Category Archives: General Commentary

Dealing with Pests Organically

This is the time of year for aphids and other pests to be causing problems with roses, annuals and perennial plants. Rather than spray a chemical pesticide we have been using Fish Oil based Organocide. It carries no restrictions on the label (caution, warning, danger, indications) and is suitable for organic production of fruits and vegetables. You may have to apply it a bit more frequently, and it may smell a bit fishy, but it works quite well. It has it’s limitations, but works quite well if properly applied (always read and follow application instructions). Safer Soap is another good option for a less toxic option for pest control.

For More: See Harmony Farm Supply’s Website of Pest Control Options

Image from Amazon

Music Recordings That Are Actually Free

While making some updated video slideshows for our website I ran into a problem- finding a nice soundtrack that I didn’t have to pay royalties for. After all, classical compositions from before 1923 are in the public domain right? Sure, but their recordings are not. Fortunately there’s Musopen.com, a website that has .mp3 and sheet music of public domain performances. A great concept and one that will hopefully continue to grow!

A Quick Word on Gratitude

We were discussing this a bit in the office today, while reviewing and debating the latest daily events at our company and thought it was worth sharing. Sometimes you just have to step back from the hectic busyness of each day and take a moment to express gratitude for what we have and the times we live in. A few things to be grateful for:

  • We live in one of the most prosperous, freest societies on the planet
  • We are living in the golden age of man kind. Witness to the greatest technological innovation in history, dwarfing all previous periods in richness, scale, and complexity. All while benefiting from being the longest lived, healthiest people to ever live.
  • We have unlimited information at our fingertips at an instant. Your smartphone can access information that would dwarf the Library of Alexandria.
  • A too large portion of the world lives on $1-2 per day. Has limited access to clean water, lives in poverty, lacks education, and is subject to all manners of disease that most of us do not even have to consider.

It seems like at times all people have an all to great capacity to take things for granted. To use one accomplishment as stepping stone for larger, greater accomplishment. Take a step back, a deep breath, and use your perspective to express some gratitude for all that we have. The poet Derek Mahan expressed this beautifully in his poem Everything is Going to Be All Right:

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate

the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window

and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

There will be dying, there will be dying,

but there is no need to go into that.

The poems flow from the hand unbidden

and the hidden source is the watchful heart.

The sun rises in spite of everything

and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight

watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.

Derek Mahon

Source: http://www.panhala.net/Archive/Everything_Is_Going_to_Be_All_Right.html

Current Project- Petaluma

This intimate back yard on the west side of Petaluma was an underused lawn area and deck with poor ground clearance and usability. The solution was to install a new permeable paver patio area, with matching block seat wall. Instead of using a permeable paver, a traditional paver was used, but downspouts and catch basins are directed into a permeable gravel field below the pavers, insead of the usual paver foundation of impermeable baserock.

Sand is being screeded to level and lay the pavers on this Petaluma backyard patio.

So You Want a Reel Mower

There’s no better “green” lawn mower than an old fashion reel mower. Trouble is, reel mowers can be a lot of extra effor and take extra sharpening of the blades to be effective. New designs are helping to address some of these shortcomings. Fiskars new Momentum Reel Mower helps to solve this problem by incorporating a flywheel, meaning less effort to push the mower through the grass, and better blades that need to be sharpened less often.

Estimate Etiquette- The Good and Bad

We have been bidding on a lot of projects lately. On some of those projects we win the bid, and on others we don’t, that’s the nature of the process. One interesting aspect of estimating process as a whole is what I call estimate etiquette. There are two parts to estimate etiquette, that of the contractor and that of the client. Like any aspects of courtesy these are subject to interpretation and depend on the context applied.

In general good etiquette by the contractor means being punctual for meetings, creating a detailed and pertinent estimate, and delivering it in a timely manner. Good etiquette by the client means respecting the time and effort bidding contractors put into estimates on their projects (which can be substantial),  and updating clients as to the status of the project and their final decision moving forward.

For our estimates in general, these are done at no charge. They usually include an in personal on-site consultation and subsequent proposal presentation with the creation of a detailed estimate, and often supplementary materials information, specifications or conceptual designs. Client responses to the estimate can vary, but clients are usually either responsive and update the bidding contractors on the status of their project, or they fall off the face of the earth and do not only not update the contractor, but don’t respond to follow-ups via phone, email, carrier pigeon, etc.

