Plant Doctor—Selecting Plants for Troubled Soils


Share post:

Homebuyers who build on lots with contaminated soil may be seeking ways to sustainably improve topsoil, especially as they begin making decisions about their landscaping and outdoor living areas. One potential solution is with phytoremediation.

Summarized as utilizing plants’ unique metabolic and absorption capabilities to remove or stabilize contaminants in the soil, phytoremediation is not a new concept. However, it is a concept that absolutely applies to sustainable residential and commercial landscape design.

I’ve long been a proponent of working with the existing soils and site conditions on a project, rather than despite them. You won’t find long lists of soil amendments in my proposals, but instead well-rounded lists of ornamental and native plants that will thrive in a client’s existing soil, be it heavy clay, saturated loam or dry gravel.

[Related: Wildlife at home]

The idea of further fine-tuning these plant selections to actually remove heavy metal and chemical contaminants from the soils and water is fascinating to me, especially as more and more of my urban project sites have a sordid history of manufacturing. Case in point, I am currently working in a subdivision constructed on a designated brownfield, with subsoil consisting of industrial soils capped with 12 inches of clean sand fill. The long list of contaminants present in the site soils include diesel fuel, paint solvents, heavy metals, chemicals and herbicides from the nearby golf course, to name a few.

It’s important to consider the liabilities when balancing the cost-effective and environmentally friendly benefits of using plants for phytoremediation; namely, that the landscape management plan for the site must clean up the contaminants instead of just moving them to a new location or creating a new hazard exposure. Plant debris must be disposed of in an appropriate manner, and the use of edible plantings may be discouraged due to accidental ingestion of contaminants found in a client’s existing soil.

[Related: 7 Colorado native plants to add more pink to client landscapes]

Elizabeth Pilon-Smits, a professor in the biology department at Colorado State University, provided some suggestions for plant species that are native to Colorado and also good for phytoremediation.

She suggests poplar hybrids, sunflowers, buffalo grass and other prairie grasses, cattails and mustards. Some Astragalus species are “pretty, drought-tolerant and good for cleanup of selenium,” she told Colorado Builder.

Each plant in a landscape serves a different purpose, from phytostabilization to phytodegradation, and as a whole will help heal the spoiled soils over time.

Anna Brooks is co-owner of Arcadia Gardens in Stevensville, Michigan. She is a certified green industry professional, certified in landscape design, management and contracting.

Colorado Builder
Colorado Builder
Colorado Builder content specialist


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Pioneer Landscape Centers

Related articles

Are Your Landscapes a Deferred Expense?

Keeping traditional lawns looking good in a semi-arid climate adds up in irrigation and maintenance costs.

3 Factors for Stress-free Summer Lawns

Landscapers need to remember these three things to prevent stress to customers' lawns—and themselves.

Making the Switch to High-efficiency Sprinkler Heads

Fixed-spray-head nozzles are the most common types of sprinkler heads out there, but they waste large amounts of water.

Drought-resistant Turf for Dog Owners

Dog Tuff grass is able to withstand the wear and tear a dog puts on turf, but the real benefit is its ability to withstand drought.