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Something to Build On

Gisele Gilpatrick says her family’s business, Pro-Tech Waterproofing in Chicopee, typically garners about six months’ worth of business from the Western Mass. Home & Garden show — just not all at once.

“They’ll take our information, but they won’t always call next week,” said Gilpatrick, Pro-Tech’s office manager and the chair of the 64th annual Home & Garden show, slated for March 22-25. “They’ll say, ‘we saw you six months ago, or a year ago, or two years ago. I pulled out your card, because I have a problem now.’”

That’s the value for many of the 350-plus vendors who will set up shop at the Eastern States Exposition on March 22-25. Among those showcasing their products and services will be builders, remodelers, kitchen and bath specialists, landscapers, painters, roofers, financial institutions, pool companies, and more.

“It’s a good chance for people to talk to us one on one about their situation,” Gilpatrick said. “Sometimes it’s easier to visualize things when you talk with someone in person, and people are more comfortable explaining what they need. Sometimes, people think it’s a major project and it’s not, while other times we have to tell them it is major.”

Either way, it’s easy to find answers — and second, third, and fourth opinions — with so many businesses on hand. For that reason and others, the annual event has become the signature showcase for the Home Builders & Remodelers Assoc. of Western Massachusetts, which produces it.

The home show started as a way to generate revenue to support the association, but it also provides member companies with a chance to market to an audience — and a big one, with around 20,000 visitors over the four days in a typical year — that might not otherwise see their name. Conversely, it gives attendees, many of whom simply come to the show for fun, a host of concrete (sometimes literally) ideas for home improvement.

The exhibitors — in more than 90 different categories — run the gamut from inspection services to security and alarm systems; Internet and communications to moving and storage; duct cleaning to pianos and organs.

Show attendees fall into one of several categories, the association notes:

• People planning to buy or build a new home, who may visit with builders, real-estate agents, financial institutions, and sellers of component products, such as hardwood flooring, tile, and appliances;

• People planning to remodel or renovate, who may want to check in with all of the above, plus vendors of replacement components such as windows and doors, as well as appliances, wall treatments, and home furnishings;

• Yard and garden enthusiasts, who tend to be interested in lawn and landscaping services; wall, walk, and edging components and materials; and trees, shrubs, flowers, and seeds;

• Lifestyle-conscious individuals, who like to check out trendy, high-tech, or time-saving products; home furnishings; and products focused on self-improvement, fitness, and health;

• Committed renters, who have no plans to own a house, but may be interested in space-conservation and space-utilization products, as well as home furnishings;

• Impulse buyers, who flock to vendors of home décor, arts and crafts, cooking and baking products, jewelry, and personal goods; and

• Those who attend the show purely for fun, who may arrive without an agenda but often develop ideas for future purchases and home products. “More than any other group,” according to the association, “these people are the ones who have come to rely upon our show on an annual basis and who perhaps have the greatest impact upon our vendors.”

Advice — on the House

In addition to the exhibitors, the four-day event will also include cooking shows, hosted by WMAS radio personalities, in the Home Show Kitchen in the Young Building. Various chefs from restaurants throughout the Pioneer Valley will be on hand to prepare some of their specialties, and audience members can ask them questions, try samples, and have a chance to win gift certificates from some of the establishments.

A children’s area in the Young Building will feature an art exhibit created by students from Thousand Cranes Studio and a chance to participate in creative activities, as well as Melha Shriners clowns and a live butterfly display from Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory & Gardens. The Koi Society will have a pond built by C J Grounds Maintenance filled with koi fish, kids can get their pictures taken on a go-cart provided by Pioneer Valley Indoor Karting, Looney Tunes characters from Six Flags New England will be on hand, and Rolling Acres Outdoor and Science Summer Camp will help kids conduct science experiments.

Meanwhile, promotions and giveaways include the WMAS Kitchen Giveaway Contest, the Rock 102/Lazer 99.3 Ultimate New England Sports Fan Giveaway, and iHeartRadio’s $25,000 Home Makeover Contest.

In a dedicated outdoor area, several vendors will assemble outdoor structures such as sheds, gazebos, sunrooms, and furniture to spruce up the deck or poolside. Also on display in that area will be the large Beauty in Motion showroom of American Standard products.

Gilpatrick emphasized that the impact of the Home & Garden Show is year-round. “Some people may have a problem that costs $15,000 to fix, and they don’t have $15,000. But come next year, they’ve planned and budgeted, maybe secured financing, basically done what it will take, and that’s when we hear from them again. There’s a lot of that.”

This year’s show hours are Thursday and Friday, March 22-23, 1-9 p.m.; Saturday, March 24, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday, March 25, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission is $10 for adults, and children under 12 are admitted free. Discount coupons, available at www.westernmasshomeshow.com, knock $6 off the regular ticket price on Thursday, $4 off the regular price on Friday, and $2 off the regular price on Saturday and Sunday. Veterans and active military with ID receive free admission on Thursday only.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Home Builders Landscape Design Sections

Something to Build On

Gisele Gilpatrick says her family’s business, Pro-Tech Waterproofing in Chicopee, typically garners about six months’ worth of business from the Western Mass. Home & Garden show — just not all at once.

“They’ll take our information, but they won’t always call next week,” said Gilpatrick, Pro-Tech’s office manager and the chair of the 64th annual Home & Garden show, slated for March 22-25. “They’ll say, ‘we saw you six months ago, or a year ago, or two years ago. I pulled out your card, because I have a problem now.’”

That’s the value for many of the 350-plus vendors who will set up shop at the Eastern States Exposition on March 22-25. Among those showcasing their products and services will be builders, remodelers, kitchen and bath specialists, landscapers, painters, roofers, financial institutions, pool companies, and more.

“It’s a good chance for people to talk to us one on one about their situation,” Gilpatrick said. “Sometimes it’s easier to visualize things when you talk with someone in person, and people are more comfortable explaining what they need. Sometimes, people think it’s a major project and it’s not, while other times we have to tell them it is major.”

Either way, it’s easy to find answers — and second, third, and fourth opinions — with so many businesses on hand. For that reason and others, the annual event has become the signature showcase for the Home Builders & Remodelers Assoc. of Western Massachusetts, which produces it.

The home show started as a way to generate revenue to support the association, but it also provides member companies with a chance to market to an audience — and a big one, with around 20,000 visitors over the four days in a typical year — that might not otherwise see their name. Conversely, it gives attendees, many of whom simply come to the show for fun, a host of concrete (sometimes literally) ideas for home improvement.

The exhibitors — in more than 90 different categories — run the gamut from inspection services to security and alarm systems; Internet and communications to moving and storage; duct cleaning to pianos and organs.

Show attendees fall into one of several categories, the association notes:

• People planning to buy or build a new home, who may visit with builders, real-estate agents, financial institutions, and sellers of component products, such as hardwood flooring, tile, and appliances;

• People planning to remodel or renovate, who may want to check in with all of the above, plus vendors of replacement components such as windows and doors, as well as appliances, wall treatments, and home furnishings;

• Yard and garden enthusiasts, who tend to be interested in lawn and landscaping services; wall, walk, and edging components and materials; and trees, shrubs, flowers, and seeds;

• Lifestyle-conscious individuals, who like to check out trendy, high-tech, or time-saving products; home furnishings; and products focused on self-improvement, fitness, and health;

• Committed renters, who have no plans to own a house, but may be interested in space-conservation and space-utilization products, as well as home furnishings;

• Impulse buyers, who flock to vendors of home décor, arts and crafts, cooking and baking products, jewelry, and personal goods; and

• Those who attend the show purely for fun, who may arrive without an agenda but often develop ideas for future purchases and home products. “More than any other group,” according to the association, “these people are the ones who have come to rely upon our show on an annual basis and who perhaps have the greatest impact upon our vendors.”

Advice — on the House

In addition to the exhibitors, the four-day event will also include cooking shows, hosted by WMAS radio personalities, in the Home Show Kitchen in the Young Building. Various chefs from restaurants throughout the Pioneer Valley will be on hand to prepare some of their specialties, and audience members can ask them questions, try samples, and have a chance to win gift certificates from some of the establishments.

A children’s area in the Young Building will feature an art exhibit created by students from Thousand Cranes Studio and a chance to participate in creative activities, as well as Melha Shriners clowns and a live butterfly display from Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory & Gardens. The Koi Society will have a pond built by C J Grounds Maintenance filled with koi fish, kids can get their pictures taken on a go-cart provided by Pioneer Valley Indoor Karting, Looney Tunes characters from Six Flags New England will be on hand, and Rolling Acres Outdoor and Science Summer Camp will help kids conduct science experiments.

Meanwhile, promotions and giveaways include the WMAS Kitchen Giveaway Contest, the Rock 102/Lazer 99.3 Ultimate New England Sports Fan Giveaway, and iHeartRadio’s $25,000 Home Makeover Contest.

