The Green Team: Part 4 – Planting for the future

If they are to thrive, all living things-plants included-require space to grow and reproduce.

Unlike other forms of life that can move to optimum conditions, plants are unable to relocate themselves to ensure their survival. When it comes to urban landscape design, plants are initially dependent on the designer who chooses their location. Over time, they rely on a caretaker to maintain their health.

As a recent graduate new to the practice of landscape architecture, I am learning that there are circumstances that can breed conflict between landscape architects and real estate developers. Developers usually prefer an “instant” landscape ripe with lush, mature plantings rather than one that grows into its space and strives for sustainability. And so I’m consistently reminded that the key to long-term project success and a healthy designer-client relationship lies in finding a balance between the client’s satisfaction and the expertise of the landscape architect.

At Mathews Nielsen, we have recently worked on a number of projects that required either a landscape renovation (complete or partial) or a newly designed landscape. In most cases, the developers—our clients—prefer instant landscapes. Visually appealing, they offer immediate gratification and, at least initially, more bang for the buck. Dynamic plant masses can provide enticing counterpoints to static buildings, instantly attracting potential residents to a development. But these advantages are quickly undermined by the disadvantages to the landscape’s longevity.

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The benefits of sustainable landscapes: Proper spacing allows plants to thrive over time.

Courtesy Mathews Nielsen

Instant landscapes are typically comprised of a variety of over-planted, full-size plant species. Set too close together without adequate space to grow, competition is created among them. Plants in constricted spaces are prone to develop diseases and transfer them among nearby species. Plants positioned too close to walls or building foundations often experience issues with their root systems, which quickly begin to compete with each other for nutrients and moisture.

Proper initial spacing evolved into a lush swath of plant material at Manhattan’s Hudson River Park.

Courtesy Mathews Nielsen

As landscape architects, we, too, are interested in providing aesthetically pleasing landscapes. But we are equally interested in maintaining the future health of plants. To bridge the developer-designer gap, we work with our clients to provide cost effective design strategies that help them understand the consequences of an instant landscape. One of the first things we do is draw or illustrate the landscape we have in mind for the client. We think about whether we should show how it will look the day it’s finished or how it will look in five years, as landscape elements such as trees do take time to become significant features.  Then, we let the client know how much more it will cost to plant bigger trees or to completely fill the plant beds—and there is a big cost difference. For example, a 3-inch caliper tree—one that is about 15 feet tall–costs about $1,000 to buy and plant. A 6-inch caliper tree—which is what the 3-inch one will look like in five years—costs at least three times that. Thinking about the spacing of perennials or grasses, we plant them about 24-to-36 inches on center. In about three years, they grow into a lush mass.To make this same landscape “instant,” the number of plants would have to be doubled, costing more money to create and also to maintain in the long run.

When designing, I think to myself, “In five years, will this be a space where I would want to spend my time?” As I envision the progressive growth of the plants I am proposing, I always strive to answer with a resounding “YES,” and then help lead our clients to a point of understanding where they can say “yes,” too.

This post is part of The Green Team series.

Zeina G Zahalan, ASLA joined Mathews Nielsen in January 2012. She holds a bachelor of science in landscape architecture from Rutgers University. While pursuing her degree, Zeina worked extensively on streetscape and community garden designs for Community Development Corporations in New Jersey. She is the recipient of the Roy deBoer Travel Grant, the American Society of Landscape Architects Council of Fellows Award, the New Jersey American Society of Landscape Architects Honor Award, and the New Jersey Past President’s Award. In our next blog, find out how plants selected in the field make their way to site in a two part mini-series by the Green Team’s Lisa DuRussel. Title and homapage teaser were amended on 10/23/2012.

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