DUNEDIN — A sterile grass landscape sucked down water and ran up utility bills. To irrigate, the condo complex was spending a monthly average of almost $3,200.
Two years later, blooming beds with multicolored leaves draw the eye and the turf is thriving — with little or no irrigation. In 2008, the average monthly bill was less than $320.
A condo complex on Honeymoon Island has found a way to beat the water bill while enhancing curb appeal. Over two years, the Royal Stewart Arms reduced the watering on its 23 acres by 90 percent. It started with grumbling about the appearance of the landscape and the high cost of watering it more than two years ago. Sharon Wilson, the new property manager, was also a certified horticulturist.
"We had terrible-looking landscape," she said last week. "We started exploring a city grant."
Dunedin offers neighborhood-enhancement matching grants for improving the appearance of neighborhoods, an idea Commissioner Julie Scales suggested about five years ago. The city gave the complex a grant for almost $8,900 and a cadre of condo residents matched most of the grant with volunteer labor.
In all, residents of the 449 units paid a total of $1,952 for a professional landscape design and landscaping materials including micro-drip irrigation. That was more than offset by the water bill savings of $55,800. Even after buying the landscape materials, residents saved $53,848.
The Pinellas County Extension worked with the property manager and the volunteers.
Doris Heitzmann, the extension's Florida Yards and Neighborhoods homeowners association outreach coordinator, helped residents apply the principles of Florida-friendly gardening.
They planted the right plants in the right place, grouping plants with similar water and sun needs together. Plants that needed water were mulched and micro-drip irrigation was installed so water would go directly to plant roots. Rain shut-off gauges monitor rainfall and the lawn is seldom watered.
"It's a win-win situation," Wilson said. "And your landscaping is going to be a showstopper."
At the condo complex last week, Heitzmann and representatives of the Southwest Florida Water Management District were eager to show off a project that enhances the environment while saving water.
"They are so excited and now they are telling other communities about what they've done here," said Robyn Felix, the district's media relations manager. "And word is spreading."
Alton Blalock, 62, a retired Ford auto worker, is chairman of the landscaping and irrigation committee. In the beginning, he experimented with watering the largest stretch of lawn less and less, skipping a week, then two weeks, then turning it off altogether almost two years ago.
"Since the water has been turned off, the dollar weed has gone away," he said. "It looks beautiful."
Blalock led a volunteer crew that planted beds with goldmound spiraea bushes, huge crinum lilies, fountain grass, pentas and yellow santana.
He appreciates the landscape and the savings. "It's fantastic," Blalock said. "A lot of extra money in our budget now."
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.