Charleston Gardens Landscaping Design

Published on June 29, 2015

Sprawling acreage or small urban plot, you can have the charm of the Deep South in your Dayton backyard.

To most people, the mention of Charleston, South Carolina evokes historical images: Fort Sumter, belles in colorful hoop skirts carrying parasols, the scent of magnolia everywhere.

If you’ve ever visited what the natives call Old Charleston, that part of the city nearest the wharves and water, or seen photos of it, you’re immediately struck by one observation: the beautiful ante-bellum homes that mingle so beautifully with modern-day Charleston sit hard by one another, seemingly stacked in rows. And that presents a problem.

There is little, if any, room for gardens.
Look more closely, however, and you’ll see that the necessity has given birth to gardening invention. For tucked behind the elegant iron gateways and white column balconies of Charleston’s historic homes are magnificent small-space gardens.

Primarily a feature of the Battery area of Charleston (the area nearest the water and the battery of Confederate cannon that fired on Fort Sumter to start what some refer to as the Great Rebellion), most of these pocket gardens measure at the most 50 feet square. Many have porches facing the garden, rather than the street. They are small, residential, human-scaled spaces that simply ooze with charm and an overriding feeling of Southern warmth and hospitality.

One-of-a-kind elegance…
What are the design elements of Charleston Gardens that makes them unique?

First, these spaces are clearly defined, many surrounded by six- to eight-foot-high walls, which – combined with the scale of the historic home, create an enclosed, private, safe feeling.

And nature itself helps define the area of these green, colorful oases. The low-hanging branches of Live Oak trees create ceilings for the gardens.

So as not to leave the impression that these gardens have been jammed into a confining space, they are planted on a small, detailed scale. This aligns the perspective of the garden to the house. However, plants have a funny habit; they want to grow and grow. That puts the onus on the gardener to cut the plants back constantly, to keep the scale and perspective in line.

“Don’t try this style,” Dave Swearingen of Site Group, Inc., cautions, “unless you are willing to spend the extra time or hire professionals to keep the plants pruned correctly.”

You can also maintain the scale of your Charleston Garden with a process known as espaliering. According to M. A. Powell, Extension Horticultural Specialist at North Carolina State University, an espaliered-plant is one that has been trained to grow in one plane. In the 17th Century, espalier originally referred to the frame or trellis on which the plant was trained. Today, espalier refers to both the two-dimensional tree or shrub or the horticultural technique of actually training the plant.

Crabapple trees and Pyracantha, non-vines, lend themselves easily to being espaliered, or trained, to grow in tight, vertical habits.

To complete the small-detailed scale look, you can use subtle water fountains, small, simple fountains that don’t provide showy displays, rather they offer a gentile background look and sound that underscores the feeling of peace Charleston Gardens evoke.

Another unique design element of Charleston Gardens is their contrasting textures. You achieve these by including mostly hardier and more evergreen plants and relying on the contrast of these various textures, rather than the typical approach of having lots of blooms. You might want to set up such contrast with small, boxwood-type leaves as opposed to tropical-type foliate. And you want to avoid using a log of ornamental grasses, except for liriope, sometimes called lilyturf, a wider-bladed grass that is one of the best evergreen ground covers, multiplying rapidly and requiring very little care.

Another unique design element is contrasting forms – upright palms played off against low, horizontal-branched oaks, or small, tightly pruned hedges against taller, elephant ear tropical forms.

The next unique element is formal design arrangement. This requires lots of use of more than one axis in your layout, to provide termination of the views and to underscore focal points. Formal arrangement requires clean, crisp architectural lines and sharp definition of lawn panels.

Now here’s something you would probably never imagine being a design element: vehicles. That’s right, cars, SUVs, and so forth. In many instances, vehicles are part of the landscape in Charleston and certainly not by choice. Streets allow minimal parking, and homeowners want to protect their vehicles, but they don’t have many garages. If this is your problem also, what can you do?

Many times, you can use a more decorative, non-traditional pavement, such as mortared brick, stone or decorative gravel, pave only the tire tracks, and only give vehicles the minimal amount of area. This will maximize your green space.

Paths are another unique design element. Charleston Gardens feature the use of mortared brick; flat, rectangular patterned flagging; and polished marble highlights. A word of caution: polished marble highlights – especially at the bottom of front steps – may be a little unsafe with our rain and winters.

