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.


Archive for the ‘Creavtive Gardening’ Category

D.I.Y. or NOT

When it comes to doing something myself; either for the adventure of it, as means to create a healthier product or just save some money, I’m interested. Sometimes my efforts and time prove to be worth it in the short and long term. Other times, things have not gone as smoothly as planned or promised and end up costing me much more in time and money.

Because of these experiences, and what I have seen the average homeowner implement over the years, I’m more than happy to direct my clients on practices and/or projects that would make sense for them to do themselves. In landscaping and landscape construction, this means leaving the initial ground work and design to someone who has either the right conditioned muscles or design or horticultural experience. I believe that I have ‘fixed’ as many D.I.Y. projects for homeowners and property managers as I have implemented anew. Sometimes just having a new perspective by someone, not intimately involved with your site, can help you with the details and the whole picture.

I’m always very careful about asking who was responsible for the existing work, as I know that I am sometimes dealing with embarrassment, pride and even marital conflict. Once I had a very motivated client decide that he would build the 6’ retaining wall that we designed to level his rear yard and provide more space. He was semi-retired and had the time. The wall construction seemed to progress well and then, just needed to be backfilled. He rented a machine to backfill and compact the wall – himself. The long and the short of it is that the wall blew out with the weight of the machine sending the machine over the wall and into the woods below. I met his wife a few weeks later and inquired about his progress. She just started sobbing.
This is certainly an extreme example but sometimes even a small patio set incorrectly can cause extensive problems later.

So; what is a good DIY project when it comes to your landscape?

Obviously, everyone is capable of planting trees, shrubs, groundcover, perennials or annuals. Just remember that the big stuff always takes longer than you think and, if this is not something you physically do on a regular basis, be ready with the Advil.
Good bed preparation is necessary grunt work. Access to a rototiller may not be available or manageable for the average homeowner.

Assisted DIY Gutter Cleaning

A few Do’s and Don’ts on basic maintenance:
Do:
• Clean your gutters
• Resecure downspouts that may have become detached
• Watch drainage patterns within your yard for possible amendments
• Remove or cultivate excess mulching
• Cut suckering from trees (*make sure your pruners or saw is sharp and sterilized)
• Prune old growth from flowering shrubs (*) Timing is important for both above items.
• Acquire a soil analysis for your beds and turf areas

DON’T:
• Clean second floor gutters without assistance
• Assume that it is necessary to mulch your beds just because everyone else is.
• Use a chainsaw if you are not experienced
• Add chemicals to your yard or plants – in untrained hands, these can lead to deadly personal and environmental hazards

Nothing can help you budget your time and money better than a well thought out design. Even a 1 hour on-site consultation can save you hundreds in possible misplaced plants, structures or drain lines.
Once you have a game plan, or some experience advice, the areas should be tackled according to priority – which is different for everyone.

To get you started and working towards a landscape plan:

DO:
• Create a base sheet of your site or area(s) that you would like to renovate or enhance. Scale this on a piece of paper using a minimum of 1/8” = 1’0” scale. (1/4” = 1’0” is better).
Include:
      o Existing features (patios, walkways, spigots, etc)
      o Existing trees and vegetations (and whether you want them or not)
      o Window heights along our foundation (if this in an area of interest)
      o Storm water patterns/paths
      o Utilities (a call to a utility marking service will identify the main lines)      o Where the sun is at different times of the year (sun set/rise)
      o Views you would like to hide (look from the inside of your home as well)
• Make a list of how you would like to use the space(s) – Entertainment, small parties, play, sports, gardening, etc.

DON’T
• Assume that your plot plan is accurate. For new construction and/or fencing, a site survey is necessary.
• Neglect elevations in relation to your desired and existing structures and or your neighbor’s site

Site mapping is a time and cost saving DIY.
Site analysis and design should be implemented or, at least, consulted on with a professional.
The step-by-step or phased approach will follow in a DIY and assisted schedule.

More to come….

The 'Game Plan' for a successful DIY or staged project

The ‘Game Plan’ for a successful DIY or staged project

Beware of the “End-of-Season Nursery Sales”

The weather has cooled, after a record hot summer, and what a perfect time to get your yard back in shape.  It’s always the best time to plant (warm soils with cool air) and the nurseries are desperate to reduce their inventory before winter sets in.  The sales are irresistible!

Specimen plants with a canvas of mulch do not 'frame your home or guide you to the front door'

Specimen plants with a canvas of mulch do not ‘frame your home or guide you to the front door’

A confusing, high maintenance bargain.

A confusing, high maintenance bargain.

Nurseries are inspiring places and you can easily lose yourself in the end of season energy and crisp oxygen high.

For some, finding something unique could be the very thing to enhance their; well… “I’m not sure where I’ll put it but “IT’S JUST SO COOL!” 

Remember, plant material is not furniture or accessories.  They are living, growing and sometimes invasive, disease/fungal carrying, damaging long term additions to your real estate.   They are not something you can easily move to a different location or re-cover if you change your mind about their color to coordinate with the new color of your shutters.

