Sunday, January 27, 2013

Berries for Winter Life!

     Yesterday we had a winter weather event and today it is a black and white world outside.  Dark tree trunks stand in stark contrast with white on the ground.  That is quite often what people really think of when they think of the great outdoors in the winter.  Even when there is no ice or snow on the ground. they think of barren trees and brown leaves.  Winter does not need to be all dark and white.  There are ways to brighten things up, and they don't have to be by using non-native and thus cold sensitive flowering plants.  Non-natives have their place and can be very pretty, but their flowers tend to be brown in this weather too.
     Consider adding plants that produce berries to your site.  In this area there are a sizable number of berry producing plants.  For winter color I like to focus on those that produce berries that are brightly colored and not hidden among leaves.  Evergreens help provide a nice bit of green, but their leaves hide the berries.  Thus use them for the green and use deciduous plants for the show.  Use both for wildlife activity though!

     One great choice is Deciduous Holly, sometimes called Possumhaw.  It's a lovely small tree native to the Southeast.  In the wild, it grows on the edges of swamps and in wet areas.  Over time it will grow to be thirty feet tall and will often have several trunks in a cluster.  In the spring and summer, it has delicate little leaves and is a lovely understory bit of green, but in the winter it really shines with brilliant red berries on bare branches.  The berries are a favorite of songbirds and game birds alike as well as opossums and racoons.

     Sumac is another small tree or large shrub that makes for some lovely winter color.  Depending on the variety, sumac will range from five feet in height at maturity to thirty.  It produces cone-shaped clusters of bright red berries which it holds through the winter and well into the spring.  The large compound leaves are an added attraction both for their visual texture and their brilliant red fall color.  These plants love to be in a moist but sunny and open area and thus can provide color in areas where Possumhaw struggles.  It should be noted that smooth sumac, Rhus glabra, is the only shrub or tree that is native to all 48 contiguous states.  Sumacs are not a favorite of most wildlife, with the exception of deer who browse the leaves in summer, but they are an important source of late winter to spring food.  Because they are not eaten initially, the berries persist into late winter when there is little else for wildlife to eat.  They are a high source of vitamin A and are a major late season food source for a large number of songbirds and game birds and well as small mammals.

     Beautyberry is an American favorite shrub that normally grows to be around five feet tall and six feet in diameter.  It does well in well-drained upland soils, and under ideal soil moisture conditions can reach ten feet.  In the spring it produces small delicate pink flowers and in the fall yellow leaves , but its most magnificent feature is the large clusters of berries.  These berries can be pink, iridescent purple or white depending on the variety of the shrub.  They cling to the branches in tight clusters that surround the leaf buds.  The berries of this plant are a favorite to a number of songbirds and the foliage is desirable to deer.
     Each season has its own attraction and can be a joy to experience.  Even winter when everything seems to be dead and dormant can have color and beauty.  Berry producing plants work well to provide that color and to provide the excitement that attracting wildlife brings to your site.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Do-it-Yourself Can be an Option

     I live in an area that is inhabited with many do-it-yourselfers.  They feel that they can do almost anything. Having done a great deal of work around my house myself, there are many things that can be done without professional assistance.
     To the neighbor whose house was totaled by a fire that started in an addition that had not been permitted or inspected, or several other neighbors who have added things to their homes that were structural or required electrical or plumbing, I would strongly suggest that there are some things that should not be done without a professional.  I would also strongly suggest that things that by law require a permit and an inspection need to be permitted and inspected.  That is for your safety and the safety of the other people who live near you.  There are, however, definitely some things that can be done yourself - even when a permit is required.
     Although larger sites like commercial, multifamily housing and institutional sites require a licensed professional, most single family house sites can easily be designed and planted by the homeowner.  This is due in part to the fact that larger sites require a minimum of a site layout of features like parking and walks, grading and drainage, storm water and nitrogen and planting to meet specific regulations.  None of these things are usually needed with a single family residence, and the homeowner has as much training and experience in the endeavor of his personal site plan as most landscape designers / contractors or master gardeners.  Also, with planting, there is not much that can really go wrong.  The worst that can happen is that you will hit a utility line with a shovel or that your final outcome will look or function poorly.  If this happens you might find that re-sale value drops a bit or curb appeal might suffer, but it is not something that would be extremely difficult to rework.
     For people who plan to live in their home for awhile and want to do their plan and installations themselves, I say "Go for it."  There are plenty of sources of information both in books and on the internet concerning the plant material that is available, and for a single family home, making a misplaced selection that results in an inappropriate choice or location is not a big deal.  You might lose a few plants, but you will not be losing a forest.  Play with it and do what will make you happy.  If you want grass and like to mow, by all means plant it.  If you like flowers and prefer to not to have to mow, plant flower mixes or make larger bedded areas or ground cover areas.  If patio areas are your thing, make them.
     Remember that this is your home, not your neighbor's, so do what will make you happy.  Remember also though that there are laws that govern some aspects of land use.  If you have a creek running through your property, for instance, care should be taken not to disturb or clear areas that might be designated for protection by the State or the Federal government.  The surveyor who drew up your plat should be able to tell you if the water on your land is designated as 'blueline'.  If so, you might want to consult a professional.  Check your zoning and your local codes for any overlay districts as well.  Some districts will restrict the amount of impervious surface area that they will allow.  That could restrict the amount of paving you do or even the amount of structure you can build. Or it could alter the kind of paving to allow it to be pervious.
     If you are planning to sell your house in a year or two, don't get caught up in adding a lot of stuff to make the house sell.  Many people think that added features like a pool, a fire pit, or an outdoor kitchen will somehow help to sell the house.  All too often these things add expense but are not wanted by the next guy who is not going to be willing to pay extra for them.  Let the next guy add the features that make him happy.  For a house that you will be leaving soon focus on making it look neat and well kept.
     For most homeowners, who are really only looking to plant their site, do-it-yourself can be a very fun and rewarding choice.  It will give you a chance to be outside and getting exercise.  Keep in mind the local codes and ordinances and plant what makes you happy.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Not All Advice is the Same

