Homeowners and Condo Associations and Habitat-Friendly Landscaping

Homeowners associations have the opportunity to turn Northern Virginia into a place where humans and the environment thrive side by side, given the common land they manage, and the influence they have over landscaping practices by residents. It helps to start with a plan.

Your community's natural assets are a capital asset
that need to be maintained!

Every community has its own needs and aesthetic standards. If yours is not ready to take on a big review, consider starting with a smaller project, such as

  • Create a small pollinator garden on community land.

  • Choose a less visible area of lawn to reduce chemical applications.

  • Plant some trees. You can get seedlings for free!

  • Create a buffer zone along a stream edge.

The ideal community association guidelines would include these elements:

  1. Use only species native to our area for new plantings on community property.

  2. Put a multi-year plan in place to control and, when possible, eradicate existing invasive plants.

  3. Only use insecticides on community property if there is a hazard that needs to be addressed.

  4. If necessary, revise HOA rules for private properties to encourage the use of natural landscaping.

  5. Reduce use of fertilizer and other pesticides. *

  6. Reduce area covered by lawn grass.

  7. Maintain or create stream and lake buffers.

  8. Support birds and other wildlife by encouraging residents to keep cats indoors.

  9. Encourage everyone to guard against human-made hazards like window collision, light and noise pollution, and pest bait.

*The term ‘pesticide’ includes insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides
 

The strategic approach - create a multi-year plan

 

What are your goals?

  • Beautification

  • Maintaining or increasing property values

  • Recreation

  • Thriving local ecosystem

    • More native plants

    • Less use of chemicals

    • Controlling invasive species

    • Stormwater capture

    • Control of deer

  • Good tree canopy coverage

    • Beauty

    • Cooling

    • Reduced air conditioning and heating costs

  • Consistency in making and enforcing policies

  • Safe public spaces

  • Reasonable HOA fees

 

What problems could you solve with different landscaping practices?

  • Erosion

  • Loss of trees and other plants to invasive plants

  • Money wasted on plants that have to be replaced annually or that require pruning or chemical applications

  • Monotonous landscapes

  • Heat

  • Flooding

  • Unused lawns

  • Need for privacy screenings

  • Need for noise reduction

  • Need for shading a public bench or play area

  • Mowing where it is difficult or dangerous to do so (such as steep slopes, corners, next to walls), or where grass is not thriving (usually from lack of sun)

  • Deer browse

  • Unplanned paths because constructed paths are not in the right places

  • The developer installing invasive plants around new homes

  • Unsightly dog poop on turf grass

  • Paying for leaf blowing in areas that could actually benefit from having the leaves left in place

Keep in mind 

Your HOA is looking for a groomed, easy to maintain look. Learn about shrubs, trees and perennials that can satisfy their needs.

Our plant lists for professionals page is a great place to start.

Certified arborists

For an independent assessment, search for those whose services primarily include tree risk assessment, education, and witness.

Preservation or Restoration?

If your community was clear cut and consists primarily of lawn and conventional landscaping, your task is restoration of habitat.

But if your community is heavily wooded, a top priority should be preservation of the native plants and natural habitat that is there. Once biodiversity is lost, it cannot be fully recovered.

What actions will be needed?

  • Motivated people on the landscaping committee and on the Board of Directors

  • Survey of what you have now

    • Who is responsible for maintaining which areas?

    • Areas of good quality habitat

    • Invasive plant load

    • Problem issues (see above)

    • Contract terms between your community and the landscape provider

    • Create a committee - "common spaces, landscaping" to review the contract before it's approved

  • Education, buy-in from homeowners

    • Talks

    • Walks. Could include a walk led by a representative of the Soil and Water Conservation District to advise on erosion and stormwater management.

    • iNaturalist project for your neighborhood

    • Hometown Habitat showing

    • Newsletter

    • Demonstration garden (you will need a water source)

    • Interpretive signs

    • Working toward certification as a National Wildlife Federation “Certified Community Wildlife Habitat”

  • New policies

    • At least 90-100% of new plantings on common land to be native to Virginia

      • Specify requirement for Virginia native plants in your RFPs.​

      • Require plant lists to use full binomial scientific names.

      • Do not allow plant substitution without prior consultation.

    • No invasive plants installed on common lands

    • No broadcasting insecticides outdoors on common land (unless you need to address a specific hazard. Spraying for mosquitoes should only be done if the health department has determined there to be a high risk for disease transmission in your area.)

    • Other chemical applications minimized, used only in spots when indicated and no other alternatives are available

    • Definition of what constitutes natural landscaping on private property (as opposed to weeds). Click here for some helpful wording.

