Dave Marciniak

Author Archives: Dave Marciniak

February 23, 2016

Winter plant damage: watch for these 3 problems

winter plant damage VA

If you’re like a lot of homeowners, you’ve been looking at your landscape plants with a little bit of worry lately. The cold has been brutal. If the Weather Channel is saying that Valentine’s weekend was “potentially life-threatening cold,” what does that say for the trees and shrubs that can’t come inside to warm up?

As I’m so fond of saying, a big part of landscaping and gardening is just getting out of Nature’s way. In many instances that damage we see will fix itself as soon as spring hits. In others, though, you may have a problem. Here are some things to look for.

Winter plant damage: dessication of broadleaf evergreens

winter-damage-holly

Broadleaf evergreens are prone to winter damage, especially if they haven’t had an opportunity to develop strong root systems. After the screwy winter we had 2014-2015, I won’t do fall or winter plantings of broadleaf evergreens any more. Here’s why: the plants have these wide leaf surfaces that let the wind and sun suck moisture away mercilessly. If the plants don’t have established root systems they can’t replace the moisture and they dry out (dessicate). Affected plants can include:

  • Hollies (especially Oakleaf, Mary Nell, Nellie Stevens)
  • Southern Magnolias
  • Laurels
  • Rhododendrons and azaleas
  • Aucuba

Winter plant damage: freeze damage to crape myrtles and figs

Last year we saw damage on several crape myrtles that didn’t become evident till the trees leafed out. On a multi-trunk crape myrtle, one or more trunks failed to leaf out. On closer inspection we saw numerous suckers coming up from the base and violent-looking splits in the wood just above the ground. In talking to our consulting arborist we learned that this is not an uncommon issue here in northern Virginia.

We saw similar issues with fig trees. For many varieties of fig, northern Virginia is sort of marginal in terms of safe planting range. Last winter saw many figs die all the way back to the trunk. Luckily figs are vigorous growers so as soon as spring hit they started bouncing back.

Winter plant damage: critter damage

deer-damage-arbs

Is it a coincidence that “deer” is a four letter word? I say no. Deer are a problem for many gardeners across the DMV and the problem only gets worse in the winter. If they run out of food to browse – or it’s buried under snow – your plants may make the menu. If all of a sudden your shrubs seem a lot smaller, or you see fresh wood at the ends of the branches, you may have inadvertently helped feed all creatures great and small. Deer are a prime culprit, but so are rodents, especially when it comes to bark.

What can you do about it?

Do you need to freak out or will your plants be ok? It all depends on the amount of damage and the strength of your plant. It’s always darkest before the dawn, and winter damage always looks the worst before spring. What I tell people is that for the most part, let the weather warm up. Let life start flowing back into the plants, and see what happens. If you’re really worried though, take a pic and email it to me. I’m always up for talking plants.

February 16, 2016

Avoid these 3 outdoor kitchen design mistakes!

Outdoor kitchen design is a lot of fun, but it’s also easy to make some pretty serious mistakes along the way. No matter what your outdoor kitchen has to work well for you. Awkward angles, nowhere to set things down, all these can contribute to a huge problem that will keep you from loving your Virginia outdoor kitchen design – and we can’t have that, can we? Here are some pitfalls you can avoid pretty easily.

Avoid these 3

Outdoor kitchen design mistake #1: designing the size and shape of the space before figuring out the function part

I just spent a good deal of back and forth helping a homeowner on Houzz with her outdoor kitchen design. From what I could gather, the builder created a space on her patio for an outdoor kitchen, but there was a problem. Rather than basing the size on a set of criteria and a kitchen design, the builder created a rather arbitrary space. It was a roughly 40” x 72” rectangle, which wouldn’t be too bad, except it’s surrounded on three sides by walls. Yikes.

And of course the homeowner had a huge wishlist, because outdoor kitchens are awesome and we always want everything cool. So in this space she wanted a 30” grill, a double side burner, a sink, and a pizza oven. There’s no way. There’s a really easy way to avoid this problem, if you follow these simple steps:

  1. write down the list of all the appliances, cabinets, and accessories you want to have in your kitchen
  2. note the width of each item
  3. next, consider the type of construction your outdoor kitchen will be. For example, a masonry kitchen generally needs a minimum of a 4” block between appliances to support the counter and the appliance (6 or 8” is better if you’re doing a stone veneer).
  4. add in the counter space you’ll want for different functions. I always shoot for at least 18” next to the grill for setting plates, tongs, basting brushes, etc. Do you want to prep outside as well? That’s at least a three foot section of counter.
  5. All it all up. That’s the length of your perfect kitchen.

