Turf Magazine - October, 2012

WEST FEATURES

Leading the Industry to Sustainability

Arizona Landscape Contractors Association promotes ecologically sound maintenance goals
By Nancy Riggs

"We were all native here in the desert, then we were very developed, and now we're trying to get back some of the native," says Judy Gausman, CEO of Arizona Landscape Contractors Association (ALCA), Scottsdale. Gausman and Matthew Johnson, ALCA president, recently discussed the association's adopting new standards for sustainable desert landscape maintenance, stressing that the goal is not to let landscapes go without maintenance, but to properly manage landscapes to promote sustainability.


Tony Acosta, left, ALCA president elect, and ALCA President Matthew Johnson, survey plant selections appropriate for Arizona's climate.
PHOTO BY LEE RIGGS.

More than halfway across the country, a panel at the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association (ILCA) Mid-Am also addressed sustainable landscaping. Panel member Joel Reinders of Reinders, Inc., echoed the same thought. He says, "The ultimate goal is to recreate the ecology before this was a large urban area." While arid conditions place plants in a more stressful growth situation, the ecological goal of restoring landscapes to pre-development patterns applies throughout the country.

Water is a major component in any sustainable landscape discussion - too little in the desert and too much in some other parts of the country. Adoption of the maintenance standards in the desert Southwest is directed to helping landscape maintenance professionals provide the best maintenance practices for sustainability in often harsh conditions.

ALCA's maintenance standards

Desert conditions include limited irrigation with high mineral content water, high temperatures and very little rainfall. Misguided maintenance practices can have increased negative impacts on landscape plants in those settings.

"Sustainable Landscape Management Standards: Landscape Care in the Desert Southwest," by Janet Waibel, a local landscape architect and certified arborist, has been adopted by the ALCA. Its members were involved with the author during the development and revision process of the book. With extensive input from ALCA members, the book presents the best-recommended practices for industry professionals and for property managers, homeowners' associations, business owners and others involved in landscaping.

"These standards aren't new and have been practiced by many landscapers here in the valley," says Johnson. He adds that while many established landscapers practice ecologically sound maintenance standards, many others either lack understanding of these sound practices or follow the demands of property owners who want a particularly lush look to their properties. Landscapers know that more natural growth patterns result in healthier, longer-lasting plants, but, at the same time, they must keep property owners happy with the results. This issue becomes more important as more unlicensed, untrained operators offer maintenance services in the competitive environment of a declining economy.

"It is our desire for every professional involved with landscape management to read and understand these principles and standards in an effort to elevate the quality and professionalism within the communities and cities we live and work," Johnson says.

With that goal, ALCA has established a training program and a certification program for members that includes regularly offered workshops. The workshops are designed to help landscapers not only understand the new standards and their importance to long-lasting health of plants and the landscape, but to convince homeowners and other property owners that incorporating these standards will actually save them money while providing beautiful, sustainable landscapes.


This tree is protected from damage with proper staking. New standards hinder practices, such as improper pruning, which discourage its natural form.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ALCA.

An important component in adopting these standards is to bring various organizations throughout the valley on board endorsing the standards. With ALCA's primary sponsorship of the standards, endorsements have been obtained from major organizations, including the American Society of Landscape Architects - Arizona Chapter, and the Building Owners and Managers Association - Greater Phoenix. Major efforts are aimed at educating homeowners' associations, business associations, property management companies and municipal and jurisdictions on the long-term benefits not only in sustainability of the landscape plants, but in the savings that will be realized in water costs, maintenance time and other inputs required to maintain and replace plants.

The valley surrounding Phoenix and much of the urbanized desert Southwest have developed to a great extent with the influx of people from the East. While many flock to the desert for its harsh beauty and sparse growth due to limited water, many others have brought with them their desires for lush, green landscapes. Only in more recent years have landscape designers begun to emphasize the natural form and growing patterns of plants, and to develop a mix of native and non-native plants that are both aesthetically pleasing and can thrive in desert conditions.

Like Johnson, Tony Acosta, ALCA president-elect, has worked in desert landscaping for many years. He cites the difficulties that can surface when landscape contractors try persuading homeowners or property managers to agree to a different style of landscape management. This issue is particularly important to new and smaller landscapers who may have the knowledge and interest in practicing proper desert landscape maintenance procedures, but who, at the same time, need to keep their clients happy with the results.

ALCA-adopted standards lend credibility to discussions with property owners and managers, and the ability to emphasize bottom-line savings over time is a major element in obtaining endorsements of the standards and in promoting change. A newly created ALCA Excellence in Landscaping award category in commercial property maintenance includes the incorporation of sustainable practices.

Out with poodle-dog pruning

The basic pruning of shrubs has been a major issue. For decades, shearing and shaping shrubs has involved creating shapes rather than allowing the plants to follow natural growth patterns. The trauma to plants through intense shearing has required extensive watering just for the plants to survive, not to mention loss of the natural beauty of the plants blooms and growth habits.

A number of plants when pruned too deeply, often done when plants overgrow walkways, exhibit chopped-off branches that do not re-grow to a natural pattern. This results in an unattractive plant. The recently adopted standards discourage practices that include shearing shrubs with power tools, removing more than 20 percent of the foliage, or creating geometric shapes. Pruning shrubs or groundcovers when they are blooming, a common practice in the spring when winter visitors leave the valley, is discouraged. Simple maintenance techniques are emphasized, such as maintaining sharp blades when pruning to avoid shredding branches.

Also, plant selections, both initial and replacement, should be a significant consideration. "We have too many examples of the right plant in the wrong place," Johnson says. Some desert plants, such as red yucca, should never be trimmed as they sometimes are when planted in too small of a space. Instead, these and other similar plants should be planted in adequate space that will allow them to grow to their full development stage without being trimmed.

Water management the issue

While ALCA-adopted standards are unique to sustainable landscape maintenance in the desert Southwest, many of the same issues apply all across the country. Scott Grams, ILCA executive director, notes that while the desert Southwest contends with too little water, managing too much water is often the problem in the Midwest and other areas of the country. Though both Chicagoland, with a population of about 8 million, and the Phoenix Valley, with its relatively recent development and a population of about 4 million, are both major urban areas, they represent ecologically different areas.

"Stormwater management is a major issue in the Great Lakes area," Grams says. "Landscape managing often involves how we mitigate stormwater. It often involves management through construction of swales or gardens."

A panel at ILCA's last Mid-Am show focused on a national perspective on sustainable landscaping with stormwater control a primary discussion.

Grams also points out other landscape sustainability issues, for example planting junipers under windows as a common practice. "The junipers may grow to 9 feet in height and have to be replaced," he says. "Trying to maintain turf in dense shade under trees when groundcovers are much more efficient is a major concern," he adds.

"People travel and they see plants they like and want in their own landscapes," Grams says, emphasizing the importance of the climates in which the landscapes are located. He stresses the importance of effective conversations between landscapers and homeowners or property managers.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer from Mt. Zion, Ill., and has been covering the green industry for Turf for more than 20 years. You can contact her at NFRIGGS@aol.com.