Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
May 23, 2023

Landscaping in Zone 5 with Zone4 Landscaper Mel Bellar

Landscaping in Zone 5 with Zone4 Landscaper Mel Bellar
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When Mel Bellar established his Andes, NY landscape design company, the Catskills were considered "zone 4" on the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Thanks (?) to climate change and warmer winters, the region is now solidly in "zone 5." We talked with Mel about that shift and how it's reshaping our options. Join our conversation for many more Catskills landscaping considerations, like complementing the environment with natural materials, Mel's favorite plants, go-to suppliers, and things we tend to do ... but shouldn't (landscape fabric, anyone?). Thanks to this week's sponsors ... and listener supporters! The Mountain Eagle Hanford Mills Museum Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce Briars & Brambles Books --- Support this podcast: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/kaatscast/support


Transcribed by Jerome Kazlauskas via otter.ai

Mel Bellar  0:03  
The biggest thing (people do) in the Catskills and I did it myself. It's really can't talk people out of. They dig a bed and I dig up all these little rocks; and they say, "Oh, it'd be really cute to put the rock border around the bed," but what happens is the grass grows between the rocks. You can't weed whack it. You have ... you can't even weed it because you can't get your fingers in it. You have to pick up the rock ... move it ... it screams "DIY."

Brett Barry  0:26  
On this episode of Kaatscast, landscaping a Catskills home with handy tips from a landscape professional in Andes, New York. Kaatscast is sponsored by Hanford Mills Museum. Explore the power of the past as you watch the waterwheel bring a working sawmill to life. Bring a picnic to enjoy by the millpond. For more information about scheduling a tour or about their new exploration days, visit hanfordmills.org or call 607-278-5744. We featured Hanford Mills Museum in episode thirty-nine. Check it out! Kaatscast is also sponsored by Briars & Brambles Books. The go to independent book and gift store in the Catskills, located in Windham, New York, right next to the pharmacy. Just steps away from the Windham Path. Open daily. For more information, visit briarsandbramblesbooks.com or call 518-750-8599. Gravel path?

Mel Bellar  1:26  
Pea gravel. I love pea gravel. Underneath this ... three inches of pea gravel, there's probably four inches of crushed bluestone for draining ...

Brett Barry  1:35  
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes. Offering full-service landscape design, installation, and maintenance in the Catskills. He showed off an in town property in Andes where Zone4 is installing native plants, a bluestone patio, a creekside pergola (handmade), and pea gravel paths with very intentionally placed bluestone steps.

Mel Bellar  2:00  
We haven't finished because we're going to plant some river birch trees back here, so I want to be able to get the tractor and stuff. But I'm very keen on stepping stones working where you're at the easy gate.

Brett Barry  2:16  
Oh, yeah, look at that.

Mel Bellar  2:18  
It's gotta be like ... 18 inches with eight and a half inches between them because this is on the curve. It's like ...

Brett Barry  2:24  
Back at Mel's home ...

Mel Bellar  2:25  
Great ...

Brett Barry  2:26  
We dug into his history with landscape design and why he named the company Zone4 to begin with.

Mel Bellar  2:34  
Well, my name is Mel Bellar and we are in the town of Andes (in the Catskill Region of New York State) and I have a landscape design, installation, and maintenance business that is called Zone4 Landscapes. We call it Zone4 because when I started the business, we were classified as USDA (the agricultural department: Zone4), which meant that it gets down to minus 30 degrees.

Brett Barry  3:03  
Has that changed?

Mel Bellar  3:04  
Yes, they change this to 5A, which means minus 25.

Brett Barry  3:09  
Okay, so it's gotten warmer.

Mel Bellar  3:11  
Oh, yeah.

Brett Barry  3:11  
And does that change your decision making when it comes to landscaping or the types of plants you're choosing or not so much yet?

Mel Bellar  3:19  
It does. I've always kind of experimented with some zone 5 plants of which there are many that it would be nice to be able to use and some of them did well from the beginning and some didn't, but I've started using more and more zone 5 plants. For instance, Japanese maples, which are not native. I like to use a lot of natives, but they're so beautiful and perfect for a small tree to create an atmospheric spot.

Brett Barry  3:50  
And even if they're not native, they're not necessarily invasive or harmful either, right?

Mel Bellar  3:54  
No, no, no, no, I don't use any harmful invasive species.

Brett Barry  3:58  
But there are some plants that are sold for landscaping that become invasive, right? Like, you know, Japanese barberry or whatever?

