April 18, 2017: Now that spring seems like it just might come, the first sunny days we get , the landscape contractors' phones will be ringing off the hook from potential customers. Being as how I'm a retired landscape contractor, I can now reveal the secret inner world of the landscape contractor - how to find a good one, how to get them interested in your project, where the secret locations of Illuminati landscapers meet and their secret handshake. . . . Well, maybe not the last two, if I value my life,

First of all, it's important to understand that there is a difference between landscapers (landscape contractors) and landscape maintenance people (lawn maintenance, pruning, etc). The former is a licensed profession, the later is not. The former can not only plant plants, but can build retaining walls, decks, fences, patios, outdoor kitchens, irrigation and landscape lighting systems, and lots more; the latter cannot. The former has a bond and liability insurance, the latter may or may not.

Oregon has the most regulated landscape industry in the US. That is a GOOD thing for you, Ms or Mr Consumer. Licensed landscapers must pass a licensing exam that test for technical knowledge and business knowledge. Once a candidate has passed, they must obtain liability insurance and a bond before they can get their business license. If they intend to have employees, they must show proof of having worker's comp. What this means for the consumer is that :

1) You won't be getting someone who was a shoe salesman yesterday and then thought they'd be a landscaper today.

2) If you believe you've had poor work done, you have recourse by filing a claim on the contractor's bond. The Oregon Landscape Contractor's Board (LCB) maintains a free claim and adjudication process for the consumer.

3). A contractor's employees are covered by worker's comp. That means if a worker is injured on your property, you won't have to sell your house to pay for their medical bills.

Hire an unlicensed (and therefore illegal) landscape contractor and you get none of the above. They might or might not be cheaper in the short run, but in the long run, you'll regret it.

I would love to tell you that this consumer protection system will be here for perpetuity but every legislative session, for the past several years, the anti-regulation lobby trots forth some bill or another to eliminate the licensing exam, or entrance requirements, or eliminate all landscape regulations. A smart business person knows that good consumer protection is also good business, another sort of business person sees consumer protection as a hindrance to their freedom to do business as they see fit. I'll let you fill in the adjective for that sort of business person.

CONSUMER TIP #1: Hire a licensed landscape contractor.
All licensed landscapers are required to put their LCB number on their trucks. You can look for that when they drive up to give you a bid. You can also do an online license search, at the LCB website, http://www.oregonlcb.com, where you can find their current license status and whether they have any landscape violations from the past on their record.

CONSUMER TIP #2: Find a landscaper early.
Many landscape contractors who have been around a decade or more are often booked for the season (March - September) by April. Perhaps, if your job is small, they may be able to fit you in on short notice between two larger jobs but don't count on it. Best not to wait for the first sunny day of spring.

CONSUMER TIP #3: Get it in writing.
Why do you think they call contractors "contractors"? Answer: Because they should give you a contract spelling out what they will do, when they will do it, if there is a guarantee, and what are the terms of payment. Landscape contractors are not required to give you a contract (sometimes called a proposal) if the job amount is less than $2000. When I was a contractor, I gave written proposals on everything I did, except time and material jobs such as irrigation repair. A contract is a communications tool where both parties can see what is expected of them. Without it in writing, expectations are hazy and unclear expectations lead to client - contractor misunderstanding.

CONSUMER TIP #4: If you want to find a serious contractor, then prepare to be a serious client.
I've been there myself - a tire kicker. "Wouldn't it be interesting to find out how much this would cost or that cost?" Busy contractors (particularly during the season) don't have time to come out to your home to educate you about landscaping. Most will try to "qualify" you over the phone. Qualification means determining if you are a serious customer, and, by serious, I mean someone who has decided that they want a particular project done, but they want to make sure they have the right company at the right price to do it. There's nothing wrong with tire kicking. It's just more courteous to make that known up front. The contractor may be able to answer some general questions over the phone without taking the time and expense of answering them to your face.

CONSUMER TIP #5: It's a dance.
I've always considered the contractor-client relationship, particularly a new client, like a waltz or polka between two people that have never danced together. There's a certain amount of wondering - will they move this way, will they move that way, will they step on my foot? Every dance has two partners, so while you, the customer, are sizing up the contractor, they are sizing you up, too. If I want to waltz and the client wants to polka maybe that's the time to walk away before the dance card is punched. But, if we both want to do the same dance, and it's just a matter of adjusting to each other's rhythm, that's part of the dance and the business.

