The Suburban Jungle Maintaining Lush Landscapes

Florida is well known for its sunshine, sandy beaches and lovely semi-tropical landscapes. The verdant backdrop of native plants is studded with pops of color and graceful palm trees wave overhead. Condominiums and HOAs typically find landscaping and lawn maintenance expenses are second only to insurance costs; fortunately, the benefits of a thriving landscape continue to outweigh the expense.

Property value, real and perceived, is enhanced by an attractive landscape, and residents tend to take more pride in their homes. Additionally, a well-manicured landscape is an added benefit when units are placed on the market. Maintaining a healthy, attractive landscaping scheme can be tough, but with the help of experienced staff and competent plant pros, it doesn't have to be such an uphill battle.

Maximizing the Elements

Sun, soil and water requirements dictate what will bloom best in any given location, but even naturally lush landscapes need care and attention to maintain optimum beauty and health. The proper mix of elements doesn’t happen by accident, even in semi-tropical Western and Central Florida, where the growing season is pretty much all year long. Winters here are brief and relatively dry, while summers coincide with hurricane season and so are wetter—sometimes too wet. Florida landscapers must deal with these seasonal adjustments, just like states to the north face the challenges of snow and ice.

“Using native plants, in the best possible location with proper sun exposure and irrigation is a smart and economical way to maximize a landscaping budget,” says Michael Cihal, vice president of operations and a certified horticulturist for Total Landscape Concepts, Inc. in Pembroke Pines. Cihal has a heavy design background, and says that when he's working in confined areas, he pays close attention to the space and the lighting—both are issues as plants mature. He favors dwarf varieties of native plants, understory palms, and other unusual palms. “There is a narrow margin on temperatures and moisture for many tropical plants,” he says. “If temperatures fall below 60 degrees or water is restricted, plants can decline quickly without protection.”

Cihal recommends a more deliberate, controlled look for plants at property entrances, and a more organic, tropical style for back property areas. “St. Augustine strains are the most common grasses for lawns, but Bermuda and Zoysia turfs are also good choices in South Florida. They are tolerant of wind, salt, and high temperatures,” he says.

According to the pros, there are not a lot of nutrients in Florida soil, and a total package of feeding, maintaining, fertilizing, and controlling irrigation is key to keeping plants and turf healthy and beautiful. Most landscaping contractors spend time with boards and committees, sharing information and educating their clients. “People may prefer the plants they loved in their hometowns, but those plants may not perform well in a tropical zone. If you do not plan, you spin your wheels,” Cihal advises.

“There are a number of plants that work really well in a semi-tropical setting like Western and Central Florida,” says Pam Lutz, business development manager for Austin Outdoor in Bradenton. “Arbicola (Schefflera), Crotons, Florida Firebrush, Hibiscus, Mandevilla, Alamanda and Bougainvillea all work really well.”

Plant Palettes

“Southwest Florida is home to many micro-climates, with the proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, soil composition and exposure to salt and wind play a major role in the region’s plant palette,” says Clinton Lak, BSLA Landscape Desginer for ArtisTree Landscape Maintenance & Design in Venice. “In my experience, plants that work best can withstand our diverse climate (hot, wet summers, dry winters and an occasional frost or freeze). Sweet and Sandankwa viburnums and podocarpus maki make a wonderful hedge and are well-suited to our micro-climates. For adding movement and soft areas, paradise or silver European fan palms are my choices for lower-story accents. Cuban royal palms or Southern magnolias make great canopies and nicely frame the architectural elements you’ll find in many condo or homeowners associations.”

Properties adjacent to the ocean often have to deal with the corrosive effects of saltwater on their turf. Lutz recommends Bahia or St. Augustine as hearty turf options, and wax myrtle, weeping willow, pigeon plum, sea oats & sea grapes for plantings along the beach. “Empire zoysia sod works best for properties near the Gulf of Mexico,” adds Lak. “Zoysia is more acceptable of the salinity levels found near saltwater.”

“Associations should always take into consideration the environmental factors when making plant selections,” says Lutz. “Different plants tolerate salt water better than others.”

Experts also recommend native coco palms for an upscale design because of their resistance to salt. Plants for pool areas should be chlorine resistant varieties such as ficus, but most mature plants can also withstand moderate amounts of pool water. Pet waste however is another matter; dog urine can be deadly to flowers, shrubs, and lawns. Many properties use gravel or natural stone for dog walks, solving the turf damage problem and creating an attractive texture. Artificial turf is also a possible solution for easy clean up of pet waste.

Other experts recommend using plants and landscaping to guide traffic patterns through a property or a planter with a pop of color, or well placed small hedges can easily control foot traffic. Regardless of what kind of look you're trying to achieve, “You must focus diligently on selecting the right plant for the right place,” says Lak. “A plant’s specifications and durability must be matched for its use and environment. As landscape designers, we plan and design with the end use always in mind. A plant palette that you would want on a private estate is 180 degrees from what you would want around a parking lot or dog park.”

A Clear Vision

It’s important for an association or a landscaping committee to have a clear vision and a desire to understand and partner with a landscape expert. Landscaping is the first and the last impression when viewing a property for potential homeowners and can provide a positive impression or a negative one.

“Landscaping can increase the curb appeal and home values in a community,” says Lutz. “It should be aesthetically pleasing. Investing in a professional landscape contractor to help protect the number one uninsured asset of your community may cost a few extra dollars but will pay for itself in the long run.”

Landscaping and ground maintenance is not a do-it-yourself committee project for most tropical Florida properties, but board and committee members who wish to educate themselves have excellent resources. A database of Florida-friendly plants may be located online at www.floridayards.org. This easy to use source contains information on 380 species of flowers, vines, grasses and ground covers as well as trees and palms.

Additionally the University of Florida IFAS Extension Services has an informative site, dade@ifas.ufl.edu with information on landscaping, and access to Master Gardeners.

Landscaping pros agree that the beauty of Western and Central Florida is the variety of plants, palms and color available year round, including trees and variegated greens.

“Beautiful, healthy landscaping simply makes you community a pleasant place to live,” says Lak. “It also produces a substantial ROI with minimum investment, particularly in common areas (especially entrances) that prospective homeowners are evaluating along with their possible home purchase. We advise communities to upgrade their landscaping just as they would a tired pool area or clubhouse. Not doing so can keep homes from selling at a profitable price.”    

Anne Childers is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Western & Central Florida Cooperator. Staff writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.

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