Creating a successful landscape requires more than just a green thumb, especially in the inhospitable environment of today's shopping center. Retail landscaping must endure extreme temperatures, small and poorly-drained planting areas, and unforgiving pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

Nevertheless, each year - usually in the late summer and early fall months - a new center opens with a lush, inviting landscape that draws consumers in and leaves the competition wondering, "How do they do that?"

A bevy of such landscapes has debuted recently, ranging in concept from lifestyle centers to superregional malls. Now, the wizards behind some of these projects are ready to share a few, if not all, of their secrets. Landscaping professionals were asked about the challenges they faced and the techniques they used in making these memorable shopping environments. Here are their responses.

The Avenue at East Cobb Since this was to be the flagship for Cousins' lifestyle product, we had to ensure that the appearance of the landscape was equivalent in quality to the product type. To this end, Post designed a sub-drainage system for sidewalk planters, an irrigation system to automatically irrigate all planted areas, and microclimate planting areas to increase plant diversity. Prior to construction, Post hand-selected plant material from as far away as Portland, Ore., to control quality. During installation, we excavated the existing soil from all sidewalk planters and replaced it with a custom soil mix.

Catering to retailers Since this was an open-air center and many of the businesses were traditional mall-type retailers, they wanted to control their store front appearance. This created several significant problems. First, we did not know where the retailer might put its entrance. This meant we had limited opportunities to make grade transitions between buildings, which made it difficult to meet ADA accessibility guidelines.

Second, as the storefront is, in effect, the lifestyle retailer's sign, we could not introduce any planting areas against the storefronts. We did, however, allocate funds for decorative posts and plantings to place at key points of the storefronts prior to opening the center.

Finally, the entry design of many of the retailers incorporates an outdoor foyer with a special paving material. This meant that a continuous band of neutral paving material had to be installed along the entire lease line of the center adjacent to the sidewalk area.

Accentuating the concept We felt there were three main ingredients needed to emphasize the lifestyle concept of the center and give it a sense of belonging with its surrounding neighborhood. These were diversity, maturity and quality of the plant material. We designed several large planted areas within the sidewalk areas to create microclimates, which support more exotic and interesting plant materials.

The main focus of the hardscape design was the richness and quality of the materials and the creation of comfortable and usable spaces for the patrons. For example, we used real brick pavers in the crosswalks and sidewalk areas, though they were more expensive than concrete.

To reinforce the lifestyle concept, we included shaded seating areas adjacent to food service providers, pocket gardens with fountains, sculpture and an outdoor amphitheater for special events.

Period piece The center's architectural style was reminiscent of a main street circa 1890-1920. To reinforce this, we tumbled the brick pavers, used a water wash finish on the concrete sidewalks and sand-blasted the curbs to create a well-worn appearance. We even introduced a species of Elm tree, resistant to Dutch Elm disease, in the sidewalks as these were the dominant trees in the United States during this period.

Linda Tycher, Landscape Architect The project's greatest challenge was to save a beautiful specimen pecan tree and preserve the large, mature live oaks along the street. We created a park area under the pecan tree that includes sculpture, seating and flagstone pathways.

We used an exotic plant palette to reflect the ranch and Mediterranean styles of the center, including Chinese pistache, southern wax myrtle, watermelon-red crepe myrtle, Indian hawthorn, Tamarix juniper, pampas grass, softleaf yucca and lichen-covered milsap boulders placed in free-form planting beds of green liriope and Asian jasmine.

Davis Morgan, Landscaping Manager, Environmental Care, Smyrna, Ga. There were several challenges involved in the Mall of Georgia project. One was having only nine months to complete a $4 million landscaping project. It was also during one of the driest and hottest summers on record that more than 50% of the project was completed. There was also a scarce local supply of the large trees needed for the project. We had to bring in trees from all over the Southeast and as far away as New Jersey to meet the owner's specification.

To complement the mall's "destination" atmosphere, the landscaping included a 40-acre natural area that includes two miles of walking path, bridges, a beaver dam and a creek. A helicopter was used to install the bridges because there was no way to access the area without disturbing its delicate ecosystems.

Some other innovative features of the landscape include grass parking areas that are interwoven among the asphalt driveways for overflow parking. This reduced the size of retention pond areas and increased "green space" in the mall, giving it a softer look. We also used a special structural fill material to underlie the pavers in the village area. This special material allows the large tree roots to breathe and still provide a stable surface for the thousands of brick pavers.

Scott Maherg, Irrigation Engineer, Davis Landscaping, Harrisburg, Pa. We installed a state-of-the art irrigation system for the various planting areas at Mt. Pleasant. Because we used the innovative two-wire irrigation control system from Tucor Inc., we were able to make adjustments as we went along during the project.

The Tucor consists of 122 zones, controlled by a two-wire path that runs everything. Thesystem also operates three aerating fountains that circulate the water being pumped through the system.

The irrigation is controlled through a PC communication system that can be logged onto from anywhere via modem. Because the system can run one 18/2 wire as far as 33,000 feet without a voltage drop, we were able to rig the entire site. The system can operate any low-voltage configuration on the job site through the Tucor controls.