Mel Bellar  4:08  
Yes, yes.

Brett Barry  4:09  
I don't know if that's still sold as ornamental?

Mel Bellar  4:12  
They do still sell it. It's got a warning on it. Some are like absolutely outlawed so you can't buy them. But Japanese barberry and burning bush are still sold, but most of the good nurseries don't sell them. But landscapers asked for him because the deer don't need them.

Brett Barry  4:33  
So you came to landscaping late in your career. Tell me about that.

Mel Bellar  4:38  
Very late. I came to New York as a classical musician, then I became a new wave rock musician and waited on tables, and then I went through a late life study program and became a computer programmer and I worked in that industry for 25 years, and then I got to a very lofty position and during the ... we call it the dot-bomb period. I got job eliminated and Peggy (my wife). She said, "Why don't we do something we love and move to the country to that ... we bought this house a few years before and try to do something we love," and so I went with landscaping.

Brett Barry  5:19  
Have you had any experience with landscaping or is there something that you really enjoyed?

Mel Bellar  5:23  
When Peg and I got together, we decided to get a place together and we wanted outdoor space. We ended up with half of the top floor of a brownstone on 88th Street, but we had the entire roof (which was 1,200 square feet) and it already had a garden on it and we completely redid it and just totally got into it. We loved it so much, and then we bought this place in 2001 and I couldn't wait to make a garden and I was obsessed with it, and then I went to school at the New York Botanical Garden and got a landscape (a certificate in landscape design).

Brett Barry  5:59  
So in the city, you had a rooftop garden in the suburbs ... landscaping very often involves basically masking the basement area of the house with (kind of) a standard bush that can be kind of hedged, trimmed, and then a small plot of grass and maybe a tree, and then we have the country which is different entirely. So what's special about landscaping in a place that already has tons of green? Are you working with it? Are you trying to incorporate some of the features that we already have?

Mel Bellar  6:33  
No matter what setting you're in. The primary thing that I want to do is combined function and beauty to meet the client's needs. The landscape design is really designed. What I really love to do is to make something that really works for somebody and make it beautiful. So given the client and their situation (wherever their houses and what's around it), you know, some people need to scream from their neighbors. Some people ... they had no flat area in the Catskills, so they want outdoor space. It's flat for barbecuing and hanging out. So you make patios and decks, and then you need to get from your car to the house comfortably and maybe from your car to the back part of the house where people congregate. I mean, it's ... there's a myriad of things. People want fenced areas for vegetables. The creativity as making that function really work and make it last. Something that's going to really be permanent because a lot of landscaping is done really shabbily and it breaks down, so if the client is clueless about what they want, I start to interview them and ask questions to figure out. So how do you use this space because some people start with a complete blank slate and it's wonderful when that happens. But more often than not, there's things that I deal with, you know, that's already there. If there's any mature plant material that I can shape to make look nice and keep a sense of the place that's already there, I like to do that; and plus, it's nice to have mature plant material because it takes a huge budget to buy, you know, mature plant material. So the whole design process ... I really enjoy a lot especially if it's the client that's into it, you know, I do a site plan in the computer using AutoCAD, and then we go through iterations until the client's comfortable with it.

Brett Barry  8:35  
Talk a bit about the progression from the controlled landscaping to the wild because (again) here in the Catskills, it's not unusual for people to have expansive properties. Where does the landscaping end and where do you just let it go or is there also maintenance that should happen in the wild areas?

Mel Bellar  8:54  
Well, my philosophy of landscaping is that you start with a nice area around your house. It's even really cool to have, you know, some (sort of) barrier like a fence that just says, "Alright, this is like a courtyard." That's ... that's a garden. Then, we kind of groom around the edges going into the ... whether if you transition into the woods or further away, but the planting becomes more sparse and less maintained. I mean, less pruning, less precious treatments. In the country and in the Catskills, it really is important to have a sense of place. People talk about a lot in the landscaping world making a sense of place. But if you live in Westchester (in White Plains), the sense of place to me just isn't important. It's more about the architecture of your house and how the landscape enhances your house. But here, I almost never use straight lines because it's just not a straight line kind of place and most of our client's properties are pretty wild. Occasionally, we get a village property; and occasionally, I've had some real modern situations where it's really fun to use different types of materials. But here, I, you know, we use a lot of natural materials.

