It’s all in the details

PHOTOS BY DON DALE.
Mowing and other crews are on a tight schedule to get commons and yards maintained.

When maintaining the landscape at a homeowners association, there are a few simple elements to remember: stay within budget, communicate well with the association’s reps, keep the area looking tip-top and, most importantly, make sure everybody on the maintenance team understands how important the details are.

The team at Casta del Sol in Mission Viejo, Calif., understands these elements. The landscaping at this hilly, medium-income development in Orange County is beautiful, and almost all of the association’s landscape maintenance is contracted out.

“We’re in contact daily over everything,” says Bill Thornton, landscape services coordinator for Professional Community Management, the property management company that oversees daily operations at the HOA. Richard Ruiz is CEO of PWLC I, Inc., the landscaper contracted since 2000 to do the groundskeeping at this development of 500 acres and 1,927 homes.

Thornton explains that it is invaluable to have a landscape company that not only mows lawns, plants shrubs and kills weeds, but also does it in a way that meshes with the wishes of the association and the property manager. The people at PWLC I, which also does business as Pac West Landscape, exercise personal initiative and creativity to make overall landscape operations more efficient and cost-effective.

“It’s our biggest account. I’ve been here since day one,” says Ruiz, who also acts as the on-site manager along with Reyes Gomez. The company has a workforce of 55 to 62 full-time employees on this account, depending on the season. The company also has accounts with other HOAs overseen by other managers.

Request forms generated from a computer database make Richard Ruiz’ job much easier.

Response to calls

One of the necessary jobs of HOA landscapers is responding to residents’ suggestions and requests. At Casta del Sol, this used to be done with triplicate, hand-written paperwork, but is now contained within an efficient and responsive call-in/database system that was suggested and devised by a homeowner.

“We can respond to residents’ requests and give them better service” with the computerized system, Thornton says. A homeowner calls in to the landscape company’s office, where a database manager takes the call. Call topics range from a weedy spot in a lawn to trash on the sidewalk, to a tree that needs pruning to rabbits devouring the grass. The database manager not only fills out and prints a standardized paper form, which will be distributed to the appropriate foreman for action, but she also enters the call and its subject into a database on a server where it will be stored for any future action or reference.

Calls are often responded to the same day or the next morning. If a crew can’t satisfy a resident’s request, Thornton or Ruiz will visit the homeowner personally. During an average month, 400 or more calls may be received, and the streamlining of the system has taken a huge worry off Thornton’s shoulders. He notes that most of these calls are about concerns that residents have about particular landscaping issues, and not about shoddy work.

Pruning of trees over 25 feet high is done by Great Scott Tree Service.

Ruiz points out that the men and women in the field are trained to respond quickly and politely to these landscape maintenance request forms. In addition, the database can be used to look backward or print reports on a number of topics or to look for troublesome patterns. By looking at common requests, they can change pruning habits or identify plants that often create problems, and then change the varieties. For example, after getting a lot of calls about thrips attacking a certain plant, the landscape crew stopped planting the problem species.

Creating trust

If there’s one thing that Thornton believes in, it’s creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust among all the stakeholders at the HOA. From the board of directors to the Green Belt Committee, from field workers to homeowners, a good line of communication is a recipe for success.

Thornton and Ruiz both go to Green Belt committee meetings, for example, and Thornton presents both a written and oral report at that meeting, as well as at the board’s monthly meeting.

“It’s always best to involve the homeowners in what’s going on,” Thornton says. His liaison with PWLC I is ongoing, and every issue is addressed until it is resolved.

The Casta del Sol HOA has beautiful landscaping, courtesy of PWLC I, Inc.

Within Ruiz’ company, communication is also important for the involvement of his crews. The Casta del Sol unit holds tailgate meetings twice a month on topics ranging from safety and pruning techniques to etiquette regarding homeowners. The etiquette is important in such a setting, and his philosophy is simple: “We treat every resident as if he’s going to be the next president of the board.”

