A Whale of a Good Time; Building a Natural Playground in Methuen

We have been working on a fun project in Methuen this year.  The Greater Lawrence Community Action Council (GLCAC) has built a new pre-school facility under the Head Start program.  Radner Design was called into action to design a ‘natural’ playground.  The natural playground movement has been around for a few years.  Conceptually, the idea is to limit the number of expensive factory manufactured play items and allow kids to dig in the dirt, get wet, roll down hills, play in sand and generally make a mess while using their imaginations and building strength. Here is an early site plan for the play ground.  Features include a trike path, a hill for climbing up and rolling down, an old fashioned water pump that discharges to a stream, a rope swing that leads to an island, slides and climbing rocks, and a tunnel made of pussy willow whips weaved together.

Anne D'Errico, the Head Start Director, challenged me to 'find my inner child'.  So I dug deep.  The genesis of the featured climbing piece was from my own childhood.  An undeveloped park near my house had this huge rock sticking out of the ground.  About 20’ long, 6’ wide and 4’ high (or so I remember), we called it the whale rock due to its shape.  Great for climbing right?  I wanted to replicate that rock for the kids.  The GLCAC hired Joe Montroy, a sculptor from New Hampshire to create his own version of the whale rock.

He came up with the idea of casting a solid aluminum piece of art.  Art you can climb on!  Here is a You Tube video showing the aluminum pour that happened just last week.  I am particularly happy that the artist utilized reclaimed aluminum; old engine parts and window frames, from a scrap yard.  I guess that makes it a 'green' whale.  Thanks to Max Thorpe who shot and edited this piece.

August 14, 2012 update:  here are some pictures of the completed project;


Planning for Spring Residential Landscaping

Happy New Year one and all!  With our holiday vacations now a distance memory and perhaps some of you gearing up for a few days of skiing this winter, landscaping is probably not foremost in your minds.  That’s unfortunate, because if you wait until the crocus’ bloom to plan your site improvements, you are missing out on opportunities to save time and money for the upcoming construction and planting season.  If you are planning site and landscape improvements for this calendar year, now is the time to engage a professional to allow sufficient time to plan, design, permit and bid the project so that when the ground softens and the nurseries open for the season, you can pull the trigger on construction.  That way you will be able to enjoy your completed landscape by the time the warm weather arrives.

  • Start the process early enough to be at the front of the line.

I advise clients to work backwards from the time they want construction to be finished in order to determine when to start the planning process.  Say your deadline is a Memorial Day barbeque.  That’s the weekend of May 28 this year.  Plenty of time, right?

If your project includes improvements to the back yard, like putting in a new patio, lighting, planting, some retaining walls, etc.  You probably want to leave 6 to 8 weeks for construction.  This allows time for the contractor to mobilize on the site and perhaps to order pavers or a special landscape light that are on back order.  Then there are always unanticipated delays such as bad weather.  In addition, spring is the busiest time for landscape contractors, so the longer you wait, the more your work will be competing for the contractor’s time with their other active projects.  That brings us back to April 4. 

  • Allow enough time to design and bid

Working backwards again, allow 3 weeks to interview contractors, bid and award the contract, and then an additional 4-6 weeks to work with your professional on planning, design and budgeting, depending on the complexity of the work.  (If your project requires local permitting such as site plan review, that can add months to the process.  We’ll address that issue in another post.)  This brings us to January 28. 

Scary close, right?  It’s going to take you a few weeks to identify and engage your designer which brings us to…well…today!

Note that the goal is to bid the project in early March.  The contractors are hungry for work at that time and they want to book as much work as possible for the spring.  Prices will be competitive.  If you wait until May to bid the work, you’ll probably have less interest because the contractors are already busy.  This will lead to inflated pricing and/or you go to the back of the line and have to wait until the fall to complete the work. 

  • Pay attention to the planting season

Here’s another reason to start the process now.  Planting season goes until about June 15.  After that, you are choosing plants (especially trees) that were dug in the spring and have been sitting above ground for a few months.  The best specimens will have been purchased and you are left with the scraps.  The nurseries don’t dig during the summer months because they don’t want to guarantee the material if it is planted in the hot summer months.  They will start to dig trees again in the fall, but even then, the palette of tree choices is reduced because many species, like Maples, most Oaks, Birches, Hornbeams, Cherries and Dogwoods don’t like a fall transplant.

To summarize

  • Start the process early enough (in January) to be at the front of the line
  • Allow enough time to design and bid
  • Pay attention to the planting season

Planting for Year Round Interest

One of the most important aspects of planting design is seasonal interest.  Too many designers don’t think about what the landscape will look like when the weather is at its worst.  I’m not talking about when there’s a fresh coating of snow over everything.  Snow can cover a multitude of sins.  I’m talking about those dreary, short, gray winter days like in December and late February through early April.  There are no leaves on the trees or the flowering shrubs, the perennials have died back and the grass has that grayish pall. Obviously, every landscape should have some evergreens, but too many will result in a boring landscape for the other 3 seasons.  I like to use ornamental grasses, evergreen groundcovers and shrubs that stay green or turn interesting colors, and even flowering shrubs that lose their leaves but have branching that has interesting texture or color. 

