In a lifetime of landscaping we’ve seen our share of community garden projects. Memorial tree plantings; “welcome” plantings at the edge of town; “pocket parks”; community vegetable gardens; street tree projects. All done with the best of intentions, by well-meaning citizens, garden clubs and other organizations.
Over the years we’ve been asked to help with many such undertakings, but we can’t claim to have had much impact on them. In most cases, the persons or groups already had a pretty clear idea of what they wanted to build, so they didn’t really welcome design input. Good landscape designers usually start by asking a lot of pesky questions, which can quickly put a wet blanket over the whole project. All too often, the donated funds aren’t sufficient to cover the cost of building a long-lasting landscape.
We grew up in the business of industrial-commercial landscape maintenance. Practicality and low maintenance are top priorities in commercial landscaping. Misguided design ideas and amateur installation practices quickly lead to high maintenance costs, which is why so many commercial landscapes don’t stand the test of time. Neither do the vast majority of community gardens and landscape projects.
The fact is that long-term maintenance is a real challenge for most volunteer groups. The most motivated folks are the ones with the original idea. With the energy of the innocent, they are eager to break ground and install the sentimental projects they visualize. Over time the enthusiasm fades, and the maintenance tasks fall to volunteers with busy lives and many demands on their time. Tragically, this is when the lack of professional-grade design and installation practices can doom the most well-intentioned landscape project.
Good landscapes get better with time. They require more maintenance in the first few years, but as they mature they can tolerate neglect. Neglect is the fate of many public landscape installations, so good designers make low maintenance the highest priority in the list of design objectives. This often makes the project more expensive and time-consuming to install, but the trade-off is that it will look nice for much longer, with less care.
Community vegetable gardens are a particular challenge, because successful vegetable gardening requires almost daily attention. Home vegetable gardeners find some time every day to keep up with weeds, insects and diseases, and harvest their crops timely, because their gardens are right outside their homes. Community gardens aren’t as convenient, so they can quickly go wrong for a variety of reasons.
There’s a long list of “tricks of the trade” we employ when designing low maintenance landscapes. Installations on public property, which depend on volunteer labor for their upkeep, demand even greater attention to good design. Weed control, plant hardiness, disease resistance, soil preparation; all these and more need to be planned for.
Nothing is more tragic than seeing a plaque or monument memorializing a special person or event, in front of a patch of weeds or an empty spot where a tree once stood. The first step in designing a low maintenance landscape might be adjusting your ideal of beauty; limiting your choices of landscape plants and hardscapes to those that will truly stand the test of time.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are on the “Garden Advice” page at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information is available at www.goodseedfarm.com or call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.