Southern hospitality drives the final unique design element, which we can best characterize as show it and share it. You accomplish this with a look-through gate or ironwork that allows people to appreciate your garden from the sidewalk. Be sure to align gate and ironwork view ports on an axis, or from a strategic spot to control the views.

...transplantable to Dayton
“Okay,” you say, “this is all well and good for Charleston, but how can I make it work for me in Dayton? In our weather?”

Challenge accepted.
In selecting plants, look at form and texture, not at specific varieties. Many of the plants in Charleston are not cold-hardy – we are a zone 5B or 6; they are a zone 8 (10 to 20°F minimum winter temperatures). In our area, you can plant crepe myrtle trees, or single- or multi-stem birch. “Check out some of the new birch borer resistant varieties of birch,” Swearingen advises. “White-bark birches can add a unique architectural feel to a landscape and contrast nicely with more evergreen, lower plants.”

Redbuds, crabapple trees, boxwood, holy, pyracantha, liriope, ivy, vinca, hosta – will all work. You might want to consider planting tropicals in pots, so you can bring them in for the winter, plants such as Elephant Ear and sago palms – smaller, ornamental palms four to five feet tall. And you can use annuals, such as caladiums and coleus for tropical look.

Use the same building materials that they use in Old Charleston: mortared brick, cut stone, decorative gravels, and decorative ironwork. And consider using other materials to create the defined space. To help budgets, trees or hedges could substitute for walls. The main thing you’re going for is the sense of enclosure.

“Take a longer term approach to this type of garden,” Swearingen advises. “The required investment to really make your Charleston Garden special can be significant.”

Decks Are Back In Style

Published on May 18, 2015

“Decks are like taxus shrubs – everyone liked them and then they didn’t like them, so it’s tough to get people to see the progress they’ve made.” Dave Swearingen, The Site Group.

Ten years ago, wooden decks were almost mandatory in a well-appointed backyard landscape design. Then the initial cost of construction caused by rising timber prices coupled with the hassle of yearly maintenance led many homeowners to look for a less demanding alternative.

What took their place? In some cases, patios! With little or no maintenance and a more decorative look than concrete, patios made of all kinds of pavers became popular. Patios and walks made with pavers proved to be more flexible and less affected by winter weather than regular concrete slabs.

Stamped concrete, close to pavers in price and offering a variety of patterns and colors, gave homeowners another choice for creating an outdoor living space.

Why are decks back?

Flexibility! Some sites are just better suited for a deck. There may be lots of tree roots that could heave a paver or concrete patio; or hillsides that would require retaining walls to level out enough space for a patio. Another situation perfect for a deck is over a walkout basement with doors on the lower elevation.

Synthetics! Newly developed and improved low maintenance building materials are gaining popularity. “Synthetics have come a long way – the newer colors and textures can really add appeal and no longer look like melted down milk jugs,” says Dave Swearingen, landscape architect for The Site Group, New Carlisle.

“Originally they all faded to grey, now they are holding their color better and manufacturers are putting texture on them to give a warmer feel. People are adjusting to the look and like the idea of using recycled products.”

Changes in building codes! Handrails are being eliminated for lower decks (see local codes). “Details in handrail design can drive up costs. It also may improve the view out the back window without a handrail blocking a low window sill.”

“But consider adding plants to give your guests a visual cue of the edge if you don’t use handrails,” advises Swearingen – “you don’t want anybody to fall off! There are alternative handrails such as iron or glass, but keep local building codes in mind when looking at these options.”

New hardwoods such as IPE and Massaranduba have become available.
“These new species don’t require any staining or maintenance,” reports Swearingen. “They are being grown to meet environmental concerns. However, they do require extra labor for pre-drilling screws and may still need penetrating sealers to hold dark color.”

Material cost can be comparable with synthetics. Other decking materials to investigate are Cedar and redwood. “Either makes a beautiful surface – but can be marked with heels, etc. due to their softness,” says Swearingen. “These will require staining or sealing to hold color.” There are deck maintenance companies that will wash and reseal for you – it may be worth figuring the cost of the maintenance in!

The bottom line:
Don’t rule decks out, but have an open mind about them – they have improved!

“Maybe look into a combination of materials for your outdoor living space,” Swearingen suggests.

Sculpting the landscape with retaining walls

Published on May 11, 2015

From pillar to post, retaining walls are versatile enough to solve many site challenges.

Sloping terrain. Stormwater erosion. Boring landscaping. What’s a homeowner to do?

