Man on a Mission

Updated Feb 20, 2013

Larry Cammarata is utterly evangelical about sustainable landscaping. The road to redemption, he says, is paved with three simple commandments.

By Ken Wysocky

Understanding the complexities of sustainable landscaping can feel like digging a flowerbed with a teaspoon.

But according to Larry Cammarata, all you really need to know is this six-word mantra: Right plants. Right place. Right soil.

It’s that simple.

“If you know your plants and their water requirements, and you put them in the right place in a landscape and understand the soil you’re putting them in, they’ll only need water for establishment,” says Cammarata, the green management consultant for The Brickman Group, one of the nation’s largest landscaping firms, with more than 160 branches in 29 states.

Cammarata conducts training for Landscape Sustainability Audits, here teaching how to review the pumping system at a residence where there was a “constantly clogged intake and melted pipes due to loss of prime to the pump due to a poorly planned pumping scheme.”

“After that, they’ll become self-sustaining. When you understand how these three elements work together, it can change how you do business. Those who don’t change will become obsolete,” he warns.

“When I travel around the country and go to states with water-use regulations in place, I either find people who already operate and exceed those regulations or people who do business by barely meeting those regulations while hanging on to the way they’ve always done things.”

Answering the calling

It’s no coincidence Cammarata, 53, sounds like a missionary as he riffs on sustainability and the interrelationships between plants, soil and water. After 17 years of designing water-management systems, including four years at a Brickman design-build division in Chicago, Cammarata chucked a successful horticultural water-use consulting business to attend seminary school and become a pastor.

“It’s called stepping out,” he says. “I felt like I had a calling to become a pastor…to be a minister of the gospel and a purveyor of living water.”

Cammarata rejoined Brickman in 2005. Two years later, the company created the special green management position and sent him out to preach, if you will, the good word of sustainability to both Brickman employees and its clients. He says his unique position reflects the company’s conviction that sustainable landscaping is critical to the industry’s future.

This former all-turf area was modified so that existing cool season grass was turned into a “no mow” scenario with a beautiful curvilinear layout that is “more attractive than a full-mowed turf expanse,” says Cammarata, “and uses a substantial less amount of water. 

“People need to understand, for example, that there’s more to water management than fixing a pipe and changing a sprinkler,” he says. “If plants with different water requirements are on the same sprinkler zone, something’s not right.

“It’s not rocket science.”

A 1980 graduate of Purdue University with a degree in landscape management and architecture, Cammarata realizes that his specially-created position in a large national company gives him a unique pulpit from which to speak.

“With a company like this, we can have a great impact with this message,” he says. “It’s happening at the ground level, down in the trenches. When I was an independent consultant, I influenced from the top down. Now we’re trying to change the culture — both internally and externally — from the roots up. I believe I’m in the right place with this.”

No “Aha” moment

It didn’t take a sudden epiphany to convince Cammarata that curb appeal and an environmental ethos weren’t mutually exclusive terms. As a college student and during his years as an independent consultant, he slowly realized the powerful relationship between plants, soil and water, with a special emphasis on water.


This corporate site, which Cammarata worked on, was adapted to incorporate perennial shrubs, native grasses, as well as mowed turf in appropriate locations 

He firmly believes that too much water harms plants more than it helps them, and estimates that up to 50 percent of landscaping water is wasted.

“The more I studied it, the more I began to see the intense relationships…and the absolute issues of using water in landscapes,” he says. “With water, less is more. We reach a point where we don’t even realize how much damage we do.”

Soil also is an important part of the sustainability equation, he points out. Good soil is more than just dirt; it’s a cornucopia of things such as fungi, air space, microbials and bacteria, all of which help plants become strong and disease-free.

“All beneficial soil organisms breathe air, and excessive use of water removes air space from the soil, which causes those elements to die. So they can’t benefit the plant,” he adds. “And instead of realizing that and correcting it, we just come out with new chemicals and processes. They make the environment look good from the outside, but inside, it’s dying.”

Whether landscapers work in Nevada or Maine, they must know what their plants’ soil and water needs to create vigorous, self-sustaining landscapes. That means using less turf and annuals, which are anything but self-sustaining, he notes.

But that’s not to say grass has no place in the landscaping continuum. The key is to keep the sustainable elements in balance with unsustainable elements and group them according to their water and soil requirements.

Long-term choices cost less

To become sustainability disciples, landscapers must counsel clients against the natural impulse toward immediate visual gratification and short-term financial savings. As he succinctly observes, clients too often want what they want, where they want it and when they want it — which is usually right now.

“Landscapers then do anything to get it,” he says.

A good example is clients who request immediate color without high costs, and landscapers who too often respond by using less-expensive, eye-catching annuals.

