Sep 8, 2011

Branding the Landscape

Pop quiz: Is this my style, or my brand?
I was having an interesting conversation with a colleague the other day about "branding" in landscape design and architecture, from my perspective as a former marketing guy. "What's the difference between 'brand' and 'style?" she asked.

I opined that your style is the outward representation of your work, the "character" of your product. Most of us in the industry can describe the styles of our famous peers: Peter Walker's geometric rhythms, Andrea Cochran's juxtaposition of angled stone or steel against lush greens, SEAM Studio's outrageous artistry. Some designers' styles are so thoroughly and consistently expressed, they become synonymous with their creators: Piet Oudolf's all-season meadows, Oehme van Sweden's "New American Garden," Roberto Burle Marx's tropical cubism.

While there's nothing illegitimate about any of these, the problem with a style is that — although there's nothing like the original and none of us sets out to make a career as a copyist — they can be copied, albeit to varying degrees of success.

On the other hand, everything you do is your brand — not only your work product, but also your work process: your external and internal communications; your partnerships; your reputation (whether deserved or not). It's the culture of your company, even if you're "only" a company of one. Do you commit to delighting your clientele at every turn? Is it important to you to continually expand your knowledge of plants, technologies, construction codes? Are you as obsessive about spelling errors as you are about the angles of your lighting? These may not reflect your style, but they definitely define your brand. It's possible no one else will ever know whether or not you work with integrity and take personal pride in every single project. It's possible they will.

Because its constituencies are so varied and complex, a brand is a fingerprint — a personality. And as such, unlike a style, it cannot be copied. If you're interviewing designers, it may be worth asking them to describe their brands. And if you're a designer yourself, you'd better know what your own brand is.

Aug 27, 2011

Painting the Bridge

In case you've ever wondered: 

"Any Joe on the street can call himself a landscape designer. You don't need a degree. You don't need a license. That's a huge difference [compared to a Landscape Architect]." 
That's the wisdom of Dominic Zuccarelli, a 21-year-old landscape architecture major at Purdue University, as quoted by the Northwest Indiana Times

*  *  *  *  *

Bristle as I may at young Mr. Zuccarelli's assessment of my profession, I must admit (and actually have) that he's right. Which accounts for the volume of do-it-yourself advice out there… and the legions of disappointed do-it-yourself garden designers.

Another mess by some Joe on the street
Because as approachable as landscape design may be, it still is a process. To do it well one must digest lots of data and evaluate lots of variables. Getting to know yourself is a good, and necessary, first step; but at some point you also have to execute. And for most of us, a landscape renovation is a bigger undertaking than we can finish in a weekend. Oh, sure, it starts well enough: old plants are removed, new borders are marked out with a length of hose, deck boundaries are spray-painted on the ground.

Now, fast-forward a few weeks. Perhaps you've bought a carload of pretty flowers at the nursery, certain that would motivate you. But has your soil been amended? New irrigation lines installed? If you're anything like me, it's a good bet that length of hose remains unmoved, deck post holes undug. The new plants probably look about as bad as the old ones did. And worst of all, the rest of your life keeps churning along with endless distractions to keep you from completing this "simple" project.

I find landscaping can be a bit like the old myth about painting the Golden Gate Bridge: by the time you finish, it's time to start over. The "new" plants have outgrown their space or just plain died. You'd replace them, but you can't quite remember what you meant to do the first time around, and you really don't have the time or energy anyhow. So the too-big shrubs keep getting bigger, and the too-thirsty groundcover withers away, and your landscape never looks quite the way you imagined.

This is where the professional — whether landscape designer or landscape architect — comes in. Hiring a professional creates efficiency: they streamline your process, creating a logical roadmap from idea to execution. They also document the process, so you have a record of what should be done, where, and how. The documentation allows you to install your landscape in phases, starting and stopping the work as necessary and logical. It also allows other professionals — this time, the landscape contractor — to take on and complete your project in a timely manner, to a higher level of finish than most of us could dream of.

Yes, it all costs money. And it's anathema to the hardcore do-it-yourselfer, who would rather live with a half-finished (equals half-unfinished) yard than rely on someone else to uncover its potential. But frankly, I've got better things to do with my life than to keep painting that bridge. Don't you?