According to Dave Swearingen, a Landscape Architect with The Site Group in New Carlisle, retaining walls just might be the answer. In addition to creating flat areas on hillsides, walls can add dimension to a flat yard, raise areas of planting for privacy, and create sitting areas adjacent to patios.

So how do you go about choosing a style of wall? First, consider what options might work best for your style of house. “The goal is to make the improvement look like it has always been there,” Swearingen notes. Take a close look at your house – is there an architectural feature or overriding style that needs complementing? How much room is available? How high a bank of soil are you going to retain? What does your budget allow? What’s your goal: recouping the value of improvements when you sell, or simply enhancing the look...and your lifestyle?

There are two types of retaining walls: gravity and engineered. Gravity walls rely on their own weight to hold back a hill. Engineered walls require additional excavation, reinforcing, and – perhaps – a footing.

Generally, gravity walls stand less than 3’ or 4’ high and commonly consist of oversize boulders, lumber, or small, pre-cast concrete units. Boulders are more informal and natural and can be spaced with tight joints to eliminate erosion, or to allow large pockets to plant phlox, or other ornamentals. Milled, pressure-treated lumber has generally replaced railroad ties for gravity wall construction – easier to work with, but with a shorter lifespan. Pre-cast concrete units come in an ever-increasing variety of colors and shapes and are relatively easy for the casual do-it-yourselfer to install.

Engineered walls consist of pre-cast retaining wall units, mortared stone, and cultured stone; are built to hold back taller, or more severe, slopes; and usually require more complete analysis before constructing. Choose a designer that will account for surcharges, soil types, and water buildup behind the wall. Some engineered walls may even require a footing.

Larger, pre-cast concrete wall blocks are specially designed for taller slopes and do not need a full-depth, frostline footing. Mortared stone and brick are more formal and look constructed. Cultured stone is manmade and can be veneered to new, or existing, walls without the need of a support ledge.

Stand your ground
“Retaining walls fail in one of three ways: tipping, toeing out, or center buckling,” Swearingen relates. “The selection of material and installation detailing should take all three potential failure areas into consideration.”

Now that you’ve got all the dirt, step back, take a new look at your site, and consider if a wall could accent your landscape. 

Pavilions, screened rooms, shade sails, awnings, or pergolas - Which is right for your landscaping?

Published on April 27, 2015

Ah the Midwest… Frigid winter, lovely spring and fall, and hot, sun drenched summers.  We have it all!  That beautiful sunshine, however, can be a bit much in the dog days of summer.  How can you avoid too much sun, yet still enjoy the great outdoors during an Ohio July?  Maybe a source of shade is something you should consider.

The best source of shade, of course, is the one our Creator made – trees.  What an awesome idea!  They lose their leaves in the fall and winter, when direct sun feels good, and regrow them each spring for the summer heat!  Trees, however, take time to grow – so unless you are fortunate enough to have mature ones already on your property, you probably need to add some man-made shade to get maximum enjoyment out of your outdoor space. 

The good news is that you have a lot of options.  Depending on how much weather protection you would like along with your shade, you can choose from roofed pavilions, screen rooms, shade sails, retractable awnings, or arbors/pergolas.  So how do you choose?  What options might affect your choice? 

Start with the obvious things many people want – shade and rain protection.  Nothing keeps rain away like a roof.  Awnings and shade sails are usually made from fabric, so while they might give some protection, they won’t help you much in a longer or harder rain.  Pergolas and arbors are even less protection.  But before you cross them off the list, consider: would you really sit out there in a rainstorm?  Or is the purpose for the structure more for ambiance?  Having a ceiling to define an outdoor room – whether that ceiling is solid or partially open, gives a space a sense of enclosure and intimacy – something missing in many suburban back yards.  Enclosure and intimacy are beneficial in creating a nook to relax and connect with family and friends.  So maybe only a sense of enclosure, not necessarily weather protection, is your determining factor…  Getting to the bottom of that question can be a challenge, but the budget and usage implications are huge.

Maybe there are activities or features that you want that will help decide between more and less cover.  Heat sources, lighting, entertainment accents, and ceiling fans all work more efficiently under a roof. Electronics are more protected, and furniture fabrics will last longer out of direct sunlight.  Firepits probably don’t belong under any shade structure since rising heat could melt or discolor paints and plastics. Fireplaces, however, which include a chimney, work in either setting.   Although overhead lighting can be installed in both open and enclosed shade structures, you will get more of an inviting “lit room” effect from a ceiling and roof.  Climbing vines, which give an informal classic look, work best on a more open structure.

