Services & Maintenance: Landscaping – Not Just A Warm Weather Friend

By The BOMI Institute
Published in the September 2003 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Warm weather naturally is a time when people are more aware of landscaping, but landscape maintenance is a year-round activity for all but the most urbanized properties. The primary aim of landscape design is to use flowers, trees, or other foliage to beautify a property or to solve a site’s environmental problems.

Live plants used indoors add color and human scale to open lobby areas, emphasize building architectural features, direct traffic flow within large open areas, and moisten and freshen building air.


Landscape design begins by considering the ways in which plants can be used for aesthetic or functional purposes. Plants can provide privacy, emphasize spaces, and accent a view or an object.

There are also trends to retain some portions of the grounds of large properties as natural areas, because of environmental considerations. The most important consideration in grounds maintenance is curb appeal: the initial impression the facility makes on a visitor, which can positively or adversely affect the property’s image.

Curb Appeal

Many owners take the attitude that if the grass and plants are green and trimmed there is nothing more required. Curb appeal is a great deal more than a few shrubs and a patch of grass. It includes every visual aspect of the property. For example, a group of trees or flowering shrubs pull a visitor’s eye away from a trash bin or transformer that might otherwise detract from the visual effect of the property.

Curb appeal accomplishes two desirable things. First, it draws employees into the property because it represents a place where they want to work. Second, it creates an environment that retains existing tenants because it is pleasant and attractive to them, to their employees, and to customers.

Landscaping Concerns

A well planned landscape design should appeal to the senses. In planning a landscape, consider the following plant characteristics:

  • Scale and proportion refer to the size of an object in relation to its surroundings. The general rule is to keep the size of the plantings in proportion to the size of the lot and the building.
  • Texture is apparent in good landscaping. Variations in leaf and flower size, shape, and surface give the landscape its textural feeling.
  • Because it catches the eye, color is the most noticeable aesthetic feature in landscaping.
  • Pattern describes the unity and rhythm in landscaping. Areas are usually blended for a smooth transition from one section to another; however, sometimes areas repeat color or texture by duplicating specific plants or paving materials.
  • Scent is obtained from plants that emit pleasant aromas to make the environment more inviting, especially at entrances.

Functional Uses

Plants have numerous qualities that make them invaluable in addressing environmental conditions. They have the potential to define space, provide privacy, supply shade, control glare, block wind, improve air conditions, absorb sound, and curtail erosion.

Perhaps most important, they absorb noxious gases, act as receptors of dust and dirt particles, and cleanse the air of impurities while consuming carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.


Soil conditions-pH, drainage, and nutrients-should be considered in planting preparation and plant selection. The pH defines the measure of acidity or alkalinity. The pH of most soils lies between 4.5 (acidic) and 8.0 (alkaline), with 7.0 being neutral. Most plants have specific preferences regarding soil pH for optimal growth.

To correct pH levels, one should add peat to reduce alkalinity and add lime to reduce acidity. More maintenance will be required if plants in a given location have differing preferences for pH, sunlight, watering, and nutrients.

If plants are still faltering after maintaining sufficient sunlight, good drainage, and an optimum pH then the soil should be checked for nutrient deficiencies. To detect such deficiencies, a soil test or a leaf test can be done using do-it-yourself kits.

Preparation of the soil is the key to successful planting of lawns, shrubs, and flower beds. The investment in a plant should be matched by the preparation of the soil and size of the hole in which it is planted. Some soil problems are quite obvious and easy to correct; others may require advice or assistance from professionals.

Types Of Plantings

Trees are categorized as either evergreens (which remain green year-round and provide a softening effect in cooler climates) or deciduous (which lose their leaves in the fall and often provide a great show of color while doing so). For planning purposes, as a rule of thumb, the root structure of a tree will reach out as far as the leaf canopy.

A shrub produces branches from its base. Many slow growing varieties of shrubs require little maintenance and provide a mature look immediately. Improper location of shrubs can create safety and security problems.

Bedding plants are herbaceous plants grouped together for a mass effect. Bedding plants are categorized as annuals, perennials, and bulbs. Annuals can bloom for months until they are destroyed by frost. They are often used to provide an inexpensive, high impact display of color, but must be replaced each year.

