Category Archives: General Commentary

Digital Basemaps

Continuing on the technological theme from yesterday’s post, another innovation that has made planning easier, less costly, and more accurate are digitally surveyed basemaps for landscape plans. We use a basemap creation service, a firm that specializes in providing elevation and base information for golf courses and landscape projects. Instead of measuring existing features such as fence lines, house footprints, etc. with a tape measure, the site is digitally surveyed using state of the art digital surveying tools and GPS equipment. A series of points are taken and then translated into a computerized drawing that pinpoints the location of existing features and elevation changes.

What this means is a product that is more accurate, less time consuming to create and much easier to use and manipulate throughout the design process. We are able to have the accuracy of a traditional surveyor, but at a fraction of the cost.

For more information on having a digital basemap created in the Marin or Sonoma County area check out MapMaking Systems, the firm out of Sonoma County that creates our basemaps.


The Photographic Revolution

I received an advertisement from Nikon today touting the company’s new D200 Digital SLR Camera. Targeted at everyday photo enthusiasts, this ten megapixel camera retails for $1,700. The way computers, cameras and memory storage devices have advanced is amazing. Our first digital camera for job site photography was a Casio that wouldn’t take a clear image unless it was on a tripod and probably had less than a megapixels in resolution.

Also amazing are the cards that go into modern cameras, the size of a postage stamp and over 1gb in size are amazing considering the technological capabilities of 10-15 years ago. Our early Packard Bell 386 Windows 3.0 Machine boasted a robust 40mb of internal memory. We upgraded that machine with a 100mb memory board (the size of a foot-long sub).

All this exponential storage and quality improvement means that today’s youngsters will probably barely know a film camera. And, their digital cameras will take better quality photographs than the best 35mm consumer film cameras of a generation ago!

Happy Thanksgiving

Turkeys, Thanksgiving’s most recognizable symbol, can be seen frequently in the open space and neighborhoods of Marin. These wild turkeys were introduced in waves beginning in the late 1800’s for hunting. The wild birds are actually natives of Texas, and it seems lately they can been seen throughout the county. According to an article last year in the SF Chronicle the turkey population is on the rise, especially in the North Bay.

This means in addition to a turkey on your table there may be one in the back yard and on your car out front (male turkeys especially like their reflections)

Happy Thanksgiving!

Clients in All Shapes and Sizes

One of the enjoyable things about designing and building gardens for customers is getting to work with all sorts of interesting clients. From lawyers and venture capitalists to school teachers and airline pilots, the personal interaction with our clients is one of the great aspects of this work. We get to meet all sorts of interesting people from any number of professions while working throughout beautiful Marin and Sonoma counties. Often people are making substantial investments in their properties, creating living areas, gardens, reclaiming space or doing a major remodeling job. But the refreshing thing about it is taking the existing property and transforming it to meet a mutual vision. It is something that clients can get excited about, and it makes the process fun.

Hills and Views

One of the given aspects about working in Marin and Sonoma counties is it seems that no property (save a scarce few) are on flat ground. Hillsides of all sorts present access and equipment challenges and can make large scale design elements difficult. Fairfax, Mill Valley, Tiburon and other southern Marin communities tend to be the worst offenders. But the tradeoff is some stunning views of those very hills that can make our work so challenging and interesting.

Mt. Tam Viewed from the North

The Wooded Ross Valley

The Sonoma Valley

Spam + Blog = Splog?

It looks like my problem, mentioned earlier this week is not unique. There is an article in today’s Washington Post about the rising trend of spamming of blogs. Just another result of the wild west feel of the internet.

On the Good Side of the Internet
As may be evident from reading my posts, I am a huge fan of the online free encyclopedia, Wikipedia. For those people who are unfamiliar with the site, Wikipedia is an online collaborative project where people post encyclopedia articles in a huge information sharing project. I am consistently amazed on the quality and authoritativeness of the information. Here is the power of the technology of the internet, to contrast with the spamming problem mentioned above. It seems like I find new sections of the site everyday, and it can be great for finding information on plants or other garden related information (see for example the term Espalier)

This is the Internet After All

Checking the Blog this morning there were a series of Trackback pings (for those unfamiliar with Trackbacks, a link from another blog or website posted by someone that is in reference or interest to a post). Funny I thought, haven’t received anything like this before. Upon further examination the trackbacks were, let’s just say, not for wholesome family entertainment. Spam isn’t limited to just email.

A New Toy

We just purchased a new digital camera for our office- the Nikon 7900. I have a Nikon Digital SLR (D-100), but we wanted something that could be slipped in my pocket for day to day site visits. I am sure photos from the 7900 will be appearing here and on the site real soon.

