The current economic climate has associations looking under every rock for cost savings, including their landscaping budgets.
Landscaping expenses vary greatly depending on the location, size and terrain of the community property. However, one commonality prevails among all communities: landscaping and property value will always maintain an interconnected balance. “You can easily devalue your property by letting the landscaping go.” states Gary Chase, maintenance operations manager for Valley Crest Landscape Development in Brighton, Massachusetts. “It is important to keep that balance in check.”
Are there strategies that communities can put in place that work to lower their overall landscaping budget without lowering the value of property? The quick answer: Yes! There are a number of strategies that associations can adopt and successfully maintain a professional landscaping “look” while cutting costs.
Communities should examine first one of the biggest landscaping cash sinkers: Lawn care. When attempting to lower landscaping costs, one of the first solutions turned to by associations is reducing lawn care visits per season. This solution is a viable one considering lawn maintenance is one of the most costly endeavors in an association’s landscaping budget — but it should be thought out and reviewed carefully. “There are a lot of problems with cutting down on lawn care visits. Grass will get too long and then be cut too short. It harms the grass and in the long run will cost money,” cautions Chase. Dramatic cuts may be unwise, but even a slight revision in the lawn care schedule can yield noticeable budget savings. On average, communities will contract for 26 to 28 visits (per season) which include cutting and fertilizing. Chase estimates that by lowering or eliminating as few as three visits per season, associations could find a 10% savings without seeing a huge loss in looks –savings reaped not only in service charges, but also in fertilizer costs.
Communities may find that a simple review of the lawn sprinkler system will bear savings, too. Timed sprinkler systems are a pet peeve of Suzanne Greco, a retired gardening consultant in Pepperell, Massachusetts. Greco believes that condos “should regulate their timed sprinkler systems more closely.” Sprinklers that come on automatically during a rainstorm are wasting both water and electricity, she says.
Looking at the bigger picture, sprinkler systems, fertilizers and lawn cutting costs can all be reduced dramaticallyby simply reducing the amount of lawn communities maintain. Many corporate facilities are slashing their landscaping budgets by returning portions of their property back to their natural state.
This is a viable option for condo communities as well. “Weekly visits for lawn care can rack up big bills. If there is a patch or area that can be converted back to a natural setting, then condos could reduce their lawn care costs and expenses,” states Jon Ciffolillo, vice president of business development at Greenscape in East Taunton, Massachusetts. One potential problem with converting a portionof your property back to its “natural” state is a possible increase in ticks. Associations will need to take this issue into consideration, especially if there are a lot of pets or children in the community.
Whether an association is looking at reducing costs by decreasing lawn mass or making cost reductions working with the existing landscape, increasing perennial gardens could prove a feasibleoption.
Perennials (plants that continue to grow/bloom year after year) have long been distinguished as a viable long-termlandscaping savings solution. This simple alternative to annuals (plants that typically last for only one season) does have a drawback: perennials will initially cost three times as much as annuals. On average, perennial plants will cost anywhere from $12 to $18 installed, versus $3 to $6 for annuals.
Upfront costs should not deter associations from encouraging landscape contractors from using these long-lasting plants. “Yes, there is an increase in upfront costs, but in the longrun it will save money,” Ciffolillo states. “Most perennials will spread out and then can be divided up into other areas and beds.” To offset the initial upfront cost, associations can request contractors to work in phases, purchasing small quantities of perennials each year.
If the investment in perennials is not in your budget this year but the curb appeal of flowers is still desired, then annuals will continue to fit the bill. However, don’t look for savings on these already reasonably-priced plants. Allowing or encouraging contractors to purchase inexpensive annuals will prove a more expensive undertaking in the end. Less quantity, more quality is the golden rule that Gary Goldman, managing member of G&M Landscaping in Sherborn, Massachusetts, goes by. “Cheap flowers need more water and more care. They don’t last and are not worth it,” he says.
Ciffolillo agrees and advises that the best way to save when it comes to annuals is purchase less-mature plants and then space them further apart so “as the season progresses they will fill in and look great.”
In addition, associations should consider exploring ornamental grasses and increasing the number of trees and shrubs as cost-saving solutions. Greco finds merit in ornamental grasses. “Ornamental grasses," he says, "are absolutely beautiful and drought-tolerant. These grasses are very fitting for coastal settings.” Grecosuggests a Smokebush shrub and the Crabapple tree as complimentary and cost-effective additions to any condominium landscape.
