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To Maintain, or Not to Maintain?

How to maintain a landscape and its trees and shrubs should not be a subject of contention or debate. However, the greatest foes of landscape innovation, the "Yard Nazis" of Homeowner's Associations or the management companies employed by Homeowner's Associations, have made it so.

A shrub that has been selected with much thought, and planted with care, need never be pruned. That's right. If you planted the right plant in the right site, it should require no maintenance once established.

But, if you selected your plants carelessly, or ignorantly, and installed a specimen that matures at over 25 feet high (Red Tip Photinia, for example) under a low window or under the eaves, keep those pruners sharpened!

The horticulturally ignorant often believe the way shrubs are maintained in commercial landscapes (offices, malls, theme parks) should serve as a guide for residential landscapes. The horticulturally ignorant must also believe plants grow excess leaves on superfluous branches. Their magical thinking might also include believing there are no adverse consequences to removing a large percentage of a plant's leaves.

The constant clipping, shearing and cutting of shrubs in commercial landscapes results from poor plant selections and the trend of landscape maintenance companies conspiring to create more work so they can charge more for their services. What they do and how they do it should NOT serve as a guide for those who want to keep plants healthy. Horticulturally, they truly do not know what they are doing. Though they do know how to make money.

In this meritocratic and technocratic society, the false belief that a license, degree or certification guarantees competence is rampant. Very few landscape architects know plants well. Judging by the results, even fewer of them know the mature sizes of the plants they specify. Also, the fees charged by architects are based on the estimated cost of the project. That might account for the overcrowding of plants in architect-designed landscapes and the frequent corrective thinning necessary for years

There was a time when commercial landscape maintenance firms were known simply as the practitioners of mow, blow and go. Now, the more industrious ones have branched out (pun intended) and become self-styled sculptors of shrubs. They maim plants with frenetic abandon while wielding hedge clippers so carelessly they sometimes sever the electric cords. They also spread fungal and bacterial diseases from plant to plant, and landscape to landscape, more efficiently than any known natural vector.

The landscape architects, landscape contractors, and landscape maintenance
companies all have no clue that plants maintain a constant equilibrium between photosynthetic surface area (leaves) and the nutrients needed for growth and the absorption of food and water. It is as though an accountant with a green visor and sharp pencil were present within each plant, balancing income (the products of photosynthesis) and expenses (growth and absorption). The wanton removal of leaves by an herbivore or a human severely stresses a plant.

We now return to the Yard Nazis.

While I despise their often selective and vindictive persecution of homeowners, I must admit that helping individuals deal with Yard Nazis constitutes a large share of my consulting time and income. While I would never again buy a house, or any property, within a Homeowner's Association, I do understand some of you had no choice or had no idea how bad things could get.

If the Yard Nazis were horticulturally competent and operated impartially, there would be very few, if any, problems. However, we do live in a postlapsarian world and Yard Nazis tend to be compulsive-obsessive horticultural morons with pretensions of knowledge and they enforce covenants very selectively.

If you have just received a missive from the HOA, demanding that you "maintain" or "maintain properly" or "prune" or "prune into shape" your plants, contact me to schedule a landscape consultation. The first step would be to assess your situation and then to educate the HOA. Some Yard Nazis do seem to understand that the faux-topiary look of "poodle-izing" every shrub damages plants and is unnecessary.

I also recommend that you immediately walk around your neighborhood and photograph (from the sidewalk) all examples you see of plants that are maintained in the manner the Yard Nazis found objectionable in your landscape. In all the time I have been doing this, we have never failed to find many examples within a two block radius. Of course, none of the others had received a notice from the HOA. Most HOA boards or management companies back off when presented with proof of selective enforcement of
the covenants. The recalcitrant ones cease and desist when the members of the board are informed of the legal theory that they could be held personally liable.

Every letter sent to the HOA or its management company should be sent by Certified Mail since they have been known to misplace correspondence. However, years ago, a brilliant attorney told me never to accept Certified Mail. I have not regretted following his advice.

In almost every case, you have been singled out because of a neighborhood feud, or because a new management company has been hired by the HOA board, or because some retired individual with too much time on his hands has volunteered for a position on the Landscape Committee of the HOA and he intends to go to great lengths to, "protect property values."

If you are dealing with one of the last two situations above, where covenants have not been enforced for some time, and a "new sheriff is in town," there are judicial precedents that basically state that once a covenant is not enforced by an HOA, it cannot be enforced in the future. Contact an attorney to learn if such precedents apply in your jurisdiction.

If you are being singled out because of a neighborhood feud, use your best detective skills to find out who is responsible. It is widely reported that assertive individuals have been quite successful using social media to shame miscreants. 

Also, it certainly doesn't hurt to be familiar with Saul Alinsky's, Rules for Radicals, when dealing with an HOA.

Manuel Flores is a Horticultural and Landscape Consultant in San Antonio and surrounding areas. His expertise and services are not available to Homeowner's Associations or the management companies employed by Homeowner's Associations. He is not able to give you legal advice.


The botanical images on this site were produced by The Photon Hunt.

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Copyright at Common Law by Manuel Flores