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Contract Specifications Lessons Learned


planting specifications, median plantings

Are there contract specification clauses you had to learn the hard way? Difficult contractors can teach you all sorts of loopholes and vulnerabilities in your specs. For example, experience with a company named “Dolittle” can add several “Dolittle-isms” to your next contract wording. Contract changes can help avoid repeating problems and issues for subsequent projects. Good landscape contract specifications are flexible and change with lessons learned through experience in the field.

The photo above generated a new clause in the standard specs, requiring shrubs in medians to be located a minimum of three feet from the face of curbs. Installation crews found it faster and easier to plant spreading Junipers at the back of the curb, causing new growth to extend into the travel lanes. The specifications were changed to require a more reasonable setback.

I remember a project where the contractor tried to use sub-standard shade trees. Even though ANLA ANSI Z60.1 shade tree quality standards give caliper, height, and root ball dimensions with a central leader, it helps to add the line, “Trees with broken or damaged terminal or main stems will be rejected” in your specifications. Insist on a single, dominant leader from the ground to the top of all large canopy shade trees. State there can be multiple leaders in only the top 10% of the tree height, to avoid split trunks. On the project mentioned above, the contractor had delivered about 30 trees to the site with central leaders split about 2/3 or the way up the tree.  There was much nit picking about the technical details of central leaders when the contractor challenged our rejection of his trees. Allowing split trunks for street trees can be disastrous decades later, as the co-dominant stems reduce the mechanical strength of the tree structure.  The old specifications stood up to the challenge, but the extra clarification was added after the experience, to help avoid re-fighting the battle in later projects.

Spring Cleaning

An Ounce of Prevention

lawn herbicides

Before the end of September, put out pre-emergent herbicides on turf areas. This will prevent cool-season, winter weeds from crashing the lawn party later. Bittercress, Trampweed, and Cheatgrass are not just intimidating names for thuggish weeds. They are winter annual weeds, ready to start their new life cycle. In early fall they make preparation for a prolific generation of new seeds next spring before dying out and leaving an ugly, empty spot in the yard all summer. Stop them before they sprout, gain strength, and grow an extensive root system in your grass by timing a pre-emergent herbicide application before the first frost.

Late February-early March is the time for weed prevention of most warm-season turf weeds.  If you want to prevent a ton of headaches later in the summer, put down pre-emergent herbicide on your lawn in late winter. Uninvited guest in the warm-season include hoodlums like Crabgrass, Witchgrass, and Sandbur. With names like that, their reputations must be bad! If you wait until the Forsythia blooms in spring, you will have allowed all those new weed babies a chance to sprout. They may not be big at first, but they are tenacious. Late winter is when they are most vulnerable, and you can be most effective at stopping them cold.

An ounce of weed prevention is worth a pound of cure. One well-timed application can prevent the extensive use of weed-killing chemicals later in the season. I don’t want to say, “I told you so.”

Ten Tips for Using Color in Landscape Designs

Ten Landscape Color Secrets

professional tips for color in the landscapeWhat secrets do profession landscape designers use when it comes to colors? Here are ten bits of coloring wisdom that work.

There are lots of color combinations and harmonies you can try in your landscape designs. Color can excite or calm. It can pull together the design into a cohesive whole or provide breaks in a disparate and clashing set of schemes. Landscape color has the added dimension of time. Timing your plant combinations to bloom in concert and show off your design expertise is the final detail that makes color in the garden a delightful challenge. What secrets do professional landscape designers use when it comes to colors? Follow the ten steps below to discover the top ten bits of coloring wisdom that works for the pros.

More is Less

The Fun Way to Control Weeds

It is unnatural for soil to remain uncovered.  Bare ground is a void that must be filled.  If we neglect to provide cover, then the spot becomes a battleground.  The strongest, the most prolific, the fastest, and the most aggressive nearby plants will struggle to dominate and overrun the empty space.  Usually two weeks is about all it takes to finish the struggle, unless there is something seriously wrong with the soil (vehicle compaction, radioactive contamination, etc.).

I am convinced that for every molecule of heavy clay in the southeast, there is an accompanying weed seed waiting to break dormancy.  Crabgrass, pine trees, sweet gums, and brambles are the most opportunistic, closely followed by Chinese privet and Oxalis. Beautiful natives and ornamentals are rarely motivated to populate even the most favorable environment.  They are too discriminating! 

We can attempt to manipulate the circumstances to suit our own ideas of what the ideal cover should be.  Roundup, pre-emergent herbicides, hand weeding, fertilizer infusions, artificial irrigation, and edging strips are employed to battle the weed invasion…but not always successfully.

Your First Landscape

A Container Garden

container garden, simple flower planterThis is so easy! Everyone can have a fabulous garden, the type that people comment on when they’re visiting your home. “Wow! What a stunning place you have, and your plants are gorgeous!” Yes, you can have that reaction, even if you live in a small apartment.

