My Dream Job

If I’m going to indulge a fantasy here, I’d like to focus on my dream job; I’ve really built only a few of these in the course of 25 years plus of doing business. My dream job, which comes from my dream client, is the following: a large scale “random ashlar” limestone retaining wall with, perhaps, some steps running through the midst of what would be a two-tier retaining wall system. This project would use large slabs of St. Croix Valley limestone, quarried locally just north of Stillwater. Some of these slabs would weigh up to ½ a ton, and range downward in weight from there.

This is a retaining wall that is massive in size and scope, requiring some larger equipment to build, and also requiring skill and attention to detail that few tradesmen/artisans can provide. This is a wall that I’ve built, and there’s one at a residence in Afton, MN that you will find featured on this website.

Why is this my dream job? Good question. I like it because it’s a good mix of hand and machine work, some of the wall stones require saw-cutting and/or hammer and chisel work to achieve a good fit. Because it’s larger material, and because this requires setting them with a machine, you can make quite significant progress in a day’s time. Because of the mix of hand and machine work it keeps you from getting bogged down and slowed down too much in hand work. It’s a very good mix of both, which keeps my interest level at a peak. I also like it because not many people are building them, not many contractors want to tangle with this degree of difficulty. But the degree of difficulty is what makes it worth doing and unique.

An Artist?

I am hesitant to claim this label for myself, something about just desserts comes to mind… You will notice, when I’m doing your job, whatever it is, an attention to detail beyond the ordinary. Part of that is because I am present most, if not all, the time. I pay attention to detail because I like to do things the right way. It’s better for me, and it’s better for business. Better for you too. I’m tempted to say here that it’s because I am a virtuous person that I operate in this fashion, but that would sound rather immodest, don’t you think? No, we can say anything we want to about ourselves, if we’re going to say something, then we’d better damn-sure back it up. Excuse my French here folks, just trying to make a point. So life keeps me plenty busy trying to “back-up” my thoughts about myself, certainly, if not my words. I don’t really march around shooting my mouth off about myself (shameless self promotion I like to call it), because I’d figure, that nobody would want to hear it; I don’t like to hear it. But there is always a thought life, and what kinds of thoughts do any of us have about ourselves? More positive than negative? Here’s my goal: 90% of my thinking about myself, or anything really, should be positive. Sound like a worthy goal? So I will claim the label of artist, after all that. Hope you don’t mind, but I’ve got to call a spade a spade here. What is the nature of my particular artistrty? I specialize in working with natural stone, from field-stone to cut stone to large outcroppings. All of it dry-laid, there is no one better than I at what I do, in part because I’m that aforementioned artist. There, I said it; got a whole-lotta backing it up to do now.

Work as Sport

If there’s one good thing I got from my German ancestry, and I would maintain there might be more than one, it is a work ethic. My work ethic remains alive and well, as do I currently, and we both march through this life together. In recent years my attitude toward work has evolved into the following: if I’m going to do this physical work on a daily basis, I may as well treat it as something more than mere work. I’ve come to treat it as sport, and it serves me well. That allows me to eat like an athlete in training, take care of myself like a thoroughbred race-horse, sleep the sleep of the dead every night, and take pride in knowing I’m in better shape now than when I was in my 40’s. I read a novel in the early 80’s titled: The Thornbirds. It was set in Queensland, Australia, in the late 1800’s, when it was settled. I had an interest, because I would soon be traveling there. I remember two characters from the novel quite vividly, two outback, redneck (literally) Aussie blokes who both started sugar-cane plantations, in hot, humid, jungle-like Queensland. They developed an attitude toward work as a sort of survival strategy: they competed with one another to see who could out-work and out-produce the other. They turned their brutally physical labor into a game, a sport, a competition, and to them work became strangely fun. So if you see me smiling or joking around with one of my workers, you can know that I’m truly enjoying myself in the pursuit excellence in your yard. I must take some joy in everything I do as much as I do my work, my business, or what kind of wretch would I be? No other answer, for me, than work as sport.

