Balancing Your Busy Landscape

Balancing Your Busy Landscape

By Kathy Danforth / Published June 2016



Every association’s little corner of the world is different, but the big picture of maintaining the association’s grounds involves more than looking decent at the lowest cost. The property’s security, fire resistance, erosion and drainage, value, part in the ecosystem, and attractiveness to welcome and unwelcome creatures—as well as to residents and potential buyers—are all tied up in this part of the budget. Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ principles have given many communities positive direction in fitting in with the Florida habitat, but it is important not to reduce these to just “saving water.” And, some practices that might be dismissed as optional maintenance for aesthetic reasons often have functional purposes as well.

Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) is an approach first championed in the 1970s to maximize security through influencing offenders’ decisions. According to Crystal Clark of Envera Systems, “There are four basic principles when it comes to this concept:  natural surveillance, natural access control, territory reinforcement, and maintenance.” To enable natural surveillance, lines of sight should be maximized, so the height of the vegetation at maturity should be considered prior to planting. “Don’t allow shrubs to exceed the bottom of windows,” she points out.

Joseph Barnes with Yellowstone Landscaping states, “It’s important to keep everything pruned so you’re not blocking exterior lights and creating dark corners in your yard. Trees and shrubs also have to be pruned so security cameras have full visual access. Hollies under a window can deter a burglar, but you don’t want them blocking a window or touching the building.”

Vegetation can be used for access control, deterrence, privacy, or just marking boundaries. “Use thorny vegetation to protect vulnerable areas,” notes Clark, but avoid using rocks or other landscape materials that could be used to break a window. “For fences or shrubbery, use the lowest or shortest possible for maximum sight lines.”

Barnes comments, “Using plants as a perimeter barrier is definitely more common in South Florida. It’s quite popular as visual protection for the community because it looks nicer than putting up a fence. Hedges used for privacy are generally kept a reasonable height that can be reached from the ground because it’s expensive to maintain at a 10-foot height. A few of the more popular options for a barrier are hollies, juniper, and Arborvitae. We often use native grasses for marking a border.”

Preventing the spread of fires is also achieved by landscape planning and maintenance, though communities in an urban setting will not have the same risk of wildfires as those in more natural areas. “Principles for landscaping to prevent the spread of wildfires apply to any fire situation,” says Casia Sinco, Chief of the Bureau of Fire Prevention in the Division of State Fire Marshal. “Basically, you want carefully spaced, low-growing plants, with nothing tall right next to buildings,” observes Sinco. While there is more flexibility the farther you get from buildings, plant height and spacing should be designed and kept to avoid having a continuous line of flammable plant material, either vertically or horizontally, that can serve as a fuse.

“Firewise Zone 1 is 30 feet on all sides of a building,” Sinco explains. “In that area lawns need to be regularly maintained and trimmed. There should be no dead leaves or branches, and any limbs protruding over roofs should be removed. We recommend non-flammable landscaping, and if organic mulch is used, it needs to be at least five feet away from structures. Bark can be flammable, depending on how dry it is; pine needles can be particularly flammable, so that is not our first choice. Embers can travel a long distance and start a second fire, so removing leaves and debris near buildings is important.”

Plants with unfavorable fire resistance, according to the University of Florida, include palms, saw palmetto, pines, juniper, wax myrtle, hollies, eucalyptus, pampas and fountain grass, and Italian and Leyland cypress. They do note, “Well-watered plants on this list can perform better than the same plants under drought conditions. Characteristics of poor-performing plants are a low moisture content and a high percentage of dead matter or debris.” More information on landscaping with fire prevention in mind is available at

“Zone 2 is the Firewise designation for the zone 30–100 feet from residential areas,” relates Sinco, “and you still want low-growing, well-irrigated, less flammable plants. Fuel breaks are encouraged—walkways or driveways to interrupt a fire’s path. There should be 20 feet between individual trees or 30 feet between small clusters of trees to keep fire from spreading through treetops.”

“In Zone 3, more than 100 feet from a residence, the density of tall trees should be reduced so canopies are not touching,” says Sinco. Beyond this distance, communities may want to reduce the overall fuel volume and remove the most flammable trees. If the totally natural undergrowth is preserved, the natural method of pruning and revitalizing the forest through wildfire may follow.

The maintenance for fire protection simultaneously helps protect properties from wind damage. “In advance of storm season, you want to prune dead or weak limbs and trees that might land on a roof or vehicle,” notes Barnes. “If there is a lot of rain preceding a storm, which is typical, any tree may be blown over because the ground is saturated. However, pines traditionally come out easier.”