Now, all this being said, we aren’t always perfect in the process of soliciting estimates for our projects with sub-contractors. The purpose of emphasizing good estimate etiquette is to help encourage some common courtesy and professionalism on both sides of the estimate process.

Cotati Co-op Native Garden

This post gives an overview of a volunteer project at the Cotati Co-op Preschool-

Dear Cotati Co-op Families,
I met with the board last night to discuss a volunteer project to re-landscape the Mark Roberts native garden beds at the entrance to the school. Sherry and I have been discussing this work since last year. I own a landscape firm in Petaluma and would coordinate the work and solicit donations to the school of required materials at no cost. The board voted to move forward and discuss in more detail next week at our parent club meeting. I hope this will be a nice enhancement to the front of the building and be a good educational demonstration of native plants.
Cotati Co-op Front Landscape Existing Conditions
Planting Overview: The new plantings would be divided into two themes for the existing planter beds. The section under the Walnut tree near the parking lot would be a native grass garden and would feature Deer Grass, Berkeley Sedge, Blue Fescue, and Reed Grass. The section closer to the front entry gate would be the blooming section. Plants here would be low maintenance native perennials featuring California Fuchsia, Artemisia, California native Sage varieties and Yarrow. At the sidewalk lower groundcover plants would replace the existing shrubs, which have become overgrown. You can read more about the plants to be installed in the Plant Palette PDF.
Cotati Co-op Proposed Landscape Plant

Work Scope: The work scope would involve two distinct phases. First would be new plantings, which would require the following steps-

  • Remove existing plantings
  • Cap and convert existing spray irrigation to drip irrigation
  • Prep and grade new beds
  • Plant new plantings with amended soil and slow release fertilizer
  • Install new drip irrigation tubing and emitters to all newly installed plants
  • Install a thick new layer of bark to finish the area, retain moisture, hide drip tubing, and reduce weeds
  • Install botanical signs giving the common and latin names of newly installed plants.

Fencing Phase: The second phase would be to install a new extension of the perimeter fence to encompass both entry walkways from the front sidewalk, all the way to the parking area. This would have the benefit of enclosing the entire front of the school in a secure yard area and has been on Sherry’s wish list. As part of this work, the existing sign would need to be either relocated closer to the street, or replaced with a higher visibility sign that would face West Sierra Avenue.

Timing: Work would take place over winter break and be completed either sometime in December or January. I estimate 3-4 volunteer days being required for the planting phase, depending on the number of volunteers we have.

I look forward to discussing this more next week.

Michael O’Connell, O’Connell Landscape
(Zoe O’Connell, Butterflies)

Changing to WordPress

We just changed our blog software from Movable Type to WordPress. What a difference! WordPress is faster, more user friendly, open source and popular- all great features for a blog platform. For the non-professional web developer Movable Type wasn’t the right fit for us.

The best part of Wordpess is the photo management. Unlike Movable Type you can upload multiple images and organize them in galleries.

Post Referenced in Lawn and Landscape Magazine

Our post on our pricing and the pricing of our vendors was referenced in a story in this month’s Lawn and Landscape magazine.
Just goes to show that these type of pricing issues are critical to being profitable in a difficult economy.

In other blog related items, we just rebuilt our blog, combining an older platform of the blog with a new rebuilt interface. This means that over 350 posts from 4 years of Turned Earth can be found in one place and searched. Enjoy!

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Our Demonstration Garden

Come visit our demonstration garden at our Petaluma office!

The garden is still under construction and features constant additions. Below are a few of the landscape installations we are featuring now.

Smart irrigation Controller: with easy to use Solar Sync sensor that monitors and changes watering based on weather conditions

-Water Features: Self contained and in ground water feature samples

-Materials: Flagstone pathways, redwood fences and arbors, deer fences, decomposed granite and more

Synthetic Turf: installation and material samples
DSCN0162sm.JPGVegetable Gardening
DSCN0158.JPGPlanters that are simple to install, easy to maintain and can produce a lot of food

 

Our Prices Are Lower, How About Yours?

As a result of slower times in the economy we have lowered our prices and found ways to cut costs on overhead to become more efficient and pass savings on to our clients.

I wish I could say the same thing about our materials suppliers. We have seen little if any change in prices for many of our suppliers. In some cases costs are going up. How about those delivery and fuel price increases when gasoline costs were above $4.00? In many cases they have remained as well.

