Sunday, December 31, 2006

Enjoying the mild winter?

I am sure that most of us appreciate the lack of slip & slide snow days in Southern Ontario. The plus side... less fender benders, less slip and fall law suits, municipal budgets save a large amount of money from not having to provide snow clearing... and the environment benefits from having less salt dumped on it.

I received an email yesterday asking, "Is there a downside to all this?"

(Picture: Last year's easy winter produced massive amounts of blooms on the Hydrangea shrubs I planted in 2004)

Trees and shrubs are the unseen victims that suffer the effects of a mild winter. Nature has a built in response to the usual season flow. In early fall, when the days get shorter and nights get cooler, the plants are signalled to begin winter dormancy. Nutrient production in most trees and shrubs slow and eventually stop all together. Leaves fall off and the plants go to sleep.

On a micro-scale, the cells that normally carry water & nutrients stop their function so that when the freezing weather hits, the cells do not freeze and become damaged (like water pipes at the cottage). Deep-freeze and frosts that would normally harm plants have very little effect because of this dormancy protection.

So what happens in a mild winter situation?

The plants begin normal shutdown in fall for winter dormancy, but warm spouts in the middle of winter can cause a reversing of the dormancy. Suddenly sugars and nutrients start to flow which sends growth signals to the buds. Then a frost happens, or worse, a deep freeze occurs!

What began to wake and grow in the plant is now killed off and will be revealed in the start of Spring. You may notice the previous season's growth will die back and the plant starts it's new growth from further in along the branch structure. Some of the more marginal plants that are growing in the limit of their hardiness zone may fold and perish all together.

It's a gamble... Toronto rides a turbulent hardiness zone 6, a deep freeze arctic low can bring zone 5 conditions, a mild winter can raise it to zone 7 conditions.

Winters like this may cause a hit or miss situation where some plants will flourish and double in size during the next growing season, some may die back (as mentioned), some may not produce many blooms or fruits for the next season and yet.... some may bloom like crazy!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Hanging Baskets

The Hanging Basket Garden in High Park was just one of my areas of care during my days as a gardener for the City of Toronto. The baskets were grown in the City Greenhouses first, then my colleagues and I would spend a day arranging them outside when there was no risk of frost.

About 100 or so baskets of mixed annual flowers were on display in this area. Periodically, I'd spend about 2 days going through them all, cleaning out dead growth, dead-heading flowers to stimulate more blooms or checking to see if the drip lines were working properly. Each basket was connected to several drip lines set up on a timer for a water feed.

Even though the automatic watering system existed, during the dry periods of our Toronto summers the baskets had to be watered manually. With hanging baskets and most potted annual displays, the roots are tightly packed into their pots and are actively competing for water. As it flows in the basket or pot, the water soaks the outer surface of the soil and works it's way down the sides of the container.

If the water is not fed for a long enough period, the very center of the root clump will tend to dry out resulting in the death of your flowers! Water as often as needed (every 2 to 3 days), but at least once a week during drought periods, give that container a great soaking by filling a bucket with water and submersing the container in the bucket. Letting it sit until no bubbles come out from the soil is the best way to ensure even water distribution throughout the root clump.

If you are watering with a wand connected to the hose (recommended for delicate annual plantings), water until you see it flowing out the drip holes of the container, stop for a minute or so, then repeat 1 or 2 more times. The Japanese have a rule of thumb for bonsai plants (annuals are no different), water 3 times, once for the pot, once for the soil and finally once for the roots (plus the occasional dunk in the bucket).

Follow those simple suggestions and your baskets/pots should last till the first frost in fall. Anticipate that frost!!!... trim all the growth back before it hits, store the plants indoors in a cool place keeping soil moist and you can have that same planting arrangement for next spring! (feed with a bit of slow-release fertilizer in spring)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Preparing for a consultation

A common question asked by clients; "Is there anything that I need to prepare or have ready for you when you come to my home?"

Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with that question and it is a very good one to ask your designer or contractor before the first visit.

