Archive for the ‘Working with a designer’ Category

Storm water Runoff Revisited

Sunday, 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.

Stormy Weather

Sunday, 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.

How Do You Balance Budget & Vision?

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

The smaller the project, the harder it is to balance vision and budget. This is due to how difficult it is to make a small space work without spending a little more, the budget a client has in mind for this space, and the difficulty of bringing architectural elements in harmony with the taste of the client. Once you throw in environmental concerns, local materials, FSC certified woods, the little details that make a garden go from average to really interesting, the price per square foot can go way beyond what the client ever hoped for, and actually much higher per square foot than a larger space..

 In the end, it always comes down to the value the client feels they are getting. If the client buys into the design and falls in love with it, they will find ways to make a higher budget work. This always starts with prioritizing the structural elements of the garden; Deck/hardscape, Pergolas or Gazebos, planter boxes plant materials and furniture.

Starting from the ground up is the wisest choice, however, often clients lose sight of the fact that treating the “ground” with detail and interest before anything else is really vital to the process. Most folks want a garden now, not a finished patio/deck/groundcover area. Once the “ground” is handled, whether it be patio, decking, or plantings is established one has a firm base to build on.


Structural elements like pergolas, arbors, and trees would be next, Irrigation and the basis for lighting would be followed by shrubs, perennials, garden ornaments, water features and finally annuals and pots would fall on the end of the list.

Of course some of these elements can be interchangeable, but always think structure first, detail second. In breaking the basic elements of a garden down into pieces, the budget can be more manageable and spread over years.

Why is it so Important to Have a Master Plan?

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

     As long as people have been creating, there has been a debate regarding whether spaces should be designed intuitively or with a master plan in mind.  The beauty of the intuitive, do what feels good kind of creating, is  you just do it and because it is a creative process, you the creator are mostly happy with it until you outgrow it. However, some of the most lasting creations architecturally and in landscaping, were not created with this approach as the basis. Almost all great gardens and spaces were at least structurally laid out with great forethought and planning.

    If a space is to take all the varying needs of the surrounding architecture, the preferences of the user(s), efficiency of execution (and therefore lower cost), the needs of the ecosystem and the need to have as minimal negative impact as possible, than balancing these varying needs will require a great deal of thought and planning.

    A real life example; a home that has an existing garden and layout that worked for the client for years needed to be redesigned.  The whole property needed to be more usable by creating a unique play space for a five year old, an enlarged outdoor living room in which to entertain, and a dog run with in ground composting for dog waste. On the eco-friendly side, the property needed rainwater recycling added to an existing irrigation system, a space for kitchen composting that won’t be vermin ridden, and the property needed to be made safer through the removal of some poorly rooted trees.  Of course, all this had to be done within a limited budget and without ripping up to much of what is already on site.

       Though it would be possible to execute this project piecemeal, without a long term plan, it could not be done efficiently and within budget. The trees were in tough locations that needed to be accessed with a cherry picker, the property was only a third of an acre. The need to locate the tanks for rainwater storage, deal with the dogs, and get the play area built before the child grew up all demanded at least an understanding of how the different “rooms” would relate to each other once completed if not taking care of the high priority work first.

    Very much like decorating the interior of a house, the place for intuitive creativity comes in the details of each room once the boundaries and priorities have been defined. As the spaces come together, this is where the designer (and the client) can really have some fun, and get out of their heads a little. Each room can be redesigned once the structure is in place as well, and the garden spaces will hold to the eco-sensitive and architecturally sensitive principles that were behind the original layout.

What Size Should My Lawn Be?

Sunday, March 30th, 2008

Assuming you have had your soil tested already and have some idea of the content, early spring is the time to reconsider you garden layout and how you want to use it. Getting back to the top ten eco-friendly garden practices so popular on the internet and in garden magazines, there are a couple of simple suggestions that are the proverbial “no brainer”.  One is to reduce your lawn size wherever possible.

Lawns are the highest maintenance areas of any garden. Some environmentalists advocate for the complete removal of the lawn as it is completely a fabrication of man and very labor and water, and often chemical intensive. The truth is, the lawn is about as American as Apple pie. We all love lawns, we like to play on them, care for them, many folks take pride in them. The compromise is to reduce your lawn to a more manageable size. Do this by expanding, or adding perennial beds  and groundcover areas while  reducing your lawn to a size that still allows enjoyment but does not dominate your landscape maintenance budget.

Like most eco-friendly practices, the prime motivator for many of us is budget. So consider this. If you are spending $ 100.00 a month on a lawn care service, you are also spending approximately $ 75.00 a month from Mid April through Mid October (for between 1500-2000 square feet) that’s about a dollar a foot per six months of the year or over two thousand dollars a year. That does not cover lawn aeration, replacement of sod areas, or fertilization and pest treatment generally. That price is for cut and trim services only. You can cut this down to five hundred dollars a year (saving $ 1500.00) in maintenance and water or less depending on what you choose to replace some of your lawn areas with and get greater texture, color and interest for your money.

In my own garden, we have carved our lawn down to about five hundred square feet from one thousand. Our garden now uses forty percent less water (lawns get very thirsty) and I spend half the time caring for the lawn than I would were it larger. The first place to look to replace lawns are steeply sloped areas, and around trees and shrubs. Sloped areas are dangerous to maintain with a mower (and therefore costlier). Caring for the lawn around trees and shrubs often leads to mechanical damage to the plant material (which eventually kills them costing you money). Also eliminate lawns in areas seldom frequented around the house. It’s just not worth it to spend money caring for areas you don’t use, plus there are water savings to be had particularly if you are replacing low use lawn areas with draught tolerant natives.

Wasteful lawn areas are usually on the side of the house, the perimeter in front of hedges or fences, transitions from shrub areas to sod, and even the front of the house facing the street. Alternatives can be groundcovers and perennial beds which though they cost more to establish initially, are low or no maintenance over years. If you are working with a lawn care professional, they may not be to terribly helpful in this regard, as they make their money caring for your lawn and charge by the square foot. Depending on your garden knowledge, you may want to consult with a landscape designer or architect in terms of best plants to replace your non-essential lawn areas.

What is Eco-Friendly Design?

Monday, March 17th, 2008

So often, when designing gardens, we are looking at the preferences of the clients, the environmental conditions, and the architecture of the home. If we are lucky, the client has come eco-awareness, that is, they are interested in organics, and sustainability. More often then not however, they are interested but less educated than we. And after all, that is how it should be. We as eco-friendly designers, spend time at conferences, blogging, and reading, so that we are the experts. Our responsibility is to educate the client. They are coming to us for just this reason, because we are trained in the areas of sustainability and design.

Of course, we don’t educate with a cudgel, nor do we shy away from this responsibility. we chose this path because we care, and it is with concern and caring that we present, always focusing on what we all care for in common. The least environmentally aware client wants healthier plants, minimal disease and insects, and an environment that is safe for their children, animals and themselves.

This Blog is launched to explore what this means in our interactions with the client, our considerations in the design process, and to explore eco-friendly in the context of the new debate on what it means to be environmentally friendly.