Brett Barry  10:16  
You just use the word "fun" and that was something in some of the notes you shared with me as part of kind of your approach and philosophy. It has to be fun and you wrote fun team, fun projects, fun clients, tell me a little bit about the types of work that you gravitate towards.

Mel Bellar  10:31  
I want to enjoy myself and I want to work with people that are into it and enjoy it and both my team and the clients and working together and making things happen and everybody takes a sense of pride in what we do and if a client just doesn't seem like they're gonna want to be involved in the collaboration and aren't pleasant, I try to avoid it because it's just, you know, I always say like, "I do not optimize my business for money. If I did, I would do it entirely different. But I feel like if we do a good job and the client has a good experience, the money comes."

Brett Barry  11:16  
And that said, this level of landscaping costs real money.

Mel Bellar  11:20  
Yes, yes. It's expensive. Landscaping is expensive. Materials are expensive to have good people working for you. You have to pay them well ... and so labor is expensive. I mean, it's ... it's not cheap. People think it's gonna be inexpensive a lot of times. It's changed up here (though). When I first started, people didn't even get that I had to charge a design fee. I mean, I spent an inordinate amount of time going through that process I described earlier with people.

Brett Barry  11:52  
Describe your team. Who are you working with?

Mel Bellar  11:54  
I call Gus (my business partner). He's a 45-year-old Mexican immigrant. We've been together for 13 years now. I used to drive the tractor and cut the stone. And now, he does all that. I just go over the design with him and he runs the show and he's got; have a couple part-time people helping him when we need it and I have a team of people who do maintenance and we also ... the maintenance people also help plant and we get involved in the installation sometimes and I have two full-time women and two part-time women, gardeners, and we call them the angels, the Zone4 angels and the guys we call the dudes and that came about because when I was talking to a group of women, there was no good word to use. I couldn't say call them the girls. They didn't like the lady. So I just said, "I'm gonna get around this. I'm just gonna call them angels." So we have angels and dudes.

Brett Barry  12:13  
And they're okay with that.

Mel Bellar  12:57  
Yeah, they're great with it.

Brett Barry  12:58  

Mel Bellar  12:59  
And angels and dudes aren't necessarily gendered. Sometimes angels do dude work and dudes do angel work. So ...

Brett Barry  13:07  
When do you suggest that someone consider professional landscaping versus doing it themselves because some people enjoy it, some people don't know anything about it. Is there a point at which you would say? This might be a good opportunity to consult with somebody and see what they could do for you.

Mel Bellar  13:26  
If you want anything done larger than some flower beds around the house or maybe to create a vegetable garden, it's very hard to do what I consider to be landscaping without getting a professional. I mean, let's say you wanted to have a 20 foot by 10 foot bed. If you ... if you're lucky enough to have a flat space to do that, it's going to take you a lot of time and a lot of back breaking labor to do that because the ground is nearly all hard pan, hard clay with lots of rocks in it. You pick out all these rocks, and then you're left with very little soil. You have to add soil to it. We do everything now with the tractor, you know, it's hard to ... it's really hard to do much by yourself. You'll see patios that people don't create the foundation, right? And within a few years, the stones are all askew and there's so many weeds going between them. You can't get them out, you know, making some flower beds and planting some small shrubs and perennials. I wouldn't say you need to get a landscaper to do that.

Brett Barry  14:34  
What are some of the other challenges of landscaping in the Catskills? So you mentioned clay. We all know there's tons of rocks. Everytime you dig down, you hit a rock. But there's ... there's plenty more, so what would you say you're contending with?

Mel Bellar  14:48  
The deer come to mind immediately. The deer are a huge, huge problem (and groundhogs or the critters) and it's hard to find labor. There are people's skills and excavators and stone masons and carpenters, but the good ones are booked far in advance, you know, in metropolitan areas. They have a category of people called landscape contractors that landscape designers and architects work with to ... to realize their designs and there's masons that are used to working for landscape designers and landscape architects. Up here, a mason's got his own ideas. It's hard to get them to follow specification. It's harder to get materials up here. You have to travel a long way to get materials; and ironically enough, materials aren't really cheaper up here. Everybody thinks they're going to be cheaper. In the Catskills, most of my clients have really big spaces ... and so that is also a challenge because it requires a lot of materials (nearly everything is on a slope). You go to a house and, you know, one side is at ground level and the other side is up the hill and it always involves steps or ramps and terracing and people want a flat space to hang out and terracing retaining walls and those are expensive.

Brett Barry  16:16  
And using materials like rock?