I bought the D-100 a couple of years back, when professional type digital cameras were just becoming reasonable. Now of course technology has advanced, and my old camera is outpixeled, although pixels alone do not determine image quality. Much of that has to do with the quality of the glass in front of the camera. The old Nikon has been a great camera and I have easily shot 30,000 plus images with it (including 10,000 in Europe, which can be see in our Great Gardens and Parks section)

More on the Nikon 7900:
Digital Photography Report
PC Magazine

The Power of Adobe Acrobat Professional

Adobe Acrobat is commonly used for creating documents distributed off the web, and for a host of other uses. A couple of years back we traded in our Acrobat Reader, for a version of Adobe Acrobat professional. At the time I was unconvinced that the switch would be worth it. We already had a utility from another program that could print documents to .pdf. The ability to create, assemble and add advanced features has definitely been worth while.

With advanced features of the new Acrobat pro you can imbed various types of data, embed audio commentaries that can be played while viewing, and a host of other features. It has made Acrobat a staple of our digital workflow and email correspondence.

I especially like the slideshow feature. By changing the view to full screen you can flip through a .pdf document just like using PowerPoint.

For More:
Hardware Zone article on Acrobat 7

Great California Weather

I am back in the office this week after spending part of last week attending the wedding of a friend in Lincoln, Nebraska. We are fortunate in California, not only for our notorious good weather, but also for the wide range of plants that are available. In a large part of the country, where cold winters and snow are prevalent, as was the case with Lincoln, landscapes consist of large lawns and a few shrubs.

Now we certainly have similar landscapes utilizing large lawns and border plantings in California, but we also have a wide range of options in ornamental plants that thrive in this climate. We do pay a price for this however great weather and location however. You won’t find many town homes selling in the low $100,000’s or nice homes selling in the $200,000’s.
An Arid Western View

Reflections on Blogging

As we approach 70 entries and over 3 months in our landscape blog, I pause to reflect a bit on blogging in general.

Our concept behind having a blog for O’Connell Landscape, was to give a living aspect to our site. Something that would be continually updated and that would let clients and potential customers see “behind the scenes.” Now this blog differs from some other blogs, in that, we typically don’t do blow by blows of what is happening in the company. Rather, we try to post items that would be of interest concerning gardening, materials, landscape architecture, the occasional rant, etc. This allows anyone a good general reference, and hopefully allows potential customers to see a bit of our background and expertise.

Hopefully, we have been successful to some degree in our initial goals. We have had some good feedback from clients that have seen the blog, and from strangers that may find us via Google or other means. The blog is work, typically it takes between 30 minutes to an hour per post depending on the content. But, it is an enjoyable activity, and gives some diversity to the information available on our website.

From the Comments Section

I received an interesting comment from a visitor last week concerning some errors in word usage in one of our posts. Comments are always much appreciated, as it gives us feedback for the site. In my defense, in the last 30 days we have posted on the site close to 10,000 words amounting to approximately 40 pages of text and images, and I am sure there were more than those 2 errors to be found. Should the commenter wish to take on a pro-bono editorship in Turned Earth, I am sure we could keep him busy.

On a Whole Other Level

For those wanting to see blogging taken to an art form, check business author Tom Peter’s blog/website. The staff there really put out a richness of information, that makes this serial seem paltry by comparison.

Digital Drafting vs. Hand Drafting

As it seems everything becomes digitized and done on computers it is interesting to reflect on the role of computer aided design (CAD) in landscape design. Interestingly, many garden designers and landscape architects still draw their plans by hand, especially at a residential scale. Hand drawings have the benefit of a traditional drawn look that works well for residential design. Most major design firms, in the design professions use AutoCAD or some alternative program to draft, (we use Vectorworks) especially for large scale projects.

We prefer computer drafted plans for a number of reasons. First, we typically have our sites digital surveyed with GPS technology. This ensures an accurate basemap and topographic information that can help in project planning.

The other major advantage to digital drawings is their flexibility. Revisions can be made simply without erasing or redrawing plans. We typically color our plans with digital illustration tools that give our plans a more hand drawn and colored look. Often we will include color photographs on plans that can be difficult to incorporate with hand drawn full size materials.

Digital tools are also constantly improving. Digital drawing tablets and ever improving technology mean the gap between digital and hand rendered graphics is closing.

Blog Piece to be Aired on KQED Radio Perspectives

I am happy to announce that the blog entry, “Tales of a Wireless World,” will be featured as a 2 minute read perspective for KQED public radio, our local San Francisco NPR affiliate. I always enjoy the Perspectives series driving around listening to the radio on the way to work, and fortunately this piece was accepted. For those unfamiliar with Perspectives, it is KQED radio’s “opinion page,” featuring listener perspectives and commentary.

I go in to record the piece in the studio next week and will post a follow-up as to an airtime and its location in the KQED archives.

