At long last, work has begun on the hardscape outside. Eat my dust!
Waiting hasn't been easy. My site looks like a baby Beruit and has for many months now . . . (Apologies to Beruit; my yard is probably much worse.) Who knew getting permits for a garden renovation would prove to be so arduous. (It's been trying, to say the least.)
Permits? For a garden? you ask. Are you crazy? (I may well be.)
Yes, Alice, I've fallen down the rabbit hole and if only there was something I could consume to make this all go away. "Drink me!" (It's tempting.)
Because this garden is a wee bit more complicated than the average bear and involves grade changes and retaining walls, I hired a landscape architect for the first time (ever) to come up with a plan that encompassed ALL of our entertaining dreams: outdoor kitchen and pergola, fireplace, built-in barbecue, potting bench, path lighting, new fences, planters, irrigation, heaters, and a boccie ball court! (Yes, I plan to host parties again. Look for your invitation soon.)
AND because such a plan requires blueprints, engineering, electricity, gas and water lines, stone pillars and walls, appliances, hard and soft surfaces, a sump pump, etc., etc., etc., it had to have the city's blessing OR we would have risked heavy penalties and fines, not to mention pissing off any unsuspecting neighbors who've somehow missed the heavy machinery and the noise! The process has taken agonizing months - not weeks - as I had naively anticipated. (Heck, I thought we'd be done in time for the Fourth of July, then Back-to-School. Now I'm aiming for Oktoberfest.)
It's not the architect's fault that the project has morphed from Barbie's dream house into "The Nightmare on Elm Street;" (I brought this upon myself.) With so many moving parts, sub-contractors, and day-laborers to coordinate on a daily basis, a multi-dimensional project such as this one was bound to get complicated and messy along the way - and so it has - both literally and figuratively. (And to think, I could have just planted some shrubs and a lawn with little fuss.)
"We're going to start laying the stones tomorrow." Bruce, the project manager from System Pavers, assured me. "This next part should go really quickly." For both our sake, I certainly hope so. (Yeah, I blew a gasket and regrettably, it wasn't my best moment.)
So what are some of the lessons and "take-aways" on this particular journey that may help you avoid my mistakes as you look toward your own exterior projects?
1) Good garden design costs every bit as much as good home design and it also takes more time than you think. Plan accordingly. If you're goal is to throw a graduation party next spring (or sell your house), get a running start now. Don't wait or you'll be penalized by landscapers that are booked months ahead of time.
2) Permits are approved in the order they are received, irrespective of the scope of work, BUT staying on top of the planning department is always a good idea (my plans had mysteriously fallen through the cracks into limbo land). In other words, the squeaky wheel often gets the grease. Sad but true, playing "nice" puts you on the back burner of everybody'scalendar, AND don't neglect a permit when needed. You're doing this work on the outside of your house so someone is bound to notice. They always do. Get a permit!
3) Find a knowledgeable foreman who can oversee the entire project from start to finish. Ask for a detailed outline of what's going to happen and when. Otherwise, you'll wonder why you're looking at open trenches for days on end with NO ONE to be found. (Turns out, we were waiting on a plumbing inspection.) Respectfully, my project manager, Bruce, has now agreed to communicate with me more often to keep me better informed and to quickly explain any work delays as they come up (and they will - count on it). Frequent communication really is the key to a successful relationship. (Seriously, I NEED an update every few days. I just do, but that's me.)
4) Get several bids and negotiate the price of the work. In our case, there was a lot of "give" to the estimate and Cliff and I were able to reduce the price of construction significantly by simply asking, reworking some of the more expensive elements, posting a company sign, and offering to host a party. If we hadn't asked, we would have paid far, FAR more. And don't wait on collecting competitive bids.The sooner you make contact, the better. No one is available "next weekend."
5) Irrigate, irrigate, irrigate! We had Dig Cooperative install five tanks beneath our front porch during our home construction that are designed to capture 2000 gallons of rain water. Because we thought ahead and created a solution to the current drought restrictions, I'll be able to water the garden guilt-free regardless of the annual rainfall. Drought tolerant or not, all gardens require watering and it's simply a huge waste of money to plant anything without thinking about how to sustain the garden for the lang haul. Note - irrigation planning should come at the verybeginning of your design process, not as an afterthought. And no, a sprinkler head on the end of a hose isn't the answer.
6) Sprawling lawns are overrated.Take the kids and the dogs to the park to hit a ball or chase a Frisbee. Few backyards are large enough for these activities anyway and the maintenance a healthy lawn really requires from fertilizers to mowing to watering, is SIGNIFICANT! Isn't it much more interesting to see creative and sustainable landscaping replacing the outdated gardens of yesteryear? Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds will thank you as well. Add a well-placed bench or hammock so you can enjoy the show!
7) Think about how to incorporate your garden into your lifestyle.Yards shouldn't just be places we view from the kitchen window. A good garden design will include vignettes and outdoor garden rooms, height variances, art, lighting, water features, structures, and all kinds of textures and variations of color. Gardens should beckon us with places to sit, to relax, or to entertain. And here in California, our gardens can be utilized almost year-round so it's well worth the effort to realize your garden dreams, even if they're humble by comparison. (BTW- your "curb appeal" is the first thing prospective Buyers see when you decide to sell, and the most surprising sales results almost always involve an inviting garden.)
8) Keep your neighbors informed. Their patience is perhaps more important than your own.The dust bowl and unsightly mess you'll be creating affects them (and their cars) as well. Courtesy is never wasted and that goes for the workers too. Keep lots of water on hand. They'll need it and they've earned it. It's not beneath me to bribe my workers with doughnuts or homemade cookies from time to time (or my neighbors).
9) Get PG&E to mark your gas lines before you begin work. We all know where this can tragically lead when overlooked, AND there's a new easy service in place. Dial 811 and they'll come right out. AND do expect surprises as you progress. Today we found a buried, concrete fish pond that had to be removed by pick axes. That was back-breaking work for those young bucks. (Yet another set-back.)
10) Plant street trees. Gardens are never one dimensional and they don't stop at your front gate either, but make sure your choices are appropriate for the space. A giant redwood near your foundation or driveway is going to create all kinds of havoc in a few short years, and a Ginko as a street tree is going to take decades to become the canopy you envisioned. Do a little research online before picking your plants and then buy them from the wholesale nursery. It will save you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, depending on the scope of your project.
Hey, summer is waning, fall is right around the corner, and I'm counting on the winter rains to nourish my young seedlings for a long-overdue spring bloom! In spite of delays, my garden project is bound to get completed- sooner or later - and the timing should be just right for planting.(Gold-plated problems to be sure.) It's not the end of the world, it's just one more challenge to be met. I'm heading to the nursery soon. Can't wait!
Good bye dust, bring on the green!
Julie Gardner, has been writing The Perspective for 12 years and has published more than 500 essays. She is also a frequent contributor to the Sound Off column in the Real Estate section of The San Francisco Chronicle.