Another consideration is size.  How big does it need to be for how you will use it?   A nice sized table and chairs require at least a 10’ diameter circle.  A living room grouping would be about the same.  Eating/serving bars can be various sizes, but figure at least a 24” width per person at the counter.  Grill counters are various sizes too, but we recommend not smaller than 5-6’ wide.  Grill/prep counters are ideally around 36” tall, while eating counters are often 42” tall, so if you have the space, make room for separate counters of both heights.  Why does size matter?  One challenge to any design is working around posts.  On a pergola, plan for posts no further than 12-14’ apart.  On a roofed structure, modern trusses make the potential span greater.  But either way, posts will be a part of the design!  One way to get around at least a couple of posts is to attach one side to the house.  However, many people hesitate to do that because it will partially block light coming into the house.  Each situation and usage is unique – there is no right or wrong answer – just the one that suits you and your lifestyle the best…

While you are researching possible solutions and dreaming about your new covered space, check with the local building codes.  Some jurisdictions have “rear yard” stipulations – if a structure is attached to the house, for example, it has to be at least 50 feet from the rear property line.  However, in those same codes, a detached pavilion or pergola can be much closer to side and rear property lines, since they are viewed as accessory structures, not part of the house.  It can be a little confusing, but you certainly don’t want to get halfway through a project and learn that it is not in compliance!  Talk to your local zoning and building departments, they can walk you through your options.

Although the challenges of designing and installing an overhead structure may seem daunting, the ambiance and enjoyment they provide really is worth it!  Start a photo file today – either online or pages that you have torn out of magazines.  When it comes time, you’ll have a great idea of what style, size, and detailing you like.  And in no time, you’ll be enjoying your covered patio space – even in the heat of summer!

A new approach to paver patios and hardscapes

Published on April 20, 2015

Pick up any design magazine and you’ll no doubt find a section on “what’s new”.   We place high value on having something that is not readily available or embraced by the masses.  Marketers even recognize a whole class of consumer called early adopters – people who are willing to stand in line for hours, if not days, to be the first to have the latest phone, clothing style, or tablet computer.  The “new” bug has rubbed off on nearly all of us – what worked 10 years ago is old news.  Some industries, like fashion and technology, are naturally equipped to provide the new, smaller, sleeker, current product.  Others, like the landscape and patio industry, are a little slower to adopt new materials, colors, and styles – preferring to see how consumers react to  someone else going out on a limb before retooling  manufacturing for new products.  Henceforth, in the arena of outdoor living, “new” is sometimes a reincarnation of “old” in a fresh style or arrangement.

Pavers, for instance.  One refrain I hear frequently is “I don’t like pavers”.  After some questioning, I find that the real concern is either “I don’t want my patio to look like everyone else’s” or “I’ve had a bad experience with a previous patio”.  Many times the first concern can be eliminated with a glance through a current catalog.  There are many shapes and styles available, not to mention textures, laying patterns, and combinations of products that can give a new look.  Pavers, by definition, are units that cover a road or path – the word means a lot more than a chunk of concrete that is 4”x8”, laid in running bond or herringbone pattern.  Some newer shapes duplicate stone – both irregular shaped and square cut – quite convincingly.   The second issue can usually be overcome by sharing the industry standards that have been developed for base compaction, sand stability, and manufacturing tolerances.   All of these ensure a patio that won’t get humpy or move around if installed properly.

Lets consider why pavers are so popular.  They have been around basically forever – think of cobblestone streets in ancient Europe or colonial America.  The concept of individual units interlocking to support weight is age-old.  More recently the Dutch helped develop our current version, which was brought to the States in the early 1970’s.  The basic concept of the paver hasn’t changed much over the years, but differing  thickness of base gravel  is used for various applications: holding up industrial machinery, supporting  cars and trucks, and withstanding light foot traffic.  One real benefit of a paver installation, especially here in Ohio, is its ability to gently flex with our winter freeze/thaw cycles without separating or cracking.  Manufacturing strengths of 6-7000 psi (compared with the average concrete slab at 3500 psi) assure a dense surface that won’t shatter with winter icing.  Pavers are not mortared together as a continuous unit, so they can be lifted up and reset, rather than having to be torn out and completely redone if settling occurs.  After years of development, the “paver” installation system has been proven to be very beneficial, especially in colder climates.

