Landscaping a School Sign

The high school where I work just built a new sign at the entrance from the main road.  Within days of being built, it was vandalized.  So last week my principal asked me if I could suggest some landscaping for around the sign that might discourage hooligans from getting up close to the sign and defacing it.

Of course, I had already been landscaping the sign in my mind since the beginning of the school year, but now with the principal’s specific parameters, I am ready to offer a real plan.  Any ideas, readers? 

It is full sun (sign faces east/west), crap soil, no irrigation.  The plants have to be fairly low so that the sign stays readable.  I like the idea of some natives.  I am specifically struggling with how to shape the bed, and with what to stick between the sign and the sidewalk.  Here’s a picture:

Readers who suggest something that actually gets planted will receive a jar of my special homemade Black Walnut Chutney.  Not really, but seriously I will be grateful for your suggestions!

60 thoughts on “Landscaping a School Sign

    • I know. I really want to avoid Barberry, but it was the first thing that popped into my mind. My other thought was some sort of dwarf Chinese holly, but, you know…blech. Was thinking a low growing Juniper possibly, but mixed with some interesting perennials?

  1. Poison ivy should do the trick. It’s completely native and doesn’t need to be watered. It can even be maintained by the janitor, who is probably also the lawn maintenance man.

  2. I am fond of Microbiota Decussata, aka Siberian Cypress. Looks like juniper, but less woody, prettier and turns dark bronze in fall/winter.

  3. How about massed beautyberry bushes, and lots of low and medium-tall ornamental (native) grasses, various rudbeckia, goldenrod, and milkweed? I dislike barberry, but if you could find some burgundy colored ones that wouldn’t re-seed, they would add prickles, set off the perennials, and — with the grasses — add winter interest. Some barbed wire artistically rolled into ornamental spheres would work too — spray paint them in the school colors!

    Also, maybe you could challenge your writing classes to write a new short, funny, satirical slogan for the sign every week or two. Something that says ‘Family Love Respect’ just begs to be vandalized by teenagers.

  4. This is going to be tough if they need to access the sign periodically to change the lettering. If there is access for that, there will be access for vandals. Good luck!

    • True that, Barbara. I’m thinking the goal wouldn’t necessarily be to blind or maim anybody who dared breach the landscaping, but rather to make more of a visual/psychological barrier. So massive thorns wouldn’t necessarily be required.

  5. Barbara H’s comment made me think of a suggestion for your principal. Why not get one of those tools that people use to change lettering on signs way up high. It should work for something a bit out of reach as well. Then you can plant all the stickery plants you like.

  6. I assume the sign says the same thing on the other side too? Just that it seems to be facing away from the road…. I saw the street sign Spindle Ct and thought Euonymus but as an Aussie gardener, I have no idea whether they grow well in Va. I’d also be painting that brick work with an antigraffiti paint.

    • See, this is why I love my blogging friends. I didn’t know there was such a thing as anti-graffiti paint. And yes, there are many euonymus that grow well here but they are sorta overused and can get scale. I didn’t notice “spindle”….you’re a clever one, Catherine!

  7. I have to agree with the earlier suggestions of Mahonias and/or Knockout Roses, maybe some Yuccas too. Also, vandals tend to be simple minded and attracted to “shiny” new things, hence them going straight for the new sign, so once it gets some landscaping in front of it, it won’t be so stark and screaming for attention. It should just blend in with the landscape and hopefully the kids will move onto the next “shiny” object or blank canvas.

  8. I’m not sure about design, but may I suggest large cacti or poison ivy as planting material? That may keep people from vandalizing the sign. If not, at least it will be easier to identify the culprits. Good luck!

      • It’s not, and you do NOT want to mess with it. I had a lovely encounter with poison oak nine years ago, and I still have scars, as I came very close to being hospitalized from the exposure. The biggest danger is that while the leaves have plenty of urushiol oil to make your life miserable, the stems and roots are even worse. Grab a root roughly, and you’ll probably look at skin grafts if you don’t wash your hands immediately. (That also makes maintenance even more hellish. It doesn’t compost easily without filling your compost with urushiol, the oil can remain viable on tools for at least two years and possibly up to ten, and burning it is a great way to give your neighbors and everyone else downwind a good case of poison ivy exposure on the insides of their lungs.)

        And then there’s the little bit most people don’t know. You may have heard that goats love poison ivy. In fact, Euell Gibbons, in his book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, dedicated part of a chapter to the idea of feeding goats poison ivy and then drinking their milk to get a tolerance to the weed. That part is true: goats are completely immune to urushiol, and they take to poison ivy the way we take to spring greens. Problem is, so do deer. Given half a chance, deer would rather eat poison ivy than your roses. This means that if you’re lucky, that poison ivy has only suggested to any local urban deer that there’s more to eat when they’re finished.If you’re not, and they get spooked, the damage caused by your hooligans will be nothing compared to that of a six-point buck crashing through the sign. Just to let you know.

