/northwest end of tennis courts: 79 ft2
• Yellet Memorial and cross country start/finish area: 12,938 ft2
• Flowerbed and four trees on south side of headmaster’s office: 996 ft2
• Purpleleaf plum tree just north of the horseshoe pits: 20 ft2
• Music building patio bed and two stairwell planter beds: 611 ft2
• Hawthorn trees at southwest corner of Brown Hall: 300 ft2
• Trees and shrubs on west/southwest side of Music building: 1,596 ft2
• Two autumn sage islands in roadway west/northwest of Simms performance hall:
2,523 ft2
• North side of east campus dance hall: 264 ft2
• Barberry bushes along walkway on west side of east admin building: 250 ft2
• Planter bed on east/northeast side of main entrance to Simms performance hall:
400 ft2
• Flower beds on the west side of the east admin building: 789 ft2
• Planter beds in North Hall courtyard: 665 ft2
• Herb garden west/southwest of Elkins room: 598 ft2
• Planter beds on south side of North Hall: 695 ft2
• Semicircle flower bed on the north side of the east campus dining hall: 105 ft2
• Planter beds in Brown Hall courtyard: 235 ft2
• Planter beds on north side of Brown Hall: 420 ft2
Landscape (Living) Sponge
A landscape sponge, sometimes referred to as a living sponge 2 or vertical mulching, is an
earthwork that is designed to quickly collect, retain, and slowly drain water. Typically, a
sponge consists of layers of mostly carbon-rich, porous, and environmentally friendly
materials (e.g., cardboard, newspapers, books, office paper, and wood chips).
Over the past 18 months, three low-lying, flood- and erosion-prone areas have been
excavated to a depth of 12 to 15 inches, and then backfilled with waste paper, cardboard,

According to Brad Lancaster, a living sponge is a natural mix fertile soil, soil organisms, organic surface
mulch, and vegetation that quickly infiltrates water into the soil and pumps some of it back out through the
vegetation to produce additional resources such as food, shelter, wildlife habitat, and beauty.
leaves, and topped with a layer of wood chips. During a late summer (2009) monsoonal
downpour (a one-inch rainfall event), the sponges worked: They soaked up all of the
rainwater without overflowing.
Since the fall of 2008, 25,020 cubic feet of sponge material has been installed at three
sites on campus: (1) just east/southeast middle school computer center, (2) at the north
end of natatorium dirt parking lot, and (3) on the western edge of the JV softball field.
While the sponges were installed primarily to harvest water, control flooding, and reduce
erosion, they provide other benefits to the landscape. For example, sponge materials
decompose to produce fertile, nutrient-rich soil. Sponges retain water for a relatively long
time, releasing it slowly as required by tree and plant roots. Moisture in the sponge
attracts life of all types, including a wide array of beneficial macro- and microorganisms.
To learn more about soil/living sponges, please refer to the following references:
• Brad Lancaster, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 2:
Water-Harvesting Earthworks, Rainsource Press, Tucson, Arizona, 2008.
Water Harvesting and Erosion Control
In the spring of 2009, staff members from the Grounds department installed a gabion
within a stormwater basin located adjacent to parking lot #5. A gabion is a water-
harvesting earthwork (i.e., wire-wrapped check dam) that is used to slow and spread
water so that it can infiltrate the soil without causing erosion. Since the installation of the
gabion, this pervious structure has allowed stormwater runoff into the drainage basin, but
has halted further erosion at this site. In addition, the gabion has trapped soil and detritus
and increased soil moisture, thus creating conditions favorable for vegetation growth.
While the gabion was used to halt gully erosion along the northeast side of the
stormwater basin, brush weirs have been used to control erosion along the rim of basin as
well as within developing rills and runnels along steeply sloped basin sides. To learn
more about check dams, gabions, brush weirs, and other erosion-control techniques, refer
to the following references:
• Brad Lancaster, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 1:
Guiding Principles to Welcome Rain into Your Life and Landscape, Rainsource
Press, Tucson, Arizona, 2006.
• Brad Lancaster, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 2:
Water-Harvesting Earthworks, Rainsource Press, Tucson, Arizona, 2008.
• Bill Zeedyk and Jan-Willem Jansens, An Introduction to Erosion Control, 2nd
edition, Earth Works Institute and Quivira Coalition, 2006.
Sheet Mulching (Composting in Place)
Material Needs (Ingredients)
• Brown cardboard (tape removed)
• Newspapers (remove glossy, colored pages)
• Water
• Manure (or other “green” sources if available on site)
• Beneficial microorganisms (optional)
• Redworms (optional)
Equipment Needs
• Wheelbarrows
• Shovels
• Water
• Rakes
Personal Gear
• Waterproof shoes or boots
• Gloves
• Sun hat
• Camera (to record exercise)

