Landscaping As A Career – Finishing Up Pt 1

We’ve covered all the origins of our landscaping careers – some of us stumbled across it while looking for summer work; some of us were hired for more permanent duties, then found we liked it all; and some of us headed directly for landscaping because we thought it offered something we wanted.

All the various appeals of the trade are fairly obvious: beginning with honest outdoor work, to the manufacture of permanent edifices, to edgy design work to a love for associating with a relatively green industry with its plants, trees and positive environmental aspects. Landscaping offers a slightly uphill course of satisfaction – “uphill” because nothing really replaces experience no matter the academic preparation and also because the work is hard, simply put.

This post will deal with higher levels of landscaping – with “Success” – including and maybe foremost from the perspective of someone advancing within a company. I do this not only because it was my method, but also because education these days has become expensive as heck. While a very opportunistic level of approach considers designers and managers from university educations as leading lights in established businesses, the real truth is that landscaping can be incredibly democratic – if not anarchistic – about who “gets ahead”.

My process, as mentioned, involved looking for summer work and finding it, moving endless wheelbarrows of dirt and mulch around, mowing and fertilizing grass and treating sick plants on a maintenance routine. Indeed, I followed a lawn mowing machine around for years before I began landscaping. It turned out to be an excellent entree to the field, knowing how plants develop and why. Lawn and garden maintenance has literally no peer for finding out the success or failures of installed landscapes. The lessons learned there will stick forever.

Eventually, I branched out – still within the same small business – into landscaping per se. At this point, I became accustomed to the entire necessarily cooperative world of construction projects. Coordinating with project managers and supervisors became as important as the work itself. Construction of large swaths of territory involves an enormous cast of characters, from the nail-spewing framing contractors to the painters who clean their brushes and sprayers on your trees. ūüėČ There have been some actual fights on job sites over testy relations over place and concern for others. Not that I would ever go there, of course.

A couple of patient years spreading dirt and taking projects from start to finish well prepare someone to take the next step if he is so inclined – to pursuing work via sales or via completing estimates for upcoming projects – or, of course, via both. Most busy companies will have acquainted one with 90% of what one will face at any landscape after 2-3 years or so of effort. At this stage, you are foreman material at worst.

So what’s next?

Landscaping Foremen are the most important players in the entire landscaping drama. They are the inter-players between labor and management. A good foreman is a money machine for any enterprising business. Creating a wholesome and active working environment produces good reliable work, on time and with happy personnel. Making money at this stage most certainly “trickles down”, into better wages for everyone, including a boss.

In fact, one could act as a foreman on landscaping projects as a career and he would be highly intelligent for it. Mature landscaping businesses in the US do billions of dollars of work every single year. I worked at Teufel’s Landscaping in Portland, Oregon where they do around $30 Million per year. When I worked there, this included golf course construction, the entire MicroSoft campus in Seattle, Intel’s campus in Portland as well as the Chinese Garden Project, which I actually worked on. Needless to say, they are always – not just sometimes, but always – in the market for landscaping foremen. Many businesses will not expand without them – they really are that precious.

Now what?

At this juncture, we reach a true point of departure. By the time someone becomes a landscaping foreman, he will have noticed a small tsunammi of guys branching out “on their own” – starting their own businesses. The urge hits us all and there are very few competent foremen who have not entertained the idea of trying to begin their own business. Now, whether or not this is wise is another tale for another day – next time, we address Making Your Own Landscaping Business.

Landscaping Machinery – The Latest

What a topic. From my humble enough beginnings as a landscaper in 1970 or so to today, not only has my trade advanced in colder climates from the description as “gardeners” to “landscape professionals” – complete with our own designers and architects advancing to the heart of all contracts and blueprints – but it has also developed technical aspects which make it all so much easier to install.

Naturally, it also saw an increasing complexity of design – “Give an architect an inch and he’ll take a mile!” – ūüėČ ¬†– hence to the notion of “hardscaping” and of all the ramifications inherent in water-related designs. But even there, modern machinery has proven adaptable and up for the changes.