In a dedicated outdoor area, several vendors will assemble outdoor structures such as sheds, gazebos, sunrooms, and furniture to spruce up the deck or poolside. Also on display in that area will be the large Beauty in Motion showroom of American Standard products.

Gilpatrick emphasized that the impact of the Home & Garden Show is year-round. “Some people may have a problem that costs $15,000 to fix, and they don’t have $15,000. But come next year, they’ve planned and budgeted, maybe secured financing, basically done what it will take, and that’s when we hear from them again. There’s a lot of that.”

This year’s show hours are Thursday and Friday, March 22-23, 1-9 p.m.; Saturday, March 24, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday, March 25, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission is $10 for adults, and children under 12 are admitted free. Discount coupons, available at www.westernmasshomeshow.com, knock $6 off the regular ticket price on Thursday, $4 off the regular price on Friday, and $2 off the regular price on Saturday and Sunday. Veterans and active military with ID receive free admission on Thursday only.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Landscape Design Sections

Weighty Business

Joseph AlexopoulosTrees serve both practical and aesthetic functions, and people can become quite attached to them. But work to maintain, trim, and even remove trees should be left to the professionals, who say their profession is often dangerous, but in all ways rewarding.

Joseph Alexopoulos has given many customers quotes for taking down a tree. But he will never forget the day he arrived at a house, saw a rope hanging from the tree the homeowner wanted removed, and asked about it.

“I was told the man they hired before me died trying to fell it,” said the president of Tree 413 in Longmeadow, adding that the tragedy is an example of how dangerous the work can be.

Local experts agree it’s critically important to hire professionals with the knowledge, training, proper equipment, and insurance to prevent homeowners from being sued if an accident occurs on their property.

The Tree Care Industry Assoc. says successfully felling a tree requires knowledge of tree physics, biology, dangerous tools, and advanced cutting techniques, and homeowners who attempt their own tree removal may be injured by falling limbs, malfunctioning equipment, or the tree itself.

The work is hazardous by nature, and professionals are completely outfitted in protective gear and trained to climb trees, operate cranes, and use chainsaws, ropes, wood chippers, and stump grinders safely.

Manager Randy Sample of Arbortech Tree Service LLC in Springfield says the company holds weekly meetings led by employees to discuss situations they encounter and the safest way to deal with them.

“Unforeseen scenarios can occur, but we go to great lengths to eliminate the possibility of accidents,” he said, adding that employees use a wide range of equipment, adhere to OSHA standards, and are certified annually in electrical hazard and prevention, which ensures they are familiar with equipment utility companies use to provide electricity and the dangers associated with tree care and utility lines.

Tree pruning and felling is a major source of income for most local tree-service companies, but many have branched out, and the scope of their work includes a wide variety of jobs.

Arbortech created a Plant Healthcare Division five years ago to keep trees healthy, because problems almost always begin in the root system.

Randy Sample

Randy Sample says Arbortech employees meet weekly to discuss potentially dangerous situations and how to handle them.

“By the time they are noticeable, it may be too late to save the tree,” Sample said, adding that he has heard countless stories from families about their emotional attachment to a particular tree, and, therefore, the company strives to prevent damage that can threaten the health of these woody plants.

Tree 413, meanwhile, specializes in difficult tree removal that typically requires cranes, special equipment, and skilled climbers. “Many trees literally need to be lifted over the house with a crane as a whole or in pieces; it’s not a job where you can cut corners,” said Alexopoulos, adding that the company’s business has doubled every year for the last three years and workers do everything possible to ensure that limbs don’t fall on a roof, power line, vehicle, or anywhere else that could cause damage.

The company also does excavation and demolition, plans to start selling colored mulch, and recently opened a store in Southwick that carries equipment for professionals and homeowners that can be rented or purchased. It ranges from heavy-duty machinery to chainsaws and leaf blowers and includes clothing appropriate for tree work, because professionals are outfitted from head to toe to ensure safety.

Northern Tree Service Inc. in Palmer does a wide range of residential, industrial, and commercial work in three divisions that include tree service, land clearing, and construction. Its work ranges from felling trees to identifying potential hazards such as overhanging branches, dead limbs, or diseased trees for municipalities, golf courses, and other venues, as well as providing access for utilities.

For this issue and its focus on landscape design, BusinessWest looks at the scope of work that tree service companies do and the reasons they are called upon for help.

Diverse Services

Local tree-service companies say homeowners should never hire anyone without asking for proof they have liability and workers’ compensation insurance.

Nick Powers

Nick Powers says Northern identifies problems like weak limbs for its clients before they cause damage or injury.

“Many small contractors let their insurance lapse, so even if the person hands you a copy of a policy, you should call the phone number on it to ensure they are paid up to date,” Alexopoulos told BusinessWest.

Sample concurred. “People need to do their homework; the level of danger is very real, and there are many companies that are not qualified to do this type of work,” he said, adding that homeowners should also ask for referrals, make sure the company adheres to industry standards, and check if its arborists are certified through websites such as www.treesaregood.com, which offer educational materials and links to helpful information.

In addition to tree trimming and removal, Tree 413 performs excavation and demolition ranging from removing a sidewalk to an entire garage and foundation, or a Gunite pool made entirely of concrete. When the demolition is complete, workers fill in the cavity, spread topsoil over it, then seed it.

The company recently took down three trees for a homeowner in a project that was similar to a major demolition project, because they weighed a total of 60,000 pounds.

“The job was very involved and required skilled tree climbers, a crane, and a police officer in the road near our groundsmen who were cutting and chipping sections and putting logs in a truck to be taken away,” Alexopoulos said.

He added that dead trees are very difficult to take down, and the job often has to be done in sections. “If a cut branch slams into a dead tree, it can shatter,” he explained, noting that a small limb can weigh 600 pounds.

Arbortech also does a large amount of residential work, but its slogan is “more than just tree removal.” The company employs certified arborists who evaluate trees, shrubs, and woody plants and diagnose and treat disease, insect problems, and the type and amount of fertilizer needed for optimal growth.


SEE: List of Landscape Design Companies


“We try to care for trees from the roots up; we focus on tree preservation rather than removal,” Sample said, adding that indications that a tree is in trouble include problems such as leaves that fall too early.

He told BusinessWest that most problems stem from improper planting. Trees can be too close to a driveway, home, or power line, and choosing the right location for a specific species and its future growth is critical.

“The root system is the foundation of a tree and is typically as large as its crown or the drip line from the farthest branch,” Sample said.

The company’s arborists uncover roots, which are usually buried a foot or two beneath the ground, take soil samples, and inspect the root collar to make sure roots aren’t choking each other, which can affect the nutrients the tree is able to absorb.

Arbortech also plants trees and maintains orchards for customers that include apple, pear, and peach trees, as well as raspberry and blueberry bushes.

In addition, it sells mulch, loam, topsoil, and both green and 100% seasoned firewood.

“It can be a frustrating endeavor to buy firewood that is dirty, not properly seasoned, and doesn’t give the heat people are looking for,” Sample said, noting that the company purchases wood from logging contractors that has been specially cut to fit their machines, tests it with a moisture meter, rotates it so it will dry properly, then puts it through another screening process after it is purchased to ensure the delivered product doesn’t include any loose bark or chunks of wood.

Northern Tree Services performs jobs in many settings. It builds roads and work pads for utility companies, and has cleared sections of land that range from a half-acre to 550 acres to make way for power lines, solar fields, gas and oil pipelines — including the Keystone Pipeline — and large commercial contractors.

The company has 220 employees across the U.S., but the majority of its work is done in New England, and it also has contracts with colleges, golf courses, apartment and condominium complexes, 40 airports, the cities of Springfield and Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the state Department of Transportation, and Eversource. It has also developed a Google Earth program to identify trees that need to be pruned, thinned, or felled.

“It’s our job to identify hazards before they happen,” said company spokesman Nick Powers, noting that Northern also has a contract with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which is responsible for monitoring and maintaining vegetation on its roads, including the well-traveled Storrow Drive in Boston.

The company also does residential and commercial plantings and tree removal and pruning, which is especially important for utility companies because falling limbs can cause power outages.

Kevin Ferguson, project manager and estimator, told BusinessWest that arborists identify weak limbs that need to be supported or removed so they don’t fall during a windstorm or from the weight of snow.

“It doesn’t take much wind to knock deadwood out of a tree,” he said, explaining that, when they are called to a home, they examine the entire property and point out potential dangers. Some trees can be thinned to eliminate shade and the growth of moss on a roof, while helping prevent gutters from getting clogged with leaves, while others need low-hanging or dead limbs removed.

Safety First

Local tree companies do everything in their power to prevent accidents, but tree work is a risky business and can lead to damage or injury when unqualified people are hired to do a job.

