Archive for landscape drainage

Controlling Erosion on Hillsides – A Portland Landscape Designer’s Perspective

Preventing erosion

My vacation home is above a steep slope. It’s smart to learn about preventing erosion

Controlling Erosion on Hillsides

As a Portland landscape designer I often work with hillside properties.

I also own a vacation home on Harstine Island in Mason County, Washington. We built our house about 10 years ago. The house is 30 feet from a steep hill overlooking the beach. The things I’ve learned about controlling erosion are useful to anyone who has a sloped property.

When we built the house we made some smart choices, we went with a natural landscape instead of lawn, ran our water from downspouts down the hill in pipes rather than spilling it out at the top of the hill.  Nor did we disconnect our downspouts to let water pool and perc down into the soil near the house.  That can be a fine practice for flat properties but not hilly ones.

I have a majestic fir tree on my slope and neighbors have suggested I cut it down for fear that it will remove a lot of my bank someday when it fails.  I want to support this tree for as long as possible so I was inspired to make an appointment with Karin Strelioff with Mason County Conservation District.  Karin is a technician with their Marine Waterfront Assistance Program.  She knows about the slopes and cliffs that make the shoreline of the South Puget Sound and many methods of erosion control.  She gave me some important signs to watch for regarding my tree and the name of a local arborist who is astute in the science of trees on slopes.

Well planted slope controls erosion

My slope is well planted with salal, sword fern and other erosion controlling native plants.

My Tree    

Karin gave me these basic things to watch for with regards to my beautiful huge fir tree.

Pay attention to the surface soil and the plantings around the trees trunk. Know what the ground and general area looks like typically and watch for any changes in that area.  On the uphill side of my tree trunk I’ll look for an area of disturbance, an area of soil higher than it was when I saw it last.  This could mean my trees roots are pushing toward the surface.  On the downhill side of my trunk I will be looking for soil that may have fallen away making a new steeper area.  Either one of these disturbances will have me on the phone to an experienced certified arborist that I trust.  I love knowing what to look for.  It will help me with my anxiety when the wind blows and my tree’s branches whistle like a Hitchcock movie sound track.

I recognize that my tree is supposed to fail at some point, falling down the hill along with a portion of my slope to bring more sand to the beach and add to the natural beachhead.  Given that I would like to keep every square inch of my backyard, when the tree is starting to fail, the arborist will probably recommend it be removed.  Hopefully by that time I will have enough plant material well established to offset its loss to my erosion control plantings.

Erosion Prevention

Blackberry Fruit

How can anything so sweet, be so evil?

I learned important things about my property.  For one thing my various slopes and banks have either a lot of trees or ground covering plants or both so I can take the information from Karin and apply it as a preventative rather than having to rush into a mitigation process. We also have very few invasive plants on the property. I have one Himalayan blackberry plant that we will work on getting rid of.  Lucky me.

Karin says the most important thing that I can do is to learn about the water load on my property and how best to control where it goes.  The biggest water load source is water from the roof of the house.  The county had good rules in place when we built the house so we are also ahead here.  We took our water down the hill in pipes.  The old practice of disconnecting our downspouts and letting the water perc down a slope has caused erosion problems for many properties.  That’s a fine practice for people with flat lots in Portland, in fact Portland encourages disconnecting downspouts and building rain gardens. Karin says be sure to inspect your pipe.  If we had a crack or damage to a pipe that allowed water out in the wrong place, it could create a heavy water load and cause big problems.  We can start inspecting pretty easily because our pipes are not buried.

Other sources of water are as simple as rain water. The way to control rain water is with plants.  Think of it this way………..Gravy and bread.  We use bread to sop up the gravy, well we did until they said it was bad for us and now they are saying animal fats are good for us…….  I love gravy which is a diversion from this article, must be dinner time.  We will use the right plants in the right places to sop up the rain water.

Evergreen trees are most effective on slopes and yet a lot of people cut down evergreen trees because they spoil the view.  It turns out evergreen needled trees (coniferous) perform brilliantly to protect slopes from erosion.  I had no idea. Here’s why:

Coastal feeder slope

This cliff is feeding sand to the beach.