Once there was a time when a pile like this was a day’s labor, delivered and loaded and then unloaded completely by wheelbarrow. I have bummed this picture from Farmer Fred’s excellent website because it rings so factually with my years of reality “on the ground”:

Lately – within the last 15 years, a yet-new technology has burst from the brain pans of those seeking labor-savings in our trade. It all revolves around the same pumping principle as vacuum cleaners except for one thing – the flow is reversible. This is what 100 yards of bark mulch can look like going in now, from a business in British Columbia:

At one time in the distant past it took 2 guys 3 days to load in this much (80-100 yards) of bark. And that was some fierce slogging, up grades and sidewalks, if hilly, and handling wet material, if rainy. To say this method is superior is today’s best joke. There is obviously no comparison.

Let’s have a look at things like dirt, shall we?

Which way is better? This one, loading each wheelbarrow by hand, then trooping up 50 feet of elevation?

Or this one, with a cup of coffee in hand?

These are not trick questions. Homeowners as well can pay strict attention to many of these developments with an eye towards their own needs. These technologies are not exclusive to landscapers whatsoever. The “thrower” above, for example, can also toss rocks, from pea gravel to drain rock, and even have them reasonably aimed to fall very much into the correct place. The mechanism in the driver’s hands above is amazingly useful, aiming the mechanism to wherever desired.

Who among us is familiar with the term “Dingo”? (No, not the Australian dog). “Dingo”, like “Weedeater” was the brand name of a product which has since evolved into 100 other names and concepts.

These machines are one man tractors – able to climb impossible grades and to squeeze into what were once impossible enclosures – such as 3 foot gates. Imagine matching the productivity of this:

Naturally, the discovery of the “Bobcat” – also the original name of a machine now sold by absolutely every major machine dealer and now more often referred to as a “skid steer” vehicle – was epic. Small enough in size for a 3/4 Ton truck to haul around, the productivity output in terms of moving materials around is literally off the charts.

Useful beyond measure, one can attach any number of helpful hydraulic tools to this machine, from Boring Implements for digging plant holes to forks for moving brick pavers or large humongous trees around.

Nearly as impressive are the modern sized excavators- some incredibly tiny but equally useful – whose uses are nearly as numerous and which vie with Bobcats for “must-purchase” items for any beginning landscaping business:

Their uses are numerous and efficient. For the record, yes, that is me riding this beast and, 2, that is a 700 Pound rock, cored through the middle for use as a Bubble Rock::

Once referred to as a “Raimey”, a machine sporting the “Knuckling Hydraulics” of this unit below became a wall-builder’s dream. Complete with essentially 360 degrees of rotation, nothing in the world is quite as efficient at placing large boulders into retaining wall structures:

Here is a look at “our version” of this cool implement:

The incredible explosion of modern technologies in dealing with landscaping products and materials goes further, as well. Here, below, are just a few items which makes what was once darn near impossible, possible.

This crane is what we used to place plants at the Portland, Oregon Chinese garden, as well as loading in monster buckets full of top soil. It is 180 tons – the largest crane drivable on city roads and it only required one setting to do its work over an entire city block.

Indeed, this may have been its only competition:

And, yes, we have used choppers.

The world of paving bricks also has developed a retinue of aids………

From small “Brick-forked ‘Dingo’s'”, to these specialisticals below:

Why waste time? ¬† ūüėČ

True Mud – Part 4 – The Final Answer

Among other events, stories like the ones prior to this represent the entire Love/Hate relationship landscapers have with the weather. Of course we have general problems also with Nature as well as the assigned time pressures of construction in general. Ironically, this last tale is an easy one but no less epic. It represented my first real encounter with the wonders of a miracle cure for all which ails the wet and miserable:  washed sand.

The picture above is the finished look – 7 years after the project was completed – of a project in North Vancouver, BC which was also a government-sponsored housing Co-op. It shows about 1/3 of the length of the “Fire Lane” – a 20′ wide course which would be used only in the event of fires and which, of course, was also used regularly (in reality) for purposes of moving in and out. The concrete material in the foreground is called “Turfstone” and is used where there is a desire to feature a lawn but to still be able to drive a 40 ton fire truck on top of it without sinking up to the gunwales. Interestingly, at least for this project, the determining qualification in testing the Turfstone and brick was a matter of the Fire Department bringing in a 40 ton truck and driving on the suckers. None of that fancy Uranium business for these guys! We passed.

