Friday, April 26, 2013

Landscaping around utility boxes and lines

They are uglier than sin and often a major thorn in the side of any landscape plan.
Three car lateral garage with that kind of architectural detailing in Florida?  That might be a half-million-dollar house in the background, but I'd wager that this eyesore skims ten or twenty grand off its perceived market value.

Screengrabbed from this site

Not much better. 

Screengrabbed from this site
There are a few creative (but usually expensive) commercial solutions on the market...
Some of these artificial rock covers such as this one from Brookstone appear to be high quality and are convincing to the eye - but unfortunately, they have high prices to match (generally $250 - $500 apiece!).   
Occasionally, some DIYer will hit a customized solution out of the park...
This is a screengrab from a post aptly titled "Genius Idea of the Week" by, but I can only access a cached image right now. 
...and similarly, there's always room for art:
Love it!!  But it's beyond the reach of most ordinary mortal homeowners. 
Screengrabbed from this site, which also will only load cached images today. 
In the series of photos below, I'll show you how we landscaped around our utility boxes.  We didn't just disguise them - we made the area very productive, to the point where it's paying us back for our investment.
Here are the ugly little buggers prior to the construction of our house...
...and here is the same area while construction was in progress.  Note two things here:  (1) My next-door neighbor didn't fare much better, as he ended up with a pad-mounted transformer in his portion of the easement.  And (2) the microscopic quality of our Centerpointe back yards becomes obvious here, as you can see just how far that house in the background extends toward the back fenceline, which is barely visible at photo right.  Their back yard at that point is probably less than 20 feet deep.  Probably smaller than their living room, in other words. 
Because of that microscopic quality of this back yard, I was not content to simply throw up a few bushes around these boxes and call it a done day.  I couldn't afford to lose the productivity of this space.
Ours is a particularly gruesome easement, because it wasn't encumbered by just one utility line - it has three (gas in yellow, electric in red, and fiber optic cable in orange).  And furthermore, those lines extended well beyond the trench established for the boxes, which thankfully were pushed up close to the back fence. 

The yellow arrows point to the same two boxes, which are partially obscured by the nursery containers. 
This is a very important thing to remember when you're dealing with landscaping in utility easements: Those utility boxes you see in your yard are just the barest tip of the iceberg.  There's all kinds of additional inconvenient crap going on beneath your lawn.  That photo above was from this post in which I talked about the importance of using utility locator services (Texas 811 in our case) before working around these things. 

You might look at all that nasty spray paint above and conclude that there isn't much hope for landscaping in this particular area of our yard.  But this is what that same painted corner looks like today:

Anything you plant in a utility easement is subject to being ripped out by the utility company if they ever have to work on their underground lines.  Partially for that reason, most of my landscaping assets in this area are "floating" rather than rooted.  I did add four POH Yaupon bushes directly in front of the boxes to hide them.  But I took the whole scheme much further than a simple vegetation screen.  I added two oblong stock tanks for vegetable gardening.  You can only see one of them here, because the POH hedge hides the other (I love those livestock tanks but at the same time, I didn't want the back yard to look like a metal factory).  The one visible stock tank floats directly over the buried electrical cable that runs to the right-of-way to power a street light. 
I had multiple reasons for using livestock tanks for vegetable gardening.  In this post, I talked about the importance of keeping our food-growing enterprises elevated, because our dog has to go potty in this microscopic back yard.  I also want to grow organically, and isolating the garden soil helps to control both chemistry and insect access. 

But in this particular corner of the yard, it was also essential that I have the ability to pick up the gardens and move them if the utility company needs to do any digging.  POH's are tougher than nails and can easily recover if they ever needed to be replanted, so basically there's nothing here that would get destroyed by a utility dig. I'd just have to move it all out of the way temporarily.  Given that I have no problem with soil back-loading, this wouldn't be a problem.
The second stock tank is sitting against the boxes, but not pushing on them.  The boxes are now sandwiched between the stock tank and the POH. 
I left good clearance around the electrical access in case the linemen ever needed to get at it.

Something else to keep in mind:  If you work around these things in your yard, be very careful about the potential for exposed lines.  Lines and cables are not supposed to be left above ground, but they sometimes are, as installers (who usually get paid by the job, not the hour) cut corners on installation.  See what the yellow arrow is pointing to?  I know from experience (insert long story here) that this is my next-door neighbor's cable TV line which the installation subcontractor did not bother to bury in a trench.  So I have to remain aware not to accidentally cut that thing (again) as I'm working in this area.  If one of us raised a stink with Comcast, we could probably force them to bury it as they should have originally.  But I don't want contractors messing with my area here, so I just watch out for it myself.
Those two little stock tanks have been my most productive gardens when evaluated on a per-square-foot basis:
Over two thousand cherry tomatoes last year.  Chart from this post
My costs for landscaping that utility-encumbered corner of the yard were approximately as follows:
  • Two Behlen Country oblong stock tanks -  $250.
  • Four POH Yaupons on clearance at Lowes - $120
  • Pavers to support stock tanks - about $60
  • Stock tank soil and amendments - about $50
  • Mulch - about $30
  • Edging stone (multi-blend four-inch) - about $100 (stone is obscenely expensive in greater Houston because of the transportation costs - it has to be trucked in from hundreds of miles away). 
  • One small sage bush - about $10
  • TOTAL:  Approximately $620 (all labor was DIY)
  • Offset value of food harvested to date from these tanks: At least $150
  • NET TOTAL: About $470, and continuing to drop as more vegetables are harvested.

Look again at what is achieved for that investment.  Do you think this raises my property value by at least $500?  I suspect the answer is yes. 

I've planted tomatoes again this spring.  You can see them coming up in both tanks.  Last summer it was okra
 Because I cook and freeze food in large volumes, I can really leverage the value of harvested food.  Last year's two thousand tomatoes formed a wicked-good base for a lot of spaghetti sauce, chili, and other dishes.  I put the off-set costs above just in case that kind of thing is important to some readers.  I garden as a hobby and I'm less concerned with pay-back, but when I start working the pay-back numbers, I'm always surprised at how high they are. 

The organic versions of these cute little hot-house packages are extremely expensive - about four dollars apiece.  Imagine how many of these could be filled by a harvest of two thousand tomatoes. 

Screengrabbed from this site.
What he said.  Or in my case, I get tomatoes.  Lots and lots of tomatoes. 

Meme source unknown and uncreditable, but here's Ron Finley's site.
So there are some of my ideas for maximizing the beauty and productivity of space around utility boxes and above buried utility lines.  Happy landscaping. 

And oh - if you've got the time for it, here is Ron's latest TED talk.  While not aimed at a typical affluent suburban scenario such as we have here, his gardening and food management ideas are universal.  Dialysis centers popping up like Starbucks, indeed. 

1 comment:

  1. “Uglier than sin.” That just cracked me up. Utility boxes in our area are just as dreadful and as you’ve said, that’s only secondary to the decrease in the market value of a house with those rusty puke-green blots on the landscape. But I just loved the way you made yours practically invisible, with an added perk of a constant tomato supply! I’m just wondering about the costs though. $470 is a total bargain for what it made up in the long run, but what if I want this particular gardening/landscaping project done professionally? Would you think it would cost you less?

    Christopher @


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