Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Dam Ice!

Being a homeowner, a busy dad, and a busy business owner trying to get loose ends tied up before the Holidays, I have unfortunately missed some important winter maintenance that is easy to neglect -- Ice Dams!

Today is December 21, the Winter Solstice, and four days before the Christmas Holiday.  I can't seem to recall having over 20" of snow on the ground in recent history, by this time of year.  I know that some of the outlying areas of the Twin Cities, especially to the northwest, west, and south of us, probably have more like 24-30" on the ground already.  This is going to be a year of BIG snow.  So, please, don't forget to go out and take a few extra critical steps to help keep your home, and landscape, in good shape.

1. For those who have young evergreen trees, ornamental evergreen shrubs, upright evergreens, or evergreens in hedges (namely juniper, arborvitae, yew, pine, fir, spruce):  Please remember to do your due diligence and clear away the heavy snow that has collected on the foliage and branches!  Especially if the evergreens are starting to bow or bend under the weight of the heavy snow.  The plants might be resilient, but these heavy snow loads that are burdening these evergreens can easily cause permanent disfigurement or damage to them, and cause the look of your landscape to suffer.
Here's the idea, not so upright anymore, and now are ugly.
Those nice accent hedges won't be so "hedgy" anymore.

2. For that snow on your rooftops: Please remember to use a Roof Rake where the drifts and heavy snow loads have collected!   Try to remove at least the lower 6-10' of snow from the outer edge of your roof and up, or as needed upward past where the roof extends beyond the house along the rafter tail above the soffit.  Try to keep the gutters and downspouts open as much as possible to allow water to flow.  But that area melts the most slowly and can very easily cause ice dams to form!  If your home is prone to ice dams, consider using a heating element/cable/tape system to allow more rapid snow melt to occur along these areas.

Roof that is a good candidate for roof rake.

Roof raking in action.

Completed roof raking job, as long as the snow load on the rest of the house is not too heavy.

3.  For those dam ice dams: Please do what you can to remove them!  Be concerned, especially before the daytime temperatures approach the upper 20's, and snow melt begins to occur during the day and then freeze up again in the evenings.  In just a matter of one day of steadily melting snow, ice dams can become enormous and begin to cause the water to retreat back under your roof shingles and through your roof, into your attic, and wherever it decides to make it's way into your home from there.  Unwanted water is the home's worst enemy!

Dam Ice!  Mine looks pretty similar to this right now.  It is flirting with disaster!

If you are in the same boat as me right now and ice dams have formed in a big way over the short span of a couple of days (mine are 10" thick along the back of my house!) here is what I suggest:

First:  Roof Rake what you can from the area above the rafter tails/soffits and clear a path for the snow melt.

Second:  Either use a de-icing agent such as eco-friendly biodegradable antifreeze cut with tap water and spray along the edges and concentrate it into certain areas, or apply de-icing salts and concentrate them into abrupt ruts by filling sections of pantyhouse with deicing salts to create the ruts, or apply a heating cable along to iced dam in a strategic manner for short term rapid melting (it might fall off the roof as it melts), or chisel notches into the ice dam into sharp grooves that allow the snowmelt water to run off the roof... or maybe do a combination of the above.

Myself, I have used a a mallet and chisel to break sections and ruts into the ice, sprinlked on a light coating of de-icing salt, and then filled pantyhose tubes of deicing salts and laid them vertically along the ruts to make them more pronounced and concentrated areas for the snowmelt to run.  These tubes should extend up the roof past the area where the ice forms, beyond where the rafter tail meets meets the house and the snow melts more rapidly.  I found a successful remedy in doing this and checking on it a few times, maybe hammering away with my chisel a few additional times, as the snow melted and froze over the span of several days.  But it was a pain.  (*Disclaimer: this is just my personal experience, but it worked for me.)

THIRD:  CONSIDER HIRING A PROFESSIONAL SERVICE FOR ICE DAM REMOVAL.  ***Please call Dave or Jack at Landscape Design Studios, and we can get you set up with some professional assistance. *** 

As the temperatures fluctuate, please monitor the condition of your roof inside and out.  Check on the outside, and check on the inside of the attic and look for evidence of moisture anywhere that it is not supposed to be.

For more information, please refer to this helpful Univeristy of Minnesota Extension Publication:

More to come... best of luck!

Merry Christmas!


Thursday, December 9, 2010

ROI Research & Off-Season Thoughts

As a landscape design professional and business owner, my impetus in the "off season" is to improve my skills, review the paperwork from 2010 (clean the office), and shore up the business as Jack and I prepare for a the home and garden shows this winter and early spring.  (Note: What we in Minnesota call the "off season" means that there is a blanket of snow on the ground of about 6" deep that will not be going anywhere for quite some time, as the temperatures were -2 degrees this morning and 11 degrees for the high temperature today, and everyone is going to be thinking about nothing but the Christmas Holidays for the next 2-3 weeks.) 

