Nov . 8, 2013: I learned a new word today. If you don't use a new word, you lose it. In fact, some educational psychologists say you must hear and use a new word at least 35 times before it becomes a kept portion of your vocabulary. The word I learned is "psithurism" (1) (sith-err-iz-um) which is the sound the wind makes when moving through trees. How on earth, I thought, am I going to manage to use the word "psithurism" (2) thirty five times in conversation or in prose. Perhaps in a greeting, "Good morning! Such a nice day with a gentle psithurism (3) in the air". But then folks might look at me a little odd and I'm not expecting to greet 35 people psithurectically (4) anytime soon. But then it struck me - my blog! On a blog you can subject the world or your reader(s-maybe) to all manners of repetition. Yes I will blog about psithurism (5). Psithurisms (6) a good idea, I think.

I discovered this word (psithurism (7)) on an online seminar for arborists. The author of the online article (on psithursim (8)) talked about how the great bards of the past, Longfellow, Thoreau, Liu Chi had been inspired to write great prose and poetry by the sound of wind moving through the trees (psithurism (9)). How they had waxed poetically about how the trunk, form and leaf texture of a tree affects it's tonal, or shall I say psithurectic (10) properties. How we arborists might want to look at the technical side of psithurism (11). How one group of people hear the wind (psithurism (12)) . . . . . I'm getting tired of this as , I'm sure, are you, so let's get it over with - psithurism, psithurism, psithurism, psithurism x 20) . Anyways, how one group of people hear the wind and anaylze it's effects on our soul, and another, like we arborists, analyze it's effects. Perhaps there's a little bit of scientist trapped in a poet's soul and a little bit of poet in the scientist.

Is there a difference in the psithurism (36) of a Doug fir forest, with its short needles and dense crown and a lodgepole pine forest with its large needles and open crowns? Does rough bark make more noise than smooth bark? Does an oak in summer sound different than an oak in winter? I don't know. But then I've never stopped and taken the time to psithurize (37) the moment. Next time I'm pruning a tree I believe I will.



January 13, 2013: So back to the three things we have to do with stormwater: collect, convey and dispose.

Collecting precipitation hasn't changed much over the years. It falls on our roofs and is captured by gutters or it falls on the ground and the soil captures it. Unless your home is located inside the Tacoma Dome, that's still going to be the way most water is collected. Nothing is going to change much there. Let's look at what we can do to convey the water that's collected: 1) on the roof and 2) in the soil.

On the roof (and I'm assuming it's a roof with gutters), that water is going to be conveyed into downspouts. An alternative to ugly downspouts are rain chains. While traditional downspouts are a closed system, rain chains open the stormwater to the air so there may be some water splash and in very cold weather you can end up with an ice pillar. You also have to recollect the water at the bottom of the rain chain if you want to continue to convey it someplace. A single rain chain will accommodate about 30 linear feet of gutter. Rain chains are also more expensive than traditional gutter downspouts, but they never clog. My recommendation is to use rain chains where they will be seen and keep traditional gutters where they won't be seen.

When the water gets to the bottom of the downspout or rain chain we have to figure out what we're going to do about it. Do we want to reuse that water? Do we want to convey it somewhere else where it may be beneficial? Do we want to convey it somewhere else and just get rid of it?

Traditionally, that stormwater has been conveyed by underground pipes to the sewer system and thence to the sewage treatment plant. It's a terrible waste of good water and a big cost to taxpayers. Ah, how much friendlier to the environment and the next bond levy for a new sewer plant it would be to utilize that water on-site.

Reusing it means irrigating on demand. Rainwater harvesting it's called. In an earlier blog, I pontificated on the advantages and disadvantages of rainwater harvesting and I won't flog that blog again except to point out that in the Pacific Northwest we have ample rainwater resources, but not when we need them in summer (when we need to irrigate). That means storage. The more rainwater you need to irrigate, the larger the storage you need. A 55 gallon rain barrel at the end of a gutter might last a week or two during the summer for the average yard (not counting turf). We can also convey that rainwater to a more elaborate storage container such as an inground cistern tank or an aboveground one.

If we instead wish to convey that water to where it can do some future good, then there are a variety of methods we can use. One of the most popular these days is the rain garden. In the simplest terms, the rain garden is a depression that is constructed as a temporary storage of rainwater. The idea is for the water to be held and percolate into the soil and when planted it's providing an attractive semi-irrigated part of the landscape. The key to a functional rain garden is that it be sized for amount of water it will collect, designed and constructed to promote soil percolation, and planted with plants that can tolerate water extremes (remember we get rain in winter, not in summer). Proper selection and use of native plants that have adapted to just such a watering scheme is key. The rain garden is not the place to display your marigolds and petunias.