School’s Back & Traffic is Bad

I was driving down Highway 101 last week, the central artery through Marin County on the way to San Francisco, and something was wrong. It was 8:30 in the morning and the traffic was more reminiscent of 8:30 pm. This all changed however with many schools starting this week. Now traffic is back to its typical ugliness.

Not that bad traffic is unusual for the Bay Area. According to one report, the Bay Area had the second worst traffic congestion in the nation after Los Angeles. The Marin 101 corridor is typically one of the worse traffic spots in the area in yearly traffic assessments.

Maybe the new Transportation Bill will help, as Marin landed quite a few improvement projects including the widening of the Novato narrows.

The bad traffic might have been eased a bit if back in the 60’s Marin had been connected to BART. Unfortunately, a ridership that was too small, and concerns about attaching BART to the Golden Gate Bridge prevented Marin’s connection to the system. This was compounded by fears that connection to BART would spur development in the area. Now, of course, any connection to BART would cost hundreds of millions per mile of line (Just witness the SFO airport extension with a price tag of 1.5 billion for just under 8.8 miles).

Until new projects get under way, or more public transit is added (such as light rail from Sonoma County), we’ll have to wait for the next school vacation for easy morning commutes.

For more on traffic visit the Marin Congestion Management Agency

Tales of a Wireless World

I have been fighting long hours with our company’s wireless network for a new office space, and finally I gave up on the prospect. After about $1,000 in hardware, and too many hours on the phone with technical support, we are going back to a wired network. Hopefully with the new wireless standard that is being developed, the remaining kinks will be worked out of wireless hardware.

It is amazing how the technology is advancing and becoming commonplace, which reminds me of an amazing story a colleague recently told me-

She was in a downtown area with her laptop, trying to catch up on some projects for work, and feeling like getting out of the house. She was working, undisturbed, when an itinerant gentleman passed by. His appearance was disheveled; he was dirty and verbally rambling, scabs covering his face. She focused on her work and ignored him, minding her own business as she inclined the laptop towards her a bit more. For a time the man stopped his monologue and all was silent. It was at this moment when clearly and concisely the man pointed out,

“I bet you could get wireless access from those apartments up there,” as he gestured to the surrounding buildings.

My colleague, a bit surprised, clicked on her wireless network on the laptop. Within seconds, she was connected with broadband speed to a surrounding network. Amazement and a bit of incredulity set in as she contemplated the man.

It was at this moment that the reality of our new wireless, technologically inclined culture hit. The man asked if he could check his email! My colleague, a young woman, prudently told the man that the connection had not been successful and he eventually went on his way.

With this, I contemplate whether I should have, instead of calling technical support, gone downtown in search of such a man. Maybe the dot-com recovery for the Bay Area has not been as good as imagined.

Wireless Networking

We are in the process of hooking up a wireless network for our new office space and it has been quite an adventure. We are generally tech savvy, but there have been quite a few conflicts with hardware/software and details to configure on our Linksys hardware.

I have spent good chunks of the last few days talking with Linksys tech representatives in India and the Philippines. It is amazing to think of the global reach of technology and telecommunications. The Linksys support has been good as far as these things go. No wait times and knowledgeable support staff; the products, however, have not been plug-n-play.

Pressure Washing

As we work to finish a project, we are doing some pressure washing of some existing wood railings, siding, and decking. It is amazing how the luster of wood can be brought back with some Wood Cleaner and a pressure washer.

Pressure washing is a good alternative to replacing old concrete, brick or wood in situations were the material is still sound, but has years of built up dirt, grime and wear. It is often amazing how good a material can look after some cleaning and pressure washing.

We often recommend this on flagstone installations, especially with softer stones, such as Arizona Flagstone, or in shady areas where moss, mildew and dirt may accumulate.


Scheduling your Irrigation in Hot Weather

As summer’s heat hits throughout the nation, here are a few tips for making sure your plants endure the heat.

If you are watering by hand, especially with plants in pots, make sure to water frequently. Pots will dry out faster than in ground plantings. For sensitive soft stemmed plants, watering twice per day may be required in extreme heat. If you can move potted plants to protected or shaded areas this will help.

When setting your automatic irrigation controller keep in mind a few things:

1- Up the amount of water scheduled during hot periods
This can be done two ways- by either increasing the duration of the watering, or by increasing the frequency of the watering. If you lawn is on for 10 minutes normally, maybe up it to 15 minutes, or alternatively split it into two start times, one in the morning and one in the afternoon or evening for 6-7 minutes. Splitting watering into two cycles can improve water absorption into the soil, resulting in less run off and more effective watering.

2- Remember to check your settings
Observation is the key to watering. Once you make changes, make sure to keep an eye on things. It may need a bit more or less water depending on the circumstances. If you have upped the watering time for a hot period, remember to adjust it back down if cooler temperatures return.

