Maintaining green in time of drought

Weather: With the lack of rainfall having an increasing impact on plants and lawns, developers and landscapers look for long-term solutions.

September 03, 2002|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUNS STAFF

People who buy a house in a new development expect the neighborhood to come with some trees and grass.

Tenants in new suburban office parks want manicured green spaces.

For home and office developers and their landscapers, the planting must go on - drought or no drought.

The professionals worry about wilting foliage and the potential costs of keeping it green or replacing it. But some who have weathered droughts said they are developing longer-term solutions.

"It's hard to react that quickly because we generally have approved landscaping plans," said Joseph V. Maranto, a principal at Cignal Corp., which develops housing and offices around the region. "But I've always believed native species do better than exotic plants. We never had plans for palm trees or rain forest species. That helps us some through dry periods."

But even newly planted native plantings need to be watered because their shallow roots are unable to reach much ground water.

And fancy displays with a variety of species require more labor. With an eye on new water restrictions, the developers are doing what they can, but some plants will die, they acknowledge.

Maranto said he is considering installing irrigation systems that target the right amount of water at specific times. That saves water and energy even in times of no drought. Seven Square Corporate Center, an office building near Golden Ring Mall in Rosedale, is likely to be his test case, but he also is collecting quotes for a system at his North Shore housing complex under construction in Canton.

To protect $15,000 worth of new trees in Beachwood Estates, a housing development in eastern Baltimore County, Maranto affixed plastic, green sacks to the trees that slowly release water.

Corporate Realty Management, a subsidiary of suburban office developer Corporate Office Properties Trust, has been trucking in water to preserve trees and shrubs, said President Mike Kaiser. The company generally spends $300,000 to $400,000 on landscaping for each building, "and we get nervous when it doesn't rain."

Officials at H&S Properties Development Corp., which is developing a multibuilding complex in Inner Harbor East, have been researching water-saving and energy-saving techniques and employing them for several years.

"We do all the basics," said Michael S. Beatty, head of the development company. "There are like 100 known things you can do to be environmentally friendly, and 70 of them don't cost much money. We weren't planning for this drought, but it makes sense."

For example, H&S installs low-flow showerheads. Roof gardens of mainly drought-tolerant, low-maintenance plants help shade buildings and keep energy costs down.

Other developers had planned for their green spots to be drought-tolerant.

"I think the trend is appropriately toward indigenous native plants and has been for a while and will continue," said Samuel K. Himmelrich, who is developing the Montgomery Park office building in Southwest Baltimore. It will include a "green roof" of drought-tolerant plants and other ecologically friendly attributes such as a tank to collect rainwater for toilets.

"Smart developers have done this a long time - selecting plants based on their maintenance needs," Himmelrich said. "Fancy suburban shopping centers that have beautiful daisies that come up and die, that's not viewed as being desirable environmentally. They require more water and more maintenance."

Catherine Mahan, a principal at the Baltimore landscape architecture firm Mahan Rykiel Associates, agreed that her clients are becoming more open to drought resistant plants, which are often less green and manicured.

"Out West they have an approach called xeriscape using very drought-tolerant plants and native grasses," she said. "But it's not turf grass that we're used to, and it looks a little stark."

The firm works with architects to outline the greenery, sometimes years in advance, for such clients as the Maryland Highway Administration and the Johns Hopkins University.

Mahan said highway officials are receptive to new plants that cost the state less money in labor and energy. They no longer require a lot of grass, which needs constant mowing, or flowers that need a lot of watering alongside roads.

"Ten years ago, they would say if they didn't have the grass mowed, people would call and say it looked scruffy," she said. "Now they have a program where they don't mow. They use more wildflowers and shrubs. There's more public acceptance."

Some developers still demand the high-maintenance stuff. And some want it now, instead of in the fall when the plants would have wetter and cooler conditions.

Wink Rupprecht, vice president of Pinehurst Landscape Co. Inc., said his company landscaped a grocery store recently for its grand opening.

Rupprecht said he left it to the landlord and the tenant to decide who would foot the higher costs of planting and maintaining the plants and flowers under the existing weather conditions. Still, under such extreme conditions, some of the plants won't survive, he said.

"They said the grand opening is next week, and it's got to get done," he said. "So we get it done."

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