Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Building "Family Ties" With Your Landscape Project

Here is an article that is likely going to be in two publications this spring, in some form. One is a smaller local publication and the other is a larger, regional publication.  I will leave the "Family Ties" photograph out.  :-)  

Bringing the Family Together in Your Landscape

By: David Sonka, Landscape Designer
Landscape Design Studios

As the past couple of years have shown, there has been a trend for homeowners to renovate and renew their current home rather than look for that next, new home.  In most cases, opting to renovate will save an immense amount of time, money, and stress from dealing with the uncertainties of the current real-estate market.  Rather than take the risk of going after that next home --which hopes to "have it all" at be a great value, while you pray that your current home has maintained its appeal and held its value for the next home buyer to make a swift, generous offer--people have been inclined to stay settled in and renovate their current home up to its full potential.  This trend is supported by the National Association of Home Builders' Remodeling Market Index (RMI), which has tracked remodeling sentiment to its highest level in 5 years in the fourth quarter of 2011. (National Association of Home Builders, January 26, 2012) 

After all, your home is where you have felt comfortable before, and where you have already decorated and personalized it to be compatible with your tastes and all of your "stuff."   Perhaps this is where you have seen your children grow, where you have seen important milestones happen and cherished memories being made.  Perhaps there are just some renovation projects that will adapt your home to the needs of your family, and enable you to fall in love with your home all over again.  In many cases, a landscape renovation is the perfect improvement to bring your home to its full potential, and to bring the growing family closer together.

According to U.S. News and World Report ( Rachel Koning Beals, January 30, 2012), "Booming economic times led to luxury outdoor living . . .The recession may have dinged this corner of the remodeling industry, but the concept survives. In fact, investing in outdoor living spaces has been a major part of even budget-minded upgrades within existing home footprints. Consumers may be scaling back their wish list, but they're not cutting back on outdoor entertaining and family time. After all, if families are traveling less, they're playing more at home."

This is precisely what I have heard in the interview process of several landscape clients from last year.  While their family's employment and income have persevered nicely through the recession, they have elected not to put their current home on the market and look for that new, ideal home, but rather they have decided to reinvest in their current home and renovate it to their ideals.  This so commonly includes some home remodeling and a robust landscape project with outdoor living features for their family to enjoy.  The new landscape will add outdoor rooms and virtual square footage onto the home that the size of the structural footprint cannot offer.  

In most all of these cases, the rationale was to "bring the family together" as their children are getting older and their family needs have changed.  Just like they have changed the wallpaper in their children’s bedrooms, and converted the playroom into a more grown-up space, they need to convert the play areas of the yard into more suitable play areas for older kids and socializing.  They can envision new outdoor rooms where they can cook, dine, and sit by a fire, and having new recreational activities that they can bring into the back yard, such as a pool, spa, putting green, or sport court.  

"Our kids are getting older," says Kendall, who has enjoyed living in his home for over 12 years with his wife and three active kids.  "We like the idea of spending time in the back yard together, and having the kids bring their friends over here, rather than have them always leave to go somewhere else . . .We would love to have our home and back yard become 'the hang-out' place."  

After all, with their oldest son getting ready for high school, it has certainly sunk in to them that they will be down to two kids living at home in just a matter of a few years.  As a family, these next few years are going to be precious time together.                      

(David has a degree in landscape architecture from Iowa State University and has been a professional landscape designer in Minnesota for the past 14 years.)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Perseverance, Adapting to Change and Reasserting Your Value.

Here is an article I just finished for Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Associations's The Scoop, January 2012 Edition:

"Perseverance, Adapting to Change and Reasserting Your Value."
By David Sonka, MNLA CP.  Landscape Design Studios, LLC.

I feel the need to open with the same statement I have made a few times before, almost like it’s a creed.  We landscape designers, collectively, are invaluable to this industry, serving as a vital link between the diverse needs of our clients with the growers, manufacturers, suppliers, garden centers, and contractors of Minnesota.  Landscape designers employ many levels of knowledge and abilities in our services.  It is important for us to uphold high professional standards and to recognize the value in the services we provide, so that the consumer will recognize the value in the services we provide for them.  Don’t ever let yourselves be undervalued. 

