Feature Article - November 2003
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Ground Rules

From berms to xeriscape, landscaping ideas to please your patrons and your budget

By Kimberly Tobin

In the era of the incredible shrinking maintenance budget, choosing to invest in quality landscaping is often the forest that won't be seen through the trees. Exterior enhancements are many times first to be cut and last to be added to a facility's master plan (often in a piecemeal, less-than-effective fashion) when funds become available.

Yet if it's put in effectively, good landscaping can become an aesthetic tool. Not only can it hold down maintenance costs, it can improve a site's overall image, provide the dual purpose of beauty and function, as well as draw more visitors and enhance their experience while they're there. Following is a primer for the horticulturally challenged-whether working with a landscape architect or planning solo-to help show why the right landscaping should be part of a facility's big picture.


To begin with the basics, the less maintenance your landscaping requires, the easier it will be to keep it looking its best and functioning optimally.

"Going with low-maintenance material is becoming very popular," says Alyson Utter, project manager for Anderson/Lesniak & Associates, a landscape architecture firm in Tampa, Fla. "Not only does it look good when a facility opens, but it continues to look good in 10 years."

This translates into practices such as the use of native grasses, which need to be cut only once or twice a year, as opposed to hedges, which need pruning every few months.

Grasses also have more to offer aesthetically.

"Grasses have a change of color with the seasons, and when the wind blows, they move," Utter adds. "Shrubs are static."

Native plantings also provide educational opportunities, are more resilient to the elements and enrich the ecosystem. John Edsall, registered landscape architect and managing director of Edsall & Associates LLC, a Columbus, Ohio-based landscape architecture and planning firm, is working on a series of city parks in Powell, Ohio, that will include these types of plantings.

"We're using prairie grass and wildflower areas to cut down on the amount of mowed grass and also to show what land was like in central Ohio before it was settled," Edsall says. He adds that these plant materials also have the more proven stability to hold off things like drought and also provide habitat for animals and butterflies.

If native grasses aren't an option, turf is also a choice for the not-so-green-thumbed.

"Turf is easier to maintain than shrubs," adds Bill Jackson, a registered landscape architect with French & Associates Landscape Architects in Columbus, Ga. "It doesn't take a lot of expertise-a lawnmower and a Weed Eater will often get the job done. If you start working with a lot of plant beds, and they're not properly maintained, a park will start to look nasty."

Another way to help decrease maintenance is to effectively group your landscape pallet, taking into account water requirements and growth rates. A rising trend is xeriscaping, the practice of keeping plants together that require similar irrigation systems, in addition to favoring the use of plants that require minimal water. Decorative rock can also share space with your greenery, taking the place of plants that would add to the water requirement.

"When xeriscaping, I like to use the principle of one-third," says Jackson of French & Associates. "We put in one-third decorative rock mulch, one-third plants that require drip irrigation and one-third that require spray irrigation."

This practice effectively minimizes spraying, which can be a drain on water resources according to Jackson.

"Spray loses a lot of water to evaporation," he says. "Drip, which is used under the ground, puts all the water right to the plant and is more effective."

In addition to water requirements, Will Alexander, registered landscape architect and president of Alexander & Associates, an architectural and planning firm in Belleair, Fla., also advises to take growth rates into account when selecting plant materials. He recommends choosing plants that mature at the appropriate rate so their heights don't run into each other and compete for space.

"For instance, hedges can be maintained at five or six feet but require constant trimming," he says. "A viburnum hedge, for example, can grow up to 30 feet if not maintained, and a tree like the southern wax myrtle could easily grow to that same height."