Walk the Walk

Okay, the first and most obvious question to a landscaper is: why choose concrete? Bottom line, some people will, and I get that. There may even be scenarios where it makes some sense, such as the main entry on a large house, where shoveling and maintenance are paramount. The trouble with concrete is: it inevitably almost always cracks, and there’s no way to fix it when it does. But if the soil conditions are quite favorable, and the pour is loaded up with reinforcing, and all the stars are in alignment… go for it. A high quality stamped and stained concrete slab, complete with adequate control joints, can be a fine addition to an entry, for example. Price-wise, this kind of job would be in the ballpark, give or take, with pavers or flagstone, although I’m not terribly current on concrete pricing.

The other options I’m very familiar with, having made a living for over 20 years installing these materials. Patterned stone is simply stone, typically NY Bluestone, cut into squares and rectangles in 6” increments. Beautiful stone to work with, beautiful results, but not many choices of stone, unfortunately. Are there other choices, yes, in a word, but on the pricey end of the scale, and I find that not many people are willing to consider them. When we move in the direction of pavers, there are two main categories: concrete and clay pavers. Concrete pavers are the overwhelming choice by a wide margin; in part, because there are so many options: color, size and shape, etc. Using concrete pavers it is possible to create a very random pattern (no pattern at all), which is a very popular look. More of a European cobblestone look. We most often work with this type of paver, using a mix of 3 or 4 sizes/shapes, in a range of color, so that the effect is anything but mono-tone. Clay pavers are also a popular choice, used less frequently, due to the cost (more), and the uniform effect.

One of my favorite materials to work with for walks and patios is flagstone, available in a wide variety of colors and varieties. Plenty of times I have used a mix or blend of two or three types of stone with overlapping color variation. Flagstone is most often used in areas that are more secondary, in terms of traffic, and perhaps don’t require shoveling. Because flagstone tends to be more uneven than concrete or pavers, it is more difficult to shovel snow from, therefore may not be the best choice for a main entry, unless you are prepared for this. When one combines large sheets of flagstone in a patio or walk in a creative and artistic way there is virtually nothing that comes close visually.    

Road Restrictions


With the advent of spring come the inevitable and unavoidable road restrictions in our part of the world. Road postings, weight limits, people call them by a number of monikers, but essentially they mean the same thing: it just got tougher to do the vast majority of jobs. Typically these postings go on in mid-March, when the spring thaw is getting going, and they last 3 to 6 weeks, on average. A lot of factors can enter into the mix to further complicate matters, from the temperature variations during this time, to amounts and varieties of precipitation.

The bottom line in this discussion is that while these limits are in place, it becomes much more difficult and complicated to, potentially, move equipment in or out of a job-site, or, more likely, to move materials in or out of a given site. Landscaping can be a very truck-intensive proposition, requiring many trips in or out with stone, gravel, fill, pavers, etc. When one is severely limited by the amount of weight you can place in the back of a truck, the job just got more difficult and costly.

Here’s a tactic that can work if employed early enough: with some advance planning, haul in the materials before the roads are posted. That may not help with material that needs to leave the site, excess fill, debris or demo and the like, but it may just tip the scales of whether a given job is feasible, from a standpoint of necessary trips in or out, to the do it early rather than do it later side of things. Call early and let’s talk about it.

Never Assume Anything?


We’ve all heard this old adage, and there is a great deal of wisdom contained therein. I try not to stray too far from that wisdom, most of the time, but in a business sense and as a business philosophy, I do tend to hang on to one or two assumptions at least. One of those assumptions is as follows: I assume that I need to deliver the most bang for your buck humanly possible. There, I said it, and having said it (well, written it) I feel the need to explain myself. Going into a meeting with a potential client, I assume that money is an object, that budget concerns are  important to them, paramount in fact, and that if I don’t find a way to deliver a product that solves a problem or addresses a perceived need, in a fashion that is rooted in producing value (bang for your buck), then I won’t get your job. That, in a nutshell, is what I assume when walking into every meeting I walk into, without exception. That assumption will do the both of us more good than harm, I believe, even in those rare instances when money isn’t a concern of the first order.