  9. I hate to say it, but everyone’s going the wrong way as far as thorns or irritants are concerned. I don’t say this just as a dedicated teenage hooligan, but as one that was never caught. Thorns and poison ivy won’t stop the determined, and in fact it’ll challenge them to go further. Besides, cactus can be a bit iffy up that way, and if Venus flytraps existed that could eat people, I’d sell them out every month.

    No, what you have to take into account is not just something that’s low-maintenance, but that repels by taking advantage of a typical teenage vandal’s inherent laziness. When I say “laziness”, I’m referring to the urge to expend energy compared to the payout. If the stunt is truly spectacular, such as when I used to steal metallic sodium from my high school’s chem lab, wrap it in aluminum foil, and flush it down the third floor toilet, the resultant spectacular evacuation of every sewer line in the school wasn’t as much fun on a Saturday as when I knew the principal was getting ready to let loose about eight pounds of new dress code at the time. You can’t make a space vandal-proof, but you CAN make it sufficiently aggravating that the return on the vandalism won’t mitigate the likelihood of getting busted, photographed, or dirty.

    With that in mind,go for low, vining ground cover: the sort of stuff that does a very good job of concealing mud or thick clay.Not only does this mean that anyone walking or running out there to do something stupid will get mud all over them, but it means that footprints are well-preserved for police assistance. The vines also usually prevent or slow a quick getaway. You don’t want anything with spines or thorns that might cause actual damage to persons or property, because the absolute worst vandals also have helicopter parents who canNOT believe their pwecious widdle snowflakes could EVER do anything like this, and they’ll gleefully threaten legal proceedings if Snowflake comes home with ripped and bloody clothes. Causing a mess, though, is all right, because that helps incriminate them if caught.

    On the other side, on more aesthetic concerns, I’ll recommend one thorned plant. Go for Knockout or Earthkind roses against the brick ends of the sign, particularly on the side nearest the sidewalk. They’ll be easy to maintain, they can be shaped up along the sides of the sign, and the blooms will definitely spice up what’s otherwise a pretty boring sign. Also, the roses will mean any potential vandals will have to get out in front of the sign to do anything, increasing the odds that they’ll be seen. Everybody wins.

      • Well, I wasn’t quite the juvenile delinquent. I was worse: I was the kid who could have gone good if I’d been in the right place. As it was, I made a point of letting everyone believe that I was the boring little nerdy kid who wouldn’t do anything like this, because that meant I was beyond suspicion when the big stunts came down. I didn’t pull stunts often, but when I did, they were worth the effort.

      • The other thing that I’ll add, by the way, is that whatever you put in, have pity on the poor groundskeepers who will need to maintain it after you’ve moved on. For instance, I adore crape myrtles. Honestly, I just also know that from a groundskeeper standpoint, the innumerable suckers coming up from the base are a nightmare if they aren’t regularly trimmed, and the temptation is strong just to get in there with a weedeater and same time. That’s why I was suggesting the Earthkind roses: they’re insanely tough, they’re attractive, and they won’t require lots of maintenance ten or twenty years from now.

        • And one last bit. When it comes to the word “hooligan”, I like to let the great comedian Bill Hicks speak on behalf of the use of that word. “Better catch us, or I might become a scalawag!”

  10. Since I live in a similar area with intractable clay and no irrigation I can only recommend what would work for me. Since the sign is already corporate/symmetrical I would prefer irregular plantings of Hollywood Juniper 1 closest the sidewalk 2 on the opposite end sandwiching a glossy Abelia. Try Lo-Gro Sumac fronting the sign, or dwarf Crepe Myrtles (after 15 years mine are still under 2 ft tall). Although the area for the Crepe Myrtles may have to be amended with Grani-grit to give them enough drainage. With age the Juniper will become more irregular and the Abelia will expand to fill a 6 foot circle.
    There might not enough moisture there for beauty berry, it does well for me in a swampy area.
    With this combination you get 12 months of interesting color and texture with out being predictable.

  11. The bed should be irregular (you say swoopy, I say voluptuous), and a barberry hedge is the obvious choice; but perhaps rosa rugosa, or pyracantha? Mayhaps a dwarf crabapple at one of the sides. I can’t stand most junipers, but as they are a leading cause of Invisible Pokey Thing Syndrome and require only malign neglect to grow, perhaps they are the Devil That You Know. Oh, and some finely shredded bark mulch to get into those unlaced shoes so popular with the kids.