Now, what usually happens is these numbers add up to something insane like 30 linear feet of kitchen. Some accessories can stack, some can’t. Do these first to shrink things. Still have a huge kitchen? Start prioritizing appliances and accessories until you can fit your space constraints. Or your budget constraints, which leads us to:

Outdoor kitchen design mistake #2: going in with unrealistic notions of cost

Let’s be frank: outdoor kitchens can get really expensive. Unless you’re doing all the work yourself it’s probably safe to say you’re not getting one built for under $7-8,000. Where do the costs come in? Let’s look at the components:

Outdoor Kitchen Haymarket VA

The structure: What is your outdoor kitchen built with? You can have your outdoor kitchen built with masonry block on a footer, it can be built from studs anchored to the patio and covered with concrete board, or you can even build your kitchen using stainless steel outdoor cabinets (we sell Danver cabinets, which are amazing). Installed, you’re looking at anywhere from $500 to $1500 per linear foot just for the structure of your outdoor kitchen. That can add up quickly!

Counters: What do you want to use for your worktops? Granite is the most common counter material, but we’ve also used concrete, flagstone, brick, tile, and composites for outdoor kitchen counters. Low end granite starts around $45-55 per square foot installed and can go up from there. Some flagstone counters can be significantly less, but keep in mind that flagstone is much more porous than granite and demands frequent sealing. Ever seen the grease stain from a burrito become a permanent part of a counter? I have.

Appliances: Once you’ve built your outdoor kitchen design, you need your cooking appliances. What do those cost? Here’s a quick rundown:

  • grills: a built-in grill typically starts at around $1,800 and goes up from there. My most popular 36” grill is right around the $3,000 mark.
  • side burners: single burners generally start around $400, double burners are closer to $500, and power burners are about a grand.
  • refrigeration: just shoving a fridge outside doesn’t make it an outdoor fridge. An entry level Fire Magic outdoor refrigerator with locking door is $699. A Summit 2-drawer fridge is north of $2,000.

Storage and accessories: If you’re not using Danver stainless steel cabinets for your outdoor kitchen design you’re going to need access doors, drawers, and cabinets. A single access door for your grill starts at around $160, a 3-drawer unit runs $800-900, and an outdoor trashcan is in the $500-900 range depending on features.

virginia-outdoor-kitchen-design

Can you go cheap on components? Sure, but keep in mind that everything you install has to stand up to summer and winter, sun and rain and snow, heat and cold. Built-in appliances and accessories should give you years of trouble-free use. If you’re on a budget, talk to your designer about how to phase in your purchases. It’s not always practical but it can be,

Outdoor kitchen design mistake #3: not planning the infrastructure

In this case, infrastructure means everything needed to run the outdoor kitchen: power, lighting, plumbing, gas, etc. Since most outdoor kitchens are built on a patio you don’t have easy options for adding utilities later. That means you need to think about three things:

  1. what utilities will I need now and in the future?
  2. where will these utilities enter my kitchen?
  3. where will these utilities go under the patio?

What utilities will I need for my outdoor kitchen?

You can run your grill and burners off a propane tank under the counter, which is the simplest choice. Obviously you’ll need to remember to check the fill level, and ideally keep an extra tank around so you don’t run out during a party. You can also run your grill off of natural gas or, if your home runs on propane, you can use the house supply for the outdoor kitchen. Either way you’ll need to provide conduit for the gas lines and have the installation approved by your city or county authority.

outdoor kitchen design elevation

Electricity is critical. I’ve never heard someone say “I have too many outlets.” You’ll want outlets in the wall or backsplash for blenders, charging phones, and more. You’ll also need dedicated outlets for the following items (which is easy to forget):

  • some grills (for the igniter)
  • electric warming drawers
  • electric induction side burners
  • refrigerators and ice makers
  • icemaker drain pumps (if needed)

When possible, I like to run a subpanel out to the new kitchen. By the time you account for everything above, then add in outdoor audio and video, you’ll need a lot of circuits,

Plumbing is a challenge with outdoor kitchen design and the viability of plumbing your kitchen depends on your municipality. In some cases you can run the lines from the house with no issues, but in other cases you’ll have to pay a large “tap fee” to put what is, in the eyes of the code office, a whole new residential kitchen into their system. So it’s not just important to work out the how and where of the plumbing, you need to make sure what you want to do is legal.

Where to place your utilities

This is where having a design is so important. If you have an accurate, scaled drawing of where your outdoor kitchen design will go, you can decide where the utilities will come up out of the ground. You have a little wiggle room when it comes to moving around gas, power, and water supply lines inside your outdoor kitchen, but you’ll want to be as close as possible for the drainpipe.

How to avoid outdoor kitchen design mistakes

The easiest way to avoid outdoor kitchen design mistakes is, of course, to call on a designer! That’s what I do. Whether you’re a homeowner or a landscape contractor, I can design your outdoor kitchen project to give you what you need. Contact me today to learn more!