Here is a look backwards at pretty much what the other photo was gazing at. The Turfstone bit is around the corner to the left on the way out of the development. As we can see, this is one long stretch of brick, mixed with cement features as well as some asphalt as we’ll see soon. It also goes to the right – Eastward – for an equally long stretch. This picture is taken at the halfway point, where the path makes a 90 degree turn. All-in-all, the brick and Turfstone elements stretched about a quarter mile. It was the second-largest brick project I ever did, including doing 55 different driveways at a development in Reno. This one was huge.

So – where’s the mud?

Well, the mud greeted us, the truth is. We began this job in pretty much the dead of Winter, with consistent and daily rainfall of one sort or another. Not only that, but the buildings shown here were in the very early framing stages, while the other buildings – where we began – were more or less done; certainly enough for us to get underway. ¬†I regret to mention all the photographic record I have from this project are ‘after completion’. I say this because of the missing humor and “perplex-ment” value because the beginnings were a most curious and bizarre process.

(As a brief “aside”, I also mention the nearby buildings undergoing the primitive framing stage of development as background to an event I also never experienced again. I had a flat tire on a Bobcat we were renting. The guy came up, changed the tire and took the flat back to his shop for repair, leaving us movin’ on with a newly fixed tire. The guy called me later. OK, it was funny: “Hey, Steve, you guys did something I never saw the likes of! You had 138 nails in that daggone tire.” ¬†……..who……..me??? ¬†ūüėČ ¬† ¬† True story!

This cloudy “after shot” shows where we encountered a most unpleasant and hardly-“ready” hole in the ground about the approximate size of Texas.

This calm, domestic little scene was once a gaping wound, 50 feet circular and 16-20 feet deep, a remnant of a misplaced excavator who dug the underground parking excavation – supposedly under the buildings – some 50 feet in the wrong direction. It also extended some 20 feet smack into the area where the pavement was slated to go. Ignored and filled with rainwater from the origins of the project, we encountered it in its full gory glory. Typically, the contractors we work for supply a graded edifice for us to adjust slightly – it’s always a part of the deal. But this time, we faced a situation so gross, it was to laugh. Naturally, I told the contractor to, ahem, “Fill the hole!”. He replied by asking me to. It was an “extra”, of course – they had elements of civilized behavior after all. But, for the life of me, this impediment was unique. It was a gosh darn swimming hole, for Pete Sakes. The problem was, they wanted it paved over within 2 weeks!

I called a few experts, all of whom agreed on a solution: washed sand. I had the father of a friend who worked for the BC Highways as an engineer confirm this as a good effort, so I started calling sand suppliers. The next day, I began greeting trucks and pups (extra trailers) in a long line of eventually something like 36 truckloads of sand. They would dump the sand in a pile and I would take the Bobcat, push the stuff and dispense with it in about 5 minutes, pushing the sand onto increasingly stable land-reclamation.

Definition of “washed sand”: ¬†Washed sand is surface mined, screened and washed to remove¬†silt¬†and clay, then allowed to¬†drain.¬†It is typically alight¬†buff color, almost off-white.

Washed sand is a finely graded sand and can be used for fill, to topdress golf course greens, and as a base for laying brick and pavers.

The sand would be oozy and pure liquid at first contact with the water. As we raised the level oh so gradually, the moisture was always there but another load on top would reveal an amazing stability. Inching our way upwards – with sand floating at the outer reaches of the expanding pile – the water could be seen spilling out in monstrous amounts as the level rose, back into the forest where we had cut a small creek to handle it earlier to get to a decline not too far away.

At about the 25 truckload level, we were still 6 feet below where we would eventually rise to and I found myself tipping a bit too frisky, shooting down on top of the stuff, and I panicked. It was here that I had the amazing sense of “Eureka – this is going to work!” Cascading downwards, slipped off into the “abyss”, I actually found myself supported – not sinking. In fact, as I tried the white knuckle experience of seeing water from a shielded area joining me – and as my guys were trying to get me chained up to a backhoe to yard me out – I reversed the machine and I actually found myself climbing back out. It did require the chain, however, as my tires began digging into the sand but I got pulled out easy enough. When this minor episode finished, I got out of the cab and stood up, smiling. Oh, and shaking a little. It was a true epiphany concerning eventual success. What shocked me most, to be honest, was how easy it was and I’m being serious. This stuff was a wonder.