Jul 19, 2011

In Search of Greener Grass

The ASLA recently linked to the Synthetic Turf Council's new free guide, Synthetic Turf 360°, which promises "to showcase the numerous uses and benefits of synthetic turf [as] the first comprehensive, annotated tool of its kind".

As skeptical as I am of marketing blather, especially from corporate consortia in almost any industry, I've got to say that description is just about spot-on. The guide covers applications from residential to commercial campuses and recreation facilities; water conservation; safety; accessibility; and more. Unfortunately, the piece falls short on one of its promises: it does not provide a comprehensive perspective on the environmental impact of synthetic turf.

I've written a bit over the years about artificial turf and concluded that… well, that I'm still too ignorant to conclude anything. For every argument I can make in favor of real grass, there's another favoring the fake. Sure, at installation synthetic may cost 10x (give or take) what sod does; but factor in irrigation, chemical fertilizers, replacement, power tools and other maintenance costs, and the two come even surprisingly quickly. Sure, we cringe at the idea of AstroTurf, but today's synthetics look so realistic — right down to brown "thatch" woven in — that they can be indistinguishable from real grass. Synthetic turf is being made from recycled soda bottles and filled with rubber crumb from recycled tires, which diverts some particularly noxious waste from landfills; real turf commonly uses tons (literally) of nitrogen fertilizer, which devastates ecosystems and consumes tons (literally) of natural gas. And when grass clippings are sent en masse to landfills rather than grasscycled, Synthetic Turf 360 tells us, "they generate methane gas, an explosive greenhouse gas and acidic leachate." (Attributed to

So when my clients ask me about synthetic turf, I've been reduced to telling them the pros and cons and shrugging my shoulders. It's great for some applications: dog runs, small patches of front yard where no child will ever play anyhow, shady backyards where children will play, under native oak trees, and so on. Beyond that, it's a matter of personal budget and taste.

What would really tip the scales one way or the other for me? One simple, hard fact that I have yet to find: a direct comparison between the comprehensive, cradle-to-grave carbon footprints of synthetic turf and natural grass. Because for all the water and fertilizer it saves, artifical turf is still plastic, and the crumbs that prop up its blades are largely still rubber. Recycled or not, these materials originate from petroleum and require a nasty manufacturing process. And while natural grass simply biodegrades, artificial turf never does. It eventually will be thrown away, taking up the very landfill space those tires and bottles would have anyhow.

Synthetic turf may be more convenient and require less irrigation than lawn. It may be more predictable, safer, prettier and more versatile and have all the other benefits the STC claims. But every piece of artifical turf also has an ugly past that the STC conveniently doesn't discuss. And until I know more about that, I simply can't take their greenwash propaganda at face value or wholeheartedly recommend their constituencies' products to my clientele.

What about you? Do you know more about turf — artificial or natural — than I do? Please chime in and help educate us all.

Jun 18, 2011

Learning from the Big Guys, Pt. 7

It's been an incredibly busy year so far, leaving me with lots of thoughts swirling around in my head but precious little time to put them in writing. But my daily travels take me past a few examples of poor landscape planning, and I'm never too busy to learn from the big guys. Today we examine some examples of what happens when the age-old rule "right plant, right place" is broken.

It's a great idea to plant tall trees on the south and west sides of a building. They help shade the structure and reduce heating costs, especially in a sun-drenched climate like Palo Alto. It's also a great idea to use native species such as the coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens. What's not such a great idea is planting a tree that wants to be 100 feet tall beneath eaves that are 40 feet high. Something has to give here, and I'm betting it won't be the building. Anyone want to make odds on how many days before this poorly-planned tree is removed?

 The Palo Alto JCC is a wonderful example of modern urban infill. It's got intimate courtyards and simple but effective stands of plantings that make it a great space for people. Unfortunately, the designers consistently underestimated the demands of the Center's vehicular traffic, specifically the turning radii cars and trucks would need. Perhaps the planners were simply optimistic that the center would attract fuel-efficient small cars rather than large trucks or SUVs; however, even the average minivan (of which the family-oriented Center attracts plenty) is challenged by turns that are too sharp and lanes that are too narrow. As a result, a couple of walls in the parking garage have been damaged by car bumpers, and curbs have had to be cut or removed and reconfigured. Orange safety cones are proliferating, and overall the traffic areas are looking like a patchwork of temporary fixes — except they're not temporary.

