Storm Water management

April 12th, 2009

April Showers


Those April showers feed the flowers that bloom in May. They also flood basements, lawn areas, and perennial beds in properties with poorly conceived storm water runoff plans.

I was out for a walk this sunny Easter morning admiring the bulbs blossoming, shrubs and trees beginning to sprout, and lawns greening up. Repeatedly, I saw properties with ill conceived run off from their homes that were clearly causing less than ideal conditions for the lawn areas and other recipients of natures plenty.

The basic laws of water are very fundamental. Much like the behavior of my children when it’s time to do homework, water seeks its own (or the lowest) level. Unfortunately, this is often our basements which is the first thing we need to protect. Many folks do this by redirecting downspouts away from their homes. Though a good idea in principle, in practice, this often means the water pools in the middle of the lawn, creating a soggy area less than ideal for a healthy lawn. If this happens often enough, as the water table rises, water ends up penetrating basement walls anyway.

The laws of water management are simple: 1) store it and redistribute. 2) Direct to a river, stream, pond, or sewer. Of course option 2) is really a glorified version of option 1). When you redirect it, it moves on to a larger storage area (other than your basement). Many homes in hilly areas were originally built with drywells, or underground storage areas where water from the homes roof accumulated and seeped slowly back into the ground. These were large, and expensive and worked well until after 30-50 years of use they filled up with silt. The idea of the dry well is to store the water under gorund so that you have a nice dry lawn (and basement).

The more creative and less expensive approach today is to direct the water from your house to the street, or create a drybed above ground that may become a wet bed when it fills up, plant a greenroof, and/or lastly to plant a raingarden. Most municipalities really don’t like the street option since it means that their sewer systems get overworked and silted up. Check with your village, but Im pretty sure this is not so legal.

The drybed approach is very popular in Colorado for example. Under the eves of many homes are drainage beds filled with stone that take the water to streams, or to dedicated ponding areas that are filled with water or dry depending on the season. Water is directed to these areas and either assimilated into the streams or  slowly absorbed by the landscape (away from the basement). This is a pretty effective tool. When the beds are dry, the stones give the feeling of a river and pond, in heavy thaws or rain, they actually are.

Greenroofs are a thin layer of plants covering the roof. They absorb 80% of the water that landsc on the roof and double the life of the roof membrane. Yes, you can do this on a slanted roof by the way. If yo want to see one in action, there is a greenroof demonstration roof at the Greenburgh Nature Center our company built last year.

Raingardens are combinations of using plans that love water and drywells. Usually planted in the lowest area of the property, the idea is to dig out a water holding area, filled with gravel or even a small dry well, layer soil over this area, and plant above it with plants that love water and thrive on moisture. This way you get a place to put the water and a natural system of absorbing it and releasing it into the atmosphere. We will build a demonstration rain garden at the Greenburgh Nature Center next month.

Rain GaRain Gardenrden

Designing Permeable Paths

February 15th, 2009

   There are many ways to deal with permeable paths including manufactured pavers, gravel, and a variety of plantable grid systems. Lets remember that the operative words here are “permeable” and “pathway”. Permeable means: That can be permeated or penetrated, especially by liquids or gases: permeable membranes; rock that is permeable by water”. ( Using this definition, water has to flow through the path to some extent, meaning there are limits to the compaction beneath the path, and it cannot be mortared. The other factor to consider is how will it be used? How finished/flat/accessible will the path be?

   On the inexpensive side, a gravel path, will meet many requirements, and last if well installed. It is important when installing gravel paths that the gravel be kept from mixing with the soil beneath it, or it will eventually become muddy. You will want to install landscapers fabric below the gravel, and some form of gravel retention (edging, brick, railroad tie, etc) on the sides. In the middle range of expense you have concrete pavers and grid systems like drivable grass (, and turf protection grid ( Concrete pavers on the higher end have aggregate mixed in that give them a stone-like façade and most important, they interlock without mortar. To find a variety of these products go to

  The grid systems mentioned above allow plants to either grow on top of them or through them while supplying a firm path base. While this can be grass, it could also be sedums and/or other succulants. These can be used in combination with stepping stones.

On the high end there are paths made with real stone like cashmere slate, and in fact you can use any hard flat stone like granite, bluestone, etc. that is available as long as the base is not overly compacted and you don’t mortar the joints. Normal compaction on a walkway is 95% on a stonedust, item 4, or sand base, leaving little or no room for water movement. The alternative is to use a 3/8” base which will have more air space and allow more water movement.

Maybe Its Time For A Kitchen Garden?

