Jan. 15 2014 03:42 PM
The terms “craftsmanship” and “landscape maintenance” aren’t often heard together. After all, “craftsmanship” should be reserved to describe something like an exquisite outdoor kitchen, not a maintenance project, even if it was beautifully done. Right? If that’s your opinion, you would be wrong. “Craftsmanship” describes what The LaurelRock Company practices. It’s a full-service landscape firm in Wilton, Connecticut, that offers design/build services as well as maintenance. With the pride the company takes in serving its clients, it should come as no surprise that it’s won three major prizes for the meticulous maintenance work it did on the Modern Homestead Estate in Wilton, Connecticut.

paths through three different meadow areas.”

“Then there’s weekly bed service, weeding and edging, raking and touching up the mulch. Monthly, we do irrigation troubleshooting and programming.” The six acres of wildflower-filled meadows are also hand-weeded twice a year.

Every week, there are up to six people working on the property. An estate gardener visits Tuesdays and Thursdays. A three-person weekly maintenance crew also comes on Tuesdays.

“In addition to that, we’re out there every week with a fine gardening crew,” adds DeMarche. “This two-person crew does all the pruning of the shrubs and ornamental trees on the property. The perennials are mostly taken care of by the estate gardening program. The fine gardening program is really about all the pruning that has to occur to properly maintain the foundation and perimeter plantings, including 12 crabapples, 20 maples that line the driveway and roadside, and a formal 18-foot tall hornbeam hedge.”

For this kind of money, customers expect exceptional service. How does LaurelRock assure that clients get what they’re paying for? “Every account has a garden and property manager assigned to it,” says De- Marche. “This person is ultimately responsible for everything that happens on that property in terms of maintenance.”

In this case, that person is Adrienne Mitchell. It’s her job to keep tabs on the weekly maintenance crew, the estate gardener, and the fine gardening crew.

Mitchell goes over her quality assurance checklist. “Under weekly maintenance, we look at the mowing pattern for the lawn, for straight lines. We look at the uniformity of the cut. There should be no fertilization striping, where the color is off in some places.”

“We look at the line trimming, to make sure the edges are clean,” she continues. “That clippings have been removed, and that all the thin areas in the lawn have been seeded on a weekly basis. That the beds are leaf-free and the mulch has been raked. We make sure the irrigation lines are covered, and that there is no debris or trimmings lying around or in pathways.”

“For fine gardening, we check for proper deadheading of the annuals and perennials, and that plants have been checked from becoming invasive,” says Mitchell. “We make sure the hedges are being shaped correctly, in keeping with the intent of the property’s overall design. We check the fine pruning, and make sure that all the beds are clean after the pruning is done. We look for insects and diseases, and treat as necessary.”

Foraging deer would certainly put a dent in all this hard work, so LaurelRock also maintains the 2,500 linear feet of deer fence. Twice a year, they walk the barrier, to see that nothing fell on it or broke it, and pull any weeds that might be coming up through it. They also do seasonal property cleanups.

Ornamental tree trimming is done by Mitchell’s crews, but larger tree health care and trimming is subcontracted out. “We use a tree service to take care of trees over 20 feet,” she says. “But again, it’s my job to assess everything on the property. So if I see something with a tree that may be dangerous, that we either need to trim or take down, I include it on my checklist.”

LaurelRock is also responsible for tending the large vegetable and herb gardens, some 600 square feet of them, in raised beds. “More than 225 hours per season are dedicated to the vegetable and herb gardens,” says De Marche. “We plant them, we label them, and we thin out the plants so they’ll thrive. And we’ll actually harvest them on a weekly basis if the client isn’t home or doesn’t get around to doing it. The estate gardener will put together a whole basketful of produce and bring it inside.”

The estate gardener also takes cuttings from throughout the perennial gardens each week and makes flower arrangements for the home’s interior. You could say that the people tending this estate function as farmers and florists as well. Now that’s service!