Outside, the entry driveway circles around a center median that is not contained by a raised curb. On the one hand, this is useful because it allows the median to receive stormwater from the surrounding pavement, an effective environmental strategy (the Center earned LEED Silver certification). On the other hand, the absence of a curb means that vehicles can — and do — cut the turn and drive through the planter. This means more orange cones, and a chronically muddy mess that always seems to hold standing water. It's too compacted to sustain plants, and they'd probably get driven over anyhow. The lesson here? Turns require far larger radii than we may think: at least 15-20' inside radius for a passenger car, more for service vehicles such as delivery trucks, and a correspondingly large outside radius so the front outside corner of the vehicle's bumper can sweep through the turn without hitting tangential walls or parked cars or people. If you've absolutely got to have a tight turn without a curb, at least don't put plants inside the curve — use paving stones or some other material that can take the abuse.

Speaking of cars and people, it's always useful to remember that people get into and out of vehicles, and enjoy a bit of clear space in which to do so. This isn't exactly a "big guy," but it is a useful reminder that heavily armed plants such as Agaves — as well as spiny Berberis, Pyracantha and roses, and even sharp-foliaged plants such as Mahonia and Picea (spruce) — make great barriers but usually aren't great selections for a space where people or pets will be passing close by. On the other hand, though, I'd wager this tree hasn't suffered a door ding or the indignity of dog pee in years, so maybe this planting strategy is genius after all — "right plant, right place" doesn't always mean what we think. 

Mar 21, 2011

How To Work With Your Landscaper

Now that Spring is here, my phone is beginning to ring a bit more as people realize they simply can't live any longer with their existing, unattractive yard. And while I really appreciate the consideration, unfortunately about half the time my callers are unhappy to hear that getting what they want in the timeframe they want it will take a bit more than a phone call.

It occurs to me that a bit of education could save the homeowner money, time and frustration; so here's a "reprint" of a piece I published a few years ago, with a few ways any homeowner can work more efficiently with your landscape professional:
  • Know which professional you need. Landscape designers, architects, contractors and gardeners all have different strengths, and are appropriate for different jobs. Take the time to learn how they differ, and decide which is right for you before you invite them out to your site. Otherwise you'll waste time doubling back to find the appropriate pro.

  • Know what you're asking for. Do a bit of homework: What's the size of the area to be landscaped? What are some of the ways you envision enjoying your new yard? Have you ever seen any other yards or gardens (public or private) you liked? Take pictures, tear pages out of magazines, photocopy books. Do whatever it takes to clarify, for yourself as well as your designer, what you've got and what you want. And for best results, do it before you and your pro agree on a direction. Sharp turns are painful for everybody.

  • Know what you can spend. You didn't shop for a car without a budget. You didn't look for a house without a budget. So don't start planning your landscape without a budget. "But we want to see how much things cost before we commit to a budget!" That's a landscape designer's dream: if you'll pay me to produce idea after idea after idea until we reach that magical place where ideas and budget intersect, I won't need another client this year. But wouldn't you rather spend that money on the actual construction, not the pretty drawings? Just talk it over with your partner (and your financial adviser and your loan officer if necessary) and decide on a figure. Then let your pro help you figure out how to get the biggest return on whatever you invest.

  • Know when to stay out of the way. Once the design process has begun, most home owners feel pretty excited that things are finally moving forward. We get it! We love what we do, too. But looking over the designer's or contractor's shoulder (either figuratively or literally) while we work, designing your yard at the same time we're designing your yard, shopping for plants or hardscape materials before the design concept has been approved, or hooking us up with your friend's cousin who's studying for his contractor's license just is not helpful. Unless, of course, we've agreed beforehand that it is. Which we probably haven't.

  • Know your limitations. If you're at all handy, you probably can do some of the landscaping yourself. And if your contractor agrees that some of the work will be done by you, great! But before you start, consider whether you're really going to save money by doing it yourself versus giving the job to someone who makes their living doing it all day, every day. Are you really that good at sizing and fitting irrigation pipe? Do you know how to put a plant in the ground to prevent it from going into shock? What's the worst that can happen if you don't wire your landscape lighting properly? I'm not saying you can't do any of these things; just that if you, say, kill that plant, you're on the hook to replace it. If your irrigation is uneven, you have no one to point at but yourself. Just because you can… doesn't mean you should.

