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Quality and Good Intentions

volunteer landscape crews, landscape maintenance

Before you decide to use volunteers to maintain a large landscape, ask yourself this question. Are you willing to do manual labor outdoors for four hours for anyone for free? Are you willing to do this once every two weeks for nine months? If you are not willing to do this, then it will be difficult to find other people to volunteer for the commitment needed to maintain a high quality ornamental landscape.

That kind of commitment is rare for volunteer forces. It is difficult for most people to volunteer for more than once-or-twice-a-year, and a couple of work days a year is not enough to sustain the quality of an ornamental landscape site. You can imagine what you own home landscape would be like if it received only a couple of energetic clean ups a year. Coordinating a volunteer force of about fifty volunteers to meet the required need for a single public landscape takes a full-time effort for at least one paid person. The money would be better spent hiring a full-time gardener.

Stop! In the Name of Common Sense

Clearing Contractors

clearing, preserving trees, unmanaged woods

The best way to save on landscaping your site is to preserve the existing trees. Grading contractors will assume you want your entire site cleared unless you specifically indicate areas to be preserved and specifically require protective fencing to keep heavy equipment out of those areas during construction activity. Equipment operators are more than happy to over-clear to the property line. It’s easier for them, since they don’t have to tip-toe around special trees. Also, with more clearing, they get paid more. Clearcutting is more expensive for the developer, however. After the dozers are done with demolition, the project may take on additional costs, because large amounts of rip rap may be required along the stream channel to armor new, unstable buffers. All the extra trouble and expense can be avoided by preemptive action at the drawing board. Healthy, existing trees save money if they are protected during the demolition stage.

New construction sites often fall victim to an overly enthusiastic clearing equipment operator.  The dozer operator may not read the specs and plan sheets carefully, so be sure sturdy, orange fencing is installed before any clearing starts. Protective fencing needs to be in place at the same time the initial soil erosion and sedimentation control safeguards are installed, during phase-zero of the project. Put specific notes about the timing for fence installation on your plan sheets for protecting areas to be graded.

The unmanaged woods within the project limits of a construction site are valuable. If they are protected, you reduce your maintenance costs, reduce your demolition costs, and reduce the amount of new planting needed to restore your site. Include protection of woodland buffers as a BMP on your soil erosion and sedimentation control plans. Protective barriers are important visual boundaries, especially in vulnerable areas like stream buffers.

Instruct the operator on the bulldozer. Show them the boundaries of the areas you want cleared and the areas you want protected. You need to use big, bright-orange protective fence to provide clear boundaries. Those ugly fences are only temporary, but they preserve the delicate drip line of trees. The existing woodland beauty deserves a permanent place in your landscape design. 

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.