Keep it green

Five lessons learned for making sure the healthy trees and plants you put in the ground remain that way for many years to come

Willson McBurney, RLA
Senior Landscape Architect
PBS&J
Orlando, Florida

The experience is all too common. Money spent for designing a landscape plan, buying trees and plants, and putting them in the ground is too often wasted because the vegetation fails to thrive. The dream of a healthy landscape begins to vanish, quite literally, before your eyes. Or the landscape you imagined never materializes because trees and plants survive, but never seem to flourish.

In either case, the considerable budgetary resources devoted to planning, procurement, construction, and even maintenance, fail to meet expectations. The key to reversing this scenario can be found in what is often the least-valued step in the process: maintenance.

The Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority places emphasis on its roadside landscapes as a means of upgrading the driving experience for toll-road users.

Appropriate maintenance is often addressed simply as an afterthought or as a necessary but hopefully minimal expense. However, the costs of insufficient landscape maintenance are high in terms of money wasted on design and construction—money that literally shrivels on the vine. Given proper consideration, maintenance can provide the means to getting results that meet and exceed expectations.

And it's not simply an increased maintenance budget that will make this happen. Just changing the way you think about landscape maintenance—from planning through contracting—can have a significant effect on improving returns from your landscape investment.

PBS&J has been working closely with two central Florida transportation organizations, the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, where the goal is to revegetate and restore native landscapes as a means of upgrading the driving experience for toll-road users, and District Three of the Florida Department of Transportation, where efforts have been focused on renovating a series of rest areas and welcome centers in northwest Florida.

Both organizations understand the value of appropriate maintenance in assuring the long-term viability of designs created for roadway-related environments, where soil conditions and other environmental factors provide significant challenges for the health and longevity of newly-introduced plant life. The lessons learned in Florida's frequently harsh highway environment have widespread applications for landscaping projects both small and large in all areas of the country.

Lesson 1: Upgrade the role of maintenance
A lot of time and money is spent in planning and creating any good landscape design. Owners must recognize that the return on any investment in their landscape is directly tied to the quality of maintenance. Don't overlook the real value of maintenance and its ability to serve as project insurance.

Far too frequently, planning is done without the consultation of those who will be responsible for its maintenance. Those responsible for the maintenance function may have a great many useful comments, including even the most basic responses about their capabilities to maintain the landscape being planned. Therefore, their participation is crucial.

Lesson 2: Integrate maintenance into project plans
Maintenance planning needs to be integrated within and throughout the whole sequence of project design. This means calculating maintenance costs as a variable of overall project costs. This lets clients make informed choices about design elements with full knowledge of their life-cycle budgetary impact including, for example, low-maintenance plantings that may have a higher initial cost.

PBS&J has developed a spreadsheet-based tool that projects overall maintenance costs for any set of design variations based on low, middle, and high levels of maintenance investment. Also, as a corollary to this, we advocate monitoring the landscape construction process through to its final stages in order to confirm that those decisions, based on maintenance capabilities, have been carried out according to the original intentions.

Lesson 3: Use qualified bidders
Bidding needs to be given special attention, even if regulations require contractor selection based on low-cost bid. Our strategy for several large-scale Florida projects involved adapting the contractor-interview process commonly used in road construction, in which the landscape design and specifications are outlined to the landscape contractor in detail at a set of three meetings.

The first meeting explains project goals and contract conditions clearly to all prospective bidders. The second meeting, held immediately after a contractor is selected, gives both parties an opportunity to discuss details of the contract. The third meeting, held just before construction begins, addresses any last-minute misunderstandings.

As a whole, this process enhances client control of the selection process while laying the foundation for clear communication and a strong working relationship.

Lesson 4: Detailed project specifications
A detailed set of project specifications should be developed that includes explicit narratives for project goals and objectives as well as detailed requirements with descriptive minimums and expectations clearly spelled out. The purpose of this is to ensure clear communication and promote standardization where multiple contractors may be involved, but it's also important to make sure that flexibility and adaptability are intrinsically incorporated in the explanation of specification details.

This approach may be familiar to facility managers in the currently popular practice of integrated pest management, where response activities are based on a careful analysis of local, specific, and relevant conditions. Some activities may be more strictly prescribed, such as the number of visits required to each site to regularly inspect and repair, if necessary, irrigation system operations. In highly visible locations, project specifications may also include requirements for dress and comportment.

Lesson 5: Provide adequate supervision
The final step in making maintenance a central focus of landscape design and construction involves providing supervision for maintenance activities, especially in the critical period following installation when trees and other plants are most at risk. What's most important in this critical last step is direct access to horticultural expertise, either as an available discipline or as provided by a subcontractor. Only a trained horticulturist familiar with local conditions will be able to provide informed oversight, make crucial decisions, and respond to contractor inquiries.

Proper landscape maintenance is one of the most critical aspects in assuring the long-term viability of landscape designs.

This last step represents the culmination of an assumption evident in all previous steps—that some kind of management presence representing the interests of the maintenance function will be involved in all steps of design and construction. This supervisory presence may be located as a staff function or may be the responsibility of a design/management contractor.

While it may appear at first glance that these recommendations simply involve adding unnecessary and costly layers of supervision to the process of facilities and grounds maintenance, in reality the activities involve more management attention than expense. Even in the leanest budget this oversight should not add significantly to the overall costs.

At the same time, the likelihood that implementing the above suggestions will result in financial losses averted, investments realized, and expectations met or exceeded is high. In addition to helping ensure a positive outcome for landscaping efforts, a revised approach to design, construction, and maintenance will also contribute to the overall benefits of organizational goals being met, public facilities gaining an attractive appearance, and landscapes in which the entire community can take pride.

Willson McBurney, RLA, is a Senior Landscape Architect with PBS&J (www.pbsj.com), an employee-owned firm ranked 25th by Engineering News-Record among all U.S. engineering-consulting firms. He can be reached at (407) 647-7275 or wsmcburney@pbsj.com.