Curb appeal on the water

Landscaping on land can have its challenges, but landscaping on the lake brings with it even bigger issues and plenty of regulations.

In Southside Virginia and across the border into North Carolina, affluent lake homeowners live near either one or two bodies of water: Gaston Lake and Kerr Lake.

Andy Moody, owner of Wayside Landscaping and Nursery, completes and maintains a lot of lake landscaping jobs for affluent homeowners living near Gaston and Kerr lakes.

Those homeowners don’t mind spending money to keep their yards immaculate, but they prefer that somebody else handle the grunt work. “They come for the weekend, but the people who build these nice houses are either planning on retiring or reselling,” says Andy Moody, owner of Wayside Landscaping and Nursery in South Hill, Va.

When they contact Moody to do the landscaping work, they often request that he put down sod rather than sow grass seed. “A lot of people will sod because they want instant beauty,” he says. “Most who own houses on the lake, if they’ve got a lot of money invested in a house, can afford to put sod and an irrigation system in.

“A nice lawn has a lot of curb appeal on the water. If you ride around on a boat, you can look up at [an] $800,000 to $1 million house, and it’s all nicely maintained as far as mulch beds and lawn areas.”

Landscape planning

A lake homeowner purchased a lot and home for $980,000. He decided to remodel and add onto the house. The home had a 260-degree view of the water and a point nestled in a cove. The homeowner wanted some new landscaping and contacted Moody.

The soil on the point was rocky and poor, but the land was flat. Moody and his crew removed debris with a Bobcat loader and set up a silk fence to satisfy regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Of course, working close to the water you’ve got to be careful you won’t get too close to the fault head and end up in the lake,” Moody says.

Their next step was to prepare the planting before laying sod. They sowed plants, constructed walls and built a mound where the homeowner later set a gazebo.

Another step was to plan irrigation needs and dig a place for a swimming pool. Moody took a pH test to determine the soil’s nutrients and found that the soil didn’t contain much nutrient value, so he limed the site. He also had topsoil trucked in.

He next measured the area for sod. A transfer truck hauled in the Magnum sod rolls and pallets of sod squares. A track layer machine unrolled the sod like a carpet. Curved areas of the land were filled in with square pieces.

“Once you do that, you have to go back and make sure none of your sprinkler heads are covered,” Moody says. He and his crew flagged the sprinkler head areas and grabbed a machete knife to cut and trim any carryover pieces of sod.

Before laying the sod, he advises to moisten the soil. “You just can’t lay it on the dry ground,” Moody says. “You never just put roots down in dry dirt.”

The sod was rolled out with a gas-powered roller so it made good contact with the soil and eliminated pockets or lumps. Moody also fixed the sod so all seams lined up.

After the sod was laid, it was watered for about 15 minutes twice a day, stopping before it became too muddy. “We got it where it was just some moisture down about 3 to 4 inches,” he says. “We try to be conservative, so we can work without making a mess.”

The irrigation system came on twice a day: in the early morning and in the hottest part of the afternoon. “Then, you’ve got to allow time for the blade of grass to dry off or dry out before nightfall so you won’t start disease in it,” Moody says.

He continued watering twice a day for about a week and then slowed watering to once a day every other day, “because you want it to go looking for water,” he says.

After three weeks, Moody tugged on the sod and felt it rooting. “You can peel it back,” he explains, “and it will show you white roots underneath where it starts to go down into the topsoil.

“One of the advantages to using sod from a sod farm is it’s going to be pretty much weed free,” he says. “It’s going to be a hybrid seed. One of the best ones I’ve found is Rebel. It seems to be a fine-blade fescue that looks nice and thick.”

Bermuda vs. fescue

In the past, a few lake homeowners have asked for bermudagrass because of its drought tolerance, although it still needs watering. Moody and his crew cut the bermudagrass close; whereas, they mow the fescue high.

Moody says bermudagrass has its disadvantages. Workers need to remove foreign weeds, usually by spraying each weedy area separately, and it creeps into nearby plant beds and must be removed. Bermudagrass turf also turns white in the wintertime, “but in the middle of the summer, when it’s hot, it’s green, thick and real short. It’s like walking on a piece of carpet,” Moody says. “It’s a different animal in that it needs fertilizing at that point when it’s actively growing; whereas, fescue needs fertilizing in early spring and fall.”