    • Suggested plant list

  • Determination of opportunities to improve stormwater capture

  • Planting and hardscaping plans divided into reasonable chunks over several years

  • Maintenance plan - find details and a sample plan here

  • Invasive control plan (typically a five year plan). This should include early intervention for recently arrived invasives. Removing them at that stage may save thousands of dollars later.

  • Tree replacement plan

  • Policies that encourage natural landscaping on private property. Note that voluntary guidance is the preferred route. You can only make things mandatory if your association's Enabling Document (Declaration) provides the Board with the authority to set landscaping standards. Changing the Declaration typically requires a supermajority of homeowners. A landscaping committee can create voluntary guidelines to be approved by the Board.)

  • For communities where more homes are planned - work with the developer.

  • Consider retrofitting stormwater facilities with native plants (talk to your government stormwater agency first). A simple rope fence can help prevent accidental mowing of naturalized areas.

  • Consider taking over the mowing responsibilities from companies such as pipeline companies that have easements on your property, to ensure that mowing is only done at the appropriate time of year.

  • Have a plan for dealing with fallen leaves that does not involve hauling them away or encroaching on public land. Piling them thickly in the woods smothers the ground layer of plants there. Leave them in place wherever possible. Request that your mowing services use mulching lawn mowers to break down lawn clippings and leaves for a natural mulch that feeds the soil and eliminates the need for fertilizer. 

  • Add more plant layers to woodland copses:

    • Understory flowering trees as accents along the perimeter

    • Shrub groupings (native azalea and blueberry) and

    • Groundcover borders (sedges and ferns) would help to capture leaves and hide them in place reducing maintenance needed for removal and supplemental mulching.

 

A note about chemicals:

If hiring a lawn care or landscape company to manage your turf, make sure they can legally apply fertilizers and pesticides in Virginia.

Fertilizers:

Every applicator must be a Certified Fertilizer Applicator, Trained Applicator or a Nutrient Management Planner.

Pesticides:

Every applicator must be a certified Pesticide Applicator or a Registered Technician AND work for a VA Dept of Agricultural and Consumer Services (VDACS) registered business.

HOA Spotlights

Cascades, a very large HOA in Loudoun

The HOA leaders created a five year plan that was budget neutral: no increase was needed of the already low assessment. The first step was to map out which areas were managed by the HOA and which by private landowners. Priority was then given to the walking paths, which needed to maintain an open line of sight for a feeling of safety. The roads had been designed so that foot paths were at the bottom of steep slopes which were being mown, resulting in erosion that was depositing sediment on the paths. Very low walls and swales were installed to catch the sediment, and the plan is to re-plant the slopes as meadows.

River Creek, a large HOA in Loudoun

A 7.5 acre common area fronting the river had been kept as mown lawn and was almost never used. This space was converted to a park with conservation landscaping providing a buffer along the river to capture runoff. An area around the basketball hoops was kept as turf grass, but the rest was changed to natural landscaping with paths. Read more about it here.

Broadlands, a large HOA in Loudoun

Led by its Conservation Landscaping Committee, this community has become a National Wildlife Federation Certified Community Wildlife Habitat. The committee provides native plant landscaping information suitable to suburban communities through, monthly community newsletter, social media, and other community programs. A large open space that was just maintained as lawn was converted to a demonstration pollinator garden and it includes plant identification tags. Planting a few thousand native treesaround the community common spaces and the local schools has been an ongoing effort to restore and increase the tree canopy.

Sycamore Hills, a small HOA in Leesburg

The space in front of the office was converted into a demonstration garden. Children and adults stop by all the time to admire the butterflies and other interesting residents of this naturescape. In 2019, the HOA will be replacing the landscaping around the entrance-way sign with native plants. They also plan another pollinator garden that will have interpretive signage.

Pavilions at Huntington,  Fairfax County

From the organizer: With my own community association (in a very urban area) we have transformed the landscaping on Common Area property such that all new plantings since 2009 have been natives and this has been worked into the Community's landscaping plan that was voted on and adopted by the Community in 2009. It is my hope that this will be updated in 2018.

 

We have done a lot of work to improve environmental conditions in our town home community which is located nearby the Huntington metro station.  This has been well received by a majority of community members.

 

We have experienced bumps along the way since 2009 but have been successful in many of our efforts.  Where plants fail, we simply replant with something different. Earth Sangha, Nature by Design, and the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District's seedlings have been our plant sources.

We have accomplished the following:

1. converted more than 50% of the Common Area turf grass to multi-purpose mulched planting beds filled with native shrubs, grasses and herbaceous perennials.