Mel Bellar  16:19  
I love boulders. I use boulders as whenever I can because they don't move, they really give a sense of place; and most of the time ... most of the time, we're able to (we say) harvest the rocks from the property. We go in the backhoe. Find the rocks in the woods and if we can't get to them without cutting down trees, sometimes we literally will chain them and attach them to the backhoe and pull them out and it's really fun of it. So we use a lot of boulders and if the clients have them, we're liable to use more.

Brett Barry  16:54  
Stay tuned for common DIY mistakes, Mel's favorite plants, and where to find them locally. All that and more after this short break. This episode of Kaatscast is sponsored by the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce. Providing services to businesses, community organizations, and local governments in the Central Catskills region. Follow the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce on Facebook and sign up for a weekly email of local events at centralcatskills.org. Thanks also to the Mountain Eagle, covering Delaware, Greene, and Schoharie counties, including brands for local regions like the Windham Weekly, Schoharie News, and Catskills Chronicle. For more information, call 518-763-6854 or email: mountaineaglenews@gmail.com. What are some of your favorite plants?

Mel Bellar  17:48  
I love ornamental grasses. The deer don't eat them. They come in different colors and shapes and textures and they make a great backdrop for something that blooms, something that adds color. My favorite plant is the geranium macrorrhizum that means bigroot geranium. It's a ground covery plant that the deer don't eat. It smells nice. It's evergreen. It looks good year round. I'm just saying this because anybody who hears this knows me is gonna say he has to talk about geranium macrorrhizum. I plant acres of them. Just a magical plant they completely like shade out any weeds. It's got a beautiful soft texture. I love hydrangeas. There's two types of hydrangeas up here that work really well. One is a species called arborescens. Hydrangea arborescens is a cultivar called Annabelle, which has big soft white flowers that blooms for a long time. I leave the flowers up all winter. They dry that nicely. They look beautiful, and then another type of hydrangeas ... Hydrangea paniculata, which is the panicled hydrangea and there's dozens of varieties of them ranging from lime-green to pink (once it start blooming earlier as once it bloom later). They just add so much color and texture and they're nice shrubs. They look good all the time. You can prune them to have a beautiful branch structure, which is something that's really important to me. They're blooms dry nicely and I leave them on the shrubs until the spring. We prune them off when we're doing our spring cleanup. I think winter interests in the Catskills is important. I actually love Japanese maples. I'm looking at the one outside my window. There's just something so graceful and beautiful about them and they're not native and I used to not plant them. They just used to not do well here. Climate changes in some ways helped us have more choices. What other favorite plants? I love catnip (Nepeta). The deer don't eat it. It has a nice long bloom time and after you clip off the blooms, the foliage still looks nice. I love some of the heucheras (the coral bells). There's one called autumn bride. That's particularly beautiful and it blooms late in August and it's got nice foliage and nice blooms. I really like foliage plants. Foliage is always there. I love ninebarks. They have the bronzy red foliage all the way to chartreuse foliage. I love chartreuse foliage. There's a couple of varieties. The smoke bush, I really love.

Brett Barry  20:36  
What are the biggest mistakes you see people making who landscaped their own properties and maybe some tips that you could impart?

Mel Bellar  20:43  
The most important aspect of landscaping is scale. Don't put a little bitty bad in the middle of a big lawn and put some doodads in there and think it's gonna look nice. Don't make really skinny beds around your house. If you're going to make a better on your house, make it generous enough to where it's almost as wide as your houses tall. Use paths. People make big beds and no way to get into them. It's just a mass of plants and your eye just perceives this hodgepodge this mess. It's like if you put a path in it, it gives it some structure and it allows you to get into it and maintain it. The biggest thing people do in the Catskills and I did it myself. It's you can't talk people out of. They dig a bed and they dig up all these little rocks; and they say, "Oh, it'd be really cute to put the rock border around the bed," and he can't talk him out of it. But what happens is the grass grows between the rocks. You can't weed whack it. You have ... you can even weed it because you can't get your fingers in it. You have to pick up the rock ... move it. It looks ... it screams "DIY."

Brett Barry  21:55  
So then how do you make the transition between the bed and the ... and the lawn or the meadow or whatever?