December 21st, 2008

Holidays and Gardens

I’ve been reading through some stories of Christmas and the depression today to jumpstart some thoughts for this week’s column. Very consistently, folks who had property grew vegetables and fruits if they could. My staff has been saying for months that in Pelham there are very few folks who grow food in their gardens and that now might be a good time to be planting kitchen gardens, and maybe they are right! During the depression, anyone with property was growing something. Food  and money were in demand, paying work was hard to find, and people had to eat.

Reading some of the accounts of the holidays during the great depression, there is a lot of food for thought. Consistently, there were Christmases where kids got an orange and a maybe a banana or some walnuts in their stockings. Some folks recall getting clothes. One farmer remembers getting a few cut evergreen boughs from his neighbor and that was his tree.

Just about anyone who is old enough to remember the depression also recalls that the holidays were never really about things, but getting together with their family. It was never really about things because there just were not a lot of things to be had. Everyone cooked a little more, usually chicken, ate a little more, and spent time as a family. It was about the feeling behind the event, not the things that were the vehicle of expression. Gratefully, we are nowhere near the circumstances of the depression, most of us will have more than an orange for our kids this Christmas and our tables will be abundant despite our concerns regarding years to come.  Happy Holidays.

Sustainable Design?

December 15th, 2008

In our eco landcare blog, we wrote about Las Vegas, Nevada. If one were to design a native garden in  Las Vegas, it would be made up of cactii, aloe, and tumbleweed. Maybe some yucca rostrata…ITS A DESERT. Not a lot of room for landscape design in that model. More important, would people live with that?

its a really tough question when you consider it, real harmony with the environment in Las Vegas would be the opposite of what you actually find there, a community built on Colorado river water. Real sustainable practice might prohibit that, and at the same time, it is the innovative nature of this particular phase of human culture that makes Las Vegas possible. All the moral issues of the economic base of las Vegas aside, as a city, it is a pretty amazing accomlishment. Is it sustainable? Not without a huge amount of human effort. is anything we as human beings endeavor to do?

  That said, Even las Vegas, or maybe we should say, especially las Vegas, is making strides in sustainable landscaping and creating room for landscape design that is more eco-friendly by reducing lawns, paying residents to install xeri-scape gardens and drip irrigaiton. Are these really sustainable in a desert? no but much more so than what they had. 

Sustainable Sites

December 8th, 2008

Ideas For Lower Maintenance, Eco Friendly Landscaping

Cold weather is here in the Northeast. This is the time to get up to speed on better ways to plan and do. In terms of garden design, i highly recommend going to the to catch up on sustainabale practices as envisioned by the ASLA, Ladybird Johnson Wildlife Center, and the United States Botanical Gardens.

These three groups are pioneering a standard for landscape design and care that will eventually be incorporated into the LEED system of the USBC. The comment period on the initiative recommendations ends January 20th so get on now while you can or just pick osme brains.

The case studies are the best part and a great tool for convincing the ambivalent eco-landscaper of the value of sustainable practices!

Storm water Runoff Revisited

September 14th, 2008

Retain Nutrients, Reduce Environmental Damage By Managing Water

With the heavier rains we have been experiencing, we at Greener by Design have experienced and upsurge in calls regarding runoff issues in Pelham. One client has a small river flowing through their back yard coming off of a road on the adjacent property, another has mulch running off a hedge row at the bottom of their grassy slope, and some have heavy water penetration in their homes.

Pelham is a community of hills and slopes, worse still we are not on the top of the hill, but lower in altitude than many of our neighbors, which means a good deal of water runs downhill to our properties from neighboring up hill communities. The predictions for our region are more heavy rainstorms and less regular, lighter rainstorms than in the past, so dealing with storm water will be even more of a problem than it is already.

Water seeks the path of least resistance. Whatever can’t be absorbed by soil, will run over it and take topsoil and valuable nutrients with it. Indeed, what made the Nile basin a rich farmland was the occasional flooding of the Nile that would deposit silt, made up of rich topsoil that had run into the Nile from heavy rains up stream.

What this means is areas where water runs down a slope are regularly being stripped of nutrients and topsoil so that grass and other plants have a harder and harder time being sustained. Additionally, if any kind of pesticide or fertilizer has been recently applied, this will run be taken down the slope to sewers and drains and into Long Island Sound causing greater environmental damage.

The favorite routes of water are paths, walkways, and driveways. Next are rocky areas, and last are lawns. Lawns, thought they do absorb water have a limited capacity to do so and once saturated the water will run down the lawn.

