Nurturing a Green Thumb
By: Nena Groskind
Is sex necessary? We thought the question humorist James Thurber once posed, would get your attention so we could ask the admittedly less enticing but nonetheless important question we want you to consider: Is landscaping necessary? And the answer - to the landscaping question - is an unequivocal yes.
Lush lawns, a towering tree-scape, colorful flowers and well-shaped shrubs do more than beautify a community; they increase its value, as well. Curb appeal matters. Residents feel better about living in nicely landscaped communities and prospective buyers are typically willing to pay more for properties in them. Landscaping provides practical benefits as well: Trees provide shade from the sun (reducing energy costs), improve air quality (by absorbing carbon dioxide) and create a buffer from wind and noise.
Beautiful, serviceable landscapes don't happen by accident. They require careful planning and ongoing attention. Many communities are dealing today with the results of poor planning in the past, by developers, former boards, or both. The wrong trees planted in the wrong places die prematurely, block views, or spread outsized roots under buildings, damaging their foundations. Overgrown shrubs attach themselves to buildings, creating moisture problems and harboring invasive insects. Untended lawns make an entire community look shabby and neglected.
"Boards devote a lot of attention to day-to-day operations," Bill Butts, business developer for ND Landscape ,Inc. in Georgetown, MA, says, "They plan for major capital improvements like swimming pools and roadways." But they don't recognize that landscaping, too, requires a long-term planning perspective.
How Big Will It Grow?
Just as you have to consider what the tiny puppy you buy today will weigh when full-grown, you have to consider what the saplings and shrubs you acquire will look like when they mature, and where they should be planted. You don't want to put trees with a large canopy close to buildings, Butts says; you want to put them in open spaces where they will have room to grow.
A landscape plan should have both near-term goals (what you want to plant in the spring and fall) and a long-term vision (what you want the community too look like five or ten years from now). Your landscape plan should also include a budget for maintenance, a crucial component that boards sometimes fail to consider. Grass has to be mowed, shrubs have to be trimmed and trees have to be pruned (to keep them well-shaped and healthy) and monitored for signs of disease.
Butts calls regular landscape maintenance "cost avoidance." Like deferred maintenance on buildings and building systems, deferred landscape maintenance will increase your costs. "If you don't spend $100 to prune that tree today, it may cost you $3,000 to remove it five years from now." And if you have to remove the tree, he notes, "you will also remove the shade and the economic value it provides."
Prudent Pruning Pays
Tony Rosado, president of Rosado and Sons, Inc. in Westborough, MA, puts pruning high on his list of essential maintenance. "If it's done consistently, pruning will extend the life of your plants," he says. If not, "you will have to replace them."
Plants and shrubs have to be pruned not only for their health and appearance, but also for the safety of residents, Butts notes. Overgrown shrubs can block lines of sight, making it difficult for drivers to see pedestrians and for pedestrians to see oncoming cars. "Safety is a major point of emphasis for us," Butts says, and it encompasses a community's hardscape (cracks in sidewalks, potholes in streets) as well as its landscape.
Most communities budget for mowing, trimming, fertilizing and irrigating says Gregory Progin, office manager for Rosado notes, but many omit periodic aeration, which is equally important. Unlike pruning, which immediately improves the appearance of shrubs and trees, the benefits of aerating aren't immediately apparent, which is why some boards decide it isn't necessary. But the failure to aerate has long-term consequences.
As soil becomes compacted over time, fertilizer and water aren't absorbed efficiently, Progin explains. Aerating the ground by pulling plugs out of it, increases the oxygen flow and improves absorption, strengthening the root structure, avoiding brown patches (one sign that aeration is needed) and keeping lawns looking healthy and lush. He recommends aerating most properties every other year - more frequently (as often as twice a year) if this treatment has been skipped for many years.
Dead and Dying
What if sections of your landscape die or show signs of dying, either because of poor maintenance or despite your efforts to maintain it? The first thing you should do, landscape experts agree, is diagnose the problem. "You don't want to blanket the soil with insecticide if insects aren't the problem," Progin notes.