It doesn’t take a lot of master gardening skills. One of the dirty (just because it involves soil) little secrets of the landscape professionals is infill. When something dies, fill in the empty space with a new plant. So if your garden has some losses, it is not a catastrophe. Just try to learn a little about why a plant died, and try to avoid the same mistake again.

Container gardens are great! They provide all the fun without most of the hassles experienced with in-the-ground gardening. You never get bored with a container garden, because the display gets changed out every few months for something completely new. In fact, the botanical gardens you delight in visiting are treated a lot like a container garden—a really big container garden. The displays are renewed every season. You can duplicate that at home.

The reason container gardening is so reliably successful is the soil medium is completely in your control. You don’t have to deal with heavy clay or nematodes or bad drainage. All you have to do is buy a bag of potting soil. It helps to amend the potting soil, but it is still far better than the challenges of typical, ordinary ground dirt. I like to mix in a lot of well-composted cow manure, which is a naturally mild fertilizer, but you can buy expensive soil mixes that include slow-release fertilizers and water-holding granules. The expense is relative, though. You only need a little to fill your containers, and the added convenience, especially if you are starting a new job and still going to school, is a definite plus.

Your First Landscape Part Two

What to Plant in Your Container Garden

container gardens, what to plantHow do you know what to plant in your container garden? What do you do if you are unfamiliar with plants? Not to worry! You don’t have to be a plant expert to have a beautiful container garden landscape.

Start with design inspiration. One of the handiest things for me is finding a stunning fabric swatch that includes the colors you want to showcase in your design. The nice thing about a piece of fabric is its portability. You can take it with you to the garden center and hold it up next to plants for comparison. Another great thing about using a piece of fabric is the color scheme has been perfected for you. The right tones and complimentary hues have been combined to work together in the fabric pattern.

Turf Chemicals

Using Herbicides Wisely

grass weeds, turf weeds, lawn weeds

If you choose to do nothing about weeds, just like a pacifist country, eventually you will be overrun with expansionist opportunists. If you want a nice turf grass lawn, being passive is not an option. If you don’t fight for territory on a regular basis, you will lose the space to weeds and brambles, and eventually tree seedlings. The outdoors is a dynamic environment with shifts in dominance during each season. Know your enemy. If turf weeds are the enemy, then you need to become familiar with how they battle for the ground plane territory of your lawn.

One of your choices when you join in the fray is the level of quality which you are willing to accept. You can decide to accept all green plants that stay under four to six inches in height by simply mowing frequently during the growing season at a set height. That’s fine. Lots of people do this as their single engagement with their lawn. By choosing mowing as your only cultural practice, you are accepting variations in texture and color, along with a significant amount of bare spots in the winter as the summer annual weeds decline. This is a perfectly reasonable choice which complies with local ordinances and most neighborhood covenants.

If you decide to bump up the quality and go for a more uniform look for your lawn, then herbicides need to be added to your arsenal. But, for goodness sake, learn how to use them properly! Follow the label directions. Just as you wouldn’t go into battle shooting randomly in the air rather than targeting the enemy, you shouldn’t start spraying chemicals with abandon. It’s dangerous, and you might end up harming the very thing you’re trying to protect. Hiring mercenaries—lawn care companies might be an effective strategy, but at great cost. They will have their own agenda, and might not be as surgical and eco-friendly as you would like. Here’s how to use herbicides wisely, without having to become a chemical engineer.

A Dozen Things to Do When Preparing Your Base Map

Landscape Base Maps

landscape base map pathMy number one tip for all landscape design professionals preparing a landscape design plan sheet is to visit the site. When visiting a site, you should:

• Take pictures, especially if you see anything unique to the site

• Run a long measuring tape in two different directions to spot trees and features and property markers

• Line up square elements like buildings by moving your head until you can just barely see both corners

• Look up and note any overhead power lines

• Try to identify the existing trees and approximate their diameter

• If you have a D-tape, use it to measure the existing trees

• Note where shade or other factors have diminished the turf grass areas

• Find the stream buffers and wetland areas

• Note any significant large masses of shrubs

• Look for natural drainage patterns

• Mark north

• Talk to the clients

All this information should be included on your base map. If you can, have the site surveyed and photographed.

By visiting the site, you will create a much improved design, and get a sense of place. It is essential for good landscape design. You will find a potential landscape construction site completely different from what you see on satellite maps, Google Earth, and GIS layers. I have reviewed hundreds of landscape design proposals where the person drawing the plan has never seen the site and might not be aware of the important elements. It is very obvious in the proposals. Much of the information you can learn about a site is located below the leafy tree canopy. The ground-level connection produces a broader understanding of the site.