Learn from the Experts: Petro Design Blog


Kathleen Litchfield President of Petro Design/Build, Inc. Kathleen Litchfield
President of Petro Design/Build Group, is one of the Washington area's leading landscape and garden design experts. Her insightful advice on landscape design, construction, and practice has been published and quoted innumerous regional and national magazines. She has developed and taught accredited courses in horticulture and has lectured for garden clubs, the National Association of Remodeling Industry, the Landscape Contractors Association, the Smithsonian Educational Series, the George Washington University landscape design program, and the Washington Design Center.

Kent Richard Abraham, Principle Architect with Abraham/Petro Kent Richard Abraham,
Principal Architect with Abraham/Petro a division of Petro Design/Build He is a member of the US Green Building Council 2006. His education includes Bachelor of Architecture, 1970, University of Nebraska, With Honors (Cum Laude),Awarded the Faculty Award, Outstanding Senior Student; Master of Architecture, 1971, University of Pennsylvania, Studio of Louis Kahn. He has served as Chair, Thesis committee school of Architecture and Planning, The Catholic University of America Washington, DC since 1978.


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Experience Matters

Alvin and Me

Alvin and Me

About 25 years ago I was called to provide pricing for a rather extensive drainage project in Bethesda, Md. The homeowner had consulted with an experienced builder and drainage expert who had provided recommendations for keeping existing underground water (springs) away from their home. I was asked to review their site and then talk directly to the gentleman who had made the recommendations.

This was my first introduction to Alvin Sacks. Since this initial project together, through numerous other collaborations on storm water and site drainage over many years, Alvin has provided me with a wealth of information, advice and sound common sense when it comes to hydrology. To know that water flows down hill is simply not enough. Alvin says you must understand the “science” and how it relates to the structure of your home and site.

Approximately 10 years ago, Alvin invited me to be a member of a group of professional business people in the Metropolitan area whose purpose was to help each other in business through information and leads. Alvin is one of the founding members of Metronet and, as far as I know, has rarely missed a meeting. I learned more about Alvin at these meetings and, the more I learned, the more interesting he became.

Here is a man who has been a consultant for innumerable civil, geotechnical, structural, material and transportation engineers as well as architects, builders, home inspectors, governmental agencies, real estate agents, property managers, schools, lawyers and homeowners. His published articles and periodicals include everyone from the Washington Post and Remodeling Magazine to the New England Builder News. The National Association of Home Builders requested that Alvin write a book on “Residential Water Problems” and even published and sold it! He is qualified as an expert witness in several courts and was even consulted in a sting operation for a local television station to expose a dishonest waterproofing company.

Several years ago Alvin’s was awarded a “Life Membership” by the American Society of Civil Engineers; say’s Alvin “for a total of 85 years – they add one’s age plus years of membership” and yet, Alvin is not an engineer himself

The reason he is so respected and sought after in his field, and even certified by the ASCE, is because of his experience.

Alvin was a builder for most of his working life. Among other partnerships, he had his own home building business and had the opportunity to see, first hand, what worked and what did not – over time.

As business owners, we all know that you must stand behind your product for years and years. Alvin was certainly a leader in this field. If you met Alvin, you would know that ‘he-means-what-he-says-and -says-what-he-means’ and has little tolerance for less than quality work. Don’t even try to tell him or show him something that is not right! He has a strong baritone voice and is not shy.

After a semi-retirement from building, he continued as a building inspector and consultant. He has since written structural and drainage related articles, too numerous to name, and continues to consult in this regard.

Alvin and I have seen many blunders, when it comes to construction and storm water amendments; certainly Alvin has more than I, as he has a few years on me yet.
What I’ve learned and accept is; while certifications, degrees and diplomas are important, when it comes to working with someone that “knows” what is right, because they’ve done it and stood behind it over time – I will pick the experienced business person every time!

Melting Snow and Molds

OK, it’s going to melt….we hope.  This is when the saturation starts along the exterior walls of the foundation. If the gutters have pulled away from the house it’s only going to get worse.  I don’t know about you, but my mold allergies keep me vigilant year-round for water seapage.  It’s easier to prevent than fix.  I’ve been in many homes where the residents are living with and breathing black mold everyday!!  They just got used to it and yet they only buy organic foods!!!  It’s like my painter telling me his health concerns about lead-based paints and how he takes a meter with him to check the levels before sanding; (which is a important and necessary), but meanwhile, he is puffing on a cigarette!!!