Most people in the landscaping industry often do a blend of hibernation and snow plowing in most years, especially recently as the landscaping season might not have been as fruitful as in other years.  Being a landscape design professional, I hope to stay somewhat busy in finishing up some designs and keeping somewhat of an income source this winter, and focusing in on the year of 2011.  And... I am being stead-fast and optimistic!

A few things that I try to do is more research on the "market" we are residing in, how much home improvement was actually done overall in 2010, and is projected for 2011.  A couple of reports say that it is looking...well, decent!  (

I also like to get a sense for the perceived value that landscaping investments have in a cost-conscious environment.  People are inclined to think of any home improvement projects in terms of return on investment (ROI).  I would consider myself to be one of those people, to at least some degree.

Many of the HGTV shows and DIY shows now place a large emphasis on ROI, and will cost-analyse the proposed investment to the home and even seem to imply that it is equally or more important than the benefit of the need, use, and enjoyment that the family will get out of it.  After all, how do you apply a value or a price tag on that?   But in many cases, the new use and enjoyment, and even excitement, that people get from their "new" home has enormous value to their quality of life.  The new project gives them a reason to be excited and fall in love with their home again, and enables them to maximize the potential of their home.

This is especially true with landscaping.  A new landscape can give people the benefit of taking an unused or under-used space on their property and make it one of the most enjoyable places in and around their entire home.  (I have had people say that very thing to me.)  It can add a virtual square footage to their home, just like adding a new room and increasing the size of the home's footprint.  It also offers them a beautiful view to enjoy from many of the rooms in the house, as a connection to the outdoors.  Unlike remodeling a bathroom or bedroom, you can't often enjoy it's appeal through a window when sitting in your family room or at the kitchen table.  Your bedroom or bathroom remodel also does not express itself and change throughout the season, or call the birds and butterflies to your window like a landscape does.  

So, purposeful landscaping is always a bit more of intangible when it comes to "value" and ROI.

In the slightly more volatile economy that was last year (December 29, 2009) this article was published in the First Time Homebuyer Blog:  The way I look at it, 5 out of 10 of the best improvements (including #1 and #2) involve landscaping!

Here is the pasted blog, with all credit given to the My Fist Home team:

With the property market in crisis and house prices falling, it has become increasingly important for home owners to give priority to home improvements that will help add significant value to your property’s sale price.

But with so many home improvement options available, how do you know which to invest in first?

Below we have outlined the top ten ways to increase your home’s value:

1. Enhance the Curb Appeal  (=Landscaping!)
The simplest rule to follow when choosing home improvement projects is to consider what can be seen and work on those things first. Curb appeal is one of the primary determining factors for potential buyers. And while not a large factor in appraising home value, appearance is paramount in terms of sale price.

So how do you increase the curb appeal of your home? Start by reducing clutter, painting your home’s exterior and improving the landscaping; all things you can easily do yourself without investing a fortune!

2. Increase the Property’s footprint (=Landscaping!)
The size and living space of a home is one of the primary factors in both appraised value as well as the resale price a home will fetch when listed for sale.

If you have an unfinished basement or other space in your home that can be converted into finished living space, start there. Finishing a basement or attic space is far less expensive than a room addition.

To determine whether a room addition is a good investment, you need to research the neighborhood a bit. You want to know the average size of the homes in your neighborhood; if yours falls well below the average, then a room addition could be a good investment. On the other hand, if you home is larger than most homes in your neighborhood, you may not recoup your investment in a room addition.

3. Update Bathrooms
If your home has out of date bathrooms, then updating them is likely to be a good investment to increase the resale value. Most buyers are attracted to a home with modern, spacious and up to date bathrooms.

4. Update the Kitchen
As with bathrooms, updating an older kitchen will often increase the resale value of a property. You can cut costs by refinishing cabinets, installing new appliances, countertops and flooring and improving the lighting in your kitchen.

If you want to go that little bit further you could invest in handmade kitchen units or perhaps even a full bespoke kitchens. Given their custom nature, bespoke kitchens will usually make the best possible use of the available space, whilst also providing exceptional build quality and standard of finish.

5. Increase Storage Space (=Can be done with Landscaping!  Outdoor storage!)
The majority of house buyers today want plenty of room to store things like vacuum, ironing boards, bedding, toys etc. so anything you can do to increase the amount of space and functional storage capacity of your home will help add resale value and is often less expensive than major renovations, repairs or room addition projects.

6. Add a Garage (=Landscaping!)
If your home does not have a garage, adding one can be another good investment to increase resale value; especially if you live in an area where on street parking is not available or where crime rates are high.

