By Margie Holly, Brickman
In commercial real estate, the importance of curb appeal cannot be underestimated, particularly in today’s market. In order to keep vacancies low and property values high, it is essential for buildings to look their best year round. To keep commercial properties in tip-top condition, a well-maintained landscape is a must. Unfortunately, in Southeastern states like Georgia and the Carolinas, frequent droughts and stringent water restrictions have turned landscaping into a real challenge in recent years. However, with a little forethought and careful planning, there are ways to keep a commercial landscape green during even the driest of months. Consider the following information as while working with a landscape contractor to develop a drought-tolerant landscape plan.
Careful plant selection is vital to the success of landscapes in areas that are subject to severe or frequent droughts. For that very reason, native landscaping, also called natural landscaping, is gaining popularity wherever there are limited water supplies. Because indigenous plants are adapted to the soil, climate and hydrology of their local area, they are able to flourish with minimal care and assistance. Plants native to the Southeast are better suited than other plants for the high temperatures and sporadic rainfall. Not only do native plants take full advantage of rainfall and require less water than non-local varieties, but they can also reduce fertilizer and pesticide needs, help keep erosion to a minimum and provide a natural habitat for local flora and fauna. And with a wide variety of attractive indigenous plants available, you don’t have to sacrifice the landscape’s beauty to go native. In fact, native landscaping can be a great way to add seasonal interest and a sense of place to the property. Consult with a landscape contractor in order to determine which native plants suit the property’s landscape needs.
Another element that is changing in the wake of increased water restrictions is the ability to plant large annual beds, as many annuals require frequent hydration to survive. Flowers don’t have to be eliminated altogether, but they should be distributed in smaller proportions and concentrated in areas in which they will have the most impact. Furthermore, only those annuals that demonstrate a relatively high tolerance for drought should be used. In Georgia, for instance, Ageratum, Dusty Miller, Ornamental Pepper, Wave Petunia, Scaveola, and Vinca have proven to be resilient even under very dry conditions.
However, perennials are generally a better choice in areas with limited access to water. Your landscape contractor can guide you in choosing a drought-resistant color palette that addresses your specific marketing needs and is suited for your particular property. And regardless of the type of plants you choose for your beds, mulching should be a priority for landscapes in drought-prone areas. Adding three to four inches of mulch to your beds will help prevent evaporation from the soil. It will also protect plants and reduce stress on roots by moderating soil temperatures.
When it comes to draining a landscape’s resources, turf is another big culprit. Turf’s shallow root system prevents efficient irrigation and storm-water absorption. Because of this, it requires frequent watering, and in the event of a heavy rain, it is likely to cause run-off that often results in flooding, erosion and pollution. Considering that turf requires three times the water as a natural landscape, reducing turf area in favor of expanding your native landscape area is an attractive way to cut back on water use.
For areas you wish to keep as turf, ask your landscape contractor about switching to native grass blends, which require less water and maintenance than ornamental grasses. Turf should never be over hydrated, and like the rest of your landscape, it should only be watered during the coolest hours of the day to prevent evaporation.
Beyond plant selection, proper irrigation is the single most important factor when it comes to responsible and efficient water use. Irrigation systems that are not tailored to a property’s specific needs, referred to in the industry as “get-it-wet systems,” won’t cut it in areas with limited access to water. Because watering is often done underground or during off-peak hours, problems with irrigation systems may go undetected for long periods of time. To ensure that your commercial real estate property is not wasting this precious natural resource, existing systems should be thoroughly reviewed to see if new equipment or repairs are necessary.
The irrigation audit should take into consideration the size, local climate, sun exposure and specific plant varieties of the landscape, and it should help identify common problems such as water spraying onto sidewalks, faulty nozzle heads or inefficient nozzle head placement and size. Your landscape contractor can also discuss options that provide greater control of water use, such as rain-click systems, which turn off automatically during rain showers; or highly efficient drip irrigation systems, which uses “drippers” to maximize the moisture level in the soil by slowly applying water directly to the plant’s roots. And because water requirements differ greatly among plant varieties, you should also consider the benefits of hydrozoning, which is a term used to describe the grouping together of plants with similar water requirements. In addition to reducing needless water waste, hydrozoning can enhance the overall health and appearance of a landscape and reduce replacement costs by preventing the over or under watering of plants.
After making initial recommendations and repairs, your landscape contractor will work to develop an ongoing process for irrigation evaluation and upkeep—from installation and maintenance, to troubleshooting and on-site repairs. Most will perform a monthly wet check to identify broken heads and cut of water to any non-essential areas, in addition to any formal inspections scheduled throughout the year.
In addition to monitoring the efficiency of your irrigation system, monitoring the health of your turf and beds through periodic soil testing is another vital exercise in water conservation. Knowing the soil state will allow your contractor to make appropriate amendments to enhance long-term soil quality, stabilize soil pH and enrich soil with essential macro and micro nutrients. The improvements to the soil’s physical structure ultimately enhance drought resistance, water utilization and water dispersion. The health of the soil will not only conserve water, but it will aslso contribute to the health and appearance of your plants.
Having limited access to water doesn’t mean completely sacrificing your commercial property landscape, but it requires rethinking the way you plan and maintain it. Therefore, when the water lines turn off, it is more important than ever to open the lines of communication between property owners and landscape contractors. Open dialogue will help the contractor develop a plan that meets the property owner’s goals and objectives, while working within the limitations posed by frequent droughts.
Margie Holly is communications manager with Gaithersburg, Maryland-based Brickman, one of the nation’s largest commercial landscaping firms. Brickman operates more than 150 branches in 28 states and employs more than 6,000 industry professionals. Brickman provides landscape maintenance and snow removal services to a wide variety of commercial real estate properties.