Large evergreen coniferous trees like our Western Red Cedar or our Douglas Fir have needled foliage.  The needles break the impact of hard pelting winter rain into tiny droplets. The surface soil is protected from the impact of the hard rain. That’s helpful, but even better the trees roots take up a tremendous amount of water and utilize a process called transpiration which releases the water from the needles as a fine mist. So water under the soil surface is absorbed by the roots instead of spilling out of the side of the cliff.  Deciduous large trees such as Oregon Bigleaf Maple, or alders have no leaves in the winter, and they are dormant and so their roots do not take up as much water as the needled trees do in winter or any other time of the year.  The conifir reigns as the top water catcher on the slope.  There is also what seems to me to be a rather magical thing fir trees do.  It’s called thigmomorphogenesis.  This word refers to the way trees and plants respond to mechanical stimuli that influences how they can  grow in really unusual ways. Basically, they are responding to the situation on the slope and growing their roots in ways to protect that slope. They may grow a larger branch to balance their mass.  Somehow they know to do this.  It’s seriously cool science stuff here.

Here’s what I’m going to do to help protect my slope.

New plantings that include evergreen coniferous trees.

First I am going to enhance the soil above my big tree to help the native plants spread and grow.  I’ll add compost near my top of slope plantings to try to cajole them into growing toward the house.  The top of this hill was graded flat by the developer to build the house so there isn’t a drop of top soil in my flat yard.  The native plants stop growing and you can see the straight line across the edge of my yard at the top of the steep downhill slope.

Pacific Madrone

Pacific Madrone – Arbutus menziesii
has recently been approved for City of Portland street trees. It’s a NW native plant.

I am going to plant 3 more (tiny sized) Pacific Madrone below my big fir tree and also 5 dwarf Western Red Cedar. I’ll use willow stakes in areas with more sun.  They are easy to plant.  I’m using a modified native tree to try to protect my view.  The Excelsor Western Red Cedar matures at about 20′ tall, not 70’.  Will I be here to see them at 20’ tall?  Hard to say, I better keep eating lots of grass fed butter and Kale.

I got so much from my appointment with Karin that I have another blog that will explain what plants I am planting where.  Stay tuned for part two.

 

Portland Rain Garden Fixes Front Yard Lake

edited-mccann-after-front-yard

Winter view after drainage and landscape design was installed.

Portland Rain Garden Fixes Front Yard Lake

Cindy and Chris were house shopping in Eastmoreland Portland, Oregon.  Chris found the house and brought Cindy to take a look.  The curb appeal was so bad she gave it the thumbs down and would not even go in the house. After looking at several other houses which just didn’t work for them, her husband talked her into going back.  She went inside and fell in love with everything but the front yard.  There was edited-mccann-before-front-yardone big problem which wasn’t apparent at the time of purchase and might not have been bothersome if the house was in Arizona.  Water!!! Water in the basement, and large puddles of winter rain water in the front yard drowned plants and lawn alike.  As the years passed the problem worsened.

I’m married to a designer/remodeler and while he is a creative and competent professional, he can get a little pale talking about the complexities of finding a water leak.  It can be very tricky even when you have solved these types of problem in many different situations for years.  Its nothing one should ever be arrogant about.

Rain garden clears away winter water from entry patio. My client and I were so pleased to be rid of the muddy winter lake - she built it herself!

Rain garden clears away winter water from entry patio in Wilsonville.  I used Dwarf Red Twig Dogwood in this design as well as Cindy’s.

Rain Garden Solution

Cindy is a figure it out, research the heck out of it kind of person. She talked to lots of different contractors, asked great questions and decided that a rain garden was going to be part of the solution for the water problems in her home.  She took classes from the City of Portland and researched rain gardens.  She determined the volume of water her roof and downspouts needed to handle using the formulas she learned in the class.  Her solution was to install larger gutters and downspouts and have a dry well dug and installed to handle the overflow.

Front Yard Make Over

Cindy was not prepared to take on the front yard alone.  She decided to hire a landscape designer she could collaborate with.  I am not licensed to design drainage solutions.  Cindy knew that.  I was hired to create a landscape plan with her that would create beauty and curb appeal and hide all views of the mechanical water solutions.

