Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Old Landscaping Trends of the 20th Century and New Solutions For 2011

The lack of hurricanes and tropical storms in 2010 means springtime drought conditions for the Southeast. Out West and in the North floods have inundated many regions. The coldest winter in decades to hit the United States will also see an increase in dead lawns throughout communities across the country. How will this affect homeowners, commercial properties, and HOA’s in 2011?  It means that there will be more widespread and tighter enforcement of water restrictions. It means that in the spring, there will be an inundation of landscaping companies making recommendations to thousands of clients on how they should replace their dead landscapes. It will be either the client’s decision of opting for the same expensive bad practices and wrong plant material or a prime opportunity to renovate correctly and sustainably with lower monthly fees and bills. It’s important for homeowners to be as savvy as they can on the newest and best landscape and irrigation trends. How did we know that what was offered as options and upgraded landscape packages that we thought we wanted were really bad for our wallets, our lifestyles, and our environment. Who knew?

Here are some of the old and “still used” practices that are not environmentally sound along with smart, water-conserving, and sustainable solutions for the 21st century.

Passé: Municipal plant lists and planting ordinances that create cookie cutter designs for communities. DRI’s suggesting HOA covenants that require unrealistic and environmentally unhealthy landscape maintenance.

Smart and sustainable: City and county planning departments should have an experienced horticulturist on staff that can review, provide recommendations and oversight on ordinances, regional biodiversity, and appropriate plant selections in landscaping plans when approving DRI’s and homebuilding permits.

Passé: Drought-tolerant plants.

Smart and sustainable: If you use excessive fertilizer and routine pesticide treatments, your plants will need more water. All plants – natives and non-natives – grown in proper site conditions and maintained with best management practices are drought-tolerant for short periods (two to three weeks). Determine proper soil conditions - xeric, mesic, or hydric - and select appropriate plants that thrive in those conditions. Design landscapes that, after establishment, will survive on normal rainfall using supplemental irrigation only during drought periods. Then maintain yard and common areas with best management practices to ensure the health of the landscape and to avoid pest problems. For more information see SJRWMD's FAQ’s.

Passé: HOA covenants mandating one specific turf creating monocultures that are prime targets of pests and diseases.

Smart and sustainable: HOA covenants that help residents conserve water and lower maintenance bills. HOA's could be proactive by having an environmental committee of homeowners that will work with local county extensions to become knowledgeable about biodiversity, native plants, and latest best management practices for their community. This committee could help oversee the common area landscaping contracts to ensure BMP’s are being used to reduce the amount of fertilizing and chemical spraying that increases TMDL’s of nutrients and stormwater pollution in their lakes and ponds. Having plant species biodiversity, including different types of turf, in residential communities will create healthier landscapes.

Passé: New homes with instant landscapes that have large expanses of turf, undersized garden beds crammed with large amounts of colorful annuals, oversized shrubs, and mandatory trees to provide instant shade. Builders, developers, and realtors love to sell the homeowner on a great landscape. While the landscape may look good for the first six months, it will start to grow exponentially during the next season. In two to five years, homeowners will be forced to spend a lot of money to maintain non-existent turf, deal with security issues from overgrown shrubs against windows and doors, and pay high maintenance bills. These landscapes will require frequent plant and turf replacement, constant pruning, excessive fertilization, and routine chemical treatments to reduce the pest and disease problems that will come from having been installed incorrectly to begin with. HOA’s sending out warnings to improve their covenant-mandated incorrect landscapes to already frustrated residents only exacerbates tensions, and the need for more water consumption, more stormwater runoff issues.

Smart and sustainable: Landscapes that are designed with appropriate plants that take into consideration the plant’s mature size. Finding out how big the plant will eventually grow, then giving them the proper amount of ground space so that their roots do not have to compete with other vegetation for sunlight, nutrition and water requirements. Maintenance and water needs are reduced, and the need for replacement minimized. With these practices, HOA’s covenants would help maintain more natural and healthier communities that increase the value of the homes.

Passé: Plants pruned routinely. Mowing and maintenance pruning are quick ways to spread weeds, insects, and diseases unintentionally throughout a region. One landscape company maintaining several communities with unsterile equipment and improper practices can escalate a minor pest problem into major epidemic. Homeowners end up having to continually prune landscape plants and trees because of wrong selection and placement by the builder. (This issue does not refer to higher maintenance topiaries or hobbies such as bonsai gardening.)