February 4, 2016

How to build a segmental retaining wall

I try to avoid walls where possible, but sometimes you just don’t have a choice. Segmental retaining walls can be a great choice because they don’t require a footer all the way to frost depth, they don’t require mortar, and even if access is tight you can carry the blocks one or two at a time into the site. I would know – we did a job like that in California where we literally spent an entire day carrying an 80 lb block in each hand from the driveway, along the garage, and through the gate and up the stairs past the pool. Who needs the gym?

Retaining-Wall-Reduced

Segmental Retaining Wall Construction

Segmental walls are simple in theory but demand planning and precision to do them right. They require that the appropriate amount of wall is buried, the footer is the correct size, and getting the first course level is critical to a successful wall. Always follow the manufacturer’s installation instructions; these are just general guidelines to help you get started. This post is not intended to serve as installation instructions.

1. The footer

To begin your wall, you’ll need to dig down for your footer. For the purposes of explanation let’s say you’re building a 24″ tall wall. The leveling pad (essentially your flexible footer) should be at least 6″ thick. Typical manufacturer instructions say to bury at least 10% of the height of your wall, or no less than 6″ of your wall. So 10% of 24″ is 2.4″, meaning a minimum of 6″ of the wall needs to be below grade. Therefore you’ll dig your footer 12″ down.

What if you’re building on sloped ground? You always want your wall to be perfectly level. Do not follow the grade with your wall! To accommodate a slope, this will likely mean stepping your footer down with grade. In other words, in this example with a 24″ wall, your footer should always be no less than 12″ below grade. Any time it would be less than that, you dig down the height of one course of block. See the example.

Stepped-Retaining-Wall-Footer

To determine the width of your trench, it should be no less than the depth of the block (front to back) + 6″ to the front + 12″ to the back. Isn’t that a lot of digging? Sure is, but it’s less effort than skimping while building the wall and having to redo it.

Once everything is properly excavated, you’re ready to start adding stone for the footer. First follow your manufacturer’s recommendations for laying in geotextile fabric, typically along the bottom and back of your excavation. Then add your 21A stone, also called crusher run, ABC stone, or 3/4″ minus. What  you want is a stone that’s a mix of particles ranging from fines up to 3/4″ in size. Compact your stone with either a jumping jack or a vibratory plate compacter. The more smooth and level you can make the bedding layer the easier the next step.

2. The first course

The first course is critical. It has to be perfect or you’ll be fighting corrections the whole rest of the wall. Set your blocks, making sure that each block is level front to back and side to side. As you add adjacent block, use a string line or any other means of ensuring your first course is level. Once the whole first course is in, follow the manufacturer’s instructions to add the 4″ drainage pipe behind the wall. Backfill over and around this pipe with #57 stone (3/4″ clean stone). Any cavities in the block also get filled with #57s.

3. Subsequent courses

Clean any stone, dirt, or debris from the top of the blocks in place. Install pins or connectors as determined by the manufacturer and set your next course. Repeat to bring the wall to the appropriate height, backfilling with #57s (3/4″ clean gravel) as you go.

4. Install the caps

Wall caps can make all the difference between a wall that’s just ok and one that has a clean, finished appearance. Set your caps in place with the construction adhesive recommended by the manufacturer or your local supplier where you bought the block. Liquid Nails and other general construction adhesives will not hold up long term.

What about geo-grid?

Your wall installation may require geogrid at intervals to help create a strong, solid wall. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions very closely as geogrid can be critical to preventing wall failure.


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It takes a lot of planning to build a segmental retaining wall that lasts but it can be a very DIY-friendly project. Looking for help on the planning? Download my FREE segmental retaining wall planning worksheet. It lists out what materials you need and how to perform these vital calculations. Fill out your information below to get your worksheet today, and to sign up for my email newsletter.




January 22, 2016

Dave versus the snow plow

Do kids still do chores? I feel like I never see anyone younger than me shoveling in our neighborhood. When I was growing up, the understanding was that part of why I was there, and allowed to continue being there, was to do work around the house. In the winter that included shoveling the driveway. I mostly enjoyed it, too.

I’ve always had a vivid imagination so it was easy to slip into daydreams while doing the boring and repetitive work of clearing our small (50 feet x 20 feet) suburban driveway. There was also just something satisfying about creating neat edges and sharp corners. I had a very particular way of clearing the driveway, too. Two strips across the face of the garage, two strips from the garage down the centerline of the driveway to the street, then each half of the driveway was subdivided into 10 foot x 10 foot squares. You think that’s intense? You should see how I eat a Twinkie.

As with every epic story, however, there was an indomitable foe.

A freshly plowed road in America suburbia after a snow storm.

A freshly plowed road in America suburbia after a snow storm.