Fortunately, my body tells me when mold is around.  I can feel it immediately.

My mother-in-law died 5 years ago from pulmonary fibrosis.  When she was sick the doctors could not figure out what was wrong with her.  She remembered that in the house she used to play in across the street as a child, every member of that family died from pulmonary fibrosis.  She mentioned this to her doctor who tested her and confirmed that she did, indeed, have the disease.  She and her brother remembered that the house smelled moldy.

Mold spores, when breathed in, remain in your lungs.  Good health and a good dose of anioxidants will prevent illness.  As we age,  our defenses may decrease for a variety of reasons (stress, pesticides in foods, hormone depletion…to name a very few)  This is when the spores can attack.

So, check your gutters, crawl spaces and foundations.  If you suspect mold, don’t disturb it yourself. Call a professional immediately.

Mulch Mania!!!

It is truly amazing every single year how we continue to pile on the mulch.  I’ve tried to analyze the mentality of this manic practice (specific evidently to the Washington area) like I’ve tried to get my mind around why someone would throw a piece of trash out a car window.  What chronic disorder would possess people to invest hundreds of dollars and time on a seemingly ritualistic annual self-imposed duty?

Is it because the neighbors bought a truckload of mulch and are doing it? In other words ‘sheep syndrome’ or ‘neighbor envy’?

I know that nurseries make huge amounts of money encouraging the practice. So; great marketing, but on what basis? Granted that over-mulching is a number one contributor to death and decline in plants so it makes sense for a nursery to encourage this practice.  It’s a win- win for them!  Nurseries also sell a variety of edgings to hold your mulch in the beds!!  Brilliant!!

A few years back I designed and installed a landscape for a stone yard to draw attention to the use of stone within a planted area.  About 6 months later I went back to see how it had matured and was shocked to see that all the groundcover had been removed and the natural shapes of the plants had been tortured into tight balls; your typical gas-station variety.    I asked the owner ‘What the   ?”  His reply was that no one could see the MULCH!!!!??  So; it IS about the mulch itself?  Maybe this is really the reason as you can purchase a variety of interesting colors to display.  So, why buy plants if it’s about the mulch?

Mulch is a by-product of the lumber industry.  They had a problem disposing of the bark.  Someone came up with the idea of redistributing it instead of hauling it away.  This initially might have been a good idea but, somewhere along the line, it got way out of hand.

My understanding is that developers encourage mulching as a way to redistribute the clear-cutting methods they used in development.  Piles of chipped trees were costly to remove.  Why not make a profit with a campaign for necessity?  Once I saw a Cadillac pulled over at a construction site on a Sunday with the driver shoveling a pile of left-over wood chips into the trunk; but I digress. Anyway, we’re now talking about wood chips which are even more detrimental to plantings.

Love the smell? Could it be a great way to get your hands dirty without getting really all that dirty? What else?

Let me tell you what the over-use of this by product DOES do.

  1. Over- mulching encourages surface rooting.  Think about it.  Roots are starved for air and water and climb, gasping to the surface, in an attempt to survive.   Winter comes and the roots are in a loose medium that cannot protect them from winter freezes
  2. Mulch acts like a wick. In dry periods it sucks the water away from the roots and in wet periods it wicks water and holds it, providing an environment which encourages the growth of root rot, stem canker and a variety of other fungal organisms.  Have you ever noticed a pile of what appears to be “dog vomit” on the top of your mulch?  This is truly what it is called in the trade. I’ve seen it covering the branches of an azalea which, by the way, is one of the many fibrous rooted plants that suffer terminally from over-mulching.  This “dog vomit” is the product of high humidity levels, irrigation systems or rain with mulch and can be deadly to plants. Plus, it’s gross.
  3. Over mulching raises magnesium levels in the soil causing a collapse of the structure of the soil leading to its inability to absorb and drain water.  When the soil becomes wet it expands and when it dries out it gets very hard.  This expands and contracts the root system.   Rather than mulching year after year; cultivation would alleviate this condition.
  4. Mulch is anywhere from $25 – $50 per cubic yard.  Plus labor and/or your time x 2 times per year…adds up over time.