Being so focused on producing the most effect for the least amount of money possible has led me to institute some practices or techniques that are, perhaps, unique to Outdoor Concepts. One of them is the simple ‘pond-less’ water-feature. This is a water feature I build without too many bells and whistles, skipping for example, the superfluous ‘bio-falls’ that some build into their systems. I try to keep the components as few and simple as possible, decreasing the likelihood of break-downs/breakage/malfunctions, and increasing the likelihood of trouble-free usage. Another development we use is, I believe, unique to us. Not wishing to give away my most valuable secrets, I will direct you to another page on this website, to click on the following article at our website: A Secret.   Not for everyone, perhaps, but do read the accompanying article and think about this approach; a nice, affordable solution for many if not most people.

So, to summarize my attitude toward assumptions, I make few assumptions about a potential client’s tastes, or what elements might work better than others at a given site. I’m there to listen, first and foremost, and if a client has a particularly misguided idea I will raise an objection, but then and only then. I’m there to listen, unless someone specifically asks for my ideas; then I’m quite happy to give them, but I need that kind of an opening. Many meetings I go into the prospective client may announce, up front, that he or she has no experience or ideas in this realm, and is looking for input. Fair enough, I’m happy to give it. Many meetings are with folks who have a very good idea—maybe even a design or plan—of what they want. We have implemented the designs and plans of other companies many times over the years, with very good results. So, there you have it—few assumptions by us, and that simply liberates the entire process to proceed in a good direction for all involved. One last suggestion: read the article on our website titled: Budgets.



Budgets… what can we say about them, other than they have their place in our lives. This is a reality that we, as a design/build landscape company, have to deal with on all projects. In the past the process used to go like this: we would come in and have a meeting or two with a prospective client, and would take a stab at designing in what we felt the scenario called for, maybe a couple of different options to provide some choice for the client. Typically a couple of choices, maybe up to three, in a variety of price-points.

But there can be a better way, one that removes a lot of the guess work from the entire process, and puts everyone on the same page in the beginning. That process goes as follows: we have a meeting or two, and our designer asks you what your budget is, so she can design accordingly. It doesn’t have to be an exact figure, maybe a range, but at least it gives us an idea what is possible, what direction or directions to consider moving, or to perhaps rule out.

But asking a potential client’s budget is not always the easiest, most logical step in the process. Some people are guarding that secret like national security depends upon it. To give away that information would be to lose the upper hand in the hard fought negotiating game that inevitably accompanies these kinds of decisions. You can kind of tell who those people are not far into the process, and with them it may be impossible to ask that kind of question—maybe they’re too ‘old-school’. I’m fine with giving those folk a bid the old-fashioned way—kind of a shot in the dark method. But something gets lost in that process, and maybe if we’re well beneath that well-guarded secret number, we could have done and designed so much more to fill in around the edges, or given them some flair or extra-ordinary flourish on the design that would have made it really pop.

So there you have it; much of the time we ask that difficult question, sometimes we don’t, when the hints are too obvious, or when we’re competing with a number of other contractors for a job (see article titled: “Competition” at other tab on website). Oftentimes those competitive situations are all about price, with a plan or design already in hand, and the question doesn’t make sense. But if you’re on the receiving end of this question from us, rest assured that our motives are good, and that we consider it a good sign, and a good thing, that we feel free to ask you that question. We ask you to remember, please, don’t shoot the messenger.

Safe to Go Outside?


In case you haven’t been paying attention, the real-estate market has rebounded significantly in the last couple of years. After the crash of the markets in ’08, and the resulting “Great Recession” that depressed values beyond what might have been considered reasonable, we are now making up lost ground. That is, by every homeowner with skin in the game, a good thing. As a small business owner whose business is somewhat reliant upon the confidence levels of said homeowners, I have another good reason to like this development: it’s good for business.

I have learned a few things from over 20 years in the landscaping business, one of which is that when people’s largest investment in this life is losing value, they’re less inclined to spend money on improvements to that investment. And if people have learned anything from the economic and financial turmoil of the last 6-7 years, it’s that years of increasing real estate values do not guarantee that situation will continue. What can go up, can and often does come down. When it comes to investing in your home there are two schools of thought, currently, that make sense to me: one is to mostly ignore what the market is doing and to make your home into a retreat. The second, is a variation on that theme: to make your home into a retreat, but do it with an eye toward the market, and things that add value.

