Friday, August 31, 2012

Think Carefully Before you Spray

     Agrochemicals can be wonderful and truly helpful both to the small householder and the large farmer.  Herbicides can reduce or eliminate the need for weeding.  Insecticides can help to prevent plant or crop loss due to insect infestation.  Fungicides can reduce or eliminate issues with fungi both on your plants and in the soil.  In each case, agrochemicals are acting to assist people in their needs.
     Care must be taken; however, to ensure that they are used properly and that they are not used excessively.  Obviously a chemical whose function is to kill insects will also have an effect on the human system with human exposure.  Less obvious but still an issue is that a vast majority of chemicals produced to kill weeds will also have an effect on the human body.  Even the chemicals found in many fungicides can adversely effect people.  That is why many of these chemicals carry warning labels that proclaim their potential to cause harm.  Some are even restricted to use only by people who are properly trained and hold a license.
     Remember that you can be exposed to agrochemicals by three different manners.  First, you can breath a chemical in when you or someone in close proximity to you sends it out as a spray or fog.  To use a chemical in this way it is reduced to a fine particle that can float, at least for a time, through the air.  As such, it is readily taken in when you breath in.  Second, you could absorb the chemical through your skin.  This can happen when a spray lands on your skin or when the chemical in either a liquid or a powdered form lands on the pores of your skin.  Absorption will continue as long as the chemical stays on your skin.  This can be a long time if you do not realize that you have had any exposure and do not act to wash it off.  A good example of an accidental exposure would be if you were to brush against a plant that has been treated with a chemical dust.  You might see the dust as a powder, but if the dusting is light enough you might not be able to detect it.  You could potentially go hours with that dust on your skin before it gets washed off.  Finally a chemical can be ingested.  This can happen when it is applied to something that you might eat and than that food is not properly washed or is harvested prior to the prescribed waiting period after the application.
     Improper use or excessive use of chemicals can adversely affect wildlife as well.  They can easily be exposed in the same way that humans can.  More of a concern, is that they can also be unwittingly exposed through the movement of the chemical from where it was applied to elsewhere in an ecosystem.  Rain and the run-off that happens as a result of rain can have an amazing impact on where a chemical can wind up - in extreme cases taking chemicals hundreds of miles from where they were first applied.
     When I first moved into my home, the yard and woods were hopping with toads.  I literally could not walk across my grass without encountering them and I needed to stop often when mowing to move them out of the way of the lawn mower.  My neighbors across the street live dramatically up hill from me.  They began to subscribe to a chemical lawn service.  They chose to get the full treatment; so at least once a month a spray truck came and applied either fertilizer, insecticide, fungicide or herbicide.  Their lawn looked beautiful.  There was not one single brown patch, eaten area or weed.  Within a year, you could not have found a toad on my property if you had searched non-stop for twenty four hours.  Why?  Because the chemicals that they were using were traveling down hill with each rain and entering my property.  Ironically, where the storm water entered my site I had no weeds, no fungal issues and saw few bugs.  Sadly, some of the things that I had planted and tended died due to herbicide exposure.
     That chemical that you use today could easily be washed downhill tomorrow in a storm.  From there it could soak into the ground and become a part of the groundwater for the area downstream of the application site.  It could also keep traveling and end up in a stream and from there into a creek.  It could go on into a river and even be carried in a diluted form all the way out to the ocean. 
     I am not proclaiming that we should do away with agrochemicals.  What we need to do is to use them wisely, in moderation and with thought as to where they might ultimately end up.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Need for Green

     The word green is being bantered about a lot lately.  Save energy and be green.  Treat storm water and be green. Use recycled materials and be green.  To me, green has a very different meaning most of the time.