Smart and sustainable: Landscape plants should not have to be pruned constantly. If there is a need or desire for a five foot tall hedge, select a plant that will only grow five feet tall at maturity. Planting a 40' tall crape myrtle and hatracking it each year to 6' feet tall is the wrong plant in the wrong place. Install a crape myrtle that will only get to be 6' - 8' tall. Hire landscape companies that have employees that have horticulture industry certification and will only use best management practices.  

Passé: Foundation plantings too close to houses so that the plant's rootball and irrigation system keeps foundation wet. Gutter downspouts directed straight down to foundation.

Smart and sustainable: Keep flowers and shrubs at least half of the eventual mature circumference of the plant away from the foundation. Keep gutter downspouts and irrigation emitters at least two feet out and directed away from foundation. This will allow foundations to stay dry, preventing moisture and mildew from damaging home. Proper plant and gutter location will also extend the life of termiticide treatments and prevent wet conditions that attract termites.

Passé: Waiting till a new home is built to decide on landscape and irrigation. Ignoring or assuming the irrigation system is adequate. the builder or homebuyer doesn’t have enough money left in their budget to pay for an efficient irrigation system. Another common practice is putting in cookie cutter designs with inappropriate cheap plants to get C.O. approval. Ultimately, the landscape demands a lot of maintenance and the irrigation system is inefficient, making monthly water bills and maintenance expensive.

Smart and sustainable: Water consumption should be one of the most important decisions homebuilders, HOA’s, and buyers should make. It is the one aspect of living in a community that affects not only utility and tax bills, but also the environment of the watershed(s) in their entire region and state. Planning for a beautiful low-maintenance landscape with an efficient irrigation system when there is money in the budget will help keep both the builder and the buyer from having expensive replacement costs, high monthly water bills, and maintenance fees.

Passé: Installing a cheap irrigation system designed with same high volume zones for turf and garden beds. Portions of landscape turf dies from competing weeds and never getting enough water while the rest of the yard gets over-watered and also gets weeds. Homeowner mistakenly thinks they bought an  irrigation system adequate to maintain their beautiful landscape, but have excessive water bills not realizing their installed irrigation system is only 25 to 47% efficient.

Smart and sustainable: Separate high-volume zones for turf and low-volume zones for garden beds. Matching head precipitation. Sprinklers in low-lying areas have check valves. No high volume irrigation in areas less than 4 feet wide.. Efficient irrigation should be encouraged under building codes. For more information see Florida Water Star prerequisites for efficient irrigation criteria. The prerequisites for an efficient irrigation system would work in yards across the country.

Passé: Gated communities that are entirely walled for security that block wildlife from migration but every pizza delivery person, mail man, delivery driver, and cable guy has security code to get in.

Smart and sustainable: Communities keep their entry gates for security but are designed responsibly with natural living fences that will provide wildlife corridors with other communities throughout the state for migrating species. Designing increased native habitat vegetation on the outside boundaries of yards will allow for nesting, food sources, and migration. HOA’s educating residents on the benefits of wildlife corridors in sustaining our environment.

While some of these practices seem like they would increase costs, that’s a short-sighted misperception. When you consider the costs of landscape replacements, extremely high water bills, and the cost of treating our stormwater for public water supply, my question is why aren’t we demanding these solutions? With proper site condition assessments, there will be proper plant selections. With proper amounts of plants, shrubs and trees, there will be less need for paying for routine chemical applications. With proper installment of efficient irrigation, there will be healthier, less weedy landscapes that need less water and less maintenance, resulting in lower water bills.

With best management practices in place, there will be less cost needed to clean surface water, reducing the need to increase taxes. Solutions are out there and backed by university research. All we need now is the building and landscaping industry to have a paradigm shift into the 21st century and educate their consumers. Homeowners and new home buyers can precipitate this paradigm shift by demanding these solutions.  Solutions that will benefit wildlife, reduce unnecessary water use, prevent more pollution of our surface water, and more time and opportunity to enjoy the aesthetics of our wonderful world.

Copyright 2011 Teresa Watkins


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