The Grass is not Always Greener

Let’s get one thing out of the way; “maintenance-free” landscapes are a myth.  So please stop asking.  Everything requires maintenance to be efficient and cost effective.  Landscapes are no different.   However, when planning your new development or other project you have several variables at your control at the onset of the project, starting with site development and a smart design process that can greatly reduce the maintenance required of your landscape and reduce your annual maintenance budget.

Cost effective landscape design needs to begin at the conceptual stage of a project to better maximize the cost savings. The most effective way to do this is through “integrated” design.  Your design team needs to include not only the owners, architects and engineers, but also the O&M staff and/or landscape manager, the general contractor, key subcontractors, and perhaps most importantly, the cost estimator.  It is extremely beneficial for your landscape architect to understand the functions of new or existing structures. Some of the first questions that need to be asked are:

  • How does the owner plan to use the structure(s) at start up and in the future?
  • What are the demands being applied to the site?

A good site analysis is essential to a cost efficient landscape.  Through analysis it’s possible to reduce project start costs with correct orientation of the building. The less ground that’s disturbed, the fewer infrastructures will need to be built, including storm sewers, sidewalks, roads and parking.  This reduces the project’s site space requirements, which reduces total costs.  With the integrated approach to site development design you may be able to lower start up costs.  However, keep in mind that it is not always beneficial in the long run of the project to focus cost saving strategies solely on start up costs.

Landscapes generally have a lifecycle of approximately 25 years and can be dissected into three phases related to cost: establishment, maturity and decline. The establishment phase and the decline phase require more maintenance and therefore more cost.  The designer, working collaboratively with the landscape manager will be able to reduce establishment costs with proper knowledge of annual maintenance budgets and consideration of the time allocated to maintaining the landscape. Understanding these parameters, plant selection plays a significant role in future costs of the landscape.  Below is a general ranking of maintenance requirements from highest cost to lowest cost:

  • Turf
  • Plants requiring special care (Exotic / Non-Native Species)
  • Annuals and perennials
  • Groundcovers
  • Deciduous and Evergreen Shrubs
  • Deciduous Trees

That’s right, turf lawn areas cost more money to maintain than deciduous trees.  Let’s take a look at it.  Establishment costs for turf include irrigation, fertilization, and maintenance time pulling weeds and removing other debris that settles on the surface. Turf establishment takes approximately 1-2 growing seasons (years) depending on climate. Industry data suggest an annual per acre cost of turf is $5,220. If your site has approximately 2 acres of turf, your annual cost is $10,440. Over a 20 year period you will spend $208,800 on turf maintenance.

Now let’s examine the establishment and maturity phase costs of planting small caliper native deciduous trees.  Why small caliper trees you ask? Because up front material costs will be considerably less (you can get 100, 1 ½” caliper trees or 40, 3 ½” caliper trees for approximately $13,000) and using smaller trees reduces stress on the plant and long term watering requirements.

By comparison, if we plant 22, 1 ½” caliper River Birch Trees (Betula Nigra) our upfront costs are much higher, but our costs for maintaining them over 20 years is significantly lower. During the establishment phase of two years you can expect to employ a temporary watering system at each of the trees, which will cost approximately $2,500 per year.  After the first two years you can expect to pay for annual pruning by an arborist at an average rate of $65 per hour. To prune 22 trees that arborist would need approximately two days, which equals a cost of $1,040 annually. Over a 20 year period, the cost of pruning would be approximately $20,800, much lower than the 20 year cost of $208,800 to maintain turf.

Of course the decision between turf and deciduous trees isn’t always applicable to a site, so let’s compare turf to a native seed mix that replicates a New England Meadow.  Installation and establishment phase costs are about equal.  However, maintenance of a native seed mix is essentially zero since irrigation, fertilization and mowing aren’t needed. Studies have indicated that using native landscapes reduces O&M costs by an estimated 50% when compared to similar traditional landscapes. Those are some significant savings for an O&M budget.

There are several other factors that go into designing a project site to assist in the reduction of an owner’s O&M cost and the above is just one example of how a landscape architect can assist an owner in reducing costs. There are other ways to reduce overall site O&M costs, with perhaps one of the most important being the inclusion of a landscape management plan specific to the site and the plant materials selected.  A landscape management plan indicates requirements for each plant type and aesthetic looks desired. With a proper plan, you will ultimately reduce the amount of time and effort required to annually maintain the landscape by an owner.