CONSUMER TIP #6: Beware of parcelled work:
I've scratched my head trying to come up with a better term for this, but it's when a contractor does some of the things or buys some of the materials on a project and you take care of the rest. For example, the client wants to buy the flagstone for a patio themselves to save money and wants the contractor to just install it. Or conversely, the contractor wants the client to get the permit for the irrigation backflow and then they will put in the system.

My experience with parcelled work is that both parties end up being unsatisfied. In the later years of my business, I developed the policy of I do it or get it all or I don't do anything. If you can find a contractor, that'll do parcelled work, great. Just be prepared to spend time to coordinate and communicate with them. You're dancing the minuet now and that's a lot harder. If the contractor is suggesting parcelling out some of the job to the client, I would avoid them.

Well, I could on and on with other tips, but that's enough to get you going. Good luck. There are some excellent landscapers out there, I hope you find one.

Pssst. . . . so here's the secret landscaper handshake. Landscaper Illuminati HandshakeLandscaper Illuminati Handshake

Landscaper Illuminati meeting - undisclosed warehouse, Swan Island, PortlandLandscaper Illuminati meeting - undisclosed warehouse, Swan Island, Portland


Oct. 18, 2015: Now that the rains have come, our dangers of drought are allayed for the winter, it's not a reprieve for trees though. The effects of environmental disorders, such as too little or too much water, soil contaminants, etc., are not experienced immediately. Much like chronic diseases in people, most environmental disorders take time to eventually kill a tree.

This summer was our second drought in a row and I observed a number of trees in client's yards that were showing signs of drought stress. Stress in trees often times leads to them succumbing to disease and insect attack.

A good example in our area is the bronze birch borer. The beetle attacks European birch. The adults fly to a birch, chew through the outer bark, and deposit their eggs underneath it. The larvae that hatch chew up the inner bark and cambium layers. This "girdles" the branch or trunk, in this case severing the phloem which carries food to the roots. The roots associated with those branches die and then the branches die. The flagging and dying branches in the crown this summer came from larval damage done the summer before. Trees that are stressed by environmental factors are more likely to be attacked by the borer.

So drought will lead to tree stress , will lead to pest attack, which may lead eventually to tree mortality. That process could be a couple of years. So next summer, I'm guessing we'll see a lot more declining trees due to those dadgum opportunistic pests and diseases.

Next year I expect to see more problems with:
European and Himalayan Birch

Douglas Fir: Here pine beetles and twig weevils will be the culprits and well as plain drought stress. Watch out for excessive needle drop from the inside of the tree progressing outward.

Oregon white oak and Oregon ash: Even these native trees that are adapted to our dry summer are showing signs of drought stress this summer (browning of the leaf ends).

Flowering dogwoods: The dogwood is a drought indicator tree because of its shallow root system. I expect to see some leaf scorch (browning of leaf edges) and outright branch dieback.

The list could go on. Our winter weather forecast is not going to help matters as forecasters are calling for a warmer drier winter due to El Nino. ("The Child'?, I really think it should be called El Mocoso, "The Brat" ).

I hate to be a" Debbie Downer" but it's not looking good for next year. What to do? Monitor the trees for health and water, if it's dry. I've never been an advocate for watering established trees, but this summer I will be.

To your and your tree's health.


July 26, 2014: Welcome, rather belatedly, to July - Smart Irrigation Month! It's a time when we focus on the issue of water conservation and making irrigation systems more efficient, I have been busy doing that, which explains my tardiness in getting out the word to my faithful reader (sorry, Mom).I'm even too busy to write something so I'm adding a water conservation flyer from Ewing Irrigation, wholesale distributors of irrigation and landscape supplies. It's a lot more interesting than anything I could write.

Water use poster


April 13, 2014: Once again it's that time of year to turn on and tune up your irrigation system. Forecasts are for a hot, dry summer this year. As I have in a past blog entry, I'd like to tell you how to properly do that. Unlike the past blog, where I not only told you how to get your irrigation going but also revealed the meaning of life. This time I'd like to reveal something a little more mundane and wordly, how to beat the stock market and making a boatload of money! (*Past performance is not necessarily indicative of results) First,let's talk about starting up the irrigation system.

Your irrigation system has been winterized, as it should be. There have been winters that really haven’t necessitated winterization. Our ground only freezes a couple of inches deep at best and a well installed irrigation system is at least 12” deep everywhere, but not all irrigation systems are well installed. To not winterize a system is to bait the gods and that’s seldom a wise strategy. In winterization, the water flow to your irrigation system has been shut off at a main irrigation shutoff valve or at your irrigation backflow. The irrigation lines are probably also drained through the use of manual drain valves located at low points in the irrigation system or have been blown out by the use of compressed air.