What about drainage solutions in the surrounding landscape. You first have to ask the question of where is the water coming from. Well rain, of course! But, is it just what falls on the ground or is there water directed from the roof or runoff from your neighbor's hillside? Identifying the sources will help choose the drainage solution.

For water to move on top on or in the soil, there has to be a slope (2% minimum). Sometimes we can contour the landscape surfaces to promote slope for drainage. That's often what's done around the foundation of your house to get water away from it. But when there is no slope in a landscape you have go underground to create a slope. This is done by trenching and installing drain tile, a generic term for flexible pipe with holes in it that water can seep into and flow down. The drain tile is sloped and it must lead ultimately to someplace where it is disposed. On flat ground that ends up being a big hole in the ground that either has a collection tank or is filled with drain rock, called a rock sump or, more erroneously, a French drain.

The most typical drainage problems I get called upon for is lawn drainage. The most frequent complaint being that lawn is so wet in the winter it can't be used for anything - the kids can't play on it, the dog comes in tracking mud all over the house, please make my lawn dry in the winter, or at least not a swamp. If ripping out the lawn, re-contouring the surface, and re-installing the lawn is not an option (and it is usually not due to expense and topography), then trenching and installing drain tile is the most feasible solution. These underground pipes are usually installed in a pattern that resembles a candleabra or herringbones. The tighter the soil, such as clay, the tighter the pattern. Drain tile installation is not cheap. It can run from $5-$11 a lineal foot. If the lawn has an irrigation system in it, it makes it an extra challenge(cost) to install drain tile. No matter what marvels I may be able to achieve with drain tile, I can't promise your lawn will be as dry a billiards table in the winter.

There is another alternative to solving drainage issues I haven't spoken about and that's what I call "re-purposing". That is accepting the way the world drains (or rather your yard) and finding another acceptable purpose for it. Perhaps that chronically wet area can be made into an aesthetically pleasing wetland, bog garden, or rain garden. Can a soggy area of the lawn be re-purposed to a shrub bed?

Wither the water goes. You can change it or find a way to live with it. That's something you, with the help of your local landscape professional can decide


Nov. 22, 2012: After our week of torrential rains, it's nice to get a brief respite before the next deluge. It's also a great time to find drainage problems. Unfortunately, it's not a great time to fix drainage problems. Most drainage issues involve excavation and excavation of saturated soils cause a whole set of challenges.

There is the challenge of access. Most drainage work involves digging and that's best done by a piece of equipment such as a trencher or a mini-excavator. Getting that machinery to where it has to work without tearing up the surrounding ground is a problem. It can be done by laying out mats of plywood or rubber for the machinery to traverse, but its extra time and its extra cost.

There is also the issue of yards with fences and gates too narrow for a trencher to get through. I once installed a lawn drainage system where myself and the crew dug and wheelbarrowed 5 tons of wet clay out of the backyard through a narrow gate. I made a solemn pledge to my back never to do that again.

There is the challenge of compaction. Many drainage problems are compounded by the fact that the soil infiltration rate (how quickly water enters into and percolates through it) is impaired by compaction. On the fine silt and clay soils that we have in much of Washington County, compaction is compounded by the soil being saturated. When excavation work takes place on these saturated soils we may be doing more compaction harm than we're doing drainage good.

I'm a guy of substance, meaning I tip the scales at over 200 pounds. When I go tromping over the soil I exert a force of about 26-27 PSI (pounds per square foot). A 3000 lb. pickup truck will exert the same amount of force on the soil. No, I am not as large as a truck, but compaction pressure is a factor of weight over the area of distribution. The narrow area of impact made by my heel as I walk has the same force as the truck which distributes its weight over 4 tire points. I wear rubber boots when I'm doing drainage work, but if I wore stiletto high heels I would have a compaction force of 9000 PSI! That's one (of several) reasons I don't wear high heels on the work site.

There is the challenge of where do you take the water. When it comes to drainage there are 3 things we have to do with the water. We have to collect it, convey it and dispose of it. All three can be a challenge but the disposal is probably top on my list.

First and foremost, you cannot dispose of your excess water onto your neighbor's property. That causes lawsuits. In many municipalities, you are not allowed to dump it into the street or storm sewer system (some may require a permit). You need to find a place on-site to dispose of it. Finding a place in your yard for a rain garden or a dry well can be a challenge. In short, with excess water in the landscape you are redistributing it to another area of the landscape where it will be less of a problem. With creative drainage solutions that water might just end up being an asset rather than a liability.

Conveyance of your landscape water can be a challenge, if you have a flat site. For water to move, there has to be a slope involved. At least 2%, if we're talking about water flowing over the surface of the ground. On a flat yard, the water just sits. You either have to change the surface so you get slope or you have to create an underground slope by installing sloping drain tile. You still have to dispose of it someplace, which can be a challenge.

