Multifamily Trends: Apartments Are No Longer Hedging Bets on Traditional Landscape Techniques
I drove past my old junior high the other day and, even though the campus is now the school district’s administration office, I noticed a very stark exterior look. The north wall of the main building was bare. Gone was the hedgerow that once ran the length of the north side, the one that our groundskeeper, Mr. Norman, painstakingly shaped with manual hedge clippers every week during the spring before school let out.
Sha-Whack! Sha-Whack! Whack! Sha-Wack! Mr. Norman’s elbows and arms worked in and out like pistons with every chop.
I wondered if the hedge removal was the victim of a reduced maintenance budget or that hedgerows were going out of style, so I started looking at other area buildings – including apartments. Sure enough, not as many hedges.
I called Property Management Insider’s resident landscape guru, Chris Lee, and asked about those neatly manicured, brightly colored straight-edged rows that were popular at homes, businesses, and apartments in the 1970s and ‘80s. That was a time, he said, when landscaping was about structure and crisp lines created by 3- to 4-feet tall hedge rows and lush bushes and shrubs. In more recent years, hedges have lived on in the form of 5- and 6-foot tall rows of Red-Tip Photinias, especially in warmer climates.
But today, landscaping is more about lower maintenance of native plants in small groupings that provide interest and beauty, he says. Expecting the maintenance crew to spend a day shaping hedges is not as much a priority.
“We’re seeing a lot more traditional properties that are eliminating hedge rows and going back in with small groupings or clusters of shrubs, and reductions of turf grass for water consumption and maintenance purposes,” Lee said. “It’s about more hard-scape, more usable, more functionality than aesthetics.”
Mr. Norman wouldn’t be happy, might even be without a job.
Many properties are replacing hedges like Burford Holly, Waxleaf Ligustrums and Photinias and retrofitting landscapes with more trendy and sustainable landscapes like clusters of sages, bushes and plants in rock beds. New properties are going that route, too.
Interestingly, the disappearance of hedge rows isn’t all about a new look. Security issues are a factor.
While hedges provide uniformity and conceal foundations and utility areas that may appear otherwise unattractive, they also can be a spot for those up to no good to hide by windows and doors.
Lee said he’s received calls from some properties that want hedge rows removed or trimmed down after a resident was robbed, mugged, or stabbed by an intruder hiding behind the bushes.
“Property owners are using plants strategically for safety and security, and they’re also removing other plants for safety and security,” he added. “It’s reactive rather than proactive.”
On the other hand, hedge rows of prickly Chinese Holly or Pyracantha provide protection around entry points, especially on sides of buildings that are concealed at the back of the property. The plants are very sticky and aggressive, and have quarter- to half-inch spikes, making movement through and around them an unpleasant experience.
“We’ve had properties say they only want to plant these under every window,” Lee said. “And they are about the nastiest thing you’d ever want to encounter. We have properties that have had issues with people jumping fences, so they have had us go in and install a row of Pyracanthas along the fence. You’d jump over that fence and that would be about the last time.”
Overall, properties owners want sustainable landscape that doesn’t have to be trimmed or maintained as much. A hedgerow may have to be shaped once a week versus a cluster of five Texas Sage plants that need trimming once a year – that’s a big difference in maintenance.
It’s also a big difference in long-term capital investment because most of these shrubs and plants have 20- to 30-year life expectancies.
Lee said ornamental and softer plants, like roses and ornamental grass that offer a not-so-edgy look, are the most desirable. Clusters of 20-25 shrubs across the front of a building – three rows of bushes on one corner, three rows bushes in the middle and three rows bushes on the end that bloom or have special color – are in vogue rather than just a green shrub.
Sad to say, Mr. Norman’s talent for trimming hedges probably isn’t in demand today. But his arms and elbows would probably feel much better.