     I have found that I often have conversations with people that tend to follow a previously worn path, one that is decidedly not green.  There is a body of people out there who believe that plant material should not be used close to any structures or even on sites away from buildings.  They will tolerate grass, as long a it can be easily mowed, but that is about it.  I work with developers of rental property who argue that they do not want trees or shrubs planted near their buildings because they see them as a maintenance problem and a potential hazard.  I have commercial property owners who want me to try to find a reason to remove anything existing and most definitely not plant anything back because they do not want to block the view to their business.  I have homeowners who don't want anything more than a lawn in front of their homes because they are afraid that trees will fall on their homes in a storm and that crooks will hide behind shrubs and use them as easy access to break in.  And let's not forget school and church properties who don't want to spend the extra money to have plants because after all the building is the most important thing and plants are just an after thought that can be 'value engineered' out of a project budget.
     All of these concerns are valid in their own way.  None of them take into consideration the human factor.  What is it really like to live, work or play in a place that has no plants.  Is it really worth saving on a maintenance or a construction budget to eliminate trees and shrubs from a site.  Will removing the trees from a site really save that structure from natural disaster and removing the shrubs really stop break-ins? Do those trees blocking the view of a retail building really prevent customers from visiting that business?
     There are a lot of findings that point to the commercial value of having trees on a site.  Trees increase property value.  This is not usually disputed.  There are even tree value calculators that will calculate the dollar value that each tree adds to your property.  A well planned and maintained planting of trees and shrubs increase no only the property value but the likelihood that a property will sell easily.
     There are also the purely physical aspects that those trees and shrubs provide.  They act to modify the immediate surroundings of a building acting to cool it in the summer and break the cold drafts in the winter.  I've even see BTU breakdowns of what plant material on a site can save.
     What you will most likely not see is a study that determines what those plants do to the people using those spaces on an emotional level.  Although I have seen studies that link IQ with the exposure to trees and nature in the developing minds of children, the feeling of well-being that a person gets just from seeing green is just not something easily quantified.  On the other hand, where do you choose - instinctively to be when you go outside?  Do you prefer to stand in a large paved area or under a tree on a green lawn with some shrubs possibly flowering nearby?  Ok, this is a bit extreme, but you can definitely get the picture.
    What I do know is that sites in which I am allowed to use plantings rent or sell faster than those that do not - regardless of how nice the buildings might be.  Places where green is encouraged and flowers bloom tend to attract people.  Barren spaces remain empty.  Retail and office buildings that have green surrounding them tend to also have increased people traffic using them even when the view of the building is somewhat obstructed.  People are somehow inherently wired to want to be surrounded by green.  Not everyone will choose the same green - some would choose an open pasture and others a forest - but virtually no one chooses the barren paved space.  Think of what makes you happy the next time that you choose to take green out of the picture.  I'd be willing to bet it will be put back in.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Know your Landscape Consultant

     Fifteen years ago, a friend of mine very proudly showed me her newly planted yard.  "Isn't it great?" she asked.  I looked around at the swath of Edward Goucher Glossy Abelia (a thinly evergreen shrub with small white flowers that attract masses of bees), the Southern Magnolia (not a dwarf hybrid variety, I might add - think 90' tall and 40' in spread at maturity) planted three feet from her front wall, the large area planted in Blue Rug Juniper, apparently as a ground cover, and all of the other assorted odd ball plants.  I didn't want to hurt her feelings, but it looked terrible.  But then beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and to someone who had just spent several thousand dollars on this mess it was gorgeous.  There was no real design.  Nothing really related to anything else and most of it denied the presence of a house being there at all. What was worse, it was going to be massively overgrown for her site in a couple of years.  There was no permanence in it.
     "This was done by a landscape designer," she proudly proclaimed.  "If you want, I'll give you her name and number.  She didn't even charge anything - the plan was free.  All I had to do was buy the plants from her company and have them install them."  I didn't have the heart to tell her that she had undoubtedly been massively ripped off.  That 3 gal sized Edward Goucher Glossy Abelia was currently going for $4.50 a pot wholesale and installed by a reputable contractor would have cost her $30 each because there was a glut on the market (she paid $75 each installed and she had a dozen of them - tell me she didn't pay for the plan) and that most of the other stuff was a combination of plants that were very inexpensive and for the most part reduced that year because they had been overproduced by the nurseries.  Her landscape designer had unloaded a ton of wholesale overage stock on her.  This is not to say that she couldn't have gotten a good design using inexpensive stock - even exactly what she had planted in her yard.  She just needed someone who knew the plant material and how to use it.  A bit of design knowledge and ability would have helped as well. 
