Jan. 15 2016 09:47 AM

When a mighty wall of seawater crashes through your house, uproots your trees, rips out your rose garden and completely destroys your backyard, you might think that all is lost. You might be tempted to just walk away, or dump the property for whatever you can get.

That was the exact dilemma faced by a Long Island, New York couple back in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy sent a five-foot surge of saltwater through the home they’d loved for 30 years. Like many other victims of this epic storm, they planned to take their insurance check, repair the home as much as possible, then sell it and get out.

Now it’s 2016, and they’re still in that home, due to the talented team at Hamilton, New York-based Goldberg & Rodler, Inc. Not only was their landscape restored, but in an award-winning fashion. As a result, they’ve decided to stay put.

Goldberg & Rodler is a second-generation full-service landscape company started in 1958 by Leon Goldberg and Robert Rodler. When they retired in the early 1980s, they handed the company down to sons Neal Goldberg and Tom and Steven Rodler. Tom Rodler is the principal and president.

The firm does landscape and hardscape design and installation. A maintenance team cuts grass and prunes shrubbery, and carries out a spray program for plant and lawn health care. There’s also a tree-care division that does tree removal and pruning. “Our goal is to provide one-stop shopping for our top-level clients, so there’s one point of responsibility for everything,” said senior designer and project manager Sal A. Masullo, ASLA.

The project, entitled “Seaside Sustainability,” won a trio of awards in 2015. The Long Island Nursery and Landscape Association gave it a Gold Award for Best Passive-Use Garden. The New York State Nursery and Landscape Association awarded it Most Unique Landscape over $6,000. Finally, it was bestowed a Grand Award from the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP, formerly PLANET), in the residential design/build category for projects costing $100,000 to $500,000.

The design team consisted of president Tom Rodler, lead designer Nicole Redington, designer and estimator Ashley Palko Haugsjaa, and Sal Masullo, who also oversaw the job. “Tom (Rodler) was really involved in helping with the design, and also being the liaison with the client,” said Masullo. “He’s the one who sold the job, and also managed some of the stuff in the field, while the project was being built. Redington had a big role out in the field as well.”

There’s a nice sense of continuity of care about this undertaking. “The couple had been a longtime existing client of ours,” Masullo said. “Our company had designed and installed the original landscape for them, back when the company was still owned by the founders. It was a traditional suburban landscape, with lawns, flower gardens and foundation plantings. Then Sandy came along and changed all that.”

Changed it, indeed. “The water came up over the bulkhead (the seawall) in the back and washed through the garden, came through the windows on the lower level and exited out the garage doors,” said Masullo. “It left four feet of water inside the house. The front yard stayed pretty much intact, but the whole backyard, from the patio down to the bulkhead, was completely devastated; the side yards, too. The rose garden was absolutely destroyed.”

Fortunately, hardscaping that the company had installed, a patio and barbecue, as well as a walkway entering the property, were left intact.

“Since none of that was damaged, we were able to work around the bi-level patios and just concentrate on the landscape. That’s why the cost wasn’t astronomical.”

Considering the extent of the remediation, the $210,000 final tab seems cheap. “If we’d had to redo the hardscape as well, it would have been double that figure,” Masullo said.

Once the team arrived, they realized the job ahead of them was going to be no walk on the beach. A major amount of clearing would have to be done first. Some very large trees had been uprooted and had fallen on the house. For safety’s sake, as well as to avoid further damage to the structure, these had to be rigged with cables and ropes and removed very carefully.

A 220-volt underground electrical line that ran out to the owner’s boat dock had to be disconnected before any digging could start. Also, a large amount of the original topsoil had simply washed away. A great deal of new dirt would have to be hauled in to replace it.

The restoration of the home’s exterior and interior was done simultaneously. So, the landscape construction crew had to coordinate its work around those efforts. The air conditioning system and a generator, located at grade outside the house, had also been flooded. These systems were upgraded by another contractor. Goldberg & Rodler built new concrete piers on which to perch those systems, which would keep them above the high-water mark.

When the saltwater surge went through the house, it shorted out the home’s entire electrical system. This included the irrigation controller, mounted in the garage.

The irrigation work was subbed out to Merrick, New York-based Advance Irrigation. That company certainly had its work cut out for it.

None of the existing irrigation system could be salvaged. The components that weren’t destroyed by the storm were damaged by the earthmoving equipment during the soil remediation. “They had to put a whole new system in the back, a combination of pop-ups and spray heads,” said Masullo.

“A mist irrigation system (micro irrigation with misting spray heads) was installed in the organic garden and some other areas, too.” Rotaryhead sprinklers in the former lawn were taken out, since they were no longer needed. Some of those areas were converted to planting beds. A new irrigation controller was mounted outside, making it serviceable even when no one is home.

Given all the obstacles they faced, did the team ever throw up their hands and say, “This is way above our pay grade?” “No, because we’d done many big, challenging projects before,” said Masullo. “Yes, the logistics were difficult; it’s a tight piece of property, a big house on not such a big lot. Just getting our machinery in and out of the yard was tough.”

“We had to remove dead trees and bring in a large amount of soil (200 cubic yards, to be exact), and we couldn’t really do that by hand or with wheelbarrows.” To be able to bring in their equipment, they had to build a temporary road on one side of the property and remove it once they were done.

Those machines—or the sight of them, anyway—caused still another problem. The clients were concerned about their neighbors having to look at these unsightly metal behemoths, which included a large generator, a backhoe and a skid steer.

“All of our equipment kind of stood out like a sore thumb,” Masullo said, because the storm had taken out the trees and plants that used to provide privacy.