Another way of putting that might be: don’t invest in improvements that you have no chance of recouping. Unless, of course, you know that going in, and you can afford it. The classic example would be a swimming pool; no one builds a swimming pool in our part of the world believing they will recoup that investment. They build one because they want it. So, what kind of home improvements make sense in that way? The kitchen remodel might, depending upon the home, and the existing kitchen, as well as the proposed one. Same with the bathroom remodel(s), or the addition you’re considering. Let me make another case, one that you may not have considered: re-do the outside of your home. Only if it makes sense, of course.

Perhaps the biggest reason it makes sense is that landscaping gives you the most ‘bang for your buck’ of anything you can do to your home. I recently completed a remodel of my own kitchen, and it set me back about 22K. I acted as the General Contractor on the job, and did some of the work myself. 22K is a pretty good price for the net effect we achieved. But 22K spent in the realm of landscaping would be something rather over-the-top. If I separated out the money I spent on the custom cabinetry, 10K, and focused on that, how would that bolster my argument?

Number one, spending 10K on landscaping is a significant amount, and could easily start and finish either your entire yard, or a large portion of it. 10K only covered the cabinets in my kitchen, not the countertops, the floor or any other necessary component of the greater whole. 10K in the landscape realm would have netted me a much greater effect, I believe. Let me give you an example: several years ago a client hired us to come in and tear out his existing plants, shrubbery, and landscape rock/edging, and replace them with new plants rock and edging. This client lives on a rural site in Grant, MN. The job took two to three days, and cost him 3.9K. The effect was dramatic, almost jaw-dropping: I have never before been as struck by the difference such a modest amount could make in a before and after sense. That house, and that job, became my poster-child for the value that landscaping can add to a residence.

So, with an improving housing market, and a slowly improving economy overall, the outlook for contractors like me has improved. 2014 & 2015 look to be better years than the previous few, and I hope that pans out. If so, call early to get on my, or someone’s schedule for your project. All the best in the coming year.   


A Secret

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Perhaps you’ve noticed on some of these web pages a particular kind of stone, assembled in a certain fashion, to create a free-standing structure much like what one might see in places like Ireland, or New England. A stone fence is what I’m talking about, and they can be a very interesting and beautiful way to define or limit property lines, or one part of your property from another. We also use this stone to build retaining walls, and it’s here that I’ll let you in on a little secret: this stone is a great choice for more than free-standing fences, it also works great for retaining walls, and I’ve used it any number of times very successfully.

Why is this stone a great choice for a retaining wall? Number one reason (and here the secret deepens): price. This is a wall I can build for less money than any other choice of material will allow. If you’re considering concrete retaining wall blocks, then the difference is very significant. If you’re leaning toward another kind of stone, say field-stone boulders, then the difference is still great enough to get your attention. Beyond price, the aesthetics of a retaining wall are also very important. Supremely important in fact. In my (studied) opinion, a retaining wall of the same color and kind of stone is far easier on the eyes than a wall comprised of multi-colored boulders, for example, far more natural looking and likely to suggest a well-planned and conceived landscape.

Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the saying goes, and questions of beauty can be quite subjective. This choice of stone isn’t going to appeal to everyone, for a variety of reasons, but rest assured that I will probably raise it as an option, especially given that I go into most meetings assuming that budget concerns are very real. If a person is looking to make a statement with a retaining wall, this choice may or may not work; a lot would depend upon the style of house, location of wall with respect to the house, setting of house (urban, suburban or more rural, for example), terraces or planting beds around walls, etc. There are a lot of factors to consider, and a more experienced Landscape Contractor will not overlook any of them, where someone less experienced might make that mistake: to focus on one piece of the puzzle at the expense of the sum of the whole.