As a contractor, I shouldn’t discount the business potential of mulching.  I could get myself a truck-mount mulching rig and certainly reduce my recession stress.   As a horticulturist, a recent graduate of the Watershed Academy (which included 6 months of sustainable awareness training), and as a responsible contractor, I won’t do it. In fact; once the initial planting installation is completed and  mulched with 1” in  groundcover areas and 2” in planting areas I can assure my clients that, as the groundcover establishes, their maintenance and watering will be reduce considerably, as will their maintenance cost.

If weeding is your concern; weed seeds root much easier in loose mulch than in soil and typically even arrive in the mulch.  Groundcover helps hold water in the soil, chokes out weeds and is considered a ‘sustainable’ practice.

Here’s the depressing but unavoidable bottom line; the nurseries are jammed with people filling their trunks with bags of mulch. Homeowners, encouraged by the reasons above, are having truck loads of mulch delivered and installed this very moment.  I have lectured, written and pleaded with homeowners about this topic for close to 30 years and those very same people will be the ones with over mulched beds yet another year.

To me; mulch mania falls in the same category with plant shearing, Round-up® mania and possibly, littering.  People are still going to do it regardless. But, at least, I’ve made yet another attempt to reduce this practice.

What difference does 1 Lousy Rain Barrel make?!

Through a series of coincidental meetings (the third being a clear indication for action) I enrolled and was accepted into the Watershed Stewards Academy (WSA).

For the next several months I have/will attend evening classes at the Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center in Severn, Md. along with weekend intensive trainings in various locations throughout the County.

“The quintessential role of Master Watershed Stewards (which I intend to be one of) is to organize community action toward the restoration and preservation of our watersheds” and, in particular, to learn, in depth, pollution source reduction strategies – Capturing water at its source is still the best way to reduce the pollutant load it carries to a stream.

During one of the first evening lectures Stephen Barry, the coordinator of the Outdoor/Environmental Education, told us future Stewards that we would be getting our very own rain barrel.  I thought, great, 1 barrel – how much good will that do; I don’t even have gutters.  Don’t get me wrong, I know the value of water and never take it for granted; turning the shower off while I soap up and the like.  I’m incensed when the media refers to rain as a ‘threat’ as if it is some terrorist when, if fact, it’s our life source.

For those of you who have read my previous blogs and articles, you know how involved Petro has been,  in addressing homeowner’s drainage concerns.  Typically, when someone is experiencing a wet or moldy basement they want the water as far away from the house as possible.   Pollution source reduction includes keeping the water on-site. Sometimes, depending on the soils, topography of the site and the homeowner’s maintenance involvement, this can be accomplished through rain gardens.   Alternative,  adequately designed buried dispersion systems are lower in maintenance but not quite as organic or attractive.

Rain barrels, on the other hand, can be used by everyone immediately and with relatively little cost.   But what good is just one? A couple of years ago we distributed our own eco-friendly tote bag that can be folded in for easy carrying.   I always have one in my purse or clipped to my belt for use wherever needed.   A lot of people bring there re-usable bags to the grocery.  I noticed that nearly no one used them in drug stores or other non-grocery shops.  In using my bag everywhere I’m hoping to encourage others to do the same.

One of our residential analysis projects this past weekend included an opportunity to assess and present ways that a particular homeowner might keep his water on his site. With little or no yard and the access areas at a minimum, one of the stewards suggested a rain barrel at the front driveway downspout.  The homeowner immediately said ‘not an option’ as it would not be aesthetically pleasing. This particular home was located on a prominent corner in a waterside community that was in much need of pollution source reduction for the good of everyone.  I thought, what a great example this one rain barrel would make prominently placed in the front yard; sort of like using my own bag everywhere!

So this one rain barrel, that I will get, will make a huge difference as an example to others of what little it takes to help maintain our planet.