Landscape design is most cost effective when considered on paper first.  There are lots of questions to consider that start with your basic premise for wanting plants in the first place and end with how much maintenance you are willing to commit to.  As a rule of thumb; your front plants should frame your home and guide you to the front door.  Flexibility can be used in the rear yard extending the views from the inside – out.

Before our initial meeting we request that the homeowner complete a 5 page questionnaire to help them organize their thoughts, needs and desires, on paper and provide us with the background information we need to guide them in the right direction for their site and personal taste.   Even a one-on-one consultation on site with an experienced professional landscape designer and/or horticulturist could help you avoid costly impulse buying at the nursery this fall.  Yes, nurseries do have horticulturist and, sometimes, landscape designers but remember – they need to move their stock.

It seemed like a good idea at the time

It seemed like a good idea at the time

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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.

Good Neighbors

Oftentimes the best neighbors are the ones that you get to see when you want to see them and who get to see you when you want them to see you.

Not that we all want to be recluse but, after a long day at work, it would be nice to relax on your deck or patio uninterrupted by a nosey or even gracious neighbor.  Likewise, your neighbors may not want to see you in your back yard either and so, may also be uncomfortable seeing you relaxing in your yard.

Leyland cypress trees were the big victims in this past winter’s snow.  Sure, they grow fast but they grow so fast that they don’t have the time to develop the substantial root system necessary to carry their weight.  This makes them short lived and ineffective as reliable/long-term screening trees. There are better options for evergreen screens or, depending on the height requirements and/or restrictions, consider framed panel screening.

Particularly if you are on an elevated deck, the best screening is something built.  Considering this past heat; maintaining air circulation becomes critical; likewise with fencing.  An open screen not only allows air to flow but becomes a buffer, rather than an obtrusive wall, and therefore considered a ‘good-neighbor’ foil.  In other words, there is no ‘bad’ side to this option.

There are a variety of attractive exterior shade cloths and awnings that will provide screening and shade, while allowing air circulation.  Remote controlled shade cloths can be installed on the tops or sides of trellising depending on the desired protection.

Lattice panels on top of railings can double as trellising for attractive vines in addition to screening. Consider using self-watering planters secured to railings for seasonal color or a place to easily access your herbs!

Good Neighbors remain just that by providing both properties with attractive privacy.

Chicken Gardening – Sustainable Landscapes

What better way to ensure that you have fresh, organic eggs than to have your own hen house?  Today’s site development plans are no longer limited to vegetable and herb gardens, berry cages and compost bins; they include ‘designs’ for a family run hen-house. Yesterday’s hobby of water gardening is today’s producing chicken garden.

As a child growing up on a few acres, my father raised 45 chickens, several ducks and honey bees, seemingly to help sustain our family of 11.  I’m sure, though, he enjoyed the challenge, variety and fun of this endeavor.  He even grew mushrooms in our cellar!   These practices have come full circle as families, again, try to sustain from within.

It’s more than a personal interest;  reducing reliance on mass produced eggs and chickens reduces the waste run-off into critical waterways, eliminates the energy and fuel consumption necessary to transport and refrigerate, and sends a message about the cruel conditions that mass produced chickens are raised under.

Hen house ‘designs’ can be stylish and fun but keep in mind that this is not a weekend hobby. They must include security, shade, nesting areas, feeding areas, ventilation, protection from storms and weather, lighting, access and adjoining (or close-by) storage for ease of maintenance.

You do need space.  The average chicken will need 4 square feet of coop/house space and a minimum of 10 square feet of ‘run’.  Free range chickens are, naturally, just that and require much more space.

Make sure to check your local zoning laws before investing, as cities, counties and towns all have varying criteria.

Earth Day 2010

Happy Earth Day from Petro Design Build Inc.

Branch out and celebrate Earth Day this Thursday!  April 22, 2010 marks the 40th anniversary.  Events, lectures, etc. will be taking place through the weekend in celebration.  We’ve listed a few below around the metro area we think would be great opportunities to “branch out”.

Thursday, April 22

2nd Annual Green Drinks for the Bay: 5:30pm, Severn Inn, 1993 Baltimore Annapolis Blvd., Annapolis

AIA Spring Lecture Series: Jerry van Eyck, Narration of Urban Settings through Integral Landscapes, 6pm Brown Center, MICA, Baltimore

Historic Sherwood Gardens is in full bloom with 80,000 tulips!  Absolutely breathtaking, a must see if you are in the Baltimore area.

Chesapeak Ecology Center:  Volunteer Needed,  Orientation: 1-3pm, Chesapeake Ecology Center, 245 Clay St., Annapolis

Saturday, April 24th

Earth Day and Family, Music & Kite Festival: 10-3pm, Quiet Waters Park, 600 Quiet Waters Road, Annapolis

16th Annual Sierra Club “Earth Day” 5k: 8:30am Quiet Waters Park, Annapolis

Sunday, April 25th

MD House and Garden Pilgrimage: Tour Historic Guilford in Baltimore City, home of Sherwood Gardens

St. Georges Day: PG Historical Society with gather at Trinity Episcopal Church in Upper Marlboro to celebrate the 314th anniversary of the establishment of Prince George’s County.

Earth Day Climate Rally: Washington DC on the National Mall