Tackling Heat Islands Head On

Memphis landscape company pairs wireless smart irrigation technology with a smarter approach to landscaping in urban settings.

There are two things just about any commercial property manager wants: 1) curb appeal, and 2) cost-effective landscape management. One Memphis, TN, landscape company is making those two objectives the cornerstone of its sales pitch, especially when it comes to landscaping in urban environments.

"We're in an area where turfgrass is still the cheapest and easiest ground cover to provide," says Josh White, a business manager with Echo Systems Landscape Services. "But in an urban setting, there's often a big gap between the cost of developing and maintaining properties, and doing the right thing. We can't come at it like they can in California either; pointing to severe drought and watering restrictions. It gets hot and dry here (Memphis) at times, but we normally get a good amount of rain."

What Echo Systems is finding to have some effect is a broader discussion about the long-term costs of landscape management. This message is resonating with commercial property managers more today than ever in the past several years, White points out.

Echo Systems provides landscape design and installation, along with full landscape management services including mowing and fertilizer/chemical applications. The company serves a predominantly commercial clientele. For the past several years, Echo Systems has been pushing "energy-efficient landscape management," which includes everything from the light bulbs used to illuminate parking lots to the plants in the ground.

Educating turfaholics

Speaking of "plants in the ground", this is where it's starting to get interesting for Echo Systems. First off, well-managed turfgrass plays a very important environmental role. However, as White points out, when forced into areas it need not be, turfgrass can prove to be more trouble than it's worth.

White explains, "Think about some of these large commercial sites with lots of parking lots and roads. You'll often see these little 10x5 islands with turfgrass. It's hard to keep that turfgrass healthy; with all of the asphalt and concrete surrounding them, heat island effect and evaporation is a big issue, even when we get rain."

White says Echo Systems continues to stress the concept of putting plants, including turfgrass, in areas that make both economic, environmental and aesthetic sense. In the case of these little 10x5 parking lot islands, the company is opting more and more for alternative ground covers. The reasons why are simple: more tolerant of heat and stress, require less irrigation and overall maintenance.

"We're using a lot of ground covers that work well in our area, things like liriope (also known as monkey grass or spider grass) and mondo grass," White tells. "Both spread nicely and grow together in a relatively short amount of time. We also use some creeping ground covers like vinca and Asian jasmine, which are a little harder to maintain but certainly feasible. In general, we look for plants that can handle a little heat stress and bounce back quickly. Finally, you have to think about visibility in these parking lot settings, so you definitely need something that's low-growing."

You also need to think about choosing plants and materials that meld well with the surrounding landscape. For instance, White says a lot of decorative stone and "desert climate" plants might work well in the Southwest, but don't really make sense in a place like Memphis. That said, Echo Systems does incorporate smaller amounts of stone and mulch in many of their urban landscape designs.

Fall conversions

For several years during and following the Great Recession, White says many property managers were intrigued by the concept of replacing some of these turfgrass areas with alternatives, but that initial installation cost was a hindrance. That's not so much the case these days. More property managers are able to look past that initial cost and see the savings over, say, a five-year period of time.

There are things contractors can do to help clients realize some of that ROI even sooner. "The fall is a really good time to swap out some turfgrass with some of these more native ground covers," White says. "Then you aren't trying to establish the new plants during the really hot summer months. The new plants can establish over the fall and winter, and are pretty much ready to go come the following spring. On the other hand, if you try to establish them in the spring, they're going to need a lot more water all summer because they do need some time to establish, and that's naturally harder to do when it's hot. Of course, this all varies by plant species too."

Once established, though, White says you can expect to use considerably less water to irrigate these new groundcovers. "There is an initial transition period where the new plants need a good amount of water," White points out. "But the difference is that, over time, the need grows less and less, whereas turfgrass never really loses its need for a lot of water.

"If we're in a hot spell," White continues, "we might see that our turfgrass areas are on an every-other-day watering schedule. Some of our groundcover areas might be on a three- or even four-day cycle. So over a period of time, the gallons and gallons of water you're saving becomes obvious."

Smart technology takes it one step further

The other component to helping commercial clients save money on irrigation is the utilization of smart technology. Echo Systems has been using a web-based smart irrigation control system from a company called ETwater since 2007. White says they first opted for ETwater because it offered one of the only smart controllers that left the control (pun intended) in the hands of the operator. Echo Systems continues using ETwater, then, because it's easy to learn, use and teach to others.

With ETwater's product, White says there's a multi-point checklist you go through to get everything dialed in, zone by zone. Data inputs the operator punches into the controller include:

  • Plant type, which is really neat because you can upload photos if you're not sure of a plant's official name
  • New vs. established plant
  • Duration of irrigation period (i.e. four months)
  • Root zone depth
  • Soil type and condition
  • Shade vs. sun
  • Slopes, other terrain issues
  • Irrigation heads, outputs

"Then the system also pulls in local weather data such as temperature and rainfall to determine a zone's watering needs," White says.

Another thing White likes about ETwater is the fact that it is a wireless, web-based application, which allows him to monitor system performance and make adjustments remotely on his computer or mobile device. He has also begun using ETwater's Hermit Crab product. Hermit Crab plugs into any existing irrigation system controller, and in effect, turns it into a smart controller.