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
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
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
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
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.