Plants, shrubs and trees that are suited to minimal precipitation (also known as Xeriscaping) should be of particular interest to associations looking to cut costs. Sedum (Autumn Joy), Russian Sage, and Lavender are all considered drought-resistant plants and will save associations money in care and water consumption. Each plant also offers its own distinct look to a property’s landscape and over time will pay for itself.
Maintaining garden beds with mulchhas become an industry standard because of its ability to keep weeds at bay while being aesthetically pleasing. For this reason, mulch continues to be an annual line item expense few associations are willing to cut, though this prevailing landscaping standard should be reviewed.
Opting for a substitute material may prove to be a better solution for associations looking to save on expenses. "Mulch is not always necessary. You can substitute river stone, gravel or ground cover in most cases. All of these materials could easily fill in an area very nicely," states Norman Lee, president of Northeast Landscape Contractors, Inc. in North Andover, Massachusetts.
Mulch, on average, costs $75 a yard installed, but stone at $100 to $150 a yard installed will last longer and does not need to be replenished year after year. Ground cover is an even better option. Although more of an upfront cost, in two to three years it will fill in and will require minimal care and never need to be replenished. Lee, who works a great deal with ground covers, favors vinca, ivy and pachysandra. "The cost of ground cover is initially more than stone or mulch, but once it matures, you will have minimal care other than sporadic weeding and fall cleanup, while having created a beautiful under-planting for your woody ornamental plants," he says.
If ground cover, stone or even sand (in coastal areas) are not options, associations can explore decreasing the amount of mulch laid out each year. A depth of two to three inches of mulch is customary but unneeded. “Usually mulch is a big-ticket item. Reducing the depth of mulch is an option, as is skipping years and laying down new mulch every other year,” Goldman suggests.
Proper Planning and Partnerships
Mulch vs. ground cover, perennials vs. annuals, or garden beds vs. natural? What works best for a community’s landscape, both visually as well as economically, can prove to be a challenging decision. For that reason, associations should focus on prioritizing what their community’s needs and wants are.
It will be a given that landscaping maintenance and safety will remain a priority. The problem lies with maintaining that balance between upkeep and cost-effective property enhancements.
When it comes to such enhancements, instant gratification is not the norm. A landscaping plan that is broken down into phases will work best and be easier on the budget.
Having a plan of action in place for your landscaping needs requires both short- and long-term planning. “If you don't have a plan, you are setting yourself up for failure," says Lee. "Planning ahead helps to minimize additional costs by doing it right the first time, which includes long-term landscape projects as well as general maintenance. Landscape installation jobs can fail long term if the consumerhasn't considered the long term costs of upkeep and maintenance."
Proper planning will save time and money, but many associations may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of tackling such an undertaking. Partnering with a landscape designer or developinga more in-depth relationship with the current landscape contractor might prove to be the answer to any planning dilemma.
Chase views the relationship between the association and landscaper as a critical one and the key to any cost-cutting efforts. “Associations are alwayslooking for the lowest bids, but sometimes it is more important to look for an honest contractor that you can build a relationship with and work towards enhancing and increasing the value of the property,” Chase says.
Management or a representative from the association should walk the property with the landscaper and do a landscapeaudit. Ciffolillo sees this as an important step in creating a cost-cutting plan of action. “Walking the property with the contractor will prioritize what needs to be done,” he says.
Not only will a strong partnership between the association/management and the landscaping contractor help to formulate a plan of action, but it will also assist in a more efficient process of landscaping services. Goldman estimates that establishing a long term(three- to five-year) relationship with a contractor will lead to a savings of 3% to 4% per year due to increases in efficiency.
In an effort to cut costs, some communities are not only forging stronger relationships with contractors but are literally and figuratively gettingtheir hands dirty. More and more communities are forming committees and volunteer gardening clubs to take on more landscaping needs and save money in the process.“Condo owners could and are taking on responsibility for gardens in specific areas or creating garden committees,” says Chase. “However, it is important that the people that take part in these projects enjoy gardening; if they don’t, it will prove to be a burden.” (see sidebar)
Whether you live in an urban, suburban, coastal or inland setting, management and the board need to be proactive to save on landscaping costs. Associations should take the time to review their landscaping budgets and assess their priorities. Scheduling a landscaping audit with a landscaper willassist in formulating a landscaping plan. Once in place, a landscaping plan executed in annual phases and implemented with patience will save time and money both in the long and short term.
Hillary Pember is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium magazine.