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."


While choosing low-maintenance materials is important to fulfill the goal of beautifying the outdoors, you don't have to settle on landscaping that just looks good. Whether natural or man-made, landscaping elements also can help circulate pedestrian traffic, hide or enhance a view, or block the elements.

"When we think about aesthetics, I like to look at things like a building's orientation to the sun or pedestrian circulation patterns," says Michael Schmeltzer, president and registered landscape architect at Schmeltzer Design, Inc. in Oregon, Wis. "Addition of plants in a strategic location can help a building stay cooler and improve circulation and pedestrian flow."

Other strategies he mentions include planting hedges near activity areas like running tracks to help screen out wind or using plants and trees to keep unsightly elements, such as trash receptacles, out of view.

Like natural features, man-made materials can also provide beauty with a purpose.

"Linear space [such as sidewalks] can be broken up by installing courtyards or resting nodes," Alexander says. "Benches can be used to accent the verticality of trees."

While they're naturally visually appealing, one of the most obvious benefits of trees is to shade and cool. To maximize this function, it's important to position them in the right areas and choose the right types.

"In general, shade trees introduced into things like parking areas take sunlight off of the pavement, reducing ambient temperature," Alexander says. "You want to have larger canopy trees-those that develop both height and breadth—for more of a shading and cooling effect."

Whether they're chosen to cool, or just look cool, don't forget to keep in mind how colors will work together when selecting trees and other plant materials.

"You don't want a low, dark-green plant with a dark-green tall tree," Alexander adds. "You want plants and trees in different shades of green that would complement each other rather than compete with each other to be seen."

In addition to plant and synthetic materials, the land itself can also function as a dual-purpose landscape element. Don Campbell, a registered landscape architect at French & Associates, likes to use earthen berms to provide function and form. Berms, which are basically rounded earth forms covered with grass or native grass, can cut down on noise and provide shade and seating when combined with other natural materials.

Although not yet used by a majority of facilities, Campbell says the benefits of berms will be recognized on a wider basis soon.

"More people are realizing that if created and used between fields at an athletic facility, they [berms] can reduce the impact of noise and traffic," he says. "If you use lots of boulders tucked into berms, those hills can be used to watch games and get people off the ground. The rocks can double as benches. And the trees provide the shade."

Visually, berms also make the scene more attractive.

"By having changes in elevation, the hills along with the concrete can create art forms," Campbell says. "So as you walk, you have some interplay of shapes, which is much more interesting than looking at what would usually be a straight line."

Earth mounds are also beginning to be used in sites like playgrounds.

"Increasingly, children's play areas are not just equipment on a flat surface," Edsall says. "People are beginning to look at molding the character of a space, such as the more 3-D characteristics of earth mounds. You can do things like take tunnels through them, which adds to the visual interest."

Water, often a key piece of visual appeal in a landscape scheme, can do more than bubble and look pretty. It can also be entertainment.

"What we're finding with things like swimming complexes is integrating interactive water features with large-sized pools," says Ted Kempton, principal and registered landscape architect at Hardeman Kempton & Associates in Tampa, Fla. At a proposed regional park in Wesley Chapel, Fla., that Kempton is working on, water cannons will be installed in an area for smaller children so they don't interfere with the main part of the park's swimming pool.

"The interactive fountain is a nice way to get dual use out of a fountain," Kempton says. "As opposed to it just being a fountain, you get both the visual appeal of a fountain and the noise of water, but it also provides a play feature."


When laying out your landscape plan, here are some general ideas to keep in mind:

GROWTH RATE—Select plants that mature at the appropriate rate so their heights don't run into each other and compete for space.

COLOR—Select plants and trees in variable shades of the same color that will complement, not compete with, each other.

MAINTENANCE—Less upkeep often means a more attractive, cleaner look. Native grasses and turf are usually easier to maintain than hedges and beds.

HISTORY—If your site warrants it, use history to highlight or theme a space to increase appeal and attract patrons.

SPACE ENHANCEMENTS—Install courtyards or resting nodes to broaden linear space; use benches to accent trees.

FUNCTIONALITY—Choose materials that look good and serve a purpose, whether it's to soften the elements, hide or enhance a view, provide seating, circulate traffic, or provide a play aspect.

AMENITIES—Understand the needs of your visitors and add features to accommodate them.


Beyond berms and fountains, landscape elements that hint at a site's origins can make it more unique and draw more visitors. Often the history of a particular area is a great foundation for an outdoor theme or aesthetic touches.

For example, in Grand Prairie, Texas, Parkhill Park sits atop an area that was once farmland. Its agricultural beginnings led to the subtle use of a prairie theme when landscape architecture firm Schrickel Rollins & Associates designed the park's exterior. Large tractor-tire track marks are laid out in a type of concrete relief that cuts right across the park's parking lot. Barn-like structures serve as restrooms and concession stands and the use of ornamental grasses mimics what the prairie would have looked like in years past.

"What we're trying to do is tie into the environment or culture of the place and pick up on historical aspects," says Suzanne Sweek, registered landscape architect, associate and project manager with the Arlington, Texas-based Schrickel, Rollins and Associates.