The stone in question is a variety of Limestone, and is readily available in the Twin Cities and St. Croix Valley, which contributes both to its economy, as well as its attractiveness. It is a native stone, so by virtue of that and its economy it may be a good choice for you. Depending upon some of the aforementioned circumstances I may make mention of it, when discussing retaining walls, etc, or you could request we take a look. There are other factors that come into play as well, which will remain under wraps for now; rest assured that they only contribute to this being a good choice for many people. Certainly an option worth discussing. To the best of my knowledge, Outdoor Concepts is the only landscape company in the area currently using this option.


Landscaping Water Features

Water features are not, it seems, as hot an item as they were in years past. In previous years
Outdoor Concepts has built a few water features each year. Not sure what accounts for that,
perhaps people are simply moving in different directions, for reasons not clear. Whatever is
going on in the water feature spectrum, Outdoor Concepts still builds them, and we do it as
efficiently ($) as anyone out there. The hardware needs that we employ are fairly minimal,
bringing the cost down, and keeping it simple. Rubber liner, a pump, a simple and effective
housing for the pump to sit in, a piece of flexible pvc, and a variety of fittings and elbows are
about all the hardware needed. Let me state here and now that I’m referring to a
waterfall/stream, rather than a pond; these seem to be more popular in recent times, requiring
little maintenance, and no filtration.

I have built many ponds over the years, including a couple of swimming ponds, but the trend in
the last 10 years has been toward the pond-less features. These are more fun to build, and are
absolute playgrounds for unleashing creativity. Building a stair-step series of cascades in a
stream or waterfall is just about as good as it gets in my business. One has the lofty opportunity
to build something that is meant to mimic something straight out of nature. A tall order for the
beginner. We are not beginners.

Natural Limestone Retaining Walls

In recent years Outdoor Concepts is building more natural limestone retaining walls than ever
before. Another term for this natural limestone is rip-rap. This is the most economical stone in
our part of the country, so that is a huge and attractive advantage. The stone is quarried locally,
which contributes greatly to its economy. I like to use it where the retaining wall in question is in
a more rustic, natural setting, where one doesn’t need the retaining wall in question to make a
big statement, in terms of style points. That is not to say that these are unattractive retaining
walls, far from it.

Over the years Outdoor Concepts has built many, many boulder retaining walls, and every year
we do another two or three of them. When I compare a boulder (fieldstone) wall with a
limestone rip-rap wall, hands down I like the limestone rip-rap wall better (ours anyway), and
for a variety of reasons. Number one, the price will be lower, significantly lower. Number two,
the wall will be sturdier, as this sharper edged stone (the limestone) locks together much better
than the smoother, more rounded boulders.

Finally, in terms of aesthetics, there is no question
in my mind which look is superior, and that would be the limestone. With all the stone being the
same color, the wall has a much more natural look to it than the multi-colored boulders. In a
more natural or rustic setting, these limestone walls are spectacular!

For Your Next Patio…Consider Flagstone.

A massive sized stone with beautiful unique colors, flagstone (sometimes called Mahogany) is no longer a well kept secret.

More and more, as time goes by, Outdoor Concepts is building flagstone patios, and not just any
flagstone patio, but a variety of flagstone patio that is truly magnificent to behold. The key: the
stone we use: Heartland Flagstone, quarried in Oklahoma, and trucked all the way north to our
neck of the woods. Other local suppliers call it by a different name, Mahogany, but in essence
the same stone. This stone is unique by virtue of its size: the sheets can be as big as 4×8’, or 5×7’,
something in that size range. So these are some massive slabs of stone, made even more
massive by their thickness: 2-3”, which means a really large sheet can weigh 800 lbs. A sheet
that large needs to be set with a machine, rather than by hand. Outdoor Concepts happens to
possess the right machines for this setting, a couple of them in fact.

The real appeal of these Heartland Flagstone patios is the massive size of the sheets, combined
with a really nice range of colors, with tan and grays being predominant, with some very dark
pieces mixed in for variety. The fact that the massive sheets of stone all seem to have one or
two sides to them that are straight, and that fit together quite well with other massive sheets,
also helps greatly the finished look. There is less cutting and piecing involved, as a result, and
the finished effect is quite stunning.