7. Fix any major faults (=Landscaping? If it is a major fault.)
If your home has an older roof, heating and air conditioning system, water heater or other major component that is either at or past its useful life, then you almost have no choice but to replace such components.

For one thing, not replacing major components will lead to other maintenance costs down the road. For instance, if you have a leaky roof, it will lead to dry rot and other costly problems.
Secondly, when you do go to sell your home, these things will either need to be done prior to the sale or will be deducted from the potential sale price as credits to the buyer.

8. Paint and Redecorate the Interior
Be sure to use neutral colours when repainting your home’s interior. Remember that interior decoration is very personal and future owners may not like any bright shades you may have used, or the prospect of struggling to paint over them.

If you do decorate your home with bright paint, be prepared to paint over it with neutral colours prior to putting the property up for sale.

9. Increase and Improve Outdoor Living Space (=Landscaping!  Yes, Landscaping!)
As with adding a garage, the return on investment for adding outdoor living space such as a screened porch, deck or patio is largely dependent on geography

If you live in an area where people tend to spend a lot of time outdoors, then this can be a very good investment and is generally less costly than adding interior living space.

However, if the norm in your area, due to climate and weather conditions, is not conducive to spending a lot of time outdoors, then it may not make much sense to invest heavily in outdoor living space.

10. Replace Siding and/or Windows
Replacing windows can be another high-return investment. If your home has unsightly windows, or windows made from wood or aluminum, then replacing them with modern double glazed windows will increase both the exterior appeal and energy efficiency of your home.

So, in summary, why not look into a new landscape for your home this Holiday?  It makes a great "stocking stuffer!" 


Friday, November 12, 2010

Revisited: A Swimming Pool Landscape, Revisited

Here is another swimming pool landscape, revisited.  (This is a different swimming pool landscape that was revisited earlier in the summer.)  This design strives to maintain the general feel and layout of the old pool, and be complimentary to the style and era of the 1960s home.

This design scales back the square footage of the existing deck quite dramatically in removing the lower deck terrace in lieu of a boulder terrace with a flagstone patio surrounded by garden. It replaces the short, dry-stacked stone walls with new limestone walls that are accented by large seating boulders and a nice, clean coping stone.  The fence was pushed out to include a large oak tree as the centerpiece of the back yard, and adds a modest planting arrangement around the perimeter of the yard and around the pool to give it a formal, yet somewhat naturalistic look.  In this particular pool landscape, as in others that I have worked on in the past, I like to employ a selection of "tropical-esque" plants to evoke a tropical paradise in being around the pool.  

Note:  There once was a website devoted to the use of "tropical-looking" plants in northern landscapes in order to provide the aesthetic of a tropical paradise in a website that was called "tropical-esque".  However, I cannot seem to find that website any longer.  But there is a forum on devoted to this type of discussion. (

Here are the before views of the old and tired landscape, with the new design and new concept image that illustrates the new design.  The homeowner was not looking for a radical change to the pool or to the shape and size of the pool deck. Therefore, I made only modest changes to the overall layout and paid particular attention to the plant and materials selection in the use of natural stone.  The natural stone would be a light colored limestone/sandstone combination, with a random flagstone pattern pool deck.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

(WIPs) Works in Progress...

Hello, and Happy Fall... while it still lasts.

There are limited days left in the 2010 "Landscape Season" (as we like to call it in the 'biz), as the weather is supposed to hold in the high 40s and low 50s for the remainder of the week, and then, unfortunately, take a turn toward Winter.  It appears as though the 2010 "Landscape Season" is going to wind down to a halt.  Meanwhile, there are some things that are certainly WIPs (Works In Progress) in the process of getting done, or partially getting done, that will have to be closed down and then resume in the Spring of 2011.  Knowing how Minnesota winters go, Spring of 2011 seems like an awful long time away, and long, long time to wait. 

While I have often been welcoming of the end of the Landscape Season in the past -- getting ready for more family time, the holidays, the Winter, the climax of the football season, and some fun trade shows -- I wish that somehow we could get just another few weeks of work in for the year with what is currently going on.  I just don't like to set things down without them being finished.  Maybe that is why I am masochistic about staying up late at night, even if until 4:00 AM sometimes, in order to finish what I've started.  Sometimes getting that work done allows me to relax and be free of worry.  But inevitably, the Winter weather is just around the corner.

Works In Progress are always tricky when it comes to Winter time.  The seasonal aspect of the landscape industry in Minnesota makes things difficult to maintain any semblance of a steady stream of work and therefore a stream of income.  Just as the Holidays arrive and family vacations are to happen with the extra time on our hands, the money does not come in, and that is a tough fact of life.  However, I have been fortunate to get some amount of design work to do for the early part of Winter, which is sure to help.  But I am dreading the decline in work and the decline in pay for a few months.  I am bracing for it.

