Vivian’s Garden: Tools to Create a Big Effect in a Small Space

Sept. 1, 2000

Last February, Vivian, a homeowner in Loveland, OH, and an admirer of the Cincinnati Library’s Children’s Garden, decided to fulfill a longing for her own backyard botanical splendor. She didn’t want it to look like just any backyard garden, though. She wanted something on a grander scale, incorporating a hardscape setting that would instill a feeling of tranquility and snuggly fit within her backyard’s sloping confines. And, as with every other aspect of home ownership, her garden also needed to be affordable.

Vivian’s search led her to David Johnson, owner of Outsider Landscape Design in Morrow, OH. He designed a garden and presented a proposal that included a computer-generated overhead view as well as a 3D simulation. The hardscape design included five levels of planting beds held intact by stone retaining walls, a patio area, nooks, steps to the lowest level, and walking paths constructed using 2-in., flat, irregularly shaped stones. The design was exactly what Vivian desired in a garden setting, but the cost was more than her budget could accommodate.

Master everything from OSHA regulations, to high-tech safety equipment in this FREE Special Report: Construction Safety Topics That Can Save Lives. Download it now!

During the process of reengineering the project to bring the cost down, Johnson looked both for less expensive wall and path materials and for ways to increase productivity and reduce labor costs. He decided to use flat fieldstone for the wall and Ohio Buff stone for the pathways. He also made the walls shorter and the pathways narrower, which not only lowered the materials costs by 27% but also increased the garden’s planting area.

The labor issue was more complicated. The garden project required significant leveling as well as hauling of the wall and path materials. Johnson’s year-old, one-man business was growing as demand for his designs and installation services escalated, but landscape labor was scarce throughout the Cincinnati-area market. He decided to tackle Vivian’s project—and future residential landscape projects—primarily with machine power rather than manual labor.

He researched skid-steer loaders of every make but found them not versatile enough for his needs. He then investigated mini-loaders, which seemed better suited to job sites such as this one, and eventually purchased a Kanga Mini Loader and attachments. Size was a key factor in the decision: Many backyard sites, like Vivian’s, are extremely narrow and too confining to navigate a larger machine. At this site, most pathways were only 4 ft. wide, creating a tight area in which to turn around. Stone and other building materials were stored in the driveway or in a narrow side yard, creating more tight situations. However, once the attachment was raised to clear surrounding obstacles, the Kanga could spin in place.

Estimating labor costs with this new setup, he was able to give Vivian a new proposal that reduced labor costs 29%. He cut his labor costs so much that he was able to incorporate an hourly charge for the use of the new equipment, helping to pay for the investment.

On its first project, the mini-loader carried 10.5 tons of Ohio Buff stone for Vivian’s garden path; 4,500 lb. of boulders for the steps; more than 28 tons of field stone for the wall; various trees and shrubs—he largest over 2,100 lb.; and 75 yd.3 of gravel, dust and sand sub-base, topsoil filler, and mulch.

A variety of attachments allows one machine to assume many personalities and perform diverse tasks. On this project Johnson employed eight different attachments: forks for moving skids, placing accent boulders and stone steps, and transporting trees and shrubs; a tiller for shredding sod and the heavy clay soil base; a four-in-one bucket for removing the shredded sod, digging and leveling soil, and transporting wall and path stones to their installation sites; a power auger head for preparing planting excavations; a trencher for preparing drainage troughs for the wall; a loose materials bucket for transporting gravel, sand, topsoil, mulch, and path stone; lug tires for initial excavation and again on days when he needed extra traction; and turf tires to provide a gentler touch when rolling over the path’s gravel sub-base. He also purchased a Kanga Trailer to transport the mini-loader and all its accessories to and from the job site.

Because this was the Kanga’s debut project with Johnson, he discovered new uses for it as he went along. Although he acknowledges that material supplier problems and a very wet spring season contributed to extending the project deadline, he believes that without the mini-loader and its attachments the project would still be underway and over budget.

What about Vivian? She is pleased with the outcome. The project has created so much interest in the neighborhood that says she could almost charge admission to help pay for her garden.