     Needless to say, last year she hired someone to rip it all out.  Why?  Because she couldn't see out of any of her front windows, her foundation was being cracked and the place looked like you needed to enter it with a machete - except of course for the large area of ground cover that had died and come back to life in the form of healthy crabgrass.  Once again she has had it all replanted - by another landscape designer.  I give it ten years.  Fortunately for her, some of it has died already.
     Few people understand the designations floating around out there concerning their site and it's design.  Even fewer know what it takes to be trained and what the various trades offer.
     A landscape designer is usually very informally trained by someone with whom they work.  They might have started out just being interested in gardening and gone to work with a landscaper or someone doing grounds maintenance.  Or perhaps they started out working with a retail nursery - most of which buy their plants already grown out and ready to sell.  There is no formal training and no licensure.  A landscape designer does not even need to know how to read to do their job.  They simply place plants on a site - sometimes on a drawing and then a site and sometimes the drawing is not even provided.  Some are quite good at what they do and have a great sense of design and feel for the plant material, but that is not necessary for them to call themselves a landscape designer.
     A master gardener is another designation thrown around a good deal.  People like to think that they are getting superior assistance and advice if they are getting it from a master gardener.  They are getting a more trained person in a master gardener than in a landscape designer.  Most come into the avocation with an interest in gardening.  The program is actually a Cooperative Extension Agency program and usually requires 40 contact hours of training - that's right, the equivalent of one normal work week.  In exchange for the training, the gardener agrees to volunteer their gardening expertise and services to the program.
     A Landscape Architect is a licensed professional who at the minimum holds a degree in Landscape Architecture, has completed a period of internship and has passed a rigorous licensure exam.  While they do provide planting plans, they are also involved in site planning and design development for parks, campuses, churches, housing developments, commercial and office developments.  They deal with the land in terms of how it is shaped (called grading), where and with what force the rain water flows over a site (called storm water or drainage design), how soil is contained on the site during construction (called erosion control), how the elements such as the buildings, driveways, parking and walks are located on the site (called staking), and how the site elements are to be constructed.  They have a good deal of training in design and in the related fields of horticulture, geology, micro climatology, earth science, environmental psychology, geography, ecology, architecture, industrial design and fine art.
     Anyone can call themselves a landscape designer and in many cases their help is all you need.  Unfortunately, if the designer goofs, there is no recourse because they are not licensed.  You get to tear it out and do it over at your own expense - like my poor friend who will be doing that again shortly.  It is illegal to call yourself a landscape architect without a license and that license guarantees that the professional you hired is actually trained and regulated.  So, when you are in the market for a design professional, make sure you get the expertise you need for the job required. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Right Variety for the Place

     A few year ago, a friend and client of mine asked me to recommend a grass for him to use on his new home site for his lawn.  His next door neighbor knew that he had been getting consulting assistance from a landscape architect and had gotten into the habit of frequently asking him about how his yard was coming.  He took my advise and bought the seed to redo his lawn and of course his neighbor came right over to find out what he was doing.  He explained to the man that he was re-seeding his lawn because he had only used a temporary grass - annual rye - to hold the soil until he could seed.  When he had first needed to plant, it was not a good season for seed to germinate.
     His neighbor very eagerly asked him what kind of grass he was planting.  Now at this point I should tell you that the man has a bit of a sense of humor and a touch of devilment to him.  He told his neighbor that he was planting fescue.  True enough!  What he did not tell his neighbor was that he was planting 'Bonsai' Dwarf Tall Fescue.  This is a hybrid fescue that grows approximately 2' a year and is very thick and naturally has a lovely shade of dark green.
