It's never easy to explain to constituents why a tree that appears to be healthy must be removed. Even if that tree is dying.

It's much easier to find the right location—and the right soil—and the proper conditions—and plant the right tree—the first time, so it can live a long life providing shade and aesthetic value to happy residents. This is true for just about any type of landscaping, says Kevin O'Donnell, supervisor of grounds at Villanova (Pa.) University.

According to O'Donnell, good landscaping is like developing a good building—you need to have good planning, a good foundation, and regular maintenance.


Why plant a tree without considering what its size will be at maturity, and if its full-grown size and/or roots will block signage, interfere with sidewalks, get in the way of utilities and transformers, or reduce visibility for pedestrians and bicyclists? Such poor planning will only result in a short lifespan and a costly removal.

O'Donnell explained why it is so important to perform site analysis before developing landscaping with a real-life scenario: "We inherited ballfields on sites that were never surveyed. And after heavy rains we had to add more sand mix in the flooded fields. It cost us thousands of dollars every year," he said. "This could have been prevented if a topo survey was performed."

Before turning a piece of land into a ballfield, or planting a forest of trees:

  • Perform a topo survey
  • Perform soil analysis to ensure proper soil conditions–check organic matter, soil texture, aeration/compaction, pH and fertility, and water
  • Explore potential uses of land–and don't forget to meet with constituents and find out what they want from the land (gardens, additional parking, etc.) and from you. O'Donnell suggests meeting with constituents onsite, so they can see limitations with which you are working if they want more than you can provide.
  • Inventory existing conditions–such as climate and barriers such as utilities. O'Donnell warns to stay away from utilities, both above and below ground.


To build a healthy root system you should add organic material and nutrients to the area, and use compost as much as you can.

Also, when planting, ensure the hole is big enough for roots and growth, soil conditions are conducive, and the right amount of mulching is used. Mulching helps protect saplings and trees from getting attacked by overzealous mowers, but too much mulch can cause girdling. This happens when a root grows over a primary root, and slowly chokes a tree to death over a period of a few years.

In many cases, stakes are not necessary, so only stake a sampling when it is needed (high wind conditions, etc.). "You get a healthier and stronger root development if you do not stake trees," said O'Donnell. If you do stake, don't wrap the trunk.


One the planting ends the upkeep begins. All good maintenance protocols should include:

Litter patrols: If you have a dirty site, people will not respect it and will ruin it, says O'Donnell.

Mowing: Use a mulching blade–make sure the blade is sharp. During each mowing, make sure that you are removing one-third of the turf blade, and leave all clippings. If there is a large amount of grass clippings, you aren't mowing often enough.

Aeration: This should be done a few times a week to allow nutrients to get in. But you should only peform deep coring a few times a year.

Pruning: Don't flush cut and don't over-prune.

Winterization: Consider using snow sticks to protect curbs and landscaping from vehicles in deep snow. Try using a fertilizer spreader to distributing salt on sidewalks—this could save time and money.

Fertilization: Fertilize down to the rootzone and water only when required. If you do not have an irrigation system, use a water reel. And consider watering turf at night, since half of water is dried up before it can be soaked up by soil during a sunny day.

O'Donnell also offered the following tips:

  • A simple investment in rocks or plant materials—perennials, annuals, shrubbery, etc.—can turn patchy turf on medians into low-maintenance landscaping.
  • Pavement that is textured or two-toned around the edges deter people from walking on the surrounding turf.
  • Site furniture such as benches and site amenities such as bike racks also keep people off the grass.
  • Performing perambulations–site management by walking around both with staff and constituents, helps you keep an eye on your landscaping while also enjoying the scenery.

Session: Protecting Your Landscape Investment
Kevin O'Donnell
Supervisor of Grounds
Villanova University

This article is part of PUBLIC WORKS magazine's live coverage from the 2007 APWA Show. Click here to read more articles from the show.