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Property management services in advance of and during the winter season are rightly focused on risk mitigation and protection measures. Northeast Ohio winters bring a series of hazards to prepare for ranging from slip and fall injuries to property damage, with disruptions of all varieties mixed in between negatively effecting power, communications, transportation, supply chains, and well, you get the point. In the commercial real estate market, 32 degrees Fahrenheit is otherwise known as a liability alarm. Ice hazards, even those that are often overlooked, are sometimes costly and always dangerous. In building a winter risk mitigation strategy around these ice hazards, consider to the landscape.

On the liability scale, protecting human assets is paramount. This article makes no attempt to dispute that fact. But just like employees, clients, tenants, and patients, plants and trees are living and breathing too. Their importance may be overshadowed and they are incapable of filing personal injury suits, but they are assets that should nonetheless be protected. In this second series of “non-traditional ice hazards” for commercial property owners and managers, the case is made for the commercial landscape.

Commercial landscape maintenance in Northeast Ohio is widely considered to be a “seasonal” business during the months of April through November. But there are important landscape maintenance and management measures that should be implemented year round. In many cases, the best defenses to ice start with the landscape design, well before the hazard even exists. In others, preventative maintenance measures can go a long way in protecting a landscape investment. Described below are the five top ice threats to commercial landscapes and what property owners and managers should be doing to defend their “green” assets.

  1. The Neglected Pop Can in the Freezer: Winter damage to trees, shrubs and turf can happen for a variety of reasons, from the formation of thick sheets of ice form over the surface of turf, known as ice encasement, to the more serious, crown hydration. Crown hydration is the most destructive type of winter injury to plants and unfortunately it is also the most common. It occurs during periods of thawing and freezing. Crown hydration negatively impacts plant cells and thus, the overall health of the plant. Ice crystals essentially form inside plant cells causing them either to burst like that forgotten can of pop in the freezer or dehydrate. Making matters worse, preventative maintenance measures are practically non-existent. The best defense to reduce crown hydration is to improve surface drainage in turf areas with drain tile and grading improvements. Removing standing sources of water can reduce the probability of freezing and thawing cycles.
  2. ice-hazards-downspoutIce Spears (Part 2): Otherwise known as icicles, these frozen spears can cause great harm to foundation landscape plantings, especially hedges. The force and weight of a fallen icicle is enough to damage a plant and sometimes to the point of replacement. The go-to foundation plant of choice is typically an evergreen, like a taxus yew, juniper or boxwood. Typically, the benefits to evergreens along a foundation are many, but for this critical downfall. These plants do not rejuvenate quickly or respond well to a harsh pruning, so broken or damaged limbs will be aesthetic voids for many growing seasons. So in this case, one momentary frozen crash can cause a pronounced sore spot for years. A defense in this case starts with examining all downspouts and roofs for proper drainage and the installation of other mitigation measures such as gutter heating elements. It includes proper removal of ice once formed if needed, including the possibility of liquid de-icing agents applied to roof lines. Lastly, the commercial landscape design should take icicles into consideration.
  3. Look Out Below: We all know what happens when pipes freeze in winter. For commercial properties with irrigation systems, the hazards posed by ice is a no brainer. This is why irrigation systems are always winterized with compressed air in the fall. When preformed incorrectly (or worse, not at all), this process can lead to costly damage repairs the following spring. Irrigation systems are not cheap, nor is the process to repair them. Even when performed correctly, damage can still occur to the above-ground portions like the point of connection, rain sensors, and backflow prevention devices. Steps can (and should) be taken to protect these critical components too, such as installing union fittings near an exterior backflow allowing the entire device to be removed and stored safely indoors during the winter.
  4. Look Out Below Above (Part 2): The weight of ice on branches and limbs will reveal an improperly pruned or maintained tree very quickly. Susceptible branches are those that are dead, dying, split, or topped, all of which can and should be prevented. In some cases, the type of tree and its setting should be factored into the landscape design, as some species like the favorite ornamental pear tree, have a very tight branching structure from the main trunk line causing them to crack easy under the weight of ice. Defensive mechanisms here stem from yet another routine preventative maintenance measure: properly pruning to maintain plant health. Beyond pruning, trees should be routinely inspected by a reputable commercial landscape contractor or even an arborist. One last point here that is worthy of note, pruning is not necessarily confined to the growing season.
  5. Collateral Damage: Let’s be honest, most ice-related landscape damage is caused incidentally and not necessarily as a result of the ice itself. Rock salt can either be a hero or a villain, it all depends on your vantage point. Salinity contamination of landscape beds immediately bordering drive lanes, parking lots, and other salted surfaces is a serial landscape killer. Even for plants and trees “tolerant” of salt spray, damage can vary from stunted growth and slow decline at best. Again, the design of the commercial landscape is important, so here too the weapon of choice should be a drafting pencil. However, there are other preventative measures to take as well, like landscape wraps and temporary fencing. However, do not overlook the role of commercial snow removal operations. Reputable contractors are “dialed” in on their calibration and application of rock salt so as to not over-apply. Consider the use of liquid anti- and de-icing agents as well, which are applied more precisely and can be more environmental friendly.

Let’s face it, ice is awesome when it cools our summer drinks and provides an element of recreation or sport, but most of the time, we view it as a hazard. To treat this hazard as seriously as the liability it creates, think beyond the usual suspects. Make sure that you are prepared to mitigate these ice risks with a sound strategy. The professionals at Brian-Kyles are eager to help.

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