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Demetria Christo of Eco Urban shares landscaping advice

Sustainable landscaping turns backyards into thriving ecosystems

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There's a saying that New Orleans is so far behind, it's ahead. According to Demetria Christo, co-owner of landscaping company Eco Urban (504-957-7706; www.ecourbanllc.com), that's true when it comes to the urban agriculture trend. While some New Orleanians are just now discovering the pleasures of backyard citrus groves and heirloom tomato patches, many residents are lifelong gardeners.

  "We're still in touch with our agricultural roots," says Christo, a New Orleans native who grew up in Virginia and majored in ecology at Tulane University. "People in New Orleans are very self-sufficient. So many people love growing, whether it's a young family or a veteran who's been composting for 70 years. ... And unlike other cities, we have the yard space."

  Christo and co-owner Travis Cleaver created Eco Urban in 2007 after meeting in a permaculture class at Tulane. "Permaculture is a style of landscaping that marries form with function," Christo says. "You build circular systems with the goal of eliminating waste and reintegrating it back into the system — for example, you have chickens, their poop fertilizes the soil, and you grow food."

  Even if clients don't want to delve into animal husbandry, Christo follows a similar principle with her sustainable landscaping company. "Sustainable landscaping describes a practice of transforming (regular landscaping) into productive ecological spaces," Christo says. This can be as simple as using a cistern to capture water that irrigates the yard, adding a small vegetable bed or composting.

  "If we have a yard with a lot of leaves and the resident is composting, we'll use it right there as fertilizer and reintegrate it back into the ecosystem," Christo says. "The client saves money and has the richest fertilizer they could possibly get, and they're using less energy because it doesn't have to be shipped."

  Several elements are necessary to create a healthy habitat in your backyard. First, thriving ecosystems have biodiversity: a range of animals, insects and plants. "The more healthy species you have, the more robust, complex and healthy the ecosystem," Christo says.

  Birds, lizards and beneficial insects like bees and butterflies also can keep pests in check naturally. You can attract them with water. "Birdbaths or a small pond are great," Christo says.

  Birds, bees and butterflies also need food sources. Flowers like milkweed attract monarch butterflies: "Their caterpillars eat only milkweed," Christo says. Butterflies and bees need different pollination sources, too: "There are these wonderful native wildflower mixes — you get your Louisiana native poppies, lantana, coreopsis. ... It's $65-$75 a pound and an inexpensive way to cover a bed quickly."

  For a food source for birds, Christo recommends American beautyberry. Last, these critters require a place to live: Trees are homes for birds, and perennials give insects a place to weather cold winters.

  Good soil is the foundation that supports the whole ecosystem. Eco Urban uses all-natural, clove- and citrus-oil-based herbicides so the soil's integrity isn't compromised. The company also recommends using compost to improve soil health.   

  "Compost is hands-down the best thing anybody could use in their yard," Christo says. "It has a natural growth hormone that helps plants, and the microbes involved in it are incredible."

  Pervious (or permeable) hardscapes allow rainfall to sink into the soil. "Instead of running into storm drains and inundating our city's infrastructure, we need that water to go back into the soil and help keep New Orleans from sinking and strengthen trees," Christo says. "Soil can help purify the water, too."

  When yards have a healthy balance of flora and fauna, the sky is the limit for landscaping ideas. Christo says she does a lot of citrus groves around New Orleans, including navel oranges, blood oranges, satsumas, Key limes and Meyer lemons.   

  "When we put in a citrus orchard, we put down Society garlic, which is a beautiful flower but also a good deterrent to pests," she says. Blueberries, thornless blackberries, persimmons, loquats, avocados, pecan trees, papayas, Louisiana plums, Muscadine grapes and pomegranates also do well in New Orleans' subtropical climate.

  For clients who want a low-maintenance landscape, Christo uses wood ferns as a ground cover. "I love ferns because they shade out other weeds, and you reduce the maintenance," Christo says. "You reduce your mulching and weeding time."

  Then she might line the border with shrubs and trees. "For small trees, I love Sweetbay magnolias," she says. "White fringe trees are an underused, wonderful native tree. They grow 15 to 20 feet (tall) and have these gorgeous white scented flowers every spring."

  Christo says the price range for an Eco Urban landscaping job is $3,000 to $10,000. "If you want to build patios, decks or hardscapes and more infrastructure, the cost can go up," she says. "We do like to customize everything to satisfy budgets and tastes." The company can gradually convert traditional landscaping into organic landscaping by introducing different plants and features like cisterns.

  "We love painting the picture of how all our yards are part of the bigger ecology here," Christo says. "It's just a matter of shifting focus and seeing the bigger picture."

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