Landscaping is a world that thrives on ideas and proper measurements to fit those ideas into... so I have come up with a basic wish list to answer that question:
  • A survey plan showing your property information. If I had my choice of one thing from this list...the survey would be it! It gives legal limits for property lines and shows any easements to be aware of that could potentially restrict the future construction project. (Better to have a survey ready in the beginning then to be visited by the friendly by-law inspector after the work is done.)
  • Favourite photo ideas from books or magazines can help a designer gain perspective on what sort of look you are after for the design presentation.
  • Address any water drainage issues occurring on your property. Most professional designers should spot those issues anyway, but mention it on your own so nothing gets missed.
  • An ideal plant list helps! Favourite plants-- hated plants-- Have an allergy to certain plants? Let your landscape professional know ahead of time before it shows up in your garden.
  • Is there a central theme you'd like to see created? (i.e. Japanese Garden style...)
  • Have an idea about patio space and use in relation to how many people on average you'd expect to entertain in your backyard gatherings.
  • If you are a dog owner, please do a pre-site inspection for dog bombs!!!! I like dogs, they are a lot of fun to be around... but there is nothing worse then that soft mush under your shoe!
  • Most importantly, have an idea of a realistic budget in mind for what you wish to spend on your dream landscape! Your landscape professional can help you set that budget and designate phases for your entire project.
Things to consider:

The average cost for something significant to happen in a backyard would be anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000. That may get you a 250 to 400 square foot entertainment space (deck or interlock patio) with some complimentary plantings to go with it. The more elaborate designs will only range up in price from there. Water features can average from $5,000 and up.... Inground pools can start at a simple $35,000 and can elaborately climb to well over $100,000 once the patios, plantings and fences are all arranged.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Thomas D. Church - Landscape Architect

Here's a personal favourite of mine... Thomas D. Church

Back in university I was asked to do a design project that modeled after a well-known Landscape Architect's design style. Thomas Church was the one I chose for the project and I can tell you at that point I had no idea who he was... but for some reason I had picked his name to study.

(Photo Example: Church's influence in my design, as you walk up the stairs, your view of the garden changes many times before getting to the door.)

Since that moment, a whole world of design perspective opened up to me once I researched him. Thomas Church has continued to be one of the most influential designers for all my work. Church pioneered the use of gardens for people to interact in and not just something to view from inside the house. His design ideas took the homeowner outside the home and into the yard where they felt as if they were moving from one room to the next. The outdoors became an extension of a person's home... another spot to live in.

It is said that Thomas Church caused a whole society to change it's views of how the landscape worked. He gave full meaning to the term 'Landscape Architecture' as he pushed to combine the Architecture of the home with the landscape. Today there is a huge push to design outdoor kitchens and eating areas... patios and decks that act like living rooms to entertain in... pool areas to lounge around in and enjoy the gardens nearby.

Thomas Church strongly believed that the gardens were for people that used them and as a designer, listening to what your client wanted was the most important thing a designer could do! When the designer stops listening and starts to push their own ideas for the use of a space, the design will ultimately fail...

Most of his design photos and theories can be found in a wonderful book he wrote "Gardens Are for People".

Monday, December 11, 2006

Landscape Architecture & Frederick Law Olmsted

Did Toronto miss out???

The man who started it all... Frederick Law Olmsted was the founder of the Landscape Architecture profession.

His creativity combined with his design principles had bridged the gap between the engineered environment of a city-scape and Nature itself. He designed as if Nature was there first and the man-made landscape came after.

The photo on the left is a look at Olmsted's Summit Chalet in Mount Royal (Built in 1931... 28 years after his passing.)

Olmsted's most famous work can be seen in New York City's Central Park , which is a green oasis built amongst the structured city. He has done many other projects scattered around the U.S. and a few projects here in Canada: Most popular; Mount Royal in Montreal, Quebec and Montebello Park in St. Catharines, Ontario.

Now this may come as a shock to some Torontonians...

Olmsted at one time was being asked to come to our grand old city and work his magic!!! Where you ask??? The Toronto Islands! Yes, since way back in the late 1800's, there existed the debate about what to do with the stretch of sandy deposits on our waterfront.