Perhaps you've noticed I've used the word "challenge" alot. Challenge is a wonderfully positive word to use when you really mean pain in the tukhis and that's what doing landscape drainage work in the winter is, a real . . . . challenge. But when the ground is dry, ah that's a different story! Great things can be accomplished in drainage with less cost and less destruction.

Well, like the winter rains, I have gone on and on and it's time to convey this article to a proper disposal. In short (thank God!), when the ground is wet, see whither it goes; when dry, fix whither it goes. There are many creative and sustainable solutions for drainage and I will touch on some in Part II of this soggy saga.

Keep dry.


August 5, 2012: When you call 811, they dispatch a local utility locating contractor to mark the public utilities. The “public” part of public utilities is typically the service line that runs into the meter or junction box on your property. Gas, electric, cable TV, telephone – these usually have boxes or meters on your house and the utility locator will paint the underground locations running from the street through your yard to those locations – but not beyond.

There are a whole host of other things underground that are not marked: water lines, sewer lines, storm sewer lines, electric or gas lines installed by the owner, irrigation pipe, irrigation valve wiring, landscape lighting wire, septic tanks, and drain lines. To locate these you must hire a utility locate contractor. It’s not a free service, and, even then, they can usually only locate utilities with metal in them, such as steel pipe or copper wire. Plastic materials such as PVC irrigation pipe or ABS drain pipe, cannot be picked up on their locators. I often have to locate a PVC water service line into a house to attach an irrigation system to it. If I can’t put the point of connection near the water meter, where I’ve got a good chance of finding it, then I must dig guestimated holes in the yard hoping to discover it. I once engaged the services of an amateur dowser (water witcher) to find a water pipe. I can’t say I was impressed as I found the pipe only after the third hole I dug.

Locators mark the location of pipe with different color paints. The typical color scheme is as follows:
Orange: Cable TV, Communication (telephone, internet) cable
Red: Electric
Yellow: Gas
Blue: Water
Green: Sewage

A defined paint line on the ground does not mean the utility is buried directly underneath. Locators have a 2 foot leeway either side of the actual location to where the mark may be. The other factor that is not identified in the marking is how deep the utility is. It would be nice if all utilities had a minimum depth that was required by uniform code. In reality, public utilities come in varying depths that is governed by differing codes, construction practices, and what happens after installation, like grade changes. Depth also varies dramatically (they get much shallower)as the utilities near your house. Electric and gas lines tend to be the deepest (2-4’). I once nicked an electric line with a shovel . It was the last shovelful of the day and I didn’t even notice it . When I came back the next day to finish the hole I noticed a charred area at the bottom of the hole where the electricity had been arcing into the ground. I thank god for fiberglass shovel handles.

The worse culprits for being shallow laid are the comm. wires (TV, telephone, internet). I have encountered them as shallow as an inch below grade. The most nerve racking part of installing an irrigation system is when your irrigation pipes must cross or come within 2’ of a marked utility. It means you must find that buried pipe or wire, but you must find it very gently. Ever play the board game Operation? It’s a lot like that except with greater consequences. All it takes is nicking the outer jacket of a fiber optic phone cable and it has to be repaired. I’ve often had to painstakingly dig with a trowel to find the buried treasure, which deeply cuts into production.

As I mentioned before there can be a host of non-public (owner installed) utilities that are not marked and are seldom even governed by any codes. In this category I most frequently encounter irrigation pipe. Trade acceptable practices dictate that irrigation lines be buried 12-18” deep minimum. But I have found many systems that are from 2-3” deep to exposed on the surface. The simple act of planting a shrub can cause an hour repair job. Along with irrigation pipe comes the wiring that controls the irrigation valves which often runs in the same trench as the pipe. Good installers will tape the wire to the underside of the pipe before burial, so that anyone excavating later will encounter the pipe before they encounter the wire. All it takes, again, is a nick in the wire insulation and that wire will short out and your valve won’t work. Finding that short later on in the ground can take hours to chase down.

If dealing with buried public utilities and non-public ones weren’t enough, to add insult to injury, there is the blight of subterranean trash. This scourge on the earth typical takes place in the construction of new buildings. Carpenters, plumbers, electricians, masons (IMHO, the worse offenders) and other trades people on site, including landscapers, are often tempted and often succumb to burying their unwanted construction debris on site. This leaves me, the irrigation/nightlighting installer/repairer to encounter this later in my excavation efforts. I’ve encounter entire buried sacks of lime and mortar (them masons!), 8 foot 2 x 4’s, tar buckets and paint cans, pieces of pipe, an antique round bottomed ginger ale bottle, but the worst is encountering scrap wire. When I’m digging and my shovel pulls up a strand of wire, my heart sickens, my pulse races, the hard-wired fight or flight instinct kicks in. Do I run? Do I find out what this wire is attached to? Do I inquire from the homeowner whether they still have phone service? I am proud to say I’ve never run, nor buried the wire back up and feigned ignorance, but when I find that the wire was some piece of scrap tossed in hole or trench I want to fight. I want to have that scrap wire tested for DNA and have that matched with a list of known debris buriers, so that I may confront them with their deed. Construction people: Please, out of mutual trade respect and world peace, don’t bury your crap on the site! Someone will find it and someone will curse you.

