Top-notch landscaping at a high-end retirement community

Combine a knowledgeable, demanding clientele with the need to have the grounds accessible and looking great 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and you start to get a sense of the landscaping expectations at Waverly Heights retirement community in Gladwyne, Pa.

The 63-acre, high-end retirement community in suburban Philadelphia has a reputation for lavish grounds keeping in with the rest of the area. Many residents come to Waverly Heights from on and around Philadelphia’s famed Main Line, and are accustomed to fine landscaping. “There are many beautiful old homes, mansions and estates all around here, and they’re moving here because of our location—they want to stay in the area, and the grounds are one of the main reasons people choose our facility,” says Tony Infante, head of grounds.

One of the most visible buildings on the grounds of Waverly Heights retirement community is the manor house, built in 1912. The architecture of the building is in keeping with the many historic homes in the Main Line area outside of Philadelphia and, along with highly maintained landscapes, makes new residents feel right at home.

“The expectation is that the property is going to be in tip-top shape all of the time,” explains Infante. “There’s a little extra pressure, but there are a lot of rewards, as well. We have a beautiful property here and there’s motivation to keep that high standard.”

While annual flowers are used in high-visibility areas, Waverly Heights has opted to move toward the use of more perennials.

Infante has a long-term perspective of the landscaping at Waverly Heights, having served as head of grounds from 1994 to 1999, and returning earlier this year for a second stint. “Many of the same people on the staff are still here, so that’s an indication of the commitment that people have to this place,” Infante says.

Waverly Heights is comprised of more than 200 apartments, spread out among two larger apartment buildings as well “villas” that feature independent living arrangements. There’s also a full-service health care center on the property that provides assisted living care.

In addition to Infante, there are three full-time landscaping staff and one part-time crew member. The small size is made possible in part because mowing of the 27 acres of turf is contracted to an outside landscape firm. “Contracted mowing has been in place for many years, and not having the constant burden of mowing allows us to focus on the gardens and lets us respond quickly to members,” says Infante. “I think it makes a lot of sense.” In addition to the arrangement providing the in-house staff greater control over the fine detail work in the gardens, mowing is a seasonal chore in the Philadelphia area, and contracting it means there’s no need to hire more employees in the summer, only to let them go in the winter.

The same lawn care company has handled mowing for the past five years. “We do periodically go out to bid, just to check and see where we are, but we’re an organization that, once we find a contractor we like, we try to develop a good working relationship with them and keep that going,” Infante explains. “There are a lot of nuances and details on the property that have to be learned, and it just works out much better to have a contractor who is familiar with the property. Having the same crew here for a number of years, it’s almost like they’re part of our own crew. They’ve gotten to really know the site; they know some of the residents. That helps us out a lot.”

The contract specifies that the same crew/crew leader handle the mowing throughout the season, and that the mowing take place in a single day a week (pending weather disruptions). Whenever possible, any sort of disruptive maintenance work is avoided on the weekends. During the week, a local noise ordinance restricts any mowing or related landscape work until after 8 a.m.

The apartment buildings each have a large courtyard garden that requires a great deal of maintenance; there’s also a large fountain on the property that is time-consuming to maintain. “Over the years, we’ve tried to convert as much of the annual planting beds to perennials as possible. We do a certain amount of annuals in key focal areas, but we’ve really tried to go to perennials. That keeps costs down, and reduces the need for labor,” says Infante.

Mowing services are contracted to an outside landscape firm, allowing the Waverly Heights grounds staff more time to work on the many gardens throughout the 63-acre property.

Given the nature of the retirement community setting, there are also times when proper maintenance is a safety issue. For example, during winter snowstorms, the grounds crew quickly clears roadways and walkways, especially around the health care facility. “We do snow removal completely in-house, and it’s worked out pretty well. We have an on-call system with our staff, which rotates so that there’s always someone on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Infante. “It’s a safety issue. We can’t get ice buildup, and we need to keep everything clear and open. That’s an important part of serving an older population. The residents and staff, as well as visitors, need to be able to come and go at all hours of the day.”

A combination of pick-up trucks with plows, tractors with front-end loaders and hand-held rotary brooms are used, as well as a significant amount of salt and deicing chemicals. Once the main roads and walkways are cleared, the rest of the property is addressed in a rotating order to prevent any resident from feeling as though they’re always shoveled out last. “We have a resident landscaping committee, and we discuss with them at monthly meetings how to handle situations like that. We also talk about any problem areas on the grounds that need to be addressed. It helps to keep a good balance in place among the residents and gives us another set of eyes on things, which is helpful,” says Infante.

In addition to regular, scheduled maintenance, “A lot of what we do comes in the form of work requests from individual residents, specific items that they want taken care of, such as gardens weeded or trees and shrubs pruned,” Infante explains. “We’ve structured ourselves so that we can respond to those requests in a timely manner.”

Calls typically come in to the building services department, where an administrative assistance formally enters the request into a computerized work order system. From that point, a system is put in place to track the work order so nothing falls between the cracks. Grounds staff are given printouts of the specific work orders and, once they’ve completed the request, the employee documents the work done, materials used and time spent.

“Some of the work we do is considered billable; the resident is charged for that. Other work is non-billable, but we still use the information for our own internal management purposes,” says Infante. “Even though they don’t own it, the area immediately around each resident’s living area is considered their own personal space, so they are responsible for maintaining it. Some residents enjoy gardening, so they do it themselves. They can also call and use our staff through our work-order system and we’ll do the work. Or, they can choose to hire an outside landscaper to do it. There are a number of landscape companies and gardeners in the area who cater to our residents.”

The latter option appeals to many residents who might have used the same landscaper for years at their own residence, and prefer to continue working with them even after moving to the retirement community. It’s a somewhat unusual arrangement, but one that works at Waverly Heights says Infante, noting it’s commonplace to see many different landscaping logos on pickup trucks throughout the community.

“We have everyone from the top-shelf landscape companies in the area right down to guys who are part-time gardeners, but have worked for a resident for years,” he explains. “We’re not able to do all of the maintenance around every living unit—we would need to have a huge staff to do that—so this works out for everyone. We do have some requirements of landscape contractors: we ask that they register with our office, and they need liability insurance. The majority of the contractors who work here understand the type of facility we run, so they’re familiar with our standards.”

Waverly Heights is currently in the midst of a construction project, as new living units are being built and the health care facility is undergoing a major expansion. Eventually, there will be new landscapes to maintain, both for the in-house crews and outside contractors.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.