On to the fun stuff:  what’s it look like?  As paver manufacturers expand their offerings to duplicate more and more natural materials, the price benefit when compared to the actual natural material gets less and less.  In other words, you can probably have the real thing for about the same price as the imitation material.  You do need to know a few things to be a careful consumer – some types of sandstone, for example, are soft and won’t hold up very long, so you might want to consider the same look in a man-made product.  However, classic materials like flagstone, bluestone, and travertine have been used successfully for years, withstanding our winter pressures.  Advances in mining and stone cutting allow many of these stones to be machined to uniform thicknesses and dimension, making installation quicker as well. Homeowners now have the option of a timeless look with the reduced-maintenance benefit of a compacted gravel sub base – the “paver” installation process.  Other advantages of natural material include minimal fading and a look that doesn’t go out of style.  From modern to country to classic, there is a natural stone that will fit the setting and won’t need to be replaced anytime soon.

Natural stone mining and machining processes have also opened a wider range of materials to the market. In addition to natural products that have a relatively smooth “natural cleft” surface, stone that formerly was too rough for a patio is being smooth milled so your chair won’t rock around.  One piece of advice: get a sample of the material being used and carefully consider whether it suits your needs.  A rough stone has a great natural look that might be suitable for use as stepping stones, an occasionally used patio, or a bench pad, but too bumpy for furniture or guests in formal heels.   Although many of our local limestones are too rough for a patio, a stone trucked in from a neighboring state will give you a more usable surface and probably be worth the additional investment.

We’re probably not going to change our appetite for the new, especially as technology and fashion re-invents itself every 6 months.  But when it comes to your patio: take another look at the classic materials – they may be available in a fresh look and fit into your budget better than imagined.

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Why are landscaping projects so expensive?

Published on April 6, 2015

So you’ve perused the magazines. Checked out the makeover shows.  Looked around the neighborhood. Made a list of what you want to have.  Now your dream project has its first setback, and it is a common one: sticker shock.   How could a project that only takes a half-hour on tv (wink, wink) cost  that much?  Here’s the dilemma that many face: I know what I have been dreaming of, now how can I match my dream to my budget realities.  What makes this so expensive?  Although the list of potential price drivers is long, lets look at a couple…

Access is always a factor in pricing.  Is the project just of the driveway or street curb, or does the contractor have to haul all the materials around back, one load at a time?  If the access is not easy, you will no doubt want to assure that the lawn is restored once the work is complete.

Many homeowners don’t consider is the cost of hidden elements like concrete footings, drainage systems, and base preparation.  After all, you don’t eat lunch on a concrete footing, right?   However, footings and drainage are what makes a project last and endure, so they’re not something that you want to cut corners on. Besides, for certain looks like mortared stone and brick, footers must go below the local frost level to prevent cracking.

Patios are probably the most popular and useful request we get.  So what makes some patios cost more than others?  The easy answer: materials.  Grey concrete?  Pavers? Stamped concrete?  Natural stone?  Generally speaking, the more classic and decorative the surface, the higher the installation cost.  But think of it another way: what is the lifetime cost of the patio?  There are some beautiful natural stone patios around that are 30 or 40 years old and still look good.  Materials with a less expensive initial installation may not look good in half that time and need to be redone…

Another consideration on patios is elevation.  What modifications need to be made to make a level spot for the patio?  Building up or cutting away grade adds cost.  The other aspect of elevation is in the design of the space.  A step or two up and down can separate a large patio into usable zones and provide visual interest, but a flat surface is less expensive to install.  Is the grade change worth the extra cost?

Retaining wall pricing can vary as well.  Again the most common variable is material.  Are we talking about a man-made, commercial style block or a natural, mortared stone wall?  Not the same look, not the same price!  Some walls are quickly installed using boulders that are set with machines, while others require laborious hand chipping and fitting.   One thing on retaining walls: don’t skimp on below-grade prep or drainage, releasing water pressure from behind the system.  Weather fluctuations can be brutal around here with freeze/thaw cycles, groundwater, and drought, all of which adversely affect a retaining system that is not properly engineered.

One factor that can work in your favor is quantity.  It takes a while to begin and prep a process like laying a sidewalk.  However, the repetitive nature of the work means greater efficiency in installing a driveway.  Larger quantities should equal a lower “per square foot” price.