“Perennials cost more, but after they’re established, they require much less care than annual beds,” he explains. “The cost of switching is high, but in the long term, it costs less.”

It’s a “solid intersection between environmental and economic goals. They must go hand-in-hand for clients to receive the full benefit.”

Clients too often want what they want, where they want it and when they want it — which is usually right now.

He cites another example of a client who balked at the up-front cost of a $3,000 water-saving sprinkler — until he learned it could save about 250,000 gallons of water a year, which provided a payback period of three to four years.

“In that instance, the client was happy because we provide the capital to make the investment, and I’m happy because the client will have healthier soil and plants, and a more self-sustaining landscape,” he says.

Grass not always greener

It’s imperative landscapers use the right plants in the right areas. For instance, turf is commonly used on parking-lot islands, even though it grows adjacent to highly heat-reflective blacktop and, in some climates, is exposed to salt during winters. The heat increases the turf’s moisture needs, and the salt damages the soil, which in turn damages the turf.

“So you need a plant that thrives in that environment and soil conditions without the use of supplemental water,” Cammarata says. “In the Midwest, for example, you might use low sumac.”

Clients generally are receptive to these concepts, especially if they reduce operating expenses. In that light, Cammarata has developed an auditing process that shows clients how they’ll save money by making their landscapes sustainable — thereby making budget-conscious decisions compatible with environmental stewardship.

“If they use the right plants and have adequate soil that can hold water and nutrients, they can meet their financial, ecological and environmental goals,” he notes.

Learning from others

Landscapers need to take a page from the playbook developed by the agricultural industry, which has learned how to wisely use water at the correct stages of crop development, Cammarata says.

“It’s just the opposite in the horticultural industry,” he says. “We don’t have a strong handle on the intersection of plants, soil and water. We don’t precisely understand the water needs of the plants we use; we don’t precisely understand the intersection of root systems with the soil provided and we don’t understand water use to the point where it can be a detriment to a landscape.”

Landscapers can educate themselves about sustainability through Internet research, university studies and by joining trade associations.

“The tools are out there,” he notes. “All you need is a desire to learn.”

How to exert influence

Moreover, Cammarata emphasizes landscapers don’t have to be part of large national companies like Brickman to play an important role in educating and persuading customers about the value of sustainable landscaping. If anything, Cammarata believes small operators have stronger, more personal relationships with clients and, as such, can wield greater influence.

“We’re at a defining moment in our industry. Those who refuse to change will pay the price.”

The rational doesn’t need to be complicated; all you need to emphasize to clients is that well-designed, sustainable landscapes can save energy and reduce the need for additional resources. Something as simple as strategically designed grass areas, for example, can dramatically reduce mowing, fertilization and irrigation needs, he says.

Cammarata believes a coming wave of more restrictive water-use regulations will force landscapers to embrace more sustainable practices. And those who refuse to change will pay the price.

To help influence those regulations, he urges landscapers to join trade associations such as the American Society of Landscape Architects (, the Professional Landcare Network (known as PLANET, and the Irrigation Association ( The latter is a good example of a group that has developed a beneficial relationship with the U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency, which gives the industry a voice in developing water-use regulations.

“We’re at a defining moment in our industry,” he asserts. “Some areas already use landscape-water allotments to dictate how much water you can use in a year. And there will continue to be more and more regulations that govern how we operate.”

“The guys who exceed those requirements will lead the industry to a new place,” he continues. “If they don’t, then we’ll be led by those who don’t know our industry — government agencies or municipalities.”

To Cammarata, it’s that simple — just like the right plants, right place, right soil.

Larry Cammarata’s Landscaping Sins

Even a sustainability guru like Larry Cammarata isn’t perfect when it comes to landscaping. Here is what he considers to be his worst mistakes in his DBSK — or Days Before Sustainability


• Ignoring the crucial interrelationships between plants, soil and water.

• Applying water indiscriminately.

• Forcing plants to grow with chemicals instead of studying why they aren’t doing well in their location.

• Assuming annuals are the only answer to clients’ requests for color.

• Placing plants with high-water needs among low water-needs perennials, shrubs and ground covers.

Cammarata’s Top Tips

A Google search of sustainable landscaping yields a mere 1.1 million results, plus a flood of jargon such as “maximum ecological function, reduced labor inputs, holistic design” and so on. But Cammarata boils it all down to these essential tips:

• Right plants, right place, right soil.

• If you don’t know your soil, you don’t know anything.

• Less water goes further and deeper than more water.

• Soil is not just dirt — it’s the lifeblood of horticul ture.

• Design with a landscape maturation/life-cycle in mind.

• Don’t keep plants alive chemically.

• Just because you like a plant doesn’t mean it belongs where you want.

• Self-sustaining plants rule.

• Don’t water concrete.

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