Make It Green: HOA landscape questions answered

About this time of the year your Design Pundit’s calendar becomes quite full. Why? Bewildered landscape committees or HOA presidents want to know how to wrestle the landscape maintenance budget, which is often one of the biggest single annual items; or, they want to make sense of a landscape that simply doesn’t support property values anymore.

These are not simple things. Many HOAs have hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars in landscape improvements that have, often, been subject to a series of well-meaning ad hoc committees, resulting in a frenetic series of ‘favorite’ plants. Worse, maintenance companies are sometimes not well managed.

A couple of years ago I developed a simple presentation for groups such as these. It’s not sales. It’s just straight-ahead factual presentation, that’s all, addressing a few basic questions.

And guess what the biggest issue is? Could someone please make some sense of landscape improvements? Give us a bit of perspective? Give us a handle on management, and on what to expect? They just need some dispassionate help so they can make informed policy decisions.

After I make my usual presentation, the mood in the room becomes remarkably calm. Why? Because folks charged with other people’s money feel much smarter about how to proceed.

The questions are often the same, so I thought this week I would run through some of the things I am asked. These committees are always trying to do the best they can. And I give them simple, straight ahead advice based on my own experience. Here are some of the questions:

What’s the bottom line?

Bad design. Listen: Design has very little to do with preferences. How many ways can I say this? There are too many costly issues that are so often ignored because someone thinks it “looks nice.” Please. Spare me.

This is a design arena where hard-hitting, practical issues have a huge cost effect.

Is all of this money worth it?

Property values. What is the main purpose of landscape improvements? Simple. All of your site improvements, including plants, lighting, paving, everything are there to support property values.

How can we control our maintenance company?

With good specifications and an informed point-person. Standard practice goes something like this: A new board or committee comes in and the first thing they do is “re-bid” landscape maintenance. This makes sense because it is often a large number. The problem? Companies write their own specifications, resulting in apples and oranges.

Good specs give you control over the care of every single plant, over the types of equipment, types of fertilizers, and any other issue important to your neighborhood.

And a word about bidding: there are hundreds of maintenance companies. Choose only the best companies to bid. Do not allow walk-in bidding.

Insist on English. Why? Your Design Pundit is bilingual (almost) but most people are not. Communication is essential. You must speak the same language.

Many communities allow any resident or committee member to address the maintenance company. Don’t. Designate one or two people through whom all communications to the maintenance people must flow. Don’t bother the worker bees. Have a relationship with the foreman or whomever designated by the company.

Why do we have to replant so often?

Because clients bid design services. Does this sound simplistic? In some ways it is. This topic is too big to address here. If you think planting design can be done by anyone, just have a look around. Then get back to me.

How can we comply with future water restrictions?

Maybe. If the Water Management District adopts advanced restrictions, you will be required to water your entire site in one day a week. Many existing systems are simply not capable of this volume in a single day without revision. Sometimes the revisions are cheap, more often they are not.

How do we reduce our maintenance costs?

With specifications and proper plantings. It’s essential that your planting beds become self-mulching. What does this mean? That plants are sufficiently dense to discourage weeds and to retain soil moisture, a scheme most effectively achieved with monoculture mass plantings. With this technique maintenance and water are dramatically reduced.

Have a look around at “square”’ plantings that are so common, especially on our medians. This is a huge maintenance commitment caused by picking the wrong plants. Choose plants that are the correct size at maturity.

How do we reduce our mulch costs?

With mass plantings and good design. See above.

Your beds must be properly spaced so that they become self-mulching. This means that the only annual mulch needed is around the perimeter, never in the interior of a bed. Many communities have reduced mulch usage by more than 50 percent as they work through a process of plant replacement.

Any questions?

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Michael Spencer, ASLA, has been practicing landscape architecture for 27 years and is president of MSA Design, Inc. Web site: www.msadesign.com

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