We filled it in a day.

Within 3 days of beginning the “fill” we were running a big heavy “double drum roller”, complete with vibrations over the entire area as if it had always been there. The sheer volume of water and its 100% saturation of the lower levels of the sand provided an incredible compaction, just all on its own.

Here is a look at a small part of that area, completed:

Since that event, I have had occasion to call for washed sand in dealing with mud and water on many occasions. For purposes of pure traction in slime, washed sand, piled up sufficiently to travel on, makes an incredibly easy and practical solution where things seem impossible. Add that, later, as things dry up, the sand is an excellent drainage-enhancing soil amendment when disbursed around while getting back to grade, it shines even more so.

True Mud – Part Dieux

Once again, I have to speak to the fact that “Mud moves me”.

Mud, in fact, has been such an outrageous truism of my work, the actual process involved in installing landscapes required an entirely new adaptive vocabulary.

We now speak of “Spackling” an area with the back sides of shovels on those areas which are too soft to actually walk on without leaving 6 inch deep mud prints – or worse, losing a boot. Spackling means beating the mud into the condition of smoothness that can eventually receive the back mulch or the turf/sod to be put on top of it. It is a completely necessary step.

We also sometimes grab plywood or pallets and walk on them en route to various duties, finding our overall terrain “spackled” simply by weight and a flat surface.

(Teufel Nursery’s “Mud Buggy”. LOL, high tech meets the mud.)

Percolation” refers to water leaving the mud – obviously downwards. Where it will not “percolate” – where some natural or man-made structure prohibits draining – there we will see piping and methods of collection and disbursement. We would, for example, “spackle” an area of loose, rutted, slimy mud, walking backwards and working our way out, so that over time, it will “percolate” away and be quite solid after a short period of time.

Here is an excellent rendition of using plywood for grading and support at the same time.

The down side of this is that we seldom have any of that precious commodity – Time. Thus, we are beset with yet deeper problems, having to work on top of this stuff and finish the project within the always-ticking periodic framework agreed to. The picture below is an innocent enough look at a project which was one of my 10 most incredible mud events.

Looked at above, it seems straightforward enough. This picture is taken about 7 years after the actual installation and said installation was absurdly hard, made more so by an uncooperative supervisor – which happens.

The entire courtyard was completed except for the grassy area and walkways, at the time it became more problematic than normal. We had installed the big Catalpa Tree and all the plantings surrounding this courtyard quite successfully, adding terrific topsoil and plantings. What we were faced with was sodding. Following sod, we would then be able to install the borders for the limestone pathways and install the paths themselves.

Christmas was approaching. As the rain increased, daily – it was a hugely wet Winter – and the Holidays closed in, even acquiring the sod itself was facing problems. Meanwhile, the contractor was finishing everywhere except for where all “the dam mud” was. We decided we had to make a move, ordered up the sod from an initially reluctant but eventually quite happy supplier (income can be hard to come by just before Christmas).

The day began by receiving 16 pallets of sod – 8,000 square feet, more or less. Of course, even finding a place to stash all the sod was difficult because the outlying streets were narrow. Offloading the sod became as much a chore itself as the laying would prove to be as we found ourselves directing traffic and even dealing with police who fielded complaints.

Then it began snowing. ūüėČ

I am reminded of a quote I once read by William Glasser and its relevance to our theme today redounds mightily in my little head, much as it did that day, when everything seemed so impossible and so ineffably hopeless: ¬†“It is almost impossible for anyone, even the most ineffective among us, to continue to choose misery after becoming aware that it is a choice.”¬†

My point? It will show up soon.

We had raided the local Juvenile Detention Facility – a minimum security place – of kids 16 or so who the powers there were looking to keep busy, preferably with hard work. Well, we had that. ¬†ūüôā

They had asked if we could pay whatever minimal figure it was they wanted these boys to have – as I recall it was about $1.75 or so, lol. ¬†There was no way we were going to pay that. In private, with these go-getters, we secretly mentioned we’d be paying them 5 times that but we needed them to work in impossible conditions and work real hard. I felt like Charlie Sheen – WINNING!!! ¬†It was hilarious watching their eyes light up in this muddy¬†conspiracy, which got even more out of control when we mentioned we’d be buying lunch as well from McDonalds. Man, some folks are just easy.