How I did it

I design for beauty of the landscape and to enhance the appearance and the welcoming energy of the home.  I don’t like seeing irrigation valve boxes, irrigation heads and tubing, or drainage hardware.  It’s ugly.

I started by creating a beautiful natural shaped berm in the front landscape:

  1. It would create a second level which helps to add drama and contrast to the      otherwise flat yard.
  2. We used the excess soil we would dig up to do the dry well.  It’s a terrible thing to waste good top soil so we didn’t!!
edited-monrovia-bloodgood

Upright dark purple ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese Maple. Photo courtesy of Monrovia Nursery

3. They wanted a Japanese Maple.  Cindy and Chris loved the up right (not the weeping form) of dark purple leafed ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese Maple.  Japanese Maples, Acer Palmatum, are much healthier here in the Pacific Northwest when they are planted up on a berm.  The raised soil keeps their roots from getting soaked in our winter rains.  Dryer roots helps to avoid the dreaded verticillium wilt which kills so many of our beautiful maples here. Plantings on the berm under the Japanese Maple would be highlighted because they are on a higher grade in the lawn.

We tucked a few boulders in the berm.  We added multi sized river rock over the top of the dry well and made it look like an attractive dry stream bed that fit into the berm nicely and as per Cindy’s plan would direct water to the dry well.

Cindy loves the evergreen Ink Berry shrub. It's great for wet areas.

Cindy loves the  Inkberry shrub. It’s great for wet areas.

Plantings for Wet Areas

We still had a wet area near the dry well that needed plants. Cindy loved the evergreen Inkberry and Kelsey’s Dwarf Red-Twig, Cornus Sericea ‘Kelseyi’ shrubs I used.  She had never seen the Inkberry, Ilex Glabra ‘Shamrock’  before. It’s the only evergreen shrub I use for low wet areas. Other typical small evergreen shrubs like Azaleas and Pieris get root rot and cannot be used in wet area applications.

Drought tolerant evergreen arbutus unedo

Strawberry tree, Arbutus Unedo adds a little touch of Italia to the stucco house.  Photo courtesy of Richie Steffen, Great Plant Picks

We selected classic foundation plants to frame the house, added a large pot and Strawberry Tree, Arbutus Unedo ‘Compacta’  to pick up a little Italian style on the south side and we were finished!

Mission Accomplished

I talked with Cindy recently.  “The front yard is thriving.  I’m so happy every time I look at it.”  The design has stood the test of time.  It’s been 10 years since we installed the design. The only thing she changed was replacing her Johnny Jump Ups Violas for Black Mondo Grass. Mission accomplished, she loves her front yard!

Cindy and I created the design together in a day.  It was a simple design meant to be low maintenance with full season interest.  Her landscape contractors installed the design, I came by and placed the plant material for the contractors and it was done.  Voila!

 

Lawn Do Over for Portland Landscapes

Landscape Design in a Day's newly installed RTF grass.

Landscape Design in a Day’s newly installed RTF grass with dry stream bed.

This is the year for rethinking the lawn. As a Portland landscape designer many of my new clients want to make big changes in their landscapes.  I am recommending clients replace their old lawns with new and improved grass varieties.

My Lake Oswego clients, George and Marcia, contacted me completely discouraged about their front yard. I met them in the fall after our particularly hot and horrid summer of 2015. They had spent their entire summer watering and watering their lawn.  It wasn’t dead on the October day that I came to their home but as you can see it was quite unattractive.

Uplands Neighborhood of Lake Oswego

Damaged Lake Oswego lawn

They decided it was time to hire a designer and start over with their landscape. It is a typical Lake Oswego landscape with heavy clay soil, fir trees nearby with thirsty roots, and drainage problems.

