Landscaping can be an expensive component of a project and choosing the wrong plants for the space only adds to the cost over time. So how can you be sure you get it right? Start by selecting plants appropriate for the space and consider the level of maintenance the client desires.
Choosing the Right Plant for the Right Place Our Landscape Architecture and Land Development teams recently did a site visit to a park in downtown Atlanta completed by another firm. It was a little shocking the number of columnar shaped trees that had been specified. Here we were sweating on a 90-degree Georgia summer day, and the miniscule shade that was provided came only from thin, fastigate shaped trees. These trees may be appropriate in tight spaces or where viewsheds are important, but they are not suitable for public parks where shade is at a premium. In addition, large shade trees provide so much more than, well, shade. Their leaves collect an incredible amount of rainwater, creating less runoff, provide wildlife habitat, improve air quality, curb wind effects, lower temperatures, and create microclimates. This is a very large park with a lot of space, and planting columnar trees was certainly a missed opportunity.
In addition to considering how plants could serve the needs of the space, one must also consider if the environment serves the needs of the plants. There are many examples of where architects and designers try to force a plant species out of their comfort zone or do not understand the type of environment that the plant requires. For example, at the same park, Wax Myrtles were planted against a west-facing large stone retaining wall. Wax Myrtles are generally a great plant – they are native, evergreen, and drought resistant. What they can’t do is tolerate a lot of intense reflective heat and, therefore, were suffering against the stone wall with dead branches and scorched leaves. They had been installed years prior, and they just could not acclimate. Specifying the right plant for the right place is critical to achieving a sustainable landscape.
Planting for the Desired Level of Maintenance A topic that isn’t often discussed with a client is the desired level of maintenance for the finished project. The client may want an English garden, but if their intent is to hire a “mow and blow” maintenance service, that beautiful English garden will quickly become a mass of weeds. English gardens may seem maintenance-friendly, but most maintenance staff cannot tell the difference between a weed and a perennial.
Adding a plethora of different plant types compounds the maintenance problem. Planting many different plant species requires the maintenance team to spend more time addressing each plant type’s needs. That’s great if the client plans to hire a more detailed maintenance team, but it leaves a lot of opportunity for error in a “mow and blow” scenario. Simplifying the plant palette can greatly reduce the level of maintenance and help the plantings thrive. When simpler maintenance is desired, massings of shrubs may be the best choice.
Groundcover and hedges can also be friends or foes. If the planting bed contains only one type of groundcover and just trees, the right selection can deter weeds and actually reduce the level of maintenance. Hedges require effort to maintain to the height specified in the design. If simpler maintenance is desired, a loose structured evergreen that will grow to the desired height might be specified in place of a formal hedge.
No one wants to design a beautiful landscape only to see it deteriorate once installed. By considering the needs of the space and the needs of the chosen plants, you can help ensure both thrive over the long run. Gaining a clear vision of the client’s maintenance desires in terms of both effort and cost will correctly guide planting choices.
About Jason Weckerly
Jason Weckerly leads Foresite Group’s Landscape Architecture Practice Area nationwide. As a Landscape Architect, Jason has always been interested in how an existing site can cohesively blend with the proposed program. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Design from Arizona State University and has been with Foresite Group since 2011. With more than 25 years of experience, Jason has a special interest in in the sustainability of projects well after the contractor has left the site, as well an aesthetic approach of less is more.