CAMs – Beware Mount Mulch-More

If you are a Community Association Manager (CAM) or someone charged with the responsibility of managing landscapes, you have a rough and rugged road upon which to travel. And tradition informs us that many have lost their way; few have become independently wealthy and most dread the subject of landscape maintenance. This is especially true in warm weather regions where plants grow year-round.

It does not matter what your job title or your job description is. You are the manager of a tree farm and plant nursery. You have as many or more trees and plants in your client’s property than most tree farms or plant nurseries grow in their entire inventories. The owner of the tree farm and plant nursery is your client: the association’s Board of Directors. 

Your expertise in horticulture and arboriculture is relegated to what the community wants and boils down to your past experiences in writing contracts that are nearly impossible to implement, and are built upon past contracts of trial and error.

You’ve got a problem. However, you also have a glorious and amazing opportunity.

Getting the rabbit out of the hat then reduces itself to improving the curb appeal, while saving money and lock-stepping with the environmental trends that make the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and overwatering a fate worse than death.

But if you can manage these marketplace imperatives, you can rise above the ranks of all competitors and enjoy a reputation commensurate with your new income, an income which shall be dictated by the results of a new management approach to landscape maintenance.  And that approach must be built upon science and research. 

The first and perhaps biggest waste of money is found in the annual event termed Mount Mulch-More, also known as applying mulch every year to your landscape beds. And why are you applying mulch every year to the landscape beds?

  1. Mulch retains moisture. 
  2. Mulch keeps weeds down.
  3. Mulch looks great: neat, with a well-kept appearance.
  4. We’ve been doing it this way every year.

Statements #1 and #2 are addressed by science and research. Responses to #3 and #4 are emotional responses that will be discussed.

As to #1 above, mulch retains moisture: Research has demonstrated that plants lose water in two ways. The first is through their leaves, which is called evapotranspiration, and accounts for 95% of water loss. 95%! That’s a significant number. The remaining 5% is lost through root systems in draining soils. Not such a significant number, right?

As to #2, research has also demonstrated that there is a plethora of weed seeds that blow onto your property from afar. The seeds land on top of the mulch and germinate, turning into weeds. Mulching to keep weeds down only works on certain species of weeds.  

That brings us to the real reason your community wants mulch (#3): to make everything look pretty and neat. Okay, that’s legitimate. And if that’s your situation, then just mulch the face or front of the landscape beds. 

Now comes the question regarding what type of mulch is being applied to your communities. Pine bark, pine straw, or shredded cypress? Pine bark and pine straw are a sustainable byproduct of commercial harvesting, so it makes great sense to use either of those forest products. The use of shredded cypress trees is difficult to defend as a mulch because as it dries, it hardens to the point of not allowing water to go through it to the soil. And, the unnecessary harvesting of cypress trees for the end product is slowly decimating the old-growth cypress groves that cannot be replenished quickly.

But no research is necessary to demonstrate that if you take a small percentage of the money being currently spent on mulch and invest it in proper fertilization, the plants that you are mulching will grow over and completely hide the beds they are growing in. After one growing season, perhaps two, there will be no need for mulch because no one will be able to see it. Plants will cover the areas where mulch had previously been applied.

This approach to budget savings was recently implemented at a commercial property where I was consulting. The previous year they had spent $85,000 on mulch. By compromise, the community mulched just the fronts or face of their ornamental beds. The community saved $65,000 the first year. The second year, they eliminated mulch altogether, as the plants had grown over the beds and there was no need for mulch.

The property manager quit her job and started her own business. She now manages over 80 properties and her net worth is seven figures large – all because of science and research. 

There are three areas remaining where budgets can be drastically cut, which will be discussed in future posts.

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