It all comes down to respecting the power of nature and checking a company’s credentials, but anyone who hires licensed professionals to plant, prune, or fell trees can rest assured that every possible safety precaution will be taken, and their trees will add beauty and life to their property and be enjoyed by generations to come.

Landscape Design Sections

Barking Up the Right Tree

James Wawrzyk

James Wawrzyk says the mulch business soars in the spring, and the colder months are spent preparing for the inevitable surge.

James Wawrzyk is a successful entrepreneur twice over, after starting his second business specifically to meet a need in his first.

That initial company was Growing Concern, a Wilbraham-based landscaping firm he launched in 1981, offering a wide range of outdoor services, from lawn installation to irrigation; from fertilizing to tree and shrub maintenance.

One of those services was applying mulch, but he had grown frustrated at the quality of the products he was encountering. “People were cutting topsoil with sand and cutting bark mulch with wood and ash. I guaranteed my work, so I needed to start off with the best products available. So I started Mulch-n-More in 1996 to supply my own landscaping company with quality material.”

He soon recognized that processing and selling mulch was a huge business opportunity in itself, so he eventually transitioned out of the landscaping field to grow Mulch-n-More, also based in Wilbraham, full-time.

“What I realized was, these customers I was supplying through Growing Concern, their neighbors wanted material — quality material — and that’s what ended up happening.

“What we do is bring in the raw material — 100% bark — and grind it. We add nothing to it,” Wawrzyk went on. “By doing the processing ourselves, we eliminate the middleman, so no foreign matter is added to the bark. From start to finish, we make sure it’s 100%.”

Bark contains a natural insect repellent, which is one reason many homeowners prefer it to wood-pulp-based mulch, while others are just looking to save a few bucks with cheaper products.

“It’s the almighty dollar — people are trying to save money. But when you buy these products that aren’t bark, they can run into trouble with mold spores, insects, and termites,” he noted. “The biggest problem now is called artillery fungus, which comes from the decomposition of green, rotting wood, and it shoots mold spores, which are nearly impossible to remove. They’ll stick to cars, houses, and if they get in vinyl siding, you can’t take it off.”

Colorful Description

Despite these considerations, however, most customers come in most concerned about color. Wawrzyk enjoys educating them on the different aspects of each product beyond the shade.

“Cedar has the highest percentage of insect repellent, and is fastest to fade, but slowest to decompose. Just like with cedar fence, clapboard siding, or shingles, cedar has the longevity,” he explained.

“Hemlock is what we call a rusty red color. Sable is a dark chocolate brown,” he went on. “Spruce is a dark brown, and it holds the color the longest of all the natural barks.”

mulchhouse1

For customers who value long-lasting color above all else, Mulch-n-More carries a dyed wood-fiber product, in red or black, that keeps its color longer than natural bark. “The dyed material we carry is kiln-dried and then dyed with FDA-approved food coloring; it has only 12-18% moisture content, so there are no worries about mold spores, insects, or termites.”

The company also carries topsoil — a clay-based product that holds moisture well — and stone products for decorative landscaping, drainage, patio base material, and other uses.

The landscape-supply business is an oddly paced one, said Wawrzyk as he brought BusinessWest to a large dirt lot where a loader was scooping huge piles of raw bark into a machine that grinds it into much finer pieces. The vast majority of all purchases are made between April and June, when homeowners are focused on their yards, and it’s impossible to know when the first flood of orders will pour in.

“The weather has a lot to do with mulch,” he noted. “Most people are not going to put mulch down until they’re done cleaning out their yard. Some people, though, always order the second week of April, and that’s when they’ll be mulching, hell or high water. Mostly, it’s based on weather. So that’s tough for us; we have to be ready no matter what happens. And when Mother Nature says ‘go,’ we’re ready.

Last year, for instance, the mulch season started much earlier than usual after a mild winter. Two years ago, however, the region was slammed with snow, and landscape-related businesses dealt with a later start.

Customers are split almost 50-50 between landscapers and homeowners, he said, adding that orders from landscaping companies are easier because they bring their own trucks. Still, Mulch-n-More delivers mulch, priced by the cubic yard, to more than 30 towns throughout the region — often well over 50 deliveries a day during peak season.

Backyard Changes

There have been many peak seasons in the two decades since Wawrzyk started processing and selling his own mulch, although the economy can often cause ripples — and larger waves — through this industry. “We flatlined in 2008 like everyone, but we’ve had a steady increase ever since then. More homeowners are convincing themselves that mulch is an easy way to improve a yard.”

They also understand that the more mulch they use, the less mowing and lawn maintenance they need to do.

“Mulch is expensive, but it is not as expensive as maintaining turf grass,” he told BusinessWest. “If you want to make your backyard a garden paradise, mulch or stone will be the biggest complement to your shrubs and flowers — if you use the right mulch, they’ll really pop.”

After 36 years in the landscaping field, Wawrzyk finds himself learning new things, especially the growing importance of social media in raising the company’s profile. But he’s also a believer in old-fashioned customer service.

“We have a good customer base; they tend to come back every couple years,” he said. “And I’m still the primary person they talk to. When people call, I answer the phone. And when we say we’ll be there, we will be there.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Landscape Design Sections

Going Yard

Amherst Landscape & Design Associates

One of Amherst Landscape & Design Associates’ many hardscape projects.

After several lean years during the recession, followed by the slow revival of the home-building and commercial-construction sectors, landscape designers are finally feeling like their industry is surging, with customers jumping on trends ranging from outdoor kitchens to landscape lighting to sustainable elements. A mild winter meant an early start for these professionals, who are optimistic the brisk business will continue throughout 2016.

It’s a simple question, just four words. But it speaks volumes about the optimism area landscape designers feel about the 2016 season.

“The golden question we’re hearing is, ‘when can you start?’ Not ‘let me get back to you,’ but ‘when can you start?’” said Stephen Roberts, president of Stephen A. Roberts Landscape Architecture & Construction in Springfield. “We haven’t heard those words much the last eight years, but we’re starting to hear them. People want to pull the trigger and go.”

That’s not to say the last few years haven’t been positive. Since the lean times caused by the Great Recession, the landscape-design business, like other construction trades, has been on an upward arc. But something seems different — even more positive — this year, Roberts said.

“We’ve seen an uptick in calls coming in, contracts have been signed already, and the backlog is stacking up,” he noted. “It seems stronger than the past few years.”

He admits the unseasonable winter — one in which the Pioneer Valley totaled well under two feet of snow and bare lawns, not mounds of snow, dotted the landscape throughout much of January and February — had something to do with that.

“Of course, we had the mild winter; last year, there was still plenty of snow on the ground at this time, and people weren’t thinking about landscaping,” he said when he spoke with BusinessWest at the start of April. “This year, with hardly any snow, people have been looking at their dreary landscape all winter and thinking about what to do.”

The warm weather also allowed for an early start to work, Roberts said. “We were able to get out much earlier because the ground wasn’t frozen; we could start excavating and preparing for construction. And because we got out into the community earlier, people saw the trucks, and that generated even more action.”

Steve Prothers, president of Amherst Landscape & Design Associates, senses similar optimism in the air.

“It’s exciting. There’s a lot of energy out there, a lot of excitement for the new season,” he said. “Of course, that’s true after every winter, regardless of the severity; come spring, people are excited to be outdoors, and they look to landscaping to make their property a beautiful and desirable place to hang out.”

Still, the mild winter and early onset of warm weather — give or take a couple late-season accumulations that melted quickly — gave landscapers about a four-week start on the time they usually start cranking up, which is typically mid-April.

“From what I can tell, this is going to be a very busy year,” he said. “That shows there’s a lot of construction going on. Landscaping is always the result of a lot of physical building and remodeling, and it’s kind of a snowball effect. We can’t help but benefit. As they go, we go. When they’re down in flow, so are we. I’ve been doing this for 37 years, and maybe we’re a little insulated in this region, but we’re still affected by the ups and downs of the national and local economy.”

Roberts agreed that a strong flow of work among both commercial contractors and home builders over the past few years has definitely trickled down to landscapers.

“A lot of new construction is getting ready for landscaping,” he explained. “When the engineers are first getting busy, we’re usually two years out from them. But you’re seeing contracts being signed now for the landscape phase.”

At Home Outdoors

As a specialist in hardscaping, Prothers is in a good spot these days, as that aspect of landscape design has been on an upward track since the recession began to fade and people began reinvesting in their homes in earnest.

“We’re seeing a lot of landscape construction from people who are remodeling or expanding and want to expand their outdoor living rooms, using walkways, patios, gazebos, pergolas … anything that makes the space more inviting to hang out or entertain.”