The Island system was formed from the Scarborough bluffs eroding away for many years and depositing it's sand into Lake Ontario. The Lake currents along with easterly moving storms carried the sand westward (pre-Tommy Thompson Park construction) where it met the Don River Wetlands (The wetlands no longer exist today due to city development). The sand deposited to form the Island's present day location.

In the late 1800's, the Toronto city council was divided on bringing Olmsted here to beautify our Lakeshore. The end decision was that Toronto did not need to bring in an "American Planner" to make a Canadian park! Instead they decided to leave it up to the city planners of the time! Yet another good decision made by our local government....if you live in Toronto, you would see on occasion, the Island still gets heavily debated over what to do with some of it's areas.

Had Olmsted been hired for his services as a Landscape Architect by the city all those years ago, the Toronto Island would have been forever treated as an historic treasure and would have added even more value to the waterfront.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Water Drainage

Water drainage can sometimes be overlooked in a landscape. In this photo for instance, the homeowner was having trouble with the front yard water drainage flowing close to his home and eroding the slope in his lawn.

I was asked for a solution... A gentle curved staircase coordinated with retaining walls allowed any rainwater to stay along the property edge and follow the original water drainage course that was in place before the new home was built.

Way back when I was in design school, one of the things said to me by a favourite professor was that in Landscaping, everything we do is centered around designing for 3 things...Water, Water,Water! He said that when we stop designing for water drainage, our designs fail.
Later on when I began to work in the construction field, all we ever did was plan and build around water drainage!

In this day and age, municipal by-laws are very strict on the water drainage that comes off your property. Some By-laws enforce things like a 45 cm setback for any grade changes to your property. That translates to... you can alter the grade of your property all you want and do whatever you wish with your water long as you do not alter or change the grade within 45 cm of where your property line sits so that original water drainage is not affected.

When you ignore that simple rule, you open up a whole new can of worms...I've seen instances where folks have built retaining walls or raised planting beds right up to neighbouring property lines...thus stopping rainwater from leaving the neighbour's yard in a manner planned and approved by civil engineers during the construction of your home or subdivision. That can ultimately hinder the water drainage and could essentially flood a basement resulting in your civil court date...

Qualified contractors and landscape design professionals alike, will look for those potential problems from the get-go. They will point out the issues with the new landscape changes and help to plan around them so that when the rain falls, it continues to go downhill following the original water drainage course.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Got Milk?....End Powdery Mildew!

One of the most common problems this last growing season was Powdery Mildew! We had quite the wet growing season in 2006 making it difficult for many of our favourite plants to thrive.

Throughout the latter part of the season I watched as one by one my vegetable plants withered away due to either powdery mildew or some other fungus.

The main cause:

One of the main causes of powdery mildew is over-watering. Leaves on either trees, shrubs or perennials remain wet for long periods of time. Usually plants that exhibit powdery mildew the most will have poor air circulation around their branch structure. There is a tendency for the leaves to trap humidity in the air and cause the perfect growing environment for the airborne fungi spores to fester and spread. Suddenly the leaves develop this white haze look to them.... you've got powdery mildew!

The Solution:

Earlier this fall, my Uncle down in Florida asked me what to do for powdery mildew growing on his Zucchini plants. He is into organic one of the toughest environments to avoid chemicals...Florida! As he calls it, the land of pestilence! Everything is fair game in the garden.... Anyway, in my researching, I found someone that discovered spraying milk on plants killed powdery mildew!

He also described using powdered milk (15 grams) to 1 liter of water... the powdered milk kept the smell of old sour milk down once you applied it as a foilar spray. Get Milk info !!!

So if powdery mildew has had it's way with your garden, consider an organic solution rather then a chemical attack. It's the enzymes in milk that attack the powdery mildew and break it down so that it does not function.

Some of the most common plants that exhibit powdery mildew in Ontario; Phlox, Tomato vines, Zucchini plants, Roses, Azaleas, Dogwoods and most popular....the ever invasive Norway Maples. (and yes, Poplar trees as well in case your wondering if I made a spelling error....though they are not popular landscape trees)

Monday, December 04, 2006

Landscape Contractors - Landscape Construction

Back in 2005 I worked for a company that was contracted by Home Depot to do landscape installations. One of the first things I was asked to provide HD's head office with.... a criminal record check!

