Best Commercial Landscapes: 11 tips on how to affordably design a gorgeous garden

It's so easy for commercial property owners to underestimate how valuable landscaping elements are for both their employees and their clients. The sometimes underappreciated advertising potential of an attractive design, and the impact on the client and employee experience, often are the first casualties of recession.


Yet it does not have to be an extraordinarily expensive proposition to provide your office building with the same curb appeal you want for your home. So IB contacted several commercial landscape experts to present 10 tips on how to design an attractive commercial landscape on a modest budget.

In so doing, we found that common sense is the order of the day, no matter how large your landscaping budget happens to be.

1. Set the plan

Even though extravagance is not the goal, it still helps to plan. And even if homeowners or businesses want to install the landscaping themselves, they can still pay for a plan. In fact, if you're going to pay for anything, invest in a plan (including planting recommendations) because that will always give you a future direction if, and when, you choose to modify.

"Pay for a plan and just call around and ask for advice," said Tim Eilbes, a registered landscape architect for Barnes, Inc. "Some in the industry, me included, think we know everything and we love talking to people about gardens and landscape spaces."

2. Connect landscape and building architectures

To begin with, it's essential to have some type of landscape theme that is connected to the architecture of the building. There is no better example of that than the State Capitol building and grounds. With its round cylinder in the middle and four wings coming off on each side, simple geometry provides landscaping clues. If planners tried to place a large prairie garden with larger areas of wildflowers and grass, it would not correspond to the architecture.

"When you try to mix in something different than what the architecture is telling you, it's going to be confusing," said Eilbes. "The landscape should enhance the architecture, the landscape should not dominate the architecture."

3. Make the entrance obvious and welcoming

Making the building entrance obvious and welcoming is one of the primary objectives of any well-planned commercial landcape design.

Following architectural consistency, the most important step is to make the main entrance of the building as obvious and inviting as possible. This is accomplished by adding low, bright colors, "things like flowers, bright grasses, bulbs in the springtime – anything that is going to draw your eye," Eilbes said.

"With any color or feature that is going to draw your eye toward the main entry, making it obvious where people need to go is going to be crucial in giving your customers a pleasant experience when visiting your business building."

4. Be sure clients identify with the landscape

Include a "focal point" – an entrance or monument sign or element – to draw attention to your location, and strengthen these focal identification points by providing color and visual interest. According to Justin Lee Frahm, senior landscape designer with JSD Professional Services, this can be achieved with annuals planted in the spring for a blast of color that strengthens curb appeal and interest in the company.

"Remember that first impressions count, and unfortunately people do have a tendency to judge a book by its cover," Frahm said. "The more tidy your landscape appears, the more confidence a potential customer may have in the care of your facility, and the product or service you are marketing."

5. Visibility and visual perception go hand-in-hand

Be sure to design landscape plantings and massing for long-term maturity. As they mature, too many commercial landscapes outgrow the space allotted for them. This increases coverage and reduces visibility to your signage and vehicular entries, safety at access points, and overall curb appeal and tidiness.

If you don't have a comprehensive theme, consider establishing one, Frahm advised. This will enable people to tie all of your current or possible future locations together in a visually perceptive fashion. Examples would be a native prairie theme or any number of color themes complementing the logos or colors of the business.

6. Emphasize color, materials, and seasonal interest

Carefully consider the selection of plant materials to provide colors and even textures that match or complement the materials and colors used in the architectural style and construction of the building or residence, suggested Mike Schmeltzer, senior registered landscape architect for JSD. "Don't forget to provide seasonal interest that reflects the geographic area and climate you are planning for," he added, "and keep in mind the four months when nothing is blooming and take advantage of plants that retain their positive visual features throughout the winter season."

He also suggests using evergreens, native grasses, and shrubs with unique form for winter interest, and also staggering bloom times to take advantage of seasonal interest and landscape color. "With conscientious effort and creative planning, fall can be a great time to showcase species that display vibrant fall color," Schmeltzer noted.

7. Keep it safe

In a Wisconsin winter, everyone is coming and going to work in the dark, morning and late afternoon, so have low-voltage lighting, or soft and subtle lighting, to enhance the entryway and point to the entryway. "Keep things open and obvious on those walkways," Eilbes counseled.

8. Think low maintenance

Consider how much time and commitment you want to invest in the seasonal maintenance of the final product, as time spent on maintenance can be minimized through proper planning. At the same time the landscape plan is being designed, have your designer or a contractor prepare a maintenance plan, and notes detailing the care of the landscape throughout each season.
Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a zero-maintenance plan, but low maintenance is achievable if you plan. "This will promote the care and ultimately the year-round tidiness of your landscape," Schmeltzer counseled."By considering a maintenance plan prior to the installation of your landscape plan, you can eliminate headaches, unforeseen maintenance, and costly, unexpected expenses that may arise from unnecessary pruning, mortality requiring replacements, die-back, and winter damage."