Before anyone declares, “Off with their heads,” for larger plants, the value of shade should be remembered. “Shade trees can reduce air conditioning costs by up to 20 percent,” reports Barnes. “The trees should be planted where the building receives the most sun. Some communities use palm islands with two or three trees, and some may use willows, which provide a nice amount of cover. Trees definitely cool a building, but you have to keep the root structure in mind so they don’t get into the foundation, and anticipate growth, so they don’t provide access to a second story.”

Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ principles advocate a balanced approach, but the temptation to save on the bottom line—largely measured by water use—can tilt plant selection. Adrian Perez, aka The Bearded Beekeeper with Willie the Bee Man Inc. observes, “I’ve seen less biodiversity because many people aren’t into nature as much as they used to be. Also, we’re in Florida and trying to conserve water, but you can’t have a healthy, thriving ecosystem without it. There is a bigger picture. It is important to save water, but without the water there is no sustainability—trees and fruits and vegetables won’t produce.”

For some communities, attracting bees and wildlife will be a goal; for others, keeping bees away sounds good. Perez notes, “Most people do realize the importance of bees to a healthy garden and environment. Most bushes attract them—bees love mango, avocado, sapodilla, thyme, sage, cilantro, dill, lavender, rosemary, catnip, geraniums, sunflowers, clover, and mint. Since bees see in ultraviolet, they like brightly-colored flowers or dark purples and blues. My absolute favorite way to attract bees is a bee fountain. They like a two- to three-inch deep basin with pebbles and twigs to land on, with still water that is changed every couple of days. Water is essential for bees to regulate hive temperature.”

Butterflies are attracted to many of the same plants as bees. Barnes comments, “Some communities are adding butterfly gardens as a new perk along with their playground. We’ve used milkweed, viburnum, and goldenrod to attract butterflies. People also provide plants for the caterpillars, most commonly sunflowers, thistles, and dogwoods. Deer are attracted to those annual flowers that add color and pop—marigolds, sunflowers, petunias, impatiens—but usually we’re not trying to attract them, so we may cover the plants with mesh. Perennials can have the same color effect without the sweetness of annuals that attracts the deer.”

Perez recommends installing a variety of plants to create your own ecosystem. “You want to bring in insects that can be eaten by other insects to promote a food chain,” he advises. When it comes to repelling pests with plants, there is more anecdotal than scientifically-proven information. “I’ve heard goldenrod deters insects like wasps,” Perez relates, “but actually wasps are carnivorous and prey on insects that eat plants, like aphids. I do know that bees do not like spicy hot pepper spray, so you can lacerate scotch bonnet or jalapeno pepper plants and spray to keep them away.” Even though mosquitoes are repelled by citronella, the intact citrosa plant (producing the oil) does not repel them unless the oil is released by puncturing the plant. “An effective deterrent for pests such as ants, aphids, and fleas is diatomaceous earth,” says Perez. “If you sprinkle that on the ground when it is not going to rain, it will cut and dehydrate those insects, but it harms no plants.” When it comes to (typically) unwelcome creatures such as snakes, it is best to avoid creating areas that will provide shelter or concealment, such as rock walls or overgrown areas.

Barnes is seeing a trend, with budgets rebounding after the housing market depression, for landscaping to be enhanced to improve housing values and community activities. “Some homeowners became frustrated and got on community boards because the community entrances and common areas didn’t look as good as homes inside the community. We’ve found that the value of the same type of home in the same area can vary by 10–20 percent based on the common area landscaping. The idea of curb appeal has stretched to include the whole association.”

“There is also a movement to make the most of community spaces for gatherings,” notes Barnes. “Communities are taking it on themselves to create parks and public spaces for people in the neighborhood to get together. There is a desire to bring people out of their homes and promote a sense of community, and landscaped space helps do that.”

Many communities are very sensitive to the important role their grounds play in the ecosystem, their safety, and the impact on the residents. An insignificant shrub may be wearing many hats by successfully preventing erosion, foiling intruders, and attracting ladybugs. Landscaping in the real world can never become a single-issue topic, so communities need to consider all the impacts in their particular community to pursue the best course for their setting.



Crystal Clark is with Envera Systems. For more information, visit

Joseph Barnes is with Yellowstone Landscape. For more information, visit

Casia Sinco is Chief of the Bureau of Fire Prevention in the division of State Fire Marshal. For more information, visit

Adrian Perez is with Willie the Bee Man. For more information, visit