As the economic woes of the past three years ease up, and as I look ahead with optimism for an era similar to the glory days of the past, it is easy to be thankful.  (It is Thanksgiving weekend as I write this, with the Scoop article being due a month in advance.  Therefore, I am in an extra thankful mood.)   I can easily be thankful for the people who have forged ahead in this economy and have made a concerted effort to sacrifice, adapt, and change in order to renew their business.  And, in renewing their business, they have grown in ways which enable them to hire people, to patronize other businesses, and to continue supporting the health of their communities while stimulating the growth of the economy.  I am thankful for those who have found it foolish to sit back and be idle, cynical, and complacent.  I am thankful for those who find it almost unpatriotic or even un-Christian-like to deliberately prevent growth and bury their talents in the sand (or buy over-priced gold shares) rather than reinvest in real business and in the hiring of others to spur on growth.  I am thankful for those who have persevered, who recognize that their home is a great investment, and that outdoor living is a great investment for their home.  I am thankful for people who realize that outdoor living is an investment that they can immediately appreciate and enjoy, while their kids, friends, family members, and neighbors all can enjoy it with them.  It is an investment that will certainly restore value into their home and improve their quality of life.  I am certainly thankful for those folks who have hired me.

Persevering, to me, is adapting to change and reasserting your value.  It is satisfying the innate need to survive, to press on, to succeed, and to win.  And, if you happen to get knocked down you get right back up and try it again, but maybe try it a bit differently.  It is what makes the inventors invent new products, the entrepreneurs unrelent in business, and the athletes circumvent the competition.  It is what makes us, as an industry, produce things and constantly try to make them better, and effectively drive the healthy, production side of the American economy forward.

Since I am a fan of baseball, and the landscape season in Minnesota often parallels the season of professional baseball, I can easily find inspiration in certain Major League Baseball players.  One player in particular that comes to mind is Joe Nathan, the former Minnesota Twins closing pitcher who is their all-time leader in saves with 260 in only 7 seasons.  Unfortunately for me, Joe just signed a new $14.5M contract with the Texas Rangers.  But he will go down as one of the most memorable characters of the Minnesota Twins organization from the last several years.  He is a true example of someone who has persevered through setbacks, and has learned to adapt and reassert himself in making great comebacks into professional baseball. 

Joe Nathan was a high school baseball player with slightly above-average talent at shortstop, barely making his way onto a Division III program in upstate New York.  As a college player, his talent developed to a level where he was drafted in the 6th round to the San Francisco Giants, but the scouts looked at his 6’-4” frame and strong arm and wondered about his future as a pitcher rather than as an infielder.  Joe’s dream was always to play shortstop in the major leagues, as he had only come in sporadically as a relief pitcher.  But, as a mediocre rookie league player with a low batting average, he was told by the San Francisco Giants that he had no foreseeable future in baseball...  unless he could take advantage of his build, strong arm, and raw talent in order to develop into a big league pitcher. 

All players who get drafted into professional baseball as a pitcher have had dozens, if not hundreds of games under their belt where they have proven their talent, command of the strike zone, and competitive edge against the batters they face.  As a right-handed pitcher, it usually takes three dominating pitches to make the big leagues, including a precision fastball averaging 90+mph and at least two effective off-speed pitches that can hit the strike zone at-will. 

Again, it was a long shot for Joe Nathan having very little experience compared to his competition.  At the time, Joe decided it would be best if he left the game and returned to college to finish up his degree in business over the next two years.  

Meanwhile, it seems that some soul-searching and training on his own reinvigorated his passion.  He decided it would be best to adapt, to accept the changes that he needed to make, and to reassert himself in order to succeed at the next level.  This commitment to persevere is a commitment that Joe would make time and time again throughout his professional career in baseball. 

A full two years later, he rejoined the Giants minor league squad, training hard in his new role as starting pitcher.  In only two seasons, he advanced through the ranks of minor league baseball, making his major league baseball debut in 1999.  By the 2000 season, he went from splitting time with the San Francisco Giants and their AAA team, and eventually earned a secure spot on the major league roster as a starting pitcher.  However, by the end of the 2000 season, he required shoulder surgery which took the entire next two seasons to rehabilitate and regain his former capability.  He did not return to regular duties with the San Francisco Giants until 2003, but in the process he struggled through miserable performances and pressed on, training, working, and recovering.