I must admit, at first I was a little unnerved, insulted if you will....why would anyone want to check me for a criminal record?!?!... but only for a brief moment did I think that as I quickly reminded myself of the previous years of exposure to various so-called contractors that are out there in the public domain.

These various few are accepting your phone calls and taking deposit checks from people that so trustingly turn them over, expecting work completed in return....yet I see it time an again, someone always runs off with the money! The client gets burned and then labels the contracting world as shysters and crooks!

That's why Home Depot does criminal checks before they give that contractor the right to wear the orange logo!!! So, I'm proud to say...nothing was found on my record! I was given the blessing to wear Home Depot Orange. I was cleared to walk into people's homes and accept signatures, checks and credit card numbers to sell, sell, sell....

The police report was Home Depot's way of saying, you can trust this guy.... He wears our name....

I have run into my share of Contractors that have lived "Hard Lives"....some still lives those hard lives and continue to walk into people's homes. I've seen contractors that are alcoholics, coke heads, pot-growers, scammers, some have been arrested for a drunken disorderly or an assault! The worst was seeing some of them drinking and driving....opening the door of their pick-up to find an invoice and I see beer bottles rolling around the passenger side.

....Not nice!....

Make sure the contractor you hire has a well-known reputation for quality work and professional character. Word of mouth is the greatest referral going...long standing business operation means no funny business....

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Stone Masons

What makes a good stone mason? I often get asked by many clients about natural stone and use of it in their landscape.

Where the problems start with using natural stone is that it takes a skilled mason to work with stone. Not every landscape contractor is experienced enough to work with natural stone, yet time and again, I see mistakes being made in landscape construction due to inexperience.

Masonry work is an art... I have seen Masons lift a brick or stone, look at the space they need to fill, balance that stone in their hand and then chop it down to the size needed...only to place it in the spot like it was made for that space. A mason must know their materials and be comfortable with what they work with.

Mistakes commonly made;

-Mortar mix being the wrong consistency which can lead to the failure of the mortar to hold it's bonding ability.

-Stone walls assembled without "rock facing" unsightly saw cuts that are visible on the stone face once it is placed in the wall.

-Sloppy mortar and grout application which leads to staining of the stone surface for years to come.

-If you also noticed something in the photo posted, then you've probably guessed it, staggering stone joints so that the overlap of materials actually give more support to wall structures.

Like the example in the photo, joints that are lined up, can over time, open up and ultimately cause a wall to begin to fail. When this particular wall was built, it was a good example of a contractor selling work and not having qualified workers doing the masonry. The contractor himself is a qualified mason and sold the client on his company's ability to do the work based on past projects. It was not him that built the wall and therefore the masonry quality suffered. The client now has to look at a failing wall 4 years after it was constructed.

Check your contractor's past references....ask who will be doing your masonry work? How long have they been doing Masonry? Ask to see past projects that are at least 3 to 5 years old. Seeing how a landscape ages will tell you if that contractor is right for you!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

When do good fences make good neighbours???

There are many variables to consider in a landscape when all you want is privacy ... when all else fails, don't get mad, get even... and use the landscape design to get even!!!

When you read through Lawrence's Blog post on Insane Neighbours , you begin to really question the intent or the attempt of people to be civil towards each other in a big city such as Toronto. I have seen many instances where disputes have arisen because a willing party is looking for the confrontation.

Being neighbourly and friendly towards those that share the same street name as you, requires a certain behaviour of social balance and the ability to say "hi" as you get in or out of your car. But what do you do when a neighbour does not want to adhere to making life on your street ... pleasant? Most often a fence gets erected to shut out the annoyances... Sheds get placed strategically and shrubs get planted.

When I first started design school to learn about Landscape Architecture, I never would have imagined that so much residential design would play such emphasis on privacy issues. I quickly came to realize that residential landscape design was all about the PRIVACY and enjoyment of your own private garden.

