Horrorculture: The Meme Governing Landscape Maintenance Few Recognize

The Age of Information Technology has changed every industry and profession in America. Software writers have delivered very workable solutions on new hardware which enable professionalism efficiency and timely flow of information in all industries. We have come to expect this from every business that competes in the marketplace. Landscape maintenance contractors in both commercial and private sectors have achieved some of this in their offices, but fall short of delivering on many aspects of horticulture their clients assume are part of the program. This is the meaning of the term 'horrorculture': a departure from plant health based maintenance which produces profit for the contractor but slowly diminishes plant health of clients landscape, shortening the life of a plant which should mature into 'traffic stopping' show.

As a university trained plant scientist and arborist with 35 years field experience I see examples of horrorculture every time I drive across town. You would think that correct procedures, referenced in many textbooks, will be practiced by those calling themselves professional. The landscape maintenance industry has devolved over 3 decades, and is now unable to deliver a decent performance to clients who expect more, but fail to understand why. Another truth; landscape horticulture is more complex than rocket science, which enjoys the simplicity of feeding data into an equation and receiving an answer to make decisions on. Landscape horticulture carries many shades of grey, with qualitative decisions being made on slim evidence and impressions only. Small wonder that many people wind up guessing the reasons for plant decline and miss the target. Several microbusiness consultants make a living schooling landscape contractors on how to increase profit margins and escape expenses, but completely ignore the other half of their business, horticulture. A landscape investment, if done correctly, should have a return measured similarly to financial investments. Small trees should grow into 'heritage' members of the community. As evidenced by the quality of commercial landscapes everywhere these ideals are not a part of the business practices of the landscape industry.

Some factors which are limiting the field performance of landscapers in general are :

  1. Dependence on immigrant labor from Central America to perform tasks which require more background knowledge than they bring to the job. This labor supply is frequently underpaid and unable to meet the demands of the job while they are left alone to make plant healthcare judgements armed with hedge trimmers and mowers etc... They are honest hardworking people who need to be retrained in how to work smart. Horrorculture happens over several years of continuous mistakes made by those in charge of embellishing and maturing a landscape.
  2. There is never a guidance document specifying what the contractor shall, and shall not do on the property. All these decisions are left to the contractor, who most frequently take the easy path toward contract performance. They wind up spending time on the wrong tasks thinking it is sufficient, and neglect to look further into the visual message of grief and pain sent by the plants. Landscape architects are not prepared by experience or training to fulfill this void.
  3. The manufacturers of hand held power equipment have usurped one of the main features of good maintenance; looking close enough to learn about the malaise plants are telling them. A hedge trimmer in the hands of an untrained worker is the first step in creating an ugly hedge, with dieback, no flowers, no bird visitors, and roots which are starved, rendering the shrub vulnerable to drought and insect attack. A nylon line trimmer beats the edge of a turf area each week in summer, killing the edge grass. A mower set to cut grass too low scalps grass and gradually kills it back, enabling annual weeds to proliferate while the landscaper bumps the irrigation water and applies more fertilizer. The saga of irritating blowers is on the front page of many cities because of misuse by the untrained landscaper. If you took away these tools they would not know what or how to accomplish a plant referenced task.
  4. To be fair price competition, often heralded as healthy for any industry, has a deleterious affect on their job performance and economic security. In the Landscape Industry it operates continuously, producing a downward spiral in quality of service, with the client believing they have selected a person who can and will do better. How can they do a good job and worry about their future under such a situation? This is exacerbated by clients who hold 'the sword of Damocles" over their future. The client can also contribute to the dilemma by insisting on a "Disneyland" backyard on a low budget. Their dreams are beyond the capability of any contractor. The turnover rate of service contractors at any commercial or multiunit apartment building illustrates that one side or both cannot perform to the expectations of the chairperson of the landscape committee.
  5. When irrigation water is added to contractor responsibility the situation gets worse. The contractor has incentive to over-irrigate to keep the landscape looking good and does not care if this threatens the long term health of the plants, because nobody will be held accountable. In drought years when restrictions on consumption and price tier structuring by the local water district become operative, the time required to monitor water use increases and the contractor fails most often to respond. The bigger the site the greater the water bill. Maybe it's time for the contractor to account for the cost of water, building it into the bid. My point is that the field crew is underprepared to respond to the weekly summer demand to manage irrigation water.

There is a way forward to help improve an industry which is now unable to practice good husbandry of ornamental plants. To be fair, I recognize that keeping the peace amongst the many different species of ornamental plants artificially combined on a site is a multilayered nightmare, a great challenge only the very informed and experienced should attempt. It demands weekly surveillance from a person whose job definition is to 'discover the ongoing processes overt and covert which require attention'.

The client could increase the level of contractor performance easily, by commissioning a consultant to write a management plan explaining how each plant species is to be pruned 1x/yr, the fertilizer regime and what chemical use is warranted to manage weeds and insects, and the thresholds for action. Excessive use of handheld 2-cycle power equipment next to a hospital and other sensitive sites should be forbidden. The cutting height of turf areas and the expected water budget for the summer must be spelled out. Importance ratings of different areas of the landscape are helpful for the contractor. Entry and other high traffic places always rate higher than parking lot planters. Continuous monitoring of the irrigation water meter ensures obedience to the budget. In this way contractors are held accountable for their performance by a person whose knowledge and experience trumps their own. With such a system in place the contractor escapes the cycle of turnover which happens yearly, as the client searches for others who will serve them better. A 3 year contract enables the contractor to perform more time consuming procedures in the present, such as 'hard' pruning, which set up reduced time inputs for several years and enables the contractor to train his crew in how to manage the site. These are ways to defeat the 'horrorculture ' syndrome , and rebuild confidence in an industry lagging in professionalism.