Strategies for dealing with runoff are to create dedicated spillways channeling the water where you want it to go, or at least away from where you don’t want it. Basically your driveway is a spillway, and the problem with this approach is it is a short term solution to a long term problem. Spillways inevitably take chemicals and pollutants (like oil from automobiles) unfiltered into local waterways. For this reason, most sustainable systems, like LEED for example, recommend creating permeable surfaces for driveways and patios. Permeable surfaces are generally hard surfaces that allow water to pass through them at regular intervals.

The most traditional approach for storm water management is to create “French drains” or underground catch basins for excess water. These do fill up with silt over time and need to be cleaned out.

On grassy slopes, the most effective strategy is to plant berms with perennials and shrubs at regular intervals where runoff is flowing. These mounds of soil will catch the water, break its movement, absorb a good deal of it and catch nutrients before they can run down the slope. They also will reduce the amount of grass (and therefore maintenance costs) on the slope as well as beautify the slope with more textures and colors.

Going Native

August 31st, 2008

Use native Plants to Restore The Local Ecosystem:

Our property is in the middle of renovation and though no one has complained yet, it looks like a construction site in almost every corner. I undertook the building an elaborate play area in the lower end of the property despite my wife’s warning that I would not  complete it in a timely manner, leaving a spiral slide and a pile of lumber. A mason has begun building a patio area of one corner of the house but has not had the time to come back and finish it leaving a pile of soil and bricks. In the midst of all this, we have decided to go native.

When everything is up in the air, and one is in the midst of change, sometimes that is the best time to consider more change. Our garden has been made up of the leftovers of other projects for quite some time. Being in the “trade”, I have had the mixed blessing of receiving materials in the form of trees and shrubs clients wanted removed, or rejected from jobs. A blessing because the cost is negligible in terms of dollars, but a curse because the material does not always represent the ideal selection were the space to be properly designed.

So in the midst of all this property renovation, we have decided to live up to some of the ecological ideals we have always espoused, specifically to start creating sections of native plants that better support the native wildlife.

Every ecosystem has plants around which it is based. In fact, all ecosystems require plants to function and thrive and green space is the basis for the survival of any ecosystem. When people come along and start reshaping the ecosystem by bringing in non-native plants, we actually damage the eco-system significantly by displacing native plants, which are literally manna from heaven to the eco-system. I’m not just talking invasive plants here, but plain old non natives which gardeners favor (forsythia, many roses, peonies, etc) that the local animals and insects are unfamiliar with.

Most of us are not all that fond of bugs or animals. In fact, there is a big fat rabbit living up on Benedict place along with raccoons and skunks and mice and I have to confess that my ideal property from a personal convenience point of view would not include these creatures and the smells, property destruction, invasion of home and garbage they represent. Just for the record, I’m not crazy about flies and mosquitoes either. However, These are all necessary creatures in the wider eco-system and have their place. They are necessary in supporting the complex web that supports us (humans).

Long story there to make a point, we are looking at pulling some of the non-native screening materials on the property and adding in native trees and evergreens around the perimeter. It’s expensive relative to how we have acquired most of our plant material, it’s a lot of work, and it’s the right thing to do. In the long run it will pay us back in supporting beneficial insects and local birds which will in turn feed on mosquitoes, and flies, and garden pests like aphids etc. If you want to eliminate or at least reduce pesticide use, re-introducing natives is vital. Not just one or two plants here and there, but groups of them as they would grow were people less of a disturbance to the original eco-system.

We will avoid natives like Eastern Hemlock, which unfortunately is prey to wooly aldegid, but we are looking at Amelanchiers, Thuja occidentalis, Vaccinium angustifolium, Pinus resinosa, Picea rubens, Pinus strobus, Prunus virginiana, Rhododendron calendulaceum, and are exploring a number of other plants for border areas where the purpose is screening and less ornamental. In the process, we will be removing invasive plants like English ivy, which local rats favor(rats are not natives by the way, they came in with Dutch and English ships) . Also burning bush, honeysuckle, and ailanthus that have taken root in neglected corners. Of course, the other projects must be finished first, in fact I’m going to go clean up that “play area” that is in process as soon as I send this off. For a more complete list of native plants, go to a site sponsored by the Ladybird Johnson wildlife center. Start  creating an environment that sustains itself. Support local beneficial wildlife by restoring the plants that were here before we were.


Fall is For Planting: Plant Smaller Perennials Now for Better Value

August 24th, 2008

In summer design meetings, people often ask “should we wait until the spring to plant this garden? And the answer more often than not is No. In fact, with the exception of a small group of trees that are a Fall Hazard to plant, many plants will do better planted in the fall.