Sweek's firm also worked on The Splash Factory, an interactive fountain and waterpark, also in Grand Prairie, that tapped into the fact that in the 1940s during World War II, many aircraft workers were centered in the area. To highlight that site's history, Sweek's firm used a subtle industrial theme that incorporated the use of galvanized and corrugated metal accents throughout the park.

In Washington, Utah, The O.H. Nisson Memorial Park was built on land that had an open canal running through it. The canal, which was carved out of lava rock 100 years ago by pioneer settlers, was still in tact and leak-free when Columbus, Ga., firm French & Associates decided to not only leave it in but use it as a theme for the park. The firm incorporated a working water wheel, which became the park marquis.

"It really draws your eye down to the facility," says French & Associates' Jackson. "The park, which sits near a main road, is below road level and would be hard to see without the wheel, which is at road level. The park is always packed and is heavily used."


New to emerge in outdoor scene improvement is the concept of offering something for everyone by including more features, which can help draw more visitors. Facilities like sports fields and city parks are moving beyond utilitarian bleachers and baseball diamonds to offer small play areas for young children, shelters and picnic facilities, as well as more comfortable seating options.

"I think landscape architects are encouraging their clients to put in enhancements like playgrounds, covered bleachers and shelters because of how they can draw in things like tournaments," Sweek says. "This means economic development for a community."

"We're also paying a lot of attention to spectator needs and comfort," she adds. "For example, when one member of a family is a Little Leaguer, what is there for the younger sibling to do? We've designed things like playgrounds and walking trails, so it's much more of a family experience."

Covered seating is also on the upswing at parks, especially in climates where shade is coveted.

"We're doing a lot with shade structures over athletic field seating—using metal poles and polypropylene fabrics to provide cooling over bleachers and score stands," Sweek says. "It's getting to be much more common now than 10 years ago."

The concept of being all things to all visitors can not be addressed without mentioning Fred Beekman Park, Ohio State University's recreational sports facility in Columbus. More than a standard set of baseball diamonds and soccer fields, the 43-acre site offers more than 24 different recreational activities, up to and including relaxation. The state-of-the-art park has won several awards and was constructed as part of a mission to raise the standards for outdoor park facilities, according to the university's associate director of recreational sports, Dr. Bruce Maurer.

"Traditionally, colleges and universities were basically softball diamonds and flag football fields that served primarily a white-male-dominated, highly competitive group of users for that type of space," Maurer says. "So, when planning Beekman, we started looking at some of the best park and recreation facilities, and we found that their theme was one of inclusion, rather than exclusion."

Variety is key.

"Additionally, Ohio State has a strong commitment to diversity—of skin color, gender, age, and an emphasis on diversity of sports interests," he adds. "Now, the gamut of activities that students take part in is incredible. We also wanted a place where men, women, students, adults, children and older adults—either from the campus or the community—could participate."

Built four years ago with a budget of $5.3 million, the park sits on three levels to accommodate a 40-foot elevation change from west to east. The levels, each separated by 8-to-12 foot slopes, function as the facility's primary activity zones. The sloped areas provide vistas and hillside seating for the park's thousands of visitors.

The first tier, which forms a wagon-wheel shape, accommodates four softball and flag football fields that surround a central service center, making it easy to supervise and schedule. A children's play area adjacent to it adds to the family-friendly environment.

The second tier, which is square, features softball diamonds in the corners.

"This has opened up fields centrally for cricket, lacrosse, play group games, rugby, soccer, ultimate disc and flag football," Maurer says. To date, more than 425 softball teams and 350 flag football teams use the park annually.

In addition to the organized sport areas, visitors can use a mile-long paved path designed for running, walking, cycling, inline skating, wheelchairs (for Special Olympics events) and baby strollers.

The bottom level consists of two rectangular fields, which were designed with very wide safety margins to allow flexibility in field size and shape. The fields can accommodate a variety of activities, from rugby to soccer and lacrosse. The wide margins have also been a factor in keeping the turf well maintained, according to Maurer.

"Most architects will look at the recommended field size and will put in things like light poles and irrigation control valve boxes close to the outside of those margins," Maurer says. "This can kill the ability to rotate or adjust your field space, which is critical to maintaining good turf when you use it for a variety of activities. It was also important to not lock ourselves into specific activities when we carved out those spaces."

And if all the mentioned activities aren't quite enough to keep visitors happy, the park boasts two basketball courts just inside its entrance and four sand volleyball courts, which are conveniently located next to one of the park's two sheltered picnic areas.

"Beyond its obvious physical attributes, I think the number-one reason that Beekman has been so successful is the fact that it caters to such a diverse user group," says Edsall, principal landscape architect and consultant for the project.

The aesthetics of the overall design at this award-winning facility include nearly 550 trees representing 17 different species and 10 planting bed areas.

"What we endeavored to do with the grading and the plantings was to give a sense of varying spatial areas, so there wasn't just one huge open plain," Edsall adds. "It really allows for a sense of outdoor space."

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