In the 2003 season, Joe saw action in 78 games, playing an effective role as a late-inning relief pitcher and setup man for closer Tim Worrell.  His new role was to come in and throw his blazing 94 mph fastball, slashing curveball, and dropping change-up with the game on the line.  For 0.1 to 3 innings he would exert everything he had, and that role would secure him on the Giants roster and payroll with $300,000.

Then, in 2004, the Minnesota Twins traded A.J. Pierzynski in order to promote a kid named Joe Mauer, and to bring Joe Nathan in as the hopeful replacement for “Everyday Eddie” Guardado in the role of their new, animated closing pitcher.

Twins fans like myself took an immediate liking to Joe Nathan.  He was a guy who was visibly nervous, twitchy, and sweating buckets on the mound, often stepping back to towel off his own sweat with his jersey and take huge exaggerated breaths as if he was going to have an anxiety attack.  But you could see his determination.  He was going to give everything he had with each pitch, and do everything possible to close the game and seal the win.  And, 260 times over, that is exactly what he did.

In 2004-2009, Joe Nathan saved between 36-47 games each season for the Minnesota Twins, helping them achieve American League Central Division titles in three seasons.  Joe earned a spot on the MLB All-Star Game four times, and received votes for AL MVP and the AL Cy Young Award in two of those seasons.  His salary negotiations with the Twins went from $440,000 steadily up to $11.25M.  He was one of the very elite and most effective in his profession.

Then, right at the start of the 2010 season, at 35 years old, Joe tore his ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow.  This requires the procedure called “Tommy John Surgery” which involves transplanting a new ligament into the elbow followed by 12 months of intensive rehabilitation and conditioning. 

Once again, Joe had to persevere.  As a 36 year old man, he was once again fighting for his career.  It was well-documented that he worked through his rehabilitation and conditioning routines with diligence, making the commitment to get back with his friends on the ball field the following season.  Though the 2011 season was a forgettable one for the Minnesota Twins, Joe made it back and showed his capability once more.  Unfortunately, the Texas Rangers were able to maneuver a deal with Joe Nathan, placing him on a team with two consecutive World Series appearances and very likely improving his chance to be on a Championship team before he retires from baseball.   The deal will also earn him another $14.5M over the next two seasons.  Once again, he has hit the jackpot.

To me, Joe Nathan serves as another great example and role model for somebody who can adapt to change and reassert his value in his profession.  Translated to my profession, I don’t have anything close to $14.5M coming in the next two years, but I do have the ability to continue to adapt, and to improve what I do and how I do it, for the betterment of my career and for the betterment of others I work with. 

I have the ability to help companies in need, getting their projects to move forward so they can grow their businesses.  I have the ability to advance the concept of outdoor living and customized landscapes as a worthy investment, so that it can be seen as a valuable asset for the home.  I have the ability to illustrate landscapes in a way which homeowners can see the value in it, with landscape design being a vital service in a home improvement project… In fact, we all do. 

We all can use landscape design as a way to add value in our services, as a valuable service, in order to grow business and increase project values.  This will improve property values, increase jobs, and circulate dollars into the American economy to help finalize the economic recovery.  We are small American companies with American workers, supporting American families, and installing American-made goods.  We have the ability, and we can do it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Back Yard Entertainment On A Wooded Lot

I haven't been writing in the journal lately due to all of the commitments in trying to get designs and projects ready this latter half of the summer and fall.  I had a couple of disappointments in the earlier part of the summer with projects not moving forward, which have made me work extra hard in getting more designs started and proposals going out to make up for it.  It is the proverbial "never put all of your eggs in one basket"-- or in a couple of baskets, for that matter.  The fact that a couple of projects didn't move forward, which was after 2 months of very exciting design and a great deal of face-to-face appointments and research, made me have to really sink the hours into the last couple of months worth of prospects as much as possible.   In spite of our economy generally picking back up a bit, there are people willing to go to great lengths with you through the process only to retract and not move into the project phase.

At any rate, I have some interesting clients and designs that I have been working with.  Here is one that is fresh off the drafting  board.

