I hope everybody has been outside lately enjoying the unseasonably warm weather. Personally, I’m not much of a winter person, especially as I start to grow older (older, not up!), so I’ve definitely been enjoying this burst of summer in March.
Yes, this week cooled off a bit – highs only in the mid-60s. (Brrrrr.) And this weekend is forecasted to be much more seasonable -- rainy and temperatures in the mid-50s. But if you look at the body of work for 2012, it’s been an unusually warm year so far.
And as much as I enjoy firing up the grill and breaking out the shorts and flip flops, part of me is a little concerned, or at least perplexed by the weather. Here we are, still on the March page of the calendar, and the cherry blossoms have already come and gone, the magnolias are dropping, dogwoods are popping, and leaves are already starting to show on many of the deciduous trees. That’s typical for mid-to-late April, not March.
And it seems that nearly everybody I communicate with in the landscape trades, be it through online forums or colleagues I know from around town, is talking about it. And feeling the same way. 70-degree days in February, 80-degree days in March, mega-tornadoes in the Midwest in February, everything blooming at once, and gardens needing maintenance that typically isn’t necessary until late spring.
And all this while Eastern Europe had one of the most severe winters in history.
It kind of makes you wonder what’s to come on this side of the globe. 110-degree days in mid-summer? A colorless landscape pallet come May? Severe drought? Sparse crops? Mosquito infestation? Ticks? Ash Borers? Previously unheard of infestations?
I’m not going to debate the causes for this abnormal weather. Whether it’s just a cyclical pattern or the effects of human population who knows, I’m sure both sides of the debate are adamant that they’re right, and the other is wrong.
But what I do know is that this is one of the more bizarre weather years that I’ve seen in my lifetime, and it will be interesting to see how it affects the landscape moving forward.
In the meantime I’m going to head outside and enjoy some July weather – in March.
Not a Simple Fix. Tear it Down and Do It Right
Every season the calls are inevitable. “We have a set of front steps with a few loose flagstones,” the call begins. “It’s a really small project, we just need the stones reset.”
Maybe you’re the person who made this call. Or something similar.
Now I’m not going to tell you it can’t be done. Nor am I going to tell you that the requested repairs are much more complex than what you’ve led me to believe without looking at them. But guess what. There’s probably a lot more to those loose stones than just what you’re seeing. I’ve done simple repair jobs in the past. And sometimes they are just as simple as the initial phone call led me to believe. But usually they’re not.
What I usually find in these situations is a much larger underlying problem. Moisture infiltration, drainage and grading problems, inadequate footings or foundations, settling, deteriorating mortar throughout the entire structure, and frost heaving are just a few of the potential underlying causes to the problem. And if I were to fix only the visible manifestation of the problem, ie resetting the loose stones, you’d most likely be calling me back in a year or two complaining that my repairs have fallen apart. That makes you unhappy and doesn’t bode well for my reputation.
And if that 80-year-old set of stone steps is starting to show its age, even if I were able to “reset the loose stones” do you really think that the rest of the original stonework won’t follow suit. You’ll be throwing money at that old set of steps for years to come. That’s no fun for anyone. Those simple repairs often open up a whole new can of worms as far as the whole project is concerned.
Of course delivering the news that an expected couple hundred dollar repair job has turned into a couple thousand dollar replacement job never goes over well with the client. People think I’m up-selling or over-selling. They give me too much credit for a being a shrewd business person. I’ll take it as a compliment, but I’m not. I’m just a simple craftsman delivering the news. Don’t kill the messenger.
Every successful installation starts with a solid foundation. The majority of work we do on any project is stuff the homeowner will never see upon completion. But it’s the stuff that makes the project work, makes it last for years and years to come.
Those stone steps you called about? What more than likely needs to happen is that the whole set needs to be ripped out and replaced. Right down to the ground and below. Then we can build it back up properly and you can rest confident at night that the stones aren’t going anywhere. And if it doesn’t need to be replaced, then it most likely will require a whole lot more clean-up and repairing than just resetting two or three stones. We’ll need to clean out all the loose deteriorated mortar between the stones, which inevitably leads to even more stones popping. And on and on. It’s a Pandora’s Box.
Would you rather throw a few hundred dollars away, or would you rather spend a few thousand dollars and know that you’re getting something of value in return?
So when you call to inquire about those “simple” repairs, don’t be surprised if I grill you a bit on the phone before setting up an appointment to investigate further. And be prepared to spend a whole lot more than you’re anticipating. And you might even want to add a few dollars to that. But in the long run it will be worth it.
And if the existing structure can be repaired, if you can save a few bucks by re-using the stones or avoiding a total tear-out, I’ll be sure to let you know. I’m a homeowner too, so I understand the need to save a few bucks whenever possible. But I also understand value, and the return of getting something of value for your investment.
And who knows? Maybe you’re right. Maybe it is just a simple fix. But nine out of ten times it’s a lot more involved than what you first thought.