Mel Bellar  22:00  
First of all, I love a beautiful line. I always say the easiest thing to do and landscaping is to create a beautiful line. It's free! It doesn't cost anything. So all my designs I think about that, but (then) you literally take a straight shovel and you cut a sharp trench, sharp angle through the grass, through the roots, so that the grass cannot go into the bed if you maintain that edge. There are other ways you can make a lot of expense for yourself using like Belgian block or even bluestone, which makes it hard on curves. We use metal edging sometimes. Another big Mel rule is never put gravel against grass against turf grass. A bed is easy to maintain. An edge on a bed (next to turf grass) is easy to maintain. I take the weed whacker on its side after I create the initial beautiful edge trench and you turn the weed whacker on the side and just go along and clip it off and keep the grass from growing in. But if you have gravel against the grass, the grass grows into the gravel and you can't weed whack it because you throw rocks all over yourself and everything else. So that's when I use metal edging.

Brett Barry  23:11  
And then, how do you keep weeds out of the landscaped portion?

Mel Bellar  23:15  
We weed it. I like to plant densely so that you don't need to put mulch. You're not going to see the ground much after things grow in. It's dense. So that the good plants have a huge advantage over the weeds which we'll call the bad plants and the good plants shade out. They deprive the bad plants of light, so that bad plants can't grow. But it also makes a really nice look. I can't stand the look of a plant surrounded by mulch, and then another plant surrounded by mulch. That's another common thing that people do. It's an aesthetic that people have gotten used to over the years. The whole trend and landscape design has been away from that for quite a few years, but ...

Brett Barry  24:00  
Do you use landscape paper at all or do you find that the dense planting that takes care of the weed issue?

Mel Bellar  24:05  
Landscape fabric should never be used in a flower bed. We use landscape fabric (a very industrial version of it) under patios and gravel to separate the drainage gravel from the pretty setting gravel. If you put landscape fabric in a bed and cover it with mulch (unless you stay completely on top of the weeding of that bed), the mulch only stops stuff from coming up from underneath and the landscape fabric only stops things from coming underneath. But seeds blow in and birds drop seeds and if you allow that weed to root and the root will go down through the fabric and many weeds will regenerate from that route. Never use landscape fabric.

Brett Barry  24:55  
Reflecting on some of my own struggles with landscape fabric over the years and a few of those DIY stone borders that I can attest are impossible to weed, I asked Mel for some local recommendations for landscaping supplies.

Mel Bellar  25:12  
I love Story's Nursery in Freehold (not far from Windham). Kerns, which is between Windham and Prattsville. It's a very nice nursery. I love the Catskill native nursery, which is ...

Brett Barry  25:21  

Mel Bellar  25:26  
Yeah, you know, Adams and Kingston has an amazing supply of plants. I like Jeff Collins on Route 28 (Mount Tremper). Locally here, Benjamin Brothers' Dry Brook Road right outside of Arkville has nice gravels and they have a good compost. Jeff Collins has a really good garden soil. That's a mix of compost, topsoil, and mushroom dirt (they call it). I use Jonathan Lefebvre a lot for gravels called Terry's right here in Roxbury. They have a lot of good plant material, too.

Brett Barry  26:05  
Let's end with something really kind of intellectual.

Mel Bellar  26:08  

Brett Barry  26:08  
Your music and technology careers. How have they informed your landscaping career?

Mel Bellar  26:17  
That's an interesting question. Technology's easy because the whole process of designing software, particularly websites, software that has a visual component, being comfortable with technology and using AutoCAD and SketchUp and QuickBooks and Excel and all that (sort of) stuff makes my life a lot easier. In terms of music, I don't see direct corollaries, you know, I have a theory and composition degree and I played the piano and cello. Scale, proportion, lines, having lines that have a beautiful lilt and the way different things interplay counterpoint. I mean, music's got all these aspects of like ... melody, harmony, rhythm. It's very similar and visual things like color and texture and contrast work and also smooth transitions and the way it's all put together. I think there's a lot of similarities, but I don't ever think in those terms when I'm doing it.

Brett Barry  27:33  
As frost warnings yield to the best of spring, it's a great time to reorchestrate our own Catskills landscapes and if the complexity of those compositions outpaces the ability to implement them, well, it's good to know professional help is available. Kaatscast is a production of Silver Hollow Audio. Where professional audio help can be found for podcasting, audio books, voiceover narration, event recording, and more. Reach us at silverhollowaudio.com. Don't forget to subscribe to Kaatscast on your favorite platform and sign up for our mailing list at kaatscast.com for behind the scenes photos and new episode reminders every two weeks. Until next time, I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for tuning in.