Gated communities, apartment complexes and campuses are getting swankier by the day, and the meticulously landscaped gardens around them are trying to keep up. Gone are the days of duranta hedges, an avenue of bottle palms, rows of bougainvillea planters and the ubiquitous frangipani in the corner of a clumpy grass lawn. Nurseries and landscaping companies around the country find themselves needing to innovate constantly, adapting gardens to suit the modern aesthetic, while being mindful of the resources that they consume.

Sridhar Shetty, proprietor of Green Space, a large-scale landscaping company that specialises in school campuses, gated communities and commercial complexes, says that landscaping budgets for medium to large-scale projects can range from ?1-5 crore, depending on their size and complexity. Shetty has been noticing an increased use of foliage and potted topiary shrubs in landscaping projects across the country.

Topiary planters add a classy touch to large patios and open courtyards that would otherwise be left empty, he says. Syzygium australe, commonly called the Australian bush cherry, is a top favourite. It lends itself beautifully to being clipped into shapes like cones, spirals and balls. Conocarpus erectus or the buttonwood mangrove, once a favourite screening shrub, has now fallen out of favour with landscapers, says Shetty. The trees are notorious for being resource-hogs, rapidly depleting the soil around them of water and nutrients.

Shortcut to forests

Mahishree Udayan, proprietor of Jayanti Botanical Gardens and Garden Services, says that full-grown trees are now in high demand, especially in large-scale landscaping projects. Her farm in Harohalli, Karnataka, maintains a large stock of full-grown trees of up to 20 ft in height, and ships them all over India, often as far as Delhi. Each tree can sell for anything between ?10,000 and ?20 lakh, based on their height, girth and variety, she says. At Embassy Springs, Bengaluru, a 288-acre layout in Devanahalli, over 6,500 well-grown trees from her nursery were transplanted onto the campus, transforming it into a wooded arboretum almost overnight. At Embassy Boulevard, another large residential project in the city, her team carefully dug up 450 fully grown trees from the site, stored them in their nursery and replanted them on site after the construction was complete. “Relocating a tree is no easy task,” says Udayan. “We first trim the branches of the tree, leaving the trunk intact. A large trench is dug around the tree to extract as much of the root ball as possible. The tree is then quickly lifted out and shifted to a freshly dug trench in the nursery, where it is treated with root hormones and fertiliser to keep it alive and vigorous until it’s time to shift it again to its final spot in the campus.” The result? An instant tree-filled campus garden that looks like it’s always been there!

“We’ve transplanted fully grown  Tabebuias,  Peltophorums, gulmohars, coconut trees, bottlebrushes, rain trees and several fruit trees this way, with a failure rate of less than 15%. Transplanted trees might need a little extra watering and nutrition for a few months, but once established, they only need as much care as regular trees do,” she says.

“While new varieties of  Heliconia and torch ginger are largely used for planter beds and screens, old favourites like areca palm and bamboo are making a comeback,” says Rashmi Attavar, Joint Managing Director, Indo American Hybrid Seeds, Bengaluru. “We also have a lot of enquiries for the old fragrant cultivars of jasmine, parijata, champaka and kadamba,” she says. New, vibrant-hued varieties of frangipani and bottlebrush too seem to be in demand. Foliage plants like the autograph tree ( Clusia rosea), kauri pine ( Agathis robusta) and the banana leaf fig ( Ficus alii) are still very much in vogue, along with the now-popular china doll ( Radermachera sinica), an emerald-green foliage shrub that’s great for indoor and semi-shaded areas. Water plants like papyrus, water lily and lotus varieties are getting popular again. There’s also a lot of interest in dwarf fruit trees that don’t require climbing. Dwarf jackfruit, sitaphal, mango and chikoo are hot favourites, she says.

Trees that the land supports

Rohit Marol, founder and principal at Terra Firma, one of the country’s pioneering landscape architecture firms, feels that the selection of plants in any gardening project needs to reflect what the land itself can support. The 35-year-old company has offices in Bengaluru, Chennai and Coimbatore, and has executed large housing and building projects around the globe. In a recently executed project in the Maldives, almost all the plants used in the landscape design were indigenous shrubs and ground covers that could withstand the harsh gale-force winds and sandy soil conditions of the site. “Gardens should accommodate all senses. You should be able to see, smell and taste a garden,” he avers. “While it’s not always easy to convince a client to use all-native plants in a project, we do manage to squeeze in at least a few in every garden, to be as sustainable as possible.”

Bharat Sandur, a natural landscape specialist, who has devoted most of his career to native tree planting and natural gardening, has a more holistic approach to landscaping. “Gardens should be all-organic, self-fertilising and should need little to no intervention to grow and flourish,” he says.

Sandur has organised large-scale native tree planting drives in Araku Valley (Andhra Pradesh) as well as in Kashmir border areas. “Nature doesn’t grow in straight lines, and neither should your garden. When you plan a natural garden, you need to spend as much time as you can on research, preferably with a field botanist on board. You can then collect compatible species from similar ecosystems around the world, but only after testing their weedy potentials,” he warns, referring to ornamental species like Lantana, Wedelia and American cassia ( Senna spectabilis) that escaped the confines of their gardens and took over large tracts of forest land, choking out most of the endemic vegetation. “We should all ideally be xeriscaping,” says Sandur, “considering that the wet spell that we are currently going through isn’t likely to last much longer.” He refers to the style of landscaping that uses drought-tolerant plants that require minimal resources to grow. Cacti, grasses and succulent varieties are the major plant groups that are used in xeriscape gardens.

On the subject of responsible water use in landscaping, Sindhu Cherian, director of Ayala Natural Biological Systems, has a solution — a plant-based onsite effluent purification system that uses aquatic and semi-aquatic plants. The system is entirely passive unlike the conventional electro-mechanical sewage treatment plants (STPs) that need electricity, chemicals and skilled manpower to operate. On the surface, the purification system looks like a garden, with waste water flowing gently underground, allowing the roots of aquatic plants to purify it as it flows.

“The system can be sized to accommodate factories, industries, schools, campuses, gated communities and even residential colonies,” she says. “All it needs is a bit of planning and forethought at the time of land allocation.” The purified water from this system still retains many of the beneficial micronutrients that traditional STPs tend to remove, claims Cherian.

With the world’s ever-increasing focus on responsible, eco-friendly gardening practices using minimal resources, landscapes like these that serve multiple functions might soon become the norm.

The writer was co-founder of MySunnyBalcony. He currently heads business strategy for a Bengaluru-based organic produce company.

Landscape Architecture 

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Sriram Aravamudan