     I had a client who occasionally engaged me to provide him with some assistance in site planning and design for his single family residential homes.  He was a house builder who specialized in medium income speculative homes.  Most of the time, he built his houses and had a landscape contractor plant a few things - enough to get a certificate of occupancy - and the house was on the market ready for sale.  Occasionally, though, he would end up with a house that had been on the market for a very long time.
     I was called in one time for a very lovely home with lots of extras and built-ins.  He called me because the real estate agent who had been handling the property had been urging him to make changes to the site.  She correctly convinced him that the site issues were the reason that the property was not selling.  Fortunately he listened to this amount of advice and hesitated when it came to following the rest of her advice.  The site was wooded and her advice to him was to clear the back yard, put a fence around it and plant it with a nice green lawn.  She reasoned that people were not interested in the house because there were no places for kids to play and that could only be provided with a nice open lawn area that is fenced.  This is a frequently expressed, if flawed, sentiment.  Kids will play in all kinds of places, and they usually choose other areas than open, flat lawns.  Just watch them when they are allowed to play in an unstructured situation.
     I arrived at this house for my meeting with this builder on a rainy morning.  The house was at the end of a cul-de-sac.  The first thing that I noticed driving up to the site was the neighborhood package plant for the area well.  After a moment, I saw my client's house.  It was next to this plant, and the plant was the major feature that drew your attention when you drove up.  Strike one for selling the house!
     Once inside, the real estate agent kept insisting that the back yard was the problem and that it needed to be cleared and grassed.  I finally convinced my client to walk the site with me.  I knew the realtor would not be interested in joining us with her nice suit and new high heels.
     The site itself had a great deal of positive features.  The house did face a fairly flat wooded area in the rear.  Off to one side, a creek ran through the lot cutting off a corner of the property.  It was somewhat hidden by small trees growing along the tops of the banks.  The realtor had alluded to this and demanded that a pipe be laid to carry the water and the creek be filled in to make the lawn area a nice square.
     After meeting with my client, I proposed a couple of items be changed.  First, I suggested a heavy evergreen screen with multiple heights and plant types along the side.  This would completely obscure the view of the package plant to anyone entering the cul-de-sac.  In the rear, I suggested a minimum amount of selective thinning on the house side of the creek.  I then designed an armoured path to a new foot bridge over the creek.  In the triangular part of the lot previously cut off by the creek, I continued the path to a secluded patio area made with pavers- using the existing small trees and undergrowth to its full advantage.  For the rest of the rear yard, I suggested some minimal limbing up of the trees and a border planting of varying densities and heights to help define the area of the yard.  This kept the trees and used them to a fuller advantage.
     My client spent a week installing all of the features of my plan.  A week after he had completed installing the features of the site plan, he called me.  He was very excited.  He had just gotten a legitimate offer on this house.  It had been on the market for almost eighteen months without so much as a single offer and he had twice made revisions and additions to the site based on the advice of his trusted realtor prior to having me take a look.
     The realtor meant well.  After all, it was to her advantage to sell this house as much as it was to my client's advantage.  She just did not really know how to help.  Unfortunately, all to often people listen to the advice of people who act as if they were experts but who really have nothing to offer.  My client paid that price with this house.  In the end he paid $5000 to install the things as per her advice and it got him nowhere.  He very nearly cleared the rear yard which would have removed the major amenity of this site and vastly reduced its overall value.  By listening to the advice for someone qualified and experienced in this kind of work, he ended up spending $1000 for my design and $3000 to implement it.  More importantly, the house sold!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Site Design Does Take Time and Cost Something!