 

2. We have planted more than 75 native shrubs and trees on Common Area property,

 

3. We have established a native pollinator meadow in the stormwater management area for our community and led the effort to convert an unused and degraded grassy area in a neighboring FCPA park to a native meadow for pollinators.

Before

After

4.  The Community's common area property is an Audubon At Home certified wildlife habitat. Once we installed the Audubon At Home Wildlife habitat signs, I heard from a few property owners wanting to get one of their own since it is such a beautiful sign!

 

5. Goals of our projects have been to install low-maintenance, multi-purpose mulched planting beds that will serve to buffer noise, act as a privacy screen/transitional screening between our town home community and the apartment complex next door and the busy streets on the boundary of our neighborhood, absorb stormwater, filter stormwater from areas heavily used by pets, and more important these mulched planting beds establish natural biological corridors connecting to the adjacent parkland extending habitat for our native wildlife.

 

6. We have received a grant from the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District in 2017 to transform additional areas from turf grass to these multi-purpose mulched planting bed filling these with a diversity of native shrubs, grasses and herbaceous perennials.

 

7. One of the greatest challenges we have in my community is that Landscaping Contractors are interested in cutting grass only.  They have no knowledge of native plants. We have had many native plants simply pulled out of the ground because the landscapers thought they were weeds (weeds to them are native plants with tasty seeds to birds and wildlife).  Maple leaf viburnum is an example of this. They thought (I guess) it was an Eastern Red Maple seedling....so they pulled it out. Then I planted an Eastern Red Maple Seedling, put a fence around it so they would know it was intentional, and they pulled it out anyway.  Working with Landscaping contractors is challenging and requires constant vigilance. We have structured our community's common area landscaping to make it easy for the landscapers to stay out of the mulched planting beds. And I give them detailed instructions about where to work and where not to work.

 

8. We wrote a Community Landscaping Plan and it was approved in 2009.  It includes a focus on native plants on common area property. Now that we accepted a grant from the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District's Conservation Assistance Program, we are required to maintain that landscaping with native plantings for 10 years.  This is helpful from a sustainability perspective. We have separated our common area property into regions and each region has slightly different growing conditions, and of course, a different plant list to achieve the goals of that planting area.

HOAs within the Reston Association, Fairfax County

 

From the organizer: In Reston, besides Reston Association being the overall HOA, the individual townhouse neighborhoods are their own HOAs.  So, one thing REACT did was to have neighborhood meetings on yard and garden care where we presented information on native plants, rain barrels, composting, and natural pest care.  The idea was to loosely use some of the community-based social marketing principles. Neighbors working together as peers. In addition to gardeners, we wanted to attract people who may not be as interested in gardening, but wanted to go to a gathering on their street and see their neighbors.  We tried to involve the person responsible for landscaping on the neighborhood common property. We did follow-up reminders and surveys. If they wanted, we’d walk around the neighborhood pointing out areas with invasives that could be replaced.

 

We had gatherings in one of the neighbor’s home and passed out a booklet of information we put together.  We went through it and then had informal questions/discussions. (We also did this for recycling, energy and transportation).  Based on our surveys, there was always some improvement in each neighborhood (removing invasives, planting natives, starting to compost, or adding a rain barrel, or reducing pesticide use). 

 

We delivered the surveys door-to-door.  We either had boxes at porches throughout the neighborhood that people could put their survey in, or we gave them an addressed, stamped envelope to mail them back to us.  We gave them about 3 weeks to respond. About a week before we gave them a reminder flyer door-to-door, thanking them if they had responded and reminding them if they hadn’t.

Sycamore Ridge, Oak Hill, Fairfax County

Wanting to promote eco-friendly practices that would save re-planting and watering costs, Sycamore Ridge HOA began a sustainability plan that included switching from annuals, which required seasonal planting, replanting, and watering fees, to naturescaping and the use of organic pesticide and fertilizers. They hired a landscape company to convert part of the entrance’s border plantings to include those found in a naturalized local meadow.

Resources

 

Possible sources for funding: Grants and discounts

 

Companies to manage forests, invasive plants, aquatic habitat - https://www.pecva.org/our-mission/wildlife-habitat/go-native-go-local

 

Fairfax County Natural Landscaping Manual. This document was written for county properties but contains many details relevant to HOAs.

 

Draft City of Alexandria Landscape Guidelines. Reference to native plants and invasives starts on page 23.

 

Non toxic communities - resources for advocates for reducing toxic chemicals in our environment

 

Sample wording for policies for landscaping on private property

 

Take a tour! HOAs where you can drive around and see native plant landscaping at work

  • Broadlands - The Demo Garden is open to public and anyone can come and stop by.  Use this Google Map Marker for directions since there is no street address.

  • Sycamore Hills

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