How are we adapting? We are shopping around all our major materials purchases, negotiating with suppliers, and purchasing from suppliers we wouldn’t have used before that have cheaper prices. In some cases that means even discount chains like the Home Depot. On a recent order of mortar for a flagstone patio they were 30-40% less than large landscape material supply chain in the area.

Our Refferal Program

Personal relationships with our clients and excellent customer service are two ways we distinguish our company. When customers refer family, friends, or neighbors to O’Connell Landscape they are paying us a great compliment. In appreciation for your referral, we have set up a new thank you program. Just have your referral mention where they heard of us, and when we start the referred client’s landscape project, we’ll contact you to discuss your thank you gift. You can be a past client or simply someone familar with our work, either way, we have established this program to recognize our efforts and pass our name on to other clients.

Our Thank You Gifts

-Dinner for 4 at Buckeye Roadhouse
-A Weekend Get Away for Two at a West Marin B&B
-Or a Napa wine tasting tour

Consider a Survey When Working Near Property Lines

There is an article in the Marin IJ today about homeowners in Mill Valley that build their landscaping and pool house on open space and MMWD land. Over 7,000 sq.ft. of improvements ended up in the Homestead Valley open space, sparking the outrage of neighbors and open space advocates.

This is a good example of why in many cases homeowners should consider surveys when working on fences, large parcels, or other landscaping near property boundaries. Should adjacent properties sell or if neighbors want to expand, encroachments can lead to frustrating legal conflicts and the possible removal of improvements.

New Office Location

We have moved our administrative offices to an exciting new location in Petaluma. The address is: 3028 Petaluma Blvd North, Petaluma, CA 94952

We still have an office and construction yard in San Rafael, but this new office has more space and room for landscape demonstration areas and will allow us to better serve both our Marin and Sonoma clients. More details to come soon.

Our contact phone remains the same: (415) 462-9729 or you can dial our Sonoma County number (707) 313-5320.

Trying a New Smart Phone- The Samsung Saga

saga.JPGWe love technology around the office, and what better way to embrace new technology than by upgrading to the newest and latest smartphone. This was my plan at least when ordering the new device, a Samsung Saga. One day later, in was in the box ready to be sent back (thanks to Verizon’s 30 day trial policy), and a Blackberry was ordered in its place. The problem- too much of a good thing. The Saga combines an optical mouse similar to the trackpad on a laptop, with a touchscreen, Palm Treo like stylus, and keyboard. This would all be great if you were using the phone as a complete PDA, and a laptop replacement, but not ideal for quick navigation and email on the go. None of these navigation methods worked flawlessly, and coming from the Blackberry like Motorola Q9, it was all too much technology.

How We Track Time on Projects

For years tracking time on our construction projects was a bit of a challenge. We used a paper time card with different activity codes for the construction activities on our various projects. Rather than a simple clock in, clock out, this is what is known as a time and attendance system. Last year we implemented a new digital time tracking system, Pocketclock by Exaktime. Exaktime has been developing time tracking solutions for a few years, but we found their Jobclock system, that used a special padlock that was placed on the jobsite, didn’t work well for the way our projects and crews were organized.

Recently, they released the Pocketclock system that was based on a Palm or Windows Mobile device. Rather than track time on paper, our employees enter their work actions on a PDA in the field. The difference has been noticeable. We can more easily track, analyze and bill our clients for the time we spend on projects, and it has streamlined our whole payroll process and simplified entering and bookkeeping tasks.

This a definitely worth a look for contractors or anyone who tracks individualized tasks out of a typical office environment.

PocketClock_rev1.jpg

Mindmanager Update

We wanted to follow-up on our previous posting on our upgrade and customer service experiences with Mindjet and the Mindmanager planning software. Following our previous posts, we contacted customer service via the web to tell them about our experience. We quickly received responses from customer service letting us know that they would issue a courtesey upgrade for the newest version of Mindmanager. We also received a message from one of Mindjet’s customer advocacy representatives following up our issues:

We take our relationships with our customers as the utmost priority and I deeply apologize on behalf of the Mindjet team for your negative incident. With new product introductions, there will be special situations which we will consider on a case-by-case basis, such as yours. We are grateful to have such passionate customers who care
enough to let us know when they are pleased and more importantly to let us know when they are not. You have provided us with valuable feedback and we hope that you will give us a chance to improve and earn back your trust.

