Your Grand Design

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Much of the horse business revolves around salesmanship. Whether you’re boarding or giving lessons or training, you’re always selling your services. How customers form their opinions about your business extends far beyond your sales pitch and the colorful brochure you hand them. It also has to do with how you keep your barns, how you treat your horses, and how responsive you are to customers’ needs.

What many barn owners don’t realize is that the setting in which all this activity takes place also makes a huge impression on the customer. From the main entrance to the paddocks to the barn office, thoughtfully landscaped grounds can make a world of difference in how customers perceive your operations.

“There’s a direct correlation between the attractiveness and maintenance of the facility and the quality of care and attention to the animals,” says landscape architect Morgan Wheelock, president of Somerville, Ma.-based Morgan Wheelock Inc. “It’s similar to what goes on in banking, in that banks invest a lot to ensure their lobbies are attractive environments that convey security and trust. Landscaping your horse farm is necessary to set those same vibrations in motion.”

Wheelock says that landscaping can be used to frame beautiful views or to screen unattractive features on the property. Yet, it’s not entirely about aesthetics. Landscaping is functional, too. It can be used to control erosion, screen breezes and quarantine horses. Through careful planning and thoughtful placement of tree lines, fences and other enhancements, landscaping can play a big role in separating the fillies from the colts, the colts from the mares and the mares from the stallions.

GETTING HELP

What you invest in landscaping can vary greatly. When most people think of landscaping, they think of the aesthetics: sprawling trees, colorful flowerbeds and verdant shrubs. But it’s more complex than that. Landscaping is also about land planning for functionality and sustainability. It’s about creating an environment that works with existing conditions and natural resources to enhance the overall operations.

Sure, you could run down to your neighborhood nursery and spend half your budget on blossoms and foliage that catch your eye. But to do it right, it’s best to enlist the services of a landscape architect. Whether enhancing an existing farm or planning a new one from scratch, a landscape architect can assess the topography, climate, soil, access to water and sunlight and other factors that will determine where to plant, what to plant, how to plant and when to plant—the end result being a landscape that thrives and functions in its environment. A landscape architect also can ensure that your property stays clear of plant species that are harmful to horses, such as Red Maple, Wild Cherry, and Oleander.

Where do you find a landscape architect? The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) is a smart place to begin your search. According to Dennis Carmichael, ASLA’s immediate past president, the society has a Firm Finder feature on its Website (www.asla.org). On the home page, click on Products & Services and then on Firm Finder. You can search by city, metropolitan area, state or design specialty, such as greenways and trails, residential, or parks and recreation, among many others.

“The fees you spend on a landscape architect are recovered in the savings you reap through careful planning,” Carmichael says. “Ideally, you’ll want to find one who has experience in the equestrian realm, but many landscape architects will have experience in agrarian and residential, which are similar.”

For stable managers who are more “do-it-yourselfers,” Wheelock says that you could always hire a landscape architect for an initial consultation (typically a three- or four-hour visit) to determine which areas of the property to enhance, what to plant in those areas and how to ensure those areas thrive—and then try to fulfill those goals on your own. But he doesn’t recommend that route.

“It’s really important to get design advice, even if you don’t hire the full services of a landscape architect,” Wheelock says. “The theory is true of any project. The fees that people pay for design are up front and they can be terrifying, but the payback for good design—in terms of horse health, salesmanship, sustainability and functionality—far outweighs the cost. So, don’t be afraid to hire an experienced professional.”

DOING IT YOURSELF

If you do try to do a little landscaping on your own, Carmichael advises that you avoid the “onesies, twosies” syndrome. “You know, you go to the nursery and you get one of this and two of that because you think this looks nice or that looks pretty, but then you end up with a smorgasbord of landscaping that is incongruent and it just doesn’t look good,” Carmichael says. “In landscaping, less is more. Fewer species is a better strategy than multiple varieties. A clean massing of plants makes a dramatic statement that’s in scale with the setting.” Wheelock agrees, particularly when it comes to landscaping an entrance or main gate. “You get more of a bold effect by having drifts of the same plant, perhaps a dozen or two, in a bed, than you do with mixing them all up,” he says. “Mixing things creates a jittery view when you’re scanning an entrance. There’s more honesty in a bold presentation.”

Another common mistake in landscaping is planting things too close together or too close to buildings, fences and other structures.

“We see this a lot because people want an immediate effect; they want it to look like the landscaping is already filled in,” says landscape architect Barry Stark of Earth Design Associates in Casanova, Va. “When the trees mature, you end up having to remove them or prune them back extensively, which looks really awkward.”

Carmichael says planting too close together can cause root systems to intertwine and take up each other’s resources. When planting around buildings, he recommends starting three to six feet away from the structure, with lots of gravel and freely draining soil in between the plants and the building. Generally speaking, this will give the plants room to grow and will prevent them from attaching to the building.

“Remember that a farm is a growing operation, so you don’t have to worry so much about the enhancements being full-grown and ready immediately,” Wheelock adds. Wheelock also says that you’ll want to think about how your landscape will change throughout the seasons. A landscape architect can be instrumental in ensuring that every season has something to offer visitors.

“You want to have a mix of evergreens and deciduous vegetation,” he says. “If you’re in the business of selling horses, most buyers will be visiting in the spring before the horses go to sale, so for viewing areas, you’ll want to pick plants that will bloom in the spring.”

Wheelock says that what you plant can be functional for visitors as well. “Kentucky has big sales in July, so in June, buyers will begin looking at horses. Those visitors will need shade, and strategically placed trees can serve that purpose,” he says. Common areas to focus on landscaping include farm entrances, barn entrances, and along pathways and roadways. “The purpose of landscape design on an existing farm is to reinforce and support how people use the property, how they arrive, where they are received, and how the horses move in and out of the barn,” Stark says. “You want to make it an interesting and positive experience, but at the same time, you don’t want to distract people from the reason they are there, which is for the horses. You are creating a setting, not a garden display.”

PRACTICAL AND SUSTAINABLE

Carmichael says that any decisions you make regarding your landscaping should be practical and have an authenticity of place to elicit the best return on investment. This means spending the time and money up front to create a master plan with an eye toward sustainability and choosing plants and materials that are native to your environment.

“We often get called into a project the second time around when things didn’t survive; whatever they planted ended up requiring too much water or maintenance,” Stark says. “In landscape design, we are always looking toward the future. What’s it going to be in five years? Ten years? 15 years?”

Though it may seem pricey at first, having professionally designed grounds can pay off down the road in terms of horse health, operational savings and curb appeal. Says Wheelock: “It all boils down to salesmanship. It’s the difference between having a nice showroom for your cars or just taking your customers out to a lot.”