Step 1: Choose the site – The site needs sun, water, protection from foot traffic, and
wind protection (if possible). If the site is near a downspout, it would be beneficial to
direct runoff to the project.

Step 2: Water the site – Very Important! Thoroughly moisten each nitrogen and carbon
layer as you mulch. Start now by soaking the site with water.

Step 3: Inoculate site – Using a redworm tea and water mixture [1 part water to 1 part
tea], spray concoction (containing beneficial microorganisms) onto site. A small, clean
fertilizer sprayer can be used to apply the tea mixture.

Step 4: Add manure (nitrogen layer) – If you are not composting weeds or sod, spread
a thin (an inch or so) layer of manure onto the site. Older manure is best since fresh
manure can “burn” plants. If composting weeds, knock down the weeds first. Water

Step 5: Add worms – Add red wiggler worms (beneficial macroorganisms) to site. (If
you’re interested in learning more about composting with worms (vermicomposting),
check out Mary Applehof’s book, Worms Eat My Garbage. She also has a cool website
( Another good book is Earthworms, Dirt, and Rotten Leaves by
Molly McLaughlin.

Step 6: Add newspapers (carbon layer) – Spread newspapers over the surface to a
depth of about ½ inch. Make sure the newspapers are overlapped so that no light gets
through. Water thoroughly.

Step 7: Add manure (nitrogen layer) – Add another inch of manure to the site. Water
Step 8: Add cardboard (carbon layer) – Cover the site with a layer of brown cardboard.
Make sure to overlap the cardboard pieces so that light does not penetrate. Don’t use
white cardboard as it contains bleach and other toxic chemicals. Soak cardboard with

Step 9: Add wood chips (carbon layer) – Cover the site with a thick (anywhere from
three to 12 inches) layer of straw, hay, or bark chips. Water thoroughly.

Maintenance: Periodically check the moisture level of the mulch. If necessary, add
water to keep the mulch moist. In warmer weather, cafeteria scraps (for example, fruit
cores and peels [but not citrus], vegetable pieces [but not onions], and bread products)
could be added under the paper level to feed the worms.
Benefits of Sheet Mulching
• Kills most grasses and weeds without herbicides
• Builds soil and improves soil health
• Encourages beneficial micro- and macro-organisms to the soil
• Improves nutrient absorption and water retention
• Reduces maintenance as compared to bare soil
• Mulched plants have bettor vigor and improved resistance to pests and diseases
• Using materials on site (for example, cardboard and newspaper) is an effective
way to recycle and promote sustainability
• Plus, it’s FUN and EASY to do!!
1. Priscilla Logan, A Soil Building Project, Permaculture Drylands Journal, March
2. Gil A. Carandang, Indigenous Microorganisms: Grow Your Own Beneficial
Indigenous Microorganisms and Bionutrients in Natural Farming, Herbana Farms,
3. Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay, Introduction to Permaculture, Tagari
Publications, 1991.
4. Mary Applehof, Worms Eat My Garbage, Flower Press, 1982.
5. Cora Burns Vandecar, Sheet Mulching, 2007 (unpublished).
6. Lisa Van Cleef, Sheet Mulching: Quick, Easy, Non-toxic Weed Control,, 25 February 2004.
7. Craig Elevitch and Kim Wilkinson, Sheet Mulching: Great Plant and Soil Health
for Less Work,, 1998.
8. Ruth Stout, Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, Busy, and Indolent, Lyons
Press, 1998.
9. Toby Hemenway, Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture,
Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2001.
10. Patricia Lanza, Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful
Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding!, Rodale Press, 1999.