Perennials usually cost more initially, but once established, reappear each year for several years, with new herbaceous growth. Perennials depend on particular climatic conditions but, when carefully selected, are usually more cost effective. Bulbs are a specialized group of perennials with a thickened underground storage organ that contains a reserve of nutrients.

Grasses are shallow rooted perennials and can be classified as lawn grasses or ornamental grasses. Traditionally, they have been used to plant formal lawns which require regular care to maintain a manicured appearance. The intensive use of fertilizer to maintain immaculate lawns has become a matter of increasing concern as run off from these lawns often disrupts the balance of local ecosystems. The use of ornamental grasses has increased because many species require less maintenance, less fertilizing, and are more suited to local ecosystems.

Ground covers are low-growing plants placed en masse to carpet an area. They beautify a property and reduce maintenance. Once established, they choke out weeds, hold the soil, and are a carefree and long lasting means of covering areas. Ground covers, usually perennial, are especially effective in shaded or partially shaded areas where grass will not grow. They are also effective in hard to reach or severely sloping areas where mowing is difficult and erosion control is imperative.

Landscape Maintenance

The more elaborate a landscape design and its plantings, the more maintenance is required. Watering is the most essential element for growth. It is important not to over water plants because soggy soil restricts root development. The top inch of soil should dry before plants are watered again, and then enough water should be applied to penetrate deeply.

The nutrients most essential for plant growth are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Complete fertilizer contains all three of these primary nutrient elements. Mulch is a surface covering that can be composed of many different materials. Mulches improve soil composition by their breakdown and incorporation into the soil. Weather determines the frequency of lawn mowing. No more than 1/3 of the grass height should be removed at each cutting, and the maximum mowing height should not exceed 3.5″.

Disease And Pest Control

Most plant diseases are caused by bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Usually these organisms develop and cause plant diseases because of one of the following conditions: deficiency of one or more essential nutrients, inability of plants to use such nutrients, poor drainage of soil, or excess salts in the soil.

Insects and mammals are two common categories of pests in landscapes. The most common pest problems encountered in landscape maintenance are caused by insects. Rodents, rabbits, and other small four-legged pests are more easily eliminated or controlled with pesticides and physical barriers.

In the U.S., the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act extends federal control to the application of pesticides. The act requires knowledge of proper and safe use and handling of these chemicals. A certified commercial applicator should distribute the chemicals. Pesticides and herbicides should be handled carefully to avoid harming people and the environment.

Contracts With Grounds Maintenance Suppliers

The facilities department should keep an inventory of trees, shrubs, and landscaping on the property. This list should include notes on approximate size, age, condition, and maintenance requirements of these items. This list becomes the basis for a contract specification if the work is outsourced.

The following checklist highlights some points that should be included in a bid specification for these services:

  • A schedule of seasonal plantings and planting areas, and the start/end dates for this service depending on the season;
  • The seasonal cleanups and preparation;
  • The responsibility for damage to irrigation systems;
  • The use of rain detection valves on irrigation systems, if supplier maintains the system, to ensure the sprinklers do not come on during rainfall;
  • Any environmental considerations for a property that abuts natural areas, sensitive areas, watersheds, streams, and schools to ensure that the contractor’s application of pesticides and fertilizers does not harm adjacent occupancies or create violations of environmental regulations;
  • Whether parking areas will be maintained (e.g., removal of leaves and maintenance of islands in the parking areas);
  • Whether mulching, weed control, leaf collection, and fertilization will be included in the base price;
  • Locations where equipment will be stored; and
  • Notifications prior to the application of pesticides (commercial application of pesticides now comes with a requirement to notify abutters, and others, of the intent to apply certain chemicals to lawns, trees, and bushes. Responsibility must be established for notifications, record retention, and permit filing and retention).

While there may be certain times of the year when the landscape is more noticeable, constant care and diligence are needed to maintain a beautiful landscape.

BOMI Institute is the leading provider of education programs for facilities managers, property managers, building engineers, and technicians. For information about the Institute’s courses and professional designation programs, including the Facilities Management Administrator (FMA), call (800) 235-2664, or e-mail