Because Ruiz and Thornton go to such lengths to provide prompt information up and down the line and have proven their expertise repeatedly, the HOA gives them remarkable authority to act. Ruiz is allowed a lot of latitude in designing new landscaping elements, for example, and within certain budgetary limitations, he is given free rein to spend money on extras.

His office is also responsible for putting up notices about the regularly scheduled maintenance for five separate neighborhoods. The days on which each neighborhood is maintained changes every April in an orderly manner so that no homeowner feels unfairly treated. Establishing a sense of fairness among homeowners is a primary objective.

Crews

Ruiz has set up his crews to handle the demanding schedule and landscape requirements of a property that has about 260 acres of landscaping, much of it turfgrass and a lot of it with large trees. He has five “foundation” crews of three to five workers who take care of the routine scheduled maintenance throughout, including homeowners’ yards. Two of those people are considered free-floating crewmen who take care of the bulk of the daily call-ins from homeowners or committee members.

A mowing crew of 18 to 20 workers has a rigid schedule that must be adhered to in order to get the extensive turfed areas mowed to the uniform 2 inches. With a “Casta blend” of St. Augustinegrass, tall fescue, kikuyu, bermudagrass and O’Conner’s legume, Exmark rotary mowers are used throughout. A foreman oversees, takes calls and does quality control.

A tree crew consists of four people: three climbers and a cleanup man. The PWLC I contract calls for the company to maintain all trees of 25 feet and below. Great Scott Tree Service is contracted to handle tree jobs over that height. PWLC I has a tree trimming truck with a chipper, and waste is either used on-site or sent to a recycler.

Bill Thornton, left, of the HOA, and Richard Ruiz, middle, and Reyes Gomez, right, of Pac West, communicate constantly.

The slope crew is dedicated to maintaining the extensive sloped and hilly areas throughout the development, and consists of 10 to 12 workers. The slopes get trimmed twice a year. One of the primary concerns is in trimming back the cape honeysuckle that serves as a groundcover, which must be done with a gas hedge trimmer.

There are smaller crews for special purposes, such as an irrigation crew that checks controllers, repairs breakage and responds to irrigation calls, as well as setting up irrigation for new plantings. It has five members, one for each of the neighborhoods. The company has also set up an “extras” crew, which handles any work outside the contract, such as a new landscape feature. That crew has two to five people, and those workers can also rotate around and help other crews here or at another HOA. The company also employs a driver for a vacuum street sweeper truck, which cuts the time required to clean up after yard work near the curb.

Innovations

Thornton and Ruiz are always looking for new ideas that will make their jobs easier and the landscapes more attractive.

“We’re receptive to everything,” Ruiz notes, especially anything that will lower costs. A good illustration of that is in the area of conservation. All parties are very conscious of wise use of resources, especially water.

For example, the managers have an active program of plant selection that moves the landscape toward more drought-tolerant and low-maintenance plant materials. Often, old species or varieties are removed and replaced with better ones. An example is shrubs in the genus Rhaphiolepsis. They used to plant Pink Ladies, which grew to about 6 feet in height, but have gone to the Ballerina variety, which grows to less than 3 feet. That reduces pruning requirements and water use.

PWLC I also is encouraged to do everything it can to reduce water use. The irrigation control system is now an eConstellation controller from Signature that allows the management of 137 zones and gives them excellent record-keeping capability. They have also changed out a lot of master valves, added flow meters and installed two weather stations to cover the two separate microclimates on the site.

“It automatically recalculates the 4,465 valves on the property in seconds,” Thornton says of the controller. The cost, about $600,000 five years ago, was well worth it in saved water charges. The property has also joined the local water district’s Landscape Performance Certification Program, which helps them oversee their water resources and avoid extra charges. By instituting new methodologies, ranging from extensive mulching to experimenting with new sprinkler nozzles, the HOA brings a high level of efficiency to the entire landscape.

As far as selecting a landscape company to work with, Thornton says that PWLC I exemplifies what he looks for: honesty, creativity and the willingness to work with all parties in the system.

Don Dale resides in Altadena, Calif., and is a frequent contributor to Turf. He has covered the green industry for more than 10 years.