Remember if you make changes to an automatic controller to set it back to Run or Automatic if required; a failure to do so will prevent the new settings from running, compounding the problem.

3- Probe the soil
A good way to check to see if plants are getting enough water is to probe the soil, brushing back any mulch around the plant and feeling a couple inches into the soil around the plant. The soil should be damp but not sopping wet. Remember that in situations with clay soils, that these typically have a greater water holding capacity and require less watering time. Another methodology for checking soil moisture is to buy a soil moisture probe.

Find more information:
Be Water Wise
East Bay MUD Newsletters

Nearing Completion

We have been working finishing a project up in Sonoma. One of the satisfying parts of completing projects is seeing all the parts of the project come together in a complete and unified whole.

This is especially true of larger scale projects, where a complete transformation is made over an entire property. As I was looking at the before photos of this particular project, I could not believe the difference. The transformative part of the process is always fun to see.

Pool Wall- Before Construction

Pool Wall- After Construction

Great People

Sometimes it is easy to take for granted the great people that work for you. We are working hard to complete a project and our crews have been great. They are working in 90+ degree heat all week, and they are really working to get the project done. There is never a complaint, and they work hard all day long.

I was out on the project site doing some site and design administration work and I was tired just watching our guys work, the sweat dripping off my face after briefly walking around the project.

Great people are the starting point, from there it is up to management to turn them into great results.

The Price of Steel

While working on a recent project we needed some custom fabricated stainless steel brackets to reinforce some work we were installing. For a few dozen brackets the cost came to over $1,000 for the materials alone. Our metal fabricator out of Chico, R&D Hydraulics, stated that the price of steel has skyrocketed in the past couple of years, costing almost twice what it would have cost. Pressure from the Chinese and other developing markets has driven the cost up.

Our particular incident is a microcosm of larger pressures on businesses reliant on steel. From our metal fabricator to the auto makers of Detroit, companies are scrambling to deal with the high cost of steel. Here is a good article from the Detriot Free Press detailing the problem.

Landscape Transformations- Before & After

One of the great things about the design-build process of landscape construction is we get to take the projects from start to finish. We get to see some great transformations, and have a lot of fun with clients transforming their old yards into beautiful gardens in the process. It may sound like lip service, but few other segments of this or any industry allow that great client interaction. Each project is different and each has it owns challenges, which leads to interesting design and construction solutions for each project we complete.


Oil Prices & Energy Sustainability

With oil hitting $60 per barrel, one has to hope that eventually we will push for more sustainable energy sources on the small and large scale. The difficult thing to know is where we stand with our current oil based economy.

I have been following this issue closely for the past few months and the predictions give a wide range of possible scenarios. Some experts say that we reached a peak in oil production and that as the lines of supply and demand cross, with no extra production to fill the gap, that we will see a spike in oil prices. A few months back analysts at Goldman Sachs forecast the possibility of $100+ oil in the near future. That would obviously have severe ramifications for the US and world economies.

Conversely, US agencies such as the USGS and EIA (Energy Information Administration) predict oil supplies that will not peak until sometime between 2020-35. This is truly a different forecast than the pessimistic forecasts of the more conservative energy experts.

Unfortunately, it seems the only way we will know any thing conclusive is after we have gone past peak production. What we do not know is if there will be a prolonged plateau instead of a peak, when the peak will happen, and what other energy sources (Natural Gas, Nuclear, Hydrogen Fuel Cell, Wind or Solar) will be able to pick up some or all of the slack.

We do know that US production has peaked (early 1970’s) from around 10 million barrels of production a day to a current production of 5 million barrels. It is from this peak that many forecasters predict the world oil peak (using a model know as Hubbert’s Peak).

This is a very interesting subject for us. Obviously our fixed business costs and stream of work would be adversely impacted by such scenarios as $100 oil in the near future. It will be fascinating to see how it plays out.

The organization ASPO predicts that oil production will peak around 2007.
Copyright Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas Newsletter

Oil Links:
Hubbert’s Peak
Goldman Sachs “Is There Life after $60/bbl?”
Google News Oil Prices

David Allen- Learning Blackbelt Productivity

Here is another great resource that has been influential in our office that has helped us increase effectiveness and efficiency. Author and productivity master David Allen’s books Getting Things Done and Ready for Anything give a great system for organizing everything that needs to get done in a system that works. Allen’s basic tenet- get things out of your head (or your ineffective system) and into systematized processes that work consistently and effectively.

One of the things that differentiates Allen is that the books go beyond the theory of “Getting Things Done,” he walks you through the processes with some great tools. The tools are as simple as a basic tickler file to make sure you don’t forget your dentist appointment on Monday, to more advanced gadgets like his firm’s Getting Things Done Plugin for Microsoft Outlook.

As you can tell we are big fans. Find out more at the David Allen Company website or read David Allen’s blog for more information.