Click HERE for a chart of area landscape design companies


He said water features and outdoor firepits have become especially popular with customers, not to mention kitchen areas where families can cook and dine outdoors — in some cases, poolside. Others are hardscaping around hot tubs and better connecting the poolside experience to the overall landscape — in both cases, making pools and hot tubs part of the entire outdoor-living experience, rather than standalone spots to enjoy a dip or a soak. “People want to feel like they’re spending vacation time in their backyard.”

Roberts agreed that demand remains strong for outdoor living rooms, cooking areas, and firepits. “Those are still high up on the want list for a lot of customers. And the trend is more toward gas features, which are easier to operate.”

Beyond the cooking aspects, he added, homeowners have moved well beyond lawn chairs and favor durable and weatherproof outdoor furniture. “They want to create comfortable, casual spaces. They want to gather and relax in a little more upscale environment than what they’ve had in the past.”

Steve Roberts and his dog, Max

Steve Roberts and his dog, Max, enjoy a moment at the firepit on the Elms College quadrangle, which his company gave a significant makeover recently.

They’re also increasingly looking to install artistic landscape lighting, also known as architectural lighting, a niche popular in the South that is coming into its own in the Northeast. As opposed to powerful floodlights, landscape lighting uses a variety of smaller accent lights to highlight the features of a home and yard.

“Outdoor lighting is being requested a lot more, with the LED lights available now,” Roberts said. “Those are more energy-efficient, and more people are gravitating toward them than in the past. They’re coming up earlier in the conversation, instead of something being added on in the future; people are asking for lighting up front.”

All these features reflect national landscaping trends, according to Corinne Gangloff, media relations director for the Freedonia Group, which studies landscaping trends. She writes that, “as part of the outdoor living trend, homeowners create outside kitchens and living rooms, and businesses extend outdoor areas to expand their seating space. Urban communities increasingly create ‘parklets,’ small green spaces that may feature flower beds, container gardens, walking paths, water features, seating, bird-watching opportunities, and statuary. Some communities have used these parks as a way to address the issue of abandoned homes in blighted neighborhoods, tearing down the structures and replacing them with this type of public green space.”

Other trends in this $6.3 billion industry, according to the organization’s 2016 survey, include heating elements, pavers, and environmental concerns, driving the popularity of solar-powered features, water conservation, and recycled materials.

“Sustainability is a growing concern and desire for homeowners,” writes Jill Odom, associate editor of Total Landscape Care. “As houses get renovated to conserve energy, yards will be redesigned to conserve water. There are plenty of design options that can be used to achieve this, but the two main options will be low-water-use plant material and better irrigation systems.”

Practical features are popular too, Roberts noted. “A lot of people want to add gardens and grow vegetables and fruit. I think there’s definitely a trend toward having some type of edible landscape aspects to their properties, even if it’s just an herb garden, just to have something to pick and throw on a salad. We see that as kind of a trend.”

Heating Up

While the hot choices in landscaping features might vary from customer to customer, Prothers told BusinessWest, the professionals working in the field report similar levels of enthusiasm for what the spring and summer of 2016 will bring after that remarkably mild winter.

“If it’s not overwhelming, it’s certainly steady work,” he said, noting that customers are starting to think about their spring plans sooner — as in the previous winter or even fall — and booking their projects instead of waiting, as they might have in past years. “They realize these jobs have a schedule, so they want to lock them in, and they’re thinking in advance.”

There are plenty of reasons for that, he added, but in general, people have a little more money to spend right now, and they want to invest it in their homes — specifically, in extending their homes outside. “There are a lot of larger renovation jobs taking place, which is great, but also a lot of older landscapes that were installed 30, 40 years ago, and are tired and need a little attention. People want something that’ll go the rest of distance they’re in their homes — or help them resell their homes.”

The almost complete lack of snow this year, while a relief for the average Massachusetts homeowner weary of long, harsh winters, did pose some stress to landscapers — Roberts included — who turn to snow removal during the cold months. But he’s not complaining about the flip side.

“We rely on that winter income for our overhead, and to give us a little cash going into the spring, and that money wasn’t there this year,” he said. “But, luckily, things are on the upswing now.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Landscape Design Sections

Deep-rooted Concepts

This landscape design by David Paine

This landscape design by David Paine uses plants to create privacy as the steps behind this home lead to a hot tub.

Bill St. Clair likes to compare the plantings around a home to a frame chosen for an expensive piece of artwork.

It takes time and care to select the right frame — or, in this case, plants for a landscape design — but doing so is well worth the cost because it enhances the beauty and increases its value.

“Plants can transform a beautiful home into a picture,” said the owner of St. Clair Landscaping and Nursery in Hampden. “I tell people all the time they are the frame around a house.”

Andy Grondalski agrees and says plants can also be used to create outdoor living space. “Some people frame outdoor rooms with plants, while others use them on patios or along winding paths that lead to areas with a bench or pond or that open up into a field,” said the nursery manager from Sixteen Acres Garden Center in Springfield. “Annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees can be used to define space and create a garden, and people can plant them with roses, hydrangeas, or different varieties of day lilies.

“But it’s important to find the right plants for the right place,” he continued, adding that he has measured out 20-foot spots at the nursery and had people place plants alongside each other before they buy them to make sure they like how they look from a distance.

“You may prefer something ornate, while other people want something simpler, but plants are an investment, so it’s important to be sure what you are getting is something you really like,” he noted.

Andy Grondalski

Andy Grondalski says people can have color in their yards year-round with the right mix of plants.

Local experts say it’s also critical to use plants with a USDA Hardiness Zone 5 rating because they can withstand the harsh New England climate. The zones are based on average annual extreme minimum temperatures over a 30-year period, and although some people purchase plants rated for Zone 4 and Zone 6, they are less likely to survive when the weather turns cold.

Although everyone wants plants that don’t require much maintenance, with the exception of mature trees and shrubs, they all need watering, and some require deadheading, pruning, trimming, repotting, and other work.

“Plants are alive, and anything alive has to be cared for,” Grondolski said.

David Paine, owner of Plan It Green in Northampton, advises people to use native plants as often as possible. “They are more apt to survive because they’ve lived here for thousands of years,” said the licensed landscape architect. “They also benefit the environment.”

For example, white oak trees produce acorns, while serviceberry trees, blueberry bushes, and various varieties of holly produce berries that birds eat.

Paine said some people shy away from oaks because they views acorns as messy or worry they’ll dent their vehicles when they fall, but oak trees provide incredible habitats; more than 300 wildlife species are known to use or make their home in oaks, including dozens of types of birds.

Flowering plants that attract bees and butterflies are also important and beneficial.

“We would lose many of our food sources if we didn’t have bees to pollinate plants, and although some people are afraid of them, they are far more interested in the nectar on flowers than human beings,” Paine said.

As the number of people concerned about the environment increases, those who love the look of a lush lawn are turning to varieties that are hardier and more drought-tolerant.

“Everyone wants their place to look nice, but Kentucky bluegrass needs two inches of water a week, so it’s almost irresponsible to plant it,” Paine said, adding that replacing turf grass with ground cover is also a growing trend.

Variety of Settings

Today, many landscapers use plants to define a space or create privacy around an outdoor living area. “We put Japanese painted ferns in 24-inch pots around a outdoor room in a Longmeadow home that has a fireplace and TV,” St. Clair told BusinessWest, adding that they are 18 to 24 inches in height and 36 inches wide.

The use of ornamental grasses is also on the rise because they reach heights of five to seven feet and provide privacy and interest, as well as a soothing sound when the wind ruffles through them.

The grasses need to be cut back six to 12 inches from the ground in the fall, although some people leave them standing until the spring because they like the way they look when they are covered with snow. They don’t begin growing again until late May or June, but can reach their mature height in two months.

“They came into popularity over the past decade, are relatively easy to care for, and provide a different aesthetic,” Paine explained.

People love colorful plantings, which can add beauty or create warmth in almost any area, and experts say color can be maintained year-round with a mixture of spring, summer, and fall perennials as well as bushes, including green or gold evergreens or holly, which are known for their glossy green leaves and bright red berries.

“You can also achieve year-round color by using only shrubs and trees, as there are so many interesting textures of foliage and bark,” Grondolski said. “Red twig dogwood shows up really nicely in the snow, and paperback maples have cinnamon-colored bark that peels off like birch bark. Their fall foliage is phenomenal in the fall, and when it comes to color, it’s definitely a multi-season tree.”

He added that reblooming hydrangea is one of the most popular bushes, and it’s possible to change the color of the plant’s flowers from blue to pink or purple by changing the soil composition and making it more acidic or more alkaline.

Filling large pots with plants can also add interest to a landscape, especially when they are placed on each side of the front door of a home or business. St. Clair has clients who like the look of these pots and have him change the flowers in them each season.

Others prefer a more permanent plant and opt for dwarf Alberta spruce trees in pots, as they do well year-round and can be decorated with lights during the Christmas season. They reach a height of three to four feet and can be sprayed in the fall with anti-desiccant oil that prevents the moisture from escaping so they don’t dry out during the winter, although they do need to be watered until the pot freezes.