I am also eager to get started on some of the marketing planned for the 2011 season, where Jack and I hope build our business connections quite a bit further for 2011.  We have been very pleased to work with a nice network of related contractors, working in symbiotic relationships with highly reputable companies in order to elevate our selves through a tight economy and elevate each other's business.  It has been great working with these companies and we look forward to continuing to do good work in 2011.   It has been a good feeling where it seems like I have had a very high (dare I say 100%?) level of satisfaction.  I hope to continue this into 2011, practicing our business of trying to deliver exceptional design and find a good value in delivering exceptional execution of the landscape installations.  I want to make sure that we are well equipped to keep things rolling forward and continue to solidify our good reputation.

Works in Progress.. they are a scary thing sometimes.  Where to stop it, where to leave it, and where to begin when you pick it back up?  While I have a good handle on it, it looks pretty rough and tumble and not very representative of what it is going to look like when completed.  Case in point...

 We are not too far along with this pool project, and we've got a ways to go.  But the goal is to get the old pool deck removed along with the failing retaining walls, then install the new retaining walls, the new plumbing lines, electrical, gas, and the new location of the equipment.  Then, we'll put in the new equipment pad and place the equipment, install all drain tile, grade out around the pool and backfill the walls, silt fence the property, and call it good for the year.  That is about all we can do and the rest will need to wait until Spring.

Since I have often brought sports up into the mix, another Work In Progress is my Iowa State Cyclones, in both football and basketball.  They are in season #2 under a new coach, Paul Rhoads, and the future is looking up.  It is great to see my Cyclones elevating their game and getting the most of their players under Coach Rhoads, who has a knack for getting his players to give everything they've got on the field, though they were predicted to finish at the bottom of the Big 12 Conference this year with arguably the most difficult schedule in all of NCAA D1 Football.  They are up to 5 wins now, and could likely win their 6th next weekend against Colorado.  It is great to feel some pride in my Cyclones, after years of frustration overshadowing my passion for Iowa State Athletics. 

Jack (being a Nebraska alumni and rabid Cornhusker football fan) and I (an Iowa Stater) went down to Ames last weekend to see the last meeting of Iowa State since their conference rivalry began in 1908.  Nebraska has been able to elevate their program over the last century, with the 8th highest winning percentage of all time and 5 National Championships.  Now, they are off to greener pastures in the Big 10 Conference and won't likely be playing Iowa State anytime soon, if ever again.  So, we headed down thinking that maybe we'd see a respectable game, although neither of us would have imagined it would be a virtual draw, with a 31-30 OT win for the Huskers, ending on a botched 2-point conversion by the Cyclones.  It was a game that no-one who witnessed will soon forget.  In spite of our deep rooted allegiance to the opposing teams on the field, and my utter shock and extra enthusiasm because I was anticipating the game to likely be closer to the 19 point spread in favor of the Huskers, we managed to remain as friends and business partners when it was all over.  Iowa State put on a gutsy performance.

I hope that my WIP Iowa State Cyclones will keep improving and make a run for the Big 12 Championship in the next few years.  That is, if the Big 12 still exists.

Here is another WIP design that I am working on, which is a remodeling project and a landscape renovation.  The remodeling project is still being finalized, as the initial design by the architect did not provide enough space for the driveway approach to the garage and needed to be reconfigured.  I took a stab at the floor plan, creating a new plan that is dramatically different to the former layout, having a master bedroom being built off of the back of the garage with optimal views to the pool and back yard landscape.  The client wanted a dramatic back yard full of features in addition to the pool, including a pool house with fireplace, outdoor kitchen, water slide, waterfall and pond, and a place to set up a hockey rink.  This was all to be placed into an adapted Cape Cod style, with naturalistic features.

If you are reading this, and are looking to get started on your plans for the 2011 Landscape Season, please let me know.  I would be happy to help, and would be willing to make you a deal.

- DS

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Swimming Pool Landscape, Revisited.

Here is a design for a swimming pool rehab project that I have been working frantically on over the past week-1/2.  The pool is about 25 years old and is in need of some repair work, and some terracing and drastic revision of the old landscaping will make this place fresh like again and re-invigorate the look of the home and landscape.

Hopefully this project will be able to proceed as planned.

Friday, October 1, 2010

We do Presentation Graphics.

Here are presentation graphics that were done for another design/build company in another part of the country, taking their nicely laid out site plan and converting it into a detailed interpretation of the design to show their client.  Jack and I were able to turn this around in pretty quick time, especially this time of year.  Under certain circumstances, we will welcome an opportunity to do design work for other design/build companies when they need a hired gun, or to help package up presentation graphics to ensure that they have the most effective presentation as possible for their clients.  We're here to help, especially when we can all make money and do a good service for our clients.