The primary goal of any athletic turf manager is to have a safe, functional, aesthetically pleasing surface for play. For the fans, however, of considerable importance is the ambience provided by the sport facility as a part of the game day experience. Ornamental plants that are adjacent to the facility are perhaps not at the forefront of most facility manager’s priority list, but they can be an important contributor to the overall enjoyment of game day for the fans.

Regardless of where you live, there are hundreds of choices for ornamental plants. Some are ideally suited for use around sports facilities because of their ornament and ease of care, while others are less desirable or even present a liability. It is worth the time invested to understand the ornamental plants at your facility as well as potential alternatives.

Attributes of plants: The good and the bad

There are several factors to consider when choosing ornamentals for a sports facility. Important, of course, are the overall aesthetics of the plants. Do they have an attractive flower and, if so, at what time of year? Do they have attractive fall color? Does the flowering or fall color perhaps match the colors of your team and, if so, does it occur during your season of play?

A good starting point is a local nursery or university extension office. Many of the individuals you contact for questions about turfgrass management work with people who specialize in ornamental plants and will have resources that can assist you.

From a list of plants suitable to your area, it is important to consider the balance of risk and benefit provided by a particular plant species. For example, does the plant have an attractive flower that is also attractive to bees? Littleleaf linden (Tilia cordata) is an example of a tree with an attractive pyramidal shape, nice foliage and a long-lasting, attractive flower bract in early summer. However, in addition to being not very tolerant of urban conditions such as heavy clay soil and reflected heat, this tree attracts bees and Japanese beetle adults. Planting a linden in a narrow planter surrounded by hardscape directly adjacent to an access gate may be asking for trouble, both aesthetically and with the fans.

Does a candidate tree have brittle branches that are susceptible to storm damage? Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’) is a tough, urban-tolerant, rapidly growing tree that produces mounds of white flowers in the spring and has good reddish-orange fall color. It’s also a weak-wooded species that is highly susceptible to storm damage.

The calla lily, (Zantadeschia aethiopica ‘Schwarzwalder’) is traditionally a houseplant in the upper Midwest, but combined with New Guinea impatiens it is effective as an annual planting.

Does a candidate tree or shrub produce large volumes of fruit that cause a problem? Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) is a good example of an attractive tree with good orange-red late season fall color that, in addition to being susceptible to storm damage, produces large volumes of a hardened fruit that can cause a litter problem or liability due to turned ankles if the tree is in close proximity to a hard surface.

When choosing plants for their form and color you should also consider their function. A columnar cultivar of a shade tree, such as Dawyck beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyckii’) can be attractive, but does this come at the expense of the amount of shade that the tree casts? Also, does the plant have thorns? Thorny plants can be a positive and a negative. On the positive side, thorny plants, such as mentor barberry (Berberis x mentorensis) function well as barrier plants to direct pedestrian traffic. On the negative side, plants with thorns tend to be good trash collectors, and there is some liability should a fan be injured.

Maintenance considerations

Ease of maintenance can be of critical importance to the success of your ornamental plantings. Some plant species, though attractive, can have vulnerabilities to insect or disease pests that will either compromise their effectiveness in your planting, or significantly increase your expenses when applications of fungicides and insecticides become necessary. This varies considerably by region.

Mentor barberry (Berberis x mentorensis) is an example of a thorny plant that can be used as a barrier. It produces an attractive red/scarlet fall color.

Many popular landscape plants, such as the white bark birches (Betula sp.), the cockspur hawthorn (Crataegus cruss-galli), Austrian pine (Pinus nigra), Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens var. glauca) and ash (Fraxinus sp.) can have pest problems that require careful attention to management and/or the use of pesticides to keep them looking their best. A landscape contractor or your local extension specialist can help with this, Oftentimes there is a plant that is similar in appearance, but lacking the pest issues, that can be substituted.

A related concept to consider is the tolerance of a plant to different environmental extremes such as heat and drought. Plantings at sports facilities are often in close association with concrete or other hard surfaces that will increase these pressures. Make sure that candidate plants are ideally suited for you part of the country, particularly when it comes to winter hardiness.

Pruning requirements should also be considered. For shrubs that will form a hedge-type planting, chose species that are tolerant of pruning. Tree species vary in their pruning requirements; some are relatively maintenance free, while others, such as Japanese Zelkova (Zelkova japonica), may require careful pruning management to best maintain the tree. Weigela (Weigela florida) is sometimes selected for its spring-summer bloom. However, on older cultivars, the suckering growth habit is a maintenance nightmare.

Ornamental grasses are ideally suited for use around sports facilities due to their relatively low maintenance. There are many selections, from large Japanese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis) with its winter persistent seedheads (left) to the much short Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’), which is planted for its foliage (below).

If a plant interests you, but you know it has maintenance issues, ask your local landscape contractor if there are substitutes. Red maples (Acer rubrum) have very attractive fall color but are hard to establish and not urban tolerant. However, Freeman maple (Acer x freemanii) does not have these issues. Similarly, Colorado blue spruce may suffer from a foliage disease so, depending on your location, white fir (Abies concolor) may be a better option.

Function in addition to aesthetics

When designing the landscape around your facility, consider the aesthetics of the site and its function. You may have places on-site that lend themselves to a naturalized/native type planting. Native areas have become popular at the periphery of golf courses, as superintendents deal with issues of environmental awareness. Many times these areas are managed but with reduced or different pesticides. The key to success is to locate these types of plantings on the right part of the property and to populate them with plants appropriate for your location.

You may also have an area that’s ideal for a rain garden. Rain gardens allow runoff from impervious areas, such as parking lots, to be absorbed into the ground instead of flowing into storm drains or surface water. A properly designed rain garden can result in reduced erosion, pollution and flooding. There are dozens of plant species suitable for this type of planting. Red maple, Canadian serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis), redosier dogwood (Cornus sericea), goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) and arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) are suited to rain gardens and have fall or winter color attributes that might make them ideally suited for use at your facility (depending on your team colors, of course).

Putting it all together

When weighing all of these factors, balance the positive and negative attributes of candidate plants to arrive at the best choices. Some plants are fantastically ornamental but are so hard to maintain that it is not economically practical to do so. Similarly, there are plants that are carefree but make no significant contribution to the landscape or aesthetics of the facility.

Be sure to use a variety of plant types. The best landscapes use not only trees and shrubs, but also strategically placed herbaceous perennials, ground covers, ornamental grasses and annuals. Don’t be afraid to experiment with annuals. Many landscapers combine traditional annual species with plants such as ornamental cabbage (Brassica sp.) and calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica) with great success.

Red maples are among the most popular shade trees in North America. They have excellent fall color, particularly if your team colors are scarlet or red. However, they are difficult to establish and not tolerant of heat, drought or urban conditions.

As an example, around Ohio Stadium there is a variety of plantings that were chosen specifically for their fall color attributes. Since the school colors are scarlet and gray, many of the plantings, such as red maple, burning bush (Euonymus alatus), Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) and sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’) have a brilliant scarlet/red fall color. The latter three species are tolerant of urban conditions, withstand a variety of environmental extremes, and are pest-free and relatively easy to maintain.

While not critical to the success of your facility from the standpoint of field performance, the plants should add to the fans’ experience and should not present a hazard.

Proper selection of plant material is important to success, especially during the construction or renovation phase. Even if the landscape is established, it’s still a good idea to be familiar with the plants at the facility in order to understand their strengths and weaknesses, anticipate potential management problems, and to be ready to replace the plant material either with the same species or something more appropriate.

Editor’s note: This article was originally in June 2012 and has been updated.