I know there are more harrowing professions than mine. Soldiering, firefighting, bomb disposal, mine clearing, teaching - all carry greater consequences. I would submit, however, that harrowism (that's actually not a word) is a matter of perspective. As I lay beside the trench probing for a wire or pipe with my trowel, you can't tell me the pressure isn't on. One awkward slip of the shovel and my customer is without internet or water for days. Day in, day out, it can be a tough thing to live with.


July 28, 2012: Beneath the ground you and I tread upon lies an unseen world of stuff, some benign and some deadly. We give little thought to this subterranean world as we skip and play on the surface, but for those that must delve into its depths with a shovel it holds terror and apprehension, or it ought to. (Cue ominous music here). Electric lines, gas lines, sewer lines – things that can kill you if you hit them or at least make you wish you were dead temporarily. Let me share with you my world, the world of the irrigation contractor, the world of digging in minefields. (Cue final crescendo here).

When a burglar is breaking into your house or you’re having an attack of angina, who do you phone – 911. When you are about to dig, you call – 811. One digit away from an emergency. I always thought that number was apropos and ironic. It’s the number to the Utility Notification Center(UOC) and every state or region has one. . Call it and they dispatch an underground locator within 2 -5 business days that will mark the public utilities (or at least the more dangerous ones) that run to your house for free. It’s a preventative number. Hopefully by calling 811 first, you prevent someone else from calling 911 later when you’re in convulsions on the ground because your shovel bit into an electric line. I’ve often wondered how many people in emergency situations dial 811 by mistake. It’s probably quite a few because the first automated answer you get when you call says if you’re intending to dial 911 you’ve got the wrong number.

There is a federal “Call, Before you Dig Law” as its colloquially known. As a contractor that digs, I am required to call on everything I do that involves digging. Even homeowners are required to call if they are excavating more than 12” deep. That’s something as simple as installing a mailbox post or planting a tree. If you don’t call and hit a utility line, you can face a substantial fine. If you do call and they mark the utility’s location and you hit it, you can be fined. The point is that you need to know the location of what’s underground and not hit it, and there is lots of stuff underground these days. The world beneath our feet is rapidly becoming a world of rampant subterranean urban sprawl. . . . Don’t get me started on that!

Throughout the years, I have had my share of utility mishaps. There was the time years ago, when I was planting a tree with a group of high school students in front of the county central educational district office for an Arbor Day ceremony. The district superintendent and my own principal would be there to get the photo op of watering the tree after planting. On digging out the hole, we severed the mainframe computer feed cable that connected all the schools in the county to the central office. Without data, school bureaucrats were paralyzed for several days. Needless to say, Arbor Day ceremonies were drastically dampened by that event.

Or there was the time that I was installing an irrigation system and cut a cable TV line. . . to the neighbor’s house. I hadn’t noticed it, at the time, but when these two adorable little twin girls ran out from the adjoining house in their Saturday mass dresses sobbing great crocodile tears, followed by their mother saying that their cartoon show had suddenly cut out and what was the problem . . . well I knew something was amiss. Their grief stricken accusatory faces made me feel such shame and remorse. It was as if I had strangled their pet rabbit. I am still haunted today by that image. I often wonder what happened to those little girls. Did they grow up to be happy well-adjusted young women or did they grow up scarred and fearful that at any moment their view of life could be suddenly shattered by some stranger in muddy work clothes? It’s a tough thing to live with.

I can’t speak for other landscape professionals, but I have developed a fear of digging over the years, which can be a very disturbing fear if that’s your business – digging. I thought maybe there’s actually a clinical disorder about the fear of digging. I went online and the closest thing I could find was a fear of dirt – rupophobia, but this had more to do with obsessive cleaning than digging. If there are any clinical psychologists out there who would like to pioneer the research of a new disorder, they could be the first champions to find a treatment for “subterraphobia” – fear of what lies underground (I actually just made that up but it oughta be in the lexicon). I could see exposure therapy and hypnotherapy and forums such as SA (Subterraphobics Anonymous) being developed to combat a disorder that for so long has been hidden and in shame for irrigation professionals. It’s time to bring subterraphobia out of the trenches and into the light of day.

Ah, you may say, surely having those utilities marked, as required by law, should be sufficient to treat this fear. But, not all underground utilities are marked and not all marked utilities are exactly where they are marked. What is marked, what is not marked, how accurate the location marked is, and still more personal utility trauma stories (right now this is the only therapy I have available) will be covered in the next installment, Digging in Minefields, Part 2

F & P