We completed a project this fall for a company that built a small conference center in an industrial area in Everett, MA (an industrial area in Everett; I guess that’s redundant). Anyway, this site is adjacent to a concrete plant, warehouses, and a metal scrap yard among other things.  The pre-existing condition consisted of a concrete slab when we started; the remains of a warehouse that had been torn down a few years ago.  Below the slab are contaminated soils that we could disturb only minimally.

We had little room for landscaping but it had to achieve maximum affect.  Grass was out of the question. Even if we had the room, it seemed pointless to have to irrigate and mow a lawn every week in this context.  Even planting trees didn’t seem right in this location.  It is an extremely windy site, so we had to carefully select our plant palette.

Basically, we went with a seaside planting palette consisting of a combination of groundcovers, perennials, grasses and some shrubs for massing.

Here is a picture shortly after planting in September; Blue Pacific Shore Juniper in the foreground, Big Blue Lilyturf along the road, Hameln Fountain Grass in front of the low retaining wall (already losing it’s green color), and Shirobana Japanese Spirea is visible in the middle around the flagpoles.


Below is the same view taken on December 15.  Note the interesting contrast of colors.  The Lilyturf retains is foliage all winter; the Fountain grass turns a pleasing sandy color, and even the spirea has an interesting purple tinge.  The groundcover junipers will grow together over time and cover the mulch.


Key to the design is the massing of species.  We would not have had nearly the same effect if we had not grouped multiple plants over large areas.

Here’s another view close to the building.  We used low groundcovers near the masonry so as to allow the architecture to shine.  Vinca minor on the left, and Catmint just behind the curb.  Sky Pencil Hollies are in the background providing contrast to the white architectural element on the building. 


There is an automatic irrigation system; an ultra efficient drip tubing system under the mulch so it is invisible.  As the plants mature and become acclimated over a few years, the watering regimen will decrease and eventually may only be turned on in times of summer drought.  There is also a French drain system underneath due to poor soil conditions.

Planted elsewhere on the site are Daylilies, Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, Salvia ‘May Night’ and Russian Sage (Perovskia).

The pavers are Hollandstone, Heritage Brown with an Il Campo finish and a wet look sealant by Unilock.  The lighted concrete bollards are by Architectural Area Lighting.

Project Team:

Owner:  Distrigas GDF Suez

Architect:  Ganek Architects

Civil Engineer:  McKenzie Engineering Group

General Contractor:  Berry Construction

Landscape and Irrigation Contractor:  Prime Landscape

Erosion Control with Benefits

Our client had an erosion issue in their side and rear yard.  Because their home is situated at the bottom of a slope, and because the large trees and rhododendrons around the house had matured so much over the years, all of the groundcover was crowded out and killed by the shade.  Whenever it rained, mulch and dirt would wash into their yard and onto their driveway, making a muddy mess.

In addition, their 30 year old landscaping in the front yard was overgrown, blocking views to and from the house.

We came on board with a mission to simply solve the erosion problem, but ended up revamping the entire yard in addition, and reconfiguring their driveway to increase yard space for play, reduce runoff and improve car circulation.   For the erosion control, which was in a shaded area, we considered regrading, installing drains and underground piping or some other structural solution, but came to realize that an intensive planting of undergrowth would likely solve the problem.  The foliage from additional groundcovers would absorb and diffuse the energy of falling rain.  We used such native shrubs as sweet pepper bush, leucothoe, and virgina sweetspire.  Groundcovers and perennials include Ajuga, Lirope, Cinnamon Fern and Solomon's Seal at anywhere from 12"-24" on center.  The mix of evergreen and perennial provides an interesting mix.  We also relocated several large rhododendron to open up space around the house and allow more sunlight to hit the new plantings.

To improve the look of the front of the house, we removed 2 overgrown flowering trees, beefed up the foundation plantings, adding variety in color and texture, and planted some red maples that would grow to match the surrounding natural landscape while keeping views open to the house under the maturing tree canopy.  We also solved a drainage problem by tying the roof downspouts which previously drained directly onto the ground, to an underground pipe.  As you can see, the house was painted as well, which brightened up and modernized the look of the house.  The driveway was reconfigured, adding a decorative accent strip of cobblestone paving around the edge, and a new front walkway was installed in clay brick pavers.

12 months later, the job is holding up well, plants are growing in, and we have a satisfied client.

The general contractor on the job was Phoenix Construction.  The landscape contractor was Wagon Wheel Nursery, the mason was McKechnie Associates.