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Landscaping

Professional landscaping looks great and can add curb appeal and value to your home.  But professional landscaping is expensive.  So, instead of hiring a landscape company to do everything for me – with money I did not have, I hired a landscape architect to come out and draw me a landscape plan that I could implement myself. The wife and I have been very pleased with the results.  Below, you can see a photo of the “before” and slide shows of the “during” and “after”.  If I had it to do over again, there are a few things I would do differently.  I have set those things out at the bottom of this post.

My Professional Landscape Plan

The problem I had was that I lived in a relatively modest, new neighborhood.  What landscaping there was, was done by the builder.  So, the landscaping material was fairly sparse and not necessarily of the highest quality.  In addition, the soil in my neighborhood was notoriously bad, and my soil in particular consisted primarily of clay mixed with crush and run.

My first step was to meet with a local professional landscape architect, Bob Peter of Little and Little Landscape Architects, PLLC.  (I had worked with Bob and his company before in my job as a land condemnation lawyer for the City of Raleigh.)  I went over   my current situation and explained that what I wanted was to end up with a yard that was drought resistant and easy to maintain.  I told Bob that I wanted the yard to look great but I did not want to have to pay for or baby exotic plants and shrubs.  I wanted landscape materials that were about one step above what the builder had used.   Finally, I talked to him about his suggestions for what type of grass to use, and whether to put in a sprinkler or irrigation system.  (I live on the border between zones 7 and 8. Many people here have warm weather grass like Bermuda or Zoysia, while some have cool weather grass like Fescue.)  For about $500, Bob drew me the sketch shown above.

Before

Technically, I did not take any “before” photos.  But here is one taken shortly after the builder finished building the house.

Before photo – part of the front yard just after the house was built.

During

The video below shows several “during” photos.  These photos were taken in June, 2007  after the soil preparation and grading and while we were putting in the irrigation and drainage systems.

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Preparing the soil

We had horrible dirt.  To try to fix the soil, I had 2 dump trucks of compost – not topsoil –  brought in.  I killed what was left of the fescue with roundup, and then spread the compost (about 3 inches deep), tilled it in to about 6-8 inches, and then re-graded parts of the yard by hand.

The compost was available locally at a municipal dump, and the folks who run it gave me the name of a dump truck driver who frequently delivers for the cost of the compost plus a very reasonable fee.

Irrigation System

I will cover the  irrigation system in a separate post.  I have included the irrigation construction photos above because the only ones I have that show the lack of landscaping in the “before” condition.  They’re just meant to show what wasn’t there before, not the ins and outs of the irrigation system itself.  But stay tuned!

Buying plants and landscaping material

The landscaping plan I purchased called for an extensive overhaul of my front, side, and back yards.  It meant purchasing large numbers of shrubs and trees.  For example, the plan showed the side yards edged with a total of 54 dwarf Yaupon hollies.  Around here, big box improvement stores and garden supply stores routinely sell 3-gallon dwarf Yaupons for $15 a piece.   In the backyard, the plan showed 10 fortune tea olives.  Regular retail on 5-gallon fortune tea olives was about $90 per plant.

When I saw the numbers adding up like this, I started asking around about wholesale nurseries.  I found about three of them, all along the same road, about 20 miles away in a neighboring county.  For the price of a fill up, I borrowed a friend’s pickup truck, and went and got about 80% of what I needed  – including all 54 dwarf Yaupons, 10 fortune tea olives, 3 7-gallon needle point hollies, about 5 Little Richard Abelias, plus some other stuff I cannot remember – all for about $450.  (Those $15 dwarf Yaupons were $4 per plant.  The $90 fortune tea olives were $10.)  The particular nursery I used and routinely recommend is called Old Stage Road Nursery.  It is located just out side of Angier, North Carolina:


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After getting all that material planted, I ended up going back for some small stuff, which I fit in my Honda Accord.  All told, I think the total cost of the landscaping material was around $750, or $800 including the gas for the pickup truck.

After

The flash video below shows after pictures taken this summer, about three summers from the “during” photos video above.  Also, you will notice we put in a fence.  (But that is a story for another post!)

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What we would have done differently (mistakes we made)

Doing this landscaping home improvement project was a big adventure.  My wife and I have been very happy with the results, but we made several key mistakes along the way.  I thought I would share those too, in case it helps others avoid them.