  • Know your pro. Don't, just do not, hire an unlicensed professional to do the job of a licensed one. Don't hire a landscape designer (unlicensed) to design a hillside deck. Don't hire a gardener (unlicensed) to set your stone. For that matter, don't hire a landscape contractor (C-27 license) to install your gas line (C-36 license). Hell, I'm not even a fan of hiring your gardener to install your irrigation. Check the contractor's license status. Check their insurance. If you know they've got a crew, but the state licensing board says they have no employees, they're not playing fair, and that hurts everyone. Sure, unlicensed, uninsured contractors are a lot less expensive than licensed/insured ones. Right up until something goes wrong.
Chances are, even in This Economy, your landscaping is going to cost more and take longer than you expect. But there's nothing that says you can't get your money's worth. Before you pick up the phone, remember: a little preparation goes a long way toward getting results you'll love!

Feb 15, 2011

Landscape Design Is Worthless

It's time I let you in on my dirty little secret: I am completely worthless. The pretty pictures I make have absolutely no value short of fish-wrap, and anyone who would pay good money for them is a fool.

That is, unless they actually intend to install the landscape I design. Then, the work I do is priceless—the ticket to a welcoming home and a life inspired.

So what's the catalyst that transforms worthless into priceless?

The landscape contractor.

Here in California, landscape contractors are licensed by the State to be proficient in… well, you can read it for yourself. Basically, if you've ever played in a park, strolled through a plaza or enjoyed a public garden, you've touched a landscape contractor's work. It's very different from a gardener's, or a designer's.

The landscape contractor knows how to do all sorts of things I don't: how to build a fence, pour concrete, size an irrigation system, amend the soil. Their experience and expertise can make my best ideas even better. What's more, the landscape contractor is able to manage people to do those things for him or her, most often on time and on budget. Now that's talent. And without it, none of my brilliant ideas will ever see the light of day.

It's obvious I hold landscape contractors in pretty high regard. But it's astonishing how many people think differently: they see landscape contractors as a commodity, a necessary evil to be dealt with as quickly and cheaply as possible. To these people, the landscape contractor adds no value, brings no expertise beyond a few extra hands to do what the homeowner can't or won't. Why, to these people, the landscape contractor needn't even be a contractor: that pesky license just makes them more expensive. To these people, there's no difference between the licensed professional and the guy signaling you in the hardware store parking lot. At least, no difference worth the cost difference.

Let's be honest: there are plenty of licensed contractors whose work isn't as good as it should be. I've had a licensed contractor line "my" dry creek with concrete (thereby creating a very large and expensive bathtub). I've watched their crews install fence post footings below grade and with concave tops, ensuring premature rotting and failure. I've cleared their piles of mulch off of the new plantings. The license isn't a guarantee of quality. But it's a first step toward ensuring that the person entrusted with your landscaping has good intentions, education, and the integrity to right any wrongs.

There are plenty of other reasons to work with a licensed contractor: They're required to carry workers' compensation insurance for their crews, which shields the homeowner from a world of pain should an accident occur on their property. They're required to pay taxes, which support our state's economy as well as important public programs. And they're accountable to the government, giving the property owner some recourse should a dispute turn into something uglier.

Unfortunately, there is a huge labor pool out there hungry for work, any work, and a huge number of employers willing to exploit those workers for an unfair advantage in the marketplace. This has been termed "the underground economy," and it's estimated to cost California billions of dollars. Maybe the average backyard is barely a drop in this bucket… and maybe tens of thousands of yards statewide add up to something more.

I can't control my clientele. It's their choice, whom to hire. But if the results are less than we hoped for, they're not the only ones disappointed. I know what their yard could have been (even if they don't). I know the price they paid just to save a few dollars. Hey, no one likes to spend more than we have to. But going with the lowest bidder, shunning the licensed contractor simply because they cost more than the gardener, that's just plain lazy.

The responsible thing to do, I counsel my clients, is to research as many comparable contractors as needed to find one that has the right credentials and fits your style. A great place to start is with the California Landscape Contractors Association. Talk with two, three, ten if you need to. After all, you'll be in close contact with these folks for many months. Look them up on the CSLB website to confirm that their license and insurance are current (and unless they're truly a one-person show, they must have insurance for their employees). Talk with their most recent references, not just their favorites—you want to get the same crew who did quality work for their last client. And if you just can't get the contractor you want within the budget you have, turn back to your designer: we can help you "value-engineer" your new landscape design without compromising its vision.