So there we were……….16 – 2 ton pallets of wet sod, heavier than a car with 4 of us and our 5 – 16 year old 135 pound kids, already wetter than hell in 34 degree weather.¬†Intermittent¬†rain and snow finally gave way to pure snow with flakes the size of Texas as the self-made tunes broke out like Christmas caroling in Hell. As I recall, I began the music part of the festival with some strictly Elvis Christmas work, and the boys sang with me at first, eventually bursting out into more serious tuneage as we slugged and mugged our way through the worst weather I have ever encountered during a landscape project.

Making Matters Worse!! Thank You! Thank You! ¬†ūüėČ

Oh – I nearly forgot one small, teensy, weensy item. As we entered the site that morning, I stepped into what appeared to be a disturbed soil area and sank 3 feet in near-water. It was stunning – I was totally shocked at the appearance of “quicksand” in such an urban environment, and that’s a pretty monstrous understatement. ¬†When I asked the supervisor what was up, he mentioned he had forgotten about running conduit and wiring for the electrically-fed lamp posts around the courtyard and that he had completed that process the prior day (we weren’t there) with a backhoe and some grumpy electricians.

What it did, of course, was make a circle – 2 feet wide and 3 feet deep – around the entire interior of the courtyard of the most thin mud imaginable. Stepping into it was to simply disappear, lol. What a day! Lordy, I got madder than I’d been in recent years – it was an incredible mistake on his part and what he was doing was asking me to work on, in spite of the ‘quicksand’. Of course, he was also asking me to bail him out, was the truth of the matter. When we realized this, it made the entire episode somehow more tolerable, so we, ahem………get this………..”Held our mud”. Ha!

Off we go, sod in hand, a slurry of kids reeling under the weight of even just one clay-packed roll of sod, weighing in at least 40-50 pounds apiece and walking a moving bridge I supplied with strategically-placed plywood and, then, later, using the pallets we acquired as we exhausted the sod stacked on each. The famous Gene Kelly tune “Singing In The Rain” made an appearance, once the snow briefly stopped and the rain intensified, lol. It was total anarchy. Lunch consisted of wet people staying wet and shivering, then returning to the chore as fast as possible, simply to stay warm.

Finally the snow began coming in such an amazing heavy fall, and with these huge flakes, the place quieted down and it became almost cathedral-like in the silence and awesome weird sensuality amid the apparent impossibility of our quest. Our¬†camaraderie¬†was off the charts as we all – to a man, or boy – fought against currents devised to destroy motivation and energy. But we got even. We got better. As our relentlessness persisted, we began seeing green behind us, adapting ‘in situ” to the evolving problems of mud seeping through the spaces in pallets by moving them more often. The green behind us began expanding and that gorgeous space alone became a motivator of fabulous property.

Late in the day – and, yes, it was dark now – we finished. Our ten hours of effort paid off and we looked back on our accomplishment with a shared pride so rare I am not sure I’ve ever felt the likes again. My debt to the kids who joined us as well as to my normal crew showed me the depths of a gratitude that only a team working in such impossible conditions could provide. It felt like some sort of Medal Ceremony was in order.

And, by the way, it looked beautiful.

We finished the day and we finished the sod and by the time we were done, we saw 3 full inches of snow on the ground behind us with a covering settling in which would make that look small. We paid the kids their cash, had some good laughs and arranged for them to be back the next day for a huge clean-up and for some more work. Mario and I adored the guys – they were funner than fun.

The next day, the project supervisor who very purposefully missed the prior day showed up and his reaction was a total classic. To call it shocked would be a complete understatement. The soil supplier and the sod supplier both showed up as well as we had the kids undertake the “dreadful task” – ha ha! I’m a liar! – of cleaning the streets off with fire hoses from a hydrant.

“Steve, Good Lord, man, it’s a miracle! I can’t believe you did that!” Of course, this was the same guy who the day before said, “Shut up and get the dam job done.”

So there’s another good mud story.