To restore that sense of privacy and shield the equipment from view, evergreen plantings were reestablished around the perimeters. Care was taken to preserve the property’s primary asset, its spectacular ocean view.

Again, this was done with an eye towards sustainability. “We used native Juniper virginiana and some other plants that are native to Long Island. They can take an occasional saltwater inundation.”

Sustainability, in every sense of the word

The word “sustainability” in the project’s name isn’t just a cute, alliterative adjective. The new landscape would need to be sustainable in two important ways: one, it should be able to weather another big storm; and two, the plantings should be chosen for their ability to not only survive but thrive in a seaside environment, without excessive water or chemical blandishments.

Meeting that first sustainability goal was going to be the biggest challenge of all. The design team realized that the property, left as it originally was, would be vulnerable to potential damage from a future storm. They would need to resculpt the landscape in such a manner that, should another Sandy-level storm happen, the property would make it through.

The decision was made to regrade the backyard. A protective berm was built out of soil, high enough to prevent water from ever reaching the lower level of the structure. The water line left by Sandy, which could still be seen on the side of the house, determined the berm’s height.

After that, it was time to address drainage, which obviously needed improvement. French drains were installed underneath the new topsoil and tied into some existing dry wells and a leaching field. Swales were also dug on both sides of the house. If a large amount of seawater washed up over the bulkhead again, it would be captured and redirected around the home, rather than through it.

The storm had erased the palette, like flipping over an Etch-a-Sketch, giving the owners a do-over. The new landscape would reflect their new environmental consciousness.

“Their tastes had evolved from 30 years ago, when the landscape was first installed,” Masullo said. Not only did they now want an organic, pesticide- and chemical-free, water-conserving and low-maintenance landscape, they also recognized that it would be a selling point once the house went on the market.

First, a soil test was needed. This produced some startling findings. “It showed a complete lack of organic content,” said Masullo. “There were also some high readings of metals like aluminum, magnesium and iron. There are trace amounts of those in all soils, as plants need some iron and other things for photosynthesis and their growing process, but these were really elevated. We’re not sure where all of that came from.”

Not surprisingly, the test also revealed that the remaining soil was as salty as a bag of potato chips. They needed to get as much NaCl out of it as they could. “We watered the heck out of that soil for days on end, to leach that salt out of there,” Masullo said.

Why didn’t they just dump the new soil over the old? After all, they were bringing in so much new topsoil, and layering over it a large quantity of organic compost.

“The new plantings just wouldn’t have survived,” explains Masullo. “The roots would eventually reach down into that layer of salty soil, and it would restrict their growth. Also, the salt would lock up other chemicals, including nutrients that the plants need.”

Once the salt-leaching and removal of toxic soil was done, native species replaced the ripped-out ornamentals. Carpet roses and native grasses were planted in some other areas. The former formal rose garden that resided in a circle in the brick patio was turned into an attractive organic herb and vegetable garden, something the clients specifically requested. Pavers were installed to add further visual interest.

The couple wanted to completely eliminate turf, so former lawn areas were replanted with Blue Star Creeper, and set off by new permeable bluestone-gravel walkways and sitting areas.

“There was another area around some stepping stones where we wanted to have a greenspace. Instead of grass, we planted Mazus reptans, a low-maintenance groundcover that creates a green carpet, like a lawn.” The herbaceous perennial also produces lavender flowers with white and yellow markings in midsummer. “It requires much less water, and doesn’t have to be cut every week.”

With input from the clients, salt and wind-tolerant trees, shrubs and perennials were chosen that would also provide a variety of colors and textures throughout the year. These included Eastern Red Cedar trees and shrubs such as Shore Juniper and Winterberry. Dwarf Fountain Grass and Little Bluestem were planted along the water’s edge to frame the views from the house, the patio, and the bulkhead sitting areas.

“Most of what we planted is very low maintenance,” said Masullo. “Some water is still required, but much less than previously, or if we had replanted a traditional suburban lawn and garden full of ornamentals.”

There were some pleasant surprises. “There were one or two survivors. One of them was a Hollywood Juniper. It somehow made it through that saltwater inundation, and it still resides in a corner where the dock joins the bulkhead.”

The project began in March of 2014 and was completed by July. A year later, in August of 2015, the ‘after’ pictures were taken, and submitted with the application packets for the various awards.

The owners were thrilled with the results, both inside and outside. Plans to sell were cancelled. Now they’d be able to stay in the community they’d lived in for three decades, in a house they once again loved.

Goldberg & Rodler’s services were retained for a monthly maintenance program. Previously, the company only visited the property once a year or so, to do some pruning; regular maintenance was done by a local gardener.

“Since they have no grass, they don’t need a gardener anymore,” said Masullo. “But they still need someone to check once in a while and see what’s going on. We come once, sometimes twice a month, depending on how fast the weeds grow.

We weed the beds, trim the Mazus around the stepping stones, and make sure everything is looking nice and pristine for them in general.”

The redesigned landscape and drainage system was recently put to the ultimate test. A record rainfall caused the high tide to once again breach the bulkhead and begin to flood the property.

But this time, “The water was channeled around the property, away from the dwelling, and didn’t cause any damage, just as we’d designed it to do,” Masullo said. Once the tide went back down, and the winds subsided, the landscape dried out, and the plants required no extra care to bounce back.

The company that was handed down to a new generation did a great job taking care of a first-generation customer. It’s not surprising that this design team won so many awards. They didn’t just restore a severely damaged landscape—a remarkable achievement in and of itself—they created long-lasting beauty that can continue to be enjoyed for decades to come.

More importantly, they proved that the word ‘sustainability’ and the term ‘excellence in craftsmanship’ don’t have to be contradictions in terms, but can indeed be synonymous.