     His neighbor promptly went out and purchased grass seed - Fescue 'Kentucky 31' to be exact.  This is a seed that was first collected for commercial use from a field in Kentucky in 1931 - hence the number designation in the name.  It was collected for use as a pasture grass and as such has the beneficial property of growing 4' a year.  It is not a thick grass and does not develop a very dark green color, but who cares when they are feeding it to cattle?
     I had warned my client to be careful to not over-fertilize his lawn once the grass was established and to mow it at a height of 3".  He would most likely need to mow every 7-14 days depending on the weather.  His neighbor, having gotten maintenance information from him concerning his grass, tried to follow the same pattern.  Within a couple of weeks of planting it was obvious that something was grossly different.  My client had a beautiful lawn that took infrequent mowings and was dark green.  His neighbor had a yellowish green lawn that made hay if he tried to wait to mow it on the same schedule as my client.  There was an obvious line at the property line!
     I don't know if my client ever told his neighbor what had happened.  I do know that he kept him guessing for a very long time and enjoyed the baffled looks he got from his neighbor.
     The point is that not all grasses are alike.  You must choose the right grass for the right use and place.  In this case, both lawns were southeastern exposure slopes with light shade for part of the day.  In North Carolina that is not an ideal situation for tall fescue but it is not terrible either.  Fescue was brought to this country from Europe and really prefers a somewhat cooler climate.  As a pasture grass, it was obviously bred for growth - the more green top for feed the better.  The older fescues were bred for just this purpose.  Using them for lawn means that you will be fertilizing and watering them like crazy to get a dark green and that you will be mowing often.  No so with a hybrid like 'Bonsai'.  It was bred for use as a lawn grass and was selected because of it's pretty dark green color, thick growth habit and most especially slow rate of growth.  After all, if you want to enjoy a lawn do you really want to have to mow it every 5 to 7 days?  Choose wisely and if all else fails get advise from a reliable source.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Importance of Site Grading

     Yesterday I made a site visit to a project site that has been under construction since last fall.  The buildings were complete and really looked great.  Unfortunately, I could not say the same thing for the site.
     The contractor had made a real effort at the beginning of the project to set the correct grades around the corners of each new building and to meet the correct finished floor elevations specified, and he had placed the various elements like the buildings, drive, parking and walks in the correct places.  This means that the basic structure of the site was correct.  Where he missed the mark was on the site grading - most especially on the finish grading.  One building that was placed at the top of a hill was already having water problems because he graded the area around the building such that he created an artificial dam that prevented the water running off the roof from going on down the hill.  Another had areas where water was already undermining the foundation and the retaining wall near it's entrance because he had piled soil in the area that should have been formed into a swale.  A third had water flooding their heating and cooling units because he had failed to provide the swale that would have allowed the water to get out of the area around them.
     People often ignore site grading or assume that they cannot change what they already have.  They don't begin to worry about it in many cases until it begins to create a water problem during rains and then they figure a quick fix with a shovel will do the trick - maybe add a little rock for good measure.  In the above case, the contractor had a set of plans designed by a Landscape Architect that showed him precisely how to grade this site and he completely ignored it.  Often that is not the case with a family home.  It is not unusual for the same problems to be created by a contractor on a house site and the owner then not know how to solve the issues that arise.
     If you have water problems or places that are being washed away in each rain, please consider what you have to lose.  Hire a licensed design consultant to help you solve them before they become a serious property value issue.  The cost of a  Landscape Architect is not nearly as expensive as the cost of repairs.
     In the case of my project site, the contractor and the owner will get a report on the things that were not constructed correctly and the contractor will fix the problem.  I can guarantee that the cost of fixing the problem will cost him more than I will have earned in design fees.  In the case of a home, once the contractor has walked away those repair costs are on the owner.  The owner can end up spending a great deal less by simply hiring a licensed Landscape Architect to prepare the plan so that a contractor hired to fix the issues has some direction. Once the contractor is finished, it is well worth the small extra fee of having the Landscape Architect do a final inspection and ensure that the plan has been completed as designed.  Without that, once the contractor leaves the job the mistakes made are on the owner.