Another maintenance point is to avoid overplanting, especially because you want to create an immediate effect. "Three or four years down the line, they spend a lot of time pruning and maintaining all these plants that were planted too close," said Danny Kahrs, owner of Yakshi Landscapes.

9. Avoid whimsy unless …

The one exception to maintaining a formal-looking landscape would be the landscape of a creative class company. Epic Systems' campus has some whimsical elements, but unless it's a private space that only employees have access to, it's best to avoid avant-gardening. "If you have a central courtyard that only employees use, that would be a place where whimsy and mystery and humor can be incorporated into a garden, but not at your main entry and not where it would be visible to your customers," Eilbes said.

10. Green landscape or sustainable design?

The landscape design of a commercial property should enhance, not dominate, its building architecture.

According to Schmeltzer, xeriscape-type landscape plantings can reduce the need for supplemental watering and save energy and maintenance costs. Other water- and money-saving features include the use of rain barrels to collect water and store it for when it is most needed – during periods of drought. Rain barrels provide an easy way to maintain a consistent supply of clean, fresh water for outdoor use – free of cost. Diverting water from storm drains also decreases the impact of runoff to streams.
Businesses could consider applying for LEED credits or considerations designing their buildings and landscapes. "Consider using as many native, drought-tolerant, and bare-root stock species in the design process as possible," Schmeltzer advised. "Native species have a better chance of survival and often lead to less maintenance because of an established growth rate, water use cycle, and proven longevity in the native region and climate."

Kahrs said one thing that has become apparent with plantings at the Agora building in Fitchburg is that while the installation costs of water-sucking native prairie plantings is "pretty equal" to conventional landscaping, the maintenance costs are much lower. "Another must-do is really to think through how you are going to treat the water coming off the roof of your building, how it's going to move through the landscape, and to think through your snow-removal plan," Kahrs said.

11. Freshen Up parts of the landscape occasionally

Most landscapes, residential or commercial, have a life span of about 20 years. After that, things tend to look overgrown, tired, and woody. Certain elements of the landscape – flowers and grasses – can be changed every year, and you should add a fresh two- or three-inch layer of mulch annually, but the bones of the structure should last approximately 20 years, Eilbes said.

Anatomy of a Landscape Design

The Agora Building's Asian-Inspired Prairie

To Danny Kahrs, owner of Yakshi Landscapes, the Agora Building was a golden opportunity to apply what he learned on his Asian travels.

Since the early 1980s, Kahrs has traveled extensively through Asia, performing site location work for photographers and filmmakers. When he hooked up with Promega 10 years ago, the company was ready to start remediation of the prairie swale north of the Agora.

"We started getting into discussions about using a native prairie motif, both aesthetically and from a water management standpoint, because prairie plants help infiltrate water in the landscape," Kahrs explained. "I just got back from Asia, and when we started talking about ponds and streams, I brought up the possibility of introducing concepts from Japanese garden design."

Those concepts include balance and proportion of stones, water elements, paths, and good sight lines, and then incorporating them into the motif of a native Wisconsin prairie. Promega chief executive Bill Linton, who also traveled extensively throughout Asia, liked the Asian prairie concept, and "we started using that as our moniker for how we were developing spaces, not only in the prairie swale, but around the Agora building," Kahrs noted.

Linton had two overriding principles: to preserve healthy native landscapes and to rehabilitate degrading ones. He also was interested in using local materials for the building and the landscape.

As with all landscape architecture, practical considerations such as storm water control and the restoration of vegetation were huge drivers. The prairie was designed as a low-maintenance environment, and the water-absorbing root systems of prairie plants run so deep that water doesn't continue to run into local streams.

"We ended up having a mass of 30 or 40 prairie drop seeds next to a planting of 30 or 40 purple-corn flowers," Kahrs explained. "We used all native plants, but we grouped them in masses to have more of a splash of color and a reinforcement of the structure of the plant as we got closer to the building."

In front of the Agora, designers worked to encourage people to come out of the office for lunch with places for them to sit. They introduced seasonal planters to draw attention to the building's retail outlets, and people driving on East Cheryl can see big splashes of color at the Agora, the site of arts fairs and fundraising events. "We wanted something a little bit more energized than the prairie that you see in back."

Traditionally, landscape design would take a back seat to building design, but the Agora landscape was designed as part of a collaborative process involving Kahrs, lead architect Peter Tan, John Harrington, a professor of landscape architecture at UW-Madison, and independent landscape architect Lisa Geer. The interaction was a departure from most of Kahrs' commercial projects, but it ensured that elements of the building were incorporated into the landscape.

"It's really just in the last four or five years, at least in my experience, that we're being brought into the design process while the building is being worked on," Kahrs noted. "Architects now realize there is a lot of trouble-shooting that happens during the landscaping phase that mitigates problems. Water mediation is a big one."

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