Think back to a time you sat with a few friends in a private outdoor space.  One of the characteristics that you might have enjoyed was the intimacy of the space.  We don’t typically have dinner parties or close conversation in parking lots – we rely on enclosure and detailing to set the mood of the space.   Many of our customers use their patios or decks as an outdoor retreat – a place to get away from the fast pace of life.  One common request is to create a place of intimacy in our customer’s backyards – setting the mood for a formal dinner or even a relaxed family barbeque.   However, most yards are pretty much blank slates.  Therefore, we have to create the illusion of enclosure through built walls, hedges, and ceiling plane definers like shade trees and pergolas. This doesn’t have to be a budget breaker, but carefully consider whether some detailing features would make your patio more livable.  The more intimate and detailed an outdoor patio is, the more that it will be used.  Don’t invest in a space that looks good, but is unwelcoming and too open to the rest of the neighborhood.

Other bell and whistle items such as irrigation, lighting, outdoor kitchens, and shade structures can raise the cost of the same size patio area from affordable to pricey..  But, each of these adds enjoyment, takes away maintenance, or contributes to the overall ambiance of the space, so you may want to keep them in the plan…

As we all know, there are many companies out there – from fly by night outfits that might not be around in 2 months to stable firms that offer long term careers and benefits for their employees.  Being a legacy company is not cheap – health insurance, proper liability coverage, and supporting trade organizations all take time and money, but these are factors that attract talented employees to the company and leave you feeling like the job is in capable hands.   Picking the right company and plan can make big difference, not only in the installation of the project, but in the longevity and future enjoyment of your space.

“The bitterness of poor quality is remembered long after the sweetness of low price has faded from memory.” Aldo Gucci

Patio fire features and fire pits

Published on March 30, 2015

Conjure up with me a fall memory.  Beautiful leaves, football Saturdays, and crisp evenings around a campfire come to mind for many.  About that campfire… What makes it so magnetic?  Is it the dancing flames?  The gentle warmth?  A hint of smoke or cooking food in the air?  Or is it the way the warm light dances on the faces of loved ones around the fire.  At any rate, fire is magnetic.  I find myself sort zoning out while staring into the dancing flames…

Not surprisingly, as we look for ways to relax, one of the trends gaining interest is fire in the landscape.  No, not the desert wildfire type, but contained campfires, grills, and fireplaces – not to mention torch lighting or fire/water features.  What options are available?  What are benefits of each?  What do I need to consider as I work a fire feature into my setting?

The basic types of fuels that are common for contained patio fire features are gas and wood.  Natural gas comes from a city supply, which runs through the neighborhood via underground pipes and is sold to the homeowner by a supplier like Vectren.   Another gas option is propane, which is distributed in hand-carried steel tanks or delivered into a tank on your property.  Think of the beach ball sized white tank that accompanies most gas grills.  Either gas option requires knowledge and probably a licensed plumber to hook up.  Gas is distributed under pressure and must be regulated for a controlled burn.  Stainless rings distribute the gas and may include an electic or battery powered ignitor.   The flame height and volume is controlled by a valve, giving more control over heat-output.  Wood is another popular fuel.   Although it is messy to store, more hassle to clean up after, and harder to acquire, wood gives ambiance that is just simply “the real thing”.  Many of us like to hearken back to rural roots with a good old fashioned campfire – and gas seems sterile..  However, many prefer the simplicity and cleanliness of gas, not to mention the ease of starting and maintaining the fire.  How much of a traditionalist are you?

Where the burning takes place is a whole different conversation.   There are many types of containers that are safe for burning: from firepits to portable patio bowls to fireplaces to ignited gas bubbling through water.  Lets look at a couple of the more common ones.  Perhaps that simplest design is the firepit.  Constructed of mortared brick or stone, retaining wall block, or maybe just a grouping of boulders, a firepit contains the burn within a certain area.  It may also provide a place to sit or rest your feet near the flame.  Some products will crack when exposed to intense heat, so it may be necessary to line a firepit with a metal ring or heat-resistant fire brick.  One benefit of a fire pit is the cost.  Another is that firepits allow heat from the fire to go out in all directions.  Since heat rises, fire pits that are easily kept low in the landscape allow for more usable heat.