Regular readers of this column have heard again and again and again that fall planting allows plant material extra months of root development. Planting in September and October will not only give your plant material a jump in the spring as  planted material start developing roots well before new plants are available, but they will also get a couple of months of fall root development.

The great news however, is that you can plant smaller plants in the fall, and they will have developed into much bigger plants by the spring. For example, planting pint sized perennials in early September will get you plant material in May that is close to the size of 1 gallon material you might purchase at a nursery or big box store. Pints are a third to half the price of gallon material so the savings can be tremendous. If you’re really looking to be frugal as we all are with the price of gas and food being what it is, plant bare root or four inch perennials now for pint sized value in May 2009.

With this August having been so unseasonably cool, soil temperature is much lower than it normally would be this time of year, soil temperature is one of the prime determinants in when roots start developing. This means, that barring a September heat wave, you can plant perennials now  for real value.

Before you dig, the usual guidelines apply: test the soil and first, and amend to meet the needs of the plants you are selecting, for healthier soil, feed and emend organically, and work in as many natives plants as possible to encourage and support the local ecosystem. Plant smaller perennials as if they were bigger plants, keeping in mind what their mature size will be (generally space perennials 8”-12” on center). Check the mature heights of the plants to determine location in the garden. I can’t tell you how many “professionally” planted gardens I have seen this year that had smaller plants placed behind larger ones so that they were lost and not visible. Group plants by soil and water needs, and always use drip irrigation for these areas, don’t count on lawn sprinklers (which are designed for grass) to water perennials and shrubs.

Stormy Weather

August 17th, 2008

Last week, we experienced fierce thunderstorms coupled with hail in lower Westchester County New York. The immediate result of the hail which was about one eights of an inch in diameter is that almost all trees, shrubs, and flowers were damaged. Soft leaved plants like hydrangea and perennials like rudbeckia were shredded. Some tougher leaved plants escaped damage, but some like sedum plants were squashed by the pelting hail stones.

Leaves form trees were torn out of their branches blocking up some drains in streets and adding to the flooding that was already in progress in lower lying areas, like under train overpasses for example. Cars stalled in flooded streets, a police car was pushed out of a small lake that had been wolfs lane twenty minutes earlier, by a higher riding SUV.

The bad news is that due to global warming, weather forecasts for our region over the next ten years call for an increase in this sort of thunderstorm activity and a reduction in slower steadier rains that were once the norm. In towns with lower lying areas, the implications are that sewage systems will have to be upgraded to accommodate increased storm water runoff from the more intensive storms whose steady increase in occurrence have been predicted and are coming to realization.

Other means of managing storm water issues are encouraging greenroofs wherever possible. Greenroofs, a thin layer of plantings that cover a rooftop for energy savings, extended roof life, and many other environmental benefits, also absorb 80% of the water that lands on them. Introducing permeable surfaces wherever possible will also help with mitigating storm water runoff. For example, brick crosswalks that are not mortared will allow some water to be absorbed by the earth below. Paver sidewalks are another possibility, and perhaps paver streets in our shopping centers, which though more expensive to install, have greater longevity making them less expensive per year and having the added benefit of again allowing water to seep between them into the earth below.

Point being, design and planning, whether it be for a property, a village, or a town, cant occur in a vacuum. Eco-friendly landscape design demands that planning for the property consider the wider impact of choices made. Maybe a greenroof is not appropriate, but mitigating storm water, and hopefully even re-using it is always appropriate. Stormwater needs to be considered bothfrom the stance of how it effects the property, as well as how it effects the immediate vicinity and the region.

The Problem With “New”

August 3rd, 2008

Working with a new client, they asked us to try a pre-fabricated deck system they had found. We were excited because it was all FSC certified wood and seemed relatively inexpensive. We priced the labor like any other modular deck installation and set to work.


The installation was relatively smooth, the interlocking pieces clicking together, everything going in as designed-terrific design on our part. Then the problems started. Because the wood was thinner than what we usually use (.5 inches versus 1.5”) and the deck was  resting on supports instead of flat on the ground, we started to see warping and see-sawing. The only solution, to take it all up and create  a level platform under the deck to prevent the stresses of heat, air flow, and irregular support.

The question of course is who eats the cost? In order to make the customer happy, the company should in theory, except the client requested this material specifically. To eat the cost is the equivalent of making all your clients who worked with tried and tested materials pay for the material specified by a client who was trying to save money by  using a less expensive product in a manner different than manufacturer specification.