The market for trees is also growing, and popular choices include varieties of Japanese maples with dome-shaped foliage that looks like an upright umbrella, Kousa dogwoods, Bradford pears, thundercloud plums, and apple trees.

“People can have a small orchard in a 50-by-50-foot space if they plant dwarf varieties. They are the easiest trees to grow, and you don’t need a huge area or have to climb a ladder to harvest the fruit,” Paine said.

Sixteen Acres Garden Center sold out of fruit trees last year, and Grondolski said people are still replacing trees that were downed during the tornado and freak October snowstorm several years ago. In addition to aesthetics, they are beneficial to the environment and reduce heating and cooling bills because they provide shade in summer and block the wind in the winter.

Choosing a plant or tree can be daunting, however, as growers continue to offer an array of new varieties. Some, such as the Kousa dogwood, are disease-resistant, while hollies have been genetically engineered; until about five years ago, a holly plant would not produce red berries unless there were a male and female shrub within 100 feet of each other. “But today, growers have propagated a holly that has the male and female in the same plant,” St. Clair noted.

Helping Plants Thrive

Plants are an investment, and knowledge is required to make sure they not only survive, but thrive.

Sixteen Acres Garden Center guarantees its plants for a year, and the majority that are returned have failed because of the way they were planted.

“Many people make the mistake of putting soil too high around the stem, which causes rot and kills the plant. Or they place the plant too deep in the soil,” Grondolski said, adding that mulch around plants or trees should be tapered inward, and there shouldn’t be any about three fingers away from the base.

“If you want to ring a tree with mulch, you should create a bowl near the base that catches water and can be filled with a hose,” he told BusinessWest.

Paine said another mistake people make is not checking to find out how large something will grow. “A Colorado blue spruce is cute when it is young, but it will grow 70 feet tall and 35 feet wide,” he noted, adding that most plants eventually have to be moved or removed.

However, many don’t require the trimming needed years ago when most homes had a row of yews planted in front of them.

“Things in this profession keep evolving,” St. Clair said, explaining that, when he started out in business 40 years ago, most trimming was done with hand shears. That changed when gas hedge trimmers hit the market, but today, hand trimming has made a comeback.

“Gas trimmers aren’t selective,” he said. “For example, you can’t bring in a canopy on a maple tree with them, so more is being done today by hand, as people want a natural appearance.”

Another thing that has changed is the practice of planting yews in front of a home, which were occasionally punctuated by an azalea plant.

Paine said the idea of putting shrubs in front of a home originated in Victorian times because the multi-storied homes with steep staircases that were being built at the time didn’t look like they were anchored to the ground.

“So, people started planting shrubs around them to create a visual anchor. The nursery business developed as a result, and they tried to sell foundation plants to every homeowner,” he said. “But capes and small ranches don’t really need them, and in a lot of cases, they are out of scale with the house.”

Today, landscapers tend to put accent plants in key locations such as the corners of a home, on either side of the front door, or along the front walkway.

The amount of space people have to work with makes a decided difference, and Grondolski said people who have only eight to 10 feet in front of their home often choose to tier plants of different heights to add interest.

“But plant material won’t perform well unless it’s in the right location,” he cautioned. “If it needs a lot of sun and is in the shade, the growth will be stunted, and it will drop leaves or needles as it stretches to grow toward the light.”

Peace of Mind

St. Clair said many people with demanding jobs don’t want to spend time caring for the plants on their property. As a result, a growing number of clients have him maintain their plantings, and if they do their own maintenance, they make sure someone waters their plants when they are away during the summer.

“Protecting their investment is very important,” he said.

And, indeed, the reasons surpass aesthetics and money spent on them. “Many people find plants and gardens therapeutic, whether they are sitting on a bench and admiring them or down on their hands and knees working,” Grondolski said.

So, with longer days and warmer weather on the horizon, it’s an ideal time to look  online and make careful choices about plants that can be used to frame a property, enhance it, and increase its value.

Landscape Design Sections

Painting Pictures with Light

Illumascape Lighting

Illumascape Lighting

When some people think of outdoor lighting, they may think of floodlights and porchlights — but many more options are available in the emerging world of architectural lighting, which accents the details of front and backyards, melding safety and security with atmosphere and aesthetics. Designing and installing these systems is both art and science, say experts in the field, who are always gratified by the ‘wow’ factor when homeowners flip the switch.

After 23 years as a graphic designer in the sign-making industry, Rob Larkham decided to design and install landscape lighting for a career — a job that requires long hours of manual outdoor labor.

“Everything we’re doing is by hand. It’s labor-intensive,” said the owner of Illumascape Lighting in South Hadley. “But at night, when we turn the switch on, it’s a rewarding moment.”

Larkham is actually the second owner of Illumascape. Phil Costello, who founded the business, was one of Larkham’s customers, and when he was nearing retirement, he approached the graphic designer, believing he would be a good choice to take over the landscape-lighting company. So Larkham came on board four years ago and took over the reins a couple years after that.

“He saw me as a hard worker with an artistic eye — because, what we do is paint pictures with light,” Larkham said of why the opportunity appealed to him. “If it weren’t for the artistic end of it, I wouldn’t have made the transition. You’re outside digging ditches all day, but then you get to the end of the day, when it’s dark, and you flip the switch and get that ‘wow’ moment.”

Landscape lighting, also known as architectural lighting, has long been popular in warmer climes, but in the Northeast, most homeowners have been satisfied with porchlights and maybe a floodlight out back. But, increasingly, they’re seeing the aesthetic value in the variety of techniques available from companies like Illumascape and numerous landscape-design firms.

As Larkham explained, landscape lighting is the permanent placement of lighting fixtures in the outdoor environment, with the aim of highlighting the form, texture and definition of landscape plantings as well as enhancing the architectural features of the home. In contrast to one or two floodlights, architectural lighting may utilize dozens of smaller, strategically placed fixtures to accent the details of a home and yard.

Rob Larkham

Rob Larkham says customers choose architectural lighting for both aesthetic and security reasons.

“It’s still really in its infancy here,” he told BusinessWest, adding that customers choose landscape lighting for two reasons: to add beauty to their property and for security. “A well-lit home is less likely to be broken into than the house next door. Plus, you’re more likely to slip on dark stairs and dark sidewalks.”

Gary Courchesne, owner of G&H Landscaping in Holyoke, said the emergence of energy-efficient LED diodes has made landscape lighting more popular, because people see the long-term value in what, admittedly, can be a hefty up-front investment.

He explained that a transformer installed in the yard converts the 120-volt household current to 12 volts, and the LED diodes reduce the energy drain even further. “From an energy standpoint, you’re getting the benefit of cost savings. That’s key for people.”

He and Larkham both noted how the fixtures are designed to direct each beam in a specific direction, with techniques ranging from uplighting and downlighting to path lighting and ground lighting.

“In other instances, we use well lights buried in the ground that give that upward lighting effect,” Courchesne explained. “You may have ornamental plants, which you want to show off and shed a little more light on.”

Added Larkham, “I just think people are seeing the value in it, whether it’s beauty, safety, security, or curb appeal. People are spending more time in their backyards. I really think the growth in this industry will be extensive.”

Professional Touch

The key to successful lighting, Courchesne said, is professional design. He noted that a flood of low-voltage lighting kits hit retail stores over the past decade, and many people bought them, were unsatisfied, and didn’t think about it again. That’s because they didn’t have a skilled designer and installer on their side.

“When people buy a big-box store kit, they’re compelled to use every light in it. But, in the instance of low-voltage lighting, less is more. You don’t want your sidewalk or shrubbery to look like a runway. You want it to highlight, accent, and provide adequate light for pedestrians and the security element.”

With homeowners in the Northeast investing more money in their properties in recent years, he went on, many are now becoming aware of professional landscape-lighting design, which is ubiquitous down South.

Larkham said customers run the gamut from contractors building a new house and including landscape lighting in the initial design to homeowners who have been in their homes 25 years or more and have an itch to do something new and dramatic with their outdoor space.


Go HERE to download a PDF chart of area landscape design firms


“Sometimes it’s a complete landscape remodel — a landscape architect may be doing the whole backyard and will call me and say, ‘hey, we’d really like to do landscape lighting in this remodel.’ That said, I’ve gone out and done simple installations of five path lights, and, on the other end, 200-light installs.”

In other words, although architectural lighting is a high-end product in the world of landscape architecture, there’s typically something for every budget. Larkham said he often works within someone’s budget for an initial installation, but might put in a larger transformer if a client expresses interest in adding to the design later. “Maybe they’ll do the front of the house this year, and the backyard next year.”