Client communication

Part of Mitchell’s job is keeping up the relationship with the client through weekly meetings. During these chats, she and the lady of the house talk through anything that might be on the radar—an upcoming party, or which annual flowers or bulbs will be going into the containers for fall.

“Adrienne’s out there once or twice a week,” says DeMarche. “Sometimes she can package everything into one visit, but frequently she’s out there again with one of the crews.”

Having her there so often means that “there’s always an opportunity to connect, to make sure that we really understand what the couple’s expectations are, and that we’re meeting them,” he says. “And if their expectations should change, we’ll hear about it right away. We’re not wondering or hoping that we’re doing okay.”

At this level of service, it’s not enough for Mitchell to just pay attention to her department. She also needs to keep in touch with the landscape architects, and with the installation side of her company, so that she knows what’s going on with the property at all times.

“I need to stay informed so that I can answer the client’s questions, such as where we are in the process, that kind of thing. Making sure we’re all on the same page, so that it doesn’t look as if we’re not connected as a company.”

“We have a nice partnership,” says Mitchell. “I never hear, ‘I can’t believe there’s a dog spot on the lawn and you haven’t done anything about it.’”

Special challenges

Given the obstacles they faced, it’s simply amazing that LaurelRock was able to achieve such excellence, albeit award-winning excellence at that. These challenges were the primary reason the company submitted this project to PLANET for consideration.

Crews faced everything from dust storms to broken irrigation lines, and stampeded paths and tire tracks through newly sodded turf areas. And then there was that high-energy pooch, who the owners tried to keep indoors, without much success.

A broad knowledge base was needed to properly care for the wide variety of hundreds of plantings on the property and the diverse environments they’re in. There are green roofs, tropical banana trees, naturalizing ferneries, mixed perennial borders and under-plantings in a grove of pines.

Then there’s the terraced gardens, containing turf and more than 1,000 perennials and shrubs, with various bloom times and growth habits necessitating weekly staking, pruning and deadheading. Each area requires unique and specialized care, and no two areas are alike.

“We really had to teach our fine gardening crews about these plants,” says DeMarche. “Some of them are very unique, not ones that we typically maintain on other properties.”

Mowing wasn’t always easy, either. “We needed to use a lot of different sizes of mowers,” says DeMarche. Among them were a 60" ride-on, a 48" walk-behind, and a 21" push-mower. “You can’t bring a larger mower up on those terraces. You have to use one that you can lift onto each terrace and cut, and then lift up again to the next terrace and cut that.” There was also a lot of really careful edging with line trimmers.

“This landscape wasn’t designed with ease of maintenance as a high priority,” said DeMarche. “I don’t mean that as a negative towards the design, just that that was not one of its goals. To be beautiful, unique and visually exciting, that was the goal.”

Working on a construction site

As we said, perhaps most impressive of all is the fact that this high level of quality was achieved in a virtual “war zone.” From the very start, three years ago, the property has been under continuous construction. It still is.

A family affair

LaurelRock began life as a landscape architectural firm, Dickson De- Marche and Associates, founded by DeMarche’s father in 1975. Three years after Burt DeMarche’s 1990 graduation from the University of Connecticut, where he majored in horticulture and minored in business, he and his dad started The LaurelRock Company together. “Our business plan was to be design/build, based on his great reputation in the area. And then we added maintenance. We’re 100 percent residential, high-end, because of the market we serve.”

Why LaurelRock? “It’s a very Connecticut-based name,” DeMarche explains. “All you see while hiking the Appalachian Trail through Connecticut is Mountain Laurel and rocks.

Mountain Laurel is the state flower. And every time you dig a hole, you seem to find rocks. The state has a lot of granite and ledge outcroppings.”

How long did it take LaurelRock to get the property into award-winning shape? According to DeMarche, it’s been a work-in-progress the entire 36 months.

Perhaps Mitchell sums it up best.

“People should know that this is how we work every day,” she says. “It’s our expectation for all of our clients to maintain their properties to this level. So it wasn’t a big deal when pictures were being taken for the awards submission. We didn’t have to prepare for anything. It was just like any other day of the week.”