How to Minimize the Negative Impact of Heavy Rains on Apartment Landscapes

With the recent abundance of moisture in the Southwest, the prospects for great summer curb appeal appear good for apartments. Frequent and heavy rains have resurrected water-starved landscapes into lush, green utopias that are eye-catching and keeping lawn and maintenance staffs busy.

The good news is that well-maintained grass, bushes, shrubs, and trees are now doing their jobs – enhancing properties. The not-so-good news is that too much of a good thing not only means more frequent mowing and trimming but the potential for damaged plants and trees.

Heavily saturated landscapes create problems for trees and bushes that don’t get proper drainage of their root systems. Often, the damage may not be apparent until the plant is really struggling or dying.

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Apartment landscapes can suffer from too much rainfall 

Lingering issues from excessive rains last fall and this spring are starting to show at some properties. Unfortunately, a lot of native plants installed to sustain drought that ravaged much of the country a couple of years ago are struggling or dying.

Record rainfall in some areas and unusual amounts of moisture in others has slowed the drying process. While this is the time of year that irrigation systems are used to supplement moisture, big cloudbursts are adding to moisture levels of already saturated soil.

Landscapes that feature multiple elevations and have low spots are taking the brunt. The additional rain that normally wouldn’t be a problem with proper drainage is just adding to moisture levels below the surface. Root systems are becoming saturated.

Compounding the matter are higher elevation areas that drain well and require watering this time of year.  The challenge becomes keeping water on one area without putting more on another when gravity is at play. That’s where smart irrigation controllers can be particularly valuable by not only saving on a property’s water bill but managing moisture levels.

Know the signs of plants, trees that are drowning

Indications of water damage to plant life are pretty obvious but can be disguised as other issues. The telltale signs are yellowing or discoloration, or visible veins on leaves. A plant may also turn brown but retain its leaves, or a fungus may be present, especially on lawns.

When leaves and the overall appearance of the plant or tree changes, it’s an indication that nutrients are being washed away under the surface. Typically when plants don’t get enough water, they hibernate and drop leaves. If they are too wet, the leaves generally stay attached. With shrubs, by the time they show signs of excessive moisture and begin dropping leaves, it’s probably too late.

Don’t be fooled by a dry, cracked surface around the plant when the landscape dries after a heavy rain. It may seem that the plant needs water, when, in fact, the root system is swimming. Ideally, the soil around the root system should be moist, not saturated or soupy.

The best way to determine proper moisture balance is to test the soil around the roots, either by taking a spade and digging down to extract dirt around roots, or using a moisture meter. Quickly running your fingers through the soil will indicate if too much (or not enough) moisture is present. A cleaner method is to stick a moisture meter into the ground near the base of the plant. Meters can be purchased anywhere from $10-$60, depending on the style.

Another way to determine if the ground is wet is the presence of gnats.

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Steps can be taken to help root systems drain better

Discovering that plants in your apartment landscape are being consumed by moisture is not necessarily a death sentence. Some steps can be taken to help dry them out beyond the natural process, especially with larger plants or trees that react more slowly.

A top priority is getting air to the roots. This can be done by mixing in layers of gravel, porous shale or rock to the soil around the root system. The added aggregate will create air pockets that will allow water to pass through the root zone, rather than just sit there.

For new tree plantings in any excessively moist soil, install a crisscross section of drain pipe at the bottom to allow for oxygen to flow on a regular basis. The open end of the pipe should protrude from the ground so it breathes in the air.

Also, re-evaluate landscape drainage and correct areas where water can pond.

Unfortunately, nature will have to do much of the work to dry out a plant or tree that’s too wet, and it can be a waiting game. In the future, however, property managers can get the most benefit of those often-welcome rains by doing a little advance preparation and working with their landscape professional.

How much rain falls on a landscape is uncontrollable. But steps can be taken to minimize the impact.

President, Earthworks

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Chris Lee is President of Dallas, Texas-based Earthworks, which specializes in multifamily housing landscaping. He is a contributing author to Landscape Management magazine, licensed irrigation specialist and a Toro Intellisense certified technician. Chris studied business at the University of Arkansas from 1990-94 and horticulture and landscape design at Tarrant County College from 1999-01. He has been employed at Earthworks since 1998.

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