With a budget in hand, Larkham then draws on his artistic side. “That’s my job as a designer — I show up, meet with client first, figure out what they’re looking to do on their property, and come up with a design using the proper fixtures.”

small, strategically placed lights bring out the details

This Illumascape project demonstrates how small, strategically placed lights bring out the details of a house and yard.

For example, the same kind of tree could be lit using completely different techniques, depending on the yard.

“We’ll go out and do a lighting demonstration before we ever sign a contract, with about 100 demonstration lights, to show you what the final product might look like,” he said. “We don’t have clients come out until it gets dark so we have that ‘wow’ moment. More than nine times out of 10, they come out and say, ‘wow, we had no idea.’”

In many cases, he added, a customer’s neighbors may have architectural lighting, but when someone sees it on their own property, it’s a much more impactful experience.

“You have to look at the key elements of what people are trying to accent and highlight, then decide how to use the lights,” Courchesne said. “Some people want it on the front door to highlight a wreath, using it as a spotlight. In some cases, they want to flood the area with some light. But the whole key is subdued lighting, not offensive lighting.”

He told BusinessWest that the results are gratifying.

“Some of the comments I hear are, ‘can you believe my house now?’ I hear that time and time again. I would say 75% of the folks who buy landscape lighting, accent lighting, buy it for the aesthetic value. The other 25% also want it for the security value because lights deter a burglar; they’d rather go to a house that’s dark as opposed to a house that’s lit up.”

Left to Their Own Devices

As landscape lighting becomes more prominent in the Northeast, customers are accessing some high-tech features not previously available. Residential Lighting magazine noted that, while low-voltage LED lighting is the key industry driver these days, linking lighting systems to smartphone apps, to control them remotely, is also a hot trend.

Other systems are timed to come on automatically, Larkham said, so that, “in the winter months, when it’s dark when you pull into the driveway, the house is warm and inviting already. That’s nice. Floodlights tend to be Fenway Park bright; obviously, what we’re doing is soft and subtle. That’s really what we’re looking for.”

Gary Courchesne

Gary Courchesne says the goal of any landscape-lighting project is subdued, artistic light.

Courchesne also stressed the importance of subtlety in a lighting plan. He said today’s LEDs can bathe their target with a soft, warm, white glow, as opposed to the harsh blue light with which some people associate earlier LEDs.

“Not everyone can afford this,” he stressed. “It’s cost-effective from an operational perspective, but there’s capital investment involved for a quality system. Like anything else, you truly get what you pay for.”

Larkham added that, as time goes on and LEDs become more universal, costs should come down, and are already starting to creep in that direction, which is a good sign for homeowners who want to add a little artistry to their landscapes.

“It’s becoming more popular, it seems the technology is advancing every year, there are always new things happening,” he concluded.

In other words, the future is bright.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Landscape Design Sections

Business Is Heating Up

built-in kitchen appliances

Brian Campedelli says built-in kitchen appliances like these are often just the starting point for a backyard project.

For American families on the go, Brian Campedelli says, home should be an oasis from workplace stress and the general bustle of life.

“I think they’re looking for a general sense of relaxation in their yard. When they get home from work, they tend to be stressed out, and they want to kick their shoes off, throw on some flip-flops, head to their backyard resort, and forget about things for a while,” said the owner of Pioneer Landscapes in Easthampton, explaining why outdoor kitchens and living spaces are becoming more popular, and elaborate, in the Northeast.

“Some people are doing it because they want to entertain,” he added. “Some do pool installs and include an overhang [off the house] and fireplaces … a whole backyard development,” he went on. “They’re looking for a resort lifestyle, where they don’t have to go anywhere except their own backyard to get that feeling. It’s pretty nice.”

Outdoor kitchens — which can include anything from a simple built-in grill to expansive cooking surfaces, refrigeration, plumbing, audio-visual hookups, and more — are at or near the top of most lists of hot landscaping trends, along with firepits, water features, and architectural lighting, even in a region where people don’t want to spend much time outside for several months a year, the current mild winter notwithstanding.

“It’s definitely a growing industry, and it’s more than outdoor kitchens — it’s backyard living,” said Jason Harrington, manager of Ondrick Natural Earth in Chicopee. “Not only are people doing kitchens, they’re doing firepits, fireplaces, pizza ovens … basically a complete package of entertainment in the backyard. We’ve seen a real increase of these things in the past five years.”

He, like others BusinessWest spoke with, agreed the Northeast has lagged somewhat behind other regions of the country, particularly warmer climes, in expansive outdoor living spaces, he added, but that’s changing.

“People are focusing on their backyards in general; they’re creating a getaway in the backyard. Instead of going on vacation, they’re taking that money and putting it into a pool and patio space and creating a vacation feel in the backyard.”

Jason Harrington

Jason Harrington says homeowners are increasingly seeking a resort-type feel in their backyards.

According to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Assoc., patios are consistently among the top three features requested by new home buyers, and most aren’t leaving them bare, opting for permanent cooking fixtures, refrigerators, and other amenities. Meanwhile, noted Rick Miller, owner of RJM Landscaping in Southampton, existing homeowners are increasingly itching to bring the indoors outside.

“It’s slowly catching on and moving up people’s to-do list, particularly in the past two to three years,” he said. “Kitchen spaces are more popular now, maybe because people are aware of what’s out there and realize they can do something really simple, or they can get really elaborate. There’s an option for everyone’s budget.”

Soaring Budgets

Indeed, Miller noted, “kitchens tend to be a little on the pricey side because of all the gadgets and such. Typically, a basic one will have a built-in grill and maybe a fireplace tied into either propane tanks or natural gas so you don’t have to deal with filling tanks. More elaborate spaces will have a built-in grill, refrigerator, sink, cabinet space — sometimes they’ll go as far as putting in a pizza oven.”

Justin Pelis, president of North Country Landscapes & Garden Center in Westhampton, said outdoor kitchens can run into serious costs on appliances alone, since they’re typically built into the stonework.

“You can’t take a normal grill and insert it into stone; it’s not meant for that,” he said. “So it can be just as costly as redoing your whole kitchen inside. You can spend easily between $40,000 and $50,000 just for an outdoor kitchen area, including the patio and everything else — the electrical hookups, the water hookups … it can get complicated.”

Those who opt for the higher-end designs tend to be committed to outdoor entertaining to justify the cost, Miller added.

“We’re seeing more people putting in outdoor kitchens, pools, large backyard spaces, because they want to entertain into the evening. That’s where I’m seeing the trend starting to go,” said Rob Larkham, owner of Illumascape Lighting in South Hadley, which benefits from that trend because homeowners then want to light those areas (see story, page 31). “They want well-lit spaces; some install under-counter lights. People are not just entertaining in the home, but trying to bring it into the backyard.”

Harrington said homeowners on a budget shouldn’t be scared off by the sheer range of amenities available for outdoor cooking and living spaces.

“You can actually find a backyard setup to fit a wide range of budgets; it doesn’t have to be on the extreme high end,” he said. “Part of our job as salespeople is to try to help them get as much as they can for their dollar.”

That said, customers who can afford more than a grill and fridge often look to cabinets, trash disposal, bar areas, pizza ovens, and fireplaces, he went on. “And fireplaces don’t even have to use wood; you can hook gas into it. For people who want to spend real money, we can basically custom-design something of any size.”

Campedelli agreed. “We’ve done all sizes, from poolhouses with full kitchens in them to just built-in barbecues. Mostly, around here, what people are doing is nice, built-in barbecues set up for convenience, with a little refrigerator, things like that.”

Some customers intend to start there but expand their plans to larger seating areas, firepits, and patio extensions as they catch the vision of outdoor living, he went on. “We usually do one or two large projects a year like that. Some go as far as adding an overhang off the back of the house or a pool house. For people who don’t want to go that far, most of what we hear is there’s not enough time in the [warm] season to use it, but others don’t have a problem with that at all, and really go to town.”

Feeling at Home

Miller has tracked the same statistics known across his industry, how Americans, over the past 15 to 20 years, have increasingly chosen to forgo travel and invest in their homes and yards.

“People are going away less and less, with what’s been going on with travel costs and such, staying close to home, utilizing their backyards more,” he told BusinessWest. “So kitchens have absolutely become more popular. We call them outdoor living spaces because not everyone does a kitchen, necessarily; some people just want a larger-than-usual patio with seating, walls, and lighting. Two of my more recent projects also had pavilions installed to create a little shade if it’s rainy or too hot.”

fireplace

This Pioneer Landscapes project features a fireplace as the centerpiece.

Harrington added that he’s seeing more business at existing homes than at new construction. “Generally, when someone has been in their home for a while, built up some equity, been there long enough to get their savings back up, they want to invest back in their homes.”

And it’s not just for the adults, he added.

