Category Archives: General Commentary

2016 Project Highlights

2016 was another successful year of landscape installations with lots of interesting and varied projects. We were fortunate to have great clients to work with last year. Enjoy the gallery of project highlights below. Cheers to 2017!

O’Connell Landscape Joins the Fight for $15

As a company we have always believed in providing stable, long term employment with good benefits. This year we have employees who have been with us for over 10, 20, and 30 year time-frames, including since our start in 1987.

To that end we have made a commitment to a base wage for our workers of $15 per hour. Unfortunately, given the high cost of living in the Bay Area, even this amount is less than ideal.

We thought it was important as a company to affirm this commitment to our workers and express support for the Fight for $15 movement. This is especially true in light of the current political environment and pronouncements by organizations such as the CLCA (California Landscape Contractor’s Assocation) and Farmer’s and Ag Associations that are anti-employee. We don’t buy the anti-minimum wage arguments that these wage floors are a bad thing. Substandard wages only force an increased burden on social services.

CLCA’s Anti-Minimum Wage Lobbying Efforts


Thanks Jerk!

I was talking with a colleague today who works for another landscape construction firm in Sonoma County.  Our conversation lit on the topic of reviews and unreasonable clients.

“How’s that jerk of a client you guys had recently, the one who wrote multiple bad Yelp reviews under different user names?” I asked.

“Oh I think they have finally given up and gone on to bug someone else,” he said. “Funny thing is, we didn’t have a lot of reviews when this guy started his campaign against us, it helped us make sure our happy clients shared their experiences online.”

We had a similar experience with a bad reviewer, who vowed to ruin our reputation with the power of his online scorn.  The current online review score card for O’Connell Landscape?
Happy Clients 18, Jerk Clients 1
h-reviews y-reviews

Completed Project San Rafael

This front yard design and installation in San Rafael  focused on creating a new low maintenance, low water use garden to replace an existing front lawn. Because of the layout of the front entry for this project, a new paver patio was installed to create a courtyard space off the front entry path. We used McNear pavers for the hardscape, accented with a Bluestone landing over an exisiting concrete stoop.

Plantings focused on creating color, texture and interest while being easy to care for. New LED lights highlight the path and new patio space.

We highly recommend O’Connell Landscape. We are delighted with our new front yard which eliminated the dreaded lawn and replaced it with an easy care, drought tolerant, very attractive landscape. Michael provided a design that incorporated all the elements my husband and I wanted, and expert advice and infinite patience on all fronts: Hardscape, plants, lighting, irrigation and more. O’Connell Landscape has a very efficient and yet flexible mode of operation; deadlines and the budget were meet. The crew is extremely hard working and highly skilled in all areas: Foundation work, paver fitting, soil preparation, woodwork and lighting installation. There was excellent communication between the crew and/or Michael and the client. In our case, approval of the plan was required by a homeowner’s association. Michael provided the requisite documentation for this process; compliments were expressed by the HOA for the complete and professional plans. The overall care and attention that our project received from O’Connell Landscape was of the highest quality. It was a lot of fun to work with this company.
-Carol Mirenda, San Rafael

Breaking down our estimates- project cost and line items

Creating a good estimate is a time consuming process. We consult on scores of projects every year, issue a lot of free estimates, and try to create a proposal that is complete and also responsive to client and project.

Our estimates are line item based, we think of them as similar to a menu at a restaurant. We outline the scope in terms of a wide array of options and detailing, and then refine the estimate depending on budget and client needs. We find line item estimates work better than lump sum estimates, especially at an initial phase.  They take into account elements like a patio that may have a range of potential sizes depending on design, say 400-750 sq.ft., and a range of potential materials- like concrete, pavers, or flagstone. Line item estimates also allow for prioritization and the division of work into phases as needed.

Here is an example of an a recent estimate in San Anselmo that shows the type of granular detail involved:


An estimate like this one takes a lot of time to put together with such fine level detail. There are 5 work divisons and 26 individual elements.  However, when we are starting out without any design documents, it serves as a great project roadmap to further develop the project.


Turned Earth Turns 500!


When I started this blog in 2005 little did I think I would still be writing it 10 years later. But here we are. The rate of posts may have slowed down since the beginning, but we just logged our 500th post to the blog. I find blogging is a great way to share our work in a more informal forum with more frequent updates than our main website. That and you can read my occasionally coherent thoughts and musings. If you want to read every post since 2005 you can visit the live archive listing page. Enjoy and thanks for reading.

-Michael O’Connell

2014 Project Highlights

While we previously highlighted work in progress construction photos on our last best of 2014 post, here are some finished project photos from our landscapes completed in 2014.



The Drought’s Over in Marin

With all this wonderful rain in the month of December, MMWD’s reservoirs are spilling. While the media is quick to point out that the drought is not over, one thing is clear, for this year at least there will be no water restrictions or drought in Marin, which gets 75% of its water from reservoir storage at Mt. Tam and Nicasio. In Sonoma County things are also looking good with Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma at about 80%.

MMWD Water Watch
Sonoma County Water Agency Reservoir Levels

Our Portfolios on Houzz

For those not familiar with Houzz, it’s a home design website with lots of good images of high end projects both inside and out. We have loaded our full portfolio on Houzz, and use its Ideabook feature to show clients precedent images and examples of our work. It’s a great collaborative tool and free to join.



A Professional Quality Portfolio Builder

We just purchased a new Nikon digital camera for our office to shoot our projects (and of course as a fun toy).

The quality is amazing, and the wait is over. A professional quality camera (one that would have been the finest available at many thousands of dollars just a few years ago) is available with a couple of lenses for around $800. We picked up a Nikon D3200 DSLR.

Resist the temptation to upgrade to something more expensive. Unless you are going to shoot weddings on the weekends on the side, or paper your office in 24″x36″ photos, you don’t need fancier features or more pixels. The camera will just be outdated in a year or two anyway.

For more of my shots, see my new photo blog- done as a lark to get me to take more and better photos.

Dr. Seuss, your plant is ready

Your Call is Very Important to Us

After a recent ongoing customer service headache with AT&T, the website Dial a Human, featured on Channel 7 on Your Side,  jumped out as a good resource. It gives the numbers to press to shortcut the interminable phone trees that are the hallmarks of most customer support.

Your call is very important to us, that is why we have optimized our system to delay you getting to speak to a real person. That real person will be in India and won’t have the training or ability to help you anyway, please continue to hold, while holding please enter your account number, so that when the agent comes to the line, we will ask you to restate your account number…

Taking the Cheapest Bid

We are doing work for a larger client for some landscape work that was installed by another contractor. The other contractor was cheaper than we are, but as we put in this benderboard along a crooked lawn edge, you can see what the installed product of the cheapest bid looks like.

Corte Madera Project

We are working on this large and flat back yard project in Corte Madera. The project will incorporate a new patio seat wall and large deck to transform the formerly unused yard.

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, 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


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.