Maybe a simple firepit is not stately enough for your tastes.   You may want to consider an outdoor fireplace.  Most fireplaces are constructed with a kit of concrete parts, which can then be clad with various finishes – stone, brick, retaining wall block, etc.  They also should be constructed either on a footing or a thickened, reinforced concrete slab to prevent movement.   A little creativity and knowledge of concrete block can create unlimited sizes and shapes of fireplace, while mixtures of cladding materials make the veneer interesting.  Wood boxes, hearths, and chimney pots can be added as customizing features.   Fireplaces can also be functional – pizza ovens and smoking chambers create tasty patio fare.   Again, gas and wood are the most common fuels used.

There are several design considerations that you want to consider when planning for your fire feature.  One question often asked is about built in seating.  If you really like that look, go for it, however I’m not a big fan of it – either the smoke is blowing the wrong direction, the seats are too close or too far away, or they’re just not all that comfortable to sit on for hours.  I much prefer flexible seating – chairs that can be moved closer, further away, or out of the smoke.   Another consideration is whether the firepit should be in the center of the patio.  Here again do whatever looks good, but consider how putting it in the center limits the usefulness of the space.  Plan how often you will be using it to determine how much prominence it should have in the plan.  If you have lots of other patio space, a dedicated area might make sense, but if you like to be flexible in how you use your patio, put the firepit off to one side – preferably the east side so west breezes blow the smoke away from the patio.  Pay special attention to what is near the firepit or fireplace.  There will inevitably be coals that pop out of the fire – make sure that mulch or other flammable items are away from that zone.  Putting some thought into the design and location of the fire feature will ensure safety and enjoyment of all involved.

It may be hard to believe now, but soon a nice fire will feel good.  Plan now for fall barbeques, football game parties, and outdoor family time enjoying s’mores and hotdogs.  Make this the fall that your family remembers!

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The Site Group featured in HouseTrends latest landscaping challenge

Published on March 26, 2015

Once again HouseTrends magazine has chosen to feature The Site Group in their latest backyard landscaping challange. Click here to view the article.

Shedding some light on landscape lighting

Published on March 23, 2015

There are more reasons for you to light your home’s exterior than meet the eye.

Take safety. The last thing most of us want is to have folks taking a header on our property and possibly hurting themselves. Nighttime increases the risk for such accidents. Clearly illuminating steps and walk entrances with attractive, functional lighting can go a long way toward ensuring everyone’s personal safety.

Nighttime provides good cover for anyone with a little burglary on his or her mind. That’s another area where exterior lighting can be extremely beneficial. Not only will strategic placement of accent lighting fixtures illuminate dark corners around your property discouraging anyone intent on breaking and entering, but it will also allow you to view your yard more clearly from inside and see who’s lurking about.

Beyond ensuring safety and providing security, well-planned exterior lighting creates pockets of interest that can result in a dramatic, overall atmosphere for your home. With exterior lighting, you can create a visual path to your front door. Lighting can highlight structural architectural elements, such as fountains and sculptures, or landscape features, such as topiary. And lighting trees and shrubs can also help you frame your property and walkways in a welcoming context.

The key here is to hide the source of the light, so that what visitors and passers-by see is the effect of the lighting and not the lights themselves. And take care not to over-light your home; less is generally more.

Shed a Little Light on the Subject
There are five different methods of lighting at an angle. The first is called uplighting; architectural and landscape elements become very dramatic when you illuminate them from below. The reverse technique, called downlighting, involves placement of lighting fixtures above landscaping, walking paths, or other areas of special interest.

“We use downlighting wherever possible to create extra interest on plantings or walkways,” notes Ben Bayer of The Site Group in New Carlisle. “This technique removes the lamp to areas less likely to be disturbed. It also washes the ground naturally, and the bugs attracted to the heat are not at your level.

When mounting downlights in trees, The Site Group uses a special tree mounting bracket and stainless steel screws. They encase the wire in flexible conduit and strap it with special tie straps to allow for tree growth.

“We like to use a combination of uplighting and downlighting on the front of a residence,” Bayer explains. “It gives the homeowner different pockets of interest, natural light, and a clean-looking landscape during the day.”

See the Light of Day...and Night
Then, there’s moonlighting. You can create shadows with lighting that rival nature’s own. For example, you can use downlighting out of trees, to produce a soft, natural effect similar to moonlight. Or you can also combine this type of downlighting with uplighting for an absolutely astounding effect.

Grazing involves using lighting to accentuate the texture of any surface. And silhouetting is a technique by which you backlight architectural elements, trees, or other objects so they stand out in front of a wall, fence, or other surface.

