Landscaping professionals offer tips for choosing foliage, selecting contractors and staying in style.

As the first thing visitors see when they approach a shopping center, landscaping plays an often under-appreciated role in a center's success. It can either invite customers in for a closer look or send them looking elsewhere.

"Landscaping is a marketing tool," says Kurt Kluznik, president of Yardmaster Landscape Architects and Contractors, Painesville, Ohio. "It attracts shoppers to the center and creates a favorable public image."

>From landscape planning and design to installation and maintenance, the decisions that affect the customer's first impressions are numerous. And, according to the professionals working in the jungle, the choices and trends are changing rapidly.

Low maintenance standards A trend in any industry brings with it the possibility that things could change as quickly as the snap of a twig. Ironically, within the shopping center industry, permanence is the latest landscaping preference.

"There is a huge trend now toward the use of perennial flowers," says Ed LaFlamme, president of LaFlamme Landscape Management Co., Bridgeport, Conn. "Traditionally, mass plantings of annuals were typical for retail center owners, but, more and more, perennials are being used heavily and annuals sparingly for additional color."

Along with perennial flowers and greenery comes a consistent look to the center as well as reduced costs, says LaFlamme. "Landscape professionals don't have to constantly be planting annuals," he notes.

Ornamental grasses also are growing in popularity, partially due to their variety and also because of their low maintenance needs. Grasses may be allowed to grow tall and can be used as screens and backdrops on their own or in conjunction with trees and shrubbery, LaFlamme says. "Different types used for variety in color and height can really add dimension to a center's landscape," he explains.

"Used properly, grasses can be very low maintenance additions to the landscape," he continues. "But they shouldn't be overdone. Too much of a good thing doesn't look good."

In addition to showing new interest in perennial foliage and ornamental grasses, shopping center owners are incorporating more non- traditional plants into their landscape designs. "Anything that adds interest to the landscape evolves into a trend," says Bruce Church, president of Church Landscape, Lombard, Ill.

Japanese gardens and Italian theme plantings are very popular in retail centers, he says. "Exotic and tropical annuals and perennials are being chosen more and more as centers make their landscape unique," he notes.

Even when the plants are traditional, the colors often are not, he adds. "Several years ago, using pink and red flowers in the same bed was taboo," Church explains. "Now we're successfully putting all sorts of color combinations together. Even red and orange co-exist beautifully today."

Impact and endurance When choosing the type of foliage to incorporate into a design, owners should consider "curb appeal" above all else, says Church. "High visibility centers, especially, require impressive landscaping," he notes.

For example, at Old Orchard Shopping Center in Skokie, Ill., the center's concept is based upon open courtyards rather than an enclosed mall, notes Church, whose firm designed the center's landscaping. The outdoor areas needed to be planted to draw the shopper through the center, he explains. As a result, Church planted thousands of bulbs to create a colorful, changing landscape.

A center's choice of foliage "depends greatly on the level of interest the shopping center is trying to create," Church says. "But for centers like Old Orchard, high impact is of utmost importance."

Budget runs a close second to curb appeal when setting a center's landscape criteria. Budgets will vary from center to center, but "creating the most bang for the buck is important, no matter what the center," Church says.

Part of that "bang" can be realized by matching foliage types to intended use and to the center's environmental conditions. For example, "bulbs that send up tender shoots would be inappropriate planted on a curb area where pedestrian traffic would destroy them," Church notes.

In addition to pedestrian traffic, centers must consider vehicular traffic, soil types and climate when choosing the proper foliage for their landscape. "If the soil is heavy clay, or contains a great deal of rock or debris, it may have to be excavated or altered to accommodate certain plantings," Church says.

"Many perennials often won't tolerate the heavy use of salt or the damage from snow plows," he adds, noting that day lillies and sedum autumn joy are cold-weather favorites.

Finally, LaFlamme adds, the landscape planning a design phases should include security considerations. "Centers have a duty to be security-conscious today," he says. "They can't afford to have too much shrubbery clut- tering the center."

Rather than planting large bushes that create concealed areas and hidden doorways, many centers are choosing upright trees with higher branches that contribute to open spaces. "These are points that must be addressed when the landscaper is meeting with the shopping center owner," LaFlamme says.

Picking a professional As the preliminary phases of landscaping come to a close, implementation becomes the project focus. At that stage, most centers outsource their landscaping needs.

"Shopping center owners know that they'll get the job done more professionally, receive competitive bids and can get the work done more quickly by a landscape firm than if they did it themselves," LaFlamme says. "In the end, it's just more cost-effective to hire a company that can handle all the landscape issues from front to back."

Licensed landscape professionals make a substantial difference in the quality of the work, says Church. "The best sales pitch in the world doesn't mean a thing if the people doing the job don't know what they're doing," he says, adding that licensing by an industry authority (e.g., Associated Landscape Contractors of America, Reston, Va.) provides some quality assurance. "Shopping center owners should look for a landscape firm that can provide references and years of experience," he advises.

Centers also should be sure that the landscaping contractor is available for year-round service, Kluznik adds. "Whether we're doing floral displays, vast green lawns or providing emergency response when winds or ice drop a tree on the property, we have to be available to our clients," he says.

The payoff unfolds A properly planned and executed landscape project by a professional landscape contractor can achieve numerous goals for the shopping center owner. In addition to boosting the center's image, landscaping can produce a favorable, measurable impact on the center's bottom line, says Kluznik. "When a retail property provides a friendly, attractive, welcoming environment for its visitors, retention rates and rent rates often rise," he notes.

Furthermore, new technology is making it easier for center owners to control water and irrigation costs and to minimize maintenance demands, adds Kluznik. Finally, he notes, trees and shrubbery can be placed as part of the design to maximize energy savings (e.g., placing trees to screen entries from sun or winter winds).

Times are changing, and the possibilities for center landscaping are expanding, Kluznik says. "In the past, a landscape architect was called in at the end of a development project," he notes. "The building was up, and the last thought was of landscaping." Today, landscape architects are being plugged into projects in the design stages and are being retained for installation and maintenance.

As tastes change with the leaves and landscaping designs take on different forms, Kluznik is hopeful that the realization of landscaping's importance will withstand other trends. "Enhancing and improving the retail property with quality landscaping is today's essential investment," he notes.

Lisa Pritchard Mayfield is a Macon, Ga.-based freelance writer.

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Mallscapes Inc. Landscaping services from Dallas-based Mallscapes Inc. include design/build installations, maintenance, seasonal color and lease programs. Exterior services, including maintenance and seasonal color, also are available.

Valley Crest Services from Calabasas, Calif.-Valley Crest include site preparation, landscape and hardscape. Pre-construction services include estimating, budgeting, scheduling, technical consulting and research, and plant procurement.