First, while we have been very happy with the Zenith Zoysia grass from SuperSod, I think it was a mistake to grow it from seed, instead of sodding it.  The seed itself was expensive – much more expensive than Fescue, for example.  Also, Zenith Zoysia seed takes 30 days of constant moisture to germinate and then three years to fully grow in.  Once it’s in, it looks great and wears well without being overly invasive and it’s drought resistant.  But I should have sodded.  The extra price for sod would have been more than outweighed by the extra money I spent watering in the seed. This was really a cash-flow decision: I did not have the cash for the sod. Looking back, I should have just put it on a credit card.

Second, to put in the irrigation and drainage pipes, I rented a trencher and did it myself.  This was an enormous and potentially very dangerous mistake.  Trenchers weigh 900 lbs and cannot be easily steered.  I was constantly worried about tipping over the edge of my terraced lot.  Also, even though I called NO CUTS to have the utility lines marked first (and you should too!), I was still worried I was going to clip an unmarkerd electric or gas line and kill myself trying to save a buck.  So, I should have just hired someone to come out and trench the yard.

Third, I should have paid a plumber to put in the backflow prevention device (aka the “RPZ”) for the irrigation system.  I pulled a permit and did it myself, with some help from a friend or two.  But getting it actually done and passed inspection took much more effort than I  thought.  The rest of the irrigation system was relatively straightforward.  Cutting and gluing PVC pipe is easy.  Cutting into the main line and setting up the RPZ and getting it passed inspection is a job for a plumber.

Conclusion

If you have questions or comments, please leave them below, and I will be happy to get back to you with any extra information or help that I can.

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Sanitary sewer clean outs are critical for maintaining your connection to your sewer system.  Should a backup occur, getting to a clean out quickly can save you money and reduce the damage from an overflow inside your house.

Sewer clean outs are ugly tripping hazards

But no matter how important clean outs are, they sure can be eyesores.  They stick up out of the ground, are difficult to mow around, and can be tripping hazards.

My sewer clean out before.

My same clean out, facing front yard.

So, I put my sewer clean out below ground in an irrigation box.

The new covered box in place.

I used an irrigation box I had left over from putting in my sprinkler system.  But you can buy one for about $20 at any big box home improvement store.  I set the box and its cover flush with the ground.  So, no more trip hazard, and mowing is much easier – I just mow right over it.  And if I get really fired up, I use the string trimmer along the edges of the cover.

Cover comes off with a screwdriver and provides easy access to the clean out.

Steps I took to bury my sewer clean out

To do this upgrade, I used a regular shovel to excavate around the the existing above-ground pipe.  Then, I cut the pipe below the cap fitting, leaving enough pipe on the cap end so that I could re-use it.  I cut the remaining pipe even lower, and then used a union fitting to connect the pipe in the ground to the cap fitting, using the purple primer and green PVC glue you can buy almost anywhere.  In the photo, you can see the green cap fitting that I re-used and the white union fitting.  To discourage bugs, spiders, and frogs from using the box as a new home, I also set the box on a bed of gravel.

So, here’s the result.  No more ugly sewer clean out – until I need it.

Here's the after - with landscaping grown in and a new fence.

Cost of this home improvement project

The cost was about $3 for the union fitting and $4 for a bag of gravel.  As I said above, I already had an extra irrigation box, but they cost about $20, as I recall.  The purple primer and green PVC cement come in various sizes, but you can usually get a small combo pack for about $6.  So, starting from scratch – and assuming you already have a shovel – the cost would be about $33.

All things considered, the wife and I think this upgrade has really improved our curb appeal.  She is especially happy, since she didn’t do any digging – this time.

Sanitary Sewer Easements and Eminent Domain

BTW: This is, of course, a private, residential sanitary sewer project I did myself.  But big sewer projects are done all the time for residential and commercial property, frequently by municipalities or other governmental agencies. They often work with private developers in joint ventures, where the developer tries to purchase the necessary sewer easements from private property owners, and if it can’t, then the government condemns those easements through eminent domain. Usually, the developer then reimburses the government for its easement acquisition costs.  That’s the other side of the eminent domain joint venture. So, even a sewer eminent domain case can require help from sophisticated eminent domain lawyers.

Please share your thoughts in the comment box below.

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