     I am once again in the position of having spent a couple of days putting together a proposal for design work.  This involves doing background research on the project, putting together the design team, putting together the estimates of the services required and finally providing a proposal on a tight schedule.  As has become typical of the past several years, this work is done only to have the potential client complain that they did not think that they should have to spend that much for the plans.
     This same person would most likely not question paying $250 for a physical even though he would only spend an average of fifteen minutes with the actual doctor.  In other words paying $1000 per hour for physician services.  Nor would he balk at paying the going rate of $250 an hour for a lawyer.  A civil engineer might charge him $125 - 150 an hour and he would most likely not cringe.  As a Landscape Architect, I actually have more training - education and internship combined - than these professionals and I am having to carry a good deal of liability along with errors and omissions (our professional equivalent to the doctor's malpractice insurance).  Yet my proposal basically provides design services at what amounts to $50 per hour.  What is even more frustrating is that the building will most likely cost 2.7 - 3 million to construct and yet my proposal to do all of the site design work including the survey, site design, erosion control, grading design, stormwater design, planting, and as-built documents is less that 0.5 percent of the total.  An architect is likely to ask for ten percent of the built-out fee and get it without any question.
     The problem is one of perception.  Most people think, albeit they are vastly incorrect, that a Landscape Architect does pretty little planting plans that should only take a couple of hours and cost a couple of hundred dollars.  They are often surprised when a City or County tells them that they need to have a site plan provided by a licensed Landscape Architect and have no idea what is required to get a site plan approved.  They are ignorant of the profession and incorrectly link landscape design with Landscape Architecture.  Unfortunately, the former is not a profession it is simply a name and describes services that can be provided by anyone with absolutely no training or experience required.  The latter is a profession and requires a degree, period of internship and a license.
     For the uninitiated, that site plan submission is also much more involved than most people would even remotely suspect.  It involves meeting initially with the client and planning professionals of the jurisdiction that will review the plan.  From the initial meetings, a preliminary design is produced.  Once this is agreed upon, the site plan is done.  This plan involves a staking and layout plan that indicates the exact location and dimension of every element on the site - like the parking, drives, walks and structures.  It also requires that the shape of the land, called a grading plan, be provided.  All water falling onto the site and the watershed above the site must be dealt with during the construction process in an erosion control plan and after the construction process in a stormwater plan.  The stormwater plan must capture and treat the water to remove suspended solids and nitrogen as well as volume.  This is in accordance to Federal mandate.  The site plan will also have a planting plan that will be required to meet local planting codes and will often also contain a tree conservation or protection plan to locate and preserve existing trees on the site that are to remain.  Finally, the plan will have details and notations as to how the various site features are to be constructed.  The plan will have to address public access and transportation to and from the site by foot and vehicle, trash and recycling collection,  open space requirements and any utility or public easement.  This, as you can see, is a great deal more involved than that measly little planting plan that a landscape designer might produce.
     For the proposal that I was describing above, the plan set that will ultimately be submitted to the Town will most likely be produced on an estimated twenty 24" x 36" sheets.  When the site plan is approved, construction plans will be produced from them.  The site plan itself will take over 250 hours to produce and the construction plan will most likely take an additional 40 hours to complete.
     Most Landscape Architects are not looking to get rich.  If we were, we would not have chosen this profession.  We are simply looking to get a fair wage for skilled work performed.  It is frustrating and wrong to try to squeeze the budget by not being willing to pay them a modest amount for their efforts.  Adding to this problem are the number of untrained and unlicensed people out selling site plans and undercutting the rates charges by Landscape Architects.  My advice to all clients shopping for a good design price is 'buyer beware'.  If the rate is much lower, the person doing the project is most likely not licensed and your plan may risk not even being reviewed by the jurisdiction involved.  If it is and there is anything wrong with the plan, the unlicensed person is not going to be able to offer error and omissions or liability.  Anything that goes wrong with the plan implementation will have to be corrected at your own expense.  This could end up costing you a great deal more than the amount saved by the fees.