This involves a back yard with a small, unusable deck on a wooded lot.   It is unusable due to its size, and also due to its mosquito population.   I am inclined to refer them to Mosquito Squad of Minnesota, and then come up with a design that includes a 3-season screen porch that they can retreat into when they are not using the rest of the space.

What I also like is the use of retaining walls and free-standing walls that create a grill surround, bench, and raised herb and vegetable garden in the same area that they have one right now.  It makes a lot of things able to happen in one space and creates two rooms within a space.  Then, there is the screen room and deck off the one side that gives them their retreat.

I like the design, and I certainly hope that they do, too.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Old European Charm

Here are designs for a wall project that evokes and old European feel.  ...More to come.\

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Grow the Most With Compost

In my Landscape Design specifications I often prescribe a soil blend that includes organic compost, and having it be worked into the existing soil around the newly planted areas as a great way to ensure that the soil has good fertility and the new plants can draw ample nutrients from the soil, and may properly root in and thrive.  There is a world a difference that can be seen in landscapes that have had amended soils and compost blends worked into the plant beds.  However, there are some perennials that will thrive and show better form and flower in less fertile soils (i.e. Silver Mound Artemesia, Gold Moss Sedum, and Oenothera Primrose).  Here is a great resource for planning landscapes for "30 Tough Sites" in your plant selection.  (http://www.scribd.com/doc/25358509/Best-Plants-for-30-Tough-Sites)

I am not going to break down the process and benefit of composting here.  There are plenty of articles and information found elsewhere online about why and how you compost in your own back yard, i.e. here, here, here, and here.  So I won't give you "the dirt" here.  But we have a little compost operation going on in our back yard, where we take kitchen waste and mix it with our yard waste, we aerate and churn, and we are steadily creating our very own batch of compost. The bin is slowly getting filled up and it has become sort of a family project.

In fact, my daughter makes a point to lift up the bases on our back yard "wiffle ball field" in search of earthworms to be added to the compost bin on almost a daily basis.  She is 5 years old, and evidently is too young and precious to know that searching for and picking up worms (or most other bugs) is "gross" and might get you teased at school.  She is quite the little helper!

turning over 2nd base on the worm hunt.

found one!

got it!

the haul.

into the compost bin you go.

my cute little worm.

If you don't have a compost bin brewing in your back yard, you can refer to these sites for hauling your yard waste where they will turn them into compost.  Ramsey County, Hennepin County, Dakota County, Washington County, Scott County.

More Design...

Also, here are some more plans that I have been working on recently, one with a few variables in place to see if there are some options that are more appealing than others in terms of the extent of the design.  This one has limited access into the far back corner of the property behind the pool due to a septic drainage field.  Therefore, a row of boulders would be needed to level the access road into the back yard in order to move in the materials for the fireplace.  Otherwise, only a smaller machine could get back there and the fireplace would be slightly more limited.  However, it might lend an opportunity for a cool fire pit design right off of the pool deck for a slightly more rustic poolside fire pit/campfire grill feature.

There is a local company whom I have talked with on a couple of occasions creating these amazing campfire pit features that can easily be built with a modular block system wall.  I love these.  Maybe not with *all* of the features and add-ons, but I love the look, size, and usability of these features.  Check 'em out at www.Firebuggz.com.  

All the best!


Monday, June 13, 2011

Hard at it.

Dear Friends & Fellow Landscape Enthusiasts,

It's been a busy summer once it has finally gotten here.  So far it has been the busy kind of busy, and not the raging successful kind of busy. But there is a lot of hopefulness and optimism out there as we keep trying to transform the drab, tired old landscapes of the greater Twin Cities into new, peaceful, blissful places for people to connect with the outdoors and to see the new-found splendor of their home with a beautifully compatible landscape.  We are on a mission to make this happen and to help homeowners find a good value in it, with a crew that is the most compatible to their needs.  We are also here to help good landscape contractors take that next step forward as a company, as we can team up with them, when needed, to help them offer high-caliber design for their clients.

Being a Landscape Design Firm does have it's challenges this time of year, as so much of our week is spent traveling between job sites or on client appointments, leaving a mere spare afternoon, late evening, or weekend to get all caught up on our designs.  If there was only a way I could work and design in a mobile office that follows me wherever I go.  Oh, wait.  I might have found the solution!