A good landscape design takes this into heavy consideration when planning a backyard layout. Much thought and ideas are given to views from within your home as well as views that neighbouring home owners may have of you as you sit and sip on a cold drink during a warm summer day. Annoyances such as noises can be masked by bubbling water features...big or small.

Where you sit most in your yard determines what views you wish to see or what views you wish to not have others see from. That can be fixed by playing with angles and with a big tree or two... Shrubs and fences carefully designed and placed can have a great effect at keeping out ground level annoyances.

If it is all planned right, you can have a wonderful and private garden to yourself...and your neighbours would never suspect a thing as to how you were able to block them out because the changes put in place were very subtle.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Falling Leaves...

In my many travels centered around my career, I often get asked, what do I put in my soil to make my plants grow better????

Hmmmm…??? Each year around this time of year, I see so many folks gathering up the leaves, using leaf blowers or strenuous raking work… and then bagging the collection in big brown paper bags. You go by the curb side and see names like Home Depot, Rona, Canadian Tire, President’s Choice, Costco…and so on… People buy these bags because the city requires you to paper bag your organic garden waste…they spend money to advertise the big corporate logos and throw out the very stuff that makes soil healthy! Then they spend even more money the next spring buying compost rich soils from the same stores that sold the paper bags?...

Yes…organic garden waste….compost friendly materials…think of it this way, a tree spends it’s time growing and searching for nutrients in the ground. It sends out roots looking for water to help dissolve the solid nutrients in the soil…way below the surface. Then it takes those nutrients + water up through the trunk and through some miracle of nature…forms leaves! Yes it also forms more branches and adds layers to it’s trunk, but for the most part….a lot of what lays deep below in the soil, gets brought up to the surface through the leaves each and every year!

Now, what is the most common practice of the urban city dweller??? Rake up the mess!!! Why is it a mess? It is unsightly and looks as if the landscape is not swept clean! No tucking the dust under the carpets! Bag all the organic waste and put it on the curb…. Nature worked so hard to create that “waste”…why throw it out???? Compost it!!!

Leaf matter adds so much nutrients to the soil…sometimes even more then adding well rotted manure. A simple process of running your lawnmower over the leaf pile can shred the leaves into small clippings, easily devoured by soil insects and organisms once it is mixed into the surface of your garden’s soil. The end result?…Black gold…add to it your collection of spent coffee grounds (a source of nitrogen) for a natural slow release fertilizer along with eggshells (a source of calcium) and banana peels (a source of potassium)…and you have the makings of good growing soil from what most people view as garbage.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

What goes into a design?

Is it art? Is it design? Is it symbolism or is it just functionality of space laid out on paper? The design in the picture was actually co-designed by another design professional who gave me the concept to draw out and render as you see it.

As the question is asked, what went into it in order to make it a design? I would say that all of what was mentioned above goes into it...and much more. In the past when I have quoted prices to potential clients regarding design work, I have been met with some resistance. It was almost as if I had to defend my abilities and years of experience as a designer.

What goes into a plan is simple:

- My ideas of what the space can be used for.
- My knowledge of the building code as well as grading and drainage.
- My keen understanding of site conditions, soil conditions, sun exposure and existing plant material which all dictate what new plants can be introduced.
- Building Material choices
- Construction Phases
- A proper scale to build from.
- My years of experience in designing and building projects.
- My years as a professional Gardener
- My understanding of people and personal understanding of the particular homeowner I am designing for.
- My 5 years of University education in Landscape Architecture.
- My background of art and nature studies both before and after my years of university.

Is it that simple once you read all of that? To some, yes, to others... well... they would not have a clue as to what I just listed were things that needed to be looked at when designing. Designing a space takes time, it takes well thought out ideas and a foundation of knowledge acquired over many years. I started my first year of school in 1995.... as fresh and as green as a seedling first coming out of the ground. It took a lot of nurturing and care before that seedling was able to stand on it's own.

11 years have passed since I first learnt to properly use a scale bar or print a drawing up on a sheet greater then 8.5 x 11 in size. In that time I have learned to garden... professionally as well as personally. The fine art of pruning, planting, fertilizing and cultivating. Plant names and growing conditions....

As a labourer...