This Holiday Season:

One of our assignments was to read The Chesapeake Watershed: A Sense of Place and a Call to Action by Ned Tillman. It’s a great geological and historic account of how our watersheds developed and declined with specific action plans available to individuals, corporations and government; inspiring, depressing and a critical assessment of our immediate watersheds.  We were fortunate to have the author at one of our evening seminars.  His first question to the group was, “Do you remember a specific outdoor location/space that you felt connected to as a child?” There were warm memories from Maine, Indiana to Florida mostly inspired by family outings as a child.  “This is why you’re here” Mr. Tillman said, “…these fond memories of your life in the outdoors having inspired you to take action to preserve it.”  Today our children are inside on electronic equipment, what memories will inspire future preservation?  This is where I’m heading.  This Holiday Season we will send out a 2011 guide to 3 local outdoor destinations per month where you and your family can experience the best of what is available in outdoor activities and locations. One trip per month can have a lasting effect.

First Impressions…

AFTER

 

BEFORE

As Spring approaches let Petro Design/Build getcreative and design a custom “First Impression” for you…

The new entry seen below practically beckons you to enter.  The doorway is highlighted by beautiful Upright Hornbeams, while the rest of the architecture is softened by the additional plant material.  The previous gravel drive was transformed into a drop-off area for guests.  A garden bench is tucked into the perennial garden for a visitor’s respite.

 

Spring Garden Inspirations

Are we ready for spring yet? The good thing about lots of snow and ice is that it does make you appreciate spring even more. I’m planning my garden tours, lectures and articles while sitting by my fire at home.
I just received the latest Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage Tour schedule. What a great opportunity to see some of the most beautiful homes, estates, historic sites and gardens in the state! My interest is in the details (good and bad) that I gather for lectures and articles. Things like – ‘great ways to deal with drainage and erosion issues…or really bad ways; interesting ways to screen utilities; the use of plant materials in unusual circumstances and the like. Very fun and educational.

Go to www.mhgp.org for information on the upcoming House and Garden Pilgrimage

Early Spring in Timonium

Feel, smell and see spring early this year at the Maryland Home and Garden Show. Petro Design/Build has been on the judging panel for over 10 years and, it’s true that the displays ‘just keep getting better and better.’ This years theme is ‘Beautifying your Outdoor Living Space’.  Go to www.mdhomeandgarden.com for dates and times.

Proper Insulation Can Save your Plants!

This past snow was exciting, beautiful, and for some, provided much needed time indoors.  For others, the snow and subsequent colder temperatures cost much more than they anticipated.

Attic spaces that are not properly insulated can allow heat to escape.  Melting of the snow/ice will ensue (in our case from this storm, up to 3 feet of snow in some areas!!!) thus creating an avalanche of destruction on the foundation and plants below.  In some cases, it will bring the gutters with it!!  Additionally, trying to shovel the snow off your plants will only make it worse.

Properly insulating your home not only saves you on your direct energy cost but will avoid potential subsequent repair cost and is the MOST COST EFFECTIVE amendment you can make to your home at this time!

Garden Clutter

Oh, it’s been a long winter, as evidenced by the copious amounts of garden ornament and furnishings (often still in the boxes), awaiting warmer temperatures.  Those enticing garden catalogs were hard to resist, as their focus is on wonderful outdoor summer life; something that seemed so far in the future.  The down side to all this early buying is that it was purchased before the garden was designed.  So instead of asking, ‘”How many people do you typically entertain?” or “What sort of play areas and spaces do you want for your children?” our challenge is to make all the styles, colors and themes fit together cohesively in the landscape.  Clutter is confusing and can negatively affect the energy of a space.   In design, it’s truly putting “the cart before the burro”  Style should be determined first.  Traditional, contemporary, arts and crafts, country home, etc. and then the spaces determined by desire and need.  If the client is set on ‘collections’, than vignettes may be the solution to organization and simple hardscape materials to provide a canvas for the ‘stuff’…I mean, ‘ornament’.

Bottom line; start with a theme/style; lay out the desired functional spaces and then coordinate the furnishings and ornament within those defined spaces.  Above all; work with a professional before garden surfing. This is more cost effective, reduces clutter anxiety and ultimately provides positive energy.