One of the biggest challenges I face with my business concerns fencing. More specifically, quoting new fencing projects.
It’s not that I don’t know how to build a fence. Or price one out. On the contrary, we build some of the finest fences around, and I wouldn’t still be in business after more than a dozen years if I didn’t know how to price out my services.
No, the problem has more to do with my competition. More than any other service I offer, fencing seems to have the biggest range of pricing. Both from a material standpoint as well as from rival contractors.
A Big Box Store Picket
Vs. a Clark Kent Picket
It seems everybody thinks they can install a fence. And to be honest, if anybody has a halfway decent work ethic and knows how to use a screwgun, a lot of people can install a fence. But not everybody can create a fence.
What’s the difference, you may ask?
Installing a fence refers more to purchasing some pre-fabricated fencing panels, and simply installing them where you see fit. This isn’t to say that a fair amount of work isn’t required – it is. You still need to dig your postholes, set the posts, and connect the pre-fab panels.
Most big box home improvement stores sell several varieties of pre-fab fencing panels. As do many fencing supply specialty stores. Depending on the source, there are often anywhere from four or five to fifteen or twenty styles available. You select the style you want, purchase the panels, and install away.
Pre-fab panels come in a wide range of quality, but most commonly sold panels are of the lesser quality. The wood is typically thinner, usually pine, often is not treated for weather-resistance, and is usually held together with staples or smaller gauge nails.
Big Box Store Lattice
Clark Kent Lattice
Compare this to creating a fence from scratch. Instead of buying pre-fab panels, lumber is purchased directly as individual boards. Once the layout and design are determined, the materials are brought to the site and the fence is built from scratch onsite, board by board.
Design options for a custom-created fence are unlimited. Whereas the pre-fab panel designs are limited to only what’s in stock, a custom-created fence can be built to conform with any original design ideas.
Whether you’ve seen a picture in a magazine, admired a fence at a neighbors or public setting, or come up with your own unique original design idea, a custom-created fence can be built to match.
And a custom-created fence can work around those commonly found obstacles on nearly every site – large trees, tree roots, and slope changes to name a few. Additionally, existing bushes or shrubs can often be left in place with minimal pruning, since the fences are constructed in smaller parts as opposed to making room for the more cumbersome larger 8’ panels.
Custom fence creation also allows for quality control when it comes to material selection. Individual boards can be sorted and picked over to ensure only the best wood is used. You’re free to choose any type of wood you want, whether it’s pressure-treated, red cedar, white cedar, locust, teak, ipe -- you name it. And you’re free to select thicker more durable dimensions that will last much longer than the commonly used ½” or ¾” dimensions commonly used in the pre-fab panels.
Big Box Warped Picket
You’re also free to use whatever types of fasteners you choose. We like to use decking screws that offer a corrosion-free, streak-free, long-lasting, strong connection at every connection point.
As I’m sure you can imagine, a custom-created fence typically runs more expensive than the pre-fab installations, due to the higher quality of materials and custom craftsmanship that goes into every fence.
This isn’t to say that the basic fence installations don’t have their place. For homeowners who may only be planning on staying in their current home for just a few years, rental properties, or fences that are only intended to serve a purpose for a limited time period, a less expensive basic installation may just fit your needs.
But when you’re interviewing contractors and collecting estimates, be sure to know what is being spec’d out. If you’re looking for quality and durability, shopping on price alone may leave you sorely disappointed. When looking at various estimates, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples, and ask your contractor how his fences are constructed.
If you understand this basic difference, you’ll most likely save everybody headaches down the road. Happy fencing!
This week’s entry falls under the getting to know me category. After all, business is all about relationships, and it’s tough to have a relationship if you don’t know the person.
A question I am asked frequently is why my business is named Clark Kent Creations. Is my last name Kent? No, although I have answered to kids of clients calling me Mr. Kent. (I prefer that kids just call me Clark and drop the formal “Mr.” stuff altogether, but that’s a different issue). I think people just assume that I’m a big Superman fan, and that I named my business after him.
Which isn’t entirely untrue. I am a big fan of the Man of Steel, but there’s more to it than just that. Even though my last name isn’t Kent, my name is Clark Kent, with Kent being my middle name. Yeah, that’s right. My parents named me after Superman. Clark Kent Linderman.
The story goes something like this. When I was born my parents liked both the names Clark and Kent. The Superman comics of the 40s and 50s weren’t fresh in people’s minds, the movies hadn’t come out yet, and re-runs of the old TV series weren’t showing on TV. So the name Clark Kent had kind of faded from the mainstream.
Of course shortly thereafter, the reruns began showing regularly and new cartoons were produced. By the time I was three or four Superman had regained his place in mainstream pop culture, along with his alter-ego Clark Kent. I was forever linked to Superman.
Pretty cool for a little kid. But the story goes on. A few years later when my brother was born, my parents decided they couldn’t have one kid named after Superman and another kid with a plain old name like Bob or Rick. Can’t favor one kid over the other, right? So Bruce Wayne Linderman entered the world when I was five.