I have learned what it means to lay stone or interlock according to the lines I draw on paper. Dig holes for trees and shrubs to be planted in the spots where I marked them to be planted, or haul huge rocks around with either machinery or my bare hands according to where I spec them to be placed. I've also learnt the business of concrete!!! Pour it, cut it, finish it, wheel barrel it, or even break it for removal. You name it, I have done it as a labourer! ... I am finished with doing the labour... one could say I had enough of knowing what it is like to smell diesel fuel at 6 am or even 8 pm for that matter!

As a sales rep....

I've learnt pricing, salesmanship, client-professional relations, industry standards, contracting, legal issues and most importantly.... operating with morals and ethics.

What else can be said or looked at as a design professional? I've had the schooling and the practical experience for the past 11 years ... so what else could go into a design when drawn by me? Well, not much else except the years of experience yet to come...


Friday, July 28, 2006

Don't wait for summer!!!!

Ever wanted that dream backyard? A pool? A deck? A nice stone patio? Or maybe all of it!!! One of the most common things I find in my business is what I term as the last minute client....these are the folks that believe they can have a contractor come to your door, present ideas and a cost estimate....and start the work next week!

Lets have an inside look at a landscape contractor's life....

For the most part, in the Northern reaches of North America, it is a seasonal business! Winter and frost in the ground means no construction can happen between the months of late November (or when the frost sets in) to about early May (or when the ground dries up and drains properly enough to drive equipment over it).

Next we look at the contractor, he/she is usually looking to fill the work schedule up in the cold months when no work is happening. After all, knowing what sort of season start you will have in terms of work can help a contractor know how many people they need to hire, how many trucks they need and what equipment they will need to either purchase or resurrect from winter storage!

Now comes the bills....because the season stops, does not mean the banks or creditors suddenly stop looking for money for equipment payments. So that feeds the never ending drive to seek new work contracts for the coming season.

Then comes the idea that you need good qualified labourers to build the projects you are signing up! Once those projects are complete, you want to keep your labourers working....once again feeding the hunger to find more work.

By this point a contractor is edgy....wanting to fill the work season's schedule up as soon as they can so they can sort of rest well at night knowing their mortgages, equipment payments, insurance payments and material supplier account payments.... plus labourer expenses are all covered!

Now, having explored all that....this all adds up to a busy spring start. Home owners are antsy to get things rolling and like I stated above, contractors are eager to sign up work and hopefully make a profit by the end of the season.

What does that spell for the last minute client syndrome?

Example phone call.....

Client dials contractor's number on June 15th, contractor picks up.

Contractor: and so Landscaping....Joe speaking! (Hopefully in a pleasant salesman like voice)
Potential Client: Hi, yes I am wondering if you do interlock patios?
Contractor: Yes we do...
Potential Client: Good! Can you come see my place and give me an estimate?
Contractor: Yes I can....give me the address and so on....

Well, the meeting goes well....prices get discussed, eyebrows sometimes get raised (mainly from the client being shocked as to how much landscape work truly costs) and material choices are tossed about....suddenly the client drops the bomb.....

Potential Client: When can you start the work?
Contractor: Well.....I am booked for the next 7 to 8 weeks given that we do not get a lot of rain in the next while or so....
Potential Client: 8 WEEKS?!?!?!?!?! But I need this built before summer starts!!! My kids get out of school soon and I go on Vacation in July....I want to be enjoying my yard by then!!!

I personally have been in this situation as the sales rep and have been blasted for not being able to start sooner! It's not fun!!! It can sometimes make you question your choice of professions too! It is at that point, as a sales rep for landscape ask yourself the question....Why don't people think about contacting contractors months before they actually want the work completed?

So.....a word of advice, if you want to be swimming in your brand new swimming pool by June 21st or sipping cold beer on your new deck while dodging BBQ smoke, yapping with your friends on the July long weekend....consider calling the contractor in February! Or even better....Call them in October with the request of being one of their first clients for Spring.....You'll get first priority and time devotion to you by the contractor. Materials and prices can be well thought out with that much time to spare before the work begins.

Also....if the need for a landscape design've got the time to contact a designer and get something drawn up....

That is where I come in!