What’s your favorite thing about a big parking lot?
The huge expanse of baking hot asphalt? The way the sun beats down relentlessly?
We didn’t think so.
It’s those sometimes shady, always green parking lot islands — pretty planted oasis of cool.
But don’t plant them with grass. In these challenging conditions, turf doesn’t cut it.
Paul Weaver, construction branch manager for Level Green Landscaping, shares his favorite turf alternatives for parking lot islands.
The Need For Green Islands
Engineers and architects plan for a certain number of parking lot islands in order to meet county, city and state regulations, Weaver says.
“If you cut down trees to create a parking lot, the laws say you have to put some back,” Weaver says. “You have to have a certain percentage of canopy cover.”
Plus, they look nice, breaking up large expanses of hot parking lots with cool, shady spots of green plants and bright flowers.
But in older shopping centers, these islands can be so overgrown, they’re a big problem.
“You want to attract people who want to rent or lease space there,” Weaver says. “Some shopping centers are so overgrown you can’t see the stores from the street. Nobody wants to do business there.”
Level Green recently completed a re-do at an overgrown shopping center, thinning and shaping existing trees so you could see through them from the road to the stores.
“After we were done, all the vacant spots there were filled,” he says.
First, The Challenges
A hot, sunny parking lot isn’t a plant's first choice for a home. There are lots of challenges here.
— “You want attractive plants that are also easy to maintain,” Weaver says. “And the laws often require you use native plants.“
— Parking lot islands don’t have built-in irrigation, he says, so plants have to be drought tolerant.
— “People walk right over these islands, and step on the plants, instead of walking around them,” Weaver says. Plants have to be tough.
— Car exhaust can burn plants right up.
— Salt and snow pile up during the winter, taxing plants.
“They have to put up with a lot,” Weaver says.
Why Not Grass?
While grass is inexpensive and offers a nice carpet of green, it won’t stand up to the rigors of a big parking lot, Weaver says.
“Car exhaust and salt aren’t great for turf,” Weaver says. “You really don’t want turf there.”
Parking lot islands are rarely perfectly flat, which means mowers can scalp the grass and damage it.
And mowing turf near parked cars is risky, as flying debris could hit them. This is especially true if the island is mounded. The gap this creates between the mower deck and the ground allows more debris to escape.
Turf Alternatives For Parking Lot islands
What to use instead? There are lots of turf alternatives, Weaver says. Among his favorites:
— Barberry. This native plant has beautiful, vibrant foliage in shades of green, yellow and burgundy. Plus it has thorns, great for deterring pedestrians from stomping through the plants.
— Pyracantha. It’s also called firethorn, so yes, this one is thorny, too. But it also offers spectacular clusters of red or orange berries that emerge in the fall and stick around through the winter. And it’s drought tolerant.
—Liriope. This pretty grasslike plant is a Paul Weaver favorite for parking lot islands.
“It’s hardy, it’s hard to kill, you can walk on it, it’s relatively cheap,” Weaver says. “We’ve planted tens of thousands of these. They offer a lush, wavy grass feel.”
— Creeping juniper. You can walk on this low-lying evergreen ground cover. And it’s drought tolerant.
— Black-eyed Susan. Everybody loves this cheerful garden staple. These natives are great in mass plantings and hold up well in the tough conditions of parking lots.
“It can take abuse, and it keeps coming back,” Weaver says.
— Purple coneflower. Another garden favorite, it’s both pretty and sturdy, blooming heavily for several weeks in late summer.
— Daylily. Weaver loves the variety of this hardy and pretty plant. “You can get them tall, short, yellow, purple,” Weaver says. “It gets covered with snow and salt and it keeps coming back.”
— Not all parking lot islands have to sport greenery, Weaver says. The lowest maintenance choice is hardscape.
“Decorative gravel, pavers, stepping stones will all work well,” Weaver says. “You can also use them to create a path to encourage people to walk around the plants.”
Don’t Forget Trees
Everybody looks for a shady spot to park on a hot sunny day. But not every tree is a good choice for a parking lot island.
“Some trees have berries that fall and can stain cars,” Weaver says. “Some attract insects and birds, and you don’t want that in a parking lot.”
Oaks and maples are good choices for parking lot islands, Weaver says. He loves ‘Red sunset’ and “October glory’ maples for their stunning fall foliage, and columnar oaks that grow tall and skinny rather than wide.
Trust Your Parking Lot Islands To Level Green
Need a shopping center re-do? It’s one of our specialties here at Level Green Landscaping. We’ll choose just the right plants for your parking lot islands, including the best turf alternatives, so they stay healthy and attractive all year long.
If you’re not already a Level Green Landscaping client, we’d love to add you to our growing list of happy customers.
Our focus is on commercial properties like offices, mixed-use sites, HOAs, municipalities and institutions in Maryland, Washington DC and parts of Virginia.
Contact us at 202-544-0968. You can also request a free consultation online to meet with us one-on-one.
We’d love to hear from you.