In this era of limited customer service, we appreciate Mindjet’s efforts to satisfy our concerns with their upgrade process for Mindmanager and quickly respond to our concerns.

Mindjet’s Mindmanager: Upgrade No More

One of the pieces of planning software we use frequently to brainstorm and plan out projects is Mindmanger (see our 2005 post here). Recently in September, we upgraded our software to the current version 7.  A couple of months later in November we got a notice that new version 8 had been released. Rather than pay again for a new upgrade only 2 months after the initial purchase we called up Mindjet product support number to see if we could upgrade to the newest version. The support representative tersely informed us that we had missed the cutoff for a courtesy upgrade by a couple of weeks. We don’t begrudge software companies for trying to generate revenue and keep their products current, especially a small company like Mindjet. It would have been nice if they informed purchasers that a new release was imminent to avoid upgrade fatigue. On the service side, because they are a small company, they should display more flexibility in working with companies like ours who are loyal users and want the new features provided in the software upgrades. Instead, because of their lack of service, this is one software product we will no longer upgrade.

2009 Calendar

Our 2009 Calendar is now mailing out. This year’s version features images of the beautiful vistas, landscapes and plants of Utah’s national parks.

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A Beautiful Southwest Sunset

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The Delicate Landscape Arch

As always, if you would like a free copy of the calendar, email us your name and address and we will send one out to you.

Online Resource for the 2007 California Building Code

California has implemented its new 2007 building code based on the 2006 International Building Code. The full set of the code is available in hardcopy from reference publishers, but previously was not available online through an official outlet such as the California Building Standards Commision. An open government advocacy website public.resource.org has scanned an uploaded copies of the full code that are available for download in .pdf.

The website argues that under 2002 Federal Appeals Court Decision that posting the code information online does not qualify as copyright infringement because once the code is enacted as law it becomes part of the public domain and does not qualify for copyright protections.

Publishers and code writing bodies argue that in order to produce building codes they incur costs that need to be offset and funded by the sale of code information. The open government proponents counter that increased access to the code and other open source legal information benefits society, and improves adherance and knowledge of building code standards.

 

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MMWD’s Long Term Water Plan

There was an editorial in the Marin IJ from Marin Municipal Water District’s general manager recently about the districts plans for water conservation. Like all water districts in the state, the needs and demands on the water supply are becoming more pronounced.

In about one in 10 years, the district would ask customers
to voluntarily reduce water use by 10 percent. In the most severe drought years, MMWD would require customers to reduce water use by 25 percent. In spite of these reductions in drought years, MMWD still would not have sufficient water to meet customers’ needs. To close this gap, customers would have to reduce water use in all years, reducing 10 percent immediately. Demand reductions would have to increase to 20 percent in 2025 because population growth in Novato and Petaluma will have first call on supplies from the Russian River aqueduct.

Conservation is obviously the main tool the water district has at its disposal to manage the water supply. This needs to be combined with increased reclaimed water efforts and could be supplemented be a future desalination plant the district has been exploring. In any scenario, it seems that water supply will be a major future issue in the county and a general issue in the landscape industry.

The Water Pinch

There was an interesting article in today’s SF Chronicle about water restrictions and golf courses in the East Bay. One course profiled is trying to drill wells to supplement its water needs. Continued drought conditions, water restrictions in the Sacramento Delta, and Southern California water demand are going to make these issues and difficulties more and more commonplace.

A Differnent Way to Control Weeds

While driving by Sears Point Raceway (Infinion) recently in Sonoma, I noticed large flocks of sheep grazing the grass and weeds on the edges of the racetrack property. Turns out there is a free range sheep grazing service Wooly Weeders, which provides the sheep to control weeds for vineyards and other large properties. Apparently, the sheep can be more efficient and more ecologically effective in removing surplus weeds and grass. A simple and old fashion innovation for the problems of mowing large areas.

For More:
Article on Sheep Grazing in Vineyards from the Chronicle

Interesting Smart Irrigation Controller Overview

Smart irrigation controllers that automatically adjust based on plant water needs and weather patterns are becoming more and more common in landscaping of all scales. The Chronicle had a good overview in today’s paper about the role of climate-based controllers and some different manufacturers. Definitely worth a look; in the current drought conditions, water districts are going to start mandating these controllers be installed for new and existing landscapes.