According to One’s Lights
Pathway lighting is a good news/bad news situation. It affords you lots of design options, due to its visibility during the day. Path fixtures are useful in certain applications, but – because of kids, balls, dogs, and poor staking methods – they can lean over time. And that can detract from the overall look of your property.

You can get more bang for your buck by using down-lights, rather than pathway fixtures; a properly placed downlight will do the work of one to four path fixtures. “When path fixtures must be used,” Bayer points out, “we use a high-quality copper, brass, or powder-coated aluminum with a heavy-duty 14” stake to keep them straight.”

A Sight for Sore Eyes
Exterior lamps are available in a wide range of color options. Incandescent lamps give off a warm, yellow light ideal for path fixtures. The white light of halogen lamps makes perfect spot lighting and flood accent fixtures. Mercury vapor lighting emits a blue-green light ideal for a natural looking, tree effect. The bright white of fluorescent light makes it best for lighting signs. And the orange-yellow light of high-pressure sodium lamps rocks as roadway lighting.

And color filters are available, to help you achieve certain looks, such as, for example, using blue filters on halogen lamps to create natural-looking tree lighting. 

Phasing Your Landscaping

Published on March 16, 2015

How do we get started on this project?  Do we have to do it all at once?  Will our whole yard be torn up at once?  These are questions that we frequently hear.  Taking the plunge and allowing a landscape contractor to tear up a perfectly good yard – with the promise that it will be better in the end – takes faith.

If these questions and concerns resonate with you, maybe you should consider a phased approach to your project.   Why do people phase work?  For many customers, it is simply a budget thing.  They want to get started on the project, but it works better for them to bite off manageable chunks over a longer period of time than do it all at once.  Others may have a pretty good idea what they want in one area of the property, but are uncertain what would be best in another area.   Some like to start a relationship with their contractor slowly – do a small piece and see how you work together.  Is the design a reflection of your vision? Does the contractor show up on time?  Keep to a reasonable schedule?  Does the contractor give you a lot of change orders that really should have been included in the original bid?  Starting slowly can give you an indication if this is the right contractor for your long-term needs.

So how do you decide where to begin?  Your landscape architect or designer should really be able to walk you through this.  One thought is to tackle the biggest potential problem.  Do you have a drainage issue that needs addressed?  Has there been settling on your patio that is threatening to channel water back toward the house?  Do you have several events coming up that will require additional patio space?  Maybe your first phase should address one of these problems.  Another starting place is simply the most bang for the buck – what is the least usable or least attractive part of your outdoor space?  Maybe the front yard looks decent, but you really could use more patio space.  Or, perhaps the front is bare, and improved curb appeal is priority one.    One thing to consider – if you do the front now, will it get torn up to create access to the back yard?  No one likes to see last year’s investment damaged so that this year’s project can occur.  A good reason to start in the back!  I regularly counsel my customers to focus on what makes the biggest mess.  Then, when the messy projects are complete, the final touches of finish grading, lawn work, and planting have a chance to be just that – the final touches.

There is no argument that a well maintained landscape with five years’ maturity is much more pleasant to look at than a first-year job.   As plants mature, if they are spaced correctly, they take up the space that they were planned to occupy; filling out beds, hiding views, and providing shade that new plantings can’t accomplish.  This is one reason people plant trees as an early phase – get them in the ground in the right place so you can enjoy them as they mature.

What are the downsides of phasing?  It will probably cost more to do the project in stages rather than all at once.  Contractors need additional fees for setting up equipment, lawn repair after each stage, and permits that could be rolled into one bundle rather than strung out in several pieces.    Another downside is that the initial steps may not change the appearance of the property very much.  Hidden items like drainage pipe, electrical wiring, and water lines set the stage for future beauty, but don’t make your yard change much on the surface.   Some customers see the disturbance of contractors in the yard multiple times as a bigger hassle than just getting all of the mess out of the way at once.  Others don’t mind the process and prefer the gradual pace of a phased project.

If this is the summer to get started on the yard, but you don’t know where to begin, maybe a plan that can be phased  is a good idea.  The first step is to develop a master plan.  Don’t feel like you need to nail down all areas of the plan – by starting to consider the use of space, you can research and inventory ideas before commencing work in that area.  Websites like are a great place to research looks and options.  Don’t feel like you are not a desirable client if you aren’t willing to plunk down thousands of dollars before testing the relationship a bit.  This is a project that your family will enjoy for a long time – plan, get a quote that considers phasing, and dive in!

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