It's true, even my best ideas and most articulate plans are worthless without someone to midwife them into reality. So if you're going to the trouble and expense of hiring me, for heaven's sake don't pull up short and cheap out on the installation. Do it once and do it right. Hire a licensed, skilled, wonderful landscape contractor. You'll have the rest of your life to absolutely love the landscape we—all of us—created.

Jan 28, 2011

Do-It-Yourself Landscaping

Occasionally I use this space to answer private questions in public. And occasionally I run out of new material. So today I'm addressing the second with a redux of the first, originally asked a couple of years ago but even more relevant in This Economy. Got a landscape design question of your own? Ask away!

Does-It-Himself Greg in San Carlos took a break from remodeling his home to write:

    "Here's the problem: I'm a cheap bastard. More specifically, I like a nice yard with blooming vines, healthy hydrangeas and lush, jungle-green ferns. And if there's any way I can plant them and care for them myself, I will. "After our remodel we're going to need to do some substantial landscaping to the front and back. Me being me, I'm thinking I can do it myself. With that in mind, I have dug up and saved hydrangeas and ferns and roses that had been in the line of fire, and I even had the crew dig up and replant a very mature camilia (so far, so good). The crew also cleared out a rotting hot tub and old deck so that we will have much more room in the backyard, where I'd like to put in a small lawn and use plants that thrive under two large Monterey pines. "So my question is, what the hell do I do now? Am I in way over my head? Which aspects of he project should I pay the pros to do, and which could I realistically do myself?"

Greg, your, um, frugality means you need to work extra hard to define two things: (1) your budget, and (2) your priorities. On the first count, you've got to do your homework and figure out exactly how cheap you really are. How much can you spend without losing sleep over it? Remember that remodels have a funny way of costing a bit more than expected; do you want to sock any money away in a special "landscaping" bank account before it's all spent? Don't worry right now how the money will be used—just be honest, pick a finite number, and make it inviolable. (Hint: involve your wife in this exercise.)

On the second count, take stock of what will really bring joy to you and your family. How much lawn will you and your kids really use? Will you need a spot to grill steaks? A shady place to sit and relax while the kids romp? I'm guessing you're the gardener—how much time will you really have each week to keep the yard looking its best? What yard chores will you enjoy, or dread? Is it important to you that your yard look "mature" soon, or can you wait a few years for things to fill in? Make a list of every quality you'll want. Dream out loud. (Hint: involve your wife in this exercise.) Then rank them from highest priority ("absolutely must have") to lowest ("icing on the cake"). This will tell you where your finite number, see above, should be spent.

But let's back up a step or two, Greg. I get that you're, um, economical. My dad was, um, thrifty too: he'd drive across town to fill up at the gas station that was 2 cents cheaper than the others. But what did he actually save? Nothing. Worst of all, he didn't take any real joy in the process or pride in the outcome. So back to you: what's your aversion to hiring a pro to come up with something that's beautiful, within your budget, and facilitates the life you want to live?

Of course you could do it yourself. You could glean tips from garden design books and blogs, copy planting plans from magazines, learn how to design and install irrigation and lighting systems, rent a pickup and a Ditch Witch and a Rototiller, lay your own sod and install your own shrubs. It's not quite rocket science, even the irrigation part, and if you're really a cheapskate, you can do all of this. You'll save a bunch of money. But you'll also be out a bunch of time — time with your wife who adores you, your sons who revere you, your friends who enjoy you, your avocations which enrich you, and probably even your work — which presumably affords you the possibility of not having to spend all your free time on this.

So that's where I would draw the line: What aspects of the project would you truly enjoy? If you aspire to design green spaces, if you love learning about plants and experimenting with what you've learned, then take that on. If you love getting your hands dirty and putting small parts together to create complex yet rational systems, then take on the irrigation/lighting installation. If you love getting your hands really dirty while getting a fair amount of exercise, then take on the soil work and planting. Take on what you'll love… and hire a pro for the rest of it. The money you spend will come back to you in well-designed spaces that enhance your precious time with your family; in well-selected and well-installed plants that thrive under those pines; and in well-designed systems that perform efficiently every day.

I feel like we're just getting started, so tell you what: in a couple of posts, I'll write about how you can keep your costs down when you do choose to hire a pro. Just remember: my advice is worth exactly what you pay for it.