Butts suggests getting more than one opinion to confirm a diagnosis, as you would when seeking treatment for a medical ailment, before settling on a recommended treatment. One of the first things he wants to know when he begins working with a new client is what previous contractors have done, or haven't done.
Treatments that worked on other properties with similar problems won't necessarily work on yours, Progin adds. "All soils are unique," he cautions. "You have to treat problems individually [and holistically]," considering a range of factors that include soil type, climate, environmental conditions, and maintenance history.
"To some extent, you have to work with what you have," Butts agrees. "You can't always change the soil conditions, but you can build a successful lawn care program around them."
Doing More with Less
Community associations generally want their landscapes to look attractive and well-maintained, but they don't always want to spend the money required to achieve that goal. Finding ways to do more with less is a constant challenge for landscapers, who have to persuade cost-conscious boards that they don't have to cut maintenance corners in order to control their landscaping costs.
The easiest way to reduce lawn care expenses, Butts suggests, is to reduce the size of the lawn. Letting some areas "go natural" by planting vegetation that grows long and doesn't require mowing or much water is one strategy he recommends. It creates a conservation look that looks planned, but not ill-tended, he says.
"Zero-scapes" planted with native vegetation requiring little care accomplish the same goal, Rosado notes. "They reduce maintenance costs but still look great."
Planting perennials rather than annuals that have to be replaced every season is another cost-saving solution. The right flowers can add the color and variety of annuals without the annual expense. Perennials require some seasonal care, Butts notes, "but if you manage it correctly, you can cut some costs."
Putting more expensive plants in higher visibility areas while using evergreens to anchor a landscape and provide consistent color is another way for communities to get maximum visual bang for their landscaping dollars.
Landscapes don't have to be limited to grass, flowers and shrubs, Rosado notes. The creative use of granite curbing and colored stone can also do much to increase curb appeal. "There are so many different products you can use to enhance an area," he says. "They look expensive, but they aren't."
Associations can also take advantage of new technologies to reduce their costs: Sprinkler systems can be controlled remotely, allowing a manager to respond immediately to a leak; programmable sprinkler heads can provide water to different zones on different schedules; and "smart controllers" linked to weather satellites match irrigation patterns to weather conditions. If the sensors show that a two-day rainfall has met irrigation needs, Butts says, the watering will be suspended until the sensor detects that irrigation is needed.
These systems require up-front investments, he acknowledges, but the costs have fallen dramatically. For a 10-acre property with 3-5 acres of greenspace, he estimates, the one-time equipment costs would be between $4,000 and $5,000 ¨- but the system would reduce watering costs by as much as 40 percent annually. For communities paying $10,000 to $15,000 for water, he notes, "that's about a one-year return on the investment."
The best investment associations can make, landscapers (not surprisingly) agree, is in a capable landscape contractor. The biggest mistake communities make, Rosado says, is focusing on the fee contractors charges rather than the resources they have and the services they can provide. Another big mistake, Progin adds, is having contractors submit bids based on a standard spec sheet, rather than detailing what they will do for your community. "It's much better to have us submit a plan that fits your budget, instead of trying to fit our ideas into specs based on properties that may be very different from yours."
Picking the Right Contractor
When vetting contractors, boards should consider referrals from other clients (reputation is important), professionalism (those professional credentials - CLI, CLP, MLA - mean something) and experience. You want a contractor who knows how to work with condominium communities. You also want to make sure the contractor has the equipment and staff required to provide the service you need. "Many contractors look good on paper," Butts says, "but when the rubber meets the road" - when it's time to have snow removed or grass mowed, you may be disappointed.
Spring in New England is short, he notes. "All the work has to be done in a small window." If the contractor the association hires turns out to be over-booked, the board will be hard-pressed to find another able to take on additional work. "Grass starts growing in May," Butts says. It won't wait until your landscaper is ready to start mowing it.
A contractor's style and personality are also important, Rosado notes, which is why he advises boards to interview landscapers before hiring them. "We interview the boards too," Rosado says, and for the same reason: to make sure it's a good fit." He prefers an "aggressive board" that will take an active interest in landscaping issues, value the advice his company provides and value the relationship it establishes. "We're not just looking for a contract," he explains. "We want to create a partnership. With a good partnership," he adds, "there is no limit to what you can do."