Where Did We Go Wrong?

As a landscape architect, one of the most frustrating things I encounter on a frequent basis is improper maintenance of existing landscapes.

Poor maintenance can make even the most carefully designed landscape look awful.

We all know that proper maintenance is vital to the success and sustainability of any project. However, it’s also one of the least controllable aspects of a project after it has been designed and installed.

More times than not, I have seen potentially award-winning projects destroyed by improper maintenance practices. Have you ever driven by one of your projects two or three years after it has been installed and felt embarrassed that your name was even attached to the project? I know I have.

How do we prevent this from happening? How do we convince our clients to care about their project as much as we do even after they write us the final check for our services? Is it even possible? I’d like to think it is.

I remember when I was in elementary school and our first-grade class took a field trip to the botanical gardens in a neighboring city. I was amazed at the number of different gardens. Beautifully landscaped displays adorned every garden. The vibrant colors were brilliant and the fragrances were intoxicating.

What impressed me the most at such a young age was the care in which the gardeners took with their pruning shears as they trimmed and shaped the many plants and topiaries. There was not a power tool to be seen in any of the gardens.

As I grew older and started my own landscape maintenance business in high school, the only power tools I could afford were a used lawn mower, which I bought second hand off the local trading post radio show one Saturday morning, and a $29 electric weed eater from the local hardware store. The rest of the tools I owned were hand tools — various shovels, rakes, hoes and my trusty pair of Felco #9 pruning shears.

Fast forward 20 years, and every Thursday in my townhome complex the landscapers arrive adorned with gasoline-powered hedge clippers and backpack-style blowers. It amazes me that a crew of three can mow, trim and clean up 11 acres of turf and planting beds in less than two hours.

Forget trying to sleep past 6:30 on Thursday mornings. I wonder if they even have a pair of pruning shears in their tool truck.

What has caused the mindset shift in the last 20 years within the landscape maintenance industry to care more about the dollar and less about plant vitality, or, even more importantly, the overall look of the finished garden?

What would Frank Lloyd Wright have said had he visited one of his residences a couple of years after it was built only to find every light fixture in the house had been removed and replaced with a cheap Tiffany knockoff?

I am constantly disappointed, as I drive around my community, to see rows of shrubs trimmed into balls or squares along every street and front yard. Why does this happen?

How can one truly appreciate the beauty of any landscape when these trees and shrubs are shorn every week and not allowed to bloom or grow in their natural form? What can we as landscape architects and designers do to change this mentality within the landscape maintenance community?

Recently, our state chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) decided to give an award to a landscape maintenance company that exhibits exemplary landscape maintenance practices throughout the year. I thought that this was a unique approach to recognizing the importance of proper landscape maintenance and the company that truly takes pride in its work.

Our state’s contractor’s association and nursery association also give similar awards annually at their awards banquet. While I think this is a great way to recognize companies that pride themselves in doing quality work, I wonder what more can we do?

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