Many lake homeowners request that landscaper Andy Moody put down rolls of sod similar to the ones on this tractor trailer.

Climate and location

Before starting to irrigate out of the lake, Moody had to apply for and obtain a permit. He mounted a water pump under the homeowner’s boat dock and made sure the pump was not installed too deeply to avoid sucking sediment into the pump system and onto the landscaping. He says the clean water is usually the first 6 to 8 feet.

Toward the western part of Gaston and Kerr lakes, the terrain is rockier and hillier than on the eastern part. Moody has to be mindful of erosion problems while irrigating and landscaping on the western part, and he says installing sod helps prevent and slow soil runoff.

Federal guidelines

At Gaston Lake, Moody must follow EPA standards. Working at Kerr Lake requires a bit more patience and involves another government agency and more regulations. When working on land surrounding Kerr Lake, he and his crew must go through the proper channels of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The corps has a right-of-way up to a high-water marker. “You’ve got to make sure you honor that,” he says. “If you have to go onto their property, you make sure you’ve got permission.

“A lot of times, if you have to take trees out they will give you a list of some you can pick from to put back, and they have to be a certain size,” Moody says. “There are some improvements you can do on their property. If you go through the corps, you have to put in writing what you are going to do and what you’re going to put back.”

For instance, Moody and his crew worked on a lake house near Clarksville, Va. In the past, the corps had marked high-water markers on trees. Some of the lake homes were built near the high-water markers. Over time, the soil had eroded around the house, placing it closer to the marker.

“What we had to do was build a retaining wall and not disturb any of the trees,” Moody says. “We backfilled it so the high-water mark stayed where they had the tree marked.”

Personal involvement

Well-planned landscaping at the lake can provide wonderful scenery. “It’s amazing what you can turn a piece of property into,” Moody says. “Personally, in my work, I like to be [in] on the beginning of it so I will know what to do. I’ve done it so many times that I know what has to be done in stages versus jumping in and just throwing a bunch of plants in there,” he adds. “You’ve got to do some planning. It pays to pay somebody to draw a plan and get the thing organized.

“We like to maintain what we do,” he adds. “We provide a service there. When somebody comes to that lake house they don’t want to have to work; they want to play. They’d rather come in, look at it and say, ‘This looks great. We didn’t have to touch it. Here’s the check for this month; keep up the good work. If you see something that needs doing, do it.’

“That’s what I like,” Moody says. “You have to build up a lot of trust with a customer in order for that to happen. They feel like they are getting what they are paying for.”

The author is a freelance writer in Danville, Va.

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Advice on Lake Landscaping

Once a homeowner has fit his house to the lot size and orients it to the sun to make sure he can see nice sunsets, he can call a landscaper to plan and prepare the landscaping. Moody advises landscapers and excavators consider soil runoff direction when building a driveway, making sure the runoff does not flow into the lake and toward the house.

“We like to use a lot of pine needles because they will stay in place,” he says, “and they’re a little bit more environmentally friendly than some of your hardwood mulches that could harbor some disease.”

Much of the lake house land requires terracing, which means building a retaining wall and, often times, steps, especially if running a path to the boat dock. Check dams may be needed in the erosion stone so loose soil and construction scraps won’t head toward the water.

In his planning, Moody considers several questions. Do you need a boat dock? Do you want a gazebo? Do you desire a deck attached to the house? Do you want a stone or brick pathway to the lake by golf cart or footsteps? For the pathway or retaining wall, can you use natural stones from the property, or will you need to haul some to the site? Should the pathway be lighted? How large of a parking area is needed?

Another important concern is the wiring and irrigation piping needs from the house to the boat dock.

Living trees are a concern, too. “There might be some nice 100-year-old oaks on that lot that you don’t want disturbed,” Moody says. “You don’t want a bulldozer running over the roots, because it’s just going to be a slow death.”

He advises to remove or cut any pines and limbs hanging over the house or next to it, because a storm may blow the trees or limbs onto the house. If trees aren’t a keepsake, Moody says a homeowner may consider clear-cutting the lot, bulldozing any stumps, and planting desired tree varieties based on a carefully thought-out landscape management plan.