“We’re finding people are building backyards for their kids. I’ve seen it get as elaborate as movie theaters in the backyard with screens coming out of the ground. They’re building areas for their kids to play in and have friends over. They want to make an outdoor area for everyone.”

The bottom line, Pelis said, is that homeowners are increasingly seeing not only the potential aesthetic value of their yards, but the functionality, and kitchens and other outdoor-living features are a big part of that.

“People want to have more experiences in their yards and spend more time there, as opposed to just mowing the lawn and trimming the shrubs,” he added. “They want quality time with their family, and they want to get more use out of their yard.”

Harrington agreed. “It can be as simple as the family wanting a patio and a firepit to sit around at night, or something more complex. Everyone has their own vision.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Landscape Design Sections
Landscapers Transform Backyards, Public Spaces into Recreational Areas

Stephen Roberts

Stephen Roberts shows off a gas firepit that Elms College recently installed in a courtyard.

Last summer, a successful businessman asked Stephen Roberts to construct an edible forest on several acres of his backyard property.

“He said he wanted to go home after work and have a place where he could ‘devolve.’ He grew up on a farm and loves gardening and the outdoors,” said the owner of Stephen A. Roberts Landscape Architecture and Construction in Springfield.

The design Roberts created includes fruit trees, a trail, and a woodland area with plants that range from elderberry and pawpaw to wild ginger and wintergreen, that can be picked throughout the growing season.

Although the request was unusual and most people aren’t looking to create their own forest, local landscapers say a growing number of clients are spending money on backyard retreats that provide them with a place to entertain and enjoy the outdoors.

“Nature is very important to people’s well-being, and they travel great distances to experience mighty landscapes with mountains and oceans,” said Roberts. “But travel takes a lot of time and energy, and since people can create attractive spaces in their backyards where they can relax and spend quality time with families and friends, they are continuing to invest in outdoor rooms with amenities.”

Justin Pelis agrees.

“People are bridging the gap between their home and the outdoors,” said the co-owner of North Country Landscape and Garden Center in Westhampton. “Years ago, people simply planted shrubs and mowed their lawns. But today, they want to spend more time outdoors and are moving away from aesthetics to the experiential.”

Justin Pelis

Justin Pelis says people want the experience of growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs in their backyards with their families.

He added that an increasing number of young families want to grow vegetables and fruits with their children, watch birds and feed them, and cook outdoors in spacious kitchens boasting built-in, stainless-steel appliances.

“People are also looking to create wildlife habitats, and many want to grow wine-bearing grapes and hops,” he said. “Due to the large number of local microbreweries, people are being inspired to produce their own wine and beer, so we have been holding seminars in our garden center to teach people how to grow grapes.”

He noted that participants are taken on a tour of the nearby Blackbird Vineyard, where all of their questions are answered.

“Organic gardening and composting is also becoming popular, and we get many requests from people who want to grow their own food,” Pelis continued. “They are looking for an experience that begins with planting seeds and ends in harvesting what they have produced.”

Steve Prothers, who owns Amherst Landscape & Design Associates and has designed more than 3,000 commercial and residential landscapes, agrees that people want their backyards to be as pleasing, attractive, and fruitful as possible. Natural landscapes are in style, and he said swimming-pool areas are being updated by replacing concrete with natural stone or Travertine tiles, which come in white, tan, cream, and rust-colored varieties.

“They give the area an Old World look,” Prothers said, adding that his company specializes in hardscapes that includes patios, retaining walls, walkways, and pool surrounds. Many clients ask for a pergola, because its mini-roof gives an outdoor space the definition of a room.

“It’s a very decorative feature that frames in an area and creates an intimate space. But a pergola can also be functional because it can provide shade,” he said, noting that roof rafters can be placed close together to block the sun, or the structure can be planted with scented vines, such as wisteria or bougainvillea, that give it a tropical feel.

Pelis has built pavilions with roofs over patios that people use as sitting areas. “They put TVs in them, and the patio can extend beyond the sitting area,” he said.

In fact, patios are becoming more popular than decks because they require less maintenance. “Patios give people more flexibility to expand and can be built with pavers, which come in a wide variety of contemporary styles. Some look like wood, others look like granite, and some are very modular,” Pelis said.

Since landscaping is an ongoing process, many people have their yards done in phases and add a new area each year. However, the work often begins with creating new entryways to the house.

“Permeable pavers are being used to replace concrete,” Prothers said. “They have a softer look than concrete and allow water to be absorbed and carried away from the home.”

Nic Brown and Steve Corrigan

Nic Brown and Steve Corrigan say many towns and cities are adding spray parks for children and adults to enjoy.

Plans with a Purpose

The desire to create a backyard oasis gained momentum in 2008 when the economy tanked and so-called ‘staycations’ became a household word. But local landscapers say many people held off on projects due to uncertainty over jobs, and pent-up desires are more apt to be realized this summer than they were in the past.

“The recession impacted landscaping projects, but now that the economy is improving, I think we will get more requests,” Roberts said.

Coveted plans typically include backyard areas designated for specific activities. “It’s not unusual for a family to want a cooking area with a built-in grill, a place to sit and eat, a firepit, and another space with an outdoor couch and a coffee table,” Roberts said.

Stephen Corrigan agrees. “More and more people are spending money to create outdoor kitchens and living areas with TVs in a protected area,” said the owner of Mountain View Landscapes and Lawncare in Chicopee.

In fact, interest in outdoor cooking is heating up, and Roberts said his firm has built outdoor kitchens that include granite or faux-stone countertops and built-in appliances such as refrigerators, grills, and rotisseries. “People are taking grilling to the next level.”

Firepits have burned brightly for some time, but today, many people are turning to gas to light up the night. “People love to gather around a fire, and if they use gas, all they have to do is press a button,” Roberts said, adding that Elms College recently had his firm redesign a central courtyard that now includes a large gas firepit with Adirondack chairs. “It is turned on every afternoon and has become a popular gathering place for students and staff members.”

Another advantage of a firepit is that it can create a focal point in an outdoor living room. “People put furniture around it in the same way they would put it near a fireplace inside their house,” Prothers said.

Steve Prothers

Steve Prothers says many homeowners and businesses use pergolas to create an outdoor room, which can be aromatic if covered with flowering vines.

Water features are also in demand, but instead of swimming pools, most people are choosing simple but soothing options such as waterfalls. “They are beautiful and attract birds, but don’t require much maintenance,” Roberts said.

One client with a back problem installed a hot tub surrounded by beautiful plants with a waterfall a short distance away that could be lit up at night. “He could sit in the hot tub in the evening, enjoy the sight and sound of the waterfall, and get relief from his pain,” he noted.

Roberts added that small ponds or plunge pools are still popular. “But people don’t want to use chemicals in them. They want biological filters,” he said, explaining that the ponds he installs are typically four to five feet deep with ledges that people can sit on.

Pelis said his clients are getting away from ponds, but do want water features that look natural, and often choose a fountain or pondless waterfall that pours into a rock filtration system. “They want the sound and sight of water without having to do a lot of maintenance,” he explained, adding that another option is to have water flow from the undersides of raised patio walls into a decorative bed of stone, which filters it into a concealed basin, where it is recycled.

Plantings play an important role in landscape design, and Prothers said ground covers and plants that provide seasonal interest throughout the year are in fashion.

“But landscaping is an ongoing process, and many people do their yards in phases,” he said. “They establish an area, live with it, and then grow their plan. A good landscape design takes into consideration what things will look like five to 10 years down the road.”

Pelis added that native plants such as milkweed, which attracts Monarch butterflies, along with wildflowers and species that attract bees, have become popular as people seek to create natural environments.


Natural Alternatives

Local landscapers expect the season to begin late this year due to the volume of snow. “Spring is in the air, but people have just started to come out of hibernation,” Roberts said.

Corrigan agreed. Although his company is often working by mid-March, this year, the timeline will be pushed out until mid-April.

Most of his business is commercial, and trends are also emerging in that arena, with water conservation and stormwater runoff among the ingredients that weigh heavily in public projects today.

“Permeable pavers are an attractive, green solution that take the place of concrete and asphalt; they allow as much water as possible to be kept on the site,” said Project Manager Nic Brown.

In some cases, it is funneled into rain gardens, said Corrigan, adding that Mountain View has built parking lots with rain gardens at the perimeter where very porous soil absorbs and holds water before any overflow goes into the sewer system.

He cited the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke and a new science building at UMass Amherst as examples of structures where water drainage has been curtailed, and said some systems are designed so rainwater and melting snow from the roof are channeled into a filtration system of tanks that feed rain gardens.

His company recently won a regional award for its work on the town square in Mansfield, Conn., in conjunction with the architect who designed it. The area is the focal point of a newly created neighborhood that contains four five-story podium buildings with 414 rental units and 101,553 square feet of commercial and retail offerings at street level adjacent to the University of Connecticut.

