It’s a counterintuitive proposition: in the concrete jungle that is Toronto’s growing crop of condominiums, Allan Kling, president of landscaping company Urban Garden, says that boards and property managers can maintain prettier condo landscapes with less maintenance and lower costs by reducing the size of their turf.
Speaking at an Association of Condominium Managers of Ontario (ACMO) luncheon on Jan. 14 in Richmond Hill, Kling pointed to a recent project at 30 Gloucester, a condominium near Yonge and Bloor Streets, to show how reducing grass can benefit a property. The membrane had expired, meaning everything needed to be stripped out. In the process, Kling reduced the turf by 50 per cent — by tucking garden beds and planting in around a new interlock courtyard with seating that attracted owners to the space.
The prevailing attitude toward landscapes among condo boards and managers, he said, is that they’re an expensive line-item in the budget that delivers few measurable benefits. As Kling sees it, the goal of condo landscaping is to increase owners’ enjoyment of their property and enhance the value of their investment in their home.
The reason Kling recommended reducing the size of turf is because it’s expensive. Turf may only cost $1 per square foot, but the cost of installing, watering, mowing and replacing it needs to be factored into the equation. The hard surface alternative doesn’t need to be concrete, and it doesn’t need to be ugly either, he said.
The next question is what to plant in a condominium’s gardens. The cost of annuals drove many to perennials, Kling said — until they realized that perennials had a short bloom period and had to be re-loaded frequently. Many simply shifted back to annuals for their colour. But Kling argued that tastes are changing, and that successfully incorporating perennials is a matter of mixing size, shape, colour and texture in pleasing combinations.
“If you put the right plant in the right place at the right time, you get this flow of colour, constantly changing, and it can be interesting from May through October,” he said.
To move away from expensive materials, Kling also recommended using evergreen generously to anchor a garden and give it colour through the seasons. Then, the expensive annuals can be placed in areas with high visibility — the ones that get the most foot and vehicular traffic — where they’ll have the most value, he said.
Kling listed a handful of hardy materials he likes, including false indigo, a flower that “throws out spikes” through summer; bayberry, a shrub that attracts birds, which he conceded can be a positive or negative trait depending on personal preferences; and dogwood, which doesn’t have the kind of big roots that can damage buildings.
“What you want is a plant that gives you some interesting summer colour, has some foliage colour in the fall, is easy on the property, and doesn’t have a lot of weakness or exposure to bugs that we can’t treat efficiently or effectively as we could before (the Cosmetic Pesticides Act),” he said.
The cost of water isn’t high enough to justify investing in some of the innovative new irrigation systems just yet. However, Kling advised that if a condo board or manager is replacing an inefficient system or using a significant amount of water, it might be worthwhile to bring in an irrigation specialist to conduct an audit.
A long-term master landscape plan can be a handy tool for implementing these types of changes. The key to selling owners on the idea is to convey that yes, the changes will come with upfront costs, but ultimately, they will reduce maintenance and its associated costs over time, he said.
Beyond traditional considerations, Kling went one step further to highlight some of the value-add landscape amenities he believes the new younger breed of condo owner will soon come to expect. Among these were barbecue areas, adopt-a-planter gardens and play space for kids.
As a way of balancing what are likely to be competing interests for limited space, Kling said property managers ought to look at their role as one of a community organizer. As more amenities are offered, he said, there will be more opportunities to engage the community.
Michelle Ervin is the editor of CondoBusiness.