  12. Pampas grass doesn’t look like it but is like razor sharp and would look grand to frame the tall ends. Barberry and holly will stay low and discourage any frontal assaults. Lambs ears thrive close to the edge of a planted bed with someone cutting too close and possibly chopping them occasionally. Just some thoughts…

  13. A sadistic planting, with student contest winners for the marquee are really great ideas from others.

    I side with a simple, sweeping mass on the right side of the sign, but with something concentric at and left of the sign.

    Not sure of species, but when I hear “Alternative High School”, it says unrealized brilliance and goth…so there must be some lower natives, something dark, and something blueish (like one of the bluer little bluestems) that could work together…must speak of “ALT”. (as opposed to “NORMAL” for you, like a clump of 3 trees volcano-mulched, azaleas, lawn, etc)

    • Right on. There is definitely nothing “normal” about my school, so why should we have a typical boring planting? Thank you for your tip on the actual design/layout….since the sign has so much more planting space on one side than the other, I have been struggling with what that would mean for the planting…your suggestion helps!

  14. While groundcover junipers are at the very bottom of my landscape plant list, they can be the answer to areas that are hell-like. What I hate about them is the way weeds grow up in between their branches and the way they catch leaves in the fall/winter. Ugh. Too much maintenance.
    When I was the volunteer garden committee chair at my children’s elementary school, we had a sign much like this one, but it was set way off the road – and it did not have those interchangeable letters. Over the years I tried a number of plants (yes, junipers – gawd I hated weeding those things!), sedums, daffodils (they survive yet!), ornamental grasses, etc. The main thing you should keep in mind is The Lawnmowing Guys. If they do not see a clear edge running around the bed, they WILL mow right into the landscape plants! So be sure you have sturdy, visible landscape edging along the bed that will be obvious to them, and will withstand their mower blades.
    Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Lo’, Knock-Out Roses, dwarf Crape Myrtle – all good choices. Maybe Festuca glauca? Maybe Cotoneaster apiculatus or Cotoneaster dammeri?
    I think making the bed wide enough/deep enough and having a lot of plants to wade through may help to deter the vandals (somewhat!). Good Luck!

  15. I still remember trying to pick out fallen leaves from a patch of prickly pear as a kid. They will attract every stray leaf and every bit of litter…and unless your grounds crew is EXTREMELY good-natured, you probably don’t want to subject them to such a painful, time-consuming task! What about a planting of mostly grasses…I’m thinking primarily something short, like Sesleria autumnalis…perhaps punctuated with small groupings of taller grasses (Schizachryium or one of the shorter Panicums). You could also have a few groupings of drought-tolerant perennials (perhaps some Sedum, Baptisia and/or Teucrium hircanicum…all of which are tough-as-nails). As a bonus, these plants will, for the most part, be at their peak as school starts, in the fall, rather than during summer, when no one is around (not that it won’t look nice during summer too). Maintenance can pretty much be limited to an annual cutting to the ground in late winter/early spring…and if they so desire, can be interplanted with spring bulbs.

    • Thanks for the suggestions, Scott! I have already submitted my plan to the principal and you will be happy to know that it doesn’t include cactus (even though it sorta intrigued me, I could totally see some parent suing the school system if their kid was lanced by a cactus spine). It also includes some grasses on the far side of the sign where they won’t obsure the lettering. We’ll see if my principal goes for it!

  16. Just two plant types: a wide swath of Gro Low sumac all around in an irregularly shaped bed, and something to over top but not hide the sign, like a hawthorn or crabapple. (Knockout roses and barberries and even ornamental grasses will eventually get too big and bulky and hide the sign without constant care.) Keep it ultra simple for this no-care area — no cutting back, no pruning, nada. The woody sumac will be hard to step into, and that might be just enough to keep anyone away from the sign.

    • Hmmmm….I had actually finished the plan but now after reading your suggestion I am second guessing myself. I have the Gro Low in there, but several other things, too. Maybe simple is the way to go. Will have to see how much my suggested landscape would actually cost. If my principal calls for something cheaper I may go with the two plant option. Thank you Laurrie!

  17. As a frequent victim of flower theft, I have made revenge gardening something of a hobby. This thread adds a few new tricks! Do you have any Cistus x purpureus around you? It is a long blooming, evergreen plant that thrives in dry conditions and is perfectly happy in very heavy soil. I am not sure how happy it would be in zone 7, as I’m in zone 8 myself. It grows fairly large (4’x4′), so it would not be good in front of the sign, but it could be attractive in the overall mix, especially if you need a larger plant that doesn’t have the heavy dark leaves of mahonia and other evergreens to lighten things up year around.

    Sadly, they do not come equipped with either thorns or flame-throwers.

    • Thank you, Christine. I’m not familiar with that plant but am going to look it up right now! The ultimate revenge plant, I think, would be the Trifoliate Orange, with those twisted branches and thorns straight out of a horror film. How fun to plant that in a school yard…heh-heh….

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