“We used gray and black permeable pavers in the park,” Corrigan said, showing off a photo of the attractive design. “Traditionally, pavers are installed tightly together over a gravel base with two inches of sand. These were placed three-eighths of an inch apart over a 12-inch base of crushed stone.”

Another growing trend is spray parks, and new ones will be built this year in Agawam, Springfield, Greenfield, and Northampton.

“Cities and towns are replacing swimming pools and wading pools with spray parks; they have become more and more popular in the last three to five years,” Corrigan said, adding that they provide safe, cost-effective areas where people can congregate and relax during the hot summer months.

The spray features can be programmed to go off during times set by the town, city, or organization that builds them. When someone presses the mechanism that activates the system during the specified time, the features begin to spray water in a preset sequence, and children quickly learn to run from one station to another.

“Some sprays come up from the ground, while at other stations, buckets set ten feet in the air fill with water and dump it on people beneath them,” said Corrigan. “There are hoops with water sprays that kids can run through, sprays that spurt like a geyser, and ones that look like flowers. They have come a long way in recent years.”

Growing Desire

The desire to spend time outdoors in public and private spaces continues to grow, and whether someone is planning a commercial or residential project, environmental concerns are taking an expanded role in today’s landscaping projects.

Roberts said his customers are requesting blueberry bushes, strawberries, and herbs as well as small plots where they can grow vegetables. Other landscapers report similar requests and agree that enjoying a backyard involves far more today than it did a decade ago.

“Whether people are outside watching birds, picking berries, or watching TV with their friends, they want an experience,” Pelis said. “It’s been a long, cold winter, and although we may get a later start on landscaping than we have in the past, we expect these trends to become more prevalent than ever.”

Landscape Design Sections
Sustainable Building, Remodeling Is an Investment in the Future

Andrew Crane

Andrew Crane says some clients are more environmentally sensitive than others, but they typically appreciate the long-term cost benefits of sustainability.

Andrew Crane says homeowners love the idea of energy efficiency and green construction — it’s the price tag they don’t always like.

“Whether building or remodeling, as far as energy efficiency and sustainable building, people all care about it; they all mention it, they’ve heard about it, and it’s advertised like crazy — ‘save this, low-flow that,’” said Crane, president of A. Crane Construction in Chicopee. “But it comes with a big cost. Everybody wants to include it, but many times, cost will prevent them from actually doing it.”

It’s true that, in most cases, switching from traditional to energy-efficient products will save money over time, the initial cost can be an obstacle to homeowners remodeling on a budget.

“One example would be LED lighting,” Crane said. “LED is great — it lasts forever, and it uses very, very little electricity, but the products themselves oftentimes are cost-prohibitive. The cost of regular incandescent lightbulbs might be 87 cents, fluorescent might be $2.50, but one LED bulb might be $22.50.”

Nick Riley, president of N. Riley Construction in Chicopee, agreed, but added that some energy-efficient home improvements are already becoming standard, including Energy Star-rated appliances and insulating window glass.

“As you get more in depth into remodeling, as far as ripping down walls and reinsulating, people are concerned about it and ask about ways in which they can do it — but cost sometimes can be a pretty big factor in whether they decide to do it or not,” Riley explained.

“We’re definitely seeing more people interested in ways they can make that happen,” he added. “But you want to be more energy-efficient, there’s going to be a little more cost, obviously.”

Still, sustainable building is on the rise. The National Assoc. of Home Builders (NAHB) recently surveyed members about the features they’re most likely to include in new homes this year, and the top 10 included Energy Star-rated appliances and windows and programmable thermostats. Meanwhile, the organization reports an overall uptick in construction that incorporates energy, water, and resource efficiency; improved indoor environmental quality; and sustainable and locally sourced products.

“More people care about the footprint, so we kind of have to feel that out,” Crane said. “Many clients come to us as environmentally sensitive people, and others don’t care. But there is a growing passion for protecting the environment, and they’re not afraid to spend more up front if that’s what it takes.”

Energy Stars

John Majercak understands sustainable building and remodeling. As president of the Pittsfield-based Center for EcoTechnology (CET), he helps clients — who include both contractors and homeowners — go green in their projects.

For example, “we do what’s called a home energy rating for homeowners; we work with builders and architects and try to figure out how we can make a home the most energy-efficient it can be,” he explained. “We predict how the home will perform from an energy perspective and whether the work being done will qualify for different code requirements or certifications, whether LEED or Energy Star or others. It really depends on the scale; a lot of those programs are set up for new construction, but they can be appropriate for remodels as well.”

Another resource is CET’s EcoBuilding Bargains store in Springfield, which sells reclaimed building materials.

“We have a lot of folks who — when they’re remodeling and need to throw away a lot of materials from their home — can donate them here and keep them out of the landfill, which is a very green thing to do,” Majercak said. “We’re also seeing more home builders and architects reusing green materials in their building and remodeling. It can be both visually appealing and green.”

Nick Riley

Nick Riley says today’s contractors feel a responsibility to explain sustainable options to customers.

Another resource, he noted, is the Mass Save program, which provides energy audits for homeowners and introduces them to incentives and rebates available for certain sustainable upgrades, from boilers and appliances to insulation and windows.

Those incentives make a difference in decision making, he added. “People are concerned — ‘what is this going to cost me? Is this super expensive?’”

But as more contractors become skilled in sustainable construction and building codes begin to move in that direction, growing competition should bring up-front costs down for customers, he said. “Everyone is paying attention these days. It’s a big concern for people; they want their home to perform in a way that uses a lot less energy. That’s a good long-term investment, and homes that are built better will last longer and have fewer problems.”

The NAHB survey revealed that nearly 25% of home builders have installed alternative-energy-producing equipment in new construction, including geothermal heat pumps and photovoltaic solar panels. The current 30% tax credit available for homeowners who install this equipment is set to expire at the end of 2016, which makes this a good time for interested buyers to consider purchases.

“Our builder members are telling us that more and more buyers are looking at new homes for their efficiency in design and functionality,” notes NAHB chairman Tom Woods. “Whether it’s improved insulation or sustainable building materials, today’s new homes can reach higher energy performance and greater durability than was possible even 20 years ago.”

Millennial buying trends suggest that sustainable building options should outlast any expiring rebates. Another NAHB survey revealed that Energy Star certifications are a priority for these young home buyers, and 84% of this group is willing to pay 2% to 3% more for an energy-efficient home as long as they can see a return on their power bills.

One example is spray-foam insulation (see related story, page 23). “Generally, it’s twice as expensive if not more,” said Crane, whose company uses the product in 90% of its residential projects.

“It adds a substantial cost — in a 2,000-square-foot home, it could be $5,000 just for insulation in the walls,” he said, noting that expenses like granite countertops are easier purchases for some people because they can see and enjoy them every day. “Insulation is behind the walls, so you don’t notice it once you pay for it. But when your house becomes energy-efficient, you notice it in the monthly bills.”

Code Green

There’s no doubt in Majercak’s mind that sustainable building and remodeling is poised for continued growth, if only because building codes are increasingly reflecting green priorities.

“That’s just upping the game for everybody, the same as if you or I buy a car or appliance, and it’s more energy-efficient because the standards are making it happen,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s what’s happening with building codes. I think a lot of requirements in codes are improving, and building contractors are complying with these. We offer a few workshops to builders about energy-efficient codes, what the changes are, and how to comply with them.”

At the same time, Majercak said, more homeowners today are doing their own research and recognizing the value of sustainable choices.

“I think there are a lot of reasons people want to build green,” he said. “One of them is to help protect the environment, but they also like the durability, having the house last longer, using better materials that resist moisture. Then there’s the comfort and performance inside the home, where it really feels comfortable in summer and winter. Another thing is indoor air quality and health. A lot of people want to make sure the house is successfully ventilated. So it’s not just environmental benefits.”

Reflecting that public mood, Riley said, builders today feel a greater responsibility to inform customers of ways they can make their homes more green and energy-efficient.

“I think it’s our responsibility as contractors to educate the homeowner and then leave it up to them,” he said. “The initial conversation usually includes something about how to make it happen.”

Meanwhile, even homeowners who aren’t remodeling can take steps to cut into their utility bills, Crane said.

“There are some simple things people can do, like wrapping heating pipes with insulation. That can be done by anybody. Or wrapping duct work for the bathroom fan, which is basically a hole in the ceiling letting heat out. You can get a little bit of energy savings there. Or low-flow showerheads and faucets.”

When remodeling homes, Crane said, his company donates as much “gently used” product as it can to organizations that recycle it. “Tubs, walls, recycled countertops, cabinets, flooring — they can be recycled, and you wouldn’t even know the difference.”

Meanwhile, “we’re careful about what we buy and where we buy it. We want to be that person that cares about their environment.”

At a time, it seems, when homeowners increasingly want to do the same.


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]