We have all seen landscape maintenance that did or did not work.
The problem is often not with the specifications, but with the execution. Monitoring a maintenance contract requires dedication and enough interest to actually read the specs, visit the site, and point out non-compliance issues to the contractor in a timely fashion.
Landscape Architects should write maintenance specifications that reflect their designs. I worked for a large industrial maintenance contractor, and learned a lot from the experience. I think professional maintenance companies certainly can learn a lot from the likes of a good landscape architect, and vice versa. Landscape professionals need to deal in the real world beyond the drafting board to learn the best maintenance practices. Without a trained aesthetic eye monitoring proper maintenance activities, things can go downhill quickly. Even though the landscape architect cannot always be present, their maintenance specifications can be part of the contract as long as the client has trained staff to monitor the maintenance contract. Professional maintenance contractors may want to use their own specifications, which can dilute the quality of the end product. There are good landscape architects, good specifications, and good maintenance contractors, but they only work if there is regular monitoring of the contract by someone trained to understand the specs.
Contractor Maintenance Responsibility—A Two-season Commitment
Here’s a copy of the maintenance section of the standard landscape installation specifications used for plant material on a state department of transportation right-of-way project. It’s a little confusing to read for the first time, so I have indicated the target months and years in red to help. The main message is, if a contractor can keep the newly installed plants alive for at least two years, then the roots will have established well enough for plant growth to continue and be self-sustaining.
In the specs, if the contractor loses any plants after the initial installation, they must wait until the next dormant season and replace non-viable plant material. A good rule of thumb for viability is the fifty-fifty rule. If at least fifty percent of the leaf-bearing crown of the plant is green and alive during the growing season, then the plant is considered viable. The rule is more than fair for the contractor. Many horticulturalists would prefer an eighty-twenty rule.
You can see in this section there are three types of events—planting, establishment, and inspection. Planting takes place during the dormant season. Establishment happens during the growing season. Interim inspections take place in mid-September. The two-season maintenance responsibility for the contractor can stretch into three years, depending on when planting begins.
If the final grading for a construction project is completed in early summer, the contractor must stabilize the ground plane with permanent erosion control seeding, and wait until the following October to plant. You can see how this might be frustrating for the contractor and client. They want to see instant results. They want to plant and run. On large projects in the Southeast, planting in summer, even with supplemental watering, results in poor plant establishment. For non-irrigated sites, almost all the plant material is often lost. It simply isn’t worth it to plant anytime other than during the dormant season.
Of course, in very cold regions, planting during the dormant season can be complicated by frozen soil and freeze/thaw issues. Small plants might even be heaved out of the soil if a severe freeze occurs shortly after planting. The planting schedule needs to be adjusted if installation takes place where this can happen.
The final inspection happens in May, rather than September. Replanting is not possible this late in the contract, so the final payment is withheld instead. For any non-viable plants, the withheld money is used to replant through other means.
Preserve the plants in a healthy growing condition and keep plants moist, particularly during drought conditions (no rain for any two week period). The acceptability of the plant material planted and maintained as specified will be determined at the end of an establishment period. (Permanent grassing and stabilization of the soil – year 0)
The plant establishment period is the period from the last planting specified in Subsection 702.3.05.B until the following October 1. Plant all plants in one planting season unless otherwise approved by Engineer.
- First Establishment Period (Plant - October 15 year 1 through March 15 year 2 with the first establishment period March 16 – October 15 - year 1)
At the end of the first planting season, the first establishment period begins. The Department will make the first semi-final inspection 30 days before the end of the first establishment period (September 15 - year 1). Replace dead, dying, diseased, unsatisfactory, and missing plants, by January 20 (year 2) of the next (second) planting season. For stream buffer areas, all replacement plants shall be tagged with 18 inch (457.2 mm) lengths of brightly-colored survey tape. Tree guards shall be placed around all replacement saplings. All costs for replanting, tagging and tree guards for replacement trees shall be included in the contract price bid for the original planting.
B. Second Establishment Period
At the end of the second planting season the second plant establishment period begins (March 15 – October 15 - year 2). The Department will make the second semi-final inspection 30 days before the end of the second establishment period (September 30 - year 2). Again, replace dead, dying, diseased, unsatisfactory, and missing plants, by January 20 (year 3) of the next (third) planting season. For stream buffer areas, all replacement plants shall be tagged with 18 inch (457.2 mm) lengths of brightly-colored survey tape. Tree guards shall be placed around all replacement saplings. All costs for replanting, tagging and tree guards for replacement trees shall be included in the contract price bid for the original planting.
C. Final Inspection
The Department will make the final inspection of the plants during May (year 3), following any needed replacements during the previous planting season. Assume responsibility for the plants until the Final Acceptance of the Project or a portion of the Project.
Contractor Warranty and Maintenance
Project maintenance includes, but is not limited to, watering, cultivating, weeding, pruning, repairing, adjusting guys and stakes, and performing other work as ordered by the Engineer until final acceptance.
Promptly remove from the Project area dead plants or those that no longer conform to the requirements of the planting subsection.
When you contract for plant installation, add responsibility for keeping the plants alive during the critical establishment period to the specifications. The extra cost for maintenance up front is a good bet for the future viability of the landscape.