The spring startup is turning the water back on, pressurizing the lines, and seeing if everything works. Sounds pretty simple and is . . . . if done properly. So here are some steps to reviving your irrigation again.

1)Before you turn the water on, first locate your drain valves and shut them. They’re typically located in 6”diameter round plastic boxes with green lids. Sometimes they can be located in the boxes that your irrigation valves are in, just upstream of the valves.

2)Now to turn on the water – sssllloooowwwllllyyyy crack open the main shutoff valve or turn one of the ball valves on your backflow. Fully and quickly opening a valve sends a wall of pressurized water racing down pipes that can blow them apart or at least weaken the joints for later failure. As you crack open the valve, you’ll hear the whine of water as it squeezes through the small opening you’ve made. It’s screaming to be let go and bring life to your landscape , but you must be strong! Do not let it fully escape! Go in the house and have a cup of coffee, watch a game, or read Wordsworth, anything that will occupy 15-20 minutes. If you come out and it’s no longer screaming for freedom, then the water has filled the pipes and is satisfied and you may and must fully open the valve. Partially open valves will cause a lack of pressure in your sprinkler system.

3)If you have drip irrigation in your irrigation system, your next step is to find the drip irrigation valve box(s). These will be rectangular boxes (~11 x 17”) and they house the electric valve, a pressure regulator and a drip filter. It’s the drip filter we’re looking for and it resembles an inverted extra large wafer ice cream cone (not the pointy sugar cones but the flat bottomed wafer kind except the bottom isn’t flat, it’s rounded and . . would you excuse me for a minute?) . . . . Thank you for your patience. I had sudden irresistible craving. That drip filter cover will unscrew from its base and underneath will be a round mesh screen. Take this out and wash the slimy green algae, sediment or whatever off the screen with a garden hose and reinstall.

Now check the ends of your drip laterals, the black or brown pipe that delivers the water to your drip emitters. These lines, in normal operation, are usually closed with a screwable cap or a plastic figure eight end closure. You want to make sure the ends of the lines are open so that water may pour through them and flush the system out when the drip valve first comes on. Drip systems depend on water without sediment in it that can clog the tiny orifices of emitters. Flushing out sediment through the lateral pipes is an excellent way to keep your drip functioning properly.

4) Now you’re ready to test the valves. Go to your irrigation controller and manually, from the controller, turn each zone on in sequence. There’s usually a manual advance button on the controller but there’s a lot of different irrigation controllers out there. You may need to find the manual to figure out how to turn on your valves. As you fire off each zone, go out and observe it in action. Are all the heads popping up? Are they spraying exactly where they should be and not overspraying? Do you see water gurgling out of the ground? Now’s the time to note any problems, by zone, you see and also to mark them (I use cute little multi-colored irrigation flags to mark trouble spots, but any kind of stake will do).

5) Close back up the ends of the drip laterals.

6) If there no problems, then life is good. Enjoy your spring. If not, then it’s time for repair and that’s another article.

So, you're probably thinking, now that I know how to get the water flowing in my irrigation, how do I get money flowing into my brokerage account? It first starts by taking the money you've saved from repairs for improperly starting up your irrigation system and investing it smartly. Ah yes, clever reader, already you asking what do you mean by investing smartly. Does that mean fundamental analysis, qualitative analysis, value investing, GARP? What is the secret? . . . . Monkeys! In an April 5, 2013 article by UPI in a study conducted by Cass Business School in London that when monkeys were randomly select stocks from a computer their choices, when pitted against a traditional market capitalization weighted index, won every time.

I got to thinking about getting a monkey but then I began considering the downside of it. Like where would you keep the monkey, what and how much do you have to feed it, and maybe monkeys are emotional needy and it'll use up alot of time bonding and so forth? There has to be an easier way of random stock selection. . . . and then I found another article about using darts to pick stocks. Evidently the Wall STrret Journal held contests between 1998 and 2002 where staffers threw darts at stock tables to choose stocks to track and that these were compared to the picks by professional money managers. The short story was that professional money managers only did slightly better than the dart picked ones and when you factored in the professional management fee their returns were worse.

I work with irrigation pipe and I work with lawns. What if I sharpened a piece of PVC pipe into a lawn dart? . . And what if I pinned pieces of paper out on a lawn with a different stock ticker symbol on each? Take some steps back and launch my new lawn dart in the air and the paper it pierced I would buy. Lawn darts! Definitely less messy than a monkey. I'm trying it this spring. If successful, you can expect to see next spring the start-up of my new business, Lawn Fortunes Financial Planning. Until then, take care of your irrigation. It may some day take care of you.



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

F & P