Actually, I commend his ingenuity and strive to get as much done as possible for his clients, but I don't think that being in a fully equipped van and try to crank out quick, same-day or even same-hour plans for each client is the best solution to offer.  I don't think that offers your best design capability.  Landscape Design is the kind of art form that merits an ample amount of time investment on the design side of the equation, in a deliberate process, as a direct correlation to the monetary investment that the client is preparing to spend.  (i.e., as a homeowner, you would not necessarily want your new koi pond, patio, outdoor kitchen, pergola, and garden borders that will cost you $47,850, to be designed in 60 minutes in the back of a van parked in your driveway.  Would you?  Well, maybe. But is that going to get you the best, most thoughtful, most creative, most unique design?  Is that going to be the distinct design that captures a comprehensive vision of what your home and lifestyle distinctly demands?  Well, maybe.  Or, maybe not. Likewise, I don't think that you can charge $500, or $1,000, or $1,500, or $2,000 on a carefully crafted design, based on 15 years of expertise and experience, for a 60-90 minute session in the van.  Those types of designs take hours and hours, and we value or time based on the hours invested in the process.  Those types of designs merit that type of time investment, as a viable component of our business.)  

Another problem would be that if I owned that van, I would be *living* in it.  "Living in a van down by the river!" as the comedy sketch by Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live went.  Or, at least living in a van in my driveway!  At all days and hours of the night, I would be in there, trying to take on far more than I should try to handle, and demanding far too much in the design process with my self-critical tendencies.  I have way too much O.C.D. for that to be a good idea.  But again, I totally admire somebody who is willing reinvent themselves to the needs of their clients, and to adapt themselves in order to make the best of their business and thrive.  Kudos.

At any rate, this is the busiest time of the year and I should not pause too long for this blog entry and get back to work.  It has been a challenging year continuing to get Landscape Design Studios headed further through the clouds and headed toward the stars, as Jack and I try to keep on a good pace and keep our meaningful, best-foot-forward design approach in process.

There are also some graduation parties and plant replacement warranties to get in check as we get into the summer.  Sometimes those irrigation systems do more harm than good in getting a landscape off to a good start, or the little hungry bunnies or voles decided that they liked the little salad bar I left for them that winter.  But, it happens, and things need to get put back together just a little after the first or second year.

We are here because we love design, and we love to see thoughtful, inspired landscapes happen.

All the best,


Here's a couple of design samples that I have worked on, in getting a pool landscape up toward its potential:

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Revising an Unsuccessful Landscape

Sometimes when a homeowner meets with a landscape designer from "Company X", things just don't seem to connect, the plans are vague, the designer is set in a specific style or "theme" that they like to work with, and before the homeowner knows it, money has been spent on "Company X" and the landscape was an expensive, unsuccessful experiment.  That was the case with this nice gentleman and his wife, here.  They ended up with a project that was not at all what they want and now they feel that they've have to live with it and try to "revive" it back into something they want, and something that works, with "lots of color".....   Away goes Company X, and now..... in comes Dave at Landscape Design Studios.

While, I am not certain that I have "slam dunked" this by any means, I feel that I have been able to add some level of balance and layering in this landscape.  It was challenging as the plants and forms were so free of structure, but by using some of what is there and then adding layers and groupings of new plants, this will hopefully add more balance to the landscape.  

With the past winter and the heavy snow punishing the more delicate plants, the main structural tree being introduced is a Iseli Foxtail Spruce, or the Somatic Seedless Blue Spruce (whatever looks the best at the nursery) which will give a vibrant contrasting steel blue foliage and a moderate growth rate giving them an additional 8-12' of elevation on their planting beds.  In planting them in clusters of threes at opposite ends of the bed, and then adding an additional crabapple at the opposite end of the bed, there starts to be some level of symmetry there.  This will help it from looking so "random".  

Then, on the ground layer, we are using vibrant copper-maroon foliage plants like Coppertina Ninebark, and other bright greens and chartreuse colors in plants like Magic Carpet Spirea and Bush Honeysuckle, and add layers of new colors in the perennial beds, rather than use three varieties over and over and to death.

Here are the mockup images for this Design Revision.