(Although between you and me Bruce, if you’re reading this Superman is a MUCH cooler super-hero than Batman. I mean seriously, anyone can have a utility belt with a bunch of contraptions but can Batman stop bullets with his chest? Can Batman fly? X-ray vision? No, no and no. What exactly can Batman do? And Superman doesn’t even need a sidekick like that sorry excuse for a super-hero Robin.)
The Comic Book Krypto
And Lois Lane
So as a kid my Halloween costumes were set. I tried finding a picture for this post circa 1978 of Superman and Batman during Halloween, but alas, no luck. Superman lunchboxes, posters, action figures – the whole merchandising package. I was eating it up.
Of course all little kids grow in to surly adolescents, so by the time I was 11 or 12 I began to reject all things Superman. But that phase wouldn’t last.
By the time I was in college I began to embrace it again, particularly when I realized that telling co-eds my name and showing them my ID to prove it was an excellent conversation starter.
And the Real Lois Lane and Krypto
When my wife and I first got married we got our first dog – Lois Lane. A year later we got Lois a companion, a spunky little Jack Russel/Pointer mix named Krypto. (If you go back in the archives of the original strip, Superman had a Superdog named Krypto, after the planet Krypton, Kryptonite, etc). They’re 11 and 12 now, and still doing fine.
And no, we didn’t keep the theme going with the kids. When our oldest was born many of our friends suggested Peter Parker (Spiderman) and Lex Luthor. I actually liked the Lex name, but then when I thought about it I realized that you can’t name your kid after your nemesis, so we dropped that thought.
When I first started my business in 2000 I thought the Clark Kent name would be great for marketing. So Clark Kent Landscaping was born, much more memorable than just plain old Linderman Landscaping. When we moved back to Swarthmore a few years later, I changed it to Clark Kent Creations, working that alliterative sound for all its worth.
So yes, my name is Clark Kent, at least as far as first and middle names go. But you can just call me Clark. Just keep me away from that Kryptonite.
With the weather starting to break and spring nearly here, homeowners are beginning to think about their landscaping projects for the year. And when it comes to hardscaping, material selection is an important component of that planning. One of my personal favorite materials, which unfortunately is often overlooked, is good old fashioned kiln-fired bricks.
Wet-set Brick Pathway, Herringbone Pattern
Dry-set Brick Path, Recycled Bricks, Running Bond Pattern
It’s important to differentiate between the term “brick” vs. a more modern paver stone product. Bricks are typically made from a combination of shale and clay, hand or machine molded, and kiln-fired to achieve the appropriate strength and color. Compare this to a more modern paver stone product, which is typically concrete-based in its make-up. While paver stones are certainly an option worth considering for your project, for the sake of this post I’d like to focus solely on the use of traditional bricks.
Bricks are an incredibly versatile, durable, environmentally friendly, affordable material, available in a wide range of colors and sizes. They go well with just about every style of garden or architecture. From formal English gardens to rustic retreats, arts and crafts style to Spanish mission style, bricks are a workhorse of a material that never looks out of place. They are a timeless design choice that have been used for centuries by a variety of cultures. And they complement quite well with just about any other building material out there.
Bricks can be used in both dryset and wetset applications for flatwork, set in a number of patterns based on your design preferences, and used not just for flatwork but for outdoor fireplaces, raised planter beds, deck or porch support columns, bedding edging, and a number of other outdoor uses.
The color options for brick are not just limited to the traditional brick red. Most brick colors tend to be on the red side of the spectrum, including browns, pinks, oranges, and tans, however additional colors are available including blues and whites often for just a few pennies more a piece. Most bricks measure roughly 4” x 8” x 2.5”, however those sizes change slightly based on the specific type of brick and the intended installation methods. “Paver” bricks (not to be confused with paver stones) measure a true 4” x 8”, allowing for tight joints with no spacing in dryset applications. “Modular” bricks measure approximately 3 5/8” x 7 5/8”, allowing for joint spacing, and “standard” bricks measure roughly 3 5/8” x 8” allowing for joints in one dimension. Additional sizes are also available based on your design and installation.
Most new bricks run between 65 and 80 cents apiece, translating to roughly between $3 to $3.50 a square foot. Many suppliers also offer used or salvaged bricks that I’ve seen as low as 30 cents apiece. Compare those costs with paver stones, that typically run about $4 a square foot for materials, or flagstone that starts around $6.50 a square foot, and you can see why bricks are an affordable choice.
But what do I like most of all about brick? It’s the artisan look that combines a naturally made earthen material with manmade structures. After all, what is a garden but man’s imprint on nature. It’s a timeless look that allows for personal expressionism. Just as in nature, no two snowflakes or rocks are the same, no two handcrafted bricks are the same either. Sure you may find more perfectionism in manmade paver stones or concrete, but what true better way to express yourself than with brick.