It would start, inevitably, as I was clearing the last remnants of snow from the foot of the driveway. First came a rumbling that I felt more than heard. Then individual sounds made themselves known: a hardened steel blade running over asphalt, the throaty roar of an engine straining to move chained wheels over the slick roads, and finally the whoosh of flying snow. In a matter of seconds the town plow truck would round the corner and shoot a grayish-white stripe of ice and dirty snow across my freshly cleared driveway, disappearing up the hill as quickly as it appeared.

It always made me furious. I knew that the plow driver was just doing his job, that this was not a personal attack against little David Marciniak, so my anger wasn’t directed at the plow driver. Rather, it was the at futility of the whole thing. Yes, even as a child I was full of existential angst. Why wasn’t there a better way? I set out to find a solution to this vexing problem.

My first instinct was to just keep the plow driver away from the end of our driveway. I had seen roadblocks used on the Dukes of Hazzard and that seemed like the logical place to start. So I dragged my dad’s sawhorses out of the garage and set them up to keep the plow off our side of the street (in hindsight I was given a tremendous amount of freedom from oversight as a kid). I was roughly awakened the next morning and sent out to shovel all the snow the plow left in the road when the driver swerved around the barricades. And the big strip of snow and ice chunks in the middle of the street. Clearly this was NOT the answer to my problem.

I spent a lot of time thinking of better ways to solve my plow problem. Just in time for the next storm, inspiration struck me. The plow is taking snow from down the street and carrying it to be deposited across our driveway, I reasoned. So if the plow doesn’t have any snow to pick up before our driveway…

My dad was a smart, patient, soft spoken practical man. He also had a keen, dry sense of humor, which is why I can picture the following exchange that may or may not have happened:

[Scene: my parents standing at the window, watching me shovel our side of the street all the way down to the neighbors’ driveway]

Mom: why is David shoveling the whole street?

Dad: I think he thinks that’ll keep the plow from pushing snow across our driveway.

Mom: shouldn’t we –

Dad: let him go. He’ll sleep really well tonight. And he’ll learn something.

My plan? It didn’t work. Eventually I figured out – after one more attempt, this time shoveling about 300 feet of the street – that cleaning up after the plow was just one of life’s inevitable frustrations. I had fought the good fight, but it was not mine to win.

It sure looks like I’ll be contending with the plow-driven frozen detritus this weekend. At least as an adult, I had the resources to go out and buy a snow blower. I’m actually excited to try it out!

If you’re in an area impacted by this impending blizzard, please stay safe, please stay warm, and I’ll see you on the other side of the storm!

January 20, 2016

Protecting your landscape from winter storm damage

Winter storm Jonas (why are we naming them again?) is barreling towards us, and that’s caused a number of friends to send me panicked texts and Facebook messages like “will this destroy my new plants?” and “help me save my trees!” I figure if they have questions, maybe you do too. Here’s what you need to know.

Winter Storm JONAS

Protecting your plants from winter storm damage

Snow and ice damage to plants was pretty widespread after Snowmageddon a few years ago. There are some trees and shrubs that are particularly vulnerable to this sort of damage. A great example is arborvitae – the multiple delicate, vertical branches are susceptible to getting weighed down and flopping apart, resulting in a “split” appearance to the plant.

Since a branch is weak but many branches are strong, you can essentially “splint” the branches with one another. Using something that won’t cut or dig into the bark (I like wide tie-down straps), lash the branches together ⅔ of the way above the crotch. Just be sure to untie them once the danger has passed, because if you leave them tied up going into spring it can girdle and damage the plant.

Winter-storm-damage-trees

If your trees and shrubs do droop and bend with the weight of the snowfall, don’t just run out and bang the snow off of them. The sudden drop in weight will cause them to try and snap back into shape, which may cause more damage than if they slowly eased back into shape. Remember this: plants have been surviving winters without us knocking snow off with brooms for thousands of years. Trust Mother Nature – she’s smarter than we are.

Protecting your hardscape from winter storm damage

It’s rare that the DC area sees the type of light, fluffy, powdery snows they get in Colorado. Wet snow + melting + refreezing = lots and lots of slip and fall potential. As a result, you’ll likely end up salting your walks and steps. But is your salt bad for your investment in hardscapes?

Winter-storm-damage-landscape

Aggressive, magnesium-based ice melt products can damage concrete and stone surfaces. If you have a basic asphalt or  concrete driveway and path and you don’t really care what happens to it in the long run, knock yourself out – salt away with the big guns. But if you want to be sure that you’re not pitting or staining the surface, consider calcium based products. Rock salt is also considered safe by many manufacturers, but be sure to check and see what the makers of your paving products recommend.

After the storm is past

If you still end up with damage to the landscape – from snow, plows, ice, or whatever – give us a call!  I’m now working closely with a tree guy and landscape specialist and he’ll go as far east on 3 as Fredericksburg, or up to Fauquier, Prince William, and southern Loudoun counties. No matter what, be safe, have fun, and enjoy the snow!

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