Landscapes of the Month: Keeping a Retirement Community Vibrant Despite Budget Cuts - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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Landscapes of the Month: Keeping a Retirement Community Vibrant Despite Budget Cuts

Photo: Balanced Environments Inc.

The Covenant Living of Northbrook, located in a suburb of Chicago, is home to a 60-acre retirement community with 11 interconnected multi-tenant buildings, 18 duplexes and 3 quad-style residential units.

Balanced Environments Inc., (BEI) based in Old Mill Creek, Illinois, took on the property in 2017 as the client was looking for a new, fresh perspective and wanted more personalized service that could take their campus to the next level.

The client expects the grounds to draw the residents into serene outdoor spaces while being conscientious about mobility and cognitive needs. Balanced Environment’s work maintaining this property earned them a Gold Award in the 2021 Awards of Excellence.

“This Gold Award is four years in the making,” says Gayle Kruckenberg, sales director for BEI.  “It signifies we have delivered the fresh new perspective we were charged with while being good horticultural stewards. To have been the only Gold Award in the Commercial Management category in the greater Chicagoland area is an honor. There are so many good and well-known commercial maintenance contractors that we compete with, and respect, on a daily basis.”  

Photo: Balanced Environments Inc.

She adds this award is an opportunity to recognize their talented labor force. They presented an NALP award plaque to Covenant Living of Northbrook and introduced their production team to the residents and executive administrative staff. 

“It takes a talented labor team to bring creativity to life and a conscientious team to produce the work with best horticultural practices,” Kruckenberg says. “At BEI we are striving to cultivate the team culture on a daily basis.”

A maximum of 550 residents call this retirement community their home. Each multi-tenant build has a minimum of 3 entries that have a unique individual character. The administration encourages the foundation and patio plantings to have personalized touches to reflect the taste of the individual resident while maintaining community appeal.

The residents also have ‘private’ gardens around their outdoor patios that BEI helps care for.

Photo: Balanced Environments Inc.

“There are approximately a dozen residents that have small ‘sections; of their personal gardens that they want to tend; of those we typically still complete the spring clean-up, hand spaded bed edging and fall clean-up,” Kruckenberg says. “We have no responsibility for any of the vegetable/fruit production gardens; however we maintain the walking paths and turf. In all the above we manage the irrigation where able residents want to continue working in the garden. It can be a balancing act. Our very talented on-site foreman keeps track of the units that like to manage their own garden spaces.”

Annual resident surveys must show improvement or consistency and BEI has maintained improved ratings on this property. BEI’s responsibilities include lawn care, tree care, soil remediation, servicing all the irrigation and fountains, and installing and managing four seasonal displays at focal areas.

Photo: Balanced Environments Inc.

A two-man crew is on-site at least 6 days a week to maintain summer annuals and other moisture needs. 60 percent of summer seasonal color requires hand watering while the other 40 percent are managed by the automated irrigation system. During drought periods, they had up to 5 water trucks on-site to maintain the annual color displays.

Seasonal color is a signature statement of this retirement community. The seasonal plantings are expected to offer vibrancy, depth and scale.

Kruckenberg says she’s always introducing new varieties of plants on the property. Some of her personal favorites are Sunpatiens, Dragon Wing Begonias and Lantana. 

“If I repeat one/all of these, I make sure we use a different color or layout to not be stagnant,” she says. “This year’s red hot summer pallet we named ‘VooDoo Magic.’ For summer 2022 we are planning ‘Sherbert Splendor,’ still vibrant colors in pink, orange and lime.”

Photo: Balanced Environments Inc.

The campus landscape has hundreds of mature trees, flowering ornamentals, formal hedges, perennials and manicured turf. Expansive hedges must be kept below windowsill height so bedridden residents can see from their windows. Open turf areas are maintained weekly with a four-man mowing crew and 8-10 turf applications are typically applied depending on the weather and pest conditions.

An in-house arborist cares for the large specimen trees. 150 mature trees have been removed over the past 5 years due to declining age and emerald ash borer. 75 landscape specimen trees have been planted to replace the mature trees lost.

Memory courtyards are beautiful spaces where the primary goal is to keep loved ones safe while enjoying the link to nature. Soft plantings with color, texture and fragrance enhance safe places for those with an impaired ability to memory care needs.

In 2020, BEI had to work with a reduced budget due to COVID-19 financial strains.

Photo: Balanced Environments Inc.

“We provided the largest savings by redesigning the seasonal palette to include a greater quantity of basic seed annuals versus premium cutting plants and tropicals,” Kruckenberg says. “We did still focus on bold bright colors and textures to keep the scale of the property/plantings in check. Summer seasonal color is a huge investment for this community, and they use the investment for resident enjoyment as well as a marketing tool.” 

They also reduced the maintenance frequency of the natural waterway and shifted some of their services to promote the health and vigor of the existing landscape.

During the pandemic, all the residents were restricted to the campus so BEI worked to make special accommodations to help the tenants find extra joy. A main source of joy was in the seasonal color.

“Extra attention was given to upgrade the focal landscape areas prone to foot traffic,” she says. “The landscape beds surrounding the pond were renovated. Residents filled the three park benches along the pond daily. BEI donated a tiny patio at the raised vegetable garden, just large enough for two chairs and a table. The space has been occupied the majority of the summer for quiet conversation.”

Photo: Balanced Environments Inc.

Kruckenberg also says their crews, specifically the watering crew with college summer help, became a “link to the outside world” and temporary “grandchildren” to residents as they were not able to physically see their own families. 

While there was a decrease in residents due to COVID-19, the campus is now at 92 percent occupancy, and the curb appeal has been identified as a positive asset for occupancy success.

Interested in participating in the Awards of Excellence? Be sure to enter your project when entries open in February 2022. 

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the content manager for NALP.