Before we even started the landscape design process, I was able to share information about a new lawn grass that uses less water and is more durable than the grass (perennial rye grass blends) we have been using for the last 30 years.  Working closely with Kevin Schindler of Autumn Leaf Landscaping Inc. we replaced their old lawn with Rhizomatous Tall Fescue (RTF) grass and designed a naturalistic dry stream bed that also solves the drainage problems.  Solving the drainage problems also enhances the health of the grass.  Even RTF grass doesn’t do well in a boggy winter soil.  George and Marcia are very pleased with the appearance and performance of the new grass.  They love their new dry stream bed and how it has pulled together the entire front yard, giving it a dramatic focal point.

They are no longer slaves to watering.

Installation day at George and Marcia’s Lake Oswego home.

This year several of my clients have taken out their old grass and installed RTF.   From a distance it looks like any lawn, in fact it looks more uniform because it grows so thickly that it tends to crowd out weed grasses much better than our perennial rye grass does.  My Lake Oswego clients especially appreciate the fact that RTF tolerates more sun and heat and if they did decide to let it go dormant, it will come back beautifully.  RTF can even handle a south facing lawn with reflected heat from a sidewalk.  This is the most difficult place to successfully grow grass so Portland landscape professionals are embracing this new product.

It is available as a roll out turf product (sod) and as seed.  Kuenzi Turf & Nursery

After Landscape Design in a Day Front yard

Rose City Park Neighborhood

No grass lawn

West Portland Park  Neighborhood

Other clients want no lawn designs, thinking it will be lower maintenance.  No lawn will mean lower water usage but replacing a lawn with paths and plants does not promise low maintenance. Even the fairly new minimalist style using 90% round river rock and 10% plants isn’t as low maintenance as you think. Someone has to blow dust and debris out of the river rock frequently to prevent weeds from building up.  Many clients simply don’t want to mow any lawn and are fine with the first two years of extensive weeding that is needed to get a no lawn front yard established.  For a lot of people, however, weeding is the least favorite gardening chore.

Synthetic Lawn Installed in front yard

Newly installed synthetic lawn in Parkrose Heights neighborhood

Other clients are installing synthetic lawn.  Before you sneer at the idea of fake grass (which I did when I first heard about it), check out these photos of my Southeast Portland clients Bob and Norma Bleid.  They gave themselves a retirement gift, front and back synthetic lawn.  No water, no chemicals, no fertilizer; it is the ultimate low maintenance landscape lawn.

Early fall is a particularly good time to install a new lawn or landscape.  With a good irrigation system landscapes can be installed any time of the year.  As a Portland landscape designer I am not fond of July or August installations, I know my clients will be “nervous nellys”  seeing their plants’ leaves droop, scorch and burn in the summer sun.  The fall rains typically do a beautiful job of providing the moisture needed to get plants (including grass) well established.  This eliminates the stress and worry of summer planting.

 

 

 

10 Things to know about landscaping your new home

Ah, the glory of a new home.  Everything is, well, so new.  So fresh.  And there’s not a chip, dent or scratch anywhere (yet).

"I hired Carol to help me make the most of every inch of my new property." Photo by Kelly Uchytil

“I hired Carol to help me make the most of every inch of my new property.” Photo by Kelly Uchytil

Outside, however, it’s another matter altogether.  With most new homes, there simply isn’t anything but dirt.  So what to do?  Well, here are my ten ideas on how to do the landscape right…so you won’t have to do it over.

1.  Hire a landscape designer to lay out the land and give it the look and feel you want.  This needn’t cost an arm and a leg (call me and be surprised), and you’ll get the over-all plan set up before you start all that digging.

2.  Plan for more drainage than you think you need for areas adjacent to driveways, patios, pathways, lawns and especially retaining walls.  Ask neighbors about standing water in winter and spring.  Find out how long standing water takes to drain and where it drains to (your yard perhaps?!)

3.  Plant some larger sized trees in your first phase so everything won’t look so puny while they spend the next five years growing into the space you’ve provided for them.

Sherry and Kelly got exactly what they wanted and more.

Sherry and Kelly got exactly what they wanted and more.

4.  Consider how long you plan to live in the house.  If it’s less than five years we often focus on the entry and front yard.  If it’s longer, then invest in a good design for the whole property that you can build on over the years.  Curb appeal sells your home.

5.  Create an oasis for privacy.  It needn’t be large, but ideally it should have some eye appeal from inside the house.  Sunny days are precious, so create a place to enjoy them.

6.  Know how you’re going to handle upkeep.  The idea of “low maintenance” can be a misnomer:  it’s easier to mow than weed.  Decisions about upkeep need to be made right along with the design.  And if you don’t want to be the gardener, make sure you have someone who will, because there is no landscape short of concrete that doesn’t require upkeep.

7.  Pay close attention to watering the first year.  Many a well-intentioned landscape has gone to ruin in the first year for lack of proper watering.  Such a waste!

8.  Avoid BDS, one of the leading killers of new plants.  What is BDS, you ask?  Bored Dog Syndrome.  It happens when Fido pulls up plants, shakes them good, and doesn’t replant them; or decides to water them with full force.  The cure?  While plants are still young, don’t let Fido out alone.  This may be a pain, but trust me, you’ll save a lot of money.

9.  Before you pave your driveway or paths, lay PVC conduit pipe underneath.  That way you can easily add irrigation or lighting later on.  PVC pipe is cheap.

10.  Soil prep is where it’s at — it’s the difference between plants that thrive instead of die.  You need soil that drains well in winter but holds moisture in summer.  Every site has different requirements, so get professional advice at the start.

Landscape Swamp to Garden Paradise

Landscape Swamp to Garden Paradise

Vicki Masterson wanted her dream garden. She and her husband Pete were recently retired. She had a beautiful new home and was looking forward to having a yard to play gardener in for the first time in her life.

She expressed her deep concerns about the landscape’s ability to ever play its part in her dream. She and Pete had never worked with a landscape and yet accurately diagnosed severe drainage problems and an extremely high water table on their site.  Her neighbors told her that in winter, “everything is pretty much a lake“.  Their soil was sludge and the view from the great room was a 10′ high wall consisting of straight stacked ugly boulders, topped with a 6′ wood fence.

Nothing but problems in this backyard.

Pete and Vicki selected Carol Lindsay of Landscape Design In A Day to help them with their difficult backyard.

Amending the soil and hiding this ugly wall with plants was not possible due to the high winter water table.  On our design day it was still summer – so instead of water logged muck – we had impossibly hard baked clay.  I was glad to know that I could solve it all and give Vicki her dream.  The first thing I did was meet with Donna Burdick of D&J Landscape Contracting. Over coffee we poured over photos and discussed the site’s problems.

Boulders and imported soil create easy gardening.

Notice all the raised beds? The drainage is in the paths and will take the winter rain water off the property.

 

Donna designed a professional drainage plan.  With this kind of collaboration, the designer’s vision leads the process and the clients dreams are realized.  The drainage solution disappears into the design.

Good drainage opened the plant palette so I could pick from thousands of possible plants and combinations for Vicki and Peter Matterson. Deciduous shrubs such as Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ provide stunning winter interest with its rich orange, red and yellow stems. I created an area for wetland plants with varieties that will be perfectly happy with the high water table and tall enough to visually soften the wall.

Construction process for difficult site with poor drainage.

D&J Landscape Contracting created easy access to the backyard from the adjacent wetlands, saving the clients money.

“I LOVE the bones of the garden and all of the possibilities for me to play in.  It is a perfect garden for a senior to enjoy.  I thank you because it is perfect for me. Donna and her crew did an excellent job with the structure and construction which is so important to me.  Again thank you, I am glad I called you and got the benefit of your knowledge.”

“The longer I am here the more I appreciate the thought and your knowledge at designing my garden.  Our main concern was the drainage and we have
had no drainage problems so far.  Many thank you’s for designing my garden to fit my yard and my life.” – commented Vicki Masterson

Completed bones of the new garden

“I LOVE the bones of the garden and all of the possibilities for me to play in it. It is a perfect garden for a senior to enjoy.” Vicki Masterson

Masterson's backyard on design day

Her neighbors told her that in winter:”Everything is pretty much a lake.” Their soil was sludge